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The Politics of Complementarianism

This past June, the Southern Baptist Convention held their annual meeting. According to SBC President J. D. Greear , the primary focus was to be the problem of sexual abuse within the church. The convention was co-hosted by the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and the Sexual Abuse Advisory Study. Rachael Denhollander – lawyer, advocate, and sexual abuse survivor – was one of the speakers for a much anticipated panel on sexual abuse. A rally called, For Such a Time as This, was also held in support of abuse awareness in the church.

Meanwhile, another group of Baptists from an organization called Founders Ministries held their annual conference, Mature Manhood in an Immature Age, at the same time. They too held a series of talks, one of which was called “Mature Manhood and Abuse.” Two representatives of Founders Ministries went to get on-the-spot interviews from attendees at the convention. One woman they interviewed was Ashley Easter, who was there promoting the rally. Following the interview, Easter gave her perspective of that interaction here, and Founders Ministries published this article.

Founders Ministries join a growing number of evangelicals claiming that the answer to the problem of abuse is not to “listen and empower” women (because they think this will allow radical feminism and critical theory into the church – both of which are neo-Marxist). Rather the solution in their mind is found in the doctrine of complementarianism, specifically a call to “true manhood and womanhood,” a phrase that is synonymous with, “true authority and submission.”

Complementarianism has long been a matter of secondary doctrine. But it’s a doctrine that was borne from Christian resistance to second wave feminism in the 70s and 80s with the formulation of the Danvers Statement.

What is Complementarianism?

Complementarianism is a doctrine most associated with conservative Christian evangelicalism. On the surface, it’s the standard position adopted by those Christians who hold to heterosexual marriage and male-only ordination. Beyond this, it’s a theological analysis of sexuality, marriage, male/female relationships of all kinds, gender, women’s ordination, and now a newly proposed Christian anthropology of masculinity and femininity.

The architects of Complementarianism are John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Wayne House, Dorothy Patterson (wife of Paige Patterson), James Borland, Susan Foh, and Ken Sarles. They were responsible for the formation of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) following the signing of the Danvers Statement in 1987.

The history of complementarianism as a doctrine is generally disputed. While the gatekeepers of the doctrine, CBMW, acknowledge that the Danvers Statement was a response to “contemporary developments,” the continual assertion by advocates of the doctrine is that it’s the historical position of the church.

But no particular denomination was involved in the creation of the Danvers Statement, and it was only largely used by the Southern Baptist Convention and the Presbyterian Church in America. In recent years, there have been a growing number of Reformed and Calvinist supporters who’ve aligned themselves with the doctrine; many of whom fall under the heading “New Calvinist” (not to be confused with Kuyperian-neocalvinists), but whom also include certain Calvinistic-Baptists such as those at Founders Ministries.

The other intersection of faith and politics

Why am I bringing up complementarianism on a libertarian website? At the heart of complementarianism are questions of the constitution of authority, legitimate use of force, and the nature of human rights, specifically as those rights manifest in men and women.

Here at the Libertarian Christian Institute, we affirm the notion that “libertarianism is the most consistent expression of Christian political thought.” But for American Christians at-large, and especially conservative Evangelicals, this statement will come down to foundational understandings of the biblical constitution of God-ordained authority and the role of civil governance, particularly as it relates to influencing culture, protecting Western Civilization, and upholding obedience to God’s moral will.

But why are we talking about a secondary doctrine on masculinity and femininity? How could this doctrine be of any interest to Christian libertarians who have largely agreed to disagree on an issue that seems left in the realm of the denominational disputes that are part and parcel of a free society?

Complementarianism is a doctrine that presupposes a particular role of the state.  That is in part, the role of protecting conservative cultural mainstays, including the sanctity of biblical marriage against divorce, a traditional view of sexuality, and even societal concerns over pornography. Entailed in these topics are matters of legal concern to libertarians: domestic violence, sexual abuse, rights and self-ownership (particularly of women), and many matters of ethical concern.

Of course, feminism is all tied into this. Anyone who follows my work knows I am not a feminist or an egalitarian. But I’m also quick to point out the difference between the Women’s Rights Movement (often referred to as first wave feminism) and Feminism as we know it (having begun with the second wave in the 60s, and 70s). Aside from being co-opted by the sexual revolution (giving way to legal abortion and the birth control pill), the women’s rights movement in the 60s and 70s involved a push against domestic violence and in favor of no-fault divorce, again issues of legal concern for libertarians.

Complementarianism as a political ideology

In many ways, the objections of Complementarianism to the cultural and political climate are nothing new. You can read CBMW’s first newsletters and see that even then they were fighting against issues which now commonly fall under the heading of social justice. And since it’s now a “social justice” thing, there is serious concern over whether prominent theologians are being influenced by neo-Marxist ideology. (And this is certainly a valid concern as far as it goes.)

Whether self-described Complementarians realize it or not, they’re getting dragged into a polarizing debate that is itself muddied and confused because of the mixing of social issues with the sinful and criminal acts of abuse.

This is why the Founder’s Mature Manhood Conference a few weeks ago is so highly disconcerting. Rather than supporting abuse victims while also speaking against SBC Resolution 9 (a non-binding statement that allows for critical theory to be used as a “tool” for analysis of concerns over racism), they question the motives of abuse victims whom they suppose to be conspiratorially acting together to bring neo-Marxism into the church by way of women’s ordination. “Which is the most pressing issue in the SBC today? Sexual abuse or the Bible’s teaching about manhood.”

The Founders own conference spoke on abuse by no one in particular with absolutely zero expertise on abuse, and butchered the whole topic by making sexual abuse a matter of lust and the fault of egalitarianism, the “first sin.” (I’m not even joking!)

The unfortunate truth about Complementarianism is that it’s a cultural-political movement loosely based on some fundamentalist views of Scripture. For decades, certain theologians have tried to write “after-action” theological justifications for the position, but the motivation is primarily political as the mission of CBMW has always been about fighting feminism and it’s affects in the home, the church, and society at large.

This story about the Mature Manhood conference is really only the tip of the iceberg as complementarianism has been under heavy scrutiny by other reformed and Presbyterian scholars. (see Footnotes)

A Christian libertarian response?

Back in 2014 Dr. Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary became famous (infamous) for asserting that libertarianism is incompatible with an orthodox Christian faith. In 2016, LCI’s Dr. Norman Horn had a friendly debate with Dr. Mohler about whether Christians can be libertarian.

The political aspect of Complementarianism is relevant to this question since Complementarians believe that Romans 13 affords the state a legitimate role in regulating marriage and divorce, something that is antithetical to a (Christian) libertarian perspective, and which creates problems in abusive situations. Regardless of convictions over traditional views of marriage, what complementarianism claims about men and women in society, and the role the state ought to play, creates an authoritarian problem.

But more than this, Christian libertarians have a perspective that can sort out rights violations, and therefore matters for the civil magistrates, from matters of personal responsibility or ecclesial matters that ought rightly be left to religious liberty (like questions of women’s ordination).

My subsequent (and intermittent) series of articles on this topic will not be theological in nature, but will point out the problems stemming from the politics of Complementarianism. Regardless of your views on marriage and women’s ordination, this is a matter of concern for Christian libertarians because of the aforementioned questions concerning the nature of authority, the proper role of civil governance, the legitimate use of force, and rights and self-ownership.

If you’re interested in my theological positions you may subscribe at my website.


Some of the Reformed and Presbyterian challenges to Complementarianism:

  1. No Little Women: Equipping All Women in the Household of God, by Aimee Byrd
  2. Is the Bible Good for Women?: Seeking Clarity and Confidence Through a Jesus-Centered Understanding of Scripture, by Wendy Alsup
  3. Beyond Authority and Submission: Women and Men in Marriage, Church, and Society, by Rachel Green Miller
  4. I am not a complementarian, by Todd Pruitt
  5. Overcorrection: Purity Culture, Leggings, Feminism, Patriarchy, by Theology Gals Podcast
  6. Feminism with Rachel Green Miller, by Theology Gals Podcast

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