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On the ‘new’ wave of complementarians

Last month, Wendy Alsup blogged about a new wave of complementarians and so ensued a great deal of discussion on the internet. (Catch up here.) People asked, who are the ‘old’ complementarians?; is it divisive to call this wave ‘new’, as if you’re setting yourself against others (maybe Mark Driscoll?); is there anything that’s actually new about this new wave?

Here are Wendy’s eight markers of this new wave of complementarians:

1.  Belief in the trustworthiness of the Bible.

2.  A belief that the Bible interprets itself.

3.  A respect for Church history and creeds.

4.  Strong disagreement with Susan Foh’s interpretation of Genesis 3:16.

5.  Identifying with some aspects of feminism.

6.  Viewing complementarity through the lens of Genesis 1:27 more than Genesis 2:18.

7.  Not setting up marriage and family as the end all for women.

 8.  An understanding that men should be elders and women can be deacons.

Note that Wendy’s not saying that all of these eight things are unique to this new wave: many Christians of all persuasions subscribe to 1-3, for example. The point is that they do describe this new wave. Whatever accusation you want to throw at them, it can’t be that they don’t believe the Bible or respect church history (points 1-3). Likewise, with point 8, you can’t accuse them of being non-complementarian!

I think the remaining 4 points (4-7) come in two categories: biblical interpretation, and attitude. I’ve said some things before about the biblical aspect of it. Here I’d like to focus on attitude, specifically to feminism and to women’s roles in society.

Now, attitude’s a slippery little thing to define, especially when it comes to groups of people, for example, the ‘old’ complementarians. Kevin deYoung has pointed out that ‘old’ complementarian heroes like John Piper don’t think women should be confined to the home, and that to say he does is a caricature. But it’s not like Piper’s known for being an advocate of the working woman, either, is it? When it comes to feminism, he conflates the feminist movement with the idea that men and women aren’t different (i.e. complementary). That sounds awfully like saying that feminism is incompatible with complementarianism! Likewise, he discourages women from working rather than ‘mothering’. And it’s not just Piper. Carolyn McCulley explains her move away from feminism and how a single woman can also shape her life around marriage, family and the domestic arts (her words, not mine!). So when it comes to attitude I can see why this ‘new wave’ sees something new in being positive towards some aspects of feminism, and not setting up marriage and family as the end all for women.

But my hunch is that this ‘new wave’ should be called a ‘new American wave‘ or a ‘new wave in American complementarianism’. Sure, people like Piper have global reach and influence, but he’s still an American, talking about American reading of the Bible, with application to Americans. And the ‘new wave’ reaction comes within that context, one which, at least in part, has been shaped by America’s culture wars. Whatever tension there might be, the atmosphere in somewhere like Australia is just a bit less charged. (For example, a magazine like Daily Life doesn’t carry the same level of snark as its American equivalent Jezebel.)

Now, there are certainly Australians who set themselves against the feminist movement as well, but my experience is that in Australia, we don’t carry the same hysteria towards the feminist movement as seems to exist in the States, nor are we as committed to a woman’s place being in the home. I’ve heard complementarian pastors unashamedly say that their wives far out-earn them, and even point to this as a good thing! I know pastors of large complementarian churches in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide whose wives are doctors, lawyers, university lecturers, etc.

So when I read points 5 and 7, I don’t think of them as new, but I suspect this is because I’m an Australian! Complementarianism is bigger than America and it exists outside America. What appears to be a new attitude on the part of complementarians in the US might just be the attitude of plain old boring normal complementarians elsewhere.

I’m pleased to see this different sort of complementarianism getting air time in the States, and I don’t say this to criticise  the ‘new wave’. In any case, Australians are not really exporters of our cultural values or pastors in the same way that Americans are, so ‘our’ complementarianism is not as visible.  However, I think it’s worth acknowledging that there actually isn’t anything new under the sun. Perhaps it’s new under the American sun, but the sun shines on a bigger world than just the US of A!

Categories: Tanzanian culture Woman Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

2 replies

  1. Tamie, I’ve been curious about implications from various cultures, and this is insightful. I have observed different reactions based on area in the United States where we live as well. For instance, New York City and Seattle based complementarians sometimes have different practical outworkings than those in mid Kansas. And PCA churches have different practical outworkings than Southern Baptist or SGM churches. On the flip side though, Claire Smith’s books God’s Good Design seemed to have a lot of bias against feminism. Perhaps she is an anomaly in Australian approaches to this topic?

    1. Hi Wendy! Yes, there are cultural differences even within countries, aren’t there!

      Not sure about Claire Smith. She’s from Sydney and the (hopefully this isn’t unfair) East Coasters do tend to be more strident in their views. Where I come from in Adelaide, things are a bit more collaborative. But then, as I said in the post, I’ve heard some quite sensible things from Sydney-siders on the level of application.

      It might be a generational thing as well though. I find women who are closer to the second wave of feminism are much stronger against it whereas those of us who’ve grown up in the third wave are able to be a bit more relaxed.

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