For those who have not been following this discussion, here is a quick rundown as a preface to my point.
On August 16, 2012 Denny Burk posted a Gospel Coalition video on his blog in which he noted that Tim Keller suggested that complementarian account of male-female relations is “‘indirectly’ a gospel issue.” Carl Trueman replied at Ref21 by raising questions. He has two concerns. First, that the Gospel Coalition isn’t a church and it is the church that has been commissioned to preserve the truth:
For the full range of Christian truth to be preserved, one needs not only a commitment to orthodox doctrine but also a biblical structure for its maintenance and preservation.
if complementarianism is a gospel issue, then I think one is really saying that it is a matter which touches directly on the credibility or coherence of a simple profession of faith by an ordinary believer and one should act consistent with that view.
Perhaps Trueman would have less rhetorical purchase if TGC had some other name. As things are, the issue keeps being framed as “Is complementarianism a Gospel issue?” Now, any philosopher will cry, “Distinguo!” at this point. It should go without saying that it depends on how one defines “gospel.” Was abolition a gospel issue? Is abortion? What about wife-beating? One could make an argument that they are “gospel issues” on one definition, and one can easily imagine legitimate non-church Christian organizations that come together around those issues in cultures where the issues are current and relevant. If anything, one could argue that complementarianism is more intimately bound up than those issues are with the church’s own faithfulness to God’s plan for its own activities. It would be impossible in this day and age for any parachurch organization to convey a broad vision of church ministry without addressing the issue of women’s ordination. And it is entirely understandable that an organization that exists to help churches : “[reform their] ministry practices to conform fully to the Scriptures” and that opposes “theological and moral relativism,” as TGC’s “about” statement says, should end up addressing the effects of egalitarianism/feminism in both the church and the home.
Definitions and Problems
Let’s define our terms briefly. Complementarianism is an account of male-female relations , which, as the name suggests, stresses the complementary roles that males and females have in creation and redemption. It stands in contrast to egalitarianism, which seems to wipe out differences inherent to creation and divine intention. It also stands in contrast to patriarchal views, which tend to view male-female relations hierarchically.
Here’s a brief discussion from the old Heidelcast (Are there limits to male headship?). Watch the TGC video for yourself here.
The other term to be defined in this discussion is “gospel issue.” This is not an expression that occurs in the Reformed confessions nor is it a term that occurs much (to my knowledge) in the Reformed tradition.
An (online) search for a definition of “gospel issue” suggests both the difficulty of defining it and the problem with making complementarianism a “gospel issue.” The first result of the search was Denny Burk’s post. The second, however, was a post explaining how “The Gay Movement is a Gospel Issue.” According to Bay Area First Baptist, “Life is a Gospel Issue.” According to Russell Moore, a Southern Baptist theologian, “Racial Justice is a Gospel Issue.” According to Wesleyan theologian, Kevin Scott, “Care of Creation” is a “gospel issue.”
We all know that words are, in large measure, defined by their use. From its use we can infer that a “gospel issue” is one that is essential to a right understanding and practice of the Christian life for those who believe the gospel. If this is what the expression means then, for confessional Protestants, the expression itself is inherently problematic. It seems that the expression “gospel issue” is a rhetorical move to lend urgency, moral, and spiritual significance to a given point of view. Perhaps Keller and Burk mean to imply that there is a logical connection between complementarianism and the gospel but teasing out that connection would be a job (see below).
Distinguo (I Distinguish)
I agree partly with Lydia McGrew. We do need to make a very important distinction. Complementarianism, homosexuality, racial justice, and ecology, are matters of Christian ethics, sanctification, i.e., matters of the Christian life and that makes them significant but to call any of them a “gospel issue” runs the risk of confusing two vitally important but quite distinct elements of the Christian faith: law and gospel.
As used by Scripture, gospel typically refers to the announcement of the Good News that Jesus has been raised from the dead as a vindication of his righteousness and for the justification of sinners. It also refers to Jesus’ return and it is sometimes used in a broad sense of the message of sin and salvation. Almost without exception, the NT usage of gospel refers to the objective accomplishment of redemption for us in Christ. In the expression “gospel issue” as it is being used in the various discussions above there seems to be virtually no reference to the objective accomplishment of redemption for us but rather the focus seems to be upon the application of redemption to us and particularly to the doctrine of sanctification.
In Scripture there are gospel issues. Paul confronted the Galatians and the Apostle Peter himself over a “gospel issue.” There were Judaizers who had infiltrated the Galatian congregation, who were preaching a message of acceptance with God through faith in Christ and sanctification (as they defined it). As a consequence, there was division in the congregation between Jew and Gentile and the Apostle Peter would not sit at table with Gentiles. Paul seems to have regarded Peter’s behavior as a gospel issue (See Galatians 1-2). After Paul called him out, however, Peter repented and arguably articulated his now corrected view at the Jerusalem Synod (Acts 15).
The second great difficulty with making complementarianism a “gospel issue” is that, as we’ve seen, there can be no end of the list of “gospel issues.” My results came from one page. Who knows how many other “gospel issues” there may be? Potentially there are as many “gospel issues” as there are significant questions in the Christian life.
Complementarianism cannot be a gospel issue, not because it is not true or important. It seems to be a more biblical approach than either egalitarianism or patriarchalism but singling out this view or the others that have been labeled as “gospel issues” seems somewhat arbitrary.
Reformed Christians have ecclesiastically sanctioned summaries of Scripture, the Reformed confessions, and they have a great deal to say about the Christian life and priorities in sanctification. We might be on firmer ground if we said that one of them, e.g., the Christian Sabbath or biblical worship a “gospel issue.” At least then there would be some ecclesiastical weight behind the claim.
Even then, however, making a particular aspect of sanctification a “gospel issue” is problematic. Is it true that someone who disagrees with the Reformed view of the Sabbath has denied or infringed upon the gospel? How many at TGC hold and teach the Reformed view of the Sabbath? How many of them hold and teach the Reformed view of worship (e.g., Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 21)?
As passionate as I am about the Sabbath and biblical worship as defined by the Reformed churches I cannot see how we can call them “gospel” issues without unintentionally confusing the free grace of God in Christ and the moral consequences of that grace.
The gospel is the paramount issue for the Christian: Jesus Christ obeyed, died, was raised, and is ascended at the right hand of the Father. He has conquered the Evil One, sin, and hell for all those to whom he has given the grace of faith, who, by his Spirit, through faith (WSC 30) are united to him, to whom all his righteousness has been imputed, who are accepted by God as righteous. That is good news for sinners. That the Christian faith entails obligations as a matter of grateful, Spirit-wrought, obedience is not in question. What is in question, however, is the wisdom and truth of using the gospel as a way of leveraging a discussion in Christian ethics.
UPDATE 25 SEPTEMBER 15:35
Darryl Hart has a helpful postscript to this discussion. He reminds us that there are ways in which and versions of “complementarianism” that may not be amenable to Reformed and Presbyterian types. He writes:
The logic of hierarchy and patriarchy is not something that I am going to defend, myself. The little missus and I have reached a level of concord that most observers would call an egalitarian arrangement. I have no stones to through from the windows of my glass house. I do have the shield of two-kingdom theology, though, which allows me to have my cake (egalitarianism of a kind at home) and eat it too (hierarchicalism and patriarchy of a kind in the church) Read more»