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Must (New) Calvinism Be Complementarian?

November 11, 2010

Another thing that was fascinating about that Fitch post that keeps giving us material over here at City of God was the mention again of the complementarian view of gender relations as being integral the New Calvinism. It’s striking to me as I grew up in the mainline Presbyterian Church in Canada (PCC) which is ostensibly a denomination that comes out of the Reformed tradition and that has – in my lifetime at least – been egalitarian through and through. Now I know that the fierce New Calvinists would suggest that no mainline church could really be considered Calvinist, but let’s leave that aside for a second.

I suspect that the New Calvinists would probably argue that they affirm the authority of scripture and that complementarianism is what they get from the Bible. Of course those of us who are egalitarians can make a good case from the scripture that this is an overreach by the complementarians and that there are many instances where the scriptures seem to affirm a more egalitarian position. Yet taking this position would seem like a deal-breaker for many of the para-church ministries that make up the informal network of the New Calvinism (Gospel Coalition, T4G, and so on).

Is there any particular reason why the New Calvinists are so strongly in favour of complementarianism? Is there space to be an egalitarian and still hold to at least some aspects of Calvinist theology?

27 Comments leave one →
  1. Andrew permalink*
    November 12, 2010 12:27 am

    Roger Nicole and Walter Kaiser (I think he is Reformed) are both Reformed egalitarians.

    • Andrew permalink*
      November 12, 2010 12:28 am

      At least, I’m pretty sure about Kaiser. Definitely sure about Nicole.

  2. November 12, 2010 9:10 am

    I suppose then the question is why are so many under the New Calvinist banner elevating their views on gender to a virtually non-negotiable point of doctrine?

  3. Craig Carter permalink
    November 12, 2010 10:26 am

    I have posted some thoughts that address your questions on my blog.

  4. Mara permalink
    November 12, 2010 8:19 pm

    You didn’t answer the question, Craig.

    You just regurgitated anti-egal propaganda straight out of the CBMW playbook.

    Egalitarianism is NOT a fancy name for inserting secular feminist ideas into Evangelical Christianity. That is simply untrue and of no use in a real argument.

    That would be like me saying that Complentarianism is just faintly veiled Muslim or FLDS ideas being added to Evangelical Christianity. And then start documenting how closely the new homeschool, neo-patriarch movement look so much like the Muslims and the FLDS groups.

    You are not disproving Biblical Equality. You are only proving how angry and hostile you are. And how much others have taught you to fear something you don’t really understand.

  5. Craig Carter permalink
    November 12, 2010 10:26 pm

    If Egalitarianism does not derive from secular feminism, then how come no one in the Tradition saw it in the biblical text until right after the rise of secular feminism in the 20th century after Christ? Islam didn’t get started until 700 years after the complementarian tradition was well established. I’m not angry or hostile; I am just unconvinced and skeptical.

    • November 12, 2010 11:04 pm

      Could this question not be applied to any number of innovations in Christianity? I mean it took 1500 years for lending at interest to be acceptable. Military service was unacceptable for the first 300 years or so. Priests could marry, and then were not allowed to, and then allowed to again in some traditions. The threat of being placed in limbo vanished from Roman Catholic doctrine only a handful of years ago. All of these are doctrines that changed after centuries of adherence by the faithful, in every case one must accept that a lot of believers were wrong.

  6. November 12, 2010 10:45 pm

    Excuse me, but complementarianism started in the 8o’s I think. It was a term penned by CBMW.

  7. Craig Carter permalink
    November 12, 2010 11:19 pm

    TL – the term may be new, but the ideas go back to the early church fathers.
    Dan – I’m not saying that the tradition cannot develop but I’m suspicious of the close relationship historically between the rise of second wave feminism in the 60s in the general culture and the rise of Egalitarianism in the churches at the exact same time. Many people see “Feminism” in general as benign, but I see second wave feminism as complicit in the cultural disasters flowing from the sexual revolution. So there are two issues for me: (1) is egalitarianism Scriptural? and (2) is it harmful to society, the family and the church? #2 has to be answered before #1 is even worth exploring. From a theological perspective, I don’t see serious work in theological anthropology by Evangelicals who want to embrace Egalitarianism. It is all political theory and ideology without in-depth philosophical and theological engagement.

    • November 13, 2010 10:56 am

      One could similarly point out the close linkage between Constantine and the acceptance of military service as a vocation for Christians, or the abolition of slavery coming at a time when secular thinkers were positing universal human rights over and against the divine right of rulers. In both cases it can be said that these were outside developments somehow corrupting established church teachings or that this was God merely using unsuspecting instruments (cf: the Assyrians).

  8. Mara permalink
    November 12, 2010 11:49 pm

    The problem is equating second wave feminism with egalitarianism.

    The first wave feminists were long before the 60s and started by Christians. It had supporters during the time of the abolitionists.

    Associating egalism with second wave feminism and holding egals accountable for the sins of second wave feminism only shows that you truely don’t “get” egalitarianism.

    Egalitarianism is not any more responsible for the destruction of the Christian family than Complementarianism.

    Ever heard the joke: “My husband and I divorced for religious reasons. He thought he was God and I didn’t.”
    Women laugh at this because this is what many have experience with men who were told they were to “take charge” of their families by Comp teaching. And it is the Comp teaching which is running rampant in Christian circles that is destroying Christian families. Divorce rate among Christians is higher than Atheists.

    I have heard story after story of women who worked very hard doing the Comp model of marriage only to find it made things much worse. Comp doesn’t save marriages. Yes, it makes big promises. But those promises are based on an off-balanced understanding of scripture and an off-balance view of gender. And this off-balance is being pushed more and more by those who support the Comp view.

    • Andrew permalink*
      November 13, 2010 12:07 am

      “Divorce rate among Christians is higher than Atheists.”

      Would you providing the source for that?

    • Mara permalink
      November 13, 2010 9:56 am

      Thought that was common knowledge. I’ve heard it from both comp and egal sources.
      I’ve heard it spoken by more preachers than I can count.

      The usual advice is, try harder. As in, work the comp formula harder. They say the formula is not broken, you are just doing it wrong. Do it right and it will work. Wives need to submit more. Husbands need to find their God-given leadership gene, grow a pair, and get busy leading. Then everything will be hunky dory.

      Problem is, this has been going on since the 80s, back when men used to be the leaders (percentage wise) in initiating divorces. Desprerate women trying to save their marriages used to eat the comp doctrine up thinking it would be the silver bullet to kill the divorce they were threatened with. Now women take the lead in initiating divorces.
      Many Christian women have gotten tired of following the Comp formula. Some are leaving their marriages. Some are putting the breaks on the damage that has been done and are keeping their marrages but chucking the advice of the misinformed CBMW et. al.

      My biggest point is that if you want to talk about whether new calvinism and egalitarianism can co-exist, then you need to come to the Bible with a fresh perspective and realize that much of the prejudices we bring to it are just that. Prejudices.

      Stating point blank that “Egal = 2nd wave feminism” proves nothing except that you have been thoroughly indoctrinated. Not by the Bible, but by an off-balance teaching going off the deep end.

      Deal with the issues and arguments at hand rather than giving into propaganda and fear-mongering.

      Fear-mongering proves nothing. Allow the Egal arguments to stand or fall based on the content of the whole Bible (rather than proof-texting with sentence fragments lifted from context). And do the same with Comp arguments. Take the whole Bible approach rather than the “pick and choose”, cafeteria style religion method, the method that CBMW excels at.

      Until then, there is no point in any honest argument. It’s just more of the same propaganda.

    • November 13, 2010 11:04 am


      I am aware of the same statistics concerning Christians and divorce. My understanding though is that this is more a function of the fact that so many Christians get married younger than their more secular peers (early 20s vs. late 20s on average, I think). This is not inherently problematic, but the social structures of the developed world though are not geared towards supporting marriage for younger couples. Most of the research on this topic seemed to point to this age difference as a cause for higher divorce rates among Christians. It would be interesting to consider a study that controlled for age.

    • Andrew permalink*
      November 13, 2010 11:05 am

      Well, my response at this point would only be that that statistic is completely false:

    • November 13, 2010 11:21 am

      There are other damaging statistics as well. Barna did a research on the percentage of divorces denominationally. This is more difficult to refute. Baptists came out the highest.

    • Andrew permalink*
      November 13, 2010 11:31 am

      Well, again, it would be good to see the evidence…

    • November 13, 2010 12:59 pm

      Andrew…. check it out at Barna….. 🙂

  9. Andrew permalink*
    November 13, 2010 12:09 am


  10. WenatcheeTheHatchet permalink
    November 13, 2010 1:43 am

    It would be interesting to see how the term Christian even gets defined. I often heard people talk about Seattle as one of the least churched places in the United States but it’s more accurate to say it is one of the cities least friendly to evangelical Christianity. It’s not as though there aren’t plenty of mainline denominational churches in the city. I suspect many complementarians would probably suggest that unrealistic expectations destroy marriages and that guys looking at porno destroy the marriages rather than the complementarian roles. It seems awfully heated on both sides, which makes me wonder why anyone would bother mating and breeding most of the time but now I’m just being a smartass.

  11. J Harris permalink
    November 13, 2010 2:04 am

    Slavery was accepted until the 18th or 19th centuries — shall we blame it on the Enlightenment and reinstitute it because, after all, the Bible tells slaves to be obedient to their masters?

    Plus, Craig, your argument doesn’t hold in another way– the Church has not traditionally held to complimentarianism. It traditionally held to something much more extreme — it held that women were inferior in body, mind and every other way (not to mention completely responsible for leading poor Adam, who was superior yet somehow able to be led into sin by her feminine wiles). Most complimentarians won’t go that far – hence, the CBMW talks about “intelligent submission” and “equal but different callings.”

    Of course, equal but different in gender matters works out the same way “separate but equal” did in racial matters. Not very equally.

    Egalitarianism isn’t really about women gaining rights, however. It’s about mutuality. Egalitarianism is about how God created both male and female in His image, about how the Fall put all people – men, women, tribes, nations and individuals at odds with one another and how in Christ, the wall that divided us has been broken down. It’s about all of us serving, submitting to and respecting others. It’s about no one “lording it over” but everyone preferring the other.

    I hope and pray that someday you will know the joy of this kind of life.

  12. Don permalink
    November 13, 2010 5:26 am

    To even think that egalitarianism ala CBE derives from second wave feminism shows a serious lack of understanding of what actually did happen.

    It is simply false that the comp ideas of CBMW were taught by the church before CBMW existed, rather the existing gender hierarchical paradigm was discredited and so CBMW came up with a new one to try to sell it as the softer and gentler form of gender hierarchy.

    I see Jesus, Paul, Peter being egals so I am just following them in this.

  13. Craig Carter permalink
    November 13, 2010 10:29 am

    Mara writes: “The problem is equating second wave feminism with egalitarianism.” OK, you keep saying that. This is your thesis. I understand what you are saying but you need arguments for it.

    Mara writes: “The first wave feminists were long before the 60s and started by Christians. It had supporters during the time of the abolitionists.” Right, I agree. First wave feminism originated in the 19th C and led to women entering university & the professions and gaining the right to vote. It was explicitly not anti-family. It was a mixture of Enlightenment rationalism and Christian ethics. It was not entirely unproblematic especially as it overlapped with the first sexual revolution and ideas like Darwinism and eugenics, but on the whole the mainstream of the movement was good and beneficial to society.

    Mara writes: “Associating egalism with second wave feminism and holding egals accountable for the sins of second wave feminism only shows that you truely don’t “get” egalitarianism.” Well, maybe. Second wave feminism is far more toxic than first wave feminism in that it is a mixture of cultural marxism with Enlightenment rationalism with Christianity dropping out of influence. If you want to interpret Egalitarianism as a continuation of first wave feminism, that would be a viable argument to make, but that argument has not been made so far on this thread. What I would like to see in that argument is a real differentiation between first and second wave feminism and thus between egalitarianism and second wave feminism. How does egalitarianism ally with conservatives against second wave feminism in support of the family?

    Here is an example of the nature of the problem. A female member of Angela Merkel’s cabinet, Kristina Schroder, the other day had to respond to criticism by a second wave feminist who was attacking her from the left by refuting the attackers assertion that “heterosexual activity is inherently oppressive.” Schroder might be considered a feminist by you and me, but she was not considered a feminist by the person doing the attacking because, as Jessica Valenti puts it so clearly: a feminist has to be a left-winger. This shows the marxist presuppositions of the feminist gatekeepers of today and the difficult position any woman is placed in who wants to be a “feminist” in some sense but who rejects the marxist presuppositions of second wave feminism.

    Egalitarians face the same challenge as Schroder. Practically, many may simply sense that it is possible to go to far and simply draw lines based on common sense. But this is not enough for me, because it leaves things too slippery and favors those who want to push the church to accept homosexuality step by step. What I think we need is a serious critique of the sexual revolution and second wave feminism by those who call themselves Christian egalitarians. This, accompanied by serious reflection on theological anthropology, will do more to convince doubters like me that they are a serious alternative to secularized feminism. The “battle of the proof texts” won’t do it.

  14. November 13, 2010 2:33 pm

    “What I think we need is a serious critique of the sexual revolution and second wave feminism by those who call themselves Christian egalitarians. This, accompanied by serious reflection on theological anthropology, will do more to convince doubters like me that they are a serious alternative to secularized feminism. The “battle of the proof texts” won’t do it.”

    Craig, been done to death. Do it yourself and we’ll agree with you. :^)

    If you’re happy with your male dominance beliefs, great. Live it graciously. That’s all that required. No one is perfect in their understanding or in their transmission of the beliefs they hold. And being right isn’t as important as living the graciousness and charity that Christ calls us to.

  15. Craig Carter permalink
    November 13, 2010 3:35 pm

    I agree with you and appreciate your irenic statements. You are absolutely right that many people live more graciously than their beliefs might seem to indicate to those who disagree with them. But I want to correct one thing you said. I don’t believe in male dominance and I think anyone who characterizes traditional Christian teaching (see Eph. 5) in this way is reading pagan and sinful attitudes into complementarianism. To say that men and women are different and have different roles is not to affirm male dominance as we see it worked out in fallen human nature in most cultures.

    As for your statement that it has been done to death, I’d appreciate a few examples.

  16. November 13, 2010 4:30 pm

    Perhaps if you google you’ll find enough. Most Christians who call themselves Biblical egals identify with the concerns of the Suffregettes and those feminists born from them. We don’t have anything to do with the second wave feminists and to my knowledge never have.

    As for the male dominance claim, gender hierarchy is all about male dominance or more politely male only leadership. This has been tempered by calling it servant leadership and while there are indeed some who do exercise their privileged position with an attitude to serve, for many it just means that they make all the decisions for women politely. Doesn’t change the fact that the woman’s activities are under the control of and direction of the man. This is not surprising since the movement was born after the Shepherding Movement and has many of the same characteristics. Although the addition of the concepts of complementarity have tempered it some, it is only so for those men who choose to so temper their “divine rights of leadership”.

  17. November 13, 2010 4:46 pm

    Furthermore, Craig, I suspect you won’t agree with the idea that women’s activities are being controlled by comps. So, let me just point something out.

    The so called “plain reading” of a piece of a sentence in 1 Tim. 2 can be read as simply that women (all women) can from that point on never teach men or lead men. Period. By itself it is all encompassing with no clarifications. So what do gender hierarchalist men do, they take it upon themselves to decide for the women how to clarify that. And any woman that doesn’t agree with them has been labeled as rebellious time and time again, which only affirms what I’m saying. So now the men decide that women CAN teach other women and children. If they cannot teach men, then they can teach women. But they don’t stop there. Then it is decided for women what ministries they can participate in, men are to determine doctrine and women are to teach what men allow them to teach, men decide amongst themselves if women can be ordained , men decide what branches of Christian education women can participate in and so forth. It just goes on and on.

    Perhaps, you are not aware of the extensive intrusion into women’s lives this doctrine permits. Basically, it permits a man to decide for himself and his wife, family, business and church, just how far he will take it. And the women must accept no matter what amount of damage it does to their lives. And it can do a lot of damage.

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