Will the Real Complementarianism Please Stand Up? (Part Three)
Well, here we are at the final instalment in this little mini-series on complementarianism.
In the first post, I demonstrated the sense in which today’s critique of complementarianism from (mainly) US (mainly) ex-complementarian critics typically necessitates them constructing a very narrow definition of what is and what is not “complementarianism”—and so also who is and who is not complementarian. According to their self-constructed terms of engagement, I (and many others like me) are not. Complementarian, that is.
In the second post I made a historical argument as to why both their exclusion of me (and those like) me and their narrowly focused definition of what may and may not be called complementarian is unjustified. I concluded that as an identifiable theological and pastoral “movement”, complementarianism reaffirms certain biblical principles about the ontological and relational realities of manhood and womanhood in God’s design, as explicated in the theological affirmations of the Danvers Statement (published in 1988).
Mistaking the Parts for the Whole
While the biblical principles affirmed in the Danvers Statement do provide important substance, boundaries and definition of the complementarian theological movement as a whole, such substance, boundaries and definition form a relatively broad “umbrella”.
On this basis, many of the charges laid by these particular critics against complementarianism itself simply do not stand up to scrutiny. That they inadvertently mistake and/or intentionally confuse some very specific parts with the whole does no credit to them. Nor is it fair to complementarians, and especially to those complementarians who would actually object to many of the specific parts they identify as problematic.
Because here’s the thing—I (and other complementarians like me) do in fact agree with certain aspects of their argument!
For example, when I read Aimee Byrd’s Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood a few years ago I agreed with particular parts of her critique. While I didn’t concur with all of her analysis, there were key parts in which I did find myself nodding in agreement. She, and others, have identified some convictions and expressions being carried out under the banner of complementarianism which I personally find troubling, problematic and even alarming.
I’m also aware that she, and many others, have experienced very painful and hurtful treatment by some who claim to have been acting under the guise of complementarianism. As someone at a geographical, cultural and denominational distance from many of the most public examples of this, I don’t feel nearly well informed enough to offer any sort of “verdict” on any particular instance of these. But what I can say with no joy but much confidence is that I believe Aimee and others have been treated very poorly and unlovingly by certain “complementarians” around them. Where that has happened, I lament it. I grieve it. I hate it.
However, I also believe a mature and Christlike response to wretched examples of wrongdoing like this is not found in (naively or intentionally) ascribing the sinful intentions and actions of some to all. Neither is it to be found in rewriting history in order to redefine exactly who that “all” is in order to serve a particular agenda (regardless of how noble that agenda may be or seem).
So then, what do we do with all this? How do we navigate a complex landscape in which complementarianism is a broadly defined theological movement (again, according to Danvers), while also a movement in which some bad actors have and will continue to claim shelter?
Let me close by offering an illustration.
Like all illustrations, it’s an imperfect one… not the least because it’s a botanical illustration and (much to the chagrin of my father) I most patently do not have a green thumb. So please, don’t feel the need to inform me of the botanical inconsistencies in the illustration. Just run with it as an illustration. Don’t push it to breaking point. OK?
Caveats aside, I think this illustration is useful because it offers some helpful insights about the importance of:
Recognising and respecting the diversity which exists within “the complementarian movement”, and especially that which exists outside our own personal context.
Being willing, ready and equipped to respond to theology and behaviour which is inconsistent with the biblical principles of complementarianism (as defined by Danvers) and the biblical principles of Christlike love and action more generally
Engaging in genuine dialogue (at times resulting in genuine disagreement) with other complementarians on certain matters that call for wise and faithful interpretation under the umbrella of the biblical principles affirmed in Danvers.
The Danvers Statement is what formed the foundational branch of what we today call complementarianism. The branch grew off a long-standing trunk of theological convictions about how God has designed men and women to relate, most specifically within the context of the church and the marriage relationship.
The resources published in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (1991), accompanying discussions and other “early” resources added certain textures to the branch in its initial growth phase. Some of those textures eventually faded or changed in colour. Some were bold and brash and then weathered away. Some became perhaps a little worn down but continued to cling on. Others have been peeled back layer by layer over time. But all of it is the texture which has grown on the branch. The theological principles outlined in Danvers continue to provide the structure, substance and sturdiness of the branch.
(Yes, yes. I know that is not really how trees and bark actually work. But it’s an imperfect illustration, remember?)
As the branch grew it started developing offshoots along its length. These offshoots were essentially contextually informed applications of complementarianism in different places, spaces, denominations and structures.
They all grew off the same branch and so share some unity in that sense. But they also all have their own unique & specific shape. Some are large and thick & dominate the view. Others are small and modest and disappear amongst the many. Some are short, spindly and knotted. Others are long, smooth and straight. They are many and varied.
Distinguishing between the parts
It is right, in fact, it is important, to do a detailed and ongoing examination of both the branch & the various offshoots.
However, in doing that it is incumbent upon contemporary critics & proponents of complementarianism alike to distinguish between the branch and its offshoots. It is a mistake to conflate them as if there is no distinction at all. It is a mistake to evaluate an offshoot as if it is the entire branch, or to evaluate the branch as if it is one offshoot.
We need to recognise the unique context, form and texture of the various offshoots, as originally growing from, but being in some way distinguishable to the branch. This is especially important for those who have grown up within the context of one specific offshoot and may not realise that before our offshoot existed, there existed a branch (and indeed, a tree!)
It’s also a mistake to evaluate one offshoot as if it is indistinguishable from all other offshoots. We all need to recognise that different offshoots have their own distinct character, even as they share a supporting structure. We must distinguish between all the different parts.
This is especially important for those of us who have grown up within the context of one specific offshoot and have not taken the time to recognise that our offshoot looks really quite different to others which have sprouted from the same branch. Indeed, some of us may not have taken the time to look around and realise there are any other offshoots at all.
It is also incumbent upon us to examine the fruit being born by each of the offshoots. But in doing so we must not mistake the fruit from one offshoot as being the fruit from any (or all) of the others.
Some offshoots may be producing lacklustre fruit—colourless, tasteless, insipid. This might suggest that the offshoot is not receiving the right nutrients (or enough of the right nutrients) from the branch. These offshoots need renewed attention and consistent nutrition in order to grow better fruit.
Some offshoots may be producing genuinely wonderful fruit, but only rarely and scarcely so. There is so much potential there, but they just aren’t (yet) living up to it. These offshoots need more careful tending and enthusiastic encouragement to produce tasty and nutritious fruit in greater and greater abundance.
And some offshoots may have started producing decaying and even poisonous fruit. The kind of fruit whose rot leeches into its surrounds. The kind of fruit whose rot attracts destructive pests. The kind of fruit whose rot requires the whole offshoot to be lopped off from the branch so that its poison does not spread.
So, Will The Real Complementarianism Please Stand Up?
“Complementarianism” is the broad branch which has grown off an existing and solidly grounded trunk. It is incumbent upon us to not confuse the branch with its offshoots. It is incumbent upon us to not mistake the parts for the whole.
Expressions of complementarianism are the various offshoots which have grown off the branch. It is incumbent upon us to not confuse one offshoot with another. It is incumbent upon us to recognise the diversity and variety of those offshoots.
The fruit of complementarianism is produced by and amongst its various offshoots. As we (rightly) seek to root out decaying fruit from any offshoots that are sick, it is incumbent upon us to not kill off all the good fruit born of other offshoots that are healthy. Those healthy offshoots will very likely always need ongoing care and tending in order to keep growing stronger and more robust, to keep producing better and better fruit, and to keep doing these things more and more abundantly. In this way, the branch—indeed the tree—will itself flourish.
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