Many questions have recently been raised about complementarianism. We are keenly aware of the many stories of pastoral and spousal abuse—some of whom are noted complementarians. Such stories make many people wonder if complementarianism is simply a form of power grab, an attempt to hold onto male authority in order to exercise their selfish will.
Cultural questions have been raised as well. Is the complementarian vision merely a product of white western culture—deriving from a patriarchal ethos and an American vision of the good life, entirely sundered from biblical witness?
Or others have suggested the complementarian view solely represents the worldview of the Republican party, constituting a backlash to societal changes in the 1960’s. Or as one historian initially proposed, perhaps we have been more influenced by John Wayne than Jesus of Nazareth?
All of the questions posed above are excellent, and we need to be open to critique and revision. I hope none of us would claim that we are perfect in our interpretation or implementation of what the scriptures teach on the relationship between men and women.
There is always a danger that we have reacted to or imitated the society around us. We are all influenced by culture and should receive any critique that returns us to scriptural witness in good faith. We should listen charitably to brothers and sisters who view things differently—and none of us should be above reforming and nuancing our views.
The matter is complex, however, and egalitarians must also be able to answer the questions that are posed to them. They are not immune to cultural forces either.
The feminism of the 1960’s has shaped society in profound and enduring ways—both for good and for ill. The sexual revolution has transformed our culture’s conception of what it means to be a man and a woman. This shows up in the acceptance of same-sex marriage and transgender identity, among other things.
Nor can we discount the influence of the mainstream media and major universities, many of which are guided chiefly by leftist ideology. Those who relax the complementarian norm are often celebrated in these spaces as open-minded by a social elite.
In other words, there are social and cultural forces operating on both sides. No one is exempt, and no one inhabits a neutral space when it comes to gender dynamics.
Every argument for every perspective should send us back to the biblical witness. The word of God still pierces our darkness and can reshape how we think and live. The Bible can and should still be heard, believed, and followed—even though we are all fallible and culturally situated.
Of course, every reading of the biblical text on male-female issues represents an interpretation and is subject to critique. But since there are cultural arguments, forces and pressures on every side, we must always return to the scriptures to decipher their meaning—and I believe that meaning can be retrieved.
At the end of the day, it should come down to whoever offers the most plausible and persuasive reading of the biblical texts in question. The complementarian view isn’t nullified by saying Trump and Republicanism and the egalitarian reading isn’t contradicted by crying out feminism and liberalism.
Yet I worry that in some circles, cultural arguments receive precedence over scriptural ones—as if they alone have the final say on the truth or falsity of a particular biblical interpretation.
Thomas Schreiner is the James Buchanan Harrison Professor of New Testament Interpretation at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.