Complementarian Rhetoric Calmy Considered: A Response to Denny Burk and Owen Strachan
Updated: Jan 11
For more than a decade now, I’ve been told by some evangelicals that I don’t really believe the Bible is true. Or that I don’t take the Bible seriously. Or, more recently, that my view “flatly denies biblical teaching.” None of that’s true, of course, but some proponents of these false charges are digging in their heels (or, perhaps, circling the wagons). The serious problems with their claims need to be addressed, yet again, and perhaps more forcefully.
The view in question is usually called evangelical egalitarianism. Most readers will know what that means. For those who may not, evangelical egalitarianism argues that the New Testament (1) does not forbid women from holding the office of pastor, (2) presents women who hold positions of authority, and (3) on the basis of those exegetical considerations insists that women should not be barred from any position of church leadership on the basis of their gender. This view stands against complementarianism, which argues that in the New Testament the office and function of pastor and teacher is restricted to men and may not be held by women. This debate is often said to be a matter of second order. That means it is not the sort of doctrine that defines the boundaries of the Christian faith. Instead, Christians can disagree and still consider one another Christians.
The nature of “Complementarianism as a Second Order Doctrine” was the topic of a recent essay by Denny Burk in which he charged that, “An embrace of egalitarianism often goes hand in hand with a denial of inerrancy.” Burk also cites several other prominent complementarians who make the same basic charge. For example, Burk approvingly quotes Ligon Duncan: “The denial of complementarianism undermines the church’s practical embrace of the authority of Scripture.” Then Mark Dever: “it is my best and most sober judgment that this position is effectively an undermining of – a breach in – the authority of Scripture.” These men claim that if I don’t hold their view on this issue, then, at a minimum, I undermine Scripture and, at most, I deny it altogether. Burk’s irresponsible article was then compounded yesterday by the tweet I quoted above in which Owen Strachan libeled egalitarians by saying our view “flatly denies biblical teaching.” This is defamation. Pure and simple.
Burk and those he quotes further suggest that egalitarian readings of Scripture are at best misguided, if not thoroughly dishonest, because they tend to go hand in hand with a departure from biblical and traditional accounts of human sexuality. To be sure, Burk notes that some egalitarians attempt do hold the traditional view on marriage and sexuality, but he frames it as if we’re few and far between and well on our way down a path marked by dangerous hermeneutics.
Interpretation, Authority, and Fallacy
The problems with Burk’s argument (and Strachan’s tweet) have to do not only with what they say but how they say it. They confuse categories and commit argumentative fallacies. Three key points should be made.
First, both conflate their interpretation of Scripture with the authority of Scripture. I’m certainly not the first to point this out, but apparently it needs to be said yet again. Authority and inspiration belong together. The text is true and authoritative because God uniquely inspired it. That’s what God does. Alternatively, interpretation is what we do. It is our attempt to faithfully read and understand what exactly God has authoritatively inspired. Authority derives from source. That’s why the text of Scripture is authoritative; because it has its source in God. But our interpretations are a different thing. They have a different source, namely us, hopefully illumined by the Holy Spirit. We are not authoritative. When Burk suggests that any interpretation other than his own is a rejection of the Bible’s authority, he wrongly conflates his particular (and contested) interpretation with God’s inspiration and authority. That’s a category mistake.
Second, by taking a question of interpretation and introducing the question of Scripture’s truthfulness, Burk commits a red herring. That is to say, he introduces a point that seems relevant but really isn’t. The truthfulness of Scripture does not depend on the accuracy of any single interpretation. Plenty of people read the Bible badly; that doesn't mean the Bible isn't true. Scripture is objectively true, even when its readers interpret it poorly. The complementarian/egalitarian debate, at least among evangelicals, is one of interpretation not inerrancy. When complementarians shift to questions about the veracity of Scripture, they are changing the subject in a way that avoids the actual arguments and introduces a different topic that does not bear on those arguments. We accept Scripture as true, but that doesn’t imply we all immediately know what it means. It must be studied with care. Alternative readings must be evaluated and judgments made. That subjective interpretive process does not bear on or change the objective truthfulness of the text. Burk’s attempt to change the subject of debate makes his argument fundamentally flawed and ultimately unpersuasive.
Third, Strachan’s tweet not only joins Burk in his red herring, it further commits the fallacy of hasty generalization. He rushes to a conclusion without adequately considering the evidence. How so? By lumping all egalitarians into a single group and charging that we deny biblical teaching. He could have avoided this fallacy if he’d said that some egalitarians deny biblical teaching. That much is true. But by describing egalitarians without making the appropriate distinctions, he makes an overly general statement that is patently false – even deceptive.
Burk at least acknowledges that some egalitarians affirm the truthfulness of scripture, though he also unfairly and dishonestly suggests it isn’t a serious commitment. He then proceeds to base his arguments on two recent books that are not necessarily representative of evangelical egalitarians — Jesus and John Wayne by Kristen Kobes Du Mez and The Making of Biblical Womanhood by Beth Allison Barr. The relative strengths and weaknesses of these books are beyond the scope of this article. Suffice it to say that Burk isn’t satisfied with the way those two authors articulate their views of Scripture. To be sure, there are egalitarians who do undermine the inspiration and authority of the Bible. But there’s also plenty of research available from egalitarians who very much affirm the trustworthiness and authority of Scripture. Why not call out Craig Keener? Or Timothy Tennent? Or Lucy Peppiat? Or Ben Witherington? Or Tom Oden? Or Lynn Cohick? Or the numerous past presidents of the Evangelical Theological Society who both affirmed inerrancy and women in ministry? Or any of the many, many others who write on these things out of a desire to understand and live under the authority of the Bible? The answer seems obvious. These theologians and biblical scholars cannot so easily be used as a foil for Burk’s fallacious argument that you can’t be egalitarian and still love and submit to Scripture. Burk selects only the evidence he thinks will strengthen his case and neglects the rest. But not all egalitarians are the same. Do not pretend we are.
Bully Tactics and Fear
It must also be said that conflating interpretation and inerrancy is a bully tactic that trades in fear. This is a crucial point. Here’s how Strachan’s tweet and Burk’s argument function. They take gender roles, an issue of interpretation over which evangelicals are divided, and substitute inerrancy, an issue to which they know their constituents are deeply committed. By claiming the two issues are one and the same, they appeal to the fears of their constituents (i.e., the rejection of Scripture) and discourage them from engaging evangelical egalitarians. No exegesis. No interpretation. No consideration of actual arguments from actual people. Only fear. They portray an evangelical egalitarian like me as a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Beware the deceptive egalitarians, they suggest, who say it’s a matter of interpretation but are really out to destroy the truthfulness of Scripture. They claim to be evangelicals, but they’re really liberals or even progressives. These fear tactics are the methods of theological bullies. They keep people under control — afraid of the “bad guys” and unengaged in actual arguments.
Not All Complementarians Are Bullies
At the risk of failing to hear my own critique, let me be clear that not all complementarians are the same. I have many friends with whom I disagree on this topic. We pray for one another. We respect one another. Sometimes we debate one another. We try to assume the best about one another and represent the views with which we disagree charitably and (hopefully) accurately. I am deeply grateful for these friendships and pray they continue to be edifying and fruitful for the kingdom of God. And I hope that the larger debate over these matters will one day have the same tone.
Confess and Repent
To say that egalitarians like me deny biblical teaching is simply untrue. It’s a claim based on logical fallacy and category confusion. It’s harmful to the body of Christ. It’s divisive. It is, in short, a lie. And those of us who read our Bibles know who the father of lies is. Perpetuators of such deception should confess their sin and repent.
Dr. Matt O’Reilly is Lead Pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, Alabama, Director of Research at Wesley Biblical Seminary, and a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians. He is the author of Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice, The Letters to the Thessalonians, and Bless the Nations: A Devotional for Short-Term Missions. Connect at theologyproject.online.
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