Christian Sexuality Focus: Complementarianism vs Egalitarianism in the Church – An examination of theological beliefs on sexuality in light of Linda Kay Klein’s new book.

First published on Christian Sexuality Focus

Just in this past quarter, Touchstone Publishing (a division of Simon and Schuster) have released Linda Kay Klein’s compelling personal critique of the complementarianist evangelical sexual purity movement which became prominent in the 1990s with the resurgence of complimentarian theological beliefs in organisations such as the Southern Baptist Convention. “Pure: Inside the Evangelical Movement That Shamed a Generation of Young Women and How I Broke Free” is a compelling narrative of life growing up in a complementarian evangelical community; one that teaches essentially that women are subservient and submissive to men. Whilst we of this site are not uninformed about the general principles of complementarianism, especially in comparison with the more familiar egalitarianism practiced in many large Pentecostal churches as well as most mainline denominations, the role of the complementarian theological community in creating the purity movement that shames and demeans female sexuality is something new to us. Klein’s account of her own journey through adolescence and early adulthood both from her personal perspective and of her peers, is a disturbing tale of what this branch of theology teaches women about their value and worth as inferior image bearers of God. We’re not going to say that we of the egalitarian school of belief have necessarily got all the answers and got it right either, because we don’t know at this time of any systematic denunciation of purity programs from our side of the theological fence, or if any type of sexuality education programs for children have been developed from an egalitarian perspective. Whilst this particular branch of the purity movement became prominent in the 1990s, the ideas behind it and complementarianism in general are certainly not new, but are thankfully looking increasingly out of step with our knowledge and understanding of gender roles in the 21st century  church.

In order to inform the reader of the relevance of the complementarian school of theology that is critically examined in Klein’s book, and the contrary views of egalitarianism, let us take a little side trip here. The rise of evangelical purity movements in the last decade of the 20th century, particularly “True Love Waits” and Joshua Harris’s well known and now-disowned book “I Kissed Dating Goodbye”, which was even recommended to one of us by a pastor in our egalitarian Pentecostal fellowship of that era, owes much to what has become known as the “conservative resurgence” in the Southern Baptist Convention of the United States of America. This resurgence was a political movement which rose up to dominate the SBC and purge leaders who were seen as unwilling to enforce a conservative complementarian theology in all aspects of SBC ministry including their seminaries. Interestingly, Steven Furtick’s Elevation Church of North Carolina, whilst unashamedly proud of their Southern Baptist roots, are affiliated to the State Baptist Convention NC, which appears to endorse at least some aspects of egalitarian belief contrary to those of its parent organisation; women are allowed to preach at Elevation Church. Complementarianism, the theological school of thought influencing and practiced by the present day Southern Baptist Convention, is well known for its prominent advocates, among them John MacArthur,  John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Elisabeth Elliott, John Wimber, Albert Mohler and others. The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is a complementarian theology lobby organisation that was behind the Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood of 1988, a key collection of statements setting forth the complementarianist perspective on godly sexuality and gender roles. More recently (2017) CBMW propounded and subsequently disseminated the Nashville Statement, signed by more than 150 evangelical Christian leaders. Nashville essentially restates the complementarian beliefs of Danvers and adds to them conservative statements about present day sexuality controversies such as LGBT and transgender issues. Whilst it is difficult to discern how widespread complimentarian theology has been propagated in times past, it appears to be largely a reactionary rather than revolutionary movement, having become prominent in the 1970s as aspects of feminism then being propagated in evangelical circles became a challenge to its proponents. The most fundamental concern that we must have about the complementarian movement is that its teachings, apart from their overall negative viewpoint of female sexuality in general, often seek to deny or minimise abusive practices by male members of the church and society, something that is becoming thankfully becoming increasingly less acceptable.  Complementarianism’s implicit adherence to such concepts has taken a huge battering in recent times with increasingly shocking revelations such as those of widespread abuse in Fundamentalist Baptist Churches and the sacking of Paige Patterson, a key proponent of the SBC “conservative resurgence” from his longstanding role as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminar. Certainly, claims by prominent pastor-teacher John Piper that complementarianistic beliefs should be adopted in order to protect women from abuse seem remarkably ill informed in light of these recent scandals.

Christian egalitarianism essentially teaches that women can hold any role in a church including that of senior pastor and it informs a significant percentage of otherwise conservative churches (such as many Pentecostal denominations like the Assemblies of God and New Life Churches of New Zealand) as well as more liberal mainline churches worldwide. Christians for Biblical Equality is a prominent exponent of the egalitarian school of theology; whilst we are unaware of egalitarian equivalents to Danvers and Nashville, egalitarianism is at least implicitly endorsed in our part of the world by the Australian Christian Churches (Assemblies of God) and its members. Brooke Ligertwood, a New Zealand born musician who has risen to prominence both in the secular music industry and in leadership in Hillsong Worship in Australia and the US, acknowledges the influence in her home country of a succession of female prime ministers, an example of the secular aspect of egalitarianism in an otherwise conservative political environment of the 1990s. New Zealand was prominent in the suffrage movement, becoming the first self-governing colony worldwide to give women the right to vote. Subsequently, Ligertwood, who is now based in Los Angeles and involved with her Australian husband in the core leadership of Hillsong LA, has taken a prominent role in raising up a new generation of female worship leaders at Hillsong Church. Hillsong Church and Planetshakers Church are two of the largest churches in Australia and both feature women in prominent leadership roles within church ministries. CBE was itself founded some three decades ago in 1987, but its core beliefs have, by admission of the complementarian movement, had influence going back earlier than this. The egalitarian movement whilst subjected to withering and ceaseless criticism from complementarians, has suffered no scandals of the type that have plagued the complementarian movement, although it has fractured over a number of key divisions between more and less conservative viewpoints in certain matters of human sexuality.

Klein’s book is a compelling read, not just from the perspective of her challenging and at times harrowing personal account or that of her peers; it is also a narrative of her own voyage of discovery and deliverance from the damaging and demeaning beliefs of her church and various trials of life along the way. Whilst Klein and some of her interviewees have moved into  more progressive expressions of faith than our egalitarian Pentecostal influenced theological instincts would necessarily feel at home with, that doesn’t detract from the key issues and problems that she raises with the type of evangelicalist beliefs that she grew up with. (After all, purity programs have probably infiltrated into parts of our conservative egalitarian theological thinking, too). This book has been a great educational tool for us at a time when we’re branching out in our ministry interests and examining a range of different perspectives on what a godly view of sexuality really is. The key questions we feel inclined to examine is what influence the egalitarian theological school has had on purity movements and culture of the type that Klein outlines in her work and this remains for us a very key aspect of our ongoing interest in this subject. This book gets our endorsement and recommendation, subject to the rider that some adherents of the more conservative end of the egalitarian theological spectrum may be challenged by the more liberal theme that is interwoven throughout the narrative.

Published by Touchstone (Simon and Schuster), September 2018.