A Better Complementarianism?
Graham Beynon and Jane Tooher
Embracing Complementarianism: Turning Biblical Convictions into Positive Church Culture (Good Book Company, 2022)
Review by Andrew Bartlett
In this short book, the authors want to help churches put complementarianism into practice in a way that they believe is healthier and more biblically faithful. It is clear and well-written. I found it fascinating, because of its unintended effect: it lays bare the difficulty of reconciling complementarianism with a coherent understanding of Scripture and exposes the empty space at its centre.
Let’s start with some positives.
The authors rightly recognize that in Scripture there are no separate commands for godliness to men or women as such, but only instructions for particular relationships (55-56, 61), and that our common goal of Christlikeness does not come in pink and blue versions (56-57, 59).
They acknowledge that the observed non-sexual differences between men and women sit on overlapping bell curves (28). This means that, though there are differences between the average man and woman in their aptitudes, behaviours and preferences, there is substantial overlap.[i] As created, we are first humans made in God’s image, secondarily men and women (Genesis 1:26-27; 2:18, 22-23).
Complementarian writers often allege that so-called ‘evangelical egalitarians’ believe that there are no differences between men and women beyond the obvious physical/sexual characteristics. Beynon and Tooher successfully avoid that error.
They rightly reject the historic justification for men-only leadership, which was women’s supposed inferiority, incompetence and gullibility as compared with men (32, 69). It was tied to a misinterpretation of 1 Timothy 2:14 which is now generally rejected on all sides. They note that the current affirmation of women’s equal worth was not the norm in church history (45).[ii]
In the Piper/Grudem version of complementarianism, the essence of the complementarity of men and women is that strong men lead while weaker women submit.[iii] Beynon and Tooher gently signal that this version is distorted by American 20th-century cultural norms and is out of step with Scripture (33-35, 54-55, 60, 63). They also sound a note of caution about Alastair Roberts’ more recent ‘over-reading’ of Genesis 1-3 (43-44). On Scriptural grounds, they are critical of separate streams of ministry for men and women, except as add-ons to normal church life (87). ‘If ministries become mainly separate, there isn’t much complementing going on’ (14). Moreover, restricting the ministry of gifted women simply because they are women is ‘baffling’ in Western culture (10) and ‘can seem to go against logic, experience, calling and gifting’ (69).
They rightly urge that the equality of God’s image taught in Genesis 1-2 needs to be embodied in reality in our churches (45). ‘The complementarity of the genders means it is to the detriment of the church if ministry by women is minimised or marginalized’ (105). Worse, marginalizing women’s contributions is actually disobedient to God (49). According to Scripture, spiritual gifts are distributed among believers without gender differentiation, and men should expect to be taught by women (99). The authors emphasize the practical importance of women’s input into elders’ decisions and preaching (106-107, 133-134, 138). They affirm that women are capable of the tasks required of church elders (73). They draw attention to women’s hosting of NT churches in their homes and to the apostle Paul’s descriptions of women as his valued co-workers, just as men were (101-102).
With all this in mind, why are Beynon and Tooher complementarians? Given that men and women are equally in the image of God, that ministry in the church is gift-based, that spiritual gifts (including of leadership and of teaching) are nowhere indicated to be distributed according to gender, and that women were apparently prominent in the work of ministry in the New Testament churches, one looks for some clear explanation of how it makes sense to interpret 1 Timothy 2 as imposing a general restriction on the service of spiritually gifted women. If it is now accepted that women are not inferior, and are no more gullible than men, and are gifted by God for leadership and teaching, what is the rationale for the restriction?
My expectations of an answer were raised by the intriguing chapter title ‘The Goodness of Men Leading in Ministry’. But the needed explanation is not provided.
Beynon and Tooher adopt the ESV’s controversial rendering of 1 Timothy 2:11-14 (‘exercise authority’), but choose not to tell us why (73, 12-13). They say these verses are part of a discussion of public worship, but do not disclose why (supposedly) they imagine that the good works of v10 or the childbearing of v15 take place in public worship (73). They distinguish between ‘teaching’ (not authoritative) and ‘Teaching’ (authoritative), but do not identify a clear biblical basis for this distinction (75-76). The authors assert that what happened in Genesis (as referred to in vv. 13-14) ‘gives the reason why the church of God, not just the church in Ephesus, is ordered the way it is’ (76). But they don’t explain why they take Paul’s reference to Genesis as indicating some general ordering principle rather than being illustrative of a woman leading a man astray with false teaching, which Paul is not permitting.
Above all, Beynon and Tooher don’t tell us how a complementarian interpretation makes sense, in the light of women’s equality, complementarity and God-given gifts of wisdom and leadership. In that context, what is the reason for this supposed ordering of men over women? To claim that this is God’s design is not enough. Why does complementarity stop outside the pastor’s or elders’ door? Why might God want men-only leadership and ‘authoritative’ teaching in his church? Why is it good to exclude or limit equally capable and gifted women? The lack of an explanation is the hole in the heart of a complementarian approach to women’s ministry.
The authors perceive ‘growing divergence within the complementarian camp’ (11). They lament that complementarianism focuses on trying to define the boundaries of what women may and may not do (14). But that is the question that their book keeps coming back to, because complementarians cannot agree on it, drawing the boundaries in many different places (20-21, 33, 84, 102, 105, 106, 109, 110, 113-127, 130, 138, 141-146). Some readers may recall Grudem’s list of 83 activities that in his opinion can or can’t be done by women.[iv] The authors strive valiantly to help with this question of boundaries by setting it in the context of wider theological considerations. But it doesn’t work. Beynon and Tooher candidly admit they cannot even agree with each other on whether women may lead public church services (124, 145).
Isn’t that a red flag? Isn’t it the result of interpreting 1 Timothy 2 in a way that doesn’t make good sense in the context of the remainder of the New Testament? Faced with an unclear rule lacking an explanatory rationale, it is inevitable that the boundaries are so contested.
I want to commend the spirit in which the book is written. The authors are trying to take on board what they can see in Scripture, that God has endowed women with wisdom, competence and spiritual gifts, from which the church should fully benefit, to the glory of God and the blessing of the world. They are rightly concerned about deliberate or unwitting sexism. But they seem unaware of the sometimes unbearable tension created by their teaching: women ought to be making full use of their spiritual gifts of teaching and leadership, while simultaneously they are prevented from doing so and ought to remain within uncertain boundaries that complementarians are unable to agree upon. Turning complementarian convictions into positive church culture is an inherently problematic task.
Andrew Bartlett is the author of Men and Women in Christ: Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts (IVP, 2019)
Note from Mike Bird:
You can read an excerpt of Tooher & Beynon book over at TGC-Australia.
I see this book as a deliberate attempt by Aussie complementarians to disassociate themselves from the Grudem/Piper brand of complementarianism.
[i] Research data show that for most gender differences the range of differences between individuals within each sex is much greater than the difference between the average man and woman. For details, see M. Elizabeth Lewis Hall, ‘Gender Differences and Biblical Interpretation: A View from the Social Sciences’ (chapter 22 of Discovering Biblical Equality: Biblical, Theological, Cultural & Practical Perspectives, 3rd edn (2021), eds R. W. Pierce, C.L. Westfall, C. L. McKirland).
[ii] Surprisingly, they claim at the start of the book that complementarianism was historically the normal position of the church across the world (9). In fact, it was invented in the USA in the 1970s and 80s.
[iii] Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, ed. by John Piper & Wayne Grudem, 1991 reprinted 2021, 41, 44, 47-48, 51, 54, 55, 58-61, 63. This was presented as ‘a new vision’ (14).
[iv] Evangelical Feminism & Biblical Truth: an analysis of 118 disputed questions, (IVP, 2005), 84-100.
I've commented before that I think the terms complementarian and egalitarian are problematic. We simply have men and women who are different physically and in their gender characteristics in broad ways. This actually makes them "complementary" but not in the way evangelicals currently define that in terms of authority, so it's today an unusable word. Men and women can have any gift in God's Kingdom, but since men and women are different, that difference leads to men more often being in leadership roles. Other than unfair restrictions put on women, I think it is this simple.