I grew up in a household with parents who have been married and in love for 32 years. Both of them have extensive history of serving in the local church, even serving in one particular church for over twenty years. This family-church dynamic may seem a bit bland — until you consider the deeper nuances.
We were a black nuclear family primarily attending a non-Reformed, charismatic/Pentecostal black church. Neither my parents nor I had ever heard the term complementarian during our family’s entire tenure at this church. To my recollection, the church wasn’t explicitly teaching a theological framework for God’s good design of male and female as equal in value and complementary in role. The result was more of an implied understanding on how this was supposed to work, seemingly more shaped by cultural factors than serious biblical reflection.
As I grew older, I began to observe that my family dynamic was actually a minority within a minority group. Nuclear families weren’t so readily visible as single mothers and broken homes were spread across the congregation. Some “staple” families, once considered encouraging examples, were eventually stained by adultery and homosexuality. Women who had children outside of marriage became ostracized and displaced. Many fathers in the church were either absent, or they had given themselves to “serving” in a way that left them absent in their homes.
In many cases, strong women became relied upon as leaders. Women were leading men not only due to a perceived gifting, but also because men did not have honorable reputations in the church. Sadly, authority was often compromised by the moral failures of some men in leadership.
To complementarian outsiders, it’s clear that this type of church environment is not ideal. Still, it’s helpful to consider context with care. In doing so, consider my background in light of what we know to be true. Instead of idealizing complementarianism, and demonizing examples that fall short, it may be helpful to reflect on complementarian goodness, glimpses, and graciousness. My hope is that we complementarians can present the beauty of our convictions while extending grace to those coming from backgrounds like mine.
Scripture teaches us that God is good. The design of both man and woman reflect his goodness. Many egalitarians and feminists express distrust in the motive of complementarians, suggesting our view implicitly devalues women. I contend it helps us to see in Scripture God’s goodness in both genders. Complementarians place emphasis on what God calls good, finding the Scriptures to illuminate the beauty of a woman’s unique design. Just as we can trust God, we can trust what his word says about the distinct ways women reflect his goodness.
Criticism of complementarians can turn into subtle assaults on the sufficiency and the authority of Scripture. Regardless of our personal biases and experiences, we must remember that God owns the definition and display of “good.” The good things become the best things when we entrust them to the Creator of all things — so it is with gender design.
For all the messiness and complexities of my church background, there were glimpses of glory at every turn. In my home, I observed my parents’ marriage as a profound modeling of glad submission and sacrificial love. Despite not using mainstream evangelical terminology, or having a robust theological framework, Ephesians 5 was lived out before my eyes. It has been wondrous to see the Spirit work out complementarian convictions in my house without explicit instruction. Also, despite an erroneous application of church authority, the visibility of women in leadership had a profound impact on me. Looking back, I don’t solely disdain the error without being encouraged in seeing how God gives grace even in our sinfulness.
When considering the significance of the judge and prophetess Deborah, what cannot be disputed is whether she brought glory to God. Her actions were pleasing in his sight. Given the context, we shouldn’t view women serving in this way as by default a lesser form of God’s glory, deserving only cautious praise at best. I firmly believe we can praise God for what he produces without always making it prescriptive. Deborah gives us cause to explore this. When women glorify God in their giftedness, and with courage, despite their unideal circumstances, we can watch in wonder as God acts to preserve his glory in their witness.
We alienate those in and from these environments by bringing our assumptions and caricatures into the discussion too quickly. Sweeping generalizations help the cause of irresponsible stereotyping rather than assist in the pursuit of genuine understanding. Context should help make sense of the activity while leading to informed engagement. Many enter conversations like this as if they are simply problem-solving rather than extending the grace needed to absorb the stories, values, and names of the people.
Christ is gracious in displaying this missional and relational extension of his love toward sinful humanity, as he becomes “acquainted with [our] grief” (Isaiah 53:3). Our continued opportunity is to become acquainted with people whose backgrounds differ from traditional complementarian settings before we impose standards and demand changes. There is much to learn from one another.
The joys of embracing the complementarian vision of the Bible shouldn’t be reduced to a polemic for theological progress. I don’t seek to impose my experiences on everyone, neither is this a conversation simply for black Christians wrestling with their church background. Prayerfully, this serves as a springboard for a broader consideration of complementarian on-ramps. There are other church contexts that may have had similar variances, or perhaps even there are cultural pictures with completely different elements. Hopefully we can hear those stories as well.
The hope is to get a sense for how we can lovingly present the beauty of our complementarian convictions while extending grace to understand the varying starting points.