OPINION: Is complementarianism a first, second, or third order doctrine?

An unavoidable issue, current confusion, and respectful Christian disagreement

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The following is an excerpt from the Thursday, April 8, episode of The Briefing:

I have to turn to theological controversy within my own denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention. It began Wednesday on social media in the most immediate sense, but by late yesterday Religion News Service had run an article with a headline Beth Moore Apologizes for Supporting Complementarian Theology that Limits Women Leaders. The RNS story says, "For some evangelicals, complementarianism is a line in the sand. Those who questioned it are seen as undermining belief in the Bible." Moore, that means Beth Moore, said, "that it was wrong."

She tweeted these words. "Let me be blunt. When you functionally treat complementarianism, a doctrine of MAN," that's man capitalized, M-A-N, "as if it belongs among the matters of first importance, yea, as a litmus test for where one stands on inerrancy and authority of Scripture, you are the ones who have misused Scripture. You went too far." She went on to say, and I quote, "I beg your forgiveness where I was complicit. I could not see it." I assume that means complementarianism, "For what it was until 2016. I plead your forgiveness for how I just submitted to it and supported it and taught it."

Complementarianism is the affirmation of biblical doctrine that there are distinct roles for men and women both in the home and in the church. It's impossible to summarize all the issues on the program today but they are fairly well understood. To be honest, you're looking at the fact that the role of the teaching office in the church is restricted to men as qualified by Scripture. You're looking at the fact that that basic distinction between men and women is understood not just to be a matter of cultural construction but as a matter of biblical teaching.

In the words that she tweeted Wednesday, she said she wanted to be blunt and again she said, "When you functionally treat complementarianism," she calls it a doctrine of man. But by the way, that could be said of just about any doctrine in one sense because when you're talking about the name of a doctrine say just the word Trinity, it is the doctrine most central and essential to Christianity but the word Trinity isn't found in the Bible but the truth of the Trinity certainly is. And not only is it found there it is the central foundational truth of biblical Christianity. But she went on to say, "As if it belongs among matters of first importance."

Well, I've given about as much attention to these issues as I know how as a theologian. I offered the article calling for theological triage, which meant a responsible biblical way of weighing theological issues and biblical doctrines understanding which are of first importance. That means if you don't believe these you are not a Christian. Those of second importance, which says there may be people who disagree about this and are Christians but these issues are important enough that they define our congregation and our denomination. An example of that would be the mode and method of baptism.

The third level issues are those in which there can be disagreement without threatening the unity or the faithfulness, the theological integrity of the church. There are third-order issues, there are first-order issues, there are second-order issues. Complementarianism, which is the rightful ordering of the church and the home according to the roles for men and women is not a first-order issue. I don't know of any responsible theologian who has ever claimed it is a first-order issue. It's a second-order issue. That is to say, it is not a doctrine that has to be affirmed for one to come to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not a doctrine absolutely essential throughout the history of the Christian Church to defining where you have the true church and where you find the false church.

But it is a second-order issue, it's constitutive of the development of a congregation. A congregation is going to decide how it understands the respective roles of men and women, whether it believes that there is a biblical pattern that has to be obeyed or whether these matters are up for negotiation. But it's not just congregations that have to make this decision, it's denominations as well or associations of churches because those churches are actually making the decision and this is why you have denominations. Denominations exist not because biblically orthodox Presbyterians and biblically orthodox Baptists anathematized each other as not being Christians but because we actually have Presbyterian churches and Baptist churches.

Presbyterians in Presbyterian churches exercise their understanding of Presbyterian doctrine. Baptists in Baptist churches do the same. The Southern Baptist Convention in affirming complementarianism most formally in the Baptist faith and message in the year 2000 did not invent a new doctrine. The Religion News Service article cites Beth Allison Barr at Baylor University and the author of a soon-to-be-released book The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, she says that "Beth Moore has just declared the beginning of the end of complementarianism." I don't think so.

Meanwhile, Kristin Du Mez, a professor at Calvin University and author of the book Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, went on to say, "All the packaging that comes with it," that means complementarianism, "what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, that's a historical and cultural creation even as it's packaged and sold as timeless, inerrant and biblical." Let me be clear, there is always the danger that any church on any issue is teaching what is culturally created not which is biblically mandated. The answer to that is going to Scripture and then dealing with the Scripture honestly.

And here Beth Moore complains that treating complementarianism as an essential issue, for example, for participation in the Southern Baptist Convention or for, say, teaching on the faculty of a Southern Baptist seminary, it is she says, "A wrongful imposition of this doctrinal position." But here we have to note that even as she dismisses it as a doctrine of man this has been the general understanding, nearly universal in the Christian Church in all of its manifestations for more than 2,000 years.

Complementarianism in its essence of seeking to obey the biblical teachings concerning the distinct roles for men and women in the home and in the church is not a modern invention. It is egalitarianism in the church, and especially within Protestant Christianity that is the innovation. Complementarianism, biblically defined is, I believe, the teaching of the Christian Church. I believe more importantly it is the teaching of scripture. It is the official confession of the Southern Baptist Convention in our own confession of faith. It's required of all those who would teach at any one of the six seminaries of the Southern Baptist Convention. It is not my ambition nor my intention to personalize any of these arguments but this is how the issue has been presented to us just in the course of the last several hours.

When there is a disagreement like this Christians need to respond with respectful disagreement. But respectful disagreement does not mean that the importance of the issue is undermined or denied. It is not a personal attack to respond to an argument by saying, "I believe this argument is wrong," but it will eventually be up to Southern Baptist to decide that issue if they want to decide it differently than they did in revising the confession of faith in the year 2000. But again, what they did in the year 2000 was basically to align the Southern Baptist Convention very clearly with the practice and teaching that was already overwhelmingly affirmed, and had been, no pun here, for about 2,000 years already.

One of the hardest things for Christians is to understand that, at times, we are called to respectful disagreement. But that means two things, both respect and disagreement.

Albert Mohler is the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His daily podcast The Briefing can be found at AlbertMohler.com.


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