New Wave Complementarianism: A Question and a Concern
I’ve watched with great interest over the past few weeks as a constellation of blog posts have come out calling for a fresh complementarianism. The articles seem to be advocating for a third way between complementarianism and egalitarianism, or at least for an awareness that traditional complementarians have many weaknesses and egalitarians are asking a lot of good questions. The message often has an apologetic edge: we are complementarians, but not the ones you’re used to.
The most explicit post along these lines is Wendy Alsup’s article on new wave complementarianism. The piece struck a nerve, prompting many women to write comments to the effect, “I agree with everything you’ve said. I’ve been wanting someone to say this for years.” Alsup’s article, and others like it, have been recommended and retweeted by some of my good friends. There is something about the idea of a “new wave” of complementarianism that some—I’m not sure if it’s few, several, or many, so I’ll stick with some—find attractive.
I’ve been wrestling for a couple weeks now about how to respond to Alsup’s post (or if I should respond at all). I don’t want to turn something small into something bigger than it needs to be, and I don’t want to discourage new complementarian voices (often women) from being heard. And yet, something about these posts, and Alsup’s in particular, leaves me unsettled. With that in mind, I’d like to ask one specific question and raise one general caution.
One Specific Question
Here’s my specific question: If this is new wave of complementarianism, what was the old wave? Alsup lists eight characteristics of this new movement.
1. 1. Belief in the trustworthiness of the Bible.
2. 2. A belief that the Bible interprets itself.
3. 3. A respect for Church history and creeds.
4. 4. Strong disagreement for Susan Foh’s interpretation of Genesis 3:16.
5. 5. Identifying with some aspects of feminism.
6. 6. Viewing complementarity through the lens of Genesis 1:27 more than Genesis 2:18.
7. 7. Not setting up marriage and family as the end all for women.
8. 8. An understanding that men should be elders and women can be deacons.
Surely, there are no “old wave” complementarians who disagree with points 1-3. Let’s cross those off the list (they may be aimed mostly at egalitarians).
Points 7 and 8 are not new either. The very first chapter in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (RBMW) was a chapter from John Piper for single men and women. And the last page of Chapter 1 includes a list of more than 100 things women can and should do in ministry, only a handful of which pertain to traditional “women’s work.” Moreover, neither CBMW nor the complementarian movement as a whole has ever made women deacons (or the prohibition thereof) a mark of their ministry. Indeed, in 2010 Alsup wrote a piece arguing for women deacons in which she mentions a number of older complementarians who think Phoebe held the office of deacon. She also notes that CBMW considers the issue of women deacons nonessential to its core mission.
That leaves 4, 5, and 6 as possible new tenets for this “new wave.” Let me comment briefly on each.
Susan Foh – Her argument that the “desire” in Genesis 3:16 is the women’s desire to domineer over her husband makes sense to me from the parallel passage in Genesis 4:7 (cf. Claire Smith’s excellent post defending this view). Alsup believes this is an entirely new interpretation that was never before heard of until Susan Foh argued for it in 1975. Even if this were the case—and my quick perusal of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture shows that Johannes Brenz (1499-1570) wrote about “when women aspire to dominate their husbands in running the household” in his commentary on Genesis 3:16—it doesn’t do much to alter the central point; namely, that the blessing of the male-female relationship has been twisted into a burden by sin. Husbands, who can be tyrannical, need to love their wives; and wives, who can chafe at submission, need to respect their husbands (Eph. 5:33). This basic point is hardly dependent on Foh or her almost 40 year old article, which no one but a handful of scholars has heard of or references.
Feminism – In another article Alsup contends that much good has come from feminism. In the plus column she mentions raising awareness and changes attitudes on sex trafficking, female genital mutilation, sexual exploitation, and the subjugation of women in third world countries. She also notes that feminism is the reason women in America can vote. But surely Alsup doesn’t imagine that old school complementarians are against any of this. The argument seems to be about salvaging the word feminism, rather than any serious disagreement over policy.
Complementarity – There’s certainly no shortage of discussion in the older literature about Genesis 2:18 and Genesis 1:27. Both are key texts for understanding the dignity, worth, and roles of men and women. But Alsup’s contention that “It takes two distinct though obviously overlapping genders to reflect the fullness of the image of God” is a departure from complementarian theology. It’s actually the egalitarian view of Genesis 1:27 that Ray Ortlund Jr. argued against (vis a vis Aida Bensancon Spencer) in Chapter 3 of RBMW. Alsup’s view is reminiscent of Karl Barth’s theology of the imago dei, a theology evangelicals rightly rejected because it implied that the God-Man Jesus Christ, a single male, was incapable of fully reflecting the image of God.
So I’m left with my original question. I don’t mean it as a challenge or an insult, but as an honest question: Who are the old wave complementarians we should leave behind? Are we talking about the complementarianism of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood? Are we talking about CBMW? What is new about the new wave other than the rejection of Susan Foh’s article and a dubious understanding of the imago dei in Genesis 1:27? These aren’t rhetorical questions. I’m trying to understand the attraction to a new complementarianism. Are there specific authors or books in mind? Or are we really talking about the abuses of complementarianism that we know of through painful personal experiences?
Some things are new because they’ve never been seen before. Others things are new because they recover old things that have been lost. But this “new wave complementarianism” seems to suggest that it is leaving some of the old stuff behind. Other than the interpretation of Genesis 3:16 (which Alsup has written on thoughtfully and frequently), what ideas, people, or movements are the new folks leaving behind? I’m not trying to be pushy, but it would be helpful to know the specific documents and people from the “old wave” that have missed the boat.
One General Caution
My one specific question leads naturally to a note of general caution. I hope that younger complementarians will not define themselves by the complementarians they’re not. I don’t doubt that complementarianism can be perverted, just as every other theology or practice can be perverted. I’m sure many points of doctrine could use a power wash every now and then, just to make sure we can see what the clean version is supposed to look like. But in a world awash in sexual confusion and deliberate gender ambiguity I wonder if the main thing we need to do is really convince people we’re not that kind of complementarian.
My caution, then, is that we don’t make a new version of complementarianism that has for one of its main objectives appeasing egalitarians. Let’s be winsome. Let’s answer honest questions. But let’s not think that any amount of apologizing or differentiation will win over those who think everything about complementarianism is backwards, oppressive, and mean. I get nervous when our passion seems less about the theology we say we want to celebrate and more about the ways our theology is a stumbling block to others. The impulse to rescue counter-cultural doctrines from their own unpopularity is one of the first steps to losing the doctrine altogether.