Toward a Better Reading: Reflections on the Permanent Changes to the Text of Genesis 3:16 in the ESV Part 2

This is Part 2 of a three part series on the ESV changes to Genesis 3:16.  You can read Part 1 here, where we emphasized our shared commitment to the essentially literal, word-for-word translation philosophy of the ESV translation team.   

–Hannah Anderson and Wendy Alsup 

In 1525, William Tyndale finished the first translation of the New Testament into English. Despite severe persecution and eventual martyrdom, Tyndale devoted his life to ensuring that common people had access to the Scripture in their native tongue. Tyndale’s passion to translate was fueled both by a desire to see the Scripture take root in common people’s hearts, as well as a desire to break the monopoly that the clerical class held over them.  
Because the Word of God is powerful and sharper than any two-edged sword, it was essential that lay people have access to the Scripture to defend themselves in situations where leaders misused and abused their spiritual authority. In this sense, careful translation work was a way to protect the most vulnerable members of the church. Once when confronted by Church authorities, Tyndale famously replied, “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy who drives the plough to know more of the scriptures than you do.” 

During the Reformation, new translations and the advent of the printing press led to increased Biblical literacy across Europe. Today, five hundred years later, advances in scholarship and the advent of the internet have led to even more Biblical engagement. Not only can the plough boy read the Bible, the milk maid also has access to online helps that allow her to engage it in the original languages. The accessibility of scholarship does not negate the need for scholars any more than Wendy’s accessing a study from the Mayo Clinic negated her father’s need for a doctor (recounted in Part 1). But online technology does offer us the ability to work cooperatively with scholars for the good of the church. It allows the laity to be informed–to access lexicons, scholarly articles, historical documents, academic journals, and even professors and researchers personally. We live in a time when a translation change like that of Genesis 3:16 can be easily examined and compared to historic precedent by, yes, even the plough boy and milk maid.  

Toward vs. Contrary  

In this post, we want to focus on the most significant change in the ESV: rendering the Hebrew preposition ‘el in Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 as “contrary to” when it had been previously rendered as “for.” Discussions of Genesis 3:16 often focus on the meaning of “desire” (teshuquah) which is found in only two other places in Scripture (Genesis 4:7 and Song of Solomon 7:10); regardless of the contextual meaning and the positive or negative nature of the desire, the word itself is reasonably clear and so ESV translators have rendered it as “desire,” with which we agree. What has been altered in the ESV is the preposition (‘el) that is connected to the woman’s desire. 

The ESV originally translated this passage as desire “forthe man.  Some argued that the preposition may also be rendered “against” and was noted in a footnote.  In the latest (and permanent) edition, the ESV had translated it to be desire “contrary to” the man.  At first, this might seem a reasonable progression in English (see Denny Burk’s article), but we want to emphasize that while the progression from againstto contrary to” may be reasonable in English, it is not at all reasonable in Hebrew.  

The Hebrew preposition in question tells us something about the direction or focus of the woman’s desire. Historically, English translations have translated it in Genesis 3:16 as “to” or “toward.” Consider this brief survey  and you discover that most English translations since the 1500’s support the ESV’s original translation of “Your desire shall be for your husband…”*  

But more than simply offering a historical accounting of Genesis 3:16, access to online and digital lexicons  also offers clarity into how this Hebrew preposition is translated across the body of Scripture. While ‘el can be translated a variety of ways, we could not find evidence that it has ever been translated “contrary to” in any previous version of the ESV, any other English translation, or in any of the over 5000 other times that it is used in the Old Testament. We believe that there is no other example of ‘el being translated as “contrary to” for the simple fact that it does not mean “contrary to” the way we use it in English.  

As mentioned, the Hebrew preposition ‘el consistently communicates some variation of terminal direction; it shows the direction something is pointed or headed. You talk TO someone. You direct something TOWARD someone. You are heading FOR the door. In Genesis 3:16, a woman’s desire is directed toward the man. In Genesis 4:7, sin’s desire seems directed toward Cain. (** See note for discussion of gender problems between sin and desire in 4:7). While ‘el tells us where the desire is directed, it alone cannot tell us the quality or nature of the desire.  It simply points to which object is being desired. 
Unlike the Hebrew ‘el, the English word “contrary”—the word chosen by the ESV translation committee—inherently implies a movement away from or opposite to something. We understand this in the colloquial sense when we describe a child as “contrary.” He or she has a disposition to move in the opposite direction of what is expected of him or her. ‘El, on the other hand, specifically indicates the direction of movement toward someone or something.  
Even when ‘el is translated as “against,” it still retains the idea of being directed toward someone or something. Consider how we can use “against” in English to show direction. We say, “The rake is lying against the tree” to describe the physical relationship of the rake toward the tree. Or to give an example of negative usage, Genesis 4:8 records that Cain “rose up against” Abel. Here the use of ‘el has a negative connotation because it is attached to the Hebrew verb quwm for “rise up,” but the direction of the movement is unchanged. Cain is not moving away from Abel; he is moving toward him, albeit in violence. By changing Genesis 3:16 to read “contrary to”, the ESV fundamentally changes the direction of the woman’s desire and the meaning of ‘el itself.
What’s Going On  

So what happened? How did desire “for” the man become desire “contrary to” the man?  To extend the metaphor from Part 1, why was ibuprofen prescribed when it is contraindicated when taking Coumadin? 

At this point, we must note the difference between translating the words of a passage and interpreting the significance of a passage. The work of translators who share the ESV philosophy is to give the literal sense of the Hebrew or Greek in as approximate English as possible. This work will include understanding idiomatic expressions, original audience, and cultural context; but the goal is to give the most accurate translation of the words themselves, not to invest those words with certain significance. While translation work does include the work of weighing texts against other texts, searching for the thread that illuminates a difficult word, and tracking down lexical clues, it should not be confused with commentary. The goal of translation, particularly the philosophy espoused by the ESV translation team, is to preserve an intact text so that believers can read and interpret in community.  
The easiest explanation for why translators changed the “for” to “contrary”  is that they moved from translation to commentary, projecting the negative meaning of Genesis 4:7-8 back into Genesis 3:16. To be fair, the two passages have lexical similarities, but the question we must answer is “What are the similarities?”   
In the height of the battle against feminism in the 1970s, Susan Foh  proposed that the similarity between 3:16 and 4:7 was that a woman’s desire toward a man was similar to sin’s desire to destroy Cain. It was, dare we say, contrary to him. This connection is problematic for many reasons, including the fact that the language of Genesis 4:7 is unclear and may actually refer to Abel’s good desire toward Cain.**

Worse, from an interpretive standpoint, Foh used the confusing and obscure text of Genesis 4 to project something back onto the clearer Hebrew in Genesis 3. In contrast, a straightforward chronological reading of Genesis 1-4 actually affirms the lexical definition of the preposition ‘el as “for” or “toward.”  In terms of the fall, the woman’s desire for children, her desire for her husband, and the man’s efforts at cultivating the ground are all good things to be pursued in fulfillment of the Creation Mandate; but post-Fall, these good desires are thwarted with painful consequences. Just as the man’s desire to produce fruit from the ground is rewarded with sweat and pain, a woman’s desire to produce children from her own body is rewarded with sweat and pain. Just as the man turns to his attention to the earth looking for fruitful relationship, a woman turns toward (not away from) a man seeking fruitful relationship. (We will explore this more in Part 3.)   
The only way translators can justify rendering ‘el as “contrary” is to assume something negative about the womans desire based on the use of desire in Genesis 4:7-8. But such a novel change relies solely on commentary, not on accepted definitions to the Hebrew ‘elIn fact, Denny Burk, current president of The Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood concedes this in his article on the changes. Instead of arguing that the new changes fit the ESV’s essentially literal, word-for-word philosophy, he argues why it is OK that they do not. It’s worth noting that Denny also says that he does not prefer the new translation and wished that they had stuck with the original, more literal translation.

The problem we present is more than a technicality. When non-academics come across this change in the ESV—a pastor or Sunday School teacher or woman’s Bible teacher—they may notice the difference but they won’t understand the significance because in English the word “against” acts as a bridge across the gulf of meaning. In their previous version, the verse had a footnote indicating the word “for” can also be translated “against.” In the updated version, the text has changed to “contrary to”—not much of a leap from “against,” right?

If “for” can mean “against”  
And “against” can mean “contrary,”  
then “for” can be replaced by “contrary.”  
Again, the problem is that “against” in English can have two different shades of meanings—both inclined toward and opposed to; ‘el in Hebrew does not. Unfortunately, those of us who don’t read the Scripture in Hebrew (the majority of ESV users) would have little way of knowing that the translation has shifted so dramatically.  They won’t understand that the meanings of ‘el that allowed it to be translated “against” in Gen. 4:8 are the very ones that make “contrary to” completely inappropriate.  

William Tyndale, the scholar who was martyred for translating the Bible in the language of the common man, said this: “I call God to record against the day we shall appear before our Lord Jesus Christ to give a reckoning of our doings, that I never altered one syllable of God’s word against my conscience.” We make no claims to be a William Tyndale or even to have credentials equal to those of the ESV translation committee. We do, however, have access to online scholarship, peer review, and (we hope) the ability to form a rational argument. Our desire is that those with more education than we have will give pause and consider the potential risk of these changes risk to women, yes, but more importantly, the risk to very Scripture itself. Instead of revealing and preserving the text of Scripture for the common man, this translation change corrupts with commentary a critical text dealing with theological anthropology. 

In part 3, we will look at the ramifications of these changes in light of the larger creation narrative of Genesis 1-3 and the potential affect on women’s discipleship. 


*The only Bible translation that translates Gen. 3:16 remotely close to the new rendering of “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband…” is the New Living Translation, whose translation philosophy is much broader than the ESV, functioning in places as an interpretive paraphrase.  Using the NLT to support the new rendering of Genesis 3:16 would simply confirm our concern that the ESV has strayed from its original translation philosophy.

**It’s important to note that scholars throughout Church history have strongly disagreed as to whether the pronoun attached to “desire” in Gen. 4:7 refers to sin or to Abel. The pronoun itself is masculine while the Hebrew word for sin is feminine. It’s possible that this phrase refers to Abel’s desire for Cain and Cain’s corresponding ruling over him (John Calvin interpreted it this way), not sin’s desire for Cain. This is a more natural parallel to the language of Genesis 3:16. Abel’s desire is toward his brother, but Cain seeks to master him, actually rising up against him physically in the next verse. Regardless, the preposition ‘el still signals movement toward an object, not away from it. 






Toward a Better Reading: Reflections on the Permanent Changes to the Text of Genesis 3:16 in the ESV

Over the next week, we are posting a three-part series reflecting on the recent changes to the rendering of Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 in the English Standard Version of the Bible. The most recent changes have only appeared after this latest round of revisions although the ESV has undergone two significant revisions over its fifteen year lifespan. The changes to Genesis 3:16 and 4:7 are made permanent by the decision of the translation committee to forego any further revision cycles.

Wendy Alsup and Hannah Anderson


A few months ago, Wendy took her dad to the doctor after he began experiencing pain from a pinched nerve in his neck.  When the doctor recommended ibuprofen to ease the pain, Wendy almost immediately questioned his choice and even had the gall to suggest a different pain reliever entirely. But instead of becoming angry with her for challenging his medical degree and decades of experience, the doctor welcomed her input and ultimately agreed with her.

Why? Why would a man with professional standing in the medical field acquiesce to a woman who had none?  As you’ve probably already guessed, there is more to the story than we’ve shared. In fact, there are three mitigating factors that explain why the doctor changed his mind at Wendy’s suggestion.

1. Both Wendy and the doctor had her father’s best interest at heart. The doctor was able to receive Wendy’s feedback (as she did his) because they viewed each other as allies in the cause of her dad’s good health. Instead of reading her question as a threat to his authority, he received it as constructive feedback, both because of how she offered it and because his main objective was the same as hers—her dad’s well being.

2. Wendy had access to scholarship about how ibuprofen would affect her dad’s overall health. When she questioned the doctor’s initial prescription, she did not do so from her own scientific education (limited to a handful of undergraduate science courses from 25 years ago); she relied on information from established sources like the Mayo Clinic—information she had been able to access because of the digital age. She questioned the doctor based on the educated opinions of other doctors. In other words, she acted as a proxy consultant, offering the doctor access to a second opinion from his peers without either of them having to leave the examining room.

3. Wendy had intimate, daily experience with caring for her father. Because of this, she remembered something that the doctor—who saw dozens of patients a day—had forgotten. What had slipped the doctor’s mind was that Wendy’s dad takes Coumadin, a blood thinner. When ibuprofen is taken with a blood thinner such as Coumadin, it can put a patient at risk of serious bleeding. The doctor may have been an expert in medicine, but Wendy was the expert in her dad.

Ultimately, Wendy chose to speak up because of what she had learned from other professionals about the danger of combining Coumadin and ibuprofen and her desire to care for her dad. The doctor heard Wendy’s concerns because he shared Wendy’s desire to care for her dad and respected the opinions of his peers that came to him through her. If either had not responded the way they had, Wendy’s father would have used ibuprofen as originally prescribed and put himself at risk for potentially life-threatening bleeding.

This vignette illustrates some of what we hope to accomplish with this 3 part series. Wendy spoke up for her dad to mitigate risk. The doctor listened to mitigate risk. And we are speaking now in this series about the ESV’s changes to Genesis 3:16 and 4:7, in part, to mitigate risk toward women, but more importantly, to mitigate risk to the authority of Scripture which is the foundation of our life and practice as Christians. As we enter this conversation, we do so from a place of shared commitment to the authority of Scripture, access to scholarship of others well versed in Hebrew translation and a daily, intimate knowledge of how misreading Scripture can affect the lives of the women we disciple.

The Wrong Prescription for a Pinched Nerve

Crossway Publishers recently announced permanent changes to the English Standard Version’s translation of Genesis 3:16.  Since its release in 2001,  the ESV has consistently rendered this text as

“Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you”

The ESV also included a footnote indicating that “for” can also be possibly translated as “against” because the Hebrew word, el, designates the direction in which an object is moving or directed, called terminal direction. For example, in English, we say “The rake is leaning against the tree” when we want to convey that the direction the rake leans terminates at the tree.

In the latest and permanent rendering, however, Genesis 3:16 now reads

“Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.”

Interestingly, the translators still include a note at the bottom of the page explaining that the word “contrary” can also be rendered “shall be toward.” This note is neither clarifying nor helpful as it offers readers an entirely contradictory translation of the Hebrew text.  The official translation gives the understanding that the woman’s desire is moving in the opposite direction to the man but this note indicates that it is moving toward him. So which is it?

But more than simply creating confusion, the change to Genesis 3:16 is significant because it touches the pinched nerve that is gendered relationships in the evangelical church. While all of Scripture is necessary to life and godliness, Genesis 3:16 has particular bearing on the gender conversation because it helps to frame our understanding of the difficulties that men and women face after the Fall. And how we understand the brokenness of the world drives the solutions that we try to reach. This is not simply a matter of differing opinions about the proper translation of an isolated passage of Scripture. Set in the middle of the account of the Fall, Genesis 3:16 identifies and thus guides the nature and challenges to women’s spiritual formation in a post-Fall world. Translating this passage accurately has both academic and pastoral implications.

Shared Commitment

Before we analyze the difficulties with the most recent rendering, we want to emphasize our shared commitment to the stated goal of the ESV translation committee. Both of us have used the ESV as the primary translation in our previous books, in part, because “the ESV Bible is an essentially literal translation of the Bible in contemporary English, emphasizing ‘word-for-word’ accuracy, literary excellence, and depth of meaning.” We are concerned that this new rendering of Genesis 3:16 shifts away from this shared commitment. More specifically, we’re concerned that this new rendering repeats the very mistakes that led to the formation of the ESV in the first place.

According to a report in World magazine, one of the initial driving forces behind the ESV was a desire to offer an alternative to the increasingly gender-inclusive language of other translations, including the NIV.   The exact degree to which the gender debate drove the decision to begin work on ESV is unclear (and likely varied from committee member to committee member); but what is clear is that several principal parties who advocated for the ESV have also consistently expressed concerns with the translation philosophy of the NIV and TNIV.

To be specific, the concerns were that the translators go beyond a literal “word-for-word” rendering of gendered passages. While president of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Wayne Grudem helped negotiate the initial rights to use the 1971 Revised Standard Version as the basis of the ESV and eventually acted as lead editor of the ESV Study Bible. Other members of CBMW leadership have contributed to the work of the ESV over the years, while simultaneously tracking and highlighting perceived problems with gender-inclusive translations. (Officially, Grudem has minimized any connection between the work of CBMW and his work with the ESV.)

The point here is not to expose some secret cabal or suggest nefarious motives on the part of the initial translators. The point is to highlight our shared commitment to the careful translation of potentially controversial passages. As users of the ESV, we have always known that the translation of the ESV occurred in context of concerns about gendered language. We understood the concern as such: Because Bible translators can read meaning into gendered words based on current sociological agendas, we want to be constrained by the actual words of the text even if it makes us uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, the ESV’s permanent change to Genesis 3:16 seems to move away from this shared commitment. Instead, it favors an interpretative reading that elevates a specific interpretation of a gendered passage–one that is not shared across the spectrum of conservative thought.  Even worse, this change also has the potential to undermine the very conservatism it ostensibly seeks to protect.

Just as Coumadin interacts with ibuprofen to put a patient at risk, a shift in translation philosophy necessarily interacts with gender philosophy. We can only reach and sustain a conservative reading of gender through a conservative approach to translation. If the Scripture is not carefully guarded from sociological constructs (both conservative and liberal), we risk losing the very authority on which we base our understanding of gender.  How can we call the Church and the world to reflect the Scriptural teaching on gender if we lose the Scripture itself? Without the Scripture, liberalism devolves into androgyny and conservatism into misogyny.

But with the Scripture as our guide, we have the potential to regain the beauty of gendered relationship. With the Scripture as our guide, we have the potential to be restored to the likeness of the God in whose image we are made as male and female. But to reach this place, we must have the Scripture. This is why careful, precise translation—the approach ostensibly adopted by the committee of the ESV—is essential.

As we continue our reflections in Part II and Part III later this week, we will rely on the knowledge of experts on Hebrew translation and historical evidence from previous translations. Then, we will conclude with the practical ramifications of misreading and mistranslating this passage. Again, we offer these reflections from a place of shared commitment to the authority and sufficiency of the word of God. At the end of the day, our man-made constructs, whether conservative or progressive, cannot protect more than God’s own words can. We may find safety in them for a time, but only God’s word stands for ever. And so it is to these words, we commit ourselves.


Hannah Anderson is author of the excellent Made for More and upcoming (and equally excellent) Humble Roots.  She offers wise commentary on life and faith through twitter.  Follow her @sometimesalight.


Dr. Bruce Ware Defines the Complementarian Position

There has been controversy for a while around a sermon given by Dr. Bruce Ware of Southern Seminary, past president of The Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood who still remains on their council. The sermon was given in 2008 at Denton Bible Church, which was having a 3 week series on the complementarian position. Dr. Ware taught the 2nd sermon in the series and is very clear at the beginning that he is teaching the essence of complementarian thought. He specifically lists The Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Dr. Wayne Grudem, and John Piper as holding the position he articulates in the sermon. Furthermore, the current president of The Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood called this sermon at the time “one of the finest, most succinct presentations of the Complementarian point of view that I have ever heard.” Some might ask why this eight year old sermon by Dr. Ware continues to receive scrutiny, but since it was given by a former president of CBMW and lauded as one of the most succinct summations of complementarian thought ever given, the scrutiny in my opinion seems warranted. Lots of us have our ideas of what we think complementarian thought should be, but like it or not Dr. Ware presents what it actually IS. And since he is one of the guys who was most influential in its conception and promotion, we can believe that this is indeed what complementarianism was intended to be.

Dr. Ware’s remarks in the sermon were particularly scrutinized at the time after accusations that he taught that unsubmitted wives were the causes of their husband’s abuse of them. Kathryn Joyce of Religion Dispatches presented Ware’s words this way

Ware said that women victims of domestic violence were often to blame for their own abuse because they were failing to submit to their husbands’ authority. Men’s sin came in response to their wives’ lack of submission, becoming either abusive or passive: equal failures in the eyes of Ware and many complementarians, who see men who fail to “lead their families” with proper authority as morally deficient as those who rule with too heavy a hand.

According to Denny Burk, the current president of The Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Dr. Ware strongly denies that interpretation of his remarks in the sermon. Denny quotes Dr. Ware on his blog:

“These words are his/her [the reporter’s] distorted interpretation of what I said.  I did not say these words and I reject altogether what this statement puts forth.”

I have listened to the sermon and never heard Dr. Ware explicitly blame wives for their own abuse. But I did hear him say that men’s sin comes in response to their wives’ lack of submission, which you will see in the transcript below. Denny believes that repeating this accusation is the sin of “bearing false witness” of Exodus 20:16. I certainly do not want to bear false witness or cast negatively upon someone’s character. I have never met Dr. Ware, but from talking with those who know him personally, he is a gentle man who is disturbed by such accusations of him because he feels they are the antithesis to his character and stance toward women.

On the flip side, I remember the somber warning of James 3:1, a warning I think about often for myself, one that sobers me as I write this very post.

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.

Christian teachers and preachers do not walk up to a microphone nonchalantly. They carry a sword, even if it is just the figurative sword of the Lord. That sword wields power and influence, and we are responsible for the words we say. I fear others going over my words with a fine tooth comb. But I wrote them, and if someone does examine them and finds true reason for concern or error, I have to deal with it head on. Otherwise, I have no business teaching, according to James. Stricter judgment isn’t unfair. It’s par for the course according to the Bible. It is normal. In the vernacular, James says that if you can’t handle such scrutiny, don’t teach.

Furthermore, scrutiny and criticism are not necessarily bad things. I have learned to filter my critics. Some people criticize my writing, but they and I are so far apart on basic shared beliefs that I don’t feel like I can glean anything positive from their criticism.  But others pass through my filter.  They love God and the Bible. We share common convictions over the inherent dignity of mankind made in God’s image.  When I receive pushback from such folks, I am wise to stop and consider it. I may not necessarily agree with all criticism, but when it is offered particularly by someone who shares my orthodox understanding of Scripture, it deserves some thought and reflection.

With all that said, I have listened to Dr. Ware’s sermon several times. I want to spend some time dissecting it, because he is straightforward with what the leaders of complementarian thought believe, and his articulation of it makes clear why so many who keep a conservative reading of gender feel dissonance with complementarianism as taught by CBMW.

Ware begins the sermon by saying that the primary disagreement between egalitarians and complementarians is over the timing of headship being implemented in creation. For egalitarians, according to Ware, headship and authority began only after the fall (Genesis 3:16) and were resolved through Christ’s salvation of us. There is no more exclusive male authority in the church or home in this case. Ware counters the egalitarian view by flipping it. He believes headship began before the fall and that a woman’s desire against that authority was a consequence of the fall. He uses the idea of Eternal Subordination of the Son (around the minute 51 mark) as the culminating point in proving headship between men and women at creation. He says, “The Trinity’s equality and distinctions of Person is mirrored in male/female equality and distinctions.” Dr. Ware is clear in this culminating point of his sermon that this dynamic in the Trinity extends into “eternity future,” using I Corinthians 15 as his source.

Christianity Today recently reported:

“CBMW maintains a neutral position in the Trinitarian debate. Its core beliefs—outlined in the 1987 Danvers Statement—do not delineate a position on this particular issue, said Denny Burk, who replaced Owen Strachan as the organization’s president in July.”

I just want to point out here that this statement in Christianity Today is actually not true unless it clearly delineates between what they did in the past and what they plan to do in the future. Dr. Ware’s sermon shows that in the past, CBMW has not maintained a neutral position in the Trinity debate. Dr. Ware presented ESS as the culminating point for headship being implemented before the fall in his important overview sermon on complementarianism. At least as late as 2008, CBMW leaders promoted ESS as foundational to their view of gender! A more accurate way to say this would be that CBMW now maintains a neutral position on ESS and plans in the future to be constrained primarily by the Danvers Statement, which does not focus on ESS. While CBMW definitely did promote ESS in the past, I think it is helpful that they are apparently no longer going to do so.

Now back to headship –

For my part, I believe both egalitarians and complementarians are adding to Scripture on headship to prove their positions. If it was this important to know exactly when headship began, God would have preserved in His eternal word an explicit statement on when exactly headship began. But what the Bible does explicitly state is that headship is in place NOW (I Corinthians 11, Ephesians 5). And that’s all any of us really need to know. We can speculate on the rest, but we irresponsibly handle Scripture when we are not clear that we are indeed speculating or inferring from Scripture. We are constrained by what Scripture does say, not by what it doesn’t.

Beyond the eternal subordination of the Son, there are 2 other big issues in Ware’s summary of complementarian thought and the beliefs of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood that I want to discuss.

  1. Do women invite their abuse when they are unsubmitted to their husbands? Does complementarian doctrine lead to that view?
  2. Do women derive their status as image bearers through their husbands?

As to question number 1, Dr. Ware was originally criticized on his language around unsubmitted wives and their responding abusive husbands. Around the 8 minute mark of his message, Dr. Ware introduces the complementarian view.

The complementarian view holds rather that God created us as men and women with a design in which, yes, we are equal in essence, we both are fully human, male and female, equally image of God. And yet, God designed that there be an authority and submission relationship in that male/female structure.  So that God intended in creation for there to be male headship in the relationship between Adam and woman in the garden, and he had authority, he had ultimate responsibility.

What happens in sin is that that very wise and good plan of God, of male headship, is sought to be overturned — as women now (as sinners) want instead to have their way, instead of submitting to their husbands to do what they would like to do — and really seek to work to have their husbands fulfill their will, rather than serving them.

And the husbands on their part (because they’re sinners) now respond to that threat to their authority either by being abusive —which is, of course, one of the ways men can respond when their authority is challenged — or, more commonly, to become passive, acquiescing and simply not asserting the leadership they ought to as men in their homes and in churches.

What happens in Christ according to the complementarian view is that we are enabled by the Spirit once again to recover the created design of God where men love their wives as Christ loved the Church and wives submit to their husbands as the Church submits to Christ, this in the power of the Spirit. And in churches we recognize God’s design of their being proper male authority in those churches, and this is because God designed it that way and in Christ we are able once again by his power to see this lived out as it ought to be

So we have these 2 very different visions of how male/female relationships have been designed by God …

Later around minute 44, Dr. Ware articulates the woman’s curse, which in his opinion is that the woman will be “cursed in her God-ordained, God-designed created order,” in the major purpose for which she was fundamentally created, according to Ware, wife and mother. She will resist God’s created design and try to take control from her husband. The husband’s response according to Dr. Ware is that “he will have to rule.” Dr. Ware again gives the caveat that such abuse is horrible and sinful, but the language he uses explicitly indicates the husband’s abuse is a response to a cycle of resistance to authority that begins with the woman.

I’ll repeat that Dr. Ware strongly denies that he set up women as being responsible for their abuse. He sees domestic abuse as sinful and believes a man is singularly responsible for such sin. However, while he has corrected that interpretation of his words, he has never sought to correct the actual words that he used in this sermon. Frankly, I understand why many would believe from his specific words that he (and the rest of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) is teaching that an unsubmitted woman causes an abusive husband’s sin against her, which would be remedied if she were more submissive. I believe that many men heard his teaching over the years, either through this sermon or similar ideas expressed elsewhere among complementarian leaders and internalized that teaching to mean that a man’s abuse of his wife was often a response to her shrill, unsubmissive spirit in the home. I know for a fact that many women heard this teaching and believed that their husband’s anger or frustration against them was because they were not submissive enough. Dr. Ware preached at Mars Hill Church during my time there, and Mark Driscoll was influenced by how Dr. Ware and Dr. Wayne Grudem spoke of this. Intended or not, Ware’s teaching gave fertile soil for misogynist abusers who were looking for a way to justify their anger toward their girlfriend, wife, or mom.

To remedy this perception of Ware’s teaching, CBMW needs to do more than just say, “No, that’s not what we meant.” Because, frankly, when Dr. Ware used the word “respond,” he was by definition saying that the man acts in return or answer to something previously done by the wife. Dr. Ware does not say she is to blame, but his words imply that she is the first cause. I am glad to know that he does not personally see it this way. I hope CBMW will explicitly correct this and actively teach that the wife is not the first cause so that no mistaken interpretation of their beliefs can be made in the future.

Question number 2 concerns Ware’s teaching that a woman derives her status as image-bearer from the man rather than directly from God.  Around the 22 and 26 minute mark, Dr. Ware discusses the means of the woman’s creation out of man. He says, “Woman came from him indicating that she owes her existence to what he was first and by that establishes again male headship.” While both man and woman are fully made in the image of God, according to Dr. Ware “nevertheless the woman’s humanity as image of God is established as she comes from the man.” He clarifies that he is not saying that the woman is not made in the image of God, but he is saying that “her means of being image of God is as she is the glory of the man who is the image of God. She is image of God because she comes from [man] who is the image of God.” When I repeated this to an elder in my PCA church, he asked, “Well, what does he do with Genesis 1?” I couldn’t answer, but I was glad that my elders saw the same problem I did with Ware’s statement.

Dr. Ware says that this derived image from man is something that Paul himself teaches in I Corinthians 11:7 when he says that man ought not to have his head covered because “he is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man.” There are two problems with this from Scripture. First, it is REALLY interesting to note that Paul does not repeat the word image when he talks of the woman’s relationship to the man in I Cor. 11. Man is the image and glory of God, and woman is the glory of man. While Dr. Ware conflates image and glory, the Bible does not. Without doing a complete word study of the two here, suffice it to say that being the image of God and being the glory of God are two different things. Basically, image is something derived from another. Glory is something reflected back on another. Man derives his identity from God, and he reflects something back onto God. Woman, derives her identity from God, not man, but she also reflects something back onto her husband, particularly around the issue of headship that protects from sexual subjugation in the Corinthian culture, which I wrote about here.

Second, Dr. Ware doesn’t take into account that the Bible calls Eve the mother of all living (Genesis 3:20). Whatever Eve derived from Adam, every man after her derived something from her as well! As Paul says a few verses later in I Corinthians 11:11-12, “Nevertheless, in the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.” While mutually dependent on each other, neither man nor woman derived their image-bearing identity in God from each other. They reflect it out in relationship with each other, but they do not derive it from each other. That difference is pretty important.

In conclusion, Dr. Ware says that he denies any interpretation of his words that puts the blame for a husband’s abuse on the wife. I appreciate that clarification from him. The problem to me is not so much that he says that some men respond with sinful abuse to some women who are sinfully unsubmitted, because that probably does happen sometimes. The problem is that he sets that scenario up as foundational to complementarian thought. He says these sentences as the root problem between men and women from the fall in his basic introduction/overview of complementarian thought. When he could say anything about the complementarian position, this is how he sets up the root issue that the complementarian view addresses.

While such abuse does happen this way at times, Ware does not give equal weight to the more common aspect of chronic abuse, abuse that causes the abused to increasingly shut down trying to avoid abuse. Such attempts to avoid abuse never manage to fully do so because the abuse comes singularly from the abuser’s heart regardless of the abused’s actions. Dr. Ware doesn’t address this kind of abuse at all in his entire message, his summation of the complementarian position. This fuels the belief that complementarians don’t understand this category of abuse at all and that the complementarian position does not help address it at all, at points actually making it worse.


*Thanks to Barb Roberts at for first drawing my attention to Dr. Ware’s sermon.  Barb has been a tireless voice calling for pastors and leaders to pay attention to the words they say and understand their unintended consequences for the women in their churches who are navigating abusive situations.


More on Long, Hard Obedience

I’m going to talk in this article about an author who is gay and is a Christian and how his writing has encouraged me in long, hard obedience. But I have learned through previous articles that when I refer to gay Christians or Christians chronically experiencing same sex attraction, I am begging for critique.

Here are the primary critiques, and I want to address them head on.

“Why are you identifying someone as gay instead of simply in Christ?”


“There is no such thing as a gay Christian.”

Well, actually, there is. Using gay as an adjective does not denote overarching identity. It’s a descriptor (which is what an adjective is) for the purposes of delineating between sub categories of who or what you are talking about. There are black Christians, African Christians, lying Christians, female Christians, adulterous Christians, older Christians, disabled Christians, and so forth with much overlap between descriptors. Using a descriptor doesn’t mean a Christian finds their primary Christian identity in being African, older, the sin of lying, etc. It’s just a descriptor. They are a Christian who is from Africa. They are a Christian who lied in the past and maybe even 5 minutes ago. It makes me sad that people are so suspicious of this type of discussion that they seem to throw basic logic and good faith out the window the moment gays or same-sex attraction are mentioned in terms of Christians.

Furthermore, there are gay Christians who are celibate and sexually pure, and there are gay Christians who are not celibate and are sexually immoral. Gay is used in such situations usually to refer to the fact that they consistently experience attraction to their same sex as heterosexuals consistently are attracted only to the opposite sex.  And the temptation to sin IS NOT SIN.  Jesus was tempted in all points like us, maybe even with same sex attraction.  But the Bible says explicitly that He was both tempted and without sin.  I am disturbed that many evangelicals don’t seem to have a category for this when it comes to homosexuality.

Just as there are sexually immoral gay Christians, there are sexually immoral straight Christians. In Christ, we are freed from bondage to sexual sin, either gay or straight, and equipped to obey God’s sexual ethics. But we deny many facets of the gospel when we infer that any sexual sin means someone isn’t a Christian. Some Christians, straight and gay, are sexually immoral! I hope it does not characterize their life, but many regularly fight temptation and a good number sin when tempted. But also a lot of Christians, straight or gay, are sexually pure. We miss basic tenets of the gospel if we claim that any sexual immorality requires us to forfeit naming ourselves a believer.

Ok then. Now that we are either on the same page or you have written me off altogether as heretical, here is the substance of this post, and it is VERY IMPORTANT in my opinion.

Wesley Hill, author of Washed and Waiting and Spiritual Friendship, wrote an article that strongly resonated with me this week.  I hope you will check it out.

I read Washed and Waiting a few years ago and wrote a review on it.  It was my favorite book of 2013. Though I’ve never struggled with same-sex attraction, I resonated deeply with Wesley’s thoughts on persevering for the long haul in hard situations. And his new blog post ponders similar questions. Can we really call God good when He allows certain people to experience a long loneliness and unrelentingly hard circumstances? Yes, yes we can. But the way MANY of us want to deal with this question is by creatively thinking how to relieve the burden. We hate the idea that Wesley presents of an attraction to the same sex that isn’t relieved despite relentless Christian prayers and Bible study. Wesley must be doing something wrong, we think. We want to believe that one day he will meet the right woman, sparking a natural desire that will replace an unnatural one. Yet, even for those who do enter marriage with the right person, such unnatural sexual desire for the wrong sex often remains.  And stories of long, unrelieved temptations are stories of trials.

We hate those stories of others because we don’t want to consider them for themselves.

Many can’t comprehend Job’s story, or Ruth’s or Joseph’s, without the resolution at the end. They can only handle reading about them because they know the resolution. For many of us, contemplating the long years of unknown resolution for each of them is beyond our ability. Unless we are already there.

I resonate with Wesley’s words because I am there. I have struggles in my life, unreconciled relationships and unfulfilled longings, that are probably not going to resolve in this lifetime. For a long time, I had a string of things to try to fix it. Prayer, Bible study, advice from pastors and counselors. There was a list of things to work through and try. There was hope for earthly resolution. But there came a point where the last options were exhausted. Resolution through any of them would have taken a miracle. But while God did show up again and again with sustenance for the journey, He did not show up with that miraculous resolution I longed for. Once I had finally exhausted the last option that pastors and counselors had suggested, I remember sitting on the floor in my family room, numb with no tears left to flow. I was out of things to try, realizing how much I had hoped that there would be some way to resolve these things. No more words to pray for change in this life. No more earthly hopes to sustain me.  Many of you have sat similarly, numb and exhausted of tears, as the reality of your situation set in.

Was God still good?

The long unresolved issues in our lives only really start to teach us of the deep character of God when our options for resolving them are exhausted. The last option of chemotherapy doesn’t work. The divorce decree is stamped with finality by the judge. The heart beat line on the monitor goes flat and stays that way. The casket lowers in the grave. The doctor says with finality, “This is as far as you will recover.” The loved one changes their phone number, and you have no idea how to ever contact them again.

The verdict is terminal, not necessarily in terms of a sickness of which you will die, but in the fact that you will carry this burden for the rest of your days on earth. Wesley uses J. R. R. Tolkien’s language of fighting “a long defeat” and Dorothy Day’s language of “a long loneliness.” Perhaps most important is the language of the author of Hebrews. Because Wesley, Tolkien, or Day aren’t articulating a new concept but a very old, very Biblical one.

     8 By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9 By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10 For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11 …

13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. …

32 And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, 33 who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34 quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35 Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36 Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37 They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38 the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.

39 These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised, 40 since God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

Do you see how the writer here speaks of both those who saw earthly resolution and those who didn’t? Those who experienced physical victories and those who were martyred as prisoners? Whether they saw temporary earthly resolution or not, “none of them received what had been promised.” We commend them because they persevered in faith, not sight. When they DID NOT SEE THE PURPOSE, they believed there still was a point to their suffering and value to their perseverance.

While the author of Hebrews positively encourages us to persevere, Paul in I Corinthians 10 warns us soberly of the hardships when we don’t. In verse 9-10, he says, “Let us not test Christ as some of them did and were destroyed by snakes. Nor should we complain as some of them did, and were killed by the destroyer.” Paul is referring back to Numbers 21, where the people grumble and complain against God and Moses. “Why have you led us from Egypt?” “We detest this wretched food!” But such complaining defeated the people. We think of them as offending God, but they were also hamstringing themselves from persevering in their struggle, from overcoming with joy. My pastor in Seattle preached a life giving message on Paul’s similar words in Philippians 2:14 to put off grumbling or complaining. That warning isn’t Paul or God being overly strict or trying to limit our voice of lament or suffering. But grumbling and complaining, which is lament with blame and suffering with bitterness, will absolutely destroy you. It erodes your ability to endure. It’s like drinking coffee or alcohol while trying to stay hydrated on a marathon. Not only does it not help you endure, it hinders you. And when you are under that much pressure in that hard of a situation, a margarita might temporarily taste good, but it will ultimately make the next mile ten times harder than the water you needed.

The final words of Hebrews 11 are beautiful and sustaining. God had planned something better for those persevering believers and us. And we will all finally realize this thing together, united with Christ in the New Creation. Persevere in your long, hard journey, dear friend. You long for something better, and it is unfulfilled on this earth. But your longing is not the problem. You are right to long for it, and it will be righteously fulfilled in eternity as your good God receives you with affirmation for your faithfulness. Then too you will realize that He was holding you tightly the whole time so that you could not fall away. He has not left you as an orphan to walk this alone. May this thought sustain you in your long loneliness as it has me.


Complementarian Issues of Nomenclature and Doctrine

1) Nomenclature

To quote Shakespeare, “What’s in a name?” Many evangelicals claim the name complementarian. I have myself identified that way since the time I first became aware of the term about fifteen or so years ago. For many who identify as complementarian, they use it simply to mean that they are not egalitarian. They believe that Paul’s instructions to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 and on male-only elders in I Timothy 3 transcend time or culture and remain relevant for today. However, I have come to realize that the term complementarian was coined by a group of people with a very specific agenda related to evangelical feminism. The outworking of some of their agenda has been seen in the recent debate on the Eternal Submission of the Son. I personally have some big differences with those who founded the conservative complementarian movement and would love for there to be a different word to identify non-egalitarians.

Except that I believe in complementary genders in the image of God.

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The Gay Gospel and Hope for Hard Things

As I watched the gay pride festivities over social media and my Facebook stream, I thought (as I have a thousand times before) the pressure on gay, Bible-believing Christians to go against their conscience and write off God’s sexual ethics as harmful. Many Christians have changed their views about the Bible’s teaching on homosexual sex. The ones that I can most closely identify with are those who believe that the New Testament word Paul uses against homosexual sex is referring to pedophilia. I disagree with that interpretation, but I appreciate that it stays engaged with the text of Scripture. But if that’s the case and Paul was condemning pedophilia, there is still a larger theme in Scripture that can’t be written off without writing off the entire Bible—that promiscuity in general, heterosexual or homosexual, is anathema to God. He is a God of faithfulness, and He created His children to be faithful in their relationships as well. In that sense, I think Christians misapplied their moral outrage to the gay marriage debate. Of all the things that downgrade society, gay fidelity doesn’t seem to be it (spoken by someone who lived for years in a community full of faithful gay couples raising respectful, responsible children). Heterosexual infidelity seems a way bigger issue in harming larger society than gay fidelity. Seems is a gentle word for that – I should say that I know many, many people harmed by both gay and straight infidelity. I wish our Christian culture had harped on all forms of infidelity with the same vigor they did against gay marriage.

But what is a gay person to do if they believe, as I do, that Scripture can be taken at face value and that the church hasn’t misread or mistranslated the Bible around the issue of gay sex for the last two thousand years? In a word, they are to endure. But here too, our evangelical church hasn’t been fair to gay Christians. We ask them to endure when we look away from heterosexuals who don’t. We ask them to endure when our theology of general perseverance in suffering is weak and anemic. The prosperity gospel is alive and well in the evangelical church. And it forces evangelicals’ hand around the issue of gay Christianity. Of course instructions against gay sex are archaic if the end goal of the gospel is to make us happy and fulfilled by earthly standards. I’ve said it often that this type of thinking has no room for Christian martyrs. It has no room for even the Apostles or early Church.

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The Eternal Subordination of the Son (and Women)

There is a debate right now over the implications of a teaching called the Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS), which explores the intra-Trinatarian relationship between God the Son to God the Father. Here are two summary articles that will bring you up to speed if you are unfamiliar with this discussion and would like to learn more.

Opponents of ESS like Carl Trueman and Liam Goligher believe that ESS represents a departure from long-held confessional statements of the Church. ESS advocates Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware have responded by saying that they keep the confessions, and their theological beliefs are not being accurately represented. To complicate matters, the debate is actually more than one debate, as Andrew Wilson helpfully points out in the above article by identifying 10 essential questions underneath it. ESS adherents respond to these questions differently which even further impedes dialogue. It is not sufficient to say “ESS proponents” believe XYZ without designating which proponents and which beliefs.

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