During her presentation at the 2019 ERLC National Conference in Grapevine, TX, Beth Moore deviated from her assignment to speak about her opinion of complementarianism. She clearly stated that she had done so without having been asked to speak on this topic, that she had not cleared her remarks with the ERLC staff, and that she was taking sole responsibility for what she was saying.
She also, acknowledging that many might disagree with what she was about to say, expressed a hope that people who were disposed to disagree with her would listen carefully to what she had to say and engage in discussion about her remarks.
I am writing today to do just that. I’ve deliberately allowed some time to elapse since she made her remarks, because I’ve not found myself to be all that skilled at the business of issuing a “hot take,” and anyway, there seems to be no shortage of labor in that industry that would demand my trying to perfect the craft. I have stood to the side to let others offer play-by-play and color commentary.
Also, I am writing in the hope of generating a dialogue that is conducted both in good faith and in a gentle spirit. I wish to be fair in what I write, knowing that the Lord is near and is watching. To put my cards on the table, I also wish to write in a way that is exemplary of what I wish Christian online discourse were like, but often find that it is not.
One might broadly define complementarianism as the idea that binary gender among humans is God’s purposeful choice. Human beings are male and female—no matter how controversial this statement might bewilderingly be today, this is the rather pointed teaching of scripture. Complementarianism may be more than, but certainly is no less than, the idea that gender is indeed binary, that gender corresponds to biological sex, that maleness and femaleness have meaning in the eyes of God (which may or may not correspond to human beliefs about what constitutes true maleness or true femaleness), and that God has chosen the male-female creation of mankind because it pleased Him that humanity exist in both maleness and femaleness. Certainly there is variety among male humans and among female humans, but there is also commonality. Complementarianism rests upon a foundational idea that the commonality is good, important, and brimming with implications for living.
Applied more specifically to ecclesiology, complementarianism is the idea that church roles can be and are often gender-specific. The office of pastor, complementarians believe, is not an office that a woman can rightfully occupy. Complementarians believe that the Old and the New Testaments make hierarchical distinctions on the basis of gender in the spheres of home and church. Men are commanded to give leadership in these societal structures.
Varieties of complementarianism exist. Some believe that the hierarchical distinctions based upon gender should extend not merely to home and church but also to government and every other aspect of human society. Such complementarians would not vote for a woman to be president, while other complementarians would not believe it to be sinful to elect a woman to be president. Varying kinds of complementarians deal differently with passages about head coverings, about adornment with jewelry or makeup, and about whether, when, and how woman can speak in the church assembly.
Here’s the kind of complementarian I am (because it’s good to be forthcoming about the perspective from which one writes). I believe that the office of pastor is limited to men. I do not believe that this is limited to the “senior pastor” (indeed, I don’t think that such a thing as a “senior pastor” even exists as a biblical office); rather, I believe that every pastor should be male. I believe that the function of the expository teaching of the scriptures to men or to the gathered congregation (i.e., “preaching” as we generally mean it) is a function that is limited to men. All of our women who teach Sunday School at FBC Farmersville teach classes comprised of minors or exclusively of women.
And yet, women give testimonies, sing, speak in our business meetings, give leadership to committees, and may even speak in worship services in ways that do not constitute the expository teaching of the scriptures in our judgment. For example, Dr. Amy Downey, an expert on Maimonides, on Judaism, and on bearing an evangelistic witness to people of Jewish descent, recently taught us on a Sunday night about modern Jewish beliefs, the nature of Judaism after Maimonides, and best practices for sharing the Christian faith with modern Jewish people. Mine is the kind of complementarianism that would not invite Dr. Downey to preach Hosea 8 on Sunday morning but would invite her to teach about Reform Judaism on Sunday night. Dr. Downey not only knows more about contemporary Judaism than I know; she knows more about it than I want to know. I’m thankful for her expertise; I’m thankful for my church’s opportunity to benefit from it.
If I worked at the family lamp factory and if my sister were the boss, I could gladly work for her without any qualms. If God would resurrect Margaret Thatcher and bring her across the pond, I’d gladly cast my ballot for her for President of the United States.
That’s the kind of complementarian that I am.I know that there are complementarians who apply the idea of purpose in gender more strictly and in more areas than I do. I know that there are complementarians who apply the idea of purpose in gender more leniently and in fewer areas than I do. I’m still willing to call such people complementarians to the degree that they are comfortable with gendered hierarchy of some sort in home and in church.
Complementarianism and Beth Moore
Is Beth Moore a complementarian? She says that she is. In her remarks she quite clearly described her desired impact as a plea to rescue complementarianism from abusive corruptions rather than as a plea to abandon complementarianism for being abusive.
It seems to me from a distance that Beth Moore is a complementarian in this sense: She would refuse an invitation to become a pastor at a church because she would not believe that, as a woman, she should accept it. I’m speculating as I write that, and she’s free to correct me if I have misunderstood. If I understand her correctly at this point, then this is a belief that we share with other complementarians.
Beyond this idea, she and I hold some different ideas, from what I can tell:
- As she encounters women who have occupied or are occupying the office of pastor, she feels comfortable interacting with them in ways that appear to be an endorsement of their pastoral ministries. In other words, she appears to be a women who would not accept a pastorate but would accept a sister who would accept a pastorate. I, on the other hand, would not endorse the ministry of a woman serving as a pastor.
- She feels comfortable providing the expository teaching of scripture to gathered congregations and/or to mixed-gender Christian groups. I do not believe that she should do so.
Also, from what I can tell, she and I agree in some ways that we differ from other complementarians.
- Neither she nor I believe that women should wear distinctive head coverings in worship.
- Neither she nor I believe that women must be silent during church business meetings nor that they should otherwise refrain from speaking in general at church.
So, to sum up, Beth Moore says (or, at the very least, strongly implies) that she is a complementarian. I receive this as a true statement. I think that she and I occupy different points within the area of complementarianism (and, of course, I wish that she agreed with me), but I do not believe those differences to be so profound as to make one of us a complementarian and the other of us an egalitarian.
Complementarianism and Abuse
Beth Moore asserted in her remarks that certain corruptions of complementarianism lead to or exacerbate the abuse problem that the Southern Baptist Convention faces. I think that perhaps I agree in part and that I disagree in part.
I disagree in part, particularly to the degree that we are talking about sexual abuse. It is a woefully underreported fact, but boys and men are victims of sexual abuse in churches, too. Sexual abuse is not about love and it is not about theology; it is about domination and violence. It transcends the boundaries of gender in selecting victims. Complementarianism is not the culprit here.
I disagree in part also because Bill Hybels is no complementarian, and yet credible accusations have arisen that he has perpetrated abusive behavior in his role as a pastor. Just as abuse transcends the boundaries of gender in selecting victims, it also transcends the boundaries of theological position with regard to those who are perpetrators.
I agree in part, particularly to the degree that we are talking about spousal abuse. If there is a critique here to make about the conference in general or about Beth Moore’s presentation, it may be that it was not always altogether clear whether we were talking about child sexual abuse or spousal abuse. It seems plausible to me that some aberrations of complementarianism probably serve as false justification for those husbands who wish to behave in a domineering and abusive manner toward their wives.
Complementarianism is not abuse, and in her remarks Beth Moore made this absolutely clear. Any online reactions that suggested otherwise were false and misleading.
Complementarianism and a Low View of Scripture
Egalitarianism is the idea that all roles in the church are open to both genders (or even, in some quarters of Christianity, the rejection of a binary system of gender). Beth Moore complained that Southern Baptists have unfairly associated egalitarianism with a low view of scripture. Please note, she also clearly said that she is a complementarian and not an egalitarian. With this point she seemed to be defending others, not defending herself. With regard to her point, I think she has said a thing or two worth hearing, but in the end, I think that she and I probably disagree about this.
Within the Southern Baptist Convention, there has indeed been a very high correlation between the advocacy of egalitarianism and a low view of scripture. Beth Moore herself is soon participating in the Kyle Lake Center National Preaching Conference (November 19) at my alma mater, Baylor University. Baylor has promoted the idea of egalitarianism. It’s pretty “meta” that Beth Moore will be preaching about preaching at a National Preaching Conference there. This is a pretty explicit exploration of the differences between us about complementarianism.
Baylor University promotes a low view of scripture. I base this observation upon two sources of evidence. First, I was a student at Baylor University, and as a student there, I was taught that the first eleven chapters of the Bible have no basis in historical events, that Abraham was never told by God to sacrifice Isaac, that Jesus probably walked on a sandbar, and not on the water, and that Biblical teachings about sexual ethics must be subordinated to what secular sciences can uncover about the causes and motivations of human sexuality. I was there; I know whereof I speak.
Second, Baylor has just in the past few months released a new study Bible containing many of the same ideas that I just rehearsed. In particular, the Baylor Study Bible explicitly denies the historicity of the first eleven chapters of Genesis. The study notes in that Bible reflect precisely what I was taught as a student at Baylor between 1988 and 1991.
Baylor is not alone. I could not, if pressed to do so, identify a single institution promoting a low view of scripture in American Evangelicalism that does not also promote egalitarianism. There simply is not, to my knowledge, such a thing as a low-view-of-scripture-but-complementarian institution. Conversely, I also cannot immediately identify in Southern Baptist life any institution with a high view of scripture that is promoting egalitarian views.
In Southern Baptist life, there is a high degree of correlation between a low view of scripture and egalitarian views, and I do not believe that I misrepresent anyone when I say so.
On the other hand, Beth Moore does have something of a point if one broadens his or her perspective beyond Southern Baptist life (which, obviously, is something that she has done, which may go a long way in explaining her statements). The Assemblies of God, for example, have a de jure egalitarian theology (although some within the Assemblies of God have pointed out that they are quite overwhelmingly de facto complementarian), and the Assemblies of God denomination is not at all, by what we usually mean to signify with the term, a group that holds a low view of scripture.
But here’s the thing: You don’t have to hold a low view of the Bible to disobey it. Discernment bloggers have an ostensibly high view of scripture, but their Bibles have Philippians 4:5 in them just like the rest of ours (“Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near.” NASB).
To the degree that anyone is saying, “Everyone on the planet who holds egalitarian theology also has subscribed to German Higher Criticism and the concomitant low view of scripture,” that person is overstating the case, and Mrs. Moore’s point of critique is well-taken.
To the degree that anyone is saying, “There is a high correlation between egalitarian theology and a subscription to German Higher Criticism, especially within the Southern Baptist Convention,” that person has offered a point of view defensible from the evidence, I believe.
Rather than either of these things, I’d prefer to say, “Everyone who holds egalitarian theology is not dealing forthrightly and submissively with a number of key biblical texts, nor with the witness of scripture in general.“ This is a more forceful way to say, “I believe that the Bible teaches complementarianism,” but the difference is one of tone, not of content. I don’t want to adopt an egregiously aggressive or offensive tone, but neither do I want to concede the point, if that’s what Beth Moore is suggesting, that there is no connection whatsoever between fidelity to the Bible and complementarianism.
The topic of gender roles in scripture represents one of several asymmetries in the Bible that are, I would assert, undeniable. There is the Jew-Gentile asymmetry. The Jews are God’s chosen people in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, every apostle (the highest authority in the church and those to whose teachings we adhere today) was Jewish. Praise God, we have been grafted in as Gentiles, but there’s no confusion as to who is the branch and what is the tree. And when all is said and done in the end, we will live in a New Jerusalem with a foundation and with gates emblazoned with exclusively Jewish names. Gentiles are not BAD in the Bible, and in both Old Testament and New, God expresses a desire and implements a plan to bless and love Gentiles right alongside Jews, but there is a clear ordering of Jew and Gentile expressed, also. “To the Jew first, and also to the Greek.”
There is a homosexual-heterosexual asymmetry in the Bible. Only good things are said about monogamous, loving heterosexuality. Only bad things are said about homosexuality.
There is a male-female asymmetry in the Bible. Much like the Jew-Gentile asymmetry mentioned above, this is not an asymmetry in which being either male or female is a bad thing, but the asymmetry remains nonetheless. There simply is no passage in the scriptures reading anything at all like, “Let a man learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a man to teach or to exercise authority over a woman; rather, he is to remain quiet.” (1 Timothy 2:11-12, ESV, genders switched by me). We can have a discussion about how much the Bible is complementarian in favor of male authority, but no one anywhere can conduct any credible discussion about how much the Bible is complementarian in favor of female authority. The best an egalitarian can do is try to argue that this asymmetry is meaningless and to try to empty it down to neutrality.
But to do that—to endeavor to dilute what were (apparently) strict prohibitions in the minds of apostles until they are thoughts with no practical impact upon the operations of modern churches—is not to promote a high view of this particular passage of scripture. It is not necessarily, in every case, German Higher Criticism, and that ought to be acknowledged in order to deal accurately and fairly with the topic, but neither is this a way of valuing all of scripture. It’s more of a postmodern than a classically liberal way of lowering the value of the Bible.
If I am correct in saying this, then I must hurry to note that I cannot say it with any arrogance. Sinner that I am, I try to rationalize away scripture daily—multiple times daily. I do it when I am in a hurry behind the wheel of my car. I do it when I am angry and I want to say so in a way that gratifies my flesh. Yes, I do this same violence to scripture myself. Someone who holds egalitarian views will doubtless want to point this out. I am inconsistent. I admit it.
But shouldn’t our response to inconsistency be to encourage one another toward a more consistent obedience rather than a more consistent disobedience? Help me be more consistently obedient by pointing out my inconsistencies. By doing so, you will do me a favor.
And so, I actually do believe that there is a correspondence between egalitarian belief and a misuse of the Bible, although I do readily acknowledge that not all egalitarians follow the teachings of German Higher Criticism or related daughter ideologies (although a great many do).
Dialogue means that the conversation goes in two directions. I want to emphasize that I have prepared this response not because Beth Moore is under my authority such that she must listen to me. Not at all. I’m not her pastor. I’m not her husband. I’m merely her brother. I rather prepared this response because (as I said at the beginning) she expressed a desire that some of us who disagree at least partially with her should consider and respond to what she has said about complementarianism.
Frankly, I’ve been disappointed in the way that some of that has taken place. Pastors ought not to be female, but neither ought they to be boorish or quarrelsome. Disagreement can be fair, respectful, dignifying, and sober-minded. I can say in good faith that such a conversation has been my objective. I welcome critiques of these quickly-scribbled, weakly-attributed thoughts that I have assembled, not in the hope that I might be vanquished, of course, but in the hopeful expectation that careful dialogue among fellow believers can be a good and beneficial thing, pleasing to our Father.