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Published Date: October 3, 2013

Published Date: October 3, 2013

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Why (Most) Complementarians Should Be Pacifists

I believe that (most) complementarians should be pacifists.*

Consider the following passages:

A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety. (1 Timothy 2:11-15, NIV)


Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. (Romans 12:17-19, NIV)

Regarding each of these passages, the following observations can be made:

(1) It is from a (traditionally) Pauline epistle.

(2) It includes a straightforward exhortation.

(3) It offers explicitly theological justification for its exhortation.

(For lack of a better term, we’ll call any argument based on observations (1) – (3)  the plain reading of the text argument–or plain reading for short.)

The non-pacifist Christian will want to respond to the second passage, however, with considerations such as the following:

(a) This text needs to be read in its larger (Pauline) context, which includes what appear to be qualifications or counter-examples to this otherwise clear exhortation.

(b) This text needs to be balanced with texts elsewhere in Scripture, which include narratives involving God’s people engaging in the very activity that the passage proscribes without any obvious censure of (and sometimes clear support for) their engagement in this activity.

(c) This text needs to be read in light of Paul’s historical-cultural situation, which includes significant differences from our contemporary culture that need to be considered.

(For lack of a better term, we’ll call any argument based on considerations (a) – (c) the contextual argument.)

Note that the contextual argument is precisely what (most) complementarians reject when used by egalitarians to understand the first passage above. These complementarians argue that the plain reading outweighs the contextual argument. Indeed, as I have discussed elsewhere (see here and here), some complementarians argue that using the contextual argument against the plain reading undermines biblical authority and is the first step on the slippery slope to liberalism.

So why aren’t (most) complementarians pacifists? Here’s one possibility:

I’ve stated that (most) complementarians should be pacifists based on their favoring of the plain reading over the contextual argument. However, we should note that not all complementarians reject the contextual argument. Some are happy to use the contextual argument in their biblical interpretation; they just believe that, even given such considerations, the balance tilts one way regarding gender (that is, toward complementarianism) and another way regarding violence/war (that is, toward non-pacifism). Fair enough, so long as they don’t use the plain reading argument against egalitarians.

However, this still doesn’t explain (most?) complementarians who do favor the plain reading over the contextual argument. Why aren’t most of them pacifists?

I suspect it is because they explicitly use one set of considerations, the plain reading, when it comes to gender and implicitly use another set of considerations, the contextual argument, when it comes to violence/war.

But why this disparity? Here’s one possibility:

The non-pacifist complementarian is from a cultural context in which having Christians in the military (or other potentially violent occupations, such as the police force) is simply so normal that he (or she) could not imagine Scripture possibly teaching something contrary. At the same time, he is in a church context in which certain gender-based roles are so normal that Scripture couldn’t possibly teach something contrary to that either. S0, although he knows that there are those out there with opposing views (that is, pacifists or egalitiarians) and has heard their arguments before, he is confident that these opposing views couldn’t possibly be scriptural. In other words, the non-pacifist complementarian has unwittingly allowed his cultural biases or presuppositions to close him off from possible readings of Scripture (which is ironic, of course, since his argument against egalitarians is that they let culture trump the plain reading of Scripture).

I suspect that some non-pacifist complementarian readers will find my above description somewhat uncharitable. Note, however, that I am only discussing one possible reason a complementarian might be a non-pacifist (and perhaps this possibility is not actualized in the reader’s case). So I simply ask my non-pacifist complemetarian reader, why do you accept complementarianism and reject pacifism (especially in light of the two passages above)?

*One might ask whether the inverse is true: Should (most) pacifists be complementarians? The answer, of course, is that it depends on whether one is a pacifist based on the plain reading argument (in which case one probably should be complementarian, as some of my traditional Mennnonite friends are) or whether one is pacifist for some other reason, such as a certain understanding of discipleship to Jesus Christ that involves following his example of nonviolence (in which case one need not be complementarian in order to be consistent).