June 30, 2009

Is There a Calvinist-Complementarian Connection?

As a social worker by trade, I’m no theologian. But in my spare time between parenting, grad school, church life and employment responsibilities, I find it fascinating to observe the theological movers and shakers of the current American evangelical landscape. While the Gospel must never be defined by popular vote, the question of why assorted varieties of evangelicals believe as they do (for better or worse) is worthy of exploration. In recent years, I’ve taken an interest in the so-called “New Calvinists,” a growing movement recently described in Collin Hansen’s book, Young, Restless, Reformed, as well as a March 12 TIME magazine article calling it one of the “10 ideas changing the world.”

As an outside observer of the movement, I’ve noticed that in addition to Reformed soteriology (often summarized by the acronym TULIP), one of the key doctrinal distinctives for New Calvinists is complementarianism, the view that male leadership in the church and home is a Biblical imperative. It’s no coincidence that influential Reformed/Calvinist (I’m using these terms interchangeably here) leaders like John Piper, Al Mohler and Mark Driscoll are among evangelicalism’s most vocal opponents of women’s ordination. As a staunch egalitarian, I believe Scripture teaches that God gives the gifts of preaching, teaching and church leadership to both men and women, which puts me squarely at odds with the young, restless, Reformed camp. Complicating matters further, much of my own spiritual growth has occurred in the context of complementarian congregations, but that’s another story…

Despite our disagreements on gender roles, I share a lot in common with my New Calvinist brothers and sisters. I am very much drawn to the Reformed tradition, its covenant theology, historic confessions and doctrines of grace (TULIP included). I also adhere to a robust understanding of God’s sovereign grace, charismatic gift continuationism and the centrality of Christ’s cross. I agree that prosperity theology, self-help sermons and market-driven models of church growth are harmful to the Gospel. Like many in the movement, I enjoy expository preaching, Justin Taylor’s Between Two Worlds blog, Sam Storms’ books and the ESV Study Bible- its unyielding complementarian slant notwithstanding!

If I were capable of passing through the narrow doctrinal checkpoint affirming both TULIP and complementarian gender roles, I would find a community of New Calvinists refreshingly open to a range of positions on baptism, miraculous gifts, the Lord’s Supper and eschatology. This explains why a charismatic like C.J. Mahaney can partner with a cessasionist like John MacArthur at the distinctly Reformed Together for the Gospel (T4G) conference, not to mention fellow conveners Ligon Duncan, a paedo-baptist (one who practices infant baptism), and Mark Dever, a credo-baptist (believer’s baptism). As someone who welcomes evangelical collaboration across denominational lines, I am encouraged by these expressions of unity amid theological diversity.

In light of such ecumenism, it’s perplexing to consider why egalitarians are not also welcomed to the New Calvinist table. Complementarianism may not be at the forefront of New Calvinist identity, but it nonetheless serves as a distinct theological boundary not to be crossed. From what I gather, egalitarianism is categorically rejected by the full spectrum of interdenominational networks, ministries and conferences home to New Calvinists (including Tim Keller and Don Carson’s Gospel Coalition, Piper’s Desiring God Ministries, Driscoll’s Acts 29 Network, Mahaney’s Sovereign Grace Ministries, Dever's 9 Marks, R.C. Sproul’s Ligonier Ministries, Duncan’s Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and MacArthur’s Shepherd’s Conference among others). I hope I’m mistaken, but the young, restless, Reformed subculture seems to have built an impenetrable wall to keep out those who are not both Calvinists and complementarians. One out of two is not enough, and thus I have failed to qualify.

Naturally, this raises a series of questions. What exactly is the relationship between Calvinism and complementarianism? Why is opposition to the ordination of women a non-negotiable for New Calvinists? Why does one’s persuasion on gender roles carry more weight than one’s view of the sacraments, spiritual gifts or church polity? Are New Calvinists willing to recognize the existence of mature and authentic Christians on both sides the debate over women in ministry, a controversy that will not reach an evangelical consensus anytime soon? Is there something about Reformed theology that is inherently complementarian or is the Calvinist-complementarian connection unique to this particular neo-Puritan stream? Put another way: Is it possible to be a young, restless, Reformed egalitarian?

If the existence of “egalitarian Calvinist” denominations such as the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) are any indication, the answer the last question must be yes. At the scholarly level, there are numerous examples of well-respected evangelical Reformed theologians who are also egalitarians: Roger Nicole (Gordon Conwell, emeritus), Nicholas Wolterstorff (Yale), John Webster (Aberdeen), Bruce McCormack (Princeton Seminary), Donald Bloesch (Dubuque Seminary, emeritus), Todd Billings (Western Seminary), Jamie Smith (Calvin College), Bill Dyrness (Fuller Seminary), Mark Husbands (Hope College) and Laura Miguelez (Wheaton College) just to name a few. My personal favorite is Fuller President Richard Mouw, whose book, Calvinism in the Las Vegas Airport, is a must-read for skeptics who have erroneously dismissed TULIP as dried out determinism for the “frozen chosen.” Mouw’s work on Christian ethics, common grace, cultural engagement and public justice embodies the convergence of rigorous Reformed thought and passionate social activism in the tradition of Abraham Kuyper.

But even once we accept that there are indeed thoughtful and sincere Reformed evangelicals who support the ordination of women, this does not fully explain why has the rigidly complementarian variety of Calvinism been making so many waves at the parachurch level in recent years. Why does there seem to be an overwhelming correlation between Calvinism and complementarianism at the street level of popular/semi-academic Christian publishing, online media, “celebrity” pastor/speaker/writers and interdenominational networks like the Gospel Coalition? Where are the egalitarian Calvinist counterparts to best-selling authors like Piper and Keller? Or popular bloggers Taylor and Tim Challies? Or burgeoning Gen X pastor/writers like Kevin DeYoung, Josh Harris and Tullian Tchividjian? Why do t-shirts declare that “Jonathan Edwards is my homeboy” and not Abraham Kuyper?

I suspect that much of New Calvinism’s magnetism is a reaction to the postmodern leanings of the emerging church movement as well as the market-driven approaches of seeker-friendly megachurches and other forms of cultural accommodation. It could also be that Reformed egalitarians at the popular level are publishing on different subjects than the T4G crowd, thus leaving the impression that egalitarianism is a topic best left to Anglicans, Wesleyans, Anabaptists and others from non-Reformed traditions. Perhaps the complementarian-Calvinist connection is not a feature of Reformed theology per se, but has more to do with Piper's contagious enthusiasm for neo-Puritan pietism.

In any case, there’s much to affirm about the New Calvinists and their passion for God’s glory. I only wish this egalitarian could be welcomed at the table. If it makes any difference, I’ll even bring my ESV Study Bible.

UPDATE: Kevin DeYoung has responded to my observations on his blog.

ALSO: Related discussions have started at Between Two Worlds, Emerging Women, Complegalitarian, New Leaven, BLOG and MABLOG, and The Wanderer.


Unknown said...

Its an interesting observation, I'm a Calv-Comp myself, but its worth asking whether the two have to go together. I wonder who, apart from yourself, is excluded? Who are the authors, speakers etc that find the door closed?

Obviously not all doors are closed, the historic charismatic divide appears bridged via Piper and Mahaney, so clearly there's some room for differences...

Dan Stringer said...

Thanks Dave for your comments.

None of the egalitarians I know of are particularly drawn to the New Calvinist movement, so maybe I’m just the oddball here rocking the boat.

Mrs. Webfoot said...

Maybe Egalitarianism has been hijacked and defined by the "kook," "angry feminist" apologists?

I should be an Egalitarian, but I can't stomach the angry, bossy women who run their blogs and discussion groups. Who wants that kind of thing in their mission organizations or denominations?

Maybe I'm angry about their anger.

believer333 said...

Great question.

It first occurred to me that Calvinism and Compism went naturally together because of a possible over emphasis on hierarchical authority. They both tend to leave out the aspects of Christ's mission in that He laid aside His immense Power and Glory in order to clothe Himself with human flesh and come to serve humanities need of salvation. It is my experience that egals tend to balance those aspects much better.

Derick Harper said...

As a "New Calvinist," I too am somewhat mystified by the apparently unassailable bond between the Reformed camp & Complementarianism. I have studied some information from the Complementarian camp & while I cannot say their points were without logic, I still found them to be unsatisfying. The very limited resources I have found in the Egalitarian camp have been equally unsatisfying, generally not as well done as the competition, &/or generally tied to theological positions I find unbiblical. I would welcome insights & resource recommendations from proponents of Egaliatarianism.

believer333 said...

"or generally tied to theological positions I find unbiblical"

What might those be?

believer333 said...

P.S. Common Loon, an off topic but important question.

How did you like the book "Pleasures Evermore: The Life-Changing Power of Enjoying God"? I've a young friend in her early 30's who stresses a lot about trusting God. Apparently, she was deeply wounded in the past by the traditionalist teachings on women. While she is finding many answers now, there are still times and places where she isn't really sure of God's love for her. Would the teachings and encouragement of this book be of any help for her?

She is getting a lot of help in her Group Bible studies, and has made tremendous steps already.

--dawn said...

Perhaps the good news is that more and more of the long-time Calvinists, including Reformed, Christian Reformed, and many Presbyterian denominations are either solidly egalitarian or moving there. Maybe we should start a New New Calvinist movement that takes the Biblical stand on this issue (to borrow rhetoric used by many comp folks). smiles.

Arrow said...

Short answer: yes, very much so. In light of, for example, Ephesians 5 it is not surprising that doctrines of man's relationship to God would interlink very tightly with doctrines of marriage. My longer answer is posted here.

Finally, let me say that as an analytically minded, truth loving, professional mathematician and an "amateur theologian", I see your love for balance and nuance and distaste for blanket statements coming through clearly even though we apparently disagree on this matter. Thus I enjoyed reading your post very much.


tcrob said...

I've join the discussion here

Mike Aubrey said...

Mr. Loon,

I'm with you as a Calvinist Egalitarian. And I'm neither an "amateur" or a "theologian." I'm a linguist who focuses in Hellenistic Greek - and gets paid for it.

And I am quite eager and willing to say that Zach Harris' comment is both nonsense and BS. He should quite his theological musings (i.e. the name of his blog) for about 20 years and work on his exegetical musings first.

Whozep68 said...

Interesting connection. I've thought about this as well.

There are also Armin-Comps out there too. Jack Cottrell, who Wayne Grudem quotes as a leading Armin. Theologian in his Systematic Theology, was (maybe still is) on CBMW. Just wanted to present at least one Armin-Comp since those people are none have been mentioned.

Dan Stringer said...

believer 333,

To answer your question, Pleasures Evermore is a wonderfully liberating and empowering book that I would recommend to any Christian, although it is not specifically addressed to those who have been burned by church experiences.

On the matter of trusting in God's love, your friend might benefit from reading Embracing the Love of God by James Bryan Smith or Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church by Philip Yancey.

Dennis Horton said...

The Common Loon is right on target! I conducted a survey of over 2,600 ministry students and discovered that the more Calvinistic the student, the more likely she/he would affirm a complementarian perspective; the less Calvinistic, the more likely the student would affirm egalitarianism. The system of hierarchy within Calvinism seems to lend itself more readily to a complementarian view of human relationships which incorporates a degree of hierarchy (i.e., male headship) while Arminianism allows for greater freedom for people in general and consequently supports increased opportunities and responsibilities for women within the family and the church.

B. Banner said...

I appreciated your comments a great deal. I just attended a wedding at a Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America church and about went over the edge when the groom promised to lead and the bride to follow. And then a pastor prayed about how the bride would serve the groom. I grew up in the RPCNA and just started a blog about my journey out.

believer333 said...

B. Banner.

How sad. That is about as unromantic as you can get. Doesn't sound like the husband understood what sacrificial love and laying down his life for his wife meant. Might as well make a contract for a maid and concubine. :(

katz said...


Who gets excluded? Fifty percent of the population.