Things that undermine the complementarian position

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.

[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. ]

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.) 

51 Responses to Things that undermine the complementarian position

  1. nancyguthrie February 18, 2012 at 6:24 pm #

    Well said Wendy!

  2. Henry Barrowe February 18, 2012 at 7:14 pm #

    Problem #1a – calling it a “gospel” issue.
    Problem #1b – using the doctrine of the Trinity to justify the wife submitting to the husband based upon the theory of “the eternal submission of the Son to the Father.”

    Heavy-handed “complementarian” church leaders routinely invoke this theory to justify their top-down leadership and lording over the flock – very convenient for silencing dissent and demanding unquestioning obedience from those below. The top leader envisions himself as the vicar of Christ, and the Church as the Bride. Since the Bride must be in submission to Christ, she must submit to Christ's chosen regent on Earth.

  3. Wendy February 18, 2012 at 8:19 pm #

    Henry, I don't share your concern about the Trinity issue. I personally have found much encouragement in thinking through the Holy Spirit's powerful yet subtle role in the Trinity. But maybe I've heard and experienced the teaching differently than you. Thanks for your feedback!

  4. Wendy February 18, 2012 at 8:20 pm #

    Thank you, Nancy!!!

  5. Wenatchee the Hatchet February 19, 2012 at 12:18 am #

    I've read some older school Calvinists note that eternal subordination of the son is an unacceptable doctrine. I consider it an unviable doctrine and that it only appeals to a brand of Calvinist Protestant who wants to build female subordination from a reverse-engineered trinitarianism that gets to women submitting.

    Point 1 got me thinking again about a comment by Adolf Schlatter–“A gap between faith and obedience occurs only when the message of God is replaced with a doctrine about God.”
    A lot of complementarians get to their position in ways that come off like they're expounding a doctrine ABOUT God rather than sharing the actual message of Christ.

  6. Mae Fulmer February 19, 2012 at 1:08 am #

    Hi Wendy,

    I appreciate the distinction you make between submission and oppression. It is a fine – and very real – line and I'm happy to have that understanding in my quiver. It is amazing to me that a headstrong, rebellious woman such as is my nature, has learned to love and find comfort, in submission to my husband. It works because my husband would not dishonor the Lord by taking advantage of such a God-given gift as my submission by demanding it.

  7. moderator February 19, 2012 at 2:19 am #

    I don't classify myself as complementarian or egalitarians. I wholeheartedly agree that identifying one's self as a Christian should be enough. It feels wonderful to hear someone else addressing that too. I've read some of your posts and have thoroughly enjoyed them. Based on your posts, you don't seem like a complementarian or egalitarian either.

    In my opinion and experience, complementarians tend to
    1. encourage a wife's submission to her husband in everything: abuse, sin, foolishness, destructive behaviors. One blogger suggested that there are actually 3 classifications: authoritarian, complementarian and egalitarian. He suggested that complementarians who preach submission even to sin are really authoritarians in denial.

    2. deny mutual submission.

    3. deny women deacons.

    4. encourage wives to submit, love and forgive, but fail to equally encourage husbands to love, forgive, and submit to God and the other authorities in his life.

    On the other hand, egalitarians

    1. deny male headship in marriage altogether.

    Complementarian or egalitarian are just two extremes. If Jesus were alive in the flesh today, would he classify himself as a complementarian or egalitarian? Jesus was radical and revolutionary, but he was never fanatical!

    At the end of the day, I am just an EZER seeking to rightly divide the Word of God and be lead by the Holy Spirit.

    I really appreciate your Biblical grounded sentiments!

  8. Jessica February 19, 2012 at 7:41 pm #


    I like what you said about complementarianism not being a gospel issue. Recently, my husband and I met and became friends with a couple who are egalitarians and to my “surprise,” they faithfully love and serve Jesus and love and serve one another in their marriage. God really used that friendship to strip away my tribal attitudes. I'm wondering if you think this means that complementarians and egalitarians should come together in fellowship(at conferences, etc.) or if this should be an issue of separation?

    Thanks for this post and your many other thought-provoking ones! The Lord is really using your blog in my life!

  9. Anonymous February 19, 2012 at 8:43 pm #

    I wonder how you interpret Genesis 4/7. Do you interpret it the same way you do Gen 3/16 (even though the wording isn't quite the same in English translations, the same Hebrew expression is used in both verses) ? If it means that sin will have a strong longing, an emotionnal dependance on Cain, but that Cain ruling over sin will be an effect of the curse, it simply doesn't make sense.

  10. Wendy February 19, 2012 at 8:57 pm #

    Well, Genesis 4:7 is a personification of an inanimate object. Sin doesn't in reality have desires at all. Sin is a not a person or angel. It's a thing and doesn't have thought processes. That doesn't render Genesis 4:7 moot, but it does make comparisons between Genesis 4:7 and Genesis 3:16 illogical.

  11. Wendy February 19, 2012 at 9:07 pm #

    I haven't given much thought to conferences and fellowships, so I won't speak to that. But I do like how our church has fellowship with those of differing convictions (within and without the church) without compromising their core beliefs. It can be done.

  12. Erin February 20, 2012 at 12:34 am #

    Never heard Point 2 – the curse expressed that way. It makes a lot of sense, and I agree it jives with experience a lot more. Thanks! Always a good read!

  13. Jesse February 20, 2012 at 3:10 am #

    Wendy, thanks for the thought provoking post! I do have a problem with seeing these verses as illogically linked. While you are right about the personification of sin in 4:7, that doesn't explain away the almost identical language being used. It seems more illogical that the author would use the same wording in completely contradictory ways in such close proximity. I'm open to hear more about how you see these usages meaning two different things.

  14. Danny February 20, 2012 at 3:26 am #

    Wendy, with all respect, I have to agree with Jesse. As a pastor and a complimentarian I have spent a lot of time on this passage, and when understanding the language form a Hebraic rather than English perspective it definitely seems that the “rule over” issue is informed by word usage and construction and does indeed present a “rule over” perspective. Sin is personified and takes on language of personhood in many cases, so the uses in close proximity make it logical, in my view and many Hebrew comentators I've read, that a similar idea is in view. Overall, I love your post, and my wife read one of your books and really enjoyed it.

  15. Wendy February 20, 2012 at 4:00 am #

    Jesse, here are some more thoughts. Genesis 4:7 doesn't say sin is against Cain or that sin wants to dominate him. It simply says that sin wants Cain, and HE must master SIN. I think WE can project that on 4:7 based on other Scripture, but the Scripture itself as originally presented in the Hebrew doesn't literally say that in 4:7. NONE of the English translations from conservative to liberal say that either. None chose to translate either 3:16 or 4:7 desire AGAINST. All translate both desire FOR. 4:7 at face value says basically that it is Cain who must master sin, which has a desperate craving for him. I'm concerned that we interpret both passages using exegesis not eisigesis. Exegesis is taking what the text actually says and studying the meaning of the words that are there. Eisegesis is projecting onto the text instead of drawing out of the text. Scripture doesn't say the wife wants to dominate. It doesn't say sin wants to dominate. These are all projected onto the texts (eisegesis) not drawn out of what the text actually states (exegesis).

    4:7 is also a personification of something that isn't actually able to desire. Adultery doesn't desire. But you can say to make a point that adultery desires you and your coworker. Really the desires come from the depravity within us and Satan's desire to make us stumble. So projecting 4:7's personification on 3:16's literal truth seems like comparing apples and oranges. But even if it is ok to project the one on the other, 4:7 doesn't say sin desires against the man to dominate him. You could maybe say something along those lines generally from other Scripture, but this particular verse doesn't say it.

  16. Wendy February 20, 2012 at 4:05 am #

    Thanks for your kind comment, Danny. I didn't see it until after I posted my reply to Jesse.

  17. Marg February 20, 2012 at 8:50 am #

    The Scriptures never indicate that the Trinity is some sort of model for marriage. And, considering how little we know about the interrelationships within the Trinity, I stay clear of making any comparisons between the Godhead and marriage. Paul gives marriage as a metaphor for the relationship of Christ and the church (not the Father and the Son) in Ephesians 5:21-33.

    I am interested that the language of Christ laying down his life and rights is used in this article to describe wifely submission. This sounds a lot like Paul's instructions to husbands in Eph 5:25. I believe that mutual submission was Paul's intention in Eph 5:21ff. He just used different language for the men and for the women. A blunt instruction to husbands to be submissive may have got them offside. Sadly I think a blunt instruction would still get some Christian men offside, even though sacrificial love and a giving up of oneself is clearly what Paul asks for from husbands.

  18. Marg February 20, 2012 at 9:03 am #

    Jessica, I am disappointed that you were “surprised” to find a Christian egalitarian couple who “faithfully love and serve Jesus and love and serve one another in their marriage.”

    I’m wondering why you were surprised. What was your expectation? Do you have a negative view of egalitarians?

    I call myself a Christian egalitarian and I have a deep, unrelenting desire to love and serve Jesus; and to serve my husband. I also fellowship with many Christian friends who hold complementarian views.

    I hope you will look carefully at what has influenced your view of Christian egalitarians; and possibly reassess your view.

  19. Brian Warshaw February 20, 2012 at 9:17 am #


    Please be fair to Jessica, who (I believe) has stated that the Lord used a friendship to change her heart. It seems she has come in humility, admitting error in a prior prejudice. Your reply indicates that you have missed that, and I urge you to read her note again.

  20. Ali Griffiths February 20, 2012 at 9:17 am #

    Thanks for this Wendy. I particularly appreciate your declaration 'The gospel plus anything is not the gospel at all'. Christians on both sides of this debate have more in common than differences and it is good to be reminded of this. We are all gospel people, part of the Body of Christ.
    I agree with much of what you have written but I do want to pick you up on the point you make in point 2 where you say that most egalitarians don't want to be around men at all. This is a generalisation that is untrue and unhelpful. The vast majority of egalitarians I know – and I include myself in this – have come to their understanding because of a deep love and respect of scripture and they have very healthy relationships with men. Those who would like to think that evangelical egalitarians don't take scripture extremely seriously haven't understood their position at all.
    Sure, there are plenty of egalitarians who don't think about their theological position and are following their own inclination but I think you could say the same for a lot of complementarians as well!

  21. Marg February 20, 2012 at 10:56 am #

    Thanks Brian, This is a fair call. I'm glad that Jessica has seen Egalitarianism in a new light, but I'm still surprised by her surprise. What could be so bad about being Egalitarian? I am also perplexed by the idea of Complementarians separating from Egalitarian Christians.

  22. Jessica February 20, 2012 at 12:11 pm #

    Yes, Marg, I did previously have a negative view of egalitarians. I came from a circle of Christians that looked down their noses at anyone not holding the same positions as themselves, and I still have a lot of that legalistic baggage to work through. I didn't mean to offend you by my comment. My “surprise” was a disparaging slam against me, not egalitarians. Brian read my post correctly.

    God bless!

  23. Ali Griffiths February 20, 2012 at 1:22 pm #

    In a church setting it is inevitable that egalitarians and complementarians are going to clash because the issue affects the way church life is conducted. In a complementarian setting women who are gifted, and believe they are called, cannot be elders or pastors. In some complementarian circles women cannot even read the Bible in a church service or lead prayers. So this issue is clearly going to be divisive. Jessica's understanding of egalitarians is not unusual in complementarian circles and unsurprising when you consider that Christian leaders often portray women who are egalitarian as feminists who have been indoctrinated by culture, problems with men, don't take the Bible seriously etc instead of simply saying – they have a different hermeneutic of the Bible and we don't agree and this is why…
    I think conferences which focus on a particular topic are good places in which both camps can meet but then again, there are some complementarians who would object to a woman teaching in a setting where men will be listening and egalitarians who would object to women being excluded from the teaching role. This is not an easy issue to resolve but I welcome Wendy's comments that this is not a gospel issue because the more common ground we can find the better.

  24. sarah February 20, 2012 at 3:44 pm #

    thanks, wendy, for this. i've just recently discovered your writing, and it (along with many other means of grace in my life) is helping to put some theological meat on these tired, pregnant and/or breastfeeding bones! 🙂

    interesting to note the number of men that have responded to this particular post. obviously a tender spot!

    just last night while doing dishes i was reflecting on how complementarian values can actually reinforce my own sinful, innate desire to worship my husband and crush him with expectations in the process. what i mean by that is that sometimes leadership and self-sacrifice (Christ's call to husbands) can become skewed in my mind with fulfilling my own wants (and very real needs). but of course i'm replacing the Giver with the gift, and idolatry always hurts us all!

    so while i see a comlementarian pattern in Scripture for marriage, i know in my own heart that any teaching, unless breathing of the Spirit of Christ, quickly turns letter-of-the-law and kills! 2 cor 3:6.

    thank you!

  25. Wendy February 20, 2012 at 3:53 pm #

    You are right to correct me here. I should have said that more of extreme feminists, not average egalitarians. That was an over generalization on my part.

  26. Anonymous February 20, 2012 at 6:01 pm #

    Some good thoughts for sure. A couple I take issue with:

    1) Genesis means a desire 'for' her husband. The debate, as you frame it, is over the word 'desire'. It is the Hebrew word often translated 'for' that needs looked at b/c it can also mean 'against'. 'her desire shall be against her husband' is an equally valid translation, as it is used in Gen 4:8.

    I can easily see the desire of women to manipulate their husbands to get their way (silent treatment, emotional outbursts/crying, anger, et al) especially in a marriage, just as I can see how some women try to find their fulfillment in men as you posit. It's not for no reason there's a saying about to the effect of a wife not caring that her husband is the head because she is the neck and turns the head any way she wants. Certainly the radical feminism and it's growing influence in our day is a mark in the 'against' column. Of course we are humans with hearts of 'deep waters' and everything isn't as black and white as we might like. (men are equal sinners, not trying to pick on women here)

    2) mutual submission. this idea is not in the Bible as far as I know. I like your definition of submission but how can any two people do this simultaneously? or do you take turns? In any case there is no clear 'head' in this model. The man laying down his life as Christ did is love, not submission.

    More importantly, the only scripture I know of used to promote mutual submission is Eph 5:21. if taken in context is clearly not 'everyone submit to everyone else'. Husbands are never told to submit to their wives in the example that follows. But for argument sake say the are supposed to. Then applying the exact same principle clearly in the next 2 examples parents are to submit to their children, and masters to their servants/slaves. If you are consistent with the scripture then you will have to admit to these as well. So I'm submitting there is some bad exegesis of Eph 5:21-33 to get mutual submission out of it and the greater influence in this belief is the culture, where submission has become a 4 letter word.

  27. Susanna February 20, 2012 at 6:27 pm #

    “organic cooking” . . . haha! Love it! Thanks for teaching. I don't know you, but I appreciate your being a woman that teaches other women, like me. Thanks for modeling Titus 2 in a modern way

  28. Sallie February 20, 2012 at 7:23 pm #

    I read this post yesterday but didn't have time to comment. I came back this afternoon specifically to comment on the idea of egalitarian women not wanting to be around men. I'm glad Ali brought it up because I do think that is an inaccurate generalization. Thank you, Wendy, for acknowledging that.

    As I've gone on my own journey from being comp to ending up somewhere near the biblical egalitarian camp, I've seen over and over that many comps really haven't studied the topic very deeply. And by that I mean they haven't studied the relevant passages of Scripture more thoroughly than reading “Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” and listening to sermons by John Piper. I can tell, Wendy, that you have thought about these topics much more deeply than that with your comments about women deacons. The issue of women being denied the opportunity to serve as deacons is one of the biggies for me in the comp view.

    There is a wealth of excellent information out there that grapples with the key passages from an egalitarian view. I've started compiling resources on my own website to help others who are searching. I'm not completely in the biblical egalitarian camp, but I'm very far out of the comp camp. My husband and I have an egalitarian marriage and have been happily married for fifteen years.

    I hope people will study more to understand the egalitarian view, even if they do not end up embracing it. Most of the egalitarians I've met in person and online are deeply committed to Christ, following the Scriptures, and handling the Word of God correctly.

  29. Anonymous February 20, 2012 at 7:36 pm #

    As an egalitarian,

    What would a bible based Christ exalting marriage look like between the husband and the wife? In otherwords, if one believes they understand the biblical model of loving headship(male) and submission to his love(female) mandated for the christian couple, how does a professed complimentarian view serve to affirm the truth of scripture?

    It would seem to me just as stated by the author of this delightful post, that such terms admittedly limited in their own right, would undermine the sufficiency of scripture on the matter.

    I would like to see examples of a truly healthy egalitarian relationship that does not ultimately chafe against the heirarchical structure of scripture.

    Jesse Gistand, male complimentarian, husband,Father, grand, and pastor.


  30. Anonymous February 20, 2012 at 7:39 pm #

    I'm sorry I meant a professed egalitarian view

    Jesse Gistand

  31. Wendy February 20, 2012 at 7:59 pm #

    Anonymous, as for point 1, the debate as I see it isn't over the meaning of desire but the translation of the preposition for. I keep coming back to the point that translation teams keep choosing FOR not AGAINST as the translation. That has to mean something.

    As for point 2, no, we don't “take turns” with submission. When my husband and I have principled disagreements that we can't reconcile another way, I submit to him.

  32. Hannah Anderson February 20, 2012 at 8:26 pm #

    FINALLY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Thank you Wendy for have the guts to seriously critique our complimentarian troubles. It's no use denying what's happening in our circles–mainly because it's on a trajectory to get much worse if we don't return to a thoroughly Biblical understanding of personhood. And quickly.

  33. Hannah Anderson February 20, 2012 at 8:36 pm #

    And even in this, I think we actually extend respect to our husbands BY communicating our disagreement with them. Instead of treating them like children who can't handle a second opinion without a meltdown, we MUST offer them by a different perspective on a given situation when we have it. Even if in the end, we submit to their decision. Too many wives have a superficial understanding of submission and are actually demeaning their husbands by thinking that they aren't strong enough to handle a conflict.

  34. Hannah Anderson February 20, 2012 at 8:43 pm #

    I do struggle with the use of the Trinity to express gender roles… for so many reasons. Not the least of which is that in this expression of the Godhead, we are not equally expressing the nature of the Father's love for the Son. That the Son has only to ask the Father and He would give Him what He wanted.

    It just feels like the doctrine is being manipulated to prove a point. A point that doesn't need to be proven from the Trinity since, as Marg mentioned above, the Holy Spirit actually inspired a very clear metaphor about relationships between men and women–Christ and His Church.

    As well, it kind of leaves the Holy Spirit hanging with no direct correlation in gender dynamics. I had a prof (at good old BJU) who always said you know when an interpretation is good when all the pieces of the puzzle fit and there is nothing left over.

  35. Jesse February 20, 2012 at 9:25 pm #

    Wendy, thanks for the response. I agree with you about the dangers of eisegesis, just disagree about who is committing it! Your argument for the meaning of 3:16 is that women are now predisposed to misplacing their desire away from God and towards men. That is an impossible meaning for 4:7 (“Cain, sin is idolizing you so you must rule it”) and so you would have to argue that these two verses, despite their proximity and similarity of words and context, must meant two completely different things. It seems as though you have observed a tendency in women towards idolatry of men and imported that meaning into the text. On a side note, I agree with you that idolatry is the underlying issue, but I think the curse is toward self-worship, not man-worship. Thanks again for the post. I hope I'm not being too nitpicky or uncharitable…but you did acknowledge the “foundational” aspect of this interpretation.

  36. Wendy February 20, 2012 at 9:33 pm #

    Jesse, I do not think you are being uncharitable. 🙂 As for eisigesis/exegesis, the translations do say “desire for”. It's hard to perceive I'm reading into the text to say that means she has a desire for her husband but those who read it as meaning she has a desire against him to dominate him are not. The woman had a strong craving for her husband. Sin had a strong craving for Cain. It seems straightforward to me. But obviously, it isn't straightforward to everyone.

  37. Anonymous February 20, 2012 at 11:42 pm #

    Of course there can be healthy egalitarian marriages, just like there can be unhealthy complementarian marriages.

  38. Ali Griffiths February 20, 2012 at 11:51 pm #

    Thanks for clarifying that – I was puzzling over that slip!
    It's really difficult to give you examples – do you mean personal accounts of good egalitarian relationships or do you want a theological explanation of how it would work? I can give examples of the former but I think the latter would be of more use.
    Most egalitarians would argue that the hierarchical structure of scripture is largely constructed by people but it is not what is intended by God to define relationships between the genders in the family or church. Therefore the assumption that scripture dictates a hierarchy in the first place would be questioned. For example, a traditional Baptist perspective holds that authority ultimately rests in the community of covenant members under the governance of the Holy Spirit not in the leader or the elders. The same perspective could be said to apply within a family – a husband and wife are together under the authority of the Holy Spirit and submit to each other out of reverence for Christ. No one person has the authority to 'rule'.
    Having said that, I am egalitarian by conviction but within marriage I practise submission to my husband because I believe marriage specifically reflects the relationship Christ has with His church (a living parable if you like) – therefore I submit as the church should submit to Christ. My husband doesn't agree with me however and believes mutual submission applies in marriage as well. Somehow, despite our differences on this, our marriage of 20 years appears to work. My stance on marriage is not shared by many other egalitarians – I guess it's another example of the dangers of generalization.

  39. Jessica February 21, 2012 at 12:16 am #


    I've spent all day, when I was free to, thinking about point two of this post. I looked up everyone of my study Bibles and modern commentaries and you're right, they all translate it as a woman's desire to dominate her husband. This has never set right with me either because it seems like such an untrue characterization, almost an insult to the countless of oppressed women all over the world who are trying to survive, never mind dominate. Then I remembered the wise words of C.S. Lewis, that we need the “fresh sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds,” because all modern writers have the tendency to interpret or react to everything in light of modern controversies, but the older writers, although they had their own set of problems, didn't have ours, so there is great value in reading what they have to say to gain some perspective.

    So I read Genesis 3:16 and Genesis 4:7 in the KJV and then read John Calvin's commentary on both of those verses. The KJV translation was slightly different from modern ones, and while Calvin doesn't interpret those verses quite like you do, his interpretation is NOTHING at all like his modern followers! I don't have the time to explain how it is different, but it was fascinating, and I wondered if you were aware of this. If not, you would probably really find it interesting to read.

    I think I'm going to stick with Calvin on this one. In his patriarchal world, he had no need to panic about women taking over the world of men, no temptation to read into the verse something that wasn't there.

  40. Wendy February 21, 2012 at 12:35 am #

    Thank you, Jessica. I've been reading a good bit on it myself but this is helpful insight.

  41. KMB February 21, 2012 at 1:01 am #

    Anonymous didn't actually write the reply:
    Of course there can be healthy egalitarian marriages, just like there can be unhealthy complementarian marriages.

    I wrote it in response to Anonymous. Just wanted to be clear. Seems like anonymous is questioning the existence of healthy egalitarian marriages. Just wanted to point out that there are many unhealthy complementarian marriages too.

    Posted by KMB

  42. Anonymous February 21, 2012 at 1:17 am #

    Thank you Ali for your honest response,

    It is not easy to establish a biblical construct for egalitarianism that true to the whole tenor of the scriptures,

    But as a pastor who believes that the egalitarian hermaneutic has been a core problem all along given the cultural trends and approval that has marked our fallen world,

    Given the rise of women taking unbiblical and unauthorized postions in the Church,at the permission of men, given the cry for a progressive movement that has allowed for race, sexual orientation, and other new categories to flourish as a rights movement,

    I have yet to find a theologically sound hermenuetic that is consistent with a Christ exalting theme at it's center. ” Black liberation theology ” coming out of the 60 is what my community recieved as an answer to both biblical heirarchy and racism.

    This system and it's consituent progressive hermenutic has not yielded for my community much at all, beyond a freedom or sorts for our sisters, that has not been able to reconcile the mess we found ourselves in as families. I counsel lots of people as a pastor and I do not see very healthy gospel driven egalitarians.

    I also challenge the premise that a complimentarian hermenuetic is the problem or root cause to an abusive husband, a unhealthy or passive wife, or a society that was worse off 30yrs ago than today, as we are seeing the fruits of egalitariasm everywhere. What has been missing is a strong biblical Christlike model, undergirding complimentarianism as well as other ethics in the scriptural mandate.

    Having said that, let me haste to admit being the father of 6 daughters, very independent succesful and two with families, in addtion to a strong wife, I concur with the notion of an egalitarian mindset, able to walk in a complimentarian relationship.

    I teach a womens theology class in our Church, about 80 in attenance whom I love. I haven't met one who is a natural complimmentarian.

    As I engage with my brethren on many subjects as contraversial to you sisters as this knowing that we won't solve these problems today, nor tomorrow, let us exercise a cross centered, bible based, spirit aided thesis as we continue to dialogue.

    Blessins to you all,

    Jesse Gistand,

  43. Wendy February 21, 2012 at 1:32 am #

    Thanks, all, for having this conversation respectfully! I'll probably leave comments open only through this evening. So if there's anything else you'd like to say, these are the last hours.

  44. Steve Cornell February 21, 2012 at 1:44 am #


    I appreciate your overall emphasis. But while I understand the concerns about learning to respond to one another with some form of submission, I believe that Ephesians 5:21 has been wrongly applied as advocating mutual submission. The word for “submit” in verse 21 prepares the way for verse 22 (where there is no greek word for submit*). It also prepares the way for the flow of the next chapters. So the order of submission flows from v. 21. It would be like saying, “Submit to one another in a way that looks like this: wives to your husbands…” The text continues with this concern: church to Christ, children to parents, servants to masters.

    (* V. 21: Ὑποτασσόμενοι ἀλλήλοις ἐν φόβῳ Χριστοῦ “submitting yourselves to one another in the fear of Christ.” v. 22: αἱ γυναῖκες τοῖς ἰδίοις ἀνδράσιν ὡς τῳ κυρίῳ, “wives to your husbands as to the Lord.”)

    I just don't think Ephesians 5 is the place to go to advocate mutual submission. But I very much appreciate the seven things submission does not mean outlined in “Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism” ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem. You can see the list here:

    I recently wrote a piece titled: “Does unity sand offer a better picture of marriage?” I've done many weddings –mostly involving the unity candle ceremony. But recently I performed a wedding involving the Unity sand in place of the Candle and I thought it offered a better and needed vision of marriage — particularly in the evangelical Churches (some expressions of it more than others).

    Since the first man was incomplete without the woman, she evidently brought special qualities to their relationship that must not be allowed to disappear. If a husband behaves toward his wife in a way that causes her to disappear into himself, he threatens the complimentary intention of the Creator. He hurts himself and his wife.

    Perhaps when a husband observes the sand that represents his wife’s life blended with the sand representing his life, he will be visually reminded of how much she brings to their relationship. He can also notice how much better it looks when her life is an evident part of the blended beauty of their marriage.

    Some men use Christian teachings about headship and submission to diminish the uniqueness and contributions of their wives to the marriage. They insist that life conforms to their dominant identity so they can get what they want.

    I’ve also observed women who suppress their identity under more dominant men who frankly need the gifts and strengths of their wives. These women also entertain misguided understandings of headship and submission. Trying to be “the submissive Christian wife,” these women violate the original design by not being the complementary completion to men who badly need the unique blended beauty of their wives.

    The original plan assumes the necessity of individuality and uniqueness in both husbands and wives for the completion of their oneness. The unity sand offers a nice picture of two becoming one — without one disappearing in the other.

    If interested in my thoughts on this, see:

    Steve Cornell

  45. Wendy February 21, 2012 at 2:09 am #

    Thanks, Steve. I like the idea of a unity candle and think it gives a neat illustration of the oneness required in marriage.

  46. Sistergirl February 21, 2012 at 2:49 am #

    Well, we live in a fallen world. People will interpret the bible for their own good. But the Lord gives us good sense or the spirit to decern foolishness. We have to read the world and rightly divide it but that doesn't mean that you can get some biblically illiteriates to comprehend. The Lord has his hands on some women deacons and preachers he raise them up when a weak man can not take is rightful place. Sometimes the Lord has to intervene when his people don't exercise faith. You and your husband have to be equallyyoke else you really can't comprehend each other.

  47. Wendy February 21, 2012 at 4:30 am #

    This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  48. Wendy March 7, 2012 at 4:12 am #

    I've edited this post to add this.

    I am in the midst of listening to D. A. Carson on this topic (mutual submission). 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.

  49. The Blog bites better than the Bullet. April 19, 2012 at 4:41 am #

    this is great- thank you!

  50. Rohmeo February 2, 2013 at 7:39 pm #

    Great post. For a little comic relief I tweeted this to Rachel Held Evans who you probably know if not follow her blog. I like to engage with her since I appreciate the issues she brings up but disagree on a few core things. I know she's a big egalitarian so I asked her if the Super Friends which my sister & I watched all the time as kids already gave us a preview of the next logical step… 🙂

  51. Phillip February 16, 2017 at 11:49 am #

    I am going to give an honest mans perspective please remember this is just my opinion.
    1. I cant think of anything that makes me feel more like a man than to see my wife pleased with what I do.
    2. The greek word used in these passages means to yield or give way. I feel like a mule when my wife tries to control or manipulate how and when I deliver on what she desires, in other words ladies please step aside so we can make you happy.
    3. If I could rule my wife I would in a minute! I would command her to make more decisions, like when its her turn to cook (I am chief cook and bottle washer) , plop that plate in from of me and tell me to shut up and eat!
    4. Why do we need so many friggin books on “What the Bible says about marriage” aint Jesus good for us? I mean if two people who love each other simply practice the beattitudes in Matthew how can your relationship go south unless you stop practicing them? Thank you for listening.