Bruce Ware is Senior Associate Dean of the School of Theology, and Professor of Christian Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY.
Complementarianism is, in one important sense, central and not peripheral, primary and not secondary. Complementarianism is the view that God has created men and women equal in their essential dignity and human personhood but different yet complementary in function, with male headship in the home and believing community being understood as part of Gods created design. By claiming that complementarianism is in some sense central and primary, please consider what I am and am not here claiming. I am not saying that Scriptures teaching on an all-male eldership in the church, or male headship and wifely submission in the home, is central and primary doctrinally. No, I would reserve doctrinal primacy for such cardinal Christian beliefs as the triune nature of God, the substitutionary atonement, justification by faith alone, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and Christs literal and physical return to earth one day yet futuredoctrines, that is, that impinge on the very truth of the gospel itself.
This is not to say that male/female complementarity does not relate in important ways to these central doctrines. Indeed, the Trinity, for example, models equality of essence with differentiation of roles, which equality and differentiation are mirrored in man as male and female. And the substitutionary atonement was carried out by one who submitted freely to the will of His Father, thus demonstrating the joy and beauty both of authority (the Father who sent) and submission (the Son who obeyed).
But, while biblical complementarity is connected to central Christian doctrines, it is not itself central doctrinally. This is why I believe it is wrong to charge evangelical egalitarians qua egalitarian as heretics. While I believe egalitarians err greatly in their rejection of male/female equality of essence and differentiation of roles, so long as they hold central doctrinal beliefs (as those mentioned above), differing here is not in itself a departure from orthodoxy.
In what sense then is biblical male/female complementarity central and primary to the Christian faith? I believe this doctrine is central strategically in upholding the Christian faith within a culture all too ready to adopt values and beliefs hostile to orthodox and evangelical conviction. As one examines the pressure points in which our increasingly neo-pagan culture is attempting to overthrow Christianity, it is clear that the battle lines are not, today, primarily doctrinal. Perhaps in the days of liberalisms ascendancy, this was the case, but it is no longer so. One might even become nostalgic musing on the glory days in which arguments were thrown to and fro over such issues as the existence of God, Christs virgin birth, the reality of the resurrection, the truthfulness of Scripture, and on and on. Today, instead, the primary areas in which Christianity is pressured to conform are on issues of gender and sexuality. Postmoderns and ethical relativists care little about doctrinal truth claims; these seem to them innocuous, archaic, and irrelevant to life. What they do care about, and care with a vengeance, is whether their feminist agenda and sexual perversions are tolerated, endorsed and expanded in an increasingly neo-pagan landscape. Because this is what they care most about, it is precisely here that Christianity is most vulnerable. To lose the battle here is to subject the Church to increasing layers of departure. And surely, it will not be long until ethical departures (the Church yielding to feminist pressures for womens ordination, for example) will yield even more central doctrinal departures (questioning whether Scriptures inherent patriarchy renders it fundamentally untrustworthy, for example). I find it instructive that when Paul warns about departures from the faith in the latter days, he lists first ethical compromises and the searing of the conscience as the prelude to a full-scale doctrinal apostasy (1 Tim 4:1-5).
Shall not the complementarian and egalitarian simply agree to disagree, to live and let live, as it were? At one level, of course they should. As indicated earlier, egalitarianism is not, by itself, a heresy. Yet we must not be naïve about the strategic urging of the church by our secular (and neo-pagan) cultural elite to move away from long-held and clear biblical guidelines concerning manhood and womanhood. This is not a matter of indifference. Until and unless the church follows the full cultural agenda in accepting the unqualified and fully equal ministerial practice of women with men, and in endorsing all forms of sexual expression as equally legitimate preferences, there will be no rest for conservative, biblical Christians. So, to be at peace, the temptation will be to cave. When the name-calling and slanderous accusations mount against conservative Christians, the pressure will be on to give in on these issues of gender and sexuality. After all, we might reason, we havent given up anything central to the gospel. But what must be clear is that to the extent that this occurs, the church establishes a pattern of following cultural pressures and urgings against the clear authority of Gods written word. When this happens, even though the compromises take place on matters which are not doctrinally central to the faith, the church becomes desensitized to Scriptures radical call and forms instead a taste for worldly accolades. As Jesus taught, the one faithful with a little will be faithful with much. But the reverse seems also to hold. To compromise on a little thing will pave the way for compromises on much that matters.
Complementarianism, then, is central and not peripheral, primary and not secondarynot doctrinally but strategically. Where the church is called on to withstand cultural pressures and maintain its commitment to counter-cultural revealed truth is, for us today, on issues of gender and sexuality. May God give grace to believe, embrace and practice the clear, wise and good teaching of Gods inspired word. Nothing else will serve the well-being of the church, and anything less will lead, in time, to its demise.