Over the last several weeks, a handful of conservative women have been writing about a fresh vision of complementarianism. We have half-jokingly called it “New Wave Complementarianism” along with a lot of jokes about no more pink, fluffy Bible studies. I didn’t know if anyone was listening or if any one cared. Turns out they do.
So when I read this piece by Kevin DeYoung this morning, I didn’t know what to think.
I respect Kevin, have benefited from his ministry, and am eager to hear his perspective on the ideas that have been put on the table. In response to Wendy Alsup’s post on NWC, he asked this question: “Who are the old wave complementarians we should leave behind?”
Fair enough. Let’s talk about it.
But my heart sunk, when in the last paragraph, he did not wait for an answer. Instead he articulated some of his assumptions about what the answer would be in the form of a concern.
“My caution, then, is that we don’t make a new version of complementarianism that has for one of its main objectives appeasing egalitarians. Let’s be winsome. Let’s answer honest questions. But let’s not think that any amount of apologizing or differentiation will win over those who think everything about complementarianism is backwards, oppressive, and mean. I get nervous when our passion seems less about the theology we say we want to celebrate and more about the ways our theology is a stumbling block to others. The impulse to rescue counter-cultural doctrines from their own unpopularity is one of the first steps to losing the doctrine altogether.”
And by doing so, he unintentionally characterized these women as something that they are not. By not first hearing the answer, he unintentionally framed NWC as a threat. And there’s nothing that stops healthy dialogue faster than positioning the other party as an opponent. The fallout of this was quickly evidenced in the comment section when several people responded in essence:
“Wow! Thanks so much for warning me against this. I didn’t even know it existed and now I will be on my guard against it.”
I think what many bloggers and leaders forget (and perhaps what I forget at times) is that we have tremendous ability to shape how our readers will interpret another person’s ideas. So that when you end a post by warning that NWC could be attempt to “appease egalitarians” you have effectively solidified in their minds that it is dangerous.
And yet, this is not our heart at all.
Let me say for the record: We are not trying to appease egalitarians. In fact, the women I know (all five or six of us) who have blogged over the last two weeks have absolutely no desire to appease anyone. They have no desire other than Biblical fidelity and pursuing a robust expression of womanhood precisely because how we understand ourselves has direct bearing on how we understand God. (That’s not original with me–you can thank John Calvin for that one.)
And so what these women are calling for is, yes, rooted in their experience. But only in so far as their experience has been inconsistent with truly biblical complementarianism. Because whether we admit it or not, there is a tremendous disconnect between “theological complementarianism” and “applied complementarianism.”
One reason this is the case, I believe, is that we have talked about gender apart from talking about imago dei personhood. The problem is not what has been said but what has not been said to men and women. A truly biblical understanding of gender is rooted in two equally significant doctrines.
- Men and women are the same–we are both imago dei.
- Men and women are different–we express imago dei uniquely.
But for the last forty years, we have only talked about #2. For the last forty years, we have shaped the conversation in response to feminism which itself was framed in terms of gender. The greatest problem with 2nd Wave Feminism isn’t that it argues for the rights of women on the basis that women are people, but that they have a false definition of what personhood is. They don’t accept that men and women are imago dei and that our gender is an outpouring of that–a beautiful, glorious way that we reflect and represent Him on this earth.
The only problem is that we haven’t done a good job of articulating imago dei either.
If you don’t believe me, what was the last solidly-reformed, biblically-faithful book that you’ve read covering the doctrine of anthropology? The best one I’ve come across is Anthony Hoekema’s Created in God’s Image which was written 27 years ago. And yet, how many, many, many books and articles have been devoted to the articulation of the differences between the genders? The effect has been that the sheer weight of words and blog posts and sermons for the last forty years has taught an entire generation of men and women that the most basic thing about them is their gender.
We have raised a generation of Christians who don’t know how to think of themselves imago dei.
This was made strikingly clear to me in a recent conversation I had with a seminary-educated man who would be my peer in age, season of life, and conservative theology. I was asking him for an apologetic for gender-based discipleship and how we shape that in terms of the call to image Christ. In response, he told me that I couldn’t fully model Christ the way he could because he was man and there were things that Christ did in his masculinity that would not be appropriate for me as a woman. Instead he told me that I should model Sarah.
Not Jesus Christ. Sarah.
Now as wonderful as Sarah is as model for womanhood—as divinely inspired as Peter was to suggest her as a model for womanhood—I’m not comfortable with this answer. As an image bearer, I am destined to be conformed to the image of Christ, the perfect Image Bearer. That process will undoubtedly express itself through my gender so that I will end up exhibiting many of the same characteristics of Sarah, but we will exhibit them similarly because of Jesus Christ. I will model her insofar as she first models Christ Himself.
Because this is what living imago dei means. It means that I am destined to be transformed to His perfect image. It means I am destined to be restored to my full humanity through Him. And the gospel does this equally for me as woman as much as it does for a man.
So in answer to Kevin’s question, “What is the ‘New Wave’ rejecting?”—I’d offer this:
We are not rejecting anything. We are adding to the conversation. Among other things, we are adding the concept of imago dei to serve as a corrective to some of the destructive ideas that have formed in transit over the last 40 years. Think of it as a cleansing wave. If anything, we are rejecting chauvinism that has been allowed to mask itself under the guise of complementarian thinking. Because when for 40 years, we have not been as outspoken about the false doctrines perpetuated in our own ranks as we have about those outside them, we have effectively taught our sons and daughters that this is what complementarianism is.
But it is not.
Biblical complementarianism is rooted, not simply in the differences between men and women, but in the things that they share. Biblical complementarianism pursues the flourishing of both men and women but does not reduce them to their biology. Biblical complementarianism celebrates God’s good design of gender but recognizes that gender—like any of our differences—must be rooted in imago dei.
And so if you’re worried that NWC is a way to minimize the beauty of doctrine, don’t be. It is, in fact, a call to be more, intensely, doctrinally faithful. It is a call to be all that God has created us to be—right down to our very chromosomes.