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Why are we complementarian?

If FIEC doesn't take a stand on spiritual gifts or baptism, why do we make a fuss about the role of men and women in the church?

Why are we complementarian? primary image

In the past week Carl Trueman has caused a degree of controversy by his criticism of the complementarian stance of The Gospel Coalition, which was recently explained and defended by John Piper, Ligon Duncan, Russell Moore and Greg Gilbert. Trueman’s basic objection is to the apparent inconsistency of para-church organisations using complementarianism to define their bounded-set when their stated purpose is to unite around the gospel, yet they set aside other issues which divide at a church level that are of greater historic, theological and ecclesiastical importance (such as baptism). There have been a number of good responses to Trueman’s critique, including Doug Wilson, who views issues of gender and role as a vital front-line battle for Christians in our culture today, and Denny Burke, who argues that egalitarianism is inherently hermeneutically dangerous for the church, whilst acknowledging that some individual egalitarians remain committed to a robust doctrine of scripture.

The significance for our Fellowship

The issue that Trueman has raised is important for FIEC. In November last year the FIEC Annual Assembly voted overwhelmingly in favour of continuing to uphold our complementarian stance, adopting a revised statement on Women in Ministry. This has the effect that only churches with a male leadership (Pastors and Elders) are able to be affiliated to the Fellowship, and only pastors who personally affirm complementarianism are able to be accredited and registered as members of the FIEC Pastors’ Association. In accordance with our commitment to local church autonomy individual churches are not required to appoint FIEC accredited pastors, so there are a small number of FIEC church pastors, and some church elders, who would personally hold egalitarian convictions, although the churches they serve have male leaderships.

The result of this vote was that a very small number of churches left the Fellowship, either because they already had female leaders functioning as elders, wanted to have female leaders functioning as elders, or they did not wish to belong to an association of churches which was exclusively complementarian in practice. One of the main arguments raised by those who opposed the continuation of our complementarian position was exactly that put forward by Carl Trueman, namely that the FIEC does not take a stand on other “secondary issues” such as baptism, and ought to be united solely by the gospel. His post has led several people to raise this question again.

What exactly is FIEC?

The simple answer to this objection to our complementarian position is that the FIEC is not, and never has been, a mere para-church organisation which exists for the sole purpose of the propagation of the gospel. The FIEC was established in 1922 out of a desire to support and encourage the work of independent evangelical churches that did not belong to a denomination. The FIEC was avowedly “non-sectarian,” which meant that the Fellowship welcomed churches into membership irrespective of their individual views on baptism and internal church government.

According to E J Poole-Connor, the very essence of an “independent” evangelical church was that it was willing to welcome into membership and to the Lord’s Table all those who were truly converted and belonged to the Lord Jesus, irrespective of their position on baptism and their ecclesiology. Each individual church might have its own strongly held practice in these matters, but did not exclude others with different convictions, and did not refuse to share fellowship with other churches merely because of their practice on these matters. The unity of the fellowship was rooted in a common confession of core evangelical doctrines, particularly the inerrancy of the Scriptures, the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ on the cross for sinners, and justification by faith alone.

Unlike para-church organisations, such as UCCF and many mission organisations, FIEC is an association of churches. We have no category of individual membership, although we have individual supporting partners who give to the work of the Fellowship but have no decision-making power within the organisation. Decisions are taken by vote of representatives of the affiliated churches. Our Trust Board consists of men nominated by the churches and elected by the churches. The appointment of our National Director is affirmed by vote of the churches. We certainly exist to advance the gospel in our nation, but we seek to do this through our family of churches.

As an association of churches we are united by more than just core gospel convictions. We are unashamedly and inevitably defined by our ecclesiology. All the churches that are affiliated to FIEC have to be independent, in the sense that the local church gathering has autonomy over its own affairs. Our churches are free to appoint their own pastors, determine their own practice in matters of church life, determine their own doctrinal convictions (provided that they are within the boundary provided by our Doctrinal Basis), own their own property, and are free to leave the Fellowship at any time that they choose.

There is therefore no simplistic answer to the question of whether FIEC is a denomination, as this depends upon what is meant by the idea of a “denomination”. In one sense FIEC is clearly a “denomination,” because it is denominated by a particular ecclesiological position. It is not possible for a Presbyterian or Episcopalian church to retain its submission to a presbytery or the lordship of its bishop and affiliate to FIEC, as it would not be an “independent” church with true autonomy. However FIEC is not a “denomination” in the sense of a controlling central authority which has power to determine the practice of its churches and to prevent them leaving if they wish to do so. Congregations in the Church of Scotland and the Church of England, for example, cannot simply choose to leave the body to which they belong and take their buildings with them, no matter that they might have been purchased and maintained by the local congregation members, because the local congregation is a manifestation of the central organisation. The local churches that belong to FIEC are not a manifestation of a central body. Instead the central FIEC is a collective manifestation of the local churches that have formed it.

The lack of true congregational autonomy in other denominations is surely a major reason why some conservative evangelical ministers and congregations have remained within them, despite the fact that they have become liberal, catholic or both. They are unable to leave without massive consequences, and all but the very largest lack the ability to do so. How many Anglican churches would leave the Church of England tomorrow of they could walk away with their buildings and continue to enjoy the ministry opportunity they provide?     

The FIEC is thus “denominated” but not a controlling “denomination”. It follows that Trueman’s critique is not applicable. We are not just an organisation that unites to propagate the gospel, but that seeks to do so through a particular kind of church, the kind of church which we believe most faithfully reflects the New Testament teaching. FIEC churches work in partnership with other individual churches and denominations, but FIEC itself exists to maintain and promote a particular kind of church, holding to the core tenets of historical evangelicalism (Bible, cross, justification by faith and conversionism) and an independent ecclesiology.

Any group of churches is free to determine for itself what restrictions may be necessary to ensure and protect the health of the churches that are in membership. That is the purpose of confessionalism, and FIEC is clearly confessional. Over the years FIEC has not collectively felt that the future faithfulness of independent evangelical churches depends upon enforcing a particular mode of baptism, a particular model of internal church government (defining the roles of pastors, elders and deacons), a particular understanding of the sovereignty of God in salvation, a particular eschatology, a particular view of the scope of the atonement, a particular view of age of the earth, or a particular view as to the use of spiritual gifts today.

The churches have, however, felt it necessary to take a stand on ecumenism (refusing to join in worship and mission with those who deny core gospel doctrine or to join organisations like Churches Together which demand recognition of false teachers and apostate liberal and catholic churches as equal brothers in Christ), annihilationism (which denies conscious eternal punishment), and on complementarianism. There is no inconsistency in FIEC, or more properly the churches of the FIEC, choosing to adopt these boundaries for membership, as we do not pretend to be a mere gospel group.

The reasons for our position

It is of course a very different question as to why FIEC has chosen to adopt a position in regard to complementarianism. I think there are a number of interrelated reasons why our churches have felt the need to take this stand. Obviously the vast majority of our churches are convinced that complementarianism most faithfully reflects the teaching of Scripture, and that God has commanded that local churches be led by male pastors and elders. However this, in itself, is not a sufficient reason for adopting a complementation position as an association, since many of our churches would hold, for example, that a Calvinistic understanding of salvation faithfully reflects Scripture, and yet it is not required for affiliation. There are, I think, four main reasons why the FIEC has felt it essential to maintain a complementarian position:

  • 1. Because egalitarianism threatens the ultimate authority of Scripture
    The arguments that are used to justify an egalitarian position all too often fail to reflect an a priori commitment to the inerrancy and sufficiency of Scripture. The dominant egalitarian arguments in favour of female leadership and authority in the church dismiss the clear teaching of the New Testament, and especially that of Paul, as either wrong and offensive or merely cultural. In essence they claim that, if he were writing today, he would say the exact opposite of what he said, either because he would have realised his mistake or there is no longer a need to be sensitive to out-dated cultural expectations about gender roles.

    Whilst there are, in my experience, a small number of conservative evangelical egalitarians who hold to a high view of Scripture, the hermeneutics of most egalitarians could be used to undermine many biblical doctrines and ethical requirements, since they place human reason and modern cultural sensibilities above the authority of the biblical witness.
  • 2. Because egalitarianism undermines historic evangelical convictions
    The hermeneutical methodology of egalitarians, together with the fact that it is inherently a revolutionary movement that wishes to overturn a long established position, means that it often goes hand in hand with the rejection or redefinition of other historic evangelical convictions. Tragically those who regard themselves as evangelical and egalitarian are too often those who would also no longer affirm penal substitutionary atonement, the inerrancy of the Scriptures, salvation through conscious faith in Christ alone, and the reality of eternal conscious torment for those outside of Christ at death - or who, even if they affirm these doctrines themselves, would not want to exclude others who deny or doubt them. The historic meaning of “evangelical” has thus been systematically undermined.

    I know some egalitarians who are absolutely and unreservedly orthodox on these issues, and I greatly respect them, but in my experiences they are a small minority. It is therefore understandable why many view egalitarianism as a Trojan horse that will threaten core gospel truths in the long run. Very few egalitarians wish to identify themselves with the truth-defending ethos of conservative evangelicals, which sees the need to exclude false teachers who deny core gospel truths. It is perhaps for this reason that there have never been large numbers of egalitarians seeking to join FIEC. Put bluntly, very few egalitarians seem to want to take a stand with us on the other convictions we hold dear.
  • 3. Because egalitarianism damages the mission of the church
    Egalitarianism and female church leadership is a relatively recent phenomena and it has yet to pass the test of history. There is no need to take a stand on many other so-called “secondary issues” because the evidence of several centuries shows that equally biblical and faithful churches can hold to them. Whilst the early reformers railed against Baptists, and even had them executed in some instances, few would say today that it is impossible to be a conservative evangelical paedo-baptist, or a conservative evangelical credo-baptist. However the evidence so far suggests that the the adoption of egalitarianism by a church or denomination leads to drift from the gospel and long-term decline. Few egalitarians are thoroughly committed to the other tenets of historic evangelicalism, and in my experience appointing women elders and pastors does not lead to growing and thriving conservative evangelical churches that preach the gospel clearly.

    It is often claimed that egalitarianism is necessary for mission, but I find it hard to think of a growing church led by a woman senior pastor which is seeing significant numbers of conversions of men in the age range 18-50. Male-led churches are often effective in reaching both men and women with the good news of Jesus. The evidence of the last thirty years is that female-led churches, and egalitarian denominations, become progressively more liberal and feminised. In the long run this results in the death or marginalisation of the church. Complementarians are not surprised that this is the case, and regard it as vindication of God’s command that church leaders be male. Current evidence suggests that the introduction of female leadership cannot be regarded in a similar way to baptism, and in such circumstances caution is essential to guard the health of the churches.
  • 4. Because it is impossible to have a genuinely neutral position on female leadership in the church
    Pragmatically it is impossible for a church association to welcomes and affirm both complementarians and women pastors and elders. This is amply demonstrated by the difficulties of the Church of England, which has sought to both welcome the ordination of women and recognise female clergy as valued church leaders, whilst also affirming those who view it as wrong for women to be ordained to church leadership (either on Scriptural or traditional grounds). In the end there is no option but for one group to be demeaned as a tolerated but marginalised second-class group, whilst the other is given full endorsement.

    If FIEC were to admit egalitarian churches it would have to welcome women pastors and accord them equal status. They would have to enjoy the same right to participate in the life of the Fellowship, including the same entitlement to lead on the Trust Board and speak at conferences and events. It would be inconsistent, patronising and rude to do otherwise. However the reality is that a massive majority would regard female participation in these ways as contrary to Scripture. A half-way house of allowing women to belong, but excluding them from participation, would be lack integrity and prove unsustainable. To admit egalitarian men to the Pastors’ Association, but not the women that they logically believe should also be entitled to be admitted, would also be inconsistent.

Conclusion

In summary, Trueman’s critique is inapplicable to the FIEC. Our adoption of a complementarian position is entirely in line with our desire to support and encourage a family of independent churches that share the convictions of historic evangelicalism. It is not just an extreme minority position, but is shared by other groups of churches such as New Frontiers, and sub-groups within other denominations, including a substantial number of conservative evangelical Anglicans who believe that their church should be complementarian.

Whilst we defend complemetarianism as our position and our identity, we also recognise that there are other gospel people and churches that take a different view, and we are pleased to work with them on a basis that does not require us to deny our own convictions. Some of our churches belong to other associations that include egalitarians, such as the Evangelical Alliance, and many of our churches support and work with para-church organisations and mission agencies that include egalitarians.

Footnotes

This article was first published on John Stevens’ blog here.