Is there a future for complementarianism? I don’t mean whether the God-ordained concept of complementarity between men and women will itself continue to exist—those of us who hold to the principle of equality and distinction between men and women understand it to be grounded in Scripture itself. Rather, I’m speaking of complementarianism as a specific movement, a coherent framing of some of those biblical convictions.

I’d very much like to be able to continue describing myself as complementarian by conviction, believing that Scripture prescribes particular roles for men and women in the church and in the home. But in recent years, the increasing cancellation, co-option, and cannibalization of complementarianism as a term has led me to question whether I will continue to use it to describe my beliefs.

Since the word complementarianism was first used in the late 1980s to describe or frame the theological beliefs I hold, the concept has been subject to much critique. Now as Christians, we should not fear inquiry but embrace healthy and respectful criticism. It compels us to interrogate our thinking, identify our unspoken assumptions, and grow in our understanding and knowledge of God.

But cancellation is different. Cancellation doesn’t simply say, I think you are wrong, and here’s why. It says, You don’t deserve to exist. There is no place for you here. And unfortunately, an increasing number of opponents of complementarianism are choosing to leapfrog over critique to land on cancellation. Indeed, many newer and younger commentators now typically condemn all expressions of complementarianism—in every time and in every place—as being inherently abusive and intolerable.

I share in the lament expressed by many of these sisters and brothers. I grieve that complementarian theology has been misused and abused by its self-proclaimed proponents to the deep detriment and harm of others, most notably women. I prayerfully long for repentance and recommitment to what I am persuaded is the biblically faithful and fruitful teaching of the complementarity of men and women.

However, many now see the concept of complementarianism as fundamentally incapable of being anything other than harmful to women, with no place for it in the contemporary church. But this means there is no place for complementarian women such as myself in the church.

I hold a doctorate in theology and have extensive experience in ministry leadership as well as the respect and support of countless male complementarian colleagues. When I seek to offer my own experience and credentials as evidence that complementarianism is in fact capable of uplifting and honoring women, I have been informed that it is simply impossible for complementarianism to have produced such positive results, and so I must not in fact be complementarian.

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How is it possible for complementarianism to have a meaningful future when its opponents deny that it should even have a present?

Yet cancellation is not the only thing imperiling complementarianism’s future. The theological framework is also being co-opted by those who hold a far more restrictive view about gendered relationships and roles and seek to flatten out any differences between complementarianism and patriarchalism (the societal rule of men). But complementarian theology is not the same as patriarchal ideology. Those of us committed to complementarianism’s defining theological principles can spot the differences immediately.

Written in 1987, the founding document of complementarianism—the Danvers Statement—insists on the equal personhood of men and women. It also recognizes that scriptural distinctions exist and lays out the Bible’s teaching on the godly expression of those distinctions within the home and the church. It calls women to exercise their God-given intelligence, to not be servile, and to proactively make God’s “grace known in word and deed.”

This is in direct contrast to those who speak of men and women as unequal in being, extend male headship beyond marriage and the church to all areas of society, claim there is no place for women in theological study (or even higher education more generally), encourage husbands to determine what Christian books they will and won’t permit their wives to read, and suggest there is no legitimate ministry for women outside the home. This is not complementarianism.

To their credit, many proponents of patriarchy know this. To their mind, complementarianism is too passive. It doesn’t go nearly far enough. And yet despite this, complementarianism is increasingly being hijacked by this distorted and repressive ideology.

When there is no recognized public distinction between these two contrasting viewpoints, how can complementarianism stand on its own terms? How can it continue to have genuine meaning into the future?

In addition to cancellation and co-option by outsiders, the third and likely greatest present danger to complementarianism’s future is cannibalization from within.

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Such cannibalization occurs when adherents insist on redefining complementarianism beyond the foundational theological principles in the Danvers Statement. Yes, different individuals, churches, and ministries will come to different conclusions about the application of those principles.

However, the peril of self-destruction presents itself when such interpretations are defined as the only faithful form of complementarianism. It occurs when no allowance is made for differing conclusions that are still grounded in and consistent with complementarianism’s defining theological affirmations.

Cannibalization also happens when self-professed complementarians eagerly refute any hint of feminist thought while being apparently content to overlook outright misogyny. I recently watched as a tweet from a self-described Christian feminist woman was subjected to a vitriolic pile-on from certain complementarian quarters while a viral video that asserted women are biologically less capable of rational thinking than men was greeted with near silence from the same camp.

When we complementarians are selective about the biblical principles we will and won’t uphold, we participate in our own destruction. How is there to be a future for complementarianism if we, its adherents, won’t comprehensively and consistently uphold what we say we believe?

I don’t know if complementarianism as we know it has a future. But I do know it will only have one if complementarian Christians are willing to consistently demonstrate—in both word and deed—that those who judge it (and us) incapable of bearing any good gospel fruit have it wrong; if we are willing to unapologetically denounce unbiblical and misogynistic teachings about men and women; and if we are willing to hold ourselves accountable to our theological principles, both by refusing to go beyond them and by settling for nothing less.

If complementarianism is to have a God-given future, then it will require both its male and female adherents to proactively invest in that future and to do so in actual complementary partnership with one another. Therein lies the challenge, but also the opportunity: to model what it really means that God has created men and women to bear his image together.

We have the chance to reiterate the central role that God has been pleased for women to play in the unfolding storyline of Scripture (such as in Luke 24:1–12) and to enact the kind of wonderful ministry partnership we see between men and women in Romans 16.

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And we have the opportunity to imitate and so honor our Savior, who always treated women with enormous dignity and respect, who called them to find life abundantly in him, and who urged them to invite others to do the same.

Danielle Treweek is the author of The Meaning of Singleness: Retrieving an Eschatological Vision for the Contemporary Church and the diocesan research officer for the Anglican Diocese of Sydney.

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