The Puffing Up of Complementarian Theology

The Puffing Up of Complementarian Theology

“Pride is a wonderful, terrible thing, a seed that bears two vines, life and death.”

The previous quote is not from the Bible. It’s a quote from the beautiful, bittersweet short story, “The Scarlet Ibis” by James Hurst. The line is spoken by Brother, the narrator of the story, who flashes back to a time from his early childhood, a time marked by hope and fear, love and hate, pride and shame.

Brother reflects on the war fought within himself; a battle whose catalyst is the birth of a baby brother with special needs. From the moment his baby brother arrives, Brother searches for signs of normalcy. He longs for a playmate and an equal, a built-in forever friend with whom he can wrestle and race. When his baby brother’s disabilities threaten that dream, Brother’s war, fought on the battlefield of his heart, begins.

Brother gives his baby brother the nickname Doodle, and we, the reader, venture with him back to a time in a lonely swamp beneath the canopy of a massive tree and watch as Brother pushes Doodle to be normal, to be like him. His shame in having an invalid brother motivates their trips to Old Woman Swamp, where Doodle is content to play in a land of make-believe, a land where everyone flies and families stay together forever. Brother escapes into the sanctuary of Doodle’s world, but is always drawn back to reality by the shame he feels for Doodle.

While Doodle benefits from Brother’s lessons and eventually learns to walk, Brother’s pride in having a part in this accomplishment puts forth a new fruit; new goals are made and a harsh push to teach Doodle other “normal” abilities, like swimming and rowing a boat, begins again.

“Pride is a wonderful, terrible thing, a seed that bears two vines, life and death.” This wisdom is unfortunately realized too late for our narrator and Doodle, as the story’s heartbreaking conclusion makes this a work with true literary immortality and a timeless theme.

Pride is a wonderful, terrible thing. God knows the dangers of pride. The Bible, too, speaks of two different types of vines when it comes to pride. 1. Pride over a job well done and 2. Pride which leads to self-righteousness. God hates the second type of pride because it is a hindrance to seeking Him as explored in Psalm 10:4.

Self-righteous pride leaves no room for the type of humility God values and describes in Matthew 5:3 where it assures blessings for those who walk humbly.

Like the thematic message in “The Scarlet Ibis” the Bible also talks about the destructive outcomes of pride. Proverbs 16: 18-19 “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall. Better to be lowly in spirit and among the oppressed than to share plunder with the proud.”

Pride steals God’s glory. It places undo credit on the individual, forgetting God’s grace and sacrifices for humankind.

Complementarian theology is a proud theology

It boasts of male prominence and privilege and preference. It puffs up, but it never edifies.

When a complementarian pastor writes a single sermon with multiple points of reference on the importance of the man, the husband, and the father, he is perpetuating a self-righteous, prideful response in the men who hear that message.

Recently I witnessed this first-hand while visiting another church. The pastor took the story of Jesus feeding the 5,000 and made it about how Jesus fed the 5,000. He focused on the distribution of the bread among the male disciples who then delivered the bread to the male leaders of each family who then distributed it to the women and children. He loosely tied this act to the importance of men as “heads of households” working to provide for their families while women maintained the home and children.

What started out as a teaching on the miraculous feeding of the 5,000 by Jesus ended with a message on the esteemed role of men. Instead of unpacking the miracle and revealing the bread’s symbolism for the infinite replenishment of Jesus’ provisions of grace and love and mercy, we were left pondering the connection of an ancient culture’s patriarchal hierarchy to men’s roles and duties today.

When sermons speak of spiritual leaders, headship, and pastor husbands, when there is a pointed effort to remind husbands and fathers of their “godly” duties, and when men are applauded for simply being born male, God’s role becomes smaller and smaller; God’s voice becomes fainter and fainter as the puffing up of men pushes God into the margins.

Complementarian theology is destructive. God wants his children, sons and daughters, brought near (Isaiah 43:6, 49:22, and 60:4). When men elevate themselves in their own eyes and in the eyes of women because of loosely interpreted verses of scripture, hierarchies of privilege form.

In many complementarian churches, only males are awarded the titles pastor, elder, and deacon. Women, whether they are directly or indirectly told to do so, view these men as somehow more spiritually important and equipped than females in the church, even females who devote years of their lives studying theology or answering God’s call to ministry and teaching.

Some churches will bestow the title “pastor” on any male who assumes a leadership role in the church. For example, the husband and wife may equally run the children’s ministry in the church, but only the husband will be titled Pastor. Men who work full time as attorneys and engineers are being called Pastor while women in the church who hold degrees from seminary are never acknowledged and their gifts are never used.

Men are arrogantly and incorrectly usurping control over when and how women can use their spiritual gifts. The Bible is clear. God determines our gifting and each of us is to use our gifts freely for the whole and complete working of the body of Christ. When reading 1 Corinthians 12, God and the Spirit are repeatedly credited for our gifts, not males, not husbands. It is a bold and prideful thing to assume a privilege and power equal to God’s.

The effects of prideful theology are clear as more and more women are turning to their husbands, pastors, and male church leaders for spiritual knowledge and guidance and fewer and fewer to the word, allowing God to speak to them directly through reading and prayer.

How can these things not create a prideful response in men?

How can men not feel a puffing up within their hearts when they are constantly seeing spiritual roles of power awarded to only their gender?

How can men not assume preferential status in God’s eyes when they are constantly reminded of their special roles and duties within their churches, marriages, and families?

How can men not move to center stage, and God to the wings, when they are routinely charged with special orders and directives?

Men are being made to feel they are something, when in fact, the Bible says over and over, we are all nothing (Galatians 6:3).

Elevated roles of status are placing men in positions which should be reserved solely for God. God does not value the company of prideful men: “Though you make your nests as high as an eagle, I will bring you down from there…” (Jeremiah 49:16)

“Pride is a wonderful, terrible thing, a seed that bears two vines, life and death.”

There is room for one type of pride in churches and homes today, pride in the life-giving grace, power, and love of our Lord and Savior. Pride in the fact that each of us is fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image. When we abide in God and God in us, we will have life everlasting, and that is something to boast about.

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