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.
- Do women invite their abuse when they are unsubmitted to their husbands? Does complementarian doctrine lead to that view?
- 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 cryingoutforjustice.com 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.