July 5, 2013
Friday Five Interview: Owen Strachan
Does complementarianism need an update? We ask one of it's prominent young leaders.
For today's entry in the Friday Five interview series, we catch up with Owen Strachan. Owen is the Assistant Professor of Christian Theology and Church History at Boyce College in Louisville, Kentucky and the Executive Director of the Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood.
Owen is a frequent contributor to Christianity Today (read his contributions here) and other publications such as The Atlantic, First Things, and the Scottish Bulletin of Evangelical Theology. He is the former director of the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
Today we talk to Owen about new media, complementarianism, and what advice he gives to young college students.
You recently assumed leadership of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. It seems like the organization is undergoing a makeover. New strategy?
CBMW is in its fourth decade of existence. We’ve led the conversation on gender roles for a long while now. Every organization goes through cycles. Through texts like Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood and resources like the Journal for Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, we’ve been able to show that complementarianism rests upon a rock-solid scholarly foundation. For example, Wayne Grudem’s work on kephale—showing in several academic venues that in Greek it always signifies “authority” rather than “source”—has been challenged but never refuted. We’re going to continue to invest in scholarship in order to advance sound thinking among evangelicals, and we’ll likely have some exciting announcements along these lines in coming days.
We’re in a spot now where we’re seeing that it’s good for us to spend some energy in more accessible areas, too. Much of the conversation is happening in less formal circles on new media. The hermeneutic used by egalitarian friends in popular venues is frankly quite different than that found in the debates in the 1980s and 90s—it’s more experiential, emotive, and in step with popular culture. The crucial concern for many in this camp seems to center in getting the mood right rather than burrowing into exegetical questions. In distinction from past days, a number of leading advocates of egalitarianism don’t have advanced theological training and don’t focus a great deal on textual arguments. It’s generally assumed that when the culture presses a certain way, we should, too.
Take all this together and you have a situation in which people are being formed theologically at a popular level. We want to engage in this discussion, and so we’ve started four new “channels” on our website—men’s, women’s, public square, and book reviews. We’re not so much concerned with “branding,” though that’s not unimportant. We are concerned with presenting gospel wisdom to people in a style and format they can connect with.
Some complementarians have said that the term "complementarian" is a bit tired and that perhaps this movement needs a new definition? Do you agree?
It’s a fifty-cent word, for sure, which fits with our scholarly pedigree. I think it’s a marvelous term, actually, because it captures what is plain given even the most cursory of observation of men and women: though we share so much in common—humanity and the image of God, for starters—we are different. Let’s just glory in that for a moment: God made men and women different. Secular culture so focuses on sameness, so beats this into our brains every day, that we can lose sight of a very simple biblical and natural reality: difference, or perhaps distinction, is good. It’s God-glorifying. Actually, more than that, it’s intrinsic to the Godhead. One God, three persons. Diversity is no threat to unity. Diversity, we might say, even enriches unity.
My daughter asked me the other day, “Daddy, why are there different seasons?” It’s one of those questions that sweet four-year-olds produce in spades. With a tired brain after a long day of work, I did my best to answer her, eventually working my way into much the kind of answer I gave in the previous paragraph. (I’m pretty sure she wasn’t expecting to get a Trinitarian answer to her question, but hey, that’s what happens when you grow up in the home of a theology professor!) Anyway, I think seeing that we possess unity but are not diminished by our differences is a truth that unlocks a fundamental mystery of the universe. It’s a question as old as Plato and Aristotle, and still older, and I genuinely think “complementarianism” answers it with a simple elegance, even as Scripture does.
Am I absolutely wedded to the term? No. I’m open to a new one. But I love that the original word, coined by Wayne Grudem and John Piper, points to how mellifluously the sexes fit and work together. We know from practical experience that men and women, though sharing much in terms of spiritual call and purpose, are uniquely created by God for certain roles and responsibilities. Amidst a spirit of mind that denies basic reality, CBMW is here to calmly, trustingly, and joyfully make the point that our distinctiveness and complementary are not ill realities, but beautiful ones, and if we will embrace them, we will unleash human flourishing in all directions.
Some egalitarians such as Rachel Held Evans accuse complementarians for establishing patriarchal cultures that foster mistreatment of women. How do you answer that?
The question is not what culture we think we should create, but what culture God wants us to create. As folks like my personal hero Jonathan Edwards have explored, God seems to take profound delight in making things that are different and calling them to pursue harmony. God’s design in Scripture is for a husband to be the leader, protector and provider for his wife, and for a wife to be a joyful helper who submits to and supports her husband. The Lord has always called men to a leadership role in the home. After the fall, he addresses Adam with his thundering question—“Where are you?” It is clear that Adam and Eve will struggle after the fall, with Eve tempted by her fallen nature to undermine and usurp her husband. Adam, for his part, will be tempted to be domineering and unkind (Gen. 3).
The gospel, we note, undoes each of these awful instincts. It frees women to love and support God-honoring men; it frees men to be Christ-imaging, self-sacrificial leaders of women. This is especially true in the home (see Eph. 5), though a form of it applies in the church, as men are called to be elders and thus to protect and bless all under their care (see 1 Timothy 3).
It is not God’s wise and even obvious design in Scripture that is at fault when abuse happens (and it does happen, and it is a stench to God). It is sin that is to blame. Sin occurs on all sides of a marriage, as every married person knows all too well. But the power of the Holy Spirit makes us more than conquerors over every sin, and speaks a better word than egalitarianism or macho culture (Rom. 8:37). CBMW exists to see homes suffused by the glow of the gospel, homes in which men lay their lives down for their families and women show the ironically world-defying beauty of a quiet and gentle spirit.
CBMW hates abuse, and tried nearly 20 years ago to issue a joint statement with CBE on the subject. I am open to doing so today, especially given that I am personally friends with egalitarians who know and love me and who are more than aware that I—as with every complementarian I know—hate abuse. We’re going to feature content on the CBMW site that invites conversation and healing on this issue. Sin is in every camp, including complementarianism, but biblical complementarianism calls men not to boorish self-exaltation, but to higher levels of self-sacrifice and love for others than any other worldview this world will ever see.
Lastly, we’ve got to be careful with our arguments: the fact, say, that some evangelical pastors have mistreated their congregations does not mean that the ministry is bad or the gospel is untrue. It means that sin happens, and must be opposed.
For pastors and church leaders, is this a top-tier issue or one that evangelicals committed to orthodoxy can disagree on?
Every issue on which Scripture speaks is an important issue. The matter of sexuality and gender is hugely formative in our lives, and bear on countless matters of our daily existence and our discipleship with Christ. It is certainly true that evangelicals can and do disagree on this issue, but I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that any area of scriptural teaching or theology is unimportant. Does someone have to be a complementarian to be saved? No. Is embracing complementarianism a matter of fidelity to God’s Word? Yes.
You're a college professor. What is one piece of advice you'd like to give to a young man or woman considering a full-time ministry commitment?
I can’t give just one coherent thought. Sorry.
1) Read up on Luther’s self-sacrificial “theology of the cross” as opposed to a self-exalting “theology of glory.”
2) Read Eugene Peterson’s The Pastor and take away from it a deeply counter-cultural ministerial spirit, one grounded not in numerical success or contextual benchmarks but in love for God and love for people.
3) Commit yourself to reading theology now, and promise never to think that theology and practice are disconnected. When tempted not to deepen your understanding of Holy Scripture through reading and study, remember that obedience to the First Commandment involves loving God with your mind.
4) Tie your flag to the gospel mast, and don’t ever let the culture or anything else alter biblical truth.
5) Have a bit of fun. Root for the Boston Celtics; run a marathon; roast your own coffee beans. Enjoy God’s good gifts. The best ministers are those who seem like, and upon closer examination actually prove to be, real people.