Biblical Authority, the Culture Wars, and Complementarianism

A Review of the Danvers Statement Rationale

Here I want to offer some reflections on the Danvers Statement Rationale since I think it showcases the subtle fusion of the Bible, culture wars, and hermeneutics in certain strands of complementarianism.

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The Danvers Statement Rationale

We have been moved in our purpose by the following contemporary developments which we observe with deep concern:

  1. The widespread uncertainty and confusion in our culture regarding the complementary differences between masculinity and femininity;

  2. the tragic effects of this confusion in unraveling the fabric of marriage woven by God out of the beautiful and diverse strands of manhood and womanhood;

  3. the increasing promotion given to feminist egalitarianism with accompanying distortions or neglect of the glad harmony portrayed in Scripture between the loving, humble leadership of redeemed husbands and the intelligent, willing support of that leadership by redeemed wives;

  4. the widespread ambivalence regarding the values of motherhood, vocational homemaking, and the many ministries historically performed by women;

  5. the growing claims of legitimacy for sexual relationships which have Biblically and historically been considered illicit or perverse, and the increase in pornographic portrayal of human sexuality;

  6. the upsurge of physical and emotional abuse in the family;

  7. the emergence of roles for men and women in church leadership that do not conform to Biblical teaching but backfire in the crippling of Biblically faithful witness;

  8. the increasing prevalence and acceptance of hermeneutical oddities devised to reinterpret apparently plain meanings of Biblical texts;

  9. the consequent threat to Biblical authority as the clarity of Scripture is jeopardized and the accessibility of its meaning to ordinary people is withdrawn into the restricted realm of technical ingenuity;

  10. and behind all this the apparent accommodation of some within the church to the spirit of the age at the expense of winsome, radical Biblical authenticity which in the power of the Holy Spirit may reform rather than reflect our ailing culture.

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A. The Danvers Rationale is bookended by references to culture.

If you read # 1 and # 10, the Danvers Rationale is explicitly oriented towards American culture wars about gender roles, family, and vocations.

I love British historian Tom Holland’s definition of the culture war: subliminal theology, a battle over Christian values for western society, but only one side of the debate is willing to admit that the battle is inherently theological. Should society be structured around the benevolent patriarchy of the biblical household codes (e.g. Eph 5:21-6:9) or around a radical egalitarian ethic of equality and its implications (e.g., Gal 3:28-29)? That’s the culture war, an in-house Christian debate about equality, but only one side admits that it is arguing in Christian categories!

As Kristen du Mez has argued, complementarianism is not so much a retrieval of biblical norms, but primarily a riposte against the social revolution of the 1960s with its achievements of equality for women. This is why conservatives have frequently opposed everything from anti-domestic violence legislation to women serving in combat roles in the military.

What is driving the complementarian bus is, then, not the Bible, but vigorously opposing the disruption to the post-World War II patriarchal, white, suburban, nuclear family caused by feminists and religious liberals.

This is the smoking gun: It’s ALL about the culture war!

B. The Danvers Rationale trades in unbiblical stereotypes.

In # 2-4 you get the unfortunate effect of associating males with leadership and women with submissiveness, motherhood, and home-making.

There is nothing wrong with being a stay-at-home mum and main caregiver for the family, many women do that. Yet the man-leads and the woman-follows mantra is, we all know, open up to widespread abuse.

Furthermore, we are left wondering about the value of women who never marry or couples who never have children if wife-ness and childbearing are the primary roles that women are expected to aspire towards.

Also, in a lot of places in the world, the family cannot survive on one income, so the husband and wife both have to work. And, if the wife earns more money than the man, it makes sense that the man does most of the child-rearing and domestic support. Nothing wrong with that either!

When # 4 mentions “the many ministries historically performed by women” this is a selective historical memory as it is unlikely to involve being a military leader of Israel, running a business, a prophet, apostle, head of a household church, and deacon - biblical roles which women undertake.

I ask you, do any of these affirmations make sense outside of a white western affluent suburban context? Does the Bible only know of men who work at the factory and women who stay at home? Read Proverbs 31 and Acts 16! It is not biblical!

C. The Danvers Rationale offers a positive affirmation of traditional sexual ethics and rightly censures pornography and domestic violence.

I regard # 5-6 as unobjectionable and even commendable because they rehearse the historic Christian view that marriage is between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all other relationships, the devastating social effects of widespread pornography, and the persistent scourage of domestic violence.

According to research, complementarians who regularly attend church are less likely to be perpetrators of domestic violence, while complementarian men who spasmodically attend church are among the worst offenders of domestic violence.

I would like a stronger statement condemning domestic violence and its enablement and perhaps something a bit more pastoral and empathetic concerning Christian views of same-sex attracted persons.

D. The Danvers Rationale conflates inerrancy and patriarchal interpretation.

I think # 7-10 is the crux of the issue as the Danvers Rationale protests against:

Views that go against “Biblically faithful witness”

“hermeneutical oddities devised to reinterpret apparently plain meanings of Biblical texts”

“The consequent threat to Biblical authority as the clarity of Scripture is jeopardized and the accessibility of its meaning to ordinary people is withdrawn into the restricted realm of technical ingenuity”

The risk of “accommodation” at the expense of “Biblical authenticity”

Oh boy, where do I start on this?

First, note that complementarianism here is deliberately fused with biblical authority, to deny one is to deny the other. Thus, the complementarian proclaims the authority of the biblical text, but in reality it means the authority of his interpretation. Yet this does not work because it is one thing to say that, “Paul was a sexist bigot, who cares what he thought!” But another thing to say that, “I think Roman 16:1-16 and Galatians 3:28 provides a robust case for biblical egalitarianism and it is your interpretation of 1 Timoty 2:11-15 that is the odd man out here.” Egalitarianism does not play loose with biblical authority even if it comes to a different interpretation.

Second, the people who argue for the clarity or plain sense of Scripture are the same ones who argue that Junia was not a woman, prophecy is not authoritative when women do it, Priscilla did not teach Apollos, and Deborah was a national Israelite leader who somehow managed to avoid leading men. Then they have the gall to tell egalitarians that they are engaged in eccentric oddities.

Third, on the clarity of Scripture, well, Protestants have never believed the totality of Scripture is clear.

According to the 1689 London Baptist Confession (1.7):

All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed and observed for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of Scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due use of ordinary means, may attain to a sufficient understanding of them.

The clarity of Scripture only applies to how to get saved! After that, everyone needs a Philip to run beside their chariot to help them out in reading Scripture. For most complementarians, their Philip is the massive ESV Study Bible, which on the whole is a good study Bible. But if Scripture is so clear, then why do complementarians need the ESV Study Bible?

Beyond that, trust me, there’s a lot of unclear stuff in debates about Bible, gender, authority, and ministry.

“It is for this reason that a woman ought to have authority over her own head, because of the angels.” (1 Cor 11:10 NIV)

Seriously, the whole veils thing is confusing, and then “because of the angels,” what’s up with that? There’s a lot of views, but no-one says, “Well, obviously it means X” because it ain’t obvious. It is disputed precisely because it is not clear!

Or what about 1 Tim 2:15 with “But women will be saved through childbearing (1 Tim 2:15 NIV). Does that mean complementarian women are not saved unless they have a baby go down the birth canal, or that no complementarian woman will die in childbirth? Or something else? You have to admit it is tricky because it is not so clear cut!

E. A Polite Challenge to My Complementarian Friends

Let’s be honest, if you are a complementarian, I am not gonna change your mind, what is more, I’m not trying to. I’ll leave you to personal reflection and the Spirit’s illumination to lead you into the truth as you discern it within the precincts of your own conscience.

But let me ask you this:

Can you make a biblical case for complementarianism apart from the American culture wars? Is your complementarianism with all its lists of dos and don’ts comprehensible in a rural village in Mongolia or in the slums of Nairobi? Could complementarianism be better served by looking more closely at John Chrysostom and Gregory the Great than Rush Limbaugh and James Dobson when it comes to thinking about marriage, women, and ministry? Test your views against church history and look around at the global church.

Could you consider that maybe, just maybe, the version of complementarianism you’ve been immersed in your whole life has more to do with American frontier history, more Teddy Roosevelt than St. Paul, based on Hollywood tropes of masculinity, driven by Baby Boomer male egos, dependent upon your economic location, or a fear that the world you know is fading away, than it does on the Bible? (HT: Kristin du Mez).

Can you unhitch complementarianism from its attempt to conflate itself with biblical inerrancy and authority? We might disagree over Gal 3.28 and 1 Tim 2.12, but it doesn’t mean either of us is trying to undermine biblical authority. Nor does it mean you are trying to turn America into a patriarchal prison (i.e., Gilead) or I’m trying to turn America into a feminist Marxist gender-neutral dystopia (i.e., Canada).

If complementarianism is twistable into a justification for domestic violence and a rationale for covering up sexual abuse, how do you make complementarianism less twistable?

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