Why Baptists can’t (currently) be ‘complementarians’

I gestured at this argument in an introductory book on Baptist theology I have coming out soon; reading the proofs, it occurred to me that a more substantial discussion would not be out of place. Probably, I ought to write a journal article – ‘had we but world enough and time…’

One of the themes of the book is the extensiveness of ecclesiology; I argue (contra various people) that Baptists are distinguished only by their ecclesiology, but then argue (contra various other people) that ecclesiology is actually quite far-reaching, and so our distinctiveness here makes (or should make) us a quite distinct body of believers. I illustrate this in various ways, with various arguments, as the discussion proceeds; one has to do with the question of gendered accounts of various church ministries.

Historically Baptists have some ‘form’ on this issue; we were already being castigated in print for allowing women to preach in 1646 (Thomas Edwards’s Gangraena, unsurprisingly). Of course, that practice has not remained universal in the history since, but, considering the period before the founding of the Salvation Army, only the Society of Friends can realistically claim to have be more open to the ministry of women than Baptists were. BUGB was amongst the first denominations to open the ordained ministry to women in the C20th, and has now committed to ‘radical equality’. If some of the churches have lagged in recent times, the denomination has led.

My reflection, however, was very contemporary. No student of evangelical theology can fail to have noticed that the justifications for denying the ministry to women have changed in recent decades. Very crudely, a ‘proof-texting’ approach, resting on appeals to a couple of (apparently-decisive) verses, has been replaced by a developed theology of gender, in which male ‘headship’ is intended by God in creation, and so shapes proper gender roles in family and church (& possibly wider society).

I am happy to acknowledge the power of this presentation, even whilst disagreeing with it. In its best forms (I have never seen in well-expressed in a published piece – it may be there, but I’ve missed it – but in conversation, I have heard remarkably impressive presentations) it feels to me a bit like the best versions of dispensationalism: it is an overarching narrative which appears to make sense of many otherwise-troublesome Scriptures, and which can be rejected only by the articulation of an equally convincing counter-narrative. As such, I respect those who profess commitment to it, whilst disagreeing with them.

Unless, that is, they are Baptists.

If this ‘headship’ account of how to interpret Scripture is correct, then Baptist ecclesiology is wrong. And vice-versa. On this definition of what it is to be a ‘complementarian’, Baptists cannot be ‘complementarian’.

The ‘headship’ account of ‘complementarianism’ turns endlessly on a narrative of ‘authority’. Men are created to exercise authority; women to sit under authority. In the family, the man (all men?) are to take a lead, the woman (all women?) are to follow. In the church, a woman should not exercise authority over a man; in the world, even, in some worked-through accounts, a woman should not be in a position where she is required to tell men what to do (John Piper speculates openly as to whether women may properly drive buses on this basis).

Now this can be made sense of in an episcopalian or presbyterian polity. In either case, the church is composed of those who exercise authority (clergy/elders) and those who submit to it (the rest). If only men are permitted to exercise authority, then only men should be clergy, or elders. I have Anglican and Presbyterian friends committed to a male-only ministry and, whilst I disagree with them, I accept completely that their stance is defensible and coherent given the current terms of the debate, and their churchmanship.

I cannot say the same of Baptist friends, however. In a congregationalist polity, which is at the core of Baptist identity, authority, which is of course held by Christ alone, is mediated through the church meeting. All members, female and male, have an equal role in discerning Christ’s call on the gathered church; all members, female and male, have an over-riding (and so equal) responsibility to watch over each other, and to bring rebuke and challenge when they see a sister or brother fall into sin. In a Baptist church authority is necessarily exercised by all the members, over all other members, indifferently. Unless membership is denied to women, which has – in my view shamefully – happened in Baptist history sometimes, women and men, and all other believers, regardless of status, are called to an equal exercise of authority. The newly-baptised teenager has a duty – not just a right – to call the pastor to account; certainly a woman has a duty – not just a right – to call a man to account. In a Baptist ecclesiology, that is, women necessarily exercise authority over men.

The conclusion seems inescapable: if headship theology is right, then Baptist polity is wrong; if Baptist polity is right, then headship theology is wrong. On the currently-popular account, Baptists cannot be complementarians.

(Of course, there are other ways of defending the restriction of ministry to men – Catholic accounts of representation being the most obvious – and someone might develop an authentically Baptist theology of male-only ministry one day. My point here is simply that the currently-popular accounts of why ministry is male-only necessarily fail for Baptists.)


  1. Ian Hamlin
    Jan 13, 2012

    Ssshhh, don’t tell Mr. Driscoll, I’ve heard he can get angry.

    • Steve H
      Jan 13, 2012

      LoL, or even Rotflmao, if that’s not too crude for a minister of the gospel…

      • Terry
        Jan 14, 2012

        It’s not crude, but I now have an unusual image in my mind.

  2. Marty Foord
    Jan 14, 2012

    Dear Steve,

    Thanks for this piece. Although I’m not a baptist myself (but do have great respect for their ecclesiology) I’ve always suspected what you’ve so clearly it in words. Thanks for the clarification.

    Every blessing,

    Marty Foord.

  3. Glen
    Jan 14, 2012

    This is true. And important. Go Steve.

  4. Sarah Fegredo
    Jan 14, 2012

    Balm to my wounded soul after the Driscoll hoo-ha of the last couple of days!
    Thank you

  5. RuthG
    Jan 14, 2012

    Steve, thank you so much for this; I have been trying to argue this for years – both that it is our ecclesiology that is distinctive, (and more wide-ranging in its implications than we often dare to realise!), and that that has something important to say about our attitude to all ministry, and in particular to who can minister. When the debate was raging at the point of my initial application, I was repeatedly asked about the question of authority; I attempted to answer on this basis, and was shot down. My excuse is that I was 23, and not very articulate. But it is such a relief to see it laid out so clearly!

  6. judith
    Jan 14, 2012

    nice one.

  7. rob
    Jan 14, 2012

    Hi, great stuff. It’s “these fragments I have shored against my ruin”. Sorry to be pissy!

    • Steve H
      Jan 14, 2012

      Welcome Rob!
      (I’ve checked a couple of editions of the Waste Land, and they all have ‘ruins’?)

  8. rob
    Jan 14, 2012

    Or is it, actually? If it’s “ruins”, I’m sorry. It’s great stuff about headship, anyway.

  9. Nick
    Jan 14, 2012

    Maybe the focus is on not creating distinctions in humanity. We are all human, yet we are all different. Our humnaity under our God is the unifying factor above all the artificial differences humnaity can create.

    It isn’t about gender, or any other topic we can choose. Rather we are one body recognising and responding to God’s call on our lives as individuals and in community. All boudaries are artificial and open to abuse of power.

    Baptist ecclessiology tries to reflect the way God values each person, each human without artificial boundaries. There are too many ways people seek to exercise power over others. Christ is the head of the family. All memebers of the family of Christ complement one another. No more distinctions are necessary or valid.

    Let’s not overcomplicate God’s view of the world and humanity to fit the shallow thinking of the world.

  10. Simon Hall
    Jan 14, 2012

    Oh my Lord that is so simple and sensible. I feel a genuine sense of peace and a tiny bit of excitement. I think you’ve just helped me make a big decision. Thankyou.

  11. Robert
    Jan 14, 2012

    As a Baptist who also works in ecclesiology I appreciate the piece, though find some shortcomings.

    The principal of which is that in all my years of being a Baptist I’ve yet to meet a Baptist church that pactices the kind of Congregationalism you’re describing. Even some of the earliest Baptist churches had aspects of authoritative offices within a congregation (of course not from outside…that whole autonomy thing) and that while Jesus is the ultimate authority, subsequent to His arrival at our next budget meeting, Scripture (or the regula fide) is our earthly authority. (yes I know about diverse interpretations and such)

    As well most Baptist churches utilize a form of Congregationalism that recognizes offices and officers as a form of authority, of course held in check by the congregation. These elders (presbuterio) and deacons (diakinos) act in an official capacity for most churchly functions.

    Nevertheless I do think complementarianism can be practiced authentically by Baptist churches, though I would point out that a biblical form of this (not the caricature presented by too many) is that headship relates primarily to the home and then the church…not into society. Also that, at least in my expression of complementarianism, the idea of leadership is primarily spiritual and not dictatorial.

    Well I appreciate the piece, though continue with some, albeit minor, criticisms.

    (apologies if there are any typos…my iPad is offering odd autocorrections)

    • Steve H
      Jan 14, 2012

      Welcome, Robert, and thanks for commenting.
      You’re right, of course, that Baptists have (almost) always called ministers and appointed officers to take on particular tasks within the fellowship, including leadership. That said, we’ve generally resisted narrating this in terms of ‘authority’ quite strongly, as far as I can see. (There’s an interesting little pamphlet war between the famous General Baptist Matthew Caffyn and a member of his church, Richard Haynes, dating from around 1660; the church excommunicated Haynes over his business dealings; he responded by attempting to paint Caffyn as lording it over the church and claiming authority to make decisions; Caffyn was a great pains to point out in response that the authority lay with, and the decision was made by, the church meeting. There are many similar examples.)
      As an elder in a Baptist church at present (& previously minister of a church) I do not think I’ve been given authority; instead, I believe I’ve been asked to bring leadership. The distinction is perhaps subtle, but it is important in our ecclesiology.

      • Andy Goodliff
        Jan 14, 2012

        I think Paul Fiddes is helpful here where he speaks about a dynamic view of authority (tracks and traces) … which flows between pastor and people … so leadership sometimes come from pastor, sometimes from church meeting, sometimes from outside the local church (association, union) …

  12. Simon Hall
    Jan 14, 2012

    Hello everyone!

    Steve, I wonder if you could comment on the biblical notion of ‘elder’. I raise it because in most Baptist churches it is a term used to describe the people who are in charge of the ministry of the church, while in traditional communities the role of an elder seems to be slightly different, namely the person/people who carries the history and tradition of the community, who resolves disputes and who trains the young men how to hunt and fish etc. I wonder if we can take the term elder in this way? It points towards an older person widely respected in the community, who guides those doing the work of the community.

    The reason I’m asking is because I’m toying with a book in which I compare the early church to the time of the judges (a form of tribal federation God had not intended to end, even though it had become corrupted) and argue for a very baptistic ecclesiology as a result, even with a clear role for ‘messengers’ in the place of the apostles or judges. It seems to me that there is a role for elders in a congregation, and for the church (an individual congregation or wider communion) to recognise charismatically anointed leaders who hold no particular position (e.g. Gideon or Paul). I’m not sure Regional Ministers act in this way! Indeed, I think it’s probably God’s intention that we keep institutional and spiritual authority separate…

    Oh, and while I’m at it – do we not have the imagination between us to find better ways of doing church meetings? We have inherited a Victorian town council meeting and we act as if it is the very meeting that has authority, not the members of the church. I would feel even better about your argument Steve if church meetings really did display the presence and authority of Jesus a bit more clearly…

    • andygoodliff
      Jan 15, 2012

      Simon – in my opinion we should get rid of the language and position of ‘elders’ – its an infection of brethen theology that works against congregational governance … secondly, concerned by your language of ‘charismatically anointed leaders’ and ‘spiritual authority’ … because (a) theologically at least, if not always in appearance, are not all ordained baptist ministers charismatically anointed leaders? or is ordination and/or accreditation just a sign of institutionalism … I would refute that … (b) is an institutional position not a spiritual authority – do i detect some dualism here?

      • Simon Hall
        Jan 15, 2012

        Dualism? You really know how to hurt me, don’t you?!

        I’m primarily concerned with the centralisation of power. I think the OT division between prophet, priest and king is helpful, and I worry that in the modern Minister all those roles are coagulated into one person.

        The ‘dualism’ I’m trying to promote is really a division between those who have day-to-day diaconal responsibility for the community and those who are recognised as having been appointed by God for a particular purpose (hence the reference to the judges and apostles). The reason I used the term elder is that it’s the only description of a leader used in both OT and NT. I was hoping to reinvent it, certainly not support the current usage…

        Blessings bro.


      • Steve H
        Jan 27, 2012

        Sorry to be a while in replying, Simon – and welcome.

        With due respect to Andy, I seem to recall ‘elder’ was a Biblical term before it was a Brethren one… That said, NT scholars now generally assume that the NT does not present a single ecclesiology, but witnesses to a somewhat messy variety of patterns of leadership. In this, the ‘elders’ might often be people of some social standing, who owned a house big enough for the church to meet in (this was argued by Alastair Campbell in his T&T Clark book, The Elders, back around 1995).

        I’ve written about church meetings in a couple of places, but – yes…

  13. Dave K
    Jan 15, 2012

    James 3:1 says that there is a particular responsibility held by teachers in the church. To say that every member of the church has an “equal) responsibility to watch over each other, and to bring rebuke and challenge when they see a sister or brother fall into sin” seems to contradict this.

    Even in a congregational set-up there are leaders (and, as for e.g. the film Enemy at the Gates shows, even if there is no formal authority structure there will always be informal ones).

    Rather than insisting that every member of the body has to be a foot to be equal (squashing diversity), complementarianism recognises that true equality comes by recognising and honouring a diversity of roles for different people. As long as congregationalism recognises different roles (which I think it does), it is not incompatible with complementarianism.

    • Steve H
      Jan 27, 2012

      Welcome, Dave; sorry to be a few days in replying.

      James 3:1 has nothing, as far as I can see, to say about authority? As noted above, I don’t have a problem with differentiation of roles, &c.; this is simply an argument about the location of authority in a Baptist ecclesiology.

  14. Mike
    Jan 27, 2012

    Stephen, let me (a confessed complementarian), first say that I appreciate the tone of your post. I read too much heated rhetoric on both sides of the debate, and it’s refreshing to hear someone talk with both conviction of his own views and respect for the views of others.

    Niceties established, let me take aim at this statement: “If this ‘headship’ account of how to interpret Scripture is correct, then Baptist ecclesiology is wrong. And vice-versa. On this definition of what it is to be a ‘complementarian’, Baptists cannot be ‘complementarian’.” I am a Baptist pastor and complementation, and feel no tension between the two, for these reasons:

    (1) Many Baptists, myself included, have shifted away from what we perceive as hyper-congregationalism (where the church membership is the regular, functioning authority in the church) to an understanding that God calls elders to a special ministry of leadership, even involving a delegated authority (Heb 13:17). Yet we are a priesthood of believers. Thus we have in the local church ontological equality of believers and functional subordination at the same time. Even in a Baptist church.

    (2) Is there not ontological equality yet functional subordination within the Trinity? I’ve seen this argument casually tossed aside many times, but I have yet to read a convincing refutation of it. If it’s true – that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are equal in being yet different in function – we wouldn’t be surprised to find such a dynamic woven into the fabric of creation in human relationships.

    • Mike
      Jan 27, 2012

      To clarify, I’m a complementarian, not a ‘complementation.’ This spell-checker is a little over-active.

    • Steve H
      Jan 27, 2012

      Welcome, Mike, and thanks.

      (1) OK, yes, I am assuming that congregationalism is at the heart of Baptist polity. This is in line with (inter alia) the defining commitments of the Baptist Union of Scotland, the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Southern Baptist Convention, & reflects the ongoing reflections on Baptist identity in the Baptist World Alliance, so I think the assumption was justified. Read ‘congregationalist’ for ‘Baptist’ if necessary.

      (2) There is no ‘functional subordination’ in the Trinity. The ecumenically-received doctrine asserts the three persons are equal in majesty (= authority, surely?) and indeed identical in all things, except only the relationships of origin – filiation and spiration. I cannot conceive of any functional differentiation that would not be straightforwardly modalistic (just as attempts to replace ‘Father, Son, Spirit’ with functional language – ‘Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier’ are necessarily modalistic). Erickson’s book, Who’s Tampering with the Trinity?, addresses this in great detail; for the ecumenical doctrine – well, my book on the Trinity will be out any day soon, and gives several chapters to the question…

  15. Mike
    Jan 28, 2012

    Thanks Stephen. I’m looking forward to your books on the Trinity and Baptist Theology. What I see in the Canadian context is that there is no monolithic Baptist polity, and the more Reformed among our ranks are much more for an elder-led (if not governed) church these days. Perhaps it’s easier for us to be Baptists and complementarians without contradicting ourselves.

    On the Trinity, how would the ‘ecumenically-received doctrine’ understand 1 Cor 15:27-28? Honest question.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

get facebook like button