Complementarians, the Curse, and a Book Review

Easter season has reminded us of God’s solution. But to what problem? I read a book last week that helped solidify in my mind that when we mistakenly interpret the problem, we miss the beauty of the gospel’s answer. I think many conservative evangelicals have sorely misdiagnosed the root problem on gender issues. That has clouded our presentations on the subject, and frankly, no wonder people resist our teaching. So this is both a book review and a call to re-examine an important issue for women in the church that colors how we approach topics involving egalitarian, complementarian, and feminist thinking.

God’s Good Design: What the Bible Really Says about Men and Women examines a number of controversial passages from the Old and New Testament on the roles of men and women in the church and home. Claire Smith, the author, has a PhD in New Testament from Moore College in Sydney, Australia. D. A. Carson wrote a glowing recommendation for the book, and that got my attention. I have enjoyed Carson on this topic – especially here and here. I appreciate his exposition of Scripture and generally resonate with his tone. However, despite my appreciation for him, I was very disappointed in this book. As an author, I am sensitive to criticism of my own books and therefore try to be sensitive in my criticism of the work of others. Dr. Smith is obviously well studied and brings much personal passion to this topic. But there are broad issues in the way she discusses this topic that I think need to be addressed for the health of the larger Body of Christ.

On the topic of gender in Scripture, I have long been interested in a book that simply examines and exposits Scripture on gender issues, minus defensiveness or pejorative analysis of the opposition. From the description, I thought that’s what this book would be. Instead, this book is more an argument against egalitarian interpretations of Scripture than a simple exposition of Scripture on the topic. From beginning to end, the author addresses issues raised by Christian feminists. Earlier, the author rightly said, “None of us reads the Bible as a neutral reader. We are influenced by personal factors and we are influenced by our fallenness ….” (p. 218) When I read the last chapter concerning the author’s personal life history, I understood the personal factors that strongly influenced her tone.

“I am old enough to have been raised in the heady heyday of the women’s liberation movement. Its impact on my home, my school and broader society was profound—all the more so because I spent half my school years in an exclusive all-girls school, and from my mid-teenage years lived in an all female household (even the pets were female!). 

I was raised to think that a woman could do anything a man can do (and she could do it better)… that the world would be a better place if women ran it. I recall I had very little respect for men.” (p. 219-220)

Apparently, the vast majority of gender issues in the author’s context center around Christian feminism. In contrast, I come from a background rarely dominated by feminist discussion. But even in my current context of the progressive Pacific Northwest, in a state with both a female governor and two female senators, I wouldn’t say feminism is the dominating issue for women. Sexual abuse, domestic violence, and a generally sexualized culture that projects onto the youngest of girls that they are most valuable when they are sexually provocative—these are the things with which women, including Christian women, still most struggle in my zip code, just as they have for 1000’s of years. Even in Dr. Smith’s 1st world, apparently feminist dominated context of Australia, she cites statistics that around 17% of women there have been violently abused in a current or previous relationship. I wonder what the statistics would be for the far more heavily populated 2nd and 3rd world nations (with far less gender equality) of China, India, Indonesia, and Pakistan? In my experience, THAT statistic much more than views on feminism most affects the average woman’s attitude on gender issues.

Throughout this book, Dr. Smith discusses eternal truths from Scripture on gender in this very limited context, one with a relatively short history. With almost each examination of controversial words on gender, she mentions “getting our feminist hackles up” or offending our “feminist sensibilities.” It left me wondering (though I feel personally convicted of the answer) if Scripture’s instructions and admonitions address gender issues in areas where women wear burqas without the right to show their face, let alone to vote, in, say, the Middle East? We KNOW they do, but this text only peripherally deals with those applications. 

The author is consistent with herself though. This disconnect is accounted for by the author’s interpretation of Genesis 3:16’s curse that the woman’s desire will be for her husband. Dr. Smith says, “Eve’s desire is a desire to dominate or manipulate or control her husband,” and says the created order and harmony of Genesis 2 have been “replaced by woman’s constant desire to control her husband.” (p. 178) In light of this, the author IS keeping a personally consistent tone as she interprets each Scripture, a tone reflecting her belief that women universally despite culture or socio-economic status are going to naturally resist these passages out of a desire to dominate men. The problem is that this interpretation of Genesis 3:16 does not keep the straightforward method of reading the text for which she advocated with I Timothy 2’s and I Corinthians 14’s controversial words to women. Genesis 3:16 says simply that the woman has a desire (the word indicates a strong craving or longing) for her husband. I gave a longer analysis in this post.  Please read it if you are unconvinced of my straightforward reading of Genesis 3:16.

Genesis 3:16’s curse is not that all women want to dominate men and ultimately be in control. Good grief, NO! It’s that apart from Christ, we are predisposed to look to men to fulfill in us things that only God Himself can fill. It’s that we are idolators. By misinterpreting Genesis 3:16, Dr. Smith fails to address the root issues of worship and idolatry with which women struggle in every culture regardless of background. Subsequently she fails to address the root answer to the gender wars particularly for women, which I believe is the climax of Christ’s death on the cross – the tearing of the veil that stood as the barrier between God and us. In Christ, I am now invited to boldly and confidently enter God’s presence to find grace and mercy for every need—to have my desires and needs met in Him. As the Psalmist says in Psalms 73, “Whom have I in heaven but You and there is none on earth that I desire beside You. My flesh and my heart fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion (inheritance) forever.” This is the right answer to the woman’s misdirected desire of Genesis 3. It’s the gospel!

Dr. Smith is certainly not the only complementarian to interpret Genesis 3:16 this way. In fact, I think it’s the number one problem that undermines complementarian presentations. It’s hard to convince people to take other controversial words to women in a straightforward way when leaders interpret the initial curse and root problem for women in such a convoluted way. Plus, it colors the tone of our presentations. When a speaker or author thinks a woman’s number 1 problem is that they want to take over the world from men, then normal questions, concerns, or push back become evidences of a nagging, manipulative, or dominating spirit. You can’t have a conversation with such a spirit of suspicion. I really hope more complementarian pastors and authors will start leading differently on this issue.

Despite these differences between myself and the book, I was caused to think about a number of passages of Scripture in greater depth as I worked through the book. In particular, I was reminded that with Paul’s controversial words on gender in his epistles, he repeatedly calls men and women back to reflect what God created us to be in perfection, despite the ways the fall has caused all of our relationships to struggle. God set up very good things in Genesis 1 and 2, and the cross of Christ that we celebrate particularly in this season makes a way for us to reclaim all that was lost in the fall. Creation, not curse, now defines us as His image bearers.

Bottom Line: This book is strongly influenced by the author’s particular background (then again, few books are not). You’ll likely find the study of various passages in this book helpful if you are already convinced of a complementarian perspective, but I don’t suggest this book as a tool for convincing someone else to your position.

15 Responses to Complementarians, the Curse, and a Book Review

  1. Tamie April 9, 2012 at 12:32 pm #

    Thanks for your review Wendy. I haven't read Claire's book but I heard her speak on this topic a few years ago.

    I think you've put your finger on an important issue in terms of how we read our own context. Both feminism and oppression of women are present in Australian culture: concentrating on one over the other produces a one-sided response.

    I find it sad to see complementarians attacking 'feminism' when they could be channelling their energies into a more constructive biblical vision, especially since the Bible is such a rich resource for combatting the very abuse, oppression and misplacement of identity that feminism seeks to address.

  2. Anonymous April 9, 2012 at 1:47 pm #

    Isn't it amazing that God created women in His image? He created us to reflect His glory, as He did men. He did it in a specific order and with specific purposes for each sex. After reading Radical Womanhood as part of Titus mentoring group I did some study of God's word to try to understand.

    As you have said our backgrounds, Soveriegnly given to us by God, give us each a unique perspective. Coming from a background with strong male dominance, lordship leadership, physical and sexual abuse from male figures even in the home, make this issue a hot topic with me. The soft, gentle spirit and gentle beauty of a woman was not valued. Intelligence, strength and acheivement were of much more value.

    It doesn't matter what we feel about creation or what the creation has done to us since the fall. What matters is God's word. What does God say and why does He say it. He created man and woman in His image. He did it in a specific order – man first. He gave all things to Adam. He had Adam name all things. He did not give these things to Eve. He brought Eve in later to be his helper. What do take from that in a world where women's rights are so prevelent? Do we have a “right to anything?” Does anything rightly belong to us?

    Men have failed in their roles as servant leaders. Do we trust the Lord with this? Do we do as it says in I Peter and obey them as lord and not fear anything that is frightening? I ask because I was frightened. I was frightened for my life. I was frightened for my mothers life. My brother is dead. I'm raising three boys who I long to worship Jesus and to be gentle servant leaders like Christ.

    God's word is what I cling to. Many women are so concerned with the abuse and sexulazation of women. I am too. It makes me sick to my stomach. It kills my soul. I lived with this in my home. It is horrendous to God. Jesus paid for it all. That is my hope. Vengence is mine saith the Lord, but don't we in our hearts also have love and compassion praying that the Lord will open their eyes and redeem them as He has us. Aren't we in just as dire need of the cross as they are? Isn't every sin just as reprehensible?

  3. Anonymous April 9, 2012 at 1:50 pm #

    Recently, I have been asking the Lord to give me more trust in Him. I have been asking Him to help me love and respect my husband more, treating him as God has required of me. The Lord has been showing me that my focus has been off. I can fear what the culture is doing to women and what impact that has on my husband and therefore me. I can fear how it will impact my own boys or I can trust God. Does God know me? Does He know my frame? Is He for me? Does He love me?

    What is it that God wants from me? He wants me to trust Him and respect the men in my life, not because they deserve it based on their performance. God has established them as head of the household. His word says that man was created first, He gave all things to him, and in the marriage picture he made the man to symbolize Christ and women to symbolize the church. I have struggled with this. Christ is one. He alone is to be worshipped and adored. The church is plural. We were made to worship one.

    I am not a polygamist. I'm too proud and jealous to want to share my husband. I love him and want him for myself. I have also lived in a household where sharing occurred and the consequences were too hard for my brother and I too bear. It wrought so much pain and heart ache that I wouldn't want to go there EVER.

    What the Lord has shown me though, is that my fear of the impact of the sexulazation of the culture is minor compared to my lack of respect for my husband who represents the picture of Christ. I think for women the bigger issue is are we doing what God has called us too and trusting Him with the outcome. Trust in the Lord with all of your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In quietness and trust will be your strength.

  4. Anonymous April 9, 2012 at 1:52 pm #

    To clarify further, my husband was raised in a household that was dominated by his mother. The father had little respect and voice. The mother lived in large part for her own glory and protection. This did not produce a man who honored women. He was quiet and gentle, but did not honor women as much as he used them for his own purposes.

    God's redemption is amazing. God alone can take the brokenness of this world and shine His truth, love, beauty and peace forth. Our eyes need to stay fixed there. We need to focus on our sins and trust the Lord. We can point fingers at a million different people with a million different views, but are we looking at our own sin, our own lack of trust in a Sovereign God who has give us Jesus – more than we could ever deserve- and using all of our strength to live a life of obedience to Him and what He has called us to do?

    Or are we too busy looking at the horrendous sins of the world and trying to play God thinking that we know better and blaming the other for their sins. This has been me and it doesn't work well. Or do we trust God and use our words to build and encourage the undeserving men around us, speaking gently in love to point them to Christ. Are we willing to speak gently and vulnerably entrusting ourselves to Him who judges justly knowing we are pleasing him in our obedience.

    If we want the abuse and sexulization to decline, mustn't we as women start dying to ourselves and make sacrifices in our souls to lift up and treat men as God has created them to be treated. Men are little boys who want to do well, but when they feel hopeless they turn to lesser gods and live in the slums. We have an instrumental role in pointing them to Christ and reminding them of who God has created them to be. May the Lord give us grace to understand His word, understand our part and live a life of grace that He may be glorified. Only with His spirit. Come Lord Jesus and help us. We need your help.

  5. Amber April 9, 2012 at 2:43 pm #

    Thank you for this post, it's very helpful to me. I've long been uncomfortable with the diagnosis of Gen 3:16 as women's desire to control, and this has put words to my feelings. I have a lot to think about!

  6. Wendy April 9, 2012 at 6:18 pm #

    Anonymous, I may be misreading your comments, but are you saying that you stay in a sexually dysfunctional relationship to help your husband? I just want to encourage you that if he is abusive to you or your kids, it is good and right to remove yourself from a place where he can sin against you. There is a difference between enduring grace that calls someone to repentance and enabling sin instead of addressing it. I trust the Spirit will give you wisdom on which is which in your situation.

  7. Luma Simms April 9, 2012 at 10:54 pm #

    Hey Wendy,

    I've got several thoughts here:

    I'm glad you read Dr. Smith's book, I put in on my reading list, but I'm really behind right now. I appreciate the review. I want to recommend something to you. This is not flattery, this comes from watching what areas you are really gifted in. Okay, here's my suggestion: I think you should pray about the fact that maybe you should be the one to write on this issue from the position you hold on Genesis 3:16. Just think about it and pray about.

    Concerning Genesis 3:16: From the time I started reading my Bible seriously (19 years old) I have always taken this verse to mean that part of my curse is that I look to men to meet my needs, desires, etc. It wasn't until I was exposed to Covenant Theology (8 years ago) that I heard the interpretation that Genesis 3:16 means I want to dominate and control my husband. (I understand that this interpretation is not exclusive to Covenant Theology.) I believed that at the time because I was in a place in life where I was believing a lot of things. This ended up making me stumble left and right because I was trying really hard to correct a problem I thought I had, while the real problem continued to go unattended to. However, within the last two years as I have come back to gospel-centeredness, as my primary focus has become Jesus, I have slowly come to realize that just maybe my real underlining curse is that I want from my husband what only Jesus can provide. I don't want to go into any more details. Suffice it to say that I am absolutely convinced that what Genesis 3:16 is saying confirms what my life experience has been–I have looked to my husband to do for me and to meet the needs that only Jesus Christ can do and fill. Do I want to have my own way sometimes? Well, sure. Do I struggle sometimes to get him to do things my way? But of course. However, a bossiness, or a selfishness to have ones way is NOT a sin that is peculiar to women. Where, the desire to look to a man to be your all in all as opposed to Christ, most certainly IS a sin that is peculiar to women. Furthermore, this “desire to control” I would say is a fruit of the real curse (the longing for the man to fulfill us the way only Christ can fulfill us) it is not THE curse itself.

    That's all for now…. I want to think over some other things. Good post Wendy!!

  8. Anonymous April 10, 2012 at 10:13 am #

    I enjoy reading your posts Wendy, and I also think you should write a book about your interpretation of Genesis 3:16. I would certainly buy it and read it. My first teaching on this verse was that the curse for women is to desire to control their husband, but it is only as I have been seeking to find satisfaction in my relationship with God, that my relationship with my unsaved husband has changed for the good. I want live to please God first and recognised my sin of idolatory. God's Word says the truth shall set you free, and I have been set free by your interpretation of Genesis 3:16 as the other interpretation prevelant in my church and movement, is a curse on women in itself. Please consider writing the book. Thank you Wendy for using the gifts God has given you.

  9. Wendy April 10, 2012 at 3:10 pm #

    Luma and Anonymous,

    Thanks for your encouragement. I have been working on a book like that, but you are motivating me to get off my backside and actually finish it!! I needed a kick in the pants. Perhaps this is Spirit motivate. 🙂

  10. Wendy April 10, 2012 at 3:11 pm #

    make that Spirit motivated.

  11. Anne April 11, 2012 at 6:34 pm #

    So my comment is on an entirely different vein in regard to this post… you mention that she is Australian. During college, I spent a semester in Adelaide, Australia. I found that Australia even more than the US was extremely feminist and so that influence would likely be stronger than you can imagine. I almost failed a sociology class just because I voiced that I thought it was okay for a woman to get married and have children. I say that it was because of that because the students all tried little experiments with the professor and we discovered that her feminist views shaped how she responded to all of the students in the class. In any case, I think that as Americans we often think that Australia and England aren't that different from the US, but in many ways they are. Her cultural perspective would naturally be different and it would affect the tone of her writing and this isn't necessarily a bad thing because it allows readers to identify with her when they share a similar background.

    I usually bring this up when I'm discussing Francis Chan's book Crazy Love. He's from the west coast, like you. I grew up on the west coast and now live on the east coast. Christianity, in my experience, was very black and white in the west. Either you were a believer and went to church or you didn't believe in God and didn't go. This wasn't always the case (like with the Quaker church I went to), but in general I found this to be a true cultural statement. But, when I went to live in the south, I found that there were a lot of “gray” Christians–which Chan says don't exist. There are actually many people who believe in God in the South and go to church, but don't fully grasp the Gospel. Chan would disagree with me on this, but he's a westerner. He doesn't live in the south, nor does he minister in the south.

    All that to say, I think it's important to recognize Ms. Smith's background and the environment she lives in. I don't think she should take it out. And I actually disagree with you about Genesis 3:16. I don't have time to dig into it right now, I have seen in myself a desire to be in control and that scripture has rung true to my heart. I love Mary Kassian's address of this issue in Girls Gone Wise in a World Gone Wild.

  12. Wendy April 11, 2012 at 9:07 pm #


    Thanks for that perspective on Australia. Tamie in the first comment is from Australia as well. I plan to post a more scholarly analysis of Genesis 3:16 in the coming weeks. I hope you will interact with that if you have time.

  13. Anne April 12, 2012 at 10:47 am #

    I have just a minute this morning. Yes, I noticed Tamie had commented briefly about it. I went downstairs to dig out Tim Keller's study on Genesis and I also read the other post you wrote on Genesis 3:16. I thought it was very interesting what he says–which is in contrast to what you say in your post. First, he identifies that that passage is all about the consequences of one's sin–the consequences of sin are not usually good things, but rather bad ones. “Here we see that the domination of wives by their husbands is not the way God created marriage to function. Rather, it is a consequence of sin. “Your desire will be for your husband (v. 16) is echoed in 4:7b (sin is crouchng at the door–it desires to have you.” The word indicates not a happy attraction but, interestingly, a desire to control. It says now that the woman will be seeking a husband and family as a way to gain control, happiness, and identity. “But he will rule over you” (v. 16b) means “instead, he will dominate you.” Kidner (says) that if a woamn inordinately needs a man for her identity (which you talk about in your post) that is a result of the fall. And when a man tyrannizes and uses a woman–that is also the result of the fall. In other words, the often seen “gender stereotypes' (of a passive, dependent woman and a domineering man) are bad things.”
    I think you are right that one of the consequences is idolatry as the quote above points out. But, I do think that wives desire control and power over their husbands. I've watched it all too often.
    In Christ, Anne

  14. Wendy April 12, 2012 at 2:55 pm #

    Did you read my earlier post on this subject? I interacted with the Hebrew there from Gen. 3:16, 4:7, and Song of Solomon 7:10 which all use the same word for desire. Song of Solomon 7:10 says “I am my beloved and his desire is for me.” Control is not intrinsic to the term. This view of Genesis 3:16 was first put forth (as best as I can tell in my research) around 1975 by Susan Foh in a response to feminism. John Calvin has a different interpretation in his commentary of Genesis.

  15. Marg August 21, 2012 at 7:17 am #

    I'm coming late to this, but wanted to add my thoughts.

    I am Australian. I've lived my whole life in Australia. I'm 51 years old.

    Just like in other Western countries we have misogynists and radical feminists and everything in between, but mostly we are a pretty egalitarian society.

    I am grateful that I live in an egalitarian society where I, as a woman, can study, work, vote, have a bank account, drive, etc, and have the same opportunities as men.

    I do not think that the misogynists or the radical feminists have a strong or broad voice in Australia.

    Also, I really appreciated your review, Wendy.