Is there a more contentious topic for church life than the matter of how men and women are to relate and partner in ministry? Conversations about this topic aren’t new, but they aren’t getting easier either. For this reason, I’m very glad for the rich resource of Embracing Complementarianism: Turning Biblical Convictions into Positive Church Culture.
Graham Beynon (Minister of Grace Church, Cambridge and director of Independent Ministry Training at Oakhill Theological College, London) and Jane Tooher (Director of the Priscilla and Aquila Centre and lecturer in Ministry and Church History at Moore Theological College) have produced a wise and irenic work drawing on their combined ministry experience. Immediately the force of the book’s message is displayed in this partnership of authors.
The difficulty of the subject is addressed immediately in the opening chapter, chief among them being that no one enters the conversation “cold,” as everyone has a history (11). But the authors challenge the reader to consider the matter in view of the teaching God has given in his word, willing to embrace the message as good, even when there may have been bad experiences or challenges in the past. Some of the concerns people have with complementarianism today are addressed honestly before a principled approach is outlined.
Rather than summarizing the sequenced argument of the book, I plan to identify the key strengths of the work which I believe make this book so important for Christians today. First, the book is balanced. It doesn’t shy away from differing points of view but instead seeks to treat them fairly. For example, in a section on the battle of the sexes, the authors address the historic and contemporary problems associated with male dominance and what has recently been labelled “toxic masculinity.” They are honest about the asymmetry of the problem, as men have historically held positions of power. But they are also careful to note the ways that women also can be toxic in their relationships. So, the authors conclude, “it is sin which is toxic, not gender” (25). This conclusion marks the balanced nature with which the authors navigate complex issues theologically. As a result, there is the avoidance of finger-pointing, and an invitation for all to consider matters for their own pursuit of godliness.
Second, the authors provide wise counsel. They avoid the temptation of assuming that theological convictions lead to a “one-size fits all” practice. Instead, they helpfully demonstrate different ways that truth has been applied in a variety of contexts. They are cautious to communicate certainty where there are valid interpretive differences. Rather, they provide counsel for why they believe some positions to be more faithful than others and how these interpretations may lead to best practices.
Third, on such a contentious matter the authors are far more generous than some may expect. The sort of ministry practice advocated for is not restricted to 1950s caricatures of gender roles. Rather, the authors show how there is not a single sphere of ministry that isn’t impacted by biblical complementarity. So, while they contend that eldership is restricted to men, they encourage eldership to receive counsel from women. Likewise, while preaching may be restricted to men (as an “elder” type task), they encourage both input preparation and feedback from women. At each turn, the authors break from conventional rigidity in their application and instead encourage principled creativity, delivering many practical examples.
Fourth, the book is immensely practical. Drawing from their decades of combined ministry experience, the authors helpfully imagine how the truths they explore might be applied in various contexts. Further to these suggested applications, there are helpful tips on how these practices might be cultivated in church life. So, in the penultimate chapter readers are guided through how convictions can be identified amongst church leadership and then mapped onto every sphere of church life. Then in the final chapter, readers are given advice about how to implement their convictions, beginning with leadership and working through strategic involvement of the body of believers, with a strong encouragement towards clear communication (including listening!). This practical advice is further served by Appendix 4, which helps church leaders to write a position paper on the biblical foundations for the ministries of men and women.
Finally, the book is honest. Partnership in a book project and partnership between men and women doesn’t proceed on perfect agreement on every point (e.g., men and women leading services, 124). Beynon and Tooher are honest about their points of difference regarding implementation, without compromising the fundamental principles they agree upon. By offering these glimpses into a dialogue about difference, readers are provided with an example of how to genuinely work together in ministry. Furthermore, the authors are honest about genuine mistakes they have made along the way (e.g., 46-47, 102, 138). This sort of sharing about differences and even mistakes along the way encourages the activism the authors want their readers to pursue – hard work that they believe is worth it.
As I read this book, I found myself reflecting on the various ministries I have served in over the past few decades. I praised God for the wonderful contribution of women partnering with me in gospel work. But I was also challenged to do better, identifying many times and many ways I could have considered and appreciated the contribution of women more. I found myself joyfully desiring more opportunities for a better partnership, a richer depiction of the fellowship that God has granted to us in the gospel. In this way, I believe the authors’ hope for the book was realised. They have given me, and other readers, an invitation to marvel at, experience, and embrace the complementarity of men and women as a good gift God has given to his people. I hope many will take and read this book, and that all our churches will be better for it.