Farewell, complementarianism (pt. 3)

When I was in college, we had chapel three times a week. Occasionally, the featured speaker was a female pastor. In which case, I usually ended up telling myself she wasn’t a very good speaker — which was proof (in my mind) that God hadn’t gifted women for pastoral ministry.

Yeah… I was that kind of guy. A 20-year-old kid (who, by the way, got a D on his first public speaking assignment) judging the validity of a person’s entire ministry on the basis of one sermon that was probably a whole lot better than I was willing to admit.

Recently, I heard Mark Driscoll imply that his church’s success is proof that God endorses male-only leadership. During an interview with Justin Brierley, Driscoll compared his church’s growth to that of Brierley’s much smaller church, which is pastored by a woman.

When the interviewer asked if it’s fair to attribute the size of one’s church to the pastor’s gender, Driscoll replied:

Yup. Yup. You look at your results, look at my results, and look at the variable that’s most obvious.

(You can a read a partial transcript of the interview here, or read the piece I wrote last month about it.)

I couldn’t help but notice some similarities between Driscoll’s logic and mine back in college.

Of course, if we applied this kind of logic across the board (and not just when it suits us), we’d have to conclude that God’s favorite church is pastored by Joel Osteen.

We’d also have to conclude that a lack of measurable success is an indication of God’s disapproval. But would Driscoll want to argue that William Carey was a failure just because it took the 19th-century missionary to India seven years to win a single indigenous convert?

Both Driscoll and I were guilty of making superficial judgments about the validity of women in ministry. I based my judgment on the quality of a single speaker. Driscoll based his on numbers (as if there aren’t any large, successful churches pastored by females).

As I’ve come to terms with my own superficial judgment, I haven’t just concluded that complementarianism is a bad way to read the Bible. (I happen to think it is.) I’ve also come to believe that complementarianism doesn’t work in the real world.

For example, it’s believed that in China, many (if not most) of the churches are led by women. Would anyone like to argue it’s better not to have these churches at all than to have women leading them?

Or what about women teaching boys in Sunday school? If women aren’t supposed to teach men, and if “men” means adult males, then at what point does a boy become a man? At what point is it no longer OK for him to be taught by a woman? Adulthood is defined differently by different cultures, so how do you avoid making an arbitrary, hairsplitting distinction?

I’m not suggesting these are new questions. Plenty of people have raised them before. Nor do I want to suggest that complementarians don’t have any answers to offer. They do.

What I’m suggesting is that the answers border on being convoluted, arbitrary, and morally ambiguous. Complementarians take pride in being committed to moral absolutes. But it seems to me that those who affirm the full participation of women in the church are the ones who speak with greater moral clarity. To insist on excluding women from certain roles is to open yourself to a barrage of “what if” scenarios. It forces you to invent a succession of increasingly desperate rationalizations, exceptions, and qualifiers to preserve your theology while coping with reality.

I guess I just believe that if our theology doesn’t work in real life, it isn’t good theology.

Part 4 (the final part) in this series can be found here.

5 thoughts on “Farewell, complementarianism (pt. 3)

  1. Thank you Ben for sharing your journey away from complementarianism. You sound like one very interesting guy who has been around awhile through the different things that you’ve been able to do, as listed in your profile. I particularly like your last point that, “…if our theology doesn’t work in real life it isn’t good theology.” What I personally most appreciate about the Apostle Paul (from his writings) is that he is intensely practical, when you read him open-mindedly, in the way that he addresses the issues of the day. His solutions (could read, wise suggestions) are not necessarily arbitrary or a ‘one size fits all, for all time’ as most would have us believe. I absolutely love the ministry of Jesus for the same reason. He was not bound by religious or cultural taboos but answered His critics head on with the wisest of answers that revealed the heart of God in a new way. Sometimes, in a typically Jewish way, He simply posed another question that really stumped His detractors and should have got them thinking that perhaps they had got this whole God, and what He really wants from us, thing wrong. Enjoy your journey.


  2. In Vietnam there is a woman who makes a circuit to three churches where she is the pastor of all three. They run over a thousand together in a country where this is extremely high risk. (I know of her from members of her family in other countries; she might have caused a bit of a stir in SE Asia). This Vietnamese woman stands out whenever I hear arguments like Driscoll’s – I wonder how many of his followers would continue to come if their lives, jobs, and families were at risk whenever they do. Yet, this woman has a following of over a thousand. Successful? And she isn’t alone. I am curious what the Pipers’s and Driscoll’s of America would say of such women?


  3. “What I’m suggesting is that the answers border on being convoluted, arbitrary, and morally ambiguous. Complementarians take pride in being committed to moral absolutes. But it seems to me that those who affirm the full participation of women in the church are the ones who speak with greater moral clarity.”

    Amen to that.

    Boo Mark Driscoll, yay you.

    Females (but not pastors) with a large audience and loads of fruit:
    Beth Moore
    Joyce Meyers
    Audrey Wetherell Johnson


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