This ugly word, featured in my title, represents a belief among a certain strand of evangelicals that men and women have different but complementary roles in society and in the church. In practice, it has meant that the role of women does not allow them to take positions of leadership in the church and that their position in the family is one of subordination to a man. The reader will know by now that I am always keen to establish where such ideas come from and in this case we can date very precisely the moment when the doctrine in this particular form was born. It was at a conference of leading evangelicals, notably Wayne Grudem in 1986 when the issue was debated. Following the conference a report, known at the Danvers Statement, was published and promoted in 1989. The idea of women being unable to accept positions of leadership in the church has of course been the teaching of older communions, notably the Catholic and the Orthodox churches, for centuries. Nevertheless the formal way in which a body of evangelicals decided to make this a formal part of their understanding of ‘truth’ is interesting. The Catholics and the Orthodox have always had a problem in changing elements of any of their teaching or worship without appearing to admit that they may have not got things right in the past. But we have here a body of evangelical scholars deciding that they ‘know’ the mind of God and Scripture on a particular matter, while having to acknowledge that large numbers of other evangelicals simply disagree with them.

Going further in my internet perusal of this theological position I noted that it had been adopted by the charismatic New Frontier group of churches in the UK until recently under the leadership of Terry Virgo. If you google the New Frontier family of churches you will find that they are effectively a denomination in their own right with around 200+ congregations up and down the country. It has in the past few years changed its structure and organisation but congregations large or small within the network clearly believe that their Apostolic leader’s original adoption of the Danvers Statement is part of the package of their affiliation. I find this situation of a leader deciding to choose, on behalf of many others, a particular reading of Scripture in preference to another disturbing. If it was just a matter of an obscure doctrine that was at stake, then perhaps this fact of this choice could be quietly ignored or put to one side. But the issue of complementarianism does matter to the whole atmosphere of a congregation, not to mention the feelings of the women who are there. If women are excluded from leadership and encouraged to think of themselves as subordinate to the men in the home, that matters very much on a practical level. Do Terry Virgo, Jim Packer and the other teachers of this doctrine not recognise sometimes that the decision to adopt this teaching is only one opinion out of several, even among their fellow conservative interpreters of Scripture?

I suppose the point of this blog post is to point out, first of all, that certain facets of evangelical teaching can and do make a tremendous difference to the lives of actual people within the congregations who follow that particular line of teaching. Second this issue of discrimination against women is not just a matter being argued between conservatives and liberal but it is also an inter-evangelical debate. It goes without saying that liberals do generally support a generous theology of the role women play and their place within the church and the family. But they are not alone in this. Many evangelicals also support what is disparagingly called by some ‘biblical feminism’ Clearly the position of Wayne Grudem, Jim Packer and Terry Virgo is a political one. At the very least we can say that it is not the only way the bible can be read and interpreted.

As a further comment, I ask the question as to whether the position of the New Frontier Churches will ever change on this issue and whether there is even discussion among these congregations on this topic. Without knowing the answer, I would find it incredible if no one within those churches had shifted their position at all in the past 25 years. If the position, as stated by one commentator, that the writers of the Danvers Statement ‘framed their position as a clear and accessible reading of scripture’ is held on to, then there is no possible room for change. Thankfully some Christians are not tied to statements of truth for all eternity, and social movements and changes of attitude do change the way that Christians understand and interpret the Bible.

If one were to write a history of the Church through the ages, one might wish to include a chapter on cul-de-sacs of understanding and teaching. Sometimes Christians have been able to exit from grotesque cul-de-sacs without too many people noticing. On other occasions, like the support of Franco in the Civil War in Spain or the upholding of artificial birth control, the church has placed itself in a corner from which it wants to escape but does not know how. Let us welcome the statements of Christian bodies who are prepared to say ‘We got it wrong, please forgive us’. Sadly even the Anglican church finds this hard to do. But one thing is certain that when an individual admits to getting something wrong and admits it, then the wider public is both forgiving and understanding. In twenty or thirty years I would expect the Danvers Statement to be quietly or publically disowned. It is so tragic that in the meantime the holding on to this reading of Scripture causes directly and indirectly so much suffering, if not abuse, in its wake.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

4 thoughts on “Complementarianism

  1. Oh, the people in power’s arrogating unto themselves all the interesting/fun/high status jobs and leaving the boring/insanitary but necessary jobs to others is human nature. Muslims do it, Christians do it, people of no faith but who have power and operate in a structured society like shops and hospitals do it. This “equal but different” doctrine runs in the CofE as the distinction between clergy and Readers too. And just as in an old fashioned Christian community wrt the position of women, it’s always the clergy who get the nice jobs. There will always be men who believe women are best suited to making scones and babies. But that’s only because they don’t want to do the crèche themselves! What really puzzles me is, why do women take up these positions? Why are there women who fight tooth and nail to prevent other women’s being ordained? Just as, why do straights object to gay marriage when they have no horse in the race? It’s not compulsory! So, why would a woman vote with her feet to join such a church? No answer required, it’s rhetorical.

  2. I have just found your blog. I also am not a Christian scholar or historian, although I will be taking my first Intro to Theology course this September. I am speaking simply from my own experience, which is that I was in a high-control, Bible-based group, otherwise known as a cult, for a long time. Complementarianism is such a mis-leading term. I agree that men and women have both similarities and differences, and complement each other, but I do not agree with what this term covers as far as a doctrine is concerned. I believe we are all equal before God, in intellect and abilities, as given to each individual and there is no reason why women should not have positions of ministry in church if they have the gifts for it. Just as women can administer businesses, counsel the needy, or even go to war if they are predisposed that way. My biggest issues with any particular branche’s doctrine is that they be open and not hidden. The biggest danger is the hidden agenda of any group. I was deceived in the group I came from. It was partly my own ignorance, and partly the manipulative control of the leaders. The application of the Gospel that they practiced was aberrant to say the least, and traumatic, to be honest. Critical thinking and examination of the beliefs of any group you are thinking of associating with is a skill that I learned the hard way, and should be taught to all our children from youth up. People can choose to believe many different things. People can interpret the Bible in many different ways. People can choose to live in many different styles. A particular woman may want the security of the man being the head of the household. The other side of that scripture is that the man must love his wife as Christ loves the church. If he does that, it can make a woman happy. But every individual must know fully what they are choosing. No one should be coerced or judged for choosing a different way.

  3. Well said, and wise. Good luck in your course. That’s a good way of putting it, hidden agendas. Of course, it’s common enough. Simply put, people say one thing and do another! Glad you’re free now.

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