Mohler, Moore, and Generous Orthodoxy

American Evangelical Twitter is in a flutter about the issue of women preaching in the Southern Baptist Convention—an alliance of Baptist churches in which complementarianism is, according to Al Mohler, an article of faith. (You can watch his video on the subject here.)

Al Mohler this week was bemoaning the reopening of an issue that he thought closed. He said:

This seems at least partly to be a response to Beth Moore who had been invited to preach at a church on Mother’s Day, and then had tweeted about having belonged to several SBC churches all of which exhibited “generous orthodoxy” towards the idea of women using their teaching gifts in a Christian gathering.

Having written a fair bit about complementarianism last year, I will not reiterate too many of the arguments again. I’ll limit myself to a couple of observations about this particular flare-up.

1. The false dichotomy is damaging

The way Al Mohler and hundreds of Twitter commenters speak, you’d swear there is a glossary at the back of the Bible that gives clear definitions of words like “complementarianism”. So many arguments take the line that if it isn’t complementarianism (definition apparently obvious) then it must be egalitarianism (definition also apparently obvious), and therefore evil. Any number of people accused Beth Moore of being a liberal or a heretic because “generous orthodoxy,” if it’s not my orthodoxy, must be heterodoxy.

Mohler and other Christian leaders should take responsibility for this kind of behavior among their followers, because to so frequently present complex issues as though there are two clearly defined camps creates an “us” and a “them,” and this, in turn, prompts those with a poor grasp of nuance to slander everyone who occupies the grey areas in between. False dichotomies like “complementarian/egalitarian” pretend that these issues are simple, they negate the need for fair, open-minded debate, and they make the church inhospitable for anyone who doesn’t toe the party line. You either say “I’m with Al Mohler,” or you’re one of the liberals of 30 years ago who were destroying the SBC.

But of course there is not only one kind of complementarian and neither is there one kind of egalitarian (and this is why I prefer to be neither). There is a spectrum of beliefs and a lot of moving parts associated with each broad view and both have good biblical support. We have to allow people the freedom to study Scripture and make up their own minds.

2. Certainty is a helluva drug

In Al Mohler’s video linked above, he claims that the Bible makes “very very clear statements” about the role of men and women in the church and that the biblical teaching is “excruciatingly clear”. He explains that the Bible teaches that “women do not preach to the gathered assembly on the Lord’s Day, specifically,” and that the issue is ultimately one of authority. When it comes to teaching men in other ways and on other days, then he allows that Paul isn’t talking about that.

But the trouble is, the Bible doesn’t really limit the prohibitions in this way; Paul just says “I am not allowing a woman to teach and have authority over a man.” Perhaps more to the point, this is not how Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood contributor Douglas Moo interprets the same text (he wrote that “to teach” is a technical term that refers to exposition or teaching theology, not that it refers to the main gathering on the Lord’s Day), and the same text prompts several Christians in my circles to disallow women to serve on a church council, for example, or to lead a church service or a mixed fellowship group. In other words, the “excruciatingly clear” Scriptures do not produce a consistent perspective on women in ministry, even among complementarian interpreters.

Even more to the point, for Mohler to claim such levels of clarity for his own interpretation means what about everyone else? What about interpreters like Gordon Fee or John Stott or Craig Keener or RT France or countless other voices from the middle? The implication is surely that they are explicitly and intentionally operating in disobedience of the clear Scriptures (and writing commentaries etc. to justify their disobedience). As genuine as he might be and as pure and earnest as his motives clearly are, Mohler’s position implies a fairly horrifying judgment upon fellow Christian scholars and pastors.

There are core matters about which we can have a high degree of certainty, but there are several compounding factors that make the majority of biblical issues less certain than we’d like. The fact is that orthodoxy ought to be generous (virtually by definition) because certainty is elusive, no matter how much you wish it weren’t so. To claim certainty for your own position and error for everyone who takes another line is first-class hubris.

3. Theology and tradition should be open for review

JI Packer said long ago that all doctrine “terminates in mystery.” There is so much that we do not know or that we perceive only dimly, and so while we hold humbly and gratefully to the revelation that we have been given, we ought to acknowledge that it is very, very partial. Furthermore, our minds are very, very small, and God is very far beyond us. What He has given us has been accommodated to our very small minds and our elusive grasp of transcendent things.

Theology is never finished.

Mohler bemoans the reopening of an issue that 30 years ago was a threat. However, was egalitarianism the threat or did it merely accompany the threat? Is complementarianism the final answer, or was it merely an answer that conveniently repelled a presenting danger at the time? You’ll never know if your answer cannot be questioned. Theology needs to be reexamined because as a human endeavor, it is subject to our blind spots and weak-mindedness. Since Paul himself teaches us that we now only perceive “as in a mirror darkly”, theology has a strong component of mystery, it should be approached with humility, and it should not be undertaken from the assumption that whoever disagrees with the status quo is an enemy.

4. Stop confusing separable issues

Finally, Mohler’s video mentions in passing that he considers the attempt to move away from complementarianism ultimately as an attack on the authority of Scripture. I don’t know if this is a genuine underlying concern or just one of those things that we say to ramp up the level of seriousness with which we would like an issue to be considered, but this might explain why there is so much wagon-circling concerning this issue.

Yet this need not be an attack on the Bible; it is often a genuine attempt to discuss the Bible, which is something we really ought to be able to do as evangelicals. We really must reserve “attack on the Bible” language for those occasions in which that is really happening, otherwise we end up communicating to our followers that any opinion that differs from that of a leader on an issue that said leader considers important is actually a contest for the heart of the faith. It ramps up the stakes, drives people into factions, and prevents us from even hearing Scripture on the matter. The Bible actually forbids us from doing this with disputable matters, but we seem less keen to obey this clear biblical command than the one verse that may or may not be a universal prohibition of women pastors.

Inasmuch as Brian McLaren and the emergent movement might have hijacked the phrase “generous orthodoxy,” it remains a brilliantly concise summary of what it is that we’re actually called to. The Bible calls us to be faithful to the gospel (orthodoxy) while being defined by love, humility, and unity in mind and purpose (generosity). Tell me how it is possible to be all those things when we claim orthodoxy as our own and confuse unity for uniformity?


For more on these issues, look out for Turn Neither Right Nor Left due to be released later this year.

5. Conclusion: Not Me Too

It is too infrequently acknowledged that prejudice doesn’t have to involve malice, hatred, slurs or conflict. One doesn’t only get the kind of racism that is expressed in segregation or restricted opportunity or specific incidents of racial hatred. Racism can be friendly. Systemic racism or sexism tends rather to be expressed through an imbalance in who is trusted; whose voice is given the most value.

I have started my last post in the series on women’s ministry in this way, because my motivation for writing this series was that I observed attitudes towards women from Christian men that seemed to me to be sexist. I set out to investigate what the Bible says and to test our arguments for the place of women in the church in order to exhort us to treat women with the dignity that the Bible gives them.

To be clear, my motivation was not that I began to think that complementarianism is sexist. While it is a position that explicitly discriminates against women in terms of the roles they are allowed to exercise, certain kinds of discrimination are benign. It is not meant to be a statement of the relative value of men and women—rather, male headship is seen as a creational responsibility given to men much as child-bearing is a responsibility given to women. I began writing because of incidents that did imply a lesser value for women, or that denied them roles that the Bible never forbids. The church may love its women and see them as precious and important and yet still treat them as lesser people. Sexism can be friendly.

A Christian leader recently summed up his aim in a way that captures my original goal too. If you’re complementarian, be complementarian, not hierarchical or patriarchal. Complementarian theology commits men to viewing and treating women as equals. It commits men to recognising that women have gifts that are complementary to ours—i.e. we need them and their wisdom if ours is not to be deficient. It commits men to lead sacrificially, not to place women in servitude of male interests.

If we eradicated the male prejudices that involve ongoing put-downs of women and ongoing elevation of the importance of male ministry—if male headship truly served women sacrificially like it is supposed to—it would probably be less of an issue whether or not women may preach.

Am I complementarian?

Many of my posts cast doubt on the theological foundations on which complementarianism is based. As a result, I have twice been asked how I could still identify as complementarian in some of my posts.

The short answer is that I called myself complementarian because I always have been; I didn’t begin writing this series because I had changed my view, and on principle I don’t wish to change position without a fight. The foundation of complementarianism is uncertain, not disproved, and still in its favour is a reasonable biblical case that male headship is in some sense foundational. Changing position is difficult too, because while the positions may be uncertain, we have to choose a definite practice: we either let women preach or we don’t.

But the truth is I don’t want either of these labels as part of my identity. For reasons I will explain in more detail below, I no longer want to be called complementarian because it is impossible to avoid being associated with teaching under that banner that is unbiblical and abhorrent to me. I would also rather avoid being called egalitarian because it means that many will associate me with the brand of liberalism that is fluid on gender—even though that movement is unrelated to evangelical egalitarianism.

I’m for better Bible handling and for an end to prejudice against women in the church. That’s it.

The Death of Complementarianism

Complementarians often lay claim to good Bible handling as a distinctive. After all, the textbook is called Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood—it claims to be a return to the Bible in response to the ‘evangelical feminists’ who are allegedly behind the push for a more egalitarian model. What has killed complementarianism for me over the last month has been the poor Bible-handling used in its defence, and some of its nastier results.

1. Man is the head of the church?

A benign example to start with: in a recent talk, the speaker was explaining the biblical foundations of complementarianism using Eph. 5. In that text, Paul makes this analogy:

Point: the husband is head of the wife
Analogy: as Christ is head of the church

The speaker used this analogy to say that this picture of marriage therefore (in some ways) carries over into the role and function of women in the church. The trouble is: this is not how analogies work. The fact that God compares himself to such creatures as lions and chickens in no way makes him animalistic or these creatures divine. The point that Paul is making is that the man is the head of the wife in marriage. That’s it. There is absolutely no exegetical warrant in this text for making man the head of the church. You can argue that the pattern in marriage ought to carry over into the church (I don’t), but the text gives no hint that this is a valid move.

2. Forcing gender characteristics out of unrelated texts

As I said above, complementarianism commits men to recognising that women have gifts that are complementary to theirs. This is not, as far as I am aware, taught anywhere in Scripture, but seems to be based on the observation that Eve was created ‘helper’, that men and women are different, and that they seem to occupy different roles in marriage and society in the Bible.

Male and female differences—beyond those that have to do with reproductive biology—are hard to describe with confidence because they are general tendencies. As I have argued before, trying to universalise these tendencies as real manhood or womanhood is foolish because it can do real damage to those who find themselves outside of the ‘definition’. More importantly, the Bible makes no effort to sketch portraits of manhood and womanhood at any point. This is an obvious problem for those whose theology needs there to be such portraits.

As a result, many complementarians seem to feel obliged to extract universal male and female characteristics from the Bible regardless of whether or not good Bible-handling allows them to.

In a recent talk, the speaker was advocating for women to be involved in women’s ministry. Because so few texts speak directly to women, she felt compelled to deal with Titus 2:3-5, which does so. While Paul is addressing a specific community with specific problems, the speaker took these problems to be characteristic of women universally: women are prone to gossip, women should be pure and not try to manipulate men with their bodies, etc.

She went on to claim that women need to be taught differently to men, on the grounds that Jesus dealt differently with Martha when rebuking her than he did with Peter. This, she said, is because men and women are different by design. Jesus spoke gently to Martha when she was angry at getting no help from Mary because women are relational. Jesus called Peter ‘Satan’ because men are tougher and care about truth. The fact that Jesus would have to be a monster to call Martha ‘Satan’ for doing an objectively nice thing seemed lost on the speaker.

The issue is that none of these texts is attempting to tell us what men and women are. It is an abuse of logic to make a universal claim (or even a generalisation) on the basis of a sample size of one. More importantly, it is an abuse of Scripture to try and claim divine sanction for it too.

This same error is taken to stratospheric heights by Doug Wilson, a prominent pastor and contributor to TGC and Returning to Ephesians 5, he takes the instruction that wives must submit to their husbands and that husbands must love their wives to be a statement of ontology:

“The command [in Ephesians 5] reveals something about the needs of the recipient… When husbands are told to love their wives, we can infer from this that wives need to be loved. When wives are told to respect their husbands, we can infer from this that husbands need to be respected. Think of it as two kinds of car that run on different kinds of fuel —diesel and regular, say. Men run on respect, and wives run on love.” (Doug Wilson,

That he sees this as a matter of male-and-female ‘wiring’ can be seen elsewhere in his thinking. Here are two more quotes:

“Men and women are different, and they are different all the way down. Men and women relate to God differently, they relate to one another differently, and they relate to the world differently.”

[In sex] “A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.”

This is not too far from the views of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, but there remains no evidence in Eph 5 that this text is intended to be what characterises manhood and womanhood. When it is taken this way, it becomes a Trojan horse for views that smell an awful lot like misogyny. Wilson’s first quote above continues as follows:

“Men and women are different, and they are different all the way down. Men and women relate to God differently, they relate to one another differently, and they relate to the world differently…
But here are some different examples… Why, if a woman sleeps with a hundred men, is she slut-shamed, but if a man sleeps with a hundred women, he can get away with bragging about his “conquests”? Well, consider this factor. A key that opens a hundred locks can claim to be a master key. A lock that opens to a hundred keys can only claim to be pretty much worthless… The point is not that his sin is praiseworthy and the immoral woman’s is not, but rather that their sins are radically different because they are radically different…” (

I am not sure how the ‘factor’ that he mentions—one that makes a womanising male the possessor of a ‘master key’ and the woman worthless—isn’t at least a tacit endorsement of the perverse verdict that society used to levy against such people (when sexism was still ok). I see him claiming that he isn’t endorsing it, but he is the one raising the key-lock analogy, and I’ve tried, but I can’t see how it doesn’t contradict him.

His second quote is part of an explanation for why rape is so prevalent:

“A final aspect of rape that should be briefly mentioned is perhaps closer to home. Because we have forgotten the biblical concepts of true authority and submission, or more accurately, have rebelled against them, we have created a climate in which caricatures of authority and submission intrude upon our lives with violence.
When we quarrel with the way the world is, we find that the world has ways of getting back at us. In other words, however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts…
True authority and true submission are therefore an erotic necessity. When authority is honored according to the word of God it serves and protects—and gives enormous pleasure. When it is denied, the result is not ‘no authority,’ but an authority which devours.” (

In other words, because Wilson needs a biblical portrait of manhood and womanhood that isn’t forthcoming from the pages of Scripture, he has extrapolated one from Ephesians 5 and universalised it to the position of our created identity. On that basis, he blames rape on egalitarians because men ought to have sexual authority and women need men to dominate them. When we don’t, those needs allegedly express themselves sinfully.

Bear in mind that Paul urges slaves and children to express their submission to order in obedience, but the wife is not told to obey; a wife’s submission is put in parallel with respect (5:33). Having respect for one’s partner is a far cry from being a creature who by nature is fulfilled by being dominated.

One might say that Wilson is an intentionally controversial figure and not representative of the mainstream, but as I pointed out last time, even Piper says that women must be responders not leaders in the bedroom, that egalitarian theology is a cause of sexual sins in society, and that women cannot lead even in civic roles because they would be in authority over men. Wilson might be a particularly revolting proponent of this theology, but Piper is most certainly the complementarian mainstream.

To reiterate my complaint, the Bible never attempts a description of the characteristics of manhood and womanhood, but rather talks about general Christian character and about gifts that the Spirit distributes as he wills. There is no biblical portrait of manhood. (There arguably is one of a woman in Prov. 31, but she seems more like the complementarian portrait of a man.)

Dragging ontological characteristics of men and women out of texts such as Eph. 5 is an abuse of Scripture and the knock-on effect of the application of such exegesis has the potential to be deeply harmful.

If being labelled complementarian commits me to share an umbrella with Wilson and his ilk, then I can’t be complementarian.

Should women preach?

If I am not complementarian or egalitarian, then where do I stand concerning whether women should preach in church or not?

I said in my last post, perhaps unfairly, that complementarians end up being either arbitrary or inconsistent when they claim that 1 Timothy 2 should be understood as a universal prohibition against women teaching men. Douglas Moo (RBMW, pp. 185-186) claims that ‘teaching’ in this passage is probably in the pattern of Jewish exposition of Scripture, and therefore is probably limited to the teaching of the Bible or of doctrine in church or in training institutions, but it doesn’t necessarily prevent leading a Bible study, and certainly isn’t relevant to evangelism etc.

This is an argument that is plausible and it allows one to escape the charges of inconsistency. However, it is a guess. The word ‘to teach’ is used generally of instruction, for example also describing Jesus’ use of parables (e.g. Mark 4:2) or the Holy Spirit teaching one what to say when in the witness box (Luke 12:12) or nature teaching us about the impropriety of long hair (1 Cor. 11:14). To claim that it is a technical term for a certain mode of instruction is a useful solution to the conflict that this text introduces, but far from obvious from the language.

Whatever one believes, it should give us serious pause that the evidence that women should not preach to men (as distinct from holding headship) amounts to a single verse—a verse that can also very persuasively be read as context-bound and not universal.

In favour of women teaching, I must underline the awkward fact that Paul says that women can prophesy in church. In 1 Corinthians 12 and 14, Paul ranks prophecy among the teaching gifts and as one rung down from apostleship, but above teaching. I am not persuaded by the attempts to redefine prophecy as something other than an authoritative teaching role. It clearly was that in the Old Testament, and women such as Deborah and Huldah held that position.

We all have a rule against one passage being read in conflict with another when harmonious readings exist. Unfortunately, in this case, either side has a tension to solve. It seems to me that reading 1 Tim. 2 as universally applicable involves more disharmony than reading it as context-bound. It is after all the same Paul who says that in Christ there is no male and female.

Final Thoughts

There is a strong emphasis in the New Testament upon behaving in ways that do not bring the gospel into disrepute. Submitting even to evil and corrupt governing authorities (rather than acting in rebellion against law) and refusing to eat meat if it causes others to stumble are examples of this emphasis.

If this is so, perhaps the fact that social orders now require submission to female prime ministers, law-keepers, judges, bosses etc., and given that male domination of any field is disreputable in most Western societies, following Paul’s example of sparing us from reputational harm on non-gospel issues would mean that we work hard to offer as much equality as possible.

On the other hand, Jesus himself pushed the boundaries of his culture, seemingly without concern for personal disrepute that might accrue. He was willing to challenge his culture when it came to issues that threatened the gospel, particularly pharisaic behaviour and the tendency to ostracise the unclean. He was not scared to be associated with sinners, including disreputable women. He opened the kingdom to all, allowing women to occupy roles as disciples and to learn at his feet. God even chose women to be the first witnesses of his resurrection even though the testimony of a woman tended to be disregarded. Jesus was eager to treat outsiders and outcasts with full dignity and to offer them the kingdom, and he risked offending the religious order of his day to do so.

It seems to me that we should avoid offending with non-essentials in a way that makes the gospel appear disreputable, but we should absolutely be willing to offend if it is the gospel itself doing the offending.

Given how much biblical support there is for women in ministry and how dubious the texts are that oppose it, perhaps it falls into the former category as something that should not be a source of disrepute. Perhaps we should err on the side of too much equality rather than too much hierarchy. Whatever one believes about women preaching, it certainly should provoke us to insist on equality and dignity for women in the church in every other respect.

4. The Vision of Complementarianism

Piper’s lead article in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (RBMW) says that the argument for complementarianism can be made either from Scripture or by laying out the vision (i.e. that it is a fulfilling position to live out), which is the approach that he adopts.

While this can be an effective approach, it is problematic because it is hard to avoid fallacious arguments from consequences or problems with cause and effect. Piper needs to show that complementarian theology is actually the cause of the desired consequences and that the social problems he identifies are indeed caused by the alternatives.

the Vision

Most of Piper’s article is given over to explaining his definition of manhood and womanhood; the vision itself is given very briefly. It is largely that men and women, having understood their place in the world, will experience fulfilling and deep relationships in which “there is a harmony and mutuality that is more beautiful and more satisfying than any pattern of marriage created by man” (RBMW, p. 52). This will be true by extension in the church too. “We believe that manhood and womanhood mesh better in ministry when men take primary responsibility for leadership and teaching in the church; and that mature manhood and womanhood are better preserved, better nurtured, more fulfilled and more fruitful in this church order than in any other” (p. 53).

The Problems

If lived out with the self-sacrificial godliness required, I think complementarianism can be a fulfilling and God-honouring system, but there are several problems that I have with his case.

The argument is circular. Piper is attempting to commend his vision to the heart, to show that it is the right way because it is a satisfying way of life (p. 33). However, he hasn’t shown why it produces better marriages and better churches, he just says that it will. The reason is that he thinks it is God’s pattern, whereas all others are human in origin (it is better than “any pattern… created by man”). In effect, he is trying to argue that we know it is true because it is the best way to live, and we know it’s the best way to live because it is true.

In general, he commends his vision of more harmonious relationships without saying how it produces harmony or why the alternatives don’t. Of course, complementarian relationships in which there is no sin would work wonderfully. But why would egalitarian relationships without sin work any worse?

Gender characteristics are not uniform. Piper’s vision is based on definitions of manhood and womanhood that he claims reflect biblical teaching, but which he doesn’t demonstrate:

“At the heart of mature masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships. At the heart of mature femininity is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships.” (pp. 35-36)

Piper’s definition of manhood makes men leaders, protectors and providers. But what about men who have no leadership gifts, or who are not especially brave and strong? It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that such men are not really men, or they have to act against their giftedness to fulfill a role that has the flakiest of biblical foundations.

It’s even worse for the women; I’m not sure that I would feel convinced that my womanhood has been fully grasped and rooted in God if I were to read that I am defined as a recipient of maleness. If we set aside for a minute the insistence that this is God’s word and His will for your life, does that really resonate as true on its own terms? Is one’s identity as a woman—something that Piper argues is “essential… to our personhood” (p. 33)—really just following men?

As I argued previously, male and female tend be different from each other in predictable ways, but these are only very general tendencies. To use male and female differences as a basis for a definition of manhood and womanhood is very damaging to those who fall outside of supposedly biblical definitions of their gender.

I came across a recent Twitter comment that made a similar point:

In 1 Corinthians, Paul encourages us to see the value of complementary gifts. However, how do you delineate gifts on gender lines? The Bible doesn’t. And in what way is this the only hope for our churches and communities?

There are several problems with causation. At the heart of Piper’s vision is the claim that complementarianism will cause harmony at home and in church. But identifying the cause of something is fiendishly difficult. Will Piper’s vision come about because of its complementarian structure, or because the people involved are committed to loving and serving one another in a gospel way—a commitment that would lead to harmony anyway?

More pointedly, Piper implies that marriages and ministries don’t “mesh” without a man at the helm. Is this because of how creation is wired or because people have grown up believing in the divine right of men to lead (and so refuse to be led by a woman)? If they were committed to love and serve equally well under the leadership of a man or a woman, would the “mesh” be any different? How do you know?

The second problem with cause and effect is on page 33 of RBMW. Here Piper says that the consequence of “mimimizing the unique significance of our maleness and femaleness… is more divorce, more homosexuality, more sexual abuse, more promiscuity, more social awkwardness, and more emotional distress and suicide that come with the loss of God-given identity.”

More recently, Piper appeared on a podcast, which introduced the presentation about male and female difference in terms of the sexual abuses brought to light by the #MeToo movement. Piper goes on to say:

“It’s a firm conviction of most of our egalitarian culture that men as men do not owe women a special kind of care and protection and honor that women do not owe men. I believe they do. I believe fifty years of denying it is one of the seeds bearing very bad fruit, including all those sexual abuses you talked about in your question. There are others seeds in our culture, but this is one of the seeds.”

Although Piper at least only cites egalitarianism as one of the causes, is it even true that society is more of a mess now? The #MeToo movement has opened a floodgate because this is perhaps the first time in history that women feel safe enough to report the abuses they suffered without the expectation of further abuse for doing so. It is extremely blinkered to argue as though the movement exists because there has been a recent sharp increase in abuse. These social ills have existed in spades throughout history. This is how men have always been.

Furthermore, society wasn’t complementarian in the middle of the last century; it was patriarchal. Men didn’t love and serve women and value their inherent womanly gifts—only to have the feminists poison our healthy view of social roles. Women were commonly treated as deficient and inferior. Is Piper arguing that the repression of women held all these vices at bay?

Finally, it is deeply insulting to every evangelical egalitarian to imply that giving women equal dignity implies lack of concern for their welfare—as though the responsibility to protect the vulnerable is a complementarian thing. It is a Christian thing. If anything, the #ChurchToo movement is highlighting that complementarian organisations are perfectly capable of covering up abuse and protecting the powerful.

Women follow from the front. In order to insist that women remain followers even when they self-evidently are taking the lead, Piper in RBMW is forced into some linguistic gymnastics that I find absurd.

For example, a woman without a husband can be the head of her household as long as she is “not unduly masculine” in their performance, and “has the sense that this would be properly done by her husband if she had one, and if she performs them with a uniquely feminine demeanor” (p. 37).

Leading and following should even carry through into the bedroom. On page 40, he says, “Mature masculinity expresses its leadership in romantic sexual relations by communicating an aura of strong and tender pursuit.” Even if a woman initiates sex or has her own ideas during intercourse, her leading “is in effect an invitation for the man to do his kind of initiating. In one sense you could say at those times the man is responding. But in fact the wife is inviting him to lead in a way as only a man can, so that she can respond to him.”

You’re free to find the concept of follow-leading not ridiculous if you’re able.

It is hard to be a consistent complementarian. Piper ends his article with a list of ministry opportunities for women under the complementarian system. But there are some inconsistencies between his list and his theology. If 1 Timothy 2 excludes women from teaching and leading, and given that it does not qualify the sphere in which these are exercised, how can Piper allow women to minister as leaders and teachers of college students? College-age males are men, aren’t they?

More to the point, almost everything we do in Christianity is for ‘edification’; there is a teaching component to singing and songwriting, to good public prayer and Bible reading, to translation and writing and evangelism. I am not sure how one practices the rule against female teaching and leadership without either silencing all public female voices or becoming arbitrary in how one defines leadership and teaching.


This post has obviously focused on quibbling with one article from one theologian. As such, it is not likely to represent the only arguments available in favour of the complementarian vision. Nevertheless, it is the lead article in one of the most influential Christian books on gender in living memory. The definitions of manhood and womanhood have been foundational for much Christian thinking on the subject, and the criticisms that it levies against other positions have likewise poisoned the well for many of us (I myself have not considered reading egalitarians in their own words until very recently). I have committed to a frank critique of this article because it is a major piece of the debate and yet it consistently fails to rise above presumption.

I can agree with Piper that there is currently a vacuum when it comes to social identity, especially of boys. Tim Winton, in an excellent piece for the Guardian, bemoans this too, though for different reasons. There is a loss of a vision of strength in humility and virtue these days.

However, I can see nothing that Piper mentions as a good fruit of complementarianism that wouldn’t be true of Christian living in general. Nor does egalitarian theology contribute to the lack of identity that so many people feel. World-class legal and architectural firms operate with partners rather than CEOs—a married couple might similarly operate with mutual respect, communication and recognition of the other’s strengths and without the leader-follower model. Letting go of default deference to the man in favour of equal partnership does not imply chaos in the home.

In summary, being able to describe a beautiful outcome for complementarian theology is worthless if it is an exercise of the imagination. We all want the church to be full of harmonious and effective relationships, but there is no reason given here why complementarianism is uniquely or ideally suited to achieve that.

3. Women and Creation

The dispute between complementarians and egalitarians over the place of women in the church often centres on creation. For many complementarians, the argument of creation seems so strongly in their favour that it also provides a reason why the egalitarian position should not even be considered—if male headship was the plan even in the Garden of Eden then arguments about shifting culture are non-starters. Denying complementarianism is denying God’s creation order as revealed in Old and New Testaments.

As a complementarian myself, I have long found most elements of the creation argument unpersuasive, and so I want to offer some reasons why it is problematic enough that we should refrain at least from dismissing arguments from the egalitarian position out of hand.

There are two issues in relation to creation that I would like to discuss. Have the characteristics of maleness and femaleness been hard-wired into creation? And do the appeals in the New Testament to the creation story imply that female subordination in the home and the church are part of God’s universal creation-order plan?

Are differences between men and women hard-wired into creation?

It is often assumed that egalitarians deny that there are differences between male and female, that gender is merely a social construct. This is incorrect. There is nothing objectionable about the idea of gender differences, as long as these aren’t made a basis for prejudice. The primary goal of egalitarianism is to ensure that Christian sisters are treated with full personhood and full equality in the church, not to deny that there are differences. The question is whether the fact of gender differences has any implication for differences in the roles that men and women may occupy in the church.

John Piper is persuaded that gender differences have an important role:

“I have been a long time in coming to understand it as part of God’s great goodness in creating us male and female. It had to do with something very deep… They were rooted in God… He designed our differences and they are profound.” (Piper, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, p. 32)

Piper goes on to insist also that these differences are essential to male and female identity. He criticises scholars such as Paul Jewett because, while Jewett concedes that gender is essential to our personhood, he says that there is an ineffable quality to gender that defies neat definition (ibid., p. 33).

Piper claims that the differences between male and female are deep and profound, but his attempt to define manhood and womanhood does little better than to insist that men are leaders, protectors and providers, and women are responders to male leadership and provision—a definition that to my mind falls far short of profundity. It conflates identity and role and it is horribly reductionistic.

Jewett’s contention that manhood and womanhood defy definition conforms much better to experience. The differences between male and female are at best an assortment of tendencies that men or women will more regularly exhibit as a group, but which are not universally true. For example, men might generally be physically stronger and women more emotionally connected, but female athletes are stronger than most unathletic men, and many women are goal-directed and not especially empathetic. Many women have undeniable leadership gifts; many men don’t. Many women have abilities that make them excellent providers (cf. Proverbs 31); some men are nurturing types who make excellent stay-at-home parents.

Given that the argument is that God has created these differences, then being a man and a woman does not imply just one set of characteristics and roles and Piper’s definition is wrong.

Piper’s attempt to define our roles is a procrustean bed. There may well be general differences between men and women, but it is not possible to use them to define manhood and womanhood without seriously alienating the significant minority who do not possess the ‘correct’ characteristics. If being male and female is so essential to our identity and well-being, then we should be very careful not to make definitions that exclude millions of people from being a ‘real man’ or a ‘real woman’.

It should not pass unnoticed that the Bible makes no attempt to define what a man or a woman is. Our identity in the Bible is based on imitation of Christ and on the loving exercise of the gifts allocated by the Spirit. It seems that to insist that God designed a single, generic maleness and femaleness as core to our identity is both contrary to experience and a denial of the differences between individuals that genuinely are part of the design of God’s multi-membered body.

Are the roles of men and women permanent facts of creation?

A second related question—and the crucial difference between complementarians and egalitarians—concerns whether or not it is a universal fact of creation that males are to occupy headship roles and women are to submit. Piper is again a typical proponent of the view that male headship is eternal. He says:

“When the Bible teaches that men and women fulfil different roles in relation to each other, charging man with a unique leadership role, it bases this differentiation not on temporary cultural norms but on permanent facts of creation. This is seen in 1 Corinthians 11:3-16 (especially vv. 8-9, 14); Ephesians 5:21-33 (especially vv. 31-32); and 1 Timothy 2:11-14.” (Piper, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, p. 35)

As Piper’s quote makes clear, the evidence in favour of the complementarian view is found in three citations from Paul’s letters in which he invokes creation to make a point about social order.

In favour of the complementarian view, each of these three texts has to do with male headship, and so it is noteworthy that headship seems to be connected to the creation story in Paul’s mind. Furthermore, that there is an ordered male-female relationship that confers responsibility for the pair upon Adam is a possible reading of Genesis 1-4.

However, exegetes of this text must concede that it is far from clear that Genesis 1-4 is promoting male leadership and female submission, and that the overt emphasis of this passage rests strongly on the unity of male and female.

Consider the following points:

  • Humankind is created in the image of God—male and female together (1:27).
  • Adam is delegated custodianship of creation, but there is no creature like him (2:20), and so Eve is created to be his ‘helper’ (2:20-22). While the word translated ‘helper’ is often taken to imply that Eve is Adam’s personal assistant, every other use of the word in Scripture is for the help that a political ally gives (often a superior force, such as Egypt) or, very commonly, for the help that God gives. In other words, there is no hint of hierarchy implied by the word at all. It implies that she is a partner or an ally, not a subordinate.
  • She is created from a part of Adam, not to show that she is a secondary emanation from a primary being, but that she is of the same stuff as him. Adam’s exclamation that she is “flesh of his flesh” underlines that the lack of a creature of his kind has been addressed.
  • While woman is taken out of man (2:23), this is in order to underline their unity in marriage—the coming together of those two parts into one flesh again (2:24). The human is not alone.

In short, while these chapters might imply hierarchy, there is an overt emphasis on the unity and the status that male and female share together in contrast to the rest of the animal kingdom.

If exegesis of these chapters produces only the most muted of support for hierarchy, why then does Paul refer to these texts when speaking about gender roles?

It seems to me that Paul’s use of the Adam and Eve story is typically illustrative, not exegetical. He uses the Old Testament illustratively often enough. Adam’s story is potentially in the background of much of Romans (e.g. Rom 7:9, “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died”). He also creates an allegory out of the story of Hagar and Sarah (Gal. 4), which is not an interpretation that emerges from exegesis, but which is illustrative of Paul’s wider theology of law and covenant.

Piper’s basis for the universality of male leadership comes from three occasions on which Paul uses the Adam and Eve story, but each of these is problematic:

1 Timothy 2:11-14

This text uses the fact that Adam was formed first and Eve was deceived first to show that women should not teach men, but it is unclear on what basis this is a principle of the Genesis story. RT France (Women in the Church’s Ministry, pp. 67-68) points out that being formed first is not an argument for superiority, because the animals were formed before Adam. Furthermore, in what way is Eve being deceived first a principle? Does it mean that women have greater blame? Paul blames Adam, not Eve, for human sin in Romans 5, so no. Does it mean women have some sort of deficiency in comparison with men? If this text is appealing to permanent facts of creation, as Piper says, then this surely is an implication of what Paul says. Good luck demonstrating that. We are awash with deficient male leaders in the news at the moment, and I frequently have female students at the top of the class in exegetical subjects that I teach.

Rather than being about creation order, as France points out, this text is probably better understood as an illustration of what seems to have been happening in Ephesus—similarly to Eve, women were taking the initiative, asserting independence, becoming deceived and passing on false teaching. They needed to learn first (1 Tim. 2:11).

Ephesians 5:31-32

While this passage is generally about a wife’s submission to her husband, Paul does not invoke Genesis to assert Adam’s headship over Eve, but rather he uses the image of woman being created from the flesh of man and reunited in marriage so that they are one flesh again—i.e. the Genesis image of unity. If this text means to make the husband’s headship a permanent fact (not a culturally negotiable one), it is because Christ’s headship is permanent, not because hierarchy is a fact of creation order. He doesn’t connect those things here.

1 Corinthians 11:8-9, 14

This text is the most problematic for Piper, because if we’re listing things that are permanent facts of creation, it’s hard to avoid adding to the list that long-haired men are clearly disgraceful (v. 14), that men should not cover their heads in worship (v. 4) and that women should not appear with their heads uncovered (v. 5). It uses precisely the same reasoning as 1 Tim. 2.

It seems to me that there are three ways one can argue this:

  1. Much of the church is in rebellion against this chapter, in which case we can hardly claim the moral high ground over the egalitarians who are ‘rebelling’ against 1 Tim. 2.
  2. The appeal to creation does not necessarily imply that head-covering is a permanent fact of creation, in which case Piper must surrender his point.
  3. The universal principle is not the head-covering but the husband’s headship. However, if one goes this route, one admits that the expression of headship is culturally determined not universal. Then on what grounds is the prohibition of women’s teaching and authority in 1 Tim. 2 universal? By the same reasoning, it would be a culturally determined application of the universality of headship, and much as discarding head-coverings no longer implies disorder, so also public roles for women are now normal and so allowing women to occupy such roles in the church wouldn’t imply disorder either.

As far as I can tell, the only option that allows for Piper’s argument to stand is the first one, which also commits us to saying that nature makes it obvious that long hair is disgraceful for men, which is very far from obvious, and that we all ought to revive the long-dead cultural practice of veiling married women so that they can have the sign of authority on their heads (even though it’s no longer a sign of authority).

In summary, there are real problems with each of the three chapters that Piper cites in support of the idea that male leadership and female submission are not cultural but are permanent facts of creation. Exegesis of Genesis does not unequivocally produce these conclusions, and Paul rather seems to invoke the creation story illustratively. Ephesians invokes unity from Genesis, not hierarchy. 1 Cor. 11 would make non-obvious cultural practices into permanent facts of creation by the same logic.


The appeal to creation is often taken to be one of the strengths of the complementarian position—it is the deal-clincher for many Christians—but I believe that it is a problematic and presumptuous argument throughout. Creation differences between men and women are a bouquet of general tendencies, not a basis for a description of manhood and womanhood. The Bible never attempts to define what these mean, but rather emphasises the goodness of diversity of giftedness. Defining men as leaders, protectors and providers and women as nurturing followers is a procrustean bed without secure biblical basis. The attempt to ground these characteristics in permanent facts of creation raises more problems than it solves.

While complementarianism has merit as a biblical argument, and I continue for now to identify as complementarian (albeit as close to the centre as possible), the point of this blog and others in this series has been to show that egalitarian arguments need to be taken much more seriously than complementarians have taken them to date.

Both sides claim that women are equal and gifted. It is right for all of us to insist on unity and equal treatment for women in the church and to oppose sexism in the church, even when it comes robed in good theology.

We can continue to assert gender difference and culturally appropriate expressions of male headship, but even if we go further as evangelicals and decide that there is insufficient warrant to assert 1 Tim. 2 as a universal command, it is not a threat to our doctrine of Scripture, or to creation order, or to Christian integrity for one to do so.

2. Evangelicals and Egalitarianism

I have only ever belonged to Christian communities that identify as complementarian—that is, those supporting the idea that the Bible teaches male leadership as the will of God, and female responsiveness and submission as part of a woman’s complementary role. Women can serve in all sorts of ministries, but teaching and holding authority over men is not among them. I didn’t know I was a complementarian, because it is always presented as the clear biblical position. I thought it was just Christian, and consequently, I’ve tended to look with suspicion upon those who support the ordination of women.

However, not all of the evangelical world is convinced on this matter. There are a great many who are egalitarian and believe that a faithful reading of Scripture produces the conclusion that, in Christ, women are equal to men and free to exercise the same gifts in the same ways. I had never heard an argument for this view until shockingly recently. For some reason, this is an issue that is clearly a disputable matter (i.e. one that does not threaten the gospel in any way) and yet one that I guess everyone in the Christian circles I have known are unwilling to discuss.

So how is it that evangelicals have the same commitment to the inspiration and authority of Scripture, we read the same texts, and yet we disagree completely about the conclusion that we ought to reach? At least part of the answer is hermeneutics—the methods of interpretation and application that we employ.

“The Bible says it; I believe it.”

It is only the most cantankerous of fundamentalist interpreters—if such people even exist—who would argue that the Bible is self-evident in its meaning and universally applicable to all eras and all peoples. Evangelicalism, by contrast, recognises the humanity of Scripture and its rootedness in the contexts and literary standards of its day. There are many things that the Bible says that we do not do (such as the commands for women to cover their heads in church and men not to grow their hair long) because what these behaviours meant in their original setting are no longer what they mean now, and so to continue to apply them would be hollow and formal.

We do not do what the Bible says until we first understand what it meant and how that principle would be carried out in our own time and culture.

“Clear texts should interpret the unclear.”

A good hermeneutical rule is that clear texts should be used to interpret the unclear. This advice is valuable, but again, it is not without its problems. It is by no means simple to determine on what grounds a text should be considered clear.

Often we make such a judgement by privileging the commands from Jesus or the Apostles over texts (such as those in Acts) that are descriptive. The former texts, so the argument goes, exist to instruct Christ’s followers; the latter are stories about what happened, not necessarily what ought always to happen.

Take for example the clearest text in support of the complementarian position regarding women in ministry:

“A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve.” (1 Timothy 2:11-13)

This is a straight-forward, unadorned command, and it even appeals to the order at creation. Once this is taken to be the clear text, then we are able to use it to help us ‘solve’ the difficulties presented by other texts that appear to describe women engaging in teaching ministries: the women involved must not have been doing so in the church, or their teaching must have been only for the benefit of other women.

The trouble is that no ‘clear command’ is without context, and not everything in the letters is straight-forward. Consider this passage in Timothy (only two verses later):

“But she [Eve? Women in general?] will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.” (1 Tim 2:15)

There are a range of suggestions for what this refers to. Presumably Timothy knew when he read it, but its meaning has been lost to us. The clear texts elsewhere that lay out the actual basis of our salvation preclude any interpretations that might take what it says ‘literally’ (i.e. we know that it can’t mean that mothers get automatic entry to heaven), but that is the point. Two verses on from the ‘clear’ text about women in ministry, we have one of the least clear verses in the canon. The language is plain, but we don’t know its context or intent, and so we can do little else but deny that it means what it seems to say on the surface of it.

The context of 1 Timothy 2:11-13

And so what of the allegedly clear part? Evangelical scholars such as Gordon Fee and RT France have long pointed out that this passage is far from clear. In his book, Women in the Church’s Ministry, France makes several important points about this text:

1. It is addressed to the church in Ephesus

Ephesus was a city dominated by the cult of Artemis, which involved the worship of a goddess of fertility, and a cult presided over by eunuchs who governed male and female priests and thousands of female attendants. One must speculate, but the cultural prominence of women must surely have exerted some influence on male-female relations in the church.

2. The church was under threat by ignorant and false teachers

Paul identifies several problems threatening this particular church, including:

  • Myths and endless genealogies (1:4, 4:7)
  • Rejecting conscience (1:19)
  • Forbidding marriage, abstinence from certain foods (4:3)
  • Controversy, dispute about words (6:4)
  • Profane chatter and contradictions of what is falsely called knowledge (6:20)

3. The teaching probably denigrated ordinary marriage roles

France suggests that evidence in the book suggests that the degradation of marriage may lie behind some of Paul’s instructions, including:

  • Bishops and deacons must have a good family record (3:2-5, 12)
  • Marriage is a gift of God (4:3-5)
  • Timothy must be above reproach (5:2)
  • Care of widows (incl concern for their record in marriage and prospects) (5:9-14)

Even the obscure verse about women being saved through childbirth perhaps might be connected to this same idea. France argues that the false teaching appears to have been denigrating womanly roles such as childbearing and rather offering women (perhaps) a super-spirituality and/or some sort of ‘liberated’ role in teaching and worship. He argues that Paul is advocating salvation within ordinary human life, as opposed to this special path offered by the false teachers.

4. Women taken in by this ignorant teaching were promoting it

Women in Ephesus also clearly had a role in promoting the false teaching that was taking place. 1 Timothy 1:6-7 accuses some would-be teachers of ignorance. 1 Timothy 5:13 speaks about women spreading “what should not be said” from house to house. The prohibition on teaching may relate to this influence of women on house churches—spreading the false teaching that has come to threaten the church in Ephesus.

5. The solution is to prohibit women from teaching until their ignorance has been addressed

France points out that authenteo (authority) is only used here in the NT. Some have argued from wider Greek usage (and particularly from the cognate noun) that it carries a pejorative sense (to usurp authority, or to bully). France says that it is an open question, but if Paul meant that women should not have authority at all, then he has chosen an obscure way of saying so.
Similarly, the word for silence is less to do with being quiet. Paul could have used sigao for silence, but instead uses esuchia, which means quietness of temperament rather than absence of noise (the opposite of authenteo if it has a pejorative sense).

It seems entirely possible that women were taking the initiative, asserting independence, becoming deceived by persuasive-but-ignorant teachers and passing on false teaching.

Craig Keener (IVP BBCNT) agrees then that the solution proposed by our ‘clear’ text has rather to do with the particular circumstances in this community. He says:

“The proper way for any novice to learn was submissively and ‘quietly’ (a closely related Greek term appears in 2:2 for all believers). Women were less likely to be literate than men, were trained in philosophy far less often than men, were trained in rhetoric almost never, and in Judaism were far less likely to be educated in the law. Given the bias against instructing women in the law, it is Paul’s advocacy of their learning the law, not his recognition that they started as novices and so had to learn quietly, that was radical and countercultural. Given women’s lack of training in the Scriptures (2:11), the heresy spreading in the Ephesian churches through ignorant teachers (1:4–7), and the false teachers’ exploitation of these women’s lack of knowledge to spread their errors (5:13; 2 Tim 3:6), Paul’s prohibition here makes good sense. His short-range solution is that these women should not teach; his long-range solution is ‘let them learn’ (2:11). The situation might be different after the women had been instructed (2:11; cf. Rom 16:1–4, 7; Phil 4:2–3).”

Of course it remains possible that Paul’s prohibition on women teaching and usurping authority may apply to Ephesus because it is a universal prohibition. However, evangelicals must also acknowledge that the contextual reading of Scripture produces a faithful reading of 1 Timothy that might mean women are perfectly entitled to teach provided that they have had the proper training (as is the case with the men). It is far from settled that this passage is the clear text with which others ought to be harmonised.


In response to the arguments just presented, some will say that the appeal to creation order in 1 Timothy 2 means that Paul’s instructions here are universal. We will examine this claim in my next post.

Some will say that the universality of these instructions is based on other texts about headship and not on this passage alone. This is true, and I do not mean to insinuate that the complementarian position is without merit. Nevertheless, France and others point out that that headship in marriage is never explicitly invoked as the pattern also for the church. The NT certainly gives instructions for the proper behaviour of married couples within the church (such as a woman still needing to recognise her husband’s authority in culturally appropriate ways—by covering her head, for example), but it does not say that man is the head of the church. On the contrary, it says that Christ is the head of the church as the husband is the head of the wife. This might easily be understood to mean that we all minister equally under Christ’s headship.

I encourage you to read the complete argument that RT France makes in this response to this objection.

As a parting shot, I would also add that it is not abundantly clear to me whether submission in marriage itself is universal or cultural. In other words, were Christians in Paul’s day to observe that order because God demands that order, or because God demands that we do not become representatives of rebellion in society? One might easily structure a marriage in partnership rather than through a hierarchy. This too will be the subject of a later post.

Clear evidence in the opposite direction?

If clear texts must interpret the unclear, then it remains an open question which texts are the clear ones governing this issue. FF Bruce suggested this one:

“For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:27-28)

France (p. 91) adds: “At all points within the period of biblical history the working out of the fundamental equality expressed in Galatians 3:28 remain constrained by the realities of the time, and yet increasingly the church was rediscovering that in Christ there was the basis, indeed the imperative, for the dismantling of the sexual discrimination that had prevailed since the fall. How far along that trajectory it is appropriate and possible for the church to move at any subsequent stage in history must remain a matter for debate, as it is today. But the witness of the New Testament challenges us to question any aspect of our common life in Christ that does not give appropriate expression for our day and social context to the fundamental principle that there is ‘no longer male and female’.”

Whether this text ought to be our primary one in this debate is moot. However, there are several texts that strongly suggest that women did play an active, authoritative, and/or teaching role in the New Testament church. Here is a sample:

  • 1Cor. 11:5 implies that women could prophesy publicly (provided they had their heads covered). Prophecy is identified as the primary spiritual gift in the same book and at very least included a teaching component.
  • Some women converts are referred to as prominent (Acts 17:4, 12).
  • John Mark’s mother (Acts 12:12ff) and Lydia are church host in Philippi and a leading member (Acts 16).
  • Philip’s daughters were prophetesses (Acts 21:9).
  • Priscilla and Aquila were a prominent couple, involved in hosting a church, travelling with Paul, and training Apollos. Priscilla is typically given first billing (in all but their first introduction in Acts 18:2) which implies she had a primary role.
  • In Phil 4, Paul attempts to resolve a dispute between two leading women “who have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel” and whom he calls co-workers. Their conflict was sufficiently important that it represented a threat to the well-being of the whole church.
  • Romans 16 lists people that Paul specifically greets in Rome; ten of the 27 are women. Some are called “workers in the Lord” or “co-workers”. Junia is called an apostle. It ends with a commendation of Phoebe who may well have been the courier of the letter to Rome. She is called a deacon and patron.


The question of whether women should be given teaching roles and positions of leadership in the church is clearly a matter of dispute, and one over which Christians have legitimate grounds to disagree and to reach different conclusions.

The purpose of this post has not been to say that egalitarianism is the correct position, but rather to say that the insistence that complementarianism is the only faithful evangelical position is false. It is often presented as the clear teaching of Scripture, but as RT France says, “It is a good rule to interpret Scripture in the light of Scripture, and to interpret the more obscure in the light of the clearer. The above discussion suggests that 1 Timothy 2:8-15… falls rather firmly into the category of the more obscure!”

Given that this issue concerns the place and the image of more than half of the Christian world, it is one that we should be careful to rule on so categorically when the evidence is so mixed.

(Note: The introduction to this post has been edited to remove reference to a specific Christian community, as the intention is to illustrate rather than to criticise, but it is hard to name names without implying criticism.)

1. Ephesians 5 and the submission of the wife

There has long been controversy over Ephesians 5:15-33 and the question of the submission of a wife to her husband. With so much media attention (rightly) focused on pay gaps between the sexes and abusive and exploitative behaviour towards women in society, resistance to the idea that women ought to submit to their husbands is only likely to grow.

In this post, I aim simply to emphasise what seem to be clear guiding principles regarding headship and submission from this text—an issue that is not just important for marriage, but also because it influences how we understand the roles of men and women in the church “family” and Christian leadership more generally.

The HEadship of the Husband

Paul spends considerably more time defining the husband’s responsibilities than those of the wife, probably because his role is much more likely to be misunderstood.

Ephesians 5 begins with a general call for all of us to imitate God and to model our behaviour on the self-sacrificial love of Christ (5:1-2). The instructions that follow are all expressions of a relational principle encapsulated in Christ’s example: that of self-giving love for the other, rather than our natural impulse to serve ourselves.

While this is the general principle governing all of the household relationships, it is also one of the two illustrations that Paul applies specifically to the husband’s role in marriage. In particular, the husband should:

  • Love his wife with the kind of self-sacrifice with which Christ loved the church (5:25; cf. 5:2b)
  • Love his wife with the same measure of self-interest with which he would naturally love his own body (5:28-29)

“I’d die for you”

It is easy to talk about altruism. It is absurdly common to hear a man promise to die for his beloved (there are songs of this title by at least Air Supply, Bon Jovi, and The Weeknd), but it is just as common to hear of relationships dissolving because the man preferring to watch TV than to talk to his wife, or because he would never pick up his underwear off the floor. But we are almost never called upon to show love by dying. Love is tested by self-sacrifice in the decisions and annoyances of daily life. Paul’s second illustration is perhaps more challenging because it is a more common and realistic test: do you care for your wife like you feed your own body?

If these are the standards that Christ gives us for headship, it is obvious that this offers no licence for the husband to operate in a self-serving way. Paul is not arguing that the man is in God’s position in the sense that he is deserving of her unquestioning obedience. No, he says that the man is in Christ’s position in the sense that he is to empty himself for her sake. Those are very different analogies. Headship doesn’t compel obedience; it offers care and service.

“That he might sanctify her”

Between the analogies of Christ’s crucifixion (5:25) and our natural self-care (5:28), Paul discusses Christ’s purpose for sacrificing himself—namely, that his “bride” would be sanctified and purified of her blemishes. This is also instructive.

Note again that this is not to imply that the husband is responsible for his wife’s sanctification.  That, I take it, remains Christ’s work. It is not suggesting that the husband should decide what is best for his wife. No, Paul explicitly draws the parallel: “In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies.” It is a more general statement of care for the other in place of care for oneself.

I think that what verses 26-27 should do is deepen our perception of what it means to give oneself up for another. These verses remind us that when Christ gave himself up for his bride, she was not a bride who was already pure and beautiful. He gave himself up for a church in rebellion—the same church that crucified him—so that she would learn love.

So, if we would follow Christ’s example in our marriages, the argument from Ephesians seems to me not to support the idea that husbands can compel respect or submission or obedience, nor that the responsibility to love is in any way contingent on her “doing her end” and submitting (see the converse in 1 Peter 3:1-2, in which wives are encouraged to submit to unworthy husbands so that they might be won over). Husbands love their wives as Christ did: unconditionally, sacrificially and labouring to see them flourish.

The submission of the wife

In the same way as a husband loves his wife in imitation of Christ, the submission of the wife is equally an expression of this principle of imitation.

It is possible that Paul commands the submission of wife for husband because it was an expected social convention, and not necessarily because it is eternally the will of God for husbands to be heads and women to be in subjection. Either way the basic principle is the same: Christian submission is something that all of us must practice (Ephesians 5:21), because it acknowledges that order is a gift of God, and that it is an expression of love to behave respectfully within those orders that exist. (This is why we can still approve of Paul’s relational advice to slaves and masters in chapter 6 as wise, even though we would all disavow that social order.)

Paul commands submission because it is a means by which a wife can also give up her own self-serving desires and live out Christ’s love in her marriage. In this way there is a kind of equality, even in the midst of a social hierarchy: both headship and submission are expressions of love and self-sacrifice for the benefit of the other.

Christian Headship

Even if we accept the interpretation that male headship is God’s eternal pattern for human relationships, it seems to me that some Christian applications of this principle go beyond what this text teaches. The idea that a husband should be the family decision-maker does not follow from the fact of his headship. The idea that the husband rules the home and that the wife may offer no dissent is incoherent in the face of the example of Christ’s self-sacrifice that we are given.

This passage also does not dictate the terms of submission in marriage nor the roles that each sex should fulfil. There is no specific content to submission in this text—it does not seem to mean having no opinion, tending the home, having children, or earning less than the husband. Submission is merely made synonymous with respect (v33). A subservient, stay-at-home mum can live without ever respecting her husband, and a woman can be a CEO and respect her stay-at-home husband perfectly well. The point, in this text at least, is not to define social roles, but to encourage Christlike other-person-centredness in whatever roles we occupy.

The great difference between the headship of the husband and that of Christ is that Jesus is in nature God. The husband, on the other hand, is in nature a fool (hopefully undergoing some degree of transition towards wisdom). As wisdom literature keeps reminding us, none of us always knows what the best thing to do is, and we ignore advice and instruction at our peril. The wise man is humble and aware of his short-comings. As 1Corinthians reminds us, this is also why we have all been equipped with various gifts—we are inadequately equipped on our own. Christian headship, whether of the home or the church, ought to be continually aware of its need for instruction, correction, help, guidance etc. from the rest of the body. In marriage, that is primarily the service that wives provide. Similarly, the heads of Christian organisations ought to benefit from gifted individuals in the body—whether they are male or female.

Christian headship should avoid altruistic claims of servant-leadership (such as the promise to die for your loved ones or public foot-washing ceremonies) while at the same time ignoring the annoying day-to-day concerns of those under one’s care. Servant leadership sets aside the needs and wants and egos of the leader and focuses on the needs of the family.


If you are agitated by a picture of a headship in which the husband is so dominated by the concerns of his wife and in which the leader puts his employees and members first, then you’ve probably understood Paul correctly.

By nature we seek power and independence. Submission and headship are both ways in which we lose our claim to either.

#ChurchToo and a culture of everyday sexism?

The Harvey Weinstein case has launched the #MeToo campaign that has given much-needed space for victims of abuse and harassment to be heard. That there is a #ChurchToo tag that is gaining impetus should highlight the degree to which a low view of women and the impulse to protect men is also found in leading Christian institutions. For example, serious allegations have recently been made against:

  • The Master’s University: At a seminary associated with John MacArthur, a past student claims that she had been drugged and sexually abused by a friend of male students. As part of the ‘handling’ of the assault, the university is alleged to have put her in the same room as her attacker and insisted on mutual repentance and forgiveness. She struggled with the idea of repenting for being raped, and allegedly she was eventually forced out of the school.
  • Sovereign Grace Ministries: At the group of churches overseen by the Mahaneys, several cases of abuse, including child rape and molestation, have allegedly been covered up over the course of decades.
  • Andy Savage: Prominent pastor Andy Savage recently apologised publicly for a sexual sin committed when he was a younger youth pastor, which involved driving a 17-year-old youth member to a secluded place, instead of to her home as he had said, exposing himself and requesting oral sex. This was covered up by his minister at the time.

I don’t know to what degree the details as reported are correct, and in the case of MacArthur and Mahaney, they have denied knowledge of the specifics, but there appears to be sexual impropriety that is either criminal or, in Andy Savage’s case, spared from being so only by inhabiting the blurry areas of laws of consent. In each case, ministry leaders seem to have responded to complaints against perpetrators with cover-up and even victim blaming.

Perhaps more details will emerge to partially or fully exonerate some of these leaders, but either way, there is clearly something seriously wrong with the way in which our culture views women, and in the way in which usually male leadership deals with the victims. Even in #ChurchToo.

Why protect attackers?

Sometimes the ‘wisdom’ that church leaders apply to extreme cases reveals more about their personal value system than biblical justice. Motivations for suppressing sexual abuse scandals include that the Bible says we shouldn’t drag one another to court, or that it would embarrass the church, or that prosecuting the man would “destroy his life”.

Yes, the Bible encourages us to deal with disputes internally and without dragging one another to court. However, the issues in question tend to be matters of honour and shame or private debt rather than criminal behaviour.

On the contrary, Romans 13 insists that earthly authorities have been given the sword by God to execute justice and that it is the wrongdoer who rightly ought to be afraid of God’s secular servants of justice. Matters of criminality belong to the state. Church members, more so than other citizens not less, are accountable to the good laws of the society in which they live.

Furthermore, in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul criticises the church for protecting someone whose offence would have been seen as taboo throughout the ancient world. For the sake of the body, the reputation of the church, and indeed for the one found in sin, Paul commands that the person be expelled (even though the consequences might be severe [v.5]):

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. (1Co 5:1-2)

Paul criticises the Corinthians for being less wise and less morally upright than their non-Christian neighbours and he implies that the protection of such people does not insulate the church from shame, it is a source of shame.

The protection of sexual predators and other criminals in the church is evidently foolish and evil to the watching world, and these crimes clearly fall under the God-given authority of state justice (not merely internal church dispute). More than this, it seems to me to be a violation of what James 1 calls “undefiled religion”: we ought to be protecting the vulnerable, the weak, the disenfranchised, not those who exploit them. As Amos says, with crimes such as sexual abuse of the vulnerable very much in mind: “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

Who do we value?

Finally, it seems to me that the treatment of aggressor and victim in cases such as the ones listed above might be an outworking of a skewed valuation of men and women in our churches. In spite of the fact that rape and sexual assault often damages or destroys the lives of victims, the concern is often for the “destroyed life” of the attacker should he be prosecuted. The idea that mutual repentance and forgiveness is appropriate in the case of a sex crime (and even the forced reconciliation of victim and attacker) is a shocking example of victim blaming that assumes women are complicit in their own assaults. It should worry us deeply that we feel the loss of a male leader more keenly than the damage done to his victim.

Furthermore, although the damage done by rape and assault can be immeasurable for the individual, a skewed valuation of women and the everyday sexism in which it is expressed is a steady, erosive drip that does widespread, ongoing damage. We should be appalled at the shocking stories of criminal abuses of women in church, but if we mourn the extreme injustices, should we not be working harder to expose the smaller, more covert prejudice against women in our church culture?


Our leaders are fallible and life is messy, and so it should not be too surprising that they have often invoked “biblical wisdom” in their judgments while making a mess of their ethics.

The point I’m hoping to make is that this is an extreme presentation of a problem that might be deeper and more subtle in our churches. For all our claims of love for others and equal value assigned to all, evidence keeps emerging that conservatives have inherited a culture that assigns different value to the sexes—and has made a virtue of discrimination. It is a culture that seems to me at least in part to be based more on mid-century values than the Scriptures it invokes.

For the next little while, I want to devote some posts to an investigation of this issue. I can’t hope to do all of its facets the remotest justice, but I hope to provoke some honest examination of ourselves and the Bible so that we can be clear where our church culture is driven by Scripture and where everyday sexism takes over.

EDIT: I just came across this article about a Modesto woman abused several years ago (over a period of years) by a now-prominent pastor ( It underlines several things, including that motivations for covering up abuse include that it will cause embarrassment for the church.