Are Complementarians really Christian? (And if they are, is anybody else?)

American Christianity is divided over the role of women in church and society. Some champion the tenets of complementarianism: the idea that men and women are equally precious in the eyes of God, but the rules established by God place men in a dominant position and relegate women to an invariably submissive posture. By nature, men are warriors, planners and teachers; women are child-nurturers and domestic servants. Complementarians claim to be a bit uncomfortable with this teaching, but the ideas can be traced to the lips of God, so, what can you do?

Egalitarians, by contrast, focus on the biblical idea that men and women are alike created in the image of God, and Paul’s declaration that, in Christ, the male-female distinction has been rendered moot. Paul wasn’t saying that men and women are biologically indistinguishable or that the idea of gender is a human construction. It’s just that, the way of Jesus vitiates all under-over power dynamics.

The argument is fueled by the fact that Paul the theologian and Paul the ethicist weren’t always on the same page. It is frightfully easy, therefore, to argue both sides of this fight from the same scriptures–often from the same chapter of the same book.

If, like me, you find yourself firmly on one side of this disagreement, you might dismiss the whole business as a silly distraction from the true business of the church. If you don’t have a religious bone in your body, you have probably stopped reading by now so I’ll move on to the next paragraph.

I have nothing novel to add to the debate, but it does raise an obvious question. Although both sides appeal to the same scriptures, do they really subscribe to the same religion? If one side thinks the gospel is rooted in the idea of natural hierarchy, and the other side believes the gospel has blown the hierarchies of this sad world to tiny bits, are they, in any meaningful sense, playing on the same team?

Over at Baptist News Global, Rick Pidcock lays out a detailed analysis of how the debate ruined the weekend for two of America’s most influential religious historians, Kristin Kobes Du Mez and Beth Allison Barr. Du Mez is the author of Jesus and John Wayne, which tracks the rise and fall of the cult of Macho Jesus within American white evangelical religion. Barr wrote the equally influential The Making of Biblical Womanhood. Barr, a Medieval historian, argues that the complementarian position is a modern invention cobbled together in recent decades.

But it was David Gushee’s essay, The Deconstruction of American Evangelicalism, also published in Baptist News Global, that got the leading defenders of the complementarianism up in arms. In short, Gushee appreciates the contributions of historians like Du Mez and Barr to the debate over American white evangelicalism.

Today, however, an outpouring of books by various, mainly younger, scholars is describing and critiquing a very different set of core characteristics for evangelicals — at least, white U.S. evangelicals. These scholars argue from various kinds of evidence that evangelicalism has become, is or always was characterized by far less exalted patterns of identity and behavior. These patterns of behavior have little to do with the purported core theological beliefs of evangelicalism — or, in fact, can be viewed as negations thereof.

Gushee, The Deconstruction of American Evangelicalism

If Gushee is right, the complementarians are wrong. It was incumbent upon them, therefore, to issue a series of pejorative-laden screeds, all in the course of a single weekend, in defense of their honor and the eternal verity of their “Christian worldview”. These men could have engaged in constructive academic and theological argument, but that has become increasingly difficult. Instead, they argued, in essence, that Du Mez, Barr and their ilk have abandoned the clear witness of scripture for the godless world of social science.

This new breed of historians, the argument goes, are engaged in a project of postmodern deconstruction which will inevitably suck all the truth, beauty and power from the gospel. Their primary target is white male evangelicals. In his piece, Defending Sound Doctrine Against the Deconstruction of American Evangelicalism Jonathan Leeman, summarizes the basic argument of the deconstructionists:

White theology, by presenting itself as the norm for “Christian theology,” effectively marginalizes the voices of women and minorities. Worse, our doctrines uphold white male power and participates in the oppression of women and minorities. For instance, the project would say that our views of salvation are overly spiritualized and individualistic, leading us to ignore injustices done to particular groups of people, like African Americans or Asian Americans. Meanwhile, our views of complementarianism lead to the abuse of women and children. Therefore, the deconstruction project seeks to “deconstruct” and “decenter” and “decolonize” white, patriarchal theology, which includes prophetically naming white supremacy and patriarchy wherever it shows up, even among friends.

Leeman, Defending Sound Doctrine Against the Deconstruction of American Evangelicalism

Curiously, Leeman makes no real attempt to pushback against the deconstruction project; he just hides behind the Bible. We’ve got to choose, he says, whether we’re going to follow a pack of effete French philosophers or if we’re going to take our marching orders from the God-breathed scriptures.

This unwillingness to ender the lists against the “deconstructionists” is a tribal dodge. Leeman doesn’t really want to argue that white male evangelicals are simply motivated by a passionate fidelity to the Bible plus nothing. So, he falls back on the old “God said it, we believe it, that settles it” line.

We all know the converse of this position: “God said it, you don’t believe it, so wear lots of sunscreen ’cause you’re gonna need it in hell.

No, that’s not a crude caricature. Men like Leeman are quite fond of consigning their opponents to the Lake of Fire.

I call this line of talk “tribal” because, if you want to remain a white male evangelical in good standing, you must talk this way. It is dangerous to engage the outside world in serious and respectful dialogue. The slightest sign of mutual respect might give the impression that the fight is between two Christ followers who happen to disagree. But in the embattled world of American white male evangelicalism there can be no good-faith debate. The other side isn’t just wrong; it is evil. And because it is evil, it is damnable.

That is the strong view. Anything more charitable might draw suspicion.

This characterization of the situation is lamentable. But, in an odd way, it is also clarifying. If, as I believe, the two positions are incommensurate, real conversation is impossible. Genuine debate is a non-starter.

If you would like to delve deeper into this issue, please give Rick Pidcock’s helpful analysis of the unfolding theological food-fight the attention it richly deserves.


Make a one-time donation

Make a monthly donation

Make a yearly donation

Choose an amount


Or enter a custom amount


Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly