Complementarianism, Egalitarianism, and Generating Confusion

By: Dale M. Coulter
Friday, June 8th, 2012

Recently I read a string of posts that attempt to update evangelicals on the egalitarian/complementarian debate. As I turned to the most recent post by Joe Carter at The Gospel Coalition, it became clear to me that there are plenty of misconceptions and misperceptions flying around. While I have never met Carter in person, I have appreciated his work at First Things and his stand on various issues, and have had several positive email exchanges. With that being said, I think he gets a lot wrong on the nature of the debate and perpetuates common mistakes that seem to be taken for “truisms” by folks. While it is no surprise that he thinks complementarians are winning the debate, even this conclusion rests on misperceptions about the evangelical world.

Let me illustrate what I mean by responding to just three points Carter makes or reiterates from other bloggers.

1.       Complementarians are winning on this debate

Carter’s perception of victory, I would suggest, is only true if one examines the Southern Baptist Convention or the Presbyterian Church in America. It does not appear to me that Carter takes into consideration much of the Wesleyan world (BTW, the Wesleyan Church just elected a Jo Anne Lyon to lead it) or the Pentecostal world. This is not to claim, on my part, that all Wesleyans and Pentecostals are egalitarian because they most certainly are not. The theological debate, however, occurs in those circles on very different theological grounds than it does in Baptist and conservative Reformed circles.

Carter exemplifies the kind of tunnel vision that I find in many parts of the evangelical world where the debate is viewed through the prism of one denomination or theological camp. It is no mistake that here at Regent School of Divinity we have around 40% women getting theology degrees. Most of them come from different parts of the evangelical world than Carter is familiar with. They are theologically conservative and yet sense a call to engage in ministry in the church, which leads me to my second misconception.

2.    The interpretive “gymnastics” behind affirming egalitarianism will lead one eventually to get the gospel wrong

Based on a statement by John Piper, this claim is now making its way around the complementarian blogosphere. It is similar to the claims made by Piper’s co-defender Wayne Grudem in his book Evangelical Feminism in which Grudem expresses a concern that egalitarian arguments undermine biblical authority and hence lead persons inexorably to theological liberalism. Both Piper’s and Grudem’s assertions are really a version of the slippery-slope argument.

The challenge of such arguments is that they are historical in nature and thus depend upon historical analyses rather than “logical” ones, even though many authors favor the “logical” argument: If you hold position X, you will invariably move to position Y. What counts for “logic” in this case is a secondary claim to internal consistency; something akin to, “the only consistent position is to move from X to Y.”

History, of course, is much messier than this, as Carter, Piper, and other complementarians know. To make a slippery-slope argument is to engage in probabilities. It is more likely that this position will lead to that conclusion. The likelihood increases with the multiplication of historical examples and decreases with a rise in counter examples.

As a slippery-slope argument, the historical claims must factor in a number of contextual issues. Much of the time too much weight is given to one set of cultural factors over another set. The rise in women’s ordination, Grudem argues, corresponded with a move into theological liberalism on the part of mainline Protestantism.  Grudem’s analysis, however, rests almost entirely on a sociological study that does not take into account the history of Protestantism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. More importantly, his claims cannot account for the historical fact that Pentecostals were ordaining women from the beginning of the 1900s.

Let me make two quick applications:

One could apply Piper’s claim to cessationists like Richard Gaffin. Just a quick perusal of his arguments for why the charismatic gifts have ceased reveals how adept he is at the same kind of interpretive gymnastics. He moves so swiftly from a Reformed covenantal framework to viewing “foundation of the apostles and prophets” as connected to a redemptive-historical event to the conclusions that the gifts were for the foundational period that one cannot help but stand in awe at the backflips and dismounts in the service of a theological agenda. So, why isn’t Piper making the same claim about Gaffin? The answer is that Gaffin’s other theological commitments show that he is still within “normal” parameters of orthodox evangelicalism.

A second, deeply ironic, example is Grudem’s admission that Pentecostals like Jack Hayford embrace women in leadership positions and yet have remained within acceptable parameters. In other words, he knows that there are counter examples to his argument and yet he insists on expressing his genuine concern of a slide into liberalism.

So, with as much reservation as I can muster at this point, the long embrace of cessationism by dispensationalists and certain streams of Reformed theology going back to Calvin suggests that I could easily turn Carter’s claim that “evangelicals can always find an authority who will provide them with an authoritative justification for shirking authority” on its head. Is Calvin equal to scripture? Is he not an authority for Reformed folks?

The answer to how persons “get the gospel wrong” turns out to be quite complication indeed. So, let’s stop perpetuating these misconceptions about slippery slopes.

3.  Egalitarianism represents a capitulation to the culture while complementarianism is counter-cultural

Carter claims that Rachel Evans’ functional egalitarianism “models our culture’s obsession with autonomy and disdain for authority,” while also claiming that patriarchy is counter cultural. In his rush to suggest that Evans does not understand the complementarian position, he fails to see the more subtle point that both positions are influenced by the culture and both are counter cultural.

The challenge of the complementarian position is to identify clearly what male headship actually means in practice. There is no New Testament example of husband/wife relations in the home. Does male headship mean that the husband makes all decisions? Does it mean that the husband must sign off on all decisions? Does it mean that the husband must initiate everything? Does it mean that the husband must be in charge of every family event? It is precisely in answering these questions, which every couple must do, that the culture encroaches upon the Christian home. At minimum, Carter must admit that complementarianism in the past has meant (and still means) culturally accommodated Christianity as the larger culture continues to define gender roles.

This post is now getting too long, but I plan to continue to post on this issue in the near future. Stay tuned!

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Dale M. Coulter
This entry was posted by on Friday, June 8th, 2012 at 4:16 pm and is filed under Faith & Culture, Family Life, Leadership. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

7 Responses to “Complementarianism, Egalitarianism, and Generating Confusion”

  1. Loyd Harp says:

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts Dale!

  2. Christopher Wilson says:

    I don’t think that the debate is a slippery slope rather I think that egalitarianism is a symptom of having a compromised view of scripture. I used to debate the hot button issues such as this one and inclusivism etc.; but invariably I found that the person on the other side didn’t hold to a high view of scripture and that that was the root problem. Once you dismiss inerrancy you can justify almost anything by limiting the prima facie readings of scripture as being only contextually binding or culturally influenced but not normative. I have yet to find a person who holds to inerrancy and egalitarianism simultaneously.

    I think that the lack of true discussion and debate on this issue in Renewal circles is evidence of a much larger problem; the development of a Renewal “Orthodoxy.”
    It seems now to be in the clique that one has to be an egalitarian, an inclusivist and hold to postmodern interpretations of scripture. This phenomenon has the very real danger of turning the movement into something which ostensibly it abhors; a mere echo chamber.

    Your brother in Christ,


    • Chris,

      Thanks for your perspective and for sharing your thoughts.

      My point in the blog is to counter precisely your argument. If I’m a Calvinist and I hold to anthropomorphisms in scripture, then even with a view of inerrancy I can always claim that when scripture says God changes his mind, it really does not mean God changes his mind because this is merely a human way of describing God. Or, to put it in Mark Noll’s words, the split in denominations during and before the Civil War over slavery was not because one side held a high view of scripture and the other did not. Both sides held a high view of scripture–indeed, the Southern Baptists held a very high view of scripture–but they have still had to repent for their support of slavery in the very creation of their denomination. My point is that you can have a high view of scripture and still justify a lot of positions.

      On the renewal question, if Pentecostals were ordaining women prior to 1920, then the contextual argument you’re trying to make does not quite work. There was no such animal as postmodernism or inclusivism, or even egalitarian then. It was counter cultural at the time for Maria Woodworth Etter to claim that God had called her to preach, or for Aimee Semple McPherson, or Florence Crawford who was a leader from Azusa Street, or Neely Terry, the pastor of the church in Los Angeles where Seymour first preached.

      Having said that, there is still a strong debate within Pentecostalism and the larger renewal movement about women in leadership. The entire Church of God in Christ denomination does not ordain women. My denomination, the Church of God, ordains women up to a certain level, but reserves the final level of ordination for men only. Besides the question of women’s ordination, many Pentecostals are complementarian in their homes while being egalitarian when it comes to women holding ministry positions. They don’t see the too as being incompatible.

      In other words, there is more flexibility for both positions within the renewal movement than there is in the Presbyterian Church of America or the Southern Baptist Convention.

      • Christopher Wilson says:

        Dr. Coulter,

        Thank you for starting this important discussion. As to your points:

        1. I suppose that one element usually left from the debate is the difference between being a preacher and being a priest. Usually the debate is framed in the protestant Low Church context and this distinction is seldom made. Being a priest also implies some additional level of purity which also excludes many men according to biblical principles (Deut 23:1-2). In my experience for instance I have seen that the Catholic charismatic movement is often female led by women who would never think of becoming priests or preachers.

        2. It certainly is possible hypothetically to hold to egalitarianism and inclusivism while holding to a high view of scripture; but in my experience this is an anomaly. Of the dozen or so in-depth debates on both subjects that I have had, the other person when boxed in invariably resorts to throwing out inerrancy while simultaneously stating that NT admonitions were meant for a 1st century middle eastern audience and don’t apply to us today. This is why I still view these debates as superfluous.

        Playing devil’s advocate if I was forced to defend egalitarianism and inerrancy in a debate simultaneously I would probably embrace some form of dispensationalism so as not to have Paul’s clear admonitions used against me. But if this dispensationalism is embraced as a debating tactic and is not in good faith then I am not really upholding a high view of scripture. I think this argument today often goes like this:
        1. We are living in the last days.
        2. In the last days the spirit pours out on all flesh.
        3. We are currently ushering in a new eschaton where even NT laws and admonitions are no longer applicable.
        Usually those holding these views do so in good faith though holding to such a radical form of dispensationalism stretches any definitions of inerrancy and infallibility to the point of being moot.

        3. I also suppose that there needs to be a distinction between practical Pentecostal ministers (e.g. Church of God leadership) and Pentecostal academics (e.g. SPS). I think the interactions (or lack thereof) at the recent SPS conference with the converge 21 group showed how far apart the 2 groups are. The SPS members seemed fairly condescending towards the practical ministers who lacked PhD’s and the “appropriate” viewpoints.
        My comments about “Renewal Orthodoxy” were directed to the confines of academia i.e. Regent, SPS, etc. Anecdotally I can tell you from my personally interactions with other students outside of class the last several years that probably close to half of the male students in the divinity program are complementarians but they almost always keep this to themselves in the classroom due to this orthodoxy.

        Your brother in Christ,


      • Chris,

        I’ll respond to your points:

        1. You are correct that there is a difference in being a pastor and being an Orthodox or Catholic priest, and that this difference does not come up much. For Catholics and Orthodox, ordination is connected to sacraments rather than preaching. This is why you can have Catholic women as theologians or in holy orders who speak and teaching regularly while not being able to perform the sacraments. In low church Protestantism, like Baptist or Pentecostal, ordination is not connected to sacraments so much as to preaching. Thus, in the Southern Baptist Convention and even in the Presbyterian Church in America, women cannot preach or teach theology period. The debate over women’s ordination is always connected to sacraments and the nature of the church.

        2. It is not simply a hypothetical issue; it is a reality for many denominations, let alone couples. Now, you need to keep in mind that the complementarian/egalitarian debate has two poles: women’s ordination and husband/wife relations. On the issue of women’s ordination, as I said, the Four Square Gospel Church has ordained women from the beginning and still has a high view of scripture. The Assemblies of God ordains women (even though women are still shut out of many pastoral positions) and still has a high view of scripture. The AG statement on scripture reads: “The Scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments, are verbally inspired of God and are the revelation of God to man, the infallible, authoritative rule of faith and conduct.” So, I would say you need to broaden your horizons.

        And, don’t pull the old “you can’t consistently hold to a high view of scripture and hold to egalitarianism” because it is clear from numerous counter examples that you can. This is the slippery-slope bit, and I simply think there is too much evidence against you.

        3. I’m not sure where you get your defense of the egalitarian position from, but I have not read it in the prominent representatives of egalitarianism. It seems like a straw man argument to me. I cannot go into details, but at least you should read _Women in the Church_ by Stan Grenz and _Discovering Biblical Equality_. In the latter text, you’ll find essays by folks like Gordon Fee, who has a pretty high view of scripture.

        4. On SPS, if you stick around long enough you’ll recognize that the challenges are on both sides. I could give plenty of counter examples, but a public venue is not the place. On Regent, I’m not sure I buy those numbers, but let’s say you’re correct. First, my hunch is that students in general don’t speak out on a lot of issues in part because of the various intimidation factors. Second, I do know of plenty of classes where the discussion did occur, but truth be told it’s not going to occur in a lot of classes because the subject is just not relevant to the material. BTW, tell your fellow students that I’m happy to speak to them about it in the same way that I’m happy to talk to a Reformed student even though I’m not Reformed, or a Catholic even though I’m not Catholic.

  3. Christopher Wilson says:

    Dr. Coulter:

    1. I don’t think that the popularity or unpopularity of the egalitarian position should enter into the debate as evidence of the position’s validity or lack thereof. The position is either right or wrong scripturally, and its popularity has more to say about our current culture than it does anything to do with scripture.

    2. The dispensationalist argument is the one I have heard most often given by Regent students and I don’t consider it a straw man. In fact, to me it’s the most intellectually honest argument that an egalitarian can make as the usual arguments given are either centered upon proof texting Galatians 3:28 or playing hermeneutical gymnastics with 1 Corinthians 14 etc. I really don’t think that there is much there worthy of intellectual debate from the commonly given egalitarian arguments. Other issues for instance such as eternal security can be vigorously debated by opposing sides offering solid scriptural arguments and 2 people operating in good faith and with sound exegesis can walk away disagreeing with each other while still holding to similar views on the authority of scripture. I don’t think that the same can be said of the egalitarian debate.

    3. I will try to write a blog entry in the near future outlining why truly open discussions on this and many other issues rarely occur in academia; intellectual freedom is a saw which cuts both ways. I also look forward to discussing this and the other issues you raised in person sometime. I do see how this issue can act as a catalyst for other discussions peripherally related. As previously noted the fatherhood of God, the patriarchal value system of the bible, and even the role of husband and wife in a marriage can be influenced by how one views this debate. If we look at how marriage and family structures have crumbled due to an anti-hierarchical sentiment in our culture in recent decades I think that this discussion can be enlarged as well.

    Thank you for starting this important discussion.

    Your brother in Christ,


  4. Melissa Falk says:


    Thank you so much for this thoughtful post. I’ve read it–and the follow-up dialogue–with interest and was particularly caught by the first of your thoughts (re: Wesleyan world not being considered in much of the discussion). As a female lead pastor in an A/G church, I found the conversation helpful on many levels, not the least being the general sense of encouragement!

    The content and tone of this post, and the subsquent back-and-forth, was just the practical and applicable type of material that many of us were hoping for in Thanks for this! Hope you and the family are well! It’s coming up on 3 years since I left Regent–where did the time go! :)