What is a Soft Complimentarian?

woman-leaderTo say that Evangelicals have a hard time with nuance is to put it lightly. Quite frankly we’re terrible at it. I think this is particularly true in the area of gender roles. In reacting to what is sin in the culture around us many go to the far opposite extreme. We find ourselves saying things about men and women that are not only extreme but aren’t balanced by the actual words of Scripture. I’ve written about some of this as it relates to men, now I want to address a more nuanced view of gender roles. It’s because I believe in the importance of nuance that I call myself a “soft Complimentarian.” A soft Complimentarian affirms only what the Bible states.

I know what some might be thinking: that is the worst definition ever. After all it doesn’t really delineate anything about the term itself. That definition is important though because I want to affirm precisely what the Bible says, but, and here’s the big point, the Bible doesn’t say a whole lot about the specific details of distinct gender roles. I believe that far more often than not this discussion is fueled more by cultural expectations than by Biblical exegesis. When we turn to the Scriptures and read them as the stand we find a whole lot less specificity about gender roles. But I am getting ahead of myself. Let’s establish the general term “Complimentarian” and then I will add my qualifiers to it.

Complimentarianism is the belief that God designed men and women to fulfill different and yet complimentary roles within the home and the church. A Complimentarian, then, will read passages like Ephesians 5:22, 1 Corinthians 11:3, and 1 Peter 3:1-7 and determine that men are to be the head of their household. They read passages like 1 Timothy 2:9-15 and Titus 1:5-6 and conclude that only men can serve as pastors. I agree with such conclusions, the difficult part in understanding Complimentarianism, however, comes as we try to flesh out exactly what it means for men to be the “head of their household” and what exactly it means for women that they can’t be elders in the church. This is where much of Complimentarianism, in my opinion, tends towards adopting cultural standards devoid of Biblical support.

So some Complimentarians have painted a picture of Biblical manhood as rugged masculinity. Biblical men are “warriors” who camp, hunt, and wrestle. They value sports and drive pick-up trucks instead of mini-vans. They make the final decision in points of conflict at home. This all sounds more like 1950s masculine ideals than Biblical mandates. Biblical womanhood too, we are told, looks like a 1950s homemaker. She serves her husband by staying home, raising children, cleaning house, and cooking home-made meals. She doesn’t work outside the home, she doesn’t make decisions, she doesn’t even protest decisions that her husband wants to make. This is simply not the model we find in Scripture. The truth is I am not sure that the terms Biblical manhood and Biblical womanhood are very well-defined in much of Christian culture.

What does it mean to be a Biblical Man? It doesn’t mean to dominate women, we’re told. It doesn’t mean to be the boss, other say. I am okay with that, but there has to be more to a definition than what it doesn’t mean. What does it mean to be a Biblical Woman? It doesn’t mean women are a door mat, people stress. Again, a valuable point but what precisely does it mean. Many Complimentarians define the terms in relation to roles. A Biblical Man is one who leads, protects, and provides for his family. A Biblical Woman is one who submits, supports, and nurtures. I don’t really have a problem with those definitions, except I find them to mutually applicable. That is to say, there are scenarios in Scripture where women lead, protect, and provide. There are also scenarios in Scripture where men submit, support, and nurture. So to define the terms by mutually inclusive ideas is to say nothing of real significance about men and women. Again, I believe that the Bible spells out a distinction between the genders in the home and in the church, but I don’t always know exactly what that looks like. In other words, I affirm what the Bible says, I just don’t always affirm the  cultural applications of what it says.

I utilize, then, a qualifier to my position on Complimentarity: soft. The term means that I don’t draw very hard lines on how men and women’s differences play out in the home and in the church. There are some exceptions to this (i.e. women can’t be elders), but by-in- large I recognize that there is a great deal of flexibility in how this plays out in any one context. I believe that Biblical male leadership in the home looks a whole lot like submission in Ephesians 5:25. I believe women are allowed to do all sorts of things in the church, including teach men, that aren’t eldership positions. In other words I affirm what the Bible states, but not what it doesn’t.

This has been a good series for me to refresh myself on why I stand where I do. I hope it’s been helpful for many of my readers to chew on as well. I know many will not agree with me, and that’s okay. I am not infallible, and I am more than willing to be pushed and corrected where I may be out of step with Scripture. Again, my ultimate goal is to conform to what the Bible says. I hope, however, this series will compel many to think seriously about what they believe about gender roles and to carefully evaluate whether it is in fact Biblical. My hope is that we will all become more Biblically nuanced in this discussion.

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  1. […] teach in the church, even while he denies that women can be elders. I have called myself a “soft complimentarian” for the very same reasons. This is a good reminder that we ought not to say more than […]

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