‘Complementarity’ – the history and foundations of a new theology

We have another guest blog this week from the brilliant Robin Bunce.  He is a historian of ideas based at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. He has written on politics and contemporary culture for the Huffington Post, the Guardian, the Independent, and the New Statesman. 


Last week I encountered a new word: ‘denuclearization.’ Following Donald Trump’s unprecedented meeting with Kim Jong-un‘denuclearization’ is now a thing. In fact, it’s a thing that the United States of America and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea are committed to achieving.


New words and phrases crop up all the time, and existing words take on new meanings. Remember the world before ‘Cheeky Nandos’? Remember life before ‘google’ was a verb? For all their novelty, new terms come with a history. ‘Denuclearization’ entered Webster’s dictionary in 2016, but even then, it was part of a broader story, the history of the Cold War.


Words enter language for a reason. Continuing the Cold War theme, in the mid-1980s Mikhail Gorbachev repurposed the word ‘perestroika.’ He wanted to reform the Soviet Union, but he needed a neutral term, devoid of the associations of backsliding, and failure that clung to the word ‘reform.’ ‘Perestroika’ did the trick.


A new word appears to be entering theological discussion in Britain: ‘complementarity.’ It’s been knocking about for a while, thanks to Andrew Wilson, a London based church leader and theologian. In fact, Wilson is organising next month’s THINKConferenceto explore the term. Like all new or repurposed words ‘complementarity’ has a history. ‘Complementarity’ has grown out of the failures of complementarianism, a word which emerged at the beginning of the 1990s, to describe the theological position codified in the Danvers Statementof 1987-8. Over the past 30 years complementarianism has failed in a multitude of ways. It has failed theologically. Indeed, leading complementarian theologians sacrificed the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity on the altar of male domination. A more profound theological failure is hard to imagine. It has failed practically, rather than protecting women high profile complementarian churches have been embroiled in abuse scandals. Complementarianism has also failed conceptuallyin the sense that it relied on modern notions that simply weren’t available to Biblical authors. In that sense, what was presented a ‘Biblical’ doctrine, was based on an anachronistic reading of the Bible.


Complementarianism failed in another sense too: it failed methodologically. That is to say, the whole approach to the Bible which complementarian theologians took doesn’t bear scrutiny. Complementarianism cannot be found in any one passage in the Bible. You can’t turn to Galatians, or Genesis, or any other book and find the doctrine laid out. Rather, complementarian theologians took a few verses from Genesis, a few from the Epistles, and came up with a theological position which, although they claimed was true of the Bible as a whole, was not the teaching of any single Biblical writer.


Advocates of ‘complementarity’, then, have a big job ahead of them. They’ve got to defend male domination in a way which doesn’t twist established theology out of shape; which finally stamps out the abuse of women; which is not based on ahistorical readings of the Bible; and which is methodologically sound. It’s a gargantuan task. Here, I’ll focus on the foundations: the methodology.


The Future of Complementarity conference leans heavily on theologian Alistair Roberts. Roberts is clearly much more sophisticated in terms of his methodology than the authors of the Danvers Statement. Helpfully, he has set out his approach to the Bible in his blog. He writes, ‘My concern has always been to read the Bible on such subjects closely, thoroughly, and comprehensively.’


He contrasts this to an approach to the Bible which he rightly considers unsound, ‘By contrast, a highly selective and piecemeal reading . . . a reading that takes modern concerns to the text and seeks to find biblical support, rather than an intensive, extensive, and attentive engagement with the Bible’s own witness on the Bible’s own terms.’


So, whereas others read the Bible selectively, Roberts aims to read it comprehensively; and while others read modern concerns back into the ancient texts, Roberts seeks to read the Bible in its own terms.


But here’s the problem: Roberts is trying to have it both ways. First, is it possible to read the Bible comprehensively, and in its own terms? The short answer is no. The Bible does not tell us how it should be read. Crucially, nowhere does the Bible say, ‘This I say unto you, read the Bible comprehensively.’ To read the Biblical texts in their own terms is one thing, to read the Bible comprehensively is another.


But surely, a comprehensive reading is what the writers of the Bible had in mind, even if they didn’t say so? This counter argument leads on to a second problem: does the Bible have its own terms? Again, the answer is no. At the most basic level, the Bible doesn’t even tell us which texts make up the Bible. Nor does it give us any criteria for judging which writings, should be included or excluded. Therefore, the Bible’s authors couldn’t have wanted us to read the Bible comprehensively, for the simple reason that they didn’t have the Bible as we understand it today.


Turning to practicalities, is it possible to produce a truly comprehensive reading of the Bible? Again, no. All readings are necessarily selective. Wilson and Robert’s ‘Complementarity’ will differ from John Piper’s complementarianism, in part, because it will focus on a different set of passages. Piper presents his position as comprehensive and ‘Biblical’, Roberts and Wilson will do the same. In reality, comprehensiveness will elude them all.


Concern over methodology may seem eccentric. But the absence of a robust methodology in complementarian circles meant that there was no check on the development and widespread acceptance of a heterodox doctrine of the Trinity. What is more, gender theology has a real impact on people’s lives. Sketchy methodology leads to bad theology, which in turn can have malign consequences for sincere believers.


The organisers of THINK2018 hope to launch ‘complementarity’ as a theological term. They may even succeed. After all, coming up with a new term is a good strategy. The early modern philosopher Frances Bacon understood the peculiar power of words. He realised that people often mistake the properties of words, for the properties of the things that they describe. In that sense, he argued, words, can be ‘idols of the forum’. Gorbachev played on this mistake. He presented reform as ‘perestroika’. Senior Communists, fearful of reform, were taken in by the properties of the new word. At the beginning of the 90s the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood made the same move. People who would never jump on board with ‘male domination’, might sign up for ‘complementarianism.’ However, thirty years on it’s clear that complementarianism really is just another justification for male domination. The word is tainted, a new one is needed. My advice to anyone attending THINK2018 is to question the reality behind the word. What will ‘complementarity’ mean in practice? And if it means excluding women from areas of church life, covering up abuse, and rationalising misogyny, are you OK with that? I’m not. Much as I love words I prefer to face reality.



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