“Complementarianism” and “egalitarianism” are often seen as women’s issues. If you’re not familiar with the terms, in bumper-sticker style summary, complementarianism is the position that God created men and women as equal and different. That is, created with equal value and dignity but with important created differences that make men and women complementary in the way they work together. The difference plays out in key questions like how women are to interact with men, particularly in the realm of teaching and holding authority.
Many reject the complementarian position because it has been poorly lived out and sometimes weaponised, putting women in a place where they are vulnerable, oppressed and submission demanded. This is a tragic and sadly true thing. But what is shows is that humans can be terrible. It does not show that the biblical basis of complementary relationships between men and women is wrong.
But because of this history (and present), the discussion of complementarianism can be fraught, deeply personal and often couched in negative terms. Invested theologians spend much time and energy arguing points of language, translation and doctrine. Some of it tries to pin down lists of what women can and can’t do. In return, many rail against an unnecessarily reductionist reading and what starts as intellectual arguments, often sadly sinks into quite public stoushes on social media.
Meanwhile, the rest of us are just trying to do life.
Most people aren’t interested in the minutiae of opposing translations. Most don’t care about theologians taking pot-shots at each other from polarised camps. They are trying to walk through life faithfully and obediently.
Some of the most public stoushes have occurred in the US. Here in Australia, things rumble along but are generally much quieter. In many ways, the complementarian/egalitarian debate is seen as women trying to work out what they can and can’t do for themselves. Men don’t necessarily have to be that worried about it because they don’t face any restrictions. Sometimes, complementarianism is pushed into a corner by having separate women’s ministry and women’s events. If women are on staff teams, they are ministers for women – and nothing else.
So when another book on complementarianism hits the shops, it will potentially be read by mostly women. This would be an enormous mistake – and a huge missed opportunity.
Graham Beynon and Jane Tooher’s book is an absolutely welcome addition to the issue and takes a completely different tack. It can be read by anyone but is of particular use to senior (male) ministers. It takes the reader out of the zone of the negative and polarising positioning and imagines a church where complementarianism is fully embraced and biblically applied.
Embracing Complementarianism. Turning Biblical Convictions into Positive Church Culture, Graham Beynon and Jane Tooher, published by The Good Book Company
It begins with a walk through some of the key concerns with how complementarianism in applied in churches – one being the separation of women’s ministry. Of course gendered ministries are useful and correct, but the author’s concerns is that “if ministries become mainly separate, there isn’t much complementing going on.” This foreshadows one of the main theses of the book, that men and women working together in approrpiate and complementary ways exemplify the beauty of the body working under God’s word and for his glory.
I appreciate in this book how it is gently challenging to the reader to assess the cultural and traditional assumptions we hold that might influence our application (or participation) of complementarianism within our church. “We all have a tendency to privilege our cultural perspective over the teaching of the Bible” is a particularly useful corrective.
In the second half of the book, as it moves into how our principles are enacted within a church setting, I loved the challenge to consider an outsider’s view of our church and how everything we do (whether we realise it or not) communicates what we think about women and how we value (or not) what they do. Indeed, they highlight the “one another” passages of the Bible (eg we are to instruct one another, encourage one another etc) which exhort us in mutual ministry. “The ministries of women in church life must be not simply permitted but pursued if the body is to grow as its supposed to.“
Where Beynon and Tooher lead the reader is through a process of thinking through what the position is – as far as possible stripped of culturally founded subconscious biases – and formalising that position in writing, even mapping those convictions onto the life of the church in the readers own context.
For this reason, it is an excellent book for ministers. Since women are over 50% of our church population, and since God tells us through his word that men and women are to work together in community for him, this is an opportunity to strengthen our churches. In fact, the clarity of the book and the way it weaves key threads together, wonderfully demonstrates how our church can be socially and spiritually impoverished by the diminishing or separation of women and the lack of mutual ministry.
It is such an easy read but so thought provoking and profound. It really helped me to formalise some things that were just vague thoughts. It helped me to feel confidence in my own complementarian position which I believe to be a true and beautiful thing, but which can become confusing and opaque in the face of social media onslaught. It helped me to see again how God values me as a woman, created by him to work in community as a woman.
“Rightly understood, complementarianism is an argument for how essential the contribution of women is.”
Highly recommended for minister, but also highly recommended for anyone with an interest.
I was so encouraged reading this book and the potential for us – God’s sinful broken people – to apply his word in a way that lifts us up, builds his church, and glorifies him.
Republished with permission from Ruth Baker from Meet Me Where I Am.