A couple years ago Ray Ortlund memorably described the typical lifespan of an American evangelical church as “Movement, monument, then mausoleum.” The early years are the movement, as enthusiasm and purposefulness characterize the church’s charter members and leaders. If the movement finds success, over time the church tends to lose its missional passion and instead devotes most of its energy to preserving itself against the sands of time. The result is an insular, nostalgic culture that can be stirring when excitement is highest but spends most of the time curved in on its own identity. If this habit goes unbroken long enough, eventually the church simply runs out of people who remember “the good old days” and has nothing and no one to replace them with.
Many evangelicals, including yours truly, can personally attest to how true to life this narrative is. You don’t have to go far in America to find a large, beautiful, ornate, empty church. Ironically, though many churches have abandoned the old practice of keeping a cemetery on their grounds, a sobering number of congregations have become their own kind of cemetery, where evangelism and community lie interred. While it might be oversimplified, the movement-monument-mausoleum narrative is certainly true of enough.
That’s at least one reason why many evangelical complementarians, like me, are a bit uneasy nowadays. What’s true of the institutions and movements explicitly commissioned by Jesus (churches) is doubly true of the institutions and movements that are mostly just extra, and in some cases the downward slopes are steeper outside congregational walls. As someone who is solidly convinced that the Bible teaches complementary gender theology over and against both secular feminism and Christian egalitarianism, the complementarian spectacle has not been pleasant of late.
Let me describe the spectacle as I see it.
First, evangelical complementarianism, based on the messaging and activity of its most important institutions and advocates, seems to currently lack a compelling identity. The debate over the Trinity a few years back was an impressive exchange of massively important theological ideas between gifted and faithful scholars, but it’s not at all clear to me what, exactly, that dialogue accomplished. There seems (at least to me, an interested layperson) to be no better consensus on issues such as the eternal functional subordination of the Son (EFS) now than there was in the smoke.
Such a lack of closure on what appears to be the most significant theological moment for complementarianism in the last ten years exemplifies what feels like a broad uncertainty over what evangelical complementarianism is: a position (on which issues?), a movement (including which people?), a dialogue (between whom?), a response (to what?), etc. Hence, the feeling of some that current complementarianism, lacking a clear center of gravity, has turned its polemic energy on itself.
That is the second concerning trend. The uncertainty lingering after the trinity debate has led (at least partly) to a widening gap within complementarianism, between the “thin” and the “thick.” Again, the terms are maddeningly unclear. Thin complementarians appear to be mostly responding to arguments from divine ordering and natural law that bind consciences on questions like what jobs and roles women can have in the public square. The thick comps seem to view at least openness to such gendered ordering of the public square as integral to an authentically biblical theology of male and female.
It’s important to acknowledge the significance of this intramural rift for complementarianism writ large. The complementarianism of the Danvers days was explicitly presented as a response to evangelical feminism, e.g., the ordination of women in Christian churches and the downplaying of male-female distinctions in culture and politics. Most self-described “thin” complementarians accept male-only eldership and reject both same-sex marriage and transgender ideology (by contrast, a significant percentage of self-identified egalitarians seem to be LGBT and transgender affirming). Thus, the current rift between thin and thick complementarianism is not a rift over the core content of classic complementarianism as it has been most often articulated, but a rift borne of a newer, more active search to chart the true implications of this theology. No matter whether you identify as thick or thin, the biggest point here is where complementarian energies are being expended, and divided—not so much over the ordering of the home and church, but in the potential implications for public theology outside.
It’s certainly true that the various disputes between the thin and thick camps matter, and should not be dismissed or avoided. If nothing else, pastors and church leaders should define themselves as clearly as possible to avoid potentially catastrophic illusions of unity on issues that have real implications for the congregation. Granted that, I think it’s fair to wonder if the thin vs thick faceoff is doomed by the law of diminishing return. It’s hard to imagine a robust, coherent complementarianism with lots of different splinter cells, servicing competing evangelical sub-tribes that share digital space at places like TGC but work behind the scenes to undermine one another. Perhaps thin vs thick is not such a harbinger. Perhaps it’s a watershed moment that will yield a liberating amount of theological clarity and solidarity. Perhaps not, too.
If certain dynamics continue unchanged, there’s reason to worry about the above scenario coming true. In fact, it’s already started to happen. This is the third concerning trend: a surplus of “lumping,” a frustrating infatuation with ephemeral social media trends, and growing suspicion that what’s being talked about isn’t what’s really being talked about.
One vivid example took place just last week at the annual gathering of the Southern Baptist Convention. After giving the ERLC’s annual report, president Russell Moore took questions from the floor. One of the questions was a pitifully obvious attempt at a gotcha: The delegate quoted an old piece by Dr. Moore that vigorously asserted a complementarian position on churches that allow preaching by women. “Do you still believe this,” the delegate asked, and only some of the members present would have been able to hear the dog-whistle for a condemnation of Beth Moore.
Of course, one question from one delegate at the Southern Baptist Convention does not a narrative make. Still, the Beth Moore “moment” that swept through large portions of influential complementarian social media was a disconcerting episode—not because a woman’s preaching on Mother’s Day is a good idea complementarians should just get over, but because the stakes of public complementarian theology are much bigger than subtweets and a Hallmark holiday.
These disconcerting trends have one possible, unifying explanation. It could be that the evangelical complementarian vision has pivoted from its focused, theologically hefty “movement” phase, and is currently more concerned with recreating its old polemical energy. In this hypothesis, what the “monument” phase looks like for complementarians is an attempt to re-win a war already won, regardless that evangelical feminism has largely collapsed fully into the mainline denominations and has, for the most part, become one thread in a thoroughly non-evangelical garment. Without the same clearly delineated purpose and target, a restless complementarianism turns on itself and becomes a monument to its former role and rhetoric.
Assuming this is at least partly true, what now? I go back to Ortlund’s original blog post, because the path he offers churches to renewal and rejuvenation rings true in more ways than one:
The responsibility of a church’s leaders is to discern when their movement is starting to level off as a monument. It is at this crucial point that they must face themselves honestly and discover why they have lost their edge, go into repentance and return to the costly commitments that made them great to begin with. They may need to deconstruct much of what they have become, which is painful and embarrassing. But if the leaders will have the humility, clarity, and courage to do this, their church will go into renewal and re-launch as a movement once more. Jesus will become real again, people will be helped again, and those bold, humble leaders will never regret the price they paid.
Unpacking this rich paragraph, I count several steps forward for a renewed complementarian vision:
1) Complementarians don’t need to agree about all the reasons in order to acknowledge that the movement needs help and revitalization. From #MeToo to the Trinity to trolls, complementarian culture needs to honestly assess its current health.
2) Complementarians need to repent of the role that any spiritual pride or anger may have played in the decay of the movement, especially that which may have caused us to deflect faithful criticism and compromise with un-Christian means to accomplish (in our view) Christian ends.
3) Complementarians should enter a season of self-examination, consciously pressing pause on polemics in order to define, clearly, what we believe Jesus is calling us to be and do. There needs to be a “return to fundamentals” in theology, resisting temptations to answer challenges with slippery slope angst and credential-checking and instead going ad fontes, to the heart of the full biblical narrative on gender and God’s image.
4) Complementarians should pray urgently that the Holy Spirit would be discernible to outsiders, including all His fruits: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These aren’t the ingredients to heavy blog traffic or snazzy headlines, but they are the only fruits that matter to the Judge of all the earth.
I don’t believe complementarianism is a generational fad. Rather, I think it is the best, most serious attempt thus yet to make sense of the Bible’s radically counter-cultural ideas about maleness and femaleness. Biblical complementarity, like biblical sexuality, offers deep joy and real flourishing. The challenge, as always, is to resist making a theology that isn’t about us, really about us, and in so doing stand squarely between the world and the joy and flourishing offered by our risen Savior. Of course, Christ doesn’t let even mausoleums get in the way of his mission. The question is, will we?