Rebranding Hierarchy

Once upon a time, I was involved in the Monash University branch of AFES/Intervarsity called “The Evangelical Union”.

This was the early 1980s, and young men and women alike were leading everything. The term Complementarian wasn't yet a twinkle in Wayne Grudem's eye.*

In this period, egalitarian theologians were arguing that men and women were designed to complement one another; that we needed both women and men in leadership.

In society more broadly, the ideal of a gender hierarchy was being profoundly challenged. The idea was normalised that women should have equal legal and workplace rights to men - in theory if not in practice.

By the late 1980s, Christian conservatives who believed in a gender hierarchy found themselves with an image problem. They were becoming theologically marginalised, as well as out of step with society at large.

It was time for a rebranding exercise.

To quote Scot McKnight:

'Grudem tells us that he and John Piper, in editing the 1991 symposium, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, “coined” the term “complementarian” as a self-designation of their position. In other words, they invented it. In this book, the editors admit that, in designating their understanding of what the Bible teaches on the sexes the “complementarian” position, they were seeking to establish a new term for what had hitherto been called the “traditional” or “hierarchical” position. From this point on, virtually every book written by an evangelical in support of the creation based subordination of women has designated the stance taken as the “complementarian” position.'

After suggesting the term was co-opted, he goes on to say:

'we need to say that the reason they chose “complementarian” was because “hierarchical” and “traditional” were too clear.'

Or in my words, they needed a euphemistic term to describe a socially unacceptable idea. 

The full article is well worth a read, including the comments.

Why am I writing about this?

I attended a gathering of Christian leaders this week where a young man advertised a church planting initiative that was “Reformed and Complementarian”.** Churches who didn't fit this bill couldn't be part of their group. I had the impression (perhaps unfairly) he felt a PR term co-opted in the 1990s by hierarchical conservatives was a critical marker of orthodoxy.

How did this happen?

I’m still wondering, and still bewildered.

It's been quite a PR achievement.

* Nor had Grudem left most Christians out of the US aghast by claiming voting for Donald Trump was a morally good choice . Nor had Piper left almost everyone shocked by suggesting Christian women should only work in entry level jobs... anything involving management or leadership of any male would compromise "profound biblical and psychological issues" (But I digress)

**The room was dominated Baptists and Pentecostals, who owe more to Anabaptist and revivalist traditions than a Calvinist Reformation stream. He was in no position to work with these groups. I actually perplexed he had been invited under the circumstances; not that this was his fault. (But I digress again).


rehvid said…
Very nice post! Thanks
Janet Woodlock said…
You're most welcome! Thanks for the feedback! :-)
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