Not only True but Good
A review of Positive Complementarianism,
This is a study that needed to be written. Ben Cooper is exactly right when he says that ‘it is easy for complementarians to come across as negative and defensive’ (p2). In one sense, this is understandable. We might sound negative because we desire to hold fast to the Scriptures, which talk more than once about things that women are ‘not permitted’ to do. The defensiveness follows when this position is opposed, as it overwhelmingly is in today’s Church of England.
But the God that we see perfectly revealed in Jesus is not negative or defensive. Everything that He speaks is true, for He is the truth and He cannot lie. Equally, everything He speaks is good, glorious, and beautiful, since that is who He is. If, then, the complementarian reading of Scripture is faithful to the text, the doctrine of men and women being created equal in value and different in role, must be beautiful. It is this beauty that Dr. Cooper’s study sets out to uncover.
Cooper adopts Mary Kassian’s definition of complementarianism as the belief that ‘God designs male and female to reflect complementary truths about Jesus’ (p5). This disentangles it from cultural and historical accretions, which tend to obscure what Scripture actually teaches, and attract additional ire from opponents. He then proceeds to work through the key biblical texts that address this idea, beginning in Genesis 1-3. Here he helpfully draws attention to the literary context of the book as a whole. It is about having faith in the God who keeps his promises to spread blessing to a broken world. We would thus expect to see His design of male and female relations to be aimed at blessing, to be broken at the Fall, and to be restored in Christ. The complementarian reading of the order of creation fits in this context of blessing.
The standard New Testament texts are dealt with in turn, alongside a brief study of the nature of Christian leadership in Matthew 20, and the goodness and equality of the different roles in the body of Christ in 1 Corinthians 12. The former gives rise to the image of ballroom dancing, from which the study’s cover art takes its inspiration, as a picture of complementarity between genders – the man leads, but in such a way that he ‘magnifies his female partner, making her the centre of attention’ (p16).
The arguments Cooper presents for a complementarian interpretation of the key texts are clear, and the study would serve as a useful primer for anyone wishing to grasp the salient points quickly. He effectively cuts through common egalitarian examples of women in ministry roles in Romans 16 by demonstrating that they are never examples of the role that is actually under discussion, namely that of elder. He also highlights the weakness of the argument that 1 Timothy 2 is only concerned with a specific instance of false teaching by women in the church in Ephesus, since Paul shows no interest in the content of the teaching here.
The study felt lighter when it came to the stated aim of showing why complementarianism is a positive gift, however. There were moves towards this in the treatment of 1 Timothy 3, where the prohibitions of the previous chapter are shown to be part of the good conduct of God’s household, which enables the church to display the gospel. More on how this enabling takes place would have been helpful. That definition from Mary Kassian could have been unpacked in relation to Ephesians 5 – why is it beautiful to have complementary truths about Jesus reflected by each gender? Why not merge them together? And though it risks wading into murky waters, it might have been fruitful to consider what light the doctrine of God sheds on our understanding of men and women, for there we see the true beauty of equality of persons and difference of relations.