Myths: Complementarians Always Get It Right

(Eds. Note: this is the third part in our series entitled "Compassionate Complementarianism."  We still think we coined the term, so if you're aware of someone else who used it first, please let us know.)

Earlier this week Jake shared some common myths about complementarianism that got me thinking. So I wanted to talk about one of my own.

Complementarians often fall into the reformed theology camp: people with a high view of Scripture and of God. As seekers of objective truth found in the infallible pages of Scripture, complementarians read the likes of John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Tim Keller and others who hold to scripture as the word of a sovereign and good God whose truth speaks to every area of life. Complemenatarians believe that manhood and womanhood are addressed in scripture: both genders are equally image-bearers and valued by their Creator but are different in their design in the home and church.

I am one of those people and Redeemer Church is one of those places where reformed doctrine meets “God’s word says women and men are different and have complementary functions.” We don’t believe women should be ordained elders or preach on Sundays. But we also don’t believe men should do those things because they’re “better” or more “gifted” in the qualities or heart needed to do those things!

Those of us in reformed circles have received a precious gift from the God who opened our eyes and hearts to embrace the doctrines of grace. But that doesn’t mean we always get it right. And even when we get “it” right (what the Bible teachers about a certain subject ie., complementarianism) we don’t necessarily get “it” right (i.e. how to apply biblical principles in every day life in every day families and churches).  Because complementarian scholars are often studious and accomplished, a myth has developed that complementarians always get it (Scripture, theology, application, etc.) right.

I want to share part of my story on this for two reasons: first, to illustrate how change can be applied in narrow (and sometimes unloving ways) and second, to shed some light on how complementarianism can be lived out compassionately. I don’t share this to put any person or group in a negative light. The truth is my husband and I contributed our own flaws, weaknesses, immaturity and sin to the process I’m about to describe. And God has used what we walked through for real good in our family’s lives! This is a story about mutual brokenness on both sides of a sad but good story.

I am like many Christians, including many pastors wives I know, who identify with the words of Pastor Stuart Stogner:

"In the story of my own determined, faltering attempts to love others for the sake of Christ, the church has been both my wound and my anchor. I experience the church as both a home and a heartache. And I am not alone. Other pastors [and Christians in general] also struggle against a temptation to embittered cynicism toward churches or people who have hurt them. And so for pastors – as for any Christian committed to loving others - one question that you must answer is, 'What will we do with this bewildering blend of beauty and brokenness that God calls His church?'"

My story, like yours, is one of myself and others who love God’s word, but don’t always get it right.

While in our mid 20’s Benny planted a church that quickly became our mutual love and passion. For 20 years we watched God do amazing things through a band of young and immature people. Early in the life of our church we joined with other like-minded young leaders in a family of similar churches led by similarly passionate but inexperienced men. During those years we experienced the joys and challenges of a fast-growing church. We lived in close community and felt known by others, but patterns of sin grew – mostly because we didn’t take seriously the need to not treat sin as a “common cold” as we heard in a message at Redeemer last Sunday. “Respectable” sins like pride in reputation, areas of hypocrisy and taking transparency only to a certain level of honesty festered and grew over the years in our hearts and family. Additionally, concerns about Benny’s and my “roles” as strong leader and submissive follower became a focus. When a family crisis involving one of our young adult children happened, these issues – ones that had been discussed with my husband at various times over the years – became a reason why one of our children walked into compromise and sin. This ultimately resulted in Benny resigning as pastor of our church and our move to a sister church out of state.

The issues in our marriage and family needed attention. We wanted that attention and help. We were confused and in pain; disoriented; fearful; groping in the darkness for clarity and direction and help. Those around us were also hurting and confused. They loved and helped us in the way they knew how – by seeking to help us and our child see the biggest cause for what happened…ostensibly our sin.

One of the focuses became how Benny and I related to one another. Had Benny abdicated his leadership in our home? Was I too vocal and assertive? Were our “roles” confused? Was parenting too much left on my shoulders? Did I have too much say in church and ministry-related issues? Had Benny and I truly applied biblical principles in our hearts, marriage and family the way we should have?

While there were certainly important issues to discuss and areas in which we needed growth as a couple (as there are in any marriage), the disposition of most of those involved lacked mercy. To our knowledge there were no log removals happening before the specks in our eyes became the focus. The gentleness spoken of in Galatians 6:1-2 wasn’t on display as maleness and femaleness, roles as husband and wife, and perhaps man-made definitions of what things should look like in the Phillips marriage and family took center stage. Through it all God moved in our hearts. We saw the rightness and seriousness of some of their concerns and cried out to God for help. And God changed our hearts (and theirs, we later learned) during a long season and then after we parted ways.

I’m blessed to tell you that every one involved in the governance of our crisis have humbly returned over the past few years to ask our forgiveness. What a joy it was to both extend the forgiveness we had already experienced in our hearts and acknowledge our own sins in the process. Yet the lack of compassion in their complementarianism took its toll on our family; a toll that was hard and long and sad, but that has been redeemed for good by a faithful and transforming God who truly “causes all things to work together for good.” True forgiveness can’t be extended, though, until we accept that something wrong was done.

Years after we left that church, Benny and I walked through another crisis together. It too was hard. Painful. Disorienting. Confusing. But something wonderful happened. The people to whom we turned for help responded with genuine, Christ-incarnating compassion. Our openness and transparency was met with tenderhearted kindness rather than a rush to judgment. Our “roles” as husband and wife didn’t become the focus; rather, our call to love God and each other did. All involved graciously admitted their own similar struggles and spoke to us without self-righteous accusations or expectations of immediate change. They understood that we, like they, are in a process of transformation as the power of God intersects with the brokenness of men and women. Our call to faith and repentance began with God, not with them.

I can’t tell you how grateful I am for those the Lord used years ago to help me see my ongoing need of an imminent, loving and holy God. Their lack of mercy as my and my family’s flaws, sins and brokenness bubbled to the surface pointed me to the One who sits on a throne of grace and welcomes me there for help in my time of need – whether that need stems from sins (mine or others) or sorrows. I also saw how their harshness, impatience or self-righteousness reflected back to me a similar lack of compassion and humility in my attitudes toward or treatment of other sufferers. How amazing that the peace Christ secured on the cross was not only for Him and me, but also for me and those who mistreated us. Today love and friendship exists between all who were involved because of His death on the cross.

I’m also grateful for those who more recently showed me what a compassion-driven devotion to biblical truth looks like. Yes, we can have a deep affection for the truths of scripture and for the broken people who fall flat when those very truths aren’t walked out – especially in the ways we think are most effective or biblical.

If you’ve been confused or hurt by complementarians who have taken biblical principles and sought to inform you how they should be applied in your life, I’m sorry. I know how that feels. I hope you’re helped by knowing that people (like you and me) can get just enough of the truth to think we know how it should be applied in everyone’s life. But I also know that misapplied truth doesn’t discredit the truth itself. God created men and women with equal value but different ways of walking out our worth in love for Him and others.

Complementarians don’t always get it right, but there is One who does. And He’s patiently at work in you and me until The Day when we’ll all actually get it right.

Leave a Comment

Comments for this post have been disabled.