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Equal and Complementary conference: questions

There were several issues arising from the conference. This is less about the conference or its speakers than questions that we’re left with.

Firstly, to what extent can we speak of the ‘plain meaning’ of Scripture? There was an exegetical talk on 1 Tim 2 that pushed this line, claiming that the text is plainly clear: we don’t need elaborate reconstructions because the text is sufficient in itself, so all that remains is the question of our obedience. But to what extent can we understand a text apart from its historical situation? The talk elaborated that while a text may have ‘plain meaning’, our understanding may be skewed by our sin or cultural blinkers. What makes ‘plain meaning’, then? And ‘plain’ to who?

Secondly, in what sense might revelation be progressive? This is related to the question of the self-evidence of a text. Do we expect to get more clarity about a text over time, or for the level of clarity to remain static? All three speakers claimed that Christians have understood gender in complementarian terms for the vast bulk of church history. They called us to listen to those voices and to trust God that his church has been rightly reading the Bible. But does this mean that we don’t expect our understanding to be changed or deepened? Ought we to expect that scholarship will bring new issues to light or transform our understanding?

Thirdly, how do we construct a positive complementarian stance? Gender is an issue that gets us het up, and it is easy to spend all our time reacting to others, defending our territory against the other. But how can we be positively and broadly constructive, rather than defining the terms narrowly and exclusively? What place is there, for example, for those who identify as complementarians but differ on the particulars of practice? How do we incorporate distinctions between marriage and ministry?

(Others have written about the conference at Post-Apocalyptic Theology and Sola Panel.)

Categories: Woman Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

36 replies

  1. A continuing question for me is the relationship between our eschatology and these positions. It seemed to me the Neil Chambers essentially admitted that complementarianism is a structure designed to mitigate the effects of the Fall and teach us submission, but is to be abandoned in the new creation. I would like to hear more reflection on this because it makes a difference in application.

  2. I thought that too Andrew. It was all very well to say that egalitarians, in moving forward, don’t always have a clear vision of what the endpoint is but I’m not sure the solution is to only be looking back. Will gender matter in the new creation?

  3. Hi guys,

    Glad you were able to attend the conference.

    You asked: “But does this mean that we don’t expect our understanding to be changed or deepened?”

    Changed or deepened, yes. But completely reversed? I don’t think so.
    Egalitarianism does not deepen the church’s historical understanding of men and women. It completely overturns it. We go from saying “male leadership is right” to “male leadership is wrong (sinful)”.

    Is it possible to cite another area of doctrine where the church has done a 180-degree turn on account of “progressive revelation”?

    Andrew and Tamie:
    I’m not entirely certain that you’ve accurately represented what Neil said. Here’s what my notes say on that point (but he was speaking very fast and I may not have got things down 100% accurately):

    – “Forward looking eschatology” gives us a theology of glory (?), as if we’re already living in heaven. But we aren’t living in glory now!
    – We live in the shadow of the cross
    – Eph 5 teaching is in shadow of the cross (husband to be like Christ who gave himself)
    – Jesus said in heaven there is no marriage. So how can heaven guide us now when we still have marriage?
    – Paul looks back (not forwards) to Gen 2:24 (creation) in Eph 5. And he looks forward — to Christ

    I agree with you that Neil’s position was that we should be primarily looking back (to creation, and to the cross) as Paul does when he teaches on marriage. And that we should not be trying to live in glory when we’re not there. But Neil definitely did not say that complementarianism was just to mitigate the fall; in fact he was at pains to say that Adam’s headship began at creation, before the Fall. Also, I understood him to be saying that the complementarian view of marriage (based on Eph 5) is also forward looking (eschatological) because Eph 5 *is* eschatological — it is about the marriage of Christ and the church.


  4. G’day Arthur,

    Ah, thanks for clarifying. In that case, I wholeheartedly agree with you that the church’s understanding of gender roles will deepen and improve with time. I heard the 3 speakers to be saying that the church’s reading of the texts has been correct for 1900 years. But I don’t think they were saying that our appreciation for te Bible’s teaching, or our understanding of how best to apply it, will remain static. These things will certainly get better as the church contemplates the truth with the help of the Holy Spirit.

    I think that complementarians today have a much better appreciation of gender complementarity than traditionalists did 200 years ago. And in time, we will no doubt achieve a still more positive and glorious vision of biblical manhood and womanhood. Things are quite reactionary / defensive now (as you have noted) because feminism is still such a strong force in society and the church.


  5. Hi Jereth
    The questions in the post are all self-critical of complementarian Christianity — the caution against ‘reaction’ has nothing much to do with feminism.

  6. In History of Evangelicalism we’ve been looking at the historical difference between evangelicals and fundamentalists. The former have had a positive vision for vital piety and change in the world; the latter have had a desire to react against their society to protect their own views.

    The idea of a positive and more glorious vision of biblical manhood/womanhood is very much in line with an evangelical way of thinking. Being reactionary / defensive sounds a little more fundamentalist to me and I’d be careful about framing the debate in those terms.

  7. I guess it depends on what we mean by “reaction”. If “reaction” means opposition for opposition’s sake, then obviously that is unhelpful.

    If “reaction” is just another way of saying “countering a wrong viewpoint that is currently prevalent”, that is ok.

    I feel that Neil and Martin were both appropriate in countering all of the arguments thrown by the “other side”. Neil countered Giles, Webb and Fee; Martin countered Towner and various other (egal) exegetes of 1 Tim 2. It would certainly be nice if more positive things could be said about the complementarian position. But this was the first conference of its kind in Melbourne, and the speakers only had 40 min. each (which they barely stuck to!), and I think that’s why much of the emphasis was on “defense”.


  8. Hi Jereth

    It’s like Peter Adam says: the fact that another position may be wrong does not make us right. Reaction can shore up party lines but cannot provide vision.

    But on this issue, I reckon we do a fair bit of fishing for specks in the eyes of others — hence the questions above.

    I’m not sure I’ve got even the beginnings of answers, but I think we’d do well to ask the questions of ourselves.

  9. Nuances aside, the notes you give show that he did sever complementarianism from considerations of eschatology. Sure, the cross provides a radical perspective on relationships. But the problem is that eschatology does not offer necessarily a ‘theology of glory’. Rather, the mediator of the new creation life to this age is the Holy Spirit (this is the point of Pentecost). So we can anticipate heaven in our relationships because of the presence of the Spirit. Personally I read the household tables as exhortations to ‘eschatalogical living’ within the structures of the present age. The problem with only looking back to creation is that we end up with just a ‘natural theology’, and bind ourselves to the structures and laws of nature and the shadowy things that are passing away. Read regarding this Paul’s discussion of the ‘elemental spirits of the universe’ in Col 2 – people who are not free from them are always looking for religous regulations. Did you notice how much time was spent in the question and answer session on the various ‘rules’ for who should do what in the church?

  10. p.s. My point is not to enter into a debate about the relative merits of complementarianism and egalitarianism (both have their flaws), but to point out as Arthur said that there are continuing questions for complementarians. Mine is how it is possible for an intelligent complementarian speaker to say without embarrassment that the new creation has no bearing on our relationships now.

  11. Hi Andrew,

    Again I am not sure that “the new creation has no bearing on our relationships now” is a fair reflection on Neil’s overall position.

    A question: would you consider the cross of Christ to be an eschatological event?


  12. I quote – “Jesus said in heaven there is no marriage. So how can heaven guide us now when we still have marriage?”. The whole point of what I’m saying is that the ‘overall position’ Neil put forward is shaped by an over-reaction to the excessive emphasis some egalitarians have put on eschatology. This is ping-pong theology.

    Yes, the cross is an eschatalogical event, but it is followed by other eschatalogical events like the resurrection, the ascension, the session of Christ, the descent of the Spirit, the Parousia, and the New Creation. These also need to be taken into account in Christian ethics, and need to actively shape our theology, including our theology of relationships.

  13. Hi Andrew.

    It seems that you have misread Jereth, and Neil, specifically in regard to Eph 5: which points both backwards and forwards.
    If we do only look to Gen 2, we might end up with a Natural Theology.
    But if we understand Christ, then and what Paul says in Eph 5 – then Gen 2 is actually pointing to Christ and the Church and the heavenly realities. I think Neil was just distinguishing between ideas which ignore Genesis because of heaven.
    The concept of submission isn’t necessaily tied purely to this age. Its just that the situations of it might change. Yet the paradigm doesn’t – especially when we think about Eph 5.
    Maybe Neil spent a bit to much time/emphasis distinguishing between other ideas. But it is needed to understand how Creation relates to the topic – especially when Jesus uses it.


  14. Hi Andrew
    On The comment “new creation has no bearing on our relationships now.”
    I really think what was meant was the state of humans relationships since we have lack of knowledge on how we will related to each other, besides there being no marriage.

    What we do know is the marriage of Christ and the Church is what our present marriages anticipate.

    What partical difference do you think your ideas/suggestions would make?

  15. Malcom, the idea that eschatological living has to be ‘practical’ is probably most of the problem. Living according to Ephesians 5 is a transformation of our entire being and a death of our ‘old self’. So is forgiveness, not seeking revenge, hope, etc., the fruits of the Spirit. These things cannot be practically prescribed as though we could know when we have ‘done enough’. The problem I experience with complementarian approaches is that people try to describe how something like Eph 5 works out by describing regulated behaviours that each spouse should do – what our ‘roles’ should be. That is like trying to say that we can become holy by ‘washing the outside of the cup’, when it is what is inside that makes us unclean. It is not the structure of the marriage that makes it exemplify Eph 5, it is the heart of the husband and wife. How then do we get from this to talking about whether or not it is wrong for a father to stay at home to raise the kids, as some complementarians do? Surely a man can love his wife in either role.

    I’ve said enough on this thread. My question remains for me. If eschatology is truly present in complementarian theology as you claim, then it needs to be brought forward more fully so that it can overcome the tendency to legalism that is so frequently on display in this tradition.

  16. “The whole point of what I’m saying is that the ‘overall position’ Neil put forward is shaped by an over-reaction to the excessive emphasis some egalitarians have put on eschatology. This is ping-pong theology.”

    Ok, that is probably a fair criticism, Andrew. If Neil was not so intent on combatting egalitarian assertions, perhaps he would have had something more balanced to say.

    I just wanted to point out that I definitely heard him say Paul (Eph 5) also looks forward, and wrote that down on my notes. You are right that he spent a lot less time on that.

    I really had to scramble to write down notes from Neil’s talk. He was by far the most technical of the 3 speakers, and covered the most ground. (And very interesting ground, might I add.) I really wish I could listen to his talk a second time round!!


  17. Perhaps ‘complementarianism and eschatology’ would be a good ‘positive’ topic for next time around.

  18. Today someone observed to me that we seem to spend all our time marking and re-marking the boundaries of the circle (using ‘the key passages’), when it would be more useful to flesh out what’s inside the circle (using the bulk of Scripture as a whole).

  19. Somewhat tangentially I liked Martin’s talk because contra-Foster he outlined a case for a clear complementarian reading of 1 Tim 2:11-14 (v15 still problematic!) and contra-Foster (via Stott) made a strong case against reading that passage occasionally.

  20. Hi Andrew
    I think you mis understod my question. By practical I probably meant concrete examples of your thinking or ideas working out – mostly just to get you to flesh things out – so as to not leave things too abstract.

    But if something doesn’t make any practical difference – you have to question if it is relevant. Is it just all talk?
    We should always be concerned about legalism, but that doesn’t mean we should avoid thinking pratically. We are created for good works. (Eph 2:10)

  21. It’s mostly just talk. :) When Jesus gave practical examples of discipleship it tended to be things like ‘sell everything you have and give it to the poor’ or ‘hate your family and leave them’, and the practical outworking of Pentecost was the disciples owning everything in common so that none were in need. This stretches the usage of ‘practical’ beyond its usual parameters. A practical outworking of Ephesians 5 is inconceivable. I go away heavy-hearted like the rich young ruler, because I am very wealthy (i.e. I have a lot invested in a safe and rational approach to marriage, perhaps with a few practical guidelines for who should make the decisions). It is harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of heaven, etc..

    Enough. I will not be drawn again!

  22. Hi Luke

    In making his case for the plainness of his reading of 1 Tim 2:11-14, MP was reading against other complementarian readings. I’d like to ask, Is there only one complementarianism? :)

  23. Good question Arthur, probably as many as there are complementarians!

    However I think two threads that Martin brought out would be shared by most complementarians: Firstly that the meaning of verses 11-14 is clear and secondly it’s trans-occasional.

  24. Well, I think I’d dispute the clarity thing, in terms of how Martin defined it. He didn’t argue that the passage can be read plainly a number of ways but that there was only one plain reading of the passage. He said that 1 Tim 2 *clearly* says no woman preaching to a mixed congregation (ever). Anything outside of this apparently falls prey to a liberal hermeneutic or is disobedient to Scripture. But I’m a complementarian and I’d read it differently. Happy to agree on trans-occasional but I don’t think the clarity argument was particularly unifying.

  25. By having a conference on “complementarianism” (hate the term by the way), the organisers make sure there will be a debate along the faultline of egalitarianism/complementarianism. Why is this the most relevant gender question for us to be discussing? I could be wrong (wouldn’t be the first time) but I think the answer is indeed feminism. In pre-feminist times the question would rarely have been asked because there was a broad social consensus that men were in charge. The success of feminism in the last 100 years has left the church groping with what to do with those passages which before 1900 were not at all controversial. I think this might also be why a huge part of the debate is about contextualisation. We are facing a social movement not experienced in the church before and so are grasping for a way to respond. I also don’t think this is just about feminism equalling egalitarianism – I’m guessing it also has a huge effect on complementarian behaviour – like Tamie being an equal partner in theis blog:).

  26. “In making his case for the plainness of his reading of 1 Tim 2:11-14, MP was reading against other complementarian readings. I’d like to ask, Is there only one complementarianism?”

    Arthur, would you care to elaborate what you mean when you talk about a diversity of complementarian readings?

    I certainly agree that there is some diversity among complementarians (especially as regards application — and the speakers did acknowledge this on Saturday), but by and large our reading of the text of 1 Tim 2:12-14 is quite uniform.

    Regarding verse 12, some complementarians believe that women can teach men under male authority, other complementarians believe that women should not teach men under any circumstances. (I’d say this is more a difference of opinion over application than over how to read the text)

    Regarding verse 14, some historical complementarians believe that a statement is being made about women being more gullible than men. Most modern complementarians reject this interpretation, and see verse 14 as a reference to the usurping of creation order.

    These are fairly minor variations. The areas of agreement far outweigh the areas of disagreement. Are you aware of any other significant variations in comp. views?


  27. Hi Jereth

    Perhaps differing complementarian stances are on the same page, but MP’s presentation seemed pretty uninterested in that. From his talk, anyone with a different reading of his key text would be in danger of taking ‘a liberal hermeneutic’, being in league with ‘modern-day feminist scholars’, and refusing to ‘face Scripture’. There wasn’t much room for disagreement there, application or otherwise!

    The book we invariably recommend is Two Views on Women in Ministry, which, alongside two pieces from egalitarians, includes two distinct complementarian viewpoints, one from Thomas Schreiner (whom MP followed) and one from Craig Blomberg. Each makes a different reading of 1 Tim 2:12-14.

  28. g’day Arthur

    To save me having to read (yet another) book, is it possible for you to sum up Blomberg’s position in a couple of sentences, and how it differs from Schreiner?

    I have a lot of respect for Blomberg, I found his NT overview books very useful back when I was at college

    cheers, jereth

  29. Oh, you know booko to?

    I got him to put koorong on it to – saves me having to compare prices manually (doesn’t include koorongs 20% sales though). I might even buy it to (unless I can steal Jereth’s).

  30. Hi there TL. :) I’m not prepared to gush quite so much about DBE, because I doubt any of us have entirely worked this stuff out, much less the authors of one particular publication. That recognition is part of why TVWM is helpful. I’ve mentioned DBE before here.

  31. Well, I’ll admit to not having read the Two Views book, but I did put it on my Amazon wish list. As for DBE, have you read it? It’s got about 22 authors contributing to it. As for Giles, I love his tenacity with research. Some of these scholars can actually teach believers to learn to properly exegete Scripture, and that is gold in my estimation.

  32. Hi TL

    We’ve read both DBE and the complementarian equivalent, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and appreciated the desire shown by each of the authors in both books to faithfully read and apply the Bible. :)

    As for Kevin Giles, living in Melbourne we’ve run into him a few times and he was minister at our home church in Adelaide years ago – before our time, but still leaving a great legacy of Bible teaching.

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