[edited on 3/6/12 to add this note — I am in the midst of listening to D. A. Carson on this topic. He makes compelling arguments against mutual submission from Ephesians 5. He distinguishes mutual deference from mutual submission. I love to listen to him even when I don’t completely agree. I can’t say enough about the knowledge he brings to the subject from a purely exegetical standpoint. ]
I’ve been thinking through this topic since I first mentioned it on the blog in 2010. I am not a fan of labels, and it annoys me that I can’t just call myself a Christian and that have enough meaning to be a sufficient label. For the sake of this discussion, I will label myself a reformed, evangelical complementarian. When I use the term complementarian, I mean that my conviction is that God created both male and female in His image, He gave to each different strengths and obligations to evidence different aspects of His character, and in marriage, He commands husbands to reflect something about His Head and wives His Body, which includes wives submitting to their husbands. God has limited the office of elder to men only (and not just any man, I should add). And women need to stay home and have babies.
Just kidding on that last part.
For some reason, I am not concerned with influencing egalitarians to my position as I am with encouraging complementarians to examine theirs carefully in light of what Scripture does and does not say. The entire teaching from Scripture on the roles of men and women is undermined when we are not careful and precise with how we treat this topic. I have long experience with churches and groups that take a good, true Bible teaching and manage to pervert it by sloppily adding to it their own extra-Biblical notions, subtly influenced by a personal agenda they may not even recognize. If anyone really wants to think of themselves as having a “Biblical” position, they need to CONSTANTLY reevaluate themselves against the Word, because we all, me included, can be easily deceived into not recognizing the ways we warp away from the Word left to ourselves.
I love meditating on what God has called me to be as the Helper after His own heart that is suitable for my husband. I have watched the power of laying down my life in submission and speaking in my husband’s love language of respect. And I am moved by thinking of Christ’s profound love for His Bride as I watch the interplay of love and submission in my home. These are precious doctrines to me. But too often, I watch these ideas misused and misapplied by complementarians in ways that make my concerns about egalitarians pale in comparison.
So here, fellow complementarian, are some concerns I have that I think (and it is only my personal, humble opinion) undermine the complementarian position. And if you are reading as an egalitarian, here I admit that the other side does get some things quite wrong , yet I believe there is still value–really beautiful value–to those controversial words to women—help, submit, respect, and so forth.
1) Problem number 1 is calling this debate a gospel issue. Now it’s true that the interplay between husbands and wives in the home is a TESTIMONY of the gospel as it reflects the nature of Christ’s profound love for the church. But being a testimony of the gospel is not the same as being the gospel. I said in another post that the gospel informs everything, but it is not everything. And we start entering dangerous territory quickly when we are not precise in how we talk about the link between the gospel and the complementarian position. The gospel plus anything is not the gospel at all.
2) My second big concern is foundational to the discussion– misinterpreting the curse for women in Genesis 3:16. Many conservative complementarians insist that “her desire will be for her husband” means that the woman will desire to rule over her husband and usurp his place of leadership in her life. But that is NOT what that verse says. It says she has a desire (the word indicates a strong craving or longing) for her husband. It’s straightforward, and women know exactly what I’m talking about. Apart from Christ, we are predisposed to looking to men to fulfill in us things that only God Himself can fill. We look to men for affirmation emotionally, spiritually, and physically, and for the most part, its only when they disappoint us that we push them aside and try to do it for ourselves independent of them.
If you misdiagnose the problem, you will inevitably offer the wrong solution. When complementarians interpret this wrong, the result is that any woman who pursues independence or egalitarian thinking is thought to be trying to take over the world from the men. However, most of the time, if you look closely, they have no desire to rule over men. They don’t want to be around men at all! They likely were seriously wounded by a man who let them down, and they are done with men. The answer is not to rise up against such women with heavy handed tactics but to point them to Christ as the One who meets them in places even the most faithful, responsible guy can’t touch, and in that gospel communion with Christ, the wounded woman can reengage with men with whom God has called her to relationship.
3) Advocating husbands “ruling” over their wives. I gladly call my husband the head of our home. I’m happy when he leads. But “rule” is the terminology of the curse in Gen. 3:16, not the vision presented in Ephesians 5 of what marriage looks like that is in Christ between imitators of God. I talked about it here and enjoyed the follow up discussion.
4) Denying women deacons. Complementarians undermine at least half of the arguments against women being elders when we do this. But enough was said in this post about it.
5) Denying mutual submission. This is a controversial one. Everyone in Christ is called to submit (Ephesians 5:21). Everyone in Christ is called to love (Ephesians 5:2). If I am not called to love my husband, then that means about 50 verses written in general terms (including the Greatest Command) don’t apply to me as a wife. Similarly, the instructions to submit, lay down our lives, and sacrificially serve one another are everywhere in Scripture and clearly transcend gender. In the marriage relationship, husbands are called to give a particular example of love, and wives to give a particular example of submission.
The word for submit in Ephesians 5 means basically arranging yourself in formation under your leader. It’s a willing movement of self in line with another. It cannot be demanded and still be called submission. I willingly lay down my life and rights for my husband. But if he demanded it or attempted to force it, that would not be submission. That’d be oppression — when submission in the image of Christ ends and the oppressive rule of the man predicted in the curse of Genesis 3:16 begins.
Christ demonstrates this difference for us when He “lay down His life” (I John 3:16) for us. Laying down His life was so very different from having it taken from Him. The Bible makes it clear that Christ willingly gave up the ghost and laid down His life. It was not taken from Him unwillingly. The fact that He had the power and right to do otherwise is what makes His sacrifice so … remarkable? Noteworthy? I can’t think of a big enough word for it. He LAID His life down for us! It’s profound. And when I, wife of Andy, WILLINGLY lay down my rights (and it will always be willingly, for my husband though strong willed and sometimes ornery is definitely NOT oppressive) I am being like CHRIST. Like the church too. But so very much like Christ.
I value the facets of the character of God that I am uniquely equipped to reflect as a woman. I love the doctrines surrounding what I was created to be in perfection. I have gained much wisdom from understanding the curse of Genesis 3:16 and all the ways left to myself that I reflect it. And I treasure deeply God’s calling me back to Himself and reclaiming and restoring His image in me that was marred by the fall. The good doctrine in the complementarian position makes me long for us to shake off the misuses of it, because we undermine so much of great beauty and worth in the Body of Christ when we don’t.
(There are other sub issues where complementarians read into Scripture and impose standards on themselves that Scripture does not. But that’s not so much a complementarian problem as just a universal tendency toward legalism. So I’ll save for another post our often unhelpful projections from silence in Scripture on the topics of working women, childbirth, organic cooking, educational choices, and so forth.)