Things that undermine a complementarian position

This is an old version of this post.  Here is the updated one.

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 every woman I know personally knows exactly what it means.  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.

3) 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.

4) Denying mutual submission.  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. We need get it right, complementarians. 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.)

25 Responses to Things that undermine a complementarian position

  1. April October 6, 2010 at 9:54 pm #


  2. Sandra October 7, 2010 at 12:23 am #

    I agree with your post, especially that we must constantly evaluate our positions in light of Scripture.

    Here's the trend I'm seeing among complementarian women- they are complementarian at home, but egalitarian as it relates to women teaching men (outside the office of pastor/elder). This seems to be trickling down from popular women speakers who say they are still under a man's authority when their husbands and the pastor/elders give them permission to either teach a co-ed class or “speak” (as opposed to “preach”) from the pulpit. Have you noticed this trend? What is your opinion? (Of course, if this is a sub issue you don't want to discuss here, that's ok too!)

  3. liz October 7, 2010 at 12:42 am #

    such a good post to read. this is a common discussion in the circles within which i travel- non-christian women are befuddled at my perspectives of male/female roles. and i love discussing and sharing the above. keep the good stuff comin, wendy.

  4. Wenatchee the Hatchet October 7, 2010 at 1:34 am #

    I think that points 1 and 2 address most clearly the underlying problem I have perceived in complementarianism as it is sometimes expounded. The central problem is that complementarianism has to be elevated to a level of importance as primary as a trinitarian confession because as espoused and practiced by many complementarians a sweeping theology of gender is the only bulwark conservative evangelical Protestants can devise to prevent women from being considered as elders? Why? Well, because to invoke apostolic precedent or tradition would be making a “Catholic” defense of women not being elders. We are Protestants and don't want to be identified as having a “Catholic” apologetic for church polity so we instead devise a grandiose theology of gender to deal with a problem that never needed this level of ontological discourse on the nature of gender! Instead we get a rebuttal that nearly every woman who had a significant leadership role in the history of God's people is either 1) the exception that proves the rule of complementarianism or 2) is someone who is proof for why women shouldn't have major leadership roles the women in category 1 notwithstanding. Paradoxically some men who are passionate about this, nevertheless, consider Margaret Thatcher to be great because she wasn't a liberal. This is an example of how and why complementarianism is often overcompensating for the problems that conservative Christians (in all advisable senses of the term “conservative”) want to solve at an ecclesial level.

  5. Wendy October 7, 2010 at 3:37 am #

    Sandra, I have thought about that a lot. I am not comfortable with it myself, though strong complementarian male leaders have given me the opportunity on several occasions. I have done it twice. But my personal preference (conviction?) is to speak/teach women only — at least in a church setting. I teach grown men all the time at the community college. If I remember correctly, Piper distinguishes the “not teaching a man” issue I Tim. 2 as specifically teaching with authority as an elder, not general dissemination of information. I am not sure it is that easily reconciled though.

  6. Sharon Miller October 7, 2010 at 2:48 pm #

    Wendy, I really appreciate what you've written here. I think you have nailed some of the primary pitfalls of complementarian theology.

    In the past I have identified myself as complementarian because of the conviction that God created men and women differently for a reason, but it's becoming more and more difficult to identify myself as either complementarian or egalitarian. There is such a WIDE spectrum among each category, and sometimes I find myself falling somewhere in between.

    As luck would have it, one of the theology professors at my seminary is presenting a paper today called “The Trinity Without Tiers” in which he'll be examining a non-subordinationist understanding of the Son's relationship to the Father, and other Trinitarian dynamics that might be used to shed light on gender relationships. I'm excited to see if he shares anything particularly revelational on this very complex topic.

  7. Katie October 7, 2010 at 3:39 pm #

    Wendy, thanks for your words here. Your number four has sparked some very interesting discussions with close friends and family members on what the call to mutual submission means within the family and church community.

    Sharon, I'd be very interested to see a copy of your professor's paper, if it becomes available. I know some believe that teaching a functional subordination of the Son to the Father throughout eternity is a version of semi-Arianism, but I've 1) always seen it as something that flows from a proper understanding of the covenant of redemption and 2) only seen it as tangentially related to gender roles, since the Bible never equates the function of women to that of the Son and men to that of the Father, but rather wives are compared to the church and husbands to Christ.

    I agree with you that the more I look at the positions on gender, the more I see a spectrum and mis-understanding of words all around.

  8. Sharon Miller October 7, 2010 at 5:27 pm #

    Katie, I'll let you know how it goes! I think he'll be addressing the ways in which the Trinity is interpreted as a model for the larger church body. Based off of the description of the paper, I assume he'll only be talking about general male-female relationships since the Christ-Church model is limited to marriage. My guess is that he'll be examining how the Body of Christ is meant to reflect the nature of the Trinity in which there is no hierarchy of roles, but I'll let you know what I find out!

  9. Megan October 7, 2010 at 6:24 pm #

    Wendy, I wish I had the courage to speak as plainly as you do, and I wish it were safe in my circles to open up this subject! Thank you.

    Regarding Piper's “women shouldn't teach men” principle, I'm afraid he's more general than you remember. Piper argues in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood that women should only have authoritative influence over men if it's indirect or non-personal–a computer programmer over a computer user, a traffice controller over a driver, etc. He discourages women from teaching college because it is direct and personal influence over adult men. He argues this from Genesis 2:18: because women are designed to be helpmeets, women are to have roles that serve to nurture and strengthen men's leadership, and leading men through teaching them in any way weakens that.

    I have concerns about Piper using Genesis 2:18 in this way, though, and have participated in a few discussions about this. I am designed to be a helpmeet to my own husband, not to other men. I am not denying that it is in our nature to support and assist in a way that is different from men, or that we must encourage Biblical, masculine leadership. But it is not valid to generalize Genesis 2:18 to create a whole system of male-female relationships. In fact, I think it's harmful. I respect Piper tremendously. But on this point, I just think he's wrong.

    I really look forward to you continuing this discussion on the “sub-issues”!

  10. Wendy October 7, 2010 at 6:58 pm #

    Katie, I will be interested in hearing back from that presentation. I have a hard time NOT seeing roles/subordination in the Trinity, but I am not threatened by hearing a differing view. Truth is not so fragile that it can't stand up to a thorough examination, right?!

    As to authority relationships between adult men and women–here's how I think about it. First, as a teacher of adult men, I don't mind thinking of it in terms of the strong Helper of Genesis 2:18 (though I agree that I certainly am not called to help all men, but particularly my husband). I envision the strong helper of Gen. 2:18 as Trinity or Morpheus to the Matrix's Neo. The word is strong. And I am glad to be a help to a male student who is struggling with mathematics, at least when it fits within my other obligations. Lording authority over a student is a problem by way of a multitude of Bible principles that transcend the gender issue.

    In general, we're always going to get in trouble when we start extrapolating from Scripture for other people. We have to extrapolate for ourselves — wrestling in prayer with the Spirit on what this looks like in my life. But when we try to generalize that to others, we'll always have problems. The next guy has to wrestle with the Spirit himself/herself on what this looks like specifically in their lives. And leaders need to trust the Spirit's ability to do that well. He is very good at His job.

  11. Sandra October 8, 2010 at 12:21 am #

    Thanks for your thoughts Wendy, and thanks to the other ladies for more interesting discussion!

  12. Wendy October 8, 2010 at 12:32 am #

    Oops. I addressed Katie but should have said Sharon. Or Sharon and Katie. And Megan. And Sandra. I love a discussion when people actually read each others' response and respond back.

  13. Sharon Miller October 8, 2010 at 6:13 am #

    Hi ladies, I have been processing the paper all afternoon and I am here to report back!

    After reflecting on the paper, I would say he had two key points:

    1. The essential, eternal Trinity is non-hierarchical. Although the Son abdicated his rightful position of equal glory and honor with the other two persons of the Trinity in order to become man, die and be resurrected, the Incarnation does not represent the basic, everlasting inner relationship of the Trinity. It is a temporary subordination. Any language which attempts to place levels of hierarchy upon the Trinity does not reflect the passages of Scripture in which the Son is of the same substance and glory as the Father, nor does it reflect the interchangeable roles between the Son and the Holy Spirit as seen in Luke and Acts ( I can elaborate on that last point if you need me to).

    2. Even if there was a hierarchy within the Trinity, there is no place in Scripture that draws any kind of connection between the structure of the church, society, or the relationship between men and women, and the structure of the Trinity. Instead, Christians are only called to model Christ alone. When we look at the persons of the Trinity, it is Jesus to whom we are all seeking to conform ourselves. The only time there is any sort of relational model involving Christ and another entity is between Christ and the church, but neither God and Christ nor the Trinity are used as relational models that we are meant to embody. In short, any conception of Christian social structure that is based on the inner life of the Trinity is pure speculation. That is not a model that is given to us by the Bible.

    He ended by saying that the only person that Scripture ever describes as being head of the church is Christ. The Bible never refers to men as being head of the church, and he warns against such language because it infringes upon Christ's rightful, exclusive throne over the Body of Christ. Christ is the head, and we are all subject to him.

    That's it in a nutshell. Let me know if any of that didn't make sense. I had to talk it through with my husband (who is currently pursuing his PhD in Theology) to make sure I understood it all correctly, and I'm pretty sure this is a faithful rendering of his thesis.

  14. Wendy October 8, 2010 at 6:35 am #

    Sharon, thanks so much for sharing this!! My initial reaction is that I totally disagree with point 1 (isn't their something inherent in the titles Father and Son that implies role and hierarchy?) but totally embrace point 2. I'll think on it more though.

  15. Wenatchee the Hatchet October 8, 2010 at 7:35 am #

    Per Sharon's comments, subordinationist thought presents yet another case in which a theological concept is trotted out to do work that is beneath the importance of the theological significance of the issue at hand. When I hear complementarians defend their view by appealing to subordinationist theology regarding the Trinity the problem with this is that that subordinationist view is being brought out ONLY to make a point about gender relations. The Father and Son having a temporally subordinate relationship through the incarnation does nothing to indicate women as having a subordinate role to men. It is, as they say, a non-sequitir. Since I have Eastern Orthodox relatives I get to field comparative religion issues that are intra-Christian often and subordinationism is a tricky thing because any hint of ontological subordination is easy to slip into just to make a point about gender subordination. And per point 2 Sharon made, even if temporal subordination were established it is not automatically a valid prototype for gender relations to say that women are under men because God the Son is under God the Father. A more conventional metaphor of husband and wife would be more widely accepted if people are going to go there.

  16. Wendy October 8, 2010 at 2:46 pm #

    Thanks, WtH. The way I usually hear subordination in the Trinity applied to husbands/wives is not that the first instructs the second, but just that wives ought to consider the fact that Christ submitted His will to the Father as evidence that submission in general is not a substandard thing of which to be ashamed. I haven't heard it taught that BECAUSE the Trinity has roles and subordination that husbands and wives should to. I have heard it taught and taught it myself that the Trinity gives us examples from every angle of what we who are created in God's image and being conformed now back to His image should look like. But that's pretty basic. I don't think anyone is arguing against that.

  17. Katie October 8, 2010 at 4:34 pm #

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  18. Katie October 8, 2010 at 4:35 pm #

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  19. Katie October 8, 2010 at 6:06 pm #

    I apologize for the above removals – I realized my postings needed some editing.

    Sharon, thanks for reporting back. Wendy, I agree with your assessment of the points. I am and always have been on board with point 2. We Christians are never told to model our gender relationships after anything in the Trinity.

    But here's where I find support for the idea of a voluntary submission of the Son to the Father's will in eternity – look at Ephesians 1:3-4, which clearly states that the plan of salvation was a plan from all eternity. You ladies who are probably far more knowledgeable than I probably already know that this is usually called the covenant of redemption. As I understand it, in the covenant of redemption the Father promises the Son an elect people (see John 17:1, 6, 9-12) and the Son promises to become incarnate and do the work of salvation (see Phillipians 2:5-8, Hebrews 10:8-10, and John 17:4). I think Charles Hodge said it much better than I can. If, in eternity past, there was this covenant, how can one not see some sort of functional role-relationship?

    Sometimes I wonder if the folks who find this doctrine so problematic have heard it used the way WtH has heard it used, while those of us who do not see as many problems have heard it applied to husbands and wives the way Wendy has (and I also have).

    Also, Sharon, I'm very interested in the last sentence on your point #1, but not sure this comment thread is the place for it. Do you know if the paper will be available online or in book form?

    Finally, I recently found in another forum a link to a back-and-forth on this issue of subordination that is really interesting for those looking for more information.

  20. Wendy October 8, 2010 at 6:45 pm #

    Wow. Great, helpful, encouraging discussion. Glad others are thinking through all this too.

  21. Sandra October 8, 2010 at 8:30 pm #

    How interesting Sharon! I wrote a paper in seminary on the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father. Here are a few quotes I found in my research:

    -Grudem makes this application, “And if the Father and Son can be both equal and different in this way, then husband and wife in the image of God can be equal and different too.”

    – Bruce Ware sums it up nicely: “Here in the Trinity, rather, we see hierarchy without hubris, authority with no oppression, submission that is not servile, and love that pervades every aspect of the divine life. Unity and diversity, identity and distinction,
    sameness and differences, melody and harmony–these are qualities that mark the rich texture of the life of the one God who is three.”

    -Thomas Schreiner writes, “Paul added the headship of God over Christ right after asserting the headship of man over woman in order to teach that the authority of man over woman does not imply the inferiority of women or the superiority of men.” (1 Cor. 11:3)

  22. Marg Mowczko October 10, 2010 at 1:02 am #

    I love your article.

    I call myself an egalitarian. However, as one of your readers has said: “There is such a WIDE spectrum among each category, and sometimes I find myself falling somewhere in between.”

    I have no problem with the words: help, submit, respect. I truly hope that I exhibit these qualities and actions towards others and especially to my husband. To me these are Christian “virtues”.

    I guess we differ on whether a woman can be a church leader, or what it means for the husband to be the “head” of the wife.

    One thing we definitely agree on is that the discussion and debate about Complementarianism versus Egalitarianism is NOT a Gospel issue.

  23. Waneta Dawn April 14, 2011 at 7:25 am #

    “One thing we definitely agree on is that the discussion and debate about Complementarianism versus Egalitarianism is NOT a Gospel issue.”

    Marg M, I have come to a different conclusion. Having been abused by my husband, I began researching the gender issue. I find that many men use their male authority beliefs as justification for ruling over and abusing their wives. Many churches/church leaders agree with their view and help the abuser justify his behavior. Bruce Ware for example, indicated that if a wife would submit, a man wouldn't beat her, thereby laying the blame for domestic abuse on the wives. In fact, the belief in husband authority is the foundation for domestic violence.

    According to various Bible lists, it is doubtful whether abusive/controlling men are saved, so it becomes a salvation issue. They think they are obeying God, but are actually deep into sin. Their behavior does not show evidence of the Spirit of Christ, and the Bible says if we don't have the Spirit of Christ, we are none of his. In addition, Jesus commanded his disciples to not take authority over others, and called that a Gentile belief.

    Sadly, many teachers insist the Bible tells husbands to take authority over their wives, but the only place in the Bible where husbands are commanded to take authority over their wives is in Esther–and the command is given by a Gentile king and is clearly not from God. Although Proverbs tells parents to train up their children, no mention is made of husbands training their wives.

    The one scripture that is used to claim husband authority (wives submit to your husbands) also tells husbands to submit to wives in the preceding verse, and a few verses later the description of sacrificial love is another form of submission.

    On the other side, many wives also are in jeopardy of losing their salvation, because they place their husband ahead of God. As per a discussion in your April 2010 post re desire in Gen. 3:16, the wives turn away from their real authority, God, and instead focus on and turn to their man-designated authority, their husband. I believe their husband replaces God in their hearts, which is idolatry, Jocelyn Andersen has coined this husbandolatry. Idolatry is on the list of sins that keeps one from heaven. Thus, it becomes a salvation issue for both husband and wife.

  24. Marg Mowczko April 21, 2011 at 1:04 am #

    Waneta, I am very aware that the idea of male-only authority makes a lot of room for the possibility and the reality of the abuse of wives and women. I grieve for you and the many women who have endured the horrendous betrayal and pain of abuse at the hands of husbands who believe they have divine permission to dominate and cruelly mistreat their wives.

    I regret writing that the Comp vs Egal debate is not a Gospel issue, as one of the benefits of the Gospel is freedom and equality for ALL, regardless gender, ethnicity or socio-economic status.

    This is where I was coming from when I wrote that comment:
    Wayne Grudem believes that Christians who follow an egalitarian ideology are tampering with the Scriptures. (I think this observation is faulty and too general.) Because of his thinking he believes that the “heresy” of Biblical Egalitarianism is more dangerous than having different views on Christian baptism, etc. Christian baptism, in my opinion, IS a Gospel issue. I believe that Wayne Grudem is making the debate a Gospel issue, and I was trying to distance myself from it, because the next step would be to say that Egals are outside of the Gospel.

  25. Christy Rood May 9, 2011 at 12:16 am #

    Wendy, I didn't have time to read the comments, but I want you to know how EXACTLY I share your sentiments – both about the beauty of complementarianism and the ways in which our church culture has distorted it. It's a shame, really, because it gives egalitarians so much to work with! =)