COMPLEMENTARIANISM: Learn a Big Word; Impress Your Friends.
That word didn’t exist until the late 1980s, when a group of (male) Christian theologians created it to put women in their place. That’s right, they actually created the word.
Here’s the story. For centuries, the Christian Church had operated on the assumption of male leadership and dominance, whether it was the Roman Catholic Church with its male hierarchy of popes, bishops and priests, or a Plymouth Brethren Assembly meeting with no formal structure or officers, or a small Baptist Church in Altadena, California. Men were in charge; that’s the way God wanted it; nobody seemed to question it.
Until they did. The movement toward Women’s Liberation in the USA began to escalate in the 1960s, and it quickly built up into an affirmation of full gender equality in family life, society, economics and government. Feminism emerged as the most popular way of describing this cultural surge. The Church didn’t escape. The more liberal denominations affirmed the women’s movement, found theological arguments in support of it and changed their leadership structure in the direction of gender equality. More conservative groups recoiled from it, emphasized Biblical passages that reflected the traditional leadership structures and applied them even more forcefully than they had in the past. One of the arguments they frequently resorted to was that Eve sinned first in the Garden of Eden, then tempted Adam to sin. This was appealed to as the reason why women had to submit to men as their superiors — it was part of the curse that resulted from sin. It had been the woman’s weakness that caused the man to fall, so in salvation, the man’s strength is essential to the woman’s redemption.
Ugh! Even the average modern man is repelled by that idea. Imagine how the average modern woman feels! In the face of the cultural trend toward egalitarian thinking, using the old Garden-of-Eden argument made the Church seem like a relic from the ancient past.
That’s where our group of (male) theologians came in. They put their heads together and came up with what they thought was a more noble Biblical explanation for the traditional pattern of male leadership. Rather than being the result of the Fall, it was the result of Creation. Eve didn’t have to sin first to become subordinate to Adam; she was made that way. Man and woman were created by God to fulfill roles that were complementary.* Women are designed by God to bear children and care for them, to create a household for their husbands and support them in their careers and social roles. Men are designed by God to protect and provide for their wives and children, to make the decisions necessary for their families’ well-being, and to play a role in the larger society in which they live. This is complementarianism. According to those who developed it and advocated for it, this did not make women less valuable than men; just different in the roles they were meant to play.
Dr. John Piper is one member of this group of (male) theologians, and he’s probably the one who came up with the term complementarianism.** Dr. Piper is “one of our own.” He started his theological training right here at Fuller Seminary and, after graduate studies, took a position on the Biblical Studies faculty of Bethel University (affiliated with our denomination), where he taught from 1974 to 1980. He left Bethel to become Pastor of nearby Bethlehem Baptist Church (in our denomination), which he led for the next three decades. It was during the time when he was transitioning from the Bethel faculty to his pastoral position that he was involved in the group of (male) theologians that gave the Evangelical world the concept of complementarianism.***
Another important thing was happening during that same time period. In 1979, a sharp young student named Connie Larson came to study at Bethel University. By that time, Dr. Piper had moved on from Bethel to be the Pastor at Bethlehem Church. Connie heard him preach in the college chapel on the theme of gender roles in church leadership, but it wasn’t her cup of tea. She was really into Biblical studies and more and more felt a call to Christian ministry. Her drive to learn as much as possible about what God has spoken to us and how we can pass his Word on to others brought her to Fuller Seminary in 1983. Soon she became associated with ABC, where her leadership gifts were recognized and affirmed. In 1988 she was ordained by this church into the Gospel ministry. Ironically, that was the same year Dr. Piper and his group of (male) theologians announced complementarianism to the Evangelical world — essentially saying that she was unworthy of that ordination because she was a woman.
For the past thirty-three years, Pastor Connie Larson DeVaughn has been proving, through her unique ministry, that we were right and Dr. Piper and his group of (male) theologians were wrong.
In fact, this kind of makes me wonder where the Church might be if, over the past 2,000 years, it had fully embraced the leadership gifts of women!
– Pastor George Van Alstine
* Note: complementary with an e is different from complimentary, with an i. Look it up.
** How they came up with the name is discussed on this blogsite: http://thewartburgwatch.com/2012/04/26/complementarianism-a-primary-doctrine-at-together-for-the-gospel/
*** The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood published its Danvers Statement in 1988.