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(Homemaking is important, but it shouldn't define women. (Credit: Amerika.org)

(Homemaking is important, but it shouldn’t define women. (Credit: Amerika.org)

Kristin Rudolph (@Kristin_Rudolph)

In light of recent discussions on a Christian perspective of gender roles in the Church and home, I would like to ask those involved to please remember the debate between egalitarians and complementarians is not merely a theological matter (though it is and important one), but it is a discussion that has serious implications for those of us who are women.

You are not just talking abstract theology, you are telling me who I am as a woman, what my purpose is, what my worth is and from where it is derived. As a pastor, theologian, or academic writing or speaking far from my local church, I don’t have an obligation to follow your teachings. But, as someone with high visibility and national (even international) influence, what you say about women in the abstract trickles down to shape the thought of not only my local pastor, but that of men toward women in general, and of women toward themselves and other women.

A discussion about the nature of complementarianism has emerged over the past few weeks, and it has stirred up these concerns for me again. Wendy Alsup wrote last month on her blog “Theology for Women,” about “A New Wave of Complementarianism.” She explained this “new wave” is the result of Christian women looking for a “3rd way of interpreting and viewing gender issues in the Church that is neither egalitarian or hard core complementarianism/patriarchy.”

In a response last week, Kevin DeYoung, a well known pastor wrote at the Gospel Coalition that he is “concerned” this “new wave” is merely an effort to appease egalitarians and thus compromise on important doctrines. Although I think he is a bit too dismissive of the concerns Alsup presents (and that many women affirmed in the comments of her post), he at least writes he is “trying to understand the attraction to a new complementarianism.”

I would suggest DeYoung begin by taking seriously the concerns women like Alsup bring up. Instead, he dismissed offhand her seventh point, that the “new wave” does not “set up marriage and family as the end all for women.” DeYoung simply asserts this was never an issue because “The very first chapter in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (RBMW) was a chapter from John Piper for single men and women” (emphasis his). Based on this fact, he ignores what women are really experiencing as a result of complementarianism – or misinterpretations of it. This particular issue, however, demands attention.

Although complementarians pay lip service to the idea that marriage and children are not the ultimate purpose of all women, the reality is, being a single woman in the Evangelical Church can be very confusing and difficult. Most books written on “biblical womanhood” center on marriage and family, and speaking as a woman who grew up in evangelicalism, the overwhelming message was that to truly discover what God meant for me as a woman, I had to find a man and have children. In high school and college, these were things I very much wanted for my life, but I knew they wouldn’t happen for a while, if at all. I was more or less content with that, but I still had a sense that I would be just a generic person in the Church,not a woman intentionally created as such to bring glory to God, unless I was married. I searched high and low for books to help me figure this out, but I never found anything substantial or helpful. Apparently it’s easier to write for married women.

Further, all the women featured as “members” of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (there are no women on the board of directors) are described as “homemakers.” I have no problem with “homemaking,” but if the leading voice on complementarianism is going to present a fuller vision of what being a Christian woman means in all circumstances, it would be helpful to highlight some actual women who don’t fit in the homemaker mold. I suspect it is difficult for men to pick up on this, but it would be nice for them to listen when we express concern about it.

This is highly problematic, and not “biblical.” Paul’s encouragement to remain single for the work of Christ was not aimed at men alone. In fact, he specifically mentions widows when telling  unmarried Christians to not marry unless necessary (1 Corinthians 7:8). Although it’s true that most Christian women will marry, in reality, life is different for each of us. Some of us won’t marry. And some who do, won’t have children – not necessarily by choice. Even those who do have children will spend many years with an “empty nest.”

All of this implicitly says I am not fully human unless I am married. I don’t think this is intended, but often the message these gender role discussions sends is that being male is the primary mode of being human, and women merely fill in a few gaps. This is also shown through the lists pointing out things women can do in the church, which send the message: “we don’t really know what to do with you because you’re not a man, so let us figure something out.”

Now before you react in cries of “That is a distortion of complementarianism!” Consider why women across the church are searching for a “third way” at all. Why would we bother if there was already a clear understanding and practice of who men and women (but mostly women) are as human beings created in the image of God? DeYoung tries to pass off complaints as the misinterpretation and misapplication of complementarianism, but maybe we need to ask what is going wrong if so many women are experiencing such distortions.

I am not advocating capitulation to evangelical feminism, or downplaying distinctions between men and women. My hope is simply that the conversation can change. But unfortunately, I see a tendency to be skeptical of anyone who questions any aspect of complementarianism. DeYoung writes: “I get nervous when our passion seems less about the theology we say we want to celebrate and more about the ways our theology is a stumbling block to others. The impulse to rescue counter-cultural doctrines from their own unpopularity is one of the first steps to losing the doctrine altogether.”

From my perspective, such a conversation is not an attempt to appease the broader culture at all. It is about examining why it is that so many women have been hurt by churches and individuals practicing some (possibly distorted) form of complementarianism. DeYoung writes: “in a world awash in sexual confusion and deliberate gender ambiguity I wonder if the main thing we need to do is really convince people we’re not that kind of complementarian.” I agree, we absolutely need to speak the truth about the nature of men and women even though no one else will. But I’m not sure we have it figured out quite yet. I still see plenty of confused, hurting young women in the Church who are trying to figure out what it means for them to be a woman created in God’s image, and to bring Him glory no matter their life circumstances.

Now is not the time to end the discussion. It is only getting started, and we have a lot of work to do. I understand the threat to scriptural authority and Christian orthodoxy DeYoung is concerned about. But please remember, real women’s lives are shaped by the boundaries and limits you set while defending doctrine.