ENCORE: Fake News: Complementarianism and Disinformation

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In March 2024, Christ Over All took up the theme of Creeds, Confessions, and Cooperation. This article is an encore piece to that theme. You can find all the articles from that month here.

Donald Trump made the idea of “fake news” famous. Some reports say he used the term around 2,000 times during his tenure as president of the United States. According to Trump, news outlets proliferated lies and sowed false information to tear him down and hinder his work.

Fake news or disinformation is nothing new, however. For years, it has been used by governments to spread false ideas and promote narratives as well as by military units to mislead the enemy with false tactics. This disinformation served their purposes and aimed to help them win elections and war(s).

This spread of disinformation is not limited to government and military tactics. Sadly, it is a regular occurrence in the world of theology as well. Whether perpetuated ignorantly or purposefully and willfully, this disinformation poses great danger to the church today. Where do we see such “fake news”? Oftentimes, it comes in the form of an argument against a position that has been unfairly represented. For a recent example, see Randy Davis’s recent criticism of the Law Amendment in the Southern Baptist Convention. As Denny Burk helpfully points out, two out of Davis’s three objections are based on arguments that simply aren’t true.

What I’m concerned about here is not Donald Trump nor the Law Amendment in particular, but rather the spread of disinformation as it relates to complementarianism more broadly—the nature and roles of men and women. And this information doesn’t come merely from the outside of the camp. Instead, disinformation about complementarity is pasted on Twitter, promoted on Facebook, and spread via blog posts and magazine articles at an increasingly high rate from outside and inside the complementarian camp.

I can think of several categories of disinformation when it comes to complementarity: theological disinformation, historical disinformation, and moral disinformation. I’m sure others could add more. In this article, I will examine claims from each of these categories, demonstrating how they all fail to accurately describe the complementarian argument.

Theological Disinformation

Theologically, we have false ideas about complementarianism making their way around the internet, into books and articles, and into personal conversations. Two wrongheaded and unfounded biblical and pastoral-theological errors seem common.

First, some argue that complementarianism is built on a handful of passages. This narrative aims to convince readers that the theological position is built on shaky foundations. And, it suggests by contrast that egalitarianism is more faithful to the grand sweep of Scripture. For example, Jennifer Bradshaw writes, “Complementarians base their theology on a few passages in Genesis and select verses from some New Testament epistles.”[1] Well, to borrow from our ex-President: “fake news!”

1. Jennifer Bradshaw, “Moving Congregations from Complementarianism to Egalitarianism,” Pastors For Normal People.

Now, this brief article isn’t the place to outline all the passages complementarians use to build their theological house. Instead, If you want proof that the complementarity position is built with lots of biblical bricks, read the various iterations of Eikon, the theological journal from the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Notice the dozens of theological arguments, exegetical insights, and massive volume of biblical-theological thinking that’s at the bottom of complementarity. Or, pick up Rediscovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood by Wayne Grudem and John Piper. You don’t have to agree with them to acknowledge that the authors in that book lean into the whole Bible to make their case. Simply turn to the Scripture index. It runs over seven pages and lists dozens and dozens of passages from both the Old and New Testaments. Are there key passages in this debate? Sure. But admitting there are key passages is a far cry from relying on or basing a theological position “on a few passages.”

Second, some want to make it seem as though complementarians are simply interested in barring women from ministry in the church overall. That is, some egalitarians erroneously say complementarians believe that only men should have ministries of any type in a local congregation. Consider Jennifer Bradshaw again. When she outlines the basic components of the complementarian position, it doesn’t take long for her to go off course. Here is what she writes:

Simply defined, complementarianism argues the following points (claiming, of course, that these are the “Biblical” view):
1) that men and women were created in God’s image, equal in worth, but that they were created for different roles;
2) that men are the leaders (or heads) in the home and the church and women are helpers to men, created to raise children and tend to the home; and
3) that leadership roles in churches, especially the office of senior pastor, are prohibited for women—women are not gifted or meant for leadership in the Church.[2]

2. Jennifer Bradshaw, “Moving Congregations from Complementarianism to Egalitarianism.”

She starts strong. As a complementarian, I agree with point 1. Point 2 states some true things, though her agenda starts to bleed through (raise children and tend the home are reductionistic. Yet, the rhetoric is meant to score an emotional point, it seems). Point 3, however, is either disingenuous or simply ignorant. She uses the broad idea of “leadership roles in the churches” to suggest complementarians bar women from any form of church leadership. When she does this, she specifically broadens the prohibition of female leadership beyond the bounds of the “senior pastor.” According to her view, complementarians bar women from “leadership in the Church” (a broad concept) that is “especially” applied narrowly to the “senior pastor” position. So, no leadership in the church at all . . . including senior pastorates. Well, again, fake news.

First, though complementarians may have some quibbles among themselves about what the roles of men and women look like, there seems to be broad agreement that women serving in the church is critical to the mission of the church. Exactly what leadership looks like in a congregation may be a point of debate from one complementarian to another. Some don’t think those like Piper and Grudem went far enough, while others think what was recovered in the 1980’s was spot on. Regardless, the need for women to serve in church ministry is not a disputed point. In the Southern Baptist Convention, a historically complementarian collection of churches, women are encouraged to pursue vocational ministry roles. Thousands of godly women are found on church staffs in SBC churches. And praise God for it. The Baptist Faith & Message, the confessional document of the SBC, affirms the place of women in ministry, stating that, “While both men and women are gifted for service in the church, the office of pastor is limited to men as qualified by Scripture” (BF&M, Article VI). Note that both men and women are “gifted for service in the church.” Denny Burk, a favorite target of egalitarians, writes, “We want to see women flourish in Christian ministry, but we also know that such ministry does not include serving in the office of pastor.” Denny is representative of complementarians. We want women to flourish. We want and need faithful female leaders in our churches. Yet, because of the Bible, we know that the role of pastor is reserved for biblically qualified men.

So, it is not true to suggest or assert that complementarians reject any notion of women in ministry within a church. Instead, complementarians consistently advocate for women in ministry while following the lead of the Bible in restricting the office of pastor to men. To suggest otherwise is to spread disinformation.

Historical Disinformation

Then, of course, there’s at least one historical narrative that is thrown into conversations in order to cut the legs from under the complementarian table. Namely, the idea that this theological term (and position!) was invented in the twentieth century by Wayne Grudem and John Piper.

It’s true that the term complementarianism didn’t start making it into the conversation until the 1980’s. Denny Burk writes, “While it was common for older commentators to point out that Adam and Eve were a complement to one another, the exact term complementarian did not appear in theological discourse until the late 1980’s.” This development certainly came through the influence of John Piper, Wayne Grudem, and others who met together to address the challenge of feminism. The document this group eventually composed is known today as the Danvers Statement (having been written during a meeting in the city of Danvers, Massachusetts in 1987). Grudem explains how the term complementarian came about.

For those first two years [1987–88] we were still a very secret, by-invitation-only group. But by December, 1988, at the ETS meeting at Wheaton College, we were ready to go public. We announced the formation of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) and handed out brochures. We even had a press conference (Christianity Today showed up, but nobody else). We coined the term “complementarian” as a one-word representation of our viewpoint.[3]

3. Wayne Grudem in a private email to Denny Burk, quoted in “Complementarianism? What’s in a Name?” Denny Burk.

This historical context helps us address the narrative that the position of complementarianism is novel, having only come into existence in the mid-20th century. This is simply not true. Instead, the position was rooted in exegesis and theology. The development witnessed in the 20th century was merely to use one word to explain the overall position.

To talk as if the idea and position of complementarity, or that the theology outlined in the Danvers Statement, was invented in the 20th century is sophomoric. Anyone making this claim has simply failed to read the historical sources. If you need evidence, here’s Tertullian from the second century: “It is not permitted to a woman to speak in church. Neither may she teach, baptize, offer, nor claim for herself any function proper to a man, least of all the sacerdotal office.”[4] In the sixteenth century, John Calvin would comment on 1 Timothy, saying, “[Paul] excludes [women] from the office of teaching, which God has committed to men only.”[5] Both Tertullian and Calvin show that the principles undergirding of complementarianism was well-known and practiced before John Piper and Wayne Grudem were born. Arguments or statements that fail to note this historical context either purposefully or ignorantly spread disinformation about complementarianism.

4. On the Veiling of Virgins, 9.1; quoted in “Women in the History of the Church,” Rediscovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 273.

5. Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1948), 67.

Moral Disinformation

This brings us to our final headline: the claim that Complementarianism leads to abuse.

Mimi Haddad and Kylie Maddox Pidgeon both argue that this is the case in the book Discovering Biblical Equality: Biblical, Theological, and Practical Perspective. Jonathan Leeman, however, has responded convincingly to these arguments. He does so not by denying that some complementarians have been abusive, but instead by offering a better understanding of how authority should work in this world. For Leeman, we should link arms with other Christians, and, like Jesus, Paul, and Peter, “teach about the goodness of good authority” and “also teach against the badness of bad authority.” As Leeman demonstrates, Scripture teaches authority rightly used, and specifically male authority (“headship”) in the home, church, and world should lead to the flourishing of all people, women and children included.

Other book-length treatments argue that complementarity leads to abuse. Kevin Giles argues complementarianism leads to abuse in his book, The Headship of Men and the Abuse of Women. Claire Smith, a New Testament scholar and women’s Bible teacher in Australia has interacted critically with Giles and challenged his assertions. She writes, “[Giles’s] repeated claim that complementarian teaching in evangelical churches often leads to domestic abuse, especially in ministry marriages, is never substantiated, and one article cited as evidence, published in December 2019, expressly states that ‘there are no statistics on the prevalence of domestic violence in the Australian Christian community.’”[6]

6. Claire Smith, “The Headship of Men and the Abuse of Women: Are They Related in Any Way (Book Review),” The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

One other book deserves mention. Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife, by Ruth Tucker. In response to Tucker, however, Melissa Kruger has written a critical review that shows Tucker doesn’t pay attention to the statistical realities, fails to interact with relevant biblical data, does not provide either practical or spiritual guidance, and falls short of actually addressing the issue.

In short, the idea that complementarianism leads to abuse is fake news. Instead, it is true to say that some complementarians are abusive, as are some egalitarians. The theological positions, however, are not the cause of the abuse.

Fake News vs. Reality

In Acts 17, Paul journeys to Berea where he encounters a noble group of Jews who “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). The Bereans were on the lookout for “fake news,” and they set themselves to examine the claims of the apostle. In our age of rapid, digital communication, “fake news” is as common as ever. As we’ve seen, disinformation regarding complementarianism abounds, whether those arguments are theological, historical, or moral. May we not be fooled by such claims. Rather, let us be like Bereans, testing to see if these things are so.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Author

  • Jonathon Woodyard

    Jonathon is the Vice President of Student Life and Assistant Professor of Historical Theology at Southwest Baptist University. He is married to Gina and father to Calvin and Caleb. Jonathon is a member of First Baptist Church of Bolivar, MO. He is the co-author of Before We Forget: Reflections from New and Seasoned Pastors on Enduring Ministry (B&H Publishing, 2020) and the co-author of the forthcoming See, Savor, Say: The Simplicity of Preaching (Christian Focus, 2025).

Jonathon Woodyard

Jonathon Woodyard

Jonathon is the Vice President of Student Life and Assistant Professor of Historical Theology at Southwest Baptist University. He is married to Gina and father to Calvin and Caleb. Jonathon is a member of First Baptist Church of Bolivar, MO. He is the co-author of Before We Forget: Reflections from New and Seasoned Pastors on Enduring Ministry (B&H Publishing, 2020) and the co-author of the forthcoming See, Savor, Say: The Simplicity of Preaching (Christian Focus, 2025).