Updated on December 3, 2019.
A whole generation of evangelicals have treated complementarianism as the buttress that protects biblical sexuality from the onslaught of our culture. But complementarianism is a fortress built on sand, because it presupposes the same androgyny that feminism does.
The best it does is take isolated scriptures that plainly institute father-rule in marriage and the church, and says, “We must believe these.” But it does so while ignoring the larger shape of revelation, and instead conceding the general spirit of the age that there is no significant distinction between men and women—and that God therefore has no particular requirements for gendered civil life.
Although we’ll demonstrate this at some length, it is obvious if you simply read the original complementarian manifesto: the Danvers Statement. This was published in 1989 by the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), who coined the term complementarianism and effectively defined it.
The Danvers Statement is just 10 brief concerns, and 10 brief affirmations.
Read the Danvers Statement for yourself.
Notice how the description of federal headship kowtows to the zeitgeist, trying to placate the inevitable ire of feminism-indoctrinated Christians:
…the loving, humble leadership of redeemed husbands and the intelligent, willing support of that leadership by redeemed wives.
But notice more importantly the conspicuous and extraordinary omission of any concerns about the civil rebellion against gender piety. No mention of rulership, law enforcement or national defense; not even a direct comment on women abandoning their homes (this all having been normalized for years by 1989).
The same is true in the affirmations. Despite affirmation #2, that “Distinctions in masculine and feminine roles are ordained by God as part of the created order,” not a single implication of this for the civil realm is mentioned. The focus is exclusively on family and church. The only time the civil realm is mentioned is in the negative, to affirm that we must disobey human authorities when they would have us disobey Christ (affirmation #7).
Yet, ironically, the central importance of the civil sphere is hinted at in the final affirmation, which acknowledges that:
…a denial or neglect of these principles will lead to increasingly destructive consequences in our families, our churches, and the culture at large.
These men knew that the civil component of culture cannot be disconnected from the domestic and religious spheres; culture is downstream from religion. Yet they had nothing to say about the religious grounds for civil piety. They had already made peace with civil androgyny. Because they were towering figures of conservative evangelicalism, and because the church had already had its discernment so badly compromised by feminism, they were able to pass off this elementary, fundamentally compromised manifesto as sound and solid doctrine.
They sold the church a Texan steak, and served us instead a kiddie-cup of skim milk.
You may think we have overstated the case, or even gotten it obviously wrong. You may still be using the term complementarian to describe yourself, and think it encompasses the same kind of gendered piety that we espouse.
Understand that we’re looking at complementarianism as a whole system; we’re not necessarily talking about what you take it to mean, nor what John Piper expresses.
Some complementarians say many of the same things we do. For instance, in the CBMW’s book, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, you will find a great many helpful statements—if you take them isolation.
But complementarianism as a theological system, as articulated in that book and in the Danvers Statement, is fatally flawed. We have many specific points of agreement with it, yet there is a general principle on which we utterly disagree.
To see this, first note a key point: complementarianism is a recent innovation. It is a model created with the explicitly defensive purpose of holding back the advance of feminism in the church and in Christian homes. The way it limits itself to these domains is directly related to the way it limits itself to specific prooftexts, rather than drawing on the whole of Scripture, the whole of nature, and the whole of church history.
In other words, complementarianism is not a holistic sexual theology. It is not an orthodoxy. It is a defensive strategy for retaining a minimal orthopraxy.
Here’s what we mean:
If the CBMW had been interested in defending the full historic Christian view, it would not have needed a new term for its theology, because that theology has always been called patriarchy: the doctrine that men are made to rule in behalf of their Father, and that this naturally begins in their houses, and continues out into the larger houses of nations and churches.
So why did the CBMW coin the very awkward term, complementarianism?
The answer is straightforward: they were embarrassed of patriarchy and wanted something that wouldn’t sound offensive at the Cool Table of the academy. That embarrassment, inevitably, went beyond labels; it went to the theological underpinnings. In their book they write:
If one word must be used to describe our position, we prefer the term complementarian, since it suggests both equality and beneficial differences between men and women. We are uncomfortable with the term “traditionalist” because it implies an unwillingness to let Scripture challenge traditional patterns of behavior, and we certainly reject the term “hierarchicalist” because it overemphasizes structured authority while giving no suggestion of equality or the beauty of mutual interdependence (Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, p. xv)
Where does this idea of equality come from? It doesn’t come from our scriptures. Unlike when it speaks of salvation, the Bible doesn’t speak of equality when it talks about gender roles. It speaks of authority and submission, and women as the weaker vessels. It explicitly frames gender relations within a hierarchical structure, grounded in the hierarchical structure of Christ and the church. Even in bearing the image of God, men and women are not identical, but women bear it subordinately (see Calvin’s commentary on 1 Corinthians 11 for a helpful explanation).
So where does this idea of equality come from? It doesn’t come from our spiritual fathers either. They routinely spoke of the superiority of husbands and the inferiority of wives, of their duty of subjection and reverence, and so on.
So where does it come from? Obviously from our culture, and especially from the culture of the academy. Although the original complementarians were careful to describe an equality of value, rather than of authority, their decisive rejection of the language of hierarchy illustrates that they were simply not giving a new name to the classic Christian doctrine of sexuality. They were following the spirit of the age and rejecting it. This is why they write, of 1 Corinthians 7:3–4:
This text is one of the main reasons we prefer to use the term leadership for the man’s special responsibility rather than authority… Texts like this transform the concept of authority so deeply as to make the word, with its authoritarian connotations, easily misunderstood. (p. 88)
Despite their rejection of the term traditionalist, the original complementarians were motivated not by principled commitment to God’s design, but by the desire to retain traditional gender roles in the church and in Christian families while, at best, ignoring the underlying reasons for those roles. The reasons were dispensable, because they were embarrassing when applied to the civil realm. Indeed, they were embarrassing when applied even to the family and church, which is why complementarians were so concerned about using new words. Had they jettisoned the term authority when describing the relationship between Christ and church, they would have looked like obvious heretics. Yet they were eager to jettison it when describing the relationship between man and wife. This tells us that they were not grounding their understanding of gender roles on biblical principle, which intimately connects the two and therefore loves the good order of authority that God created—but on cultural sentiment, which hates authority unless women have it over men.
Put simply, complementarians intentionally removed telos from sexuality.
Gender complementarity has a design which complementarianism studiously ignores. The differences between sexual roles are not incidental features of human nature; they are rooted in the fact that God made men and women for different purposes. Complementarity therefore goes all the way down, to every part of life. Telos is the cause; complementarity the effect. Complementarity in the domestic and ecclesiastical spheres is just the effect of applying this general telos to those particular domains. But the telos will cause complementarity in other spheres too.
Yet what does Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood say about complementarity in the civil sphere?
But what about women teaching or having authority over men in other activities in society generally (for example, in government, business, or education)? While this broader issue is addressed in another essay in this volume (see pages 50–52, 88–89, and 388–393), it is appropriate to note here that Paul’s concern in 1 Timothy 2:11–15 is specifically the role of men and women in activities within the Christian community, and we question whether the prohibitions in this text can rightly be applied outside that framework. (p. 187)
Shall we turn to the pages mentioned? On page 50, after leading with a list of possible roles for women—beginning with prime minister—here is what they say:
It is obvious at this point that we are on the brink of contradiction—suggesting that a woman may hold a position of leadership and fulfill it in a way that signals to men her endorsement of their sense of responsibility to lead. But the complexities of life require of us this risk… Some roles would involve kinds of leadership and expectations of authority and forms of strength as to make it unfitting for a woman to fill the role. However, instead of trying to list what jobs might be fitting expressions for mature femininity or mature masculinity, it will probably be wiser to provide several guidelines. (pp. 50–51)
They refuse to give a list of prohibited jobs, claiming that it’s too hard:
It would be hopeless to try to define this on a case-by-case basis. There are thousands of different jobs in the church and in the world with an innumerable variety of relationships between men and women (p. 51).
As if telling us the easy ones that women can’t do is impossible because they can’t tell us the hard ones also. Instead, they give only guidelines. One example they are willing to give in doing so is that of women commanding men in combat. Yet their entire argument is based not on telos, but on psychological friction between men and women. It is not because men and women really do have different purposes, and therefore different duties to God that can be violated by taking certain jobs, that it is wrong for women to command men in combat. It is only because men and women relate to each other a certain way, and combat command strains that relationship beyond breaking point. They do not consider for a moment that it is inherently defiling for a woman to be a soldier. Because their focus is on roles and intersexual psychology, rather than the telos behind these, they leave the door wide open for women to command other women in combat.
They then go on to discuss only home and church—conspicuously avoiding, once more, the topic of civil roles.
What of pages 88–89? Here is the most pertinent section:
[Question] 47. If you believe that role distinctions for men and women in the home and the church are rooted in God’s created order, why are you not as insistent about applying the rules everywhere in secular life as you are in the home and the church?
As we move out from the church and the home we move further from what is fairly clear and explicit to what is more ambiguous and inferential. Therefore our emphasis moves more and more away from specific role recommendations (like the ones made in Scripture), and instead focuses on the realization of male and female personhood through the more subjective dimensions of relationship like demeanor, bearing, attitudes, courtesies, initiatives, and numerous spoken and unspoken expectations.
We believe the Bible makes clear that men should take primary responsibility for leadership in the home and that, in the church, the primary teaching and governing leadership should be given by spiritual men. We take this to be a Biblical expression of the goodness and the wisdom of God concerning the nature of leadership in these roles and the nature of manhood and womanhood. That is, rather than leaving to us to judge for ourselves whether mature manhood and womanhood would be preserved and enhanced through the primary leadership of men or women in these spheres, God was explicit about what would be good for us. However, when it comes to all the thousands of occupations and professions, with their endlessly varied structures of management, God has chosen not to be specific about which roles men and women should fill. Therefore we are not as sure in this wider sphere which roles can be carried out by men or women in ways that honor the unique worth of male and female personhood. For this reason we focus (within some limits) on how these roles are carried out rather than which ones are appropriate. (pp. 88–89)
This is an implicit admission that telos is of no concern. The creation order is of practical importance for understanding why men and women are different; but it is of no principled importance for working out our practices. This is why Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood only really stands firm on the existing practices of its time, like the prohibition on women being pastors. When it works through other passages which connect back to telos, it consistently fails to uphold the historic, biblical view: even on key topics like head coverings or whether women are more easily deceived, it repeatedly capitulates to the cool-shaming of the world and commends feminist interpretations. The authors do not understand Scripture’s specific biblical gender prohibitions in light of the telos behind gender in general. They work in exactly the opposite direction, and then say that the biblical prohibitions don’t give us enough information to be able to say much of anything about our practice—not even in church (aside from the pastorate they wish to preserve), and so certainly not in the civil realm.
In this, they are not only pretending that passages like Deuteronomy 22:5 and Isaiah 3:12 don’t exist, and that passages like 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2:12–14 don’t mean what they say, but they are also ignoring the evidence of nature itself, along with our entire theological heritage. It is as if they were either unaware that theologians like Calvin or Knox existed, or thought they were such wild and irresponsible exegetes that they ought not even be mentioned.
Consistent with the Danvers Statement, this is all that RBMW says about civil gender roles—except for chapter 24 (pp. 388–393), written by a woman, on Women in Society. This chapter openly commends women leading in society, and doesn’t even hint that God might find civil rulership by women objectionable.
To summarize, while telos is what underwrites gender roles, telos is the one thing that complementarianism refused to uphold from the beginning—because the whole point of the project was to create a system that was acceptable to the world’s sensibilities and to the church’s anxiety. To be acceptable to the world, they had to concoct a system that avoided the awful stigma of being cool-shamed for the Bible’s actual teaching on woman being made for man, and man being made to rule. To be acceptable to the church, they had to maintain the appearance of staunchly fighting for the traditional gender roles that domestic and ecclesial harmony rely on.
The whole thing was a hybrid monstrosity that could ultimately neither appease the god of this world, nor please the God who is redeeming it.
Now it’s true that some complementarians affirm some complementarity outside the home or church. John Piper, for instance, caused quite a ruckus a while back by stating his rather weak conviction that women ought not to be cops.
But notice who caused the ruckus: it was other complementarians. The conservative evangelical world lost its mind over this issue. It was a witch-hunt. They were burning Piper in effigy on every street-corner for tentatively agreeing with the commonsense view of our recent spiritual forefathers.
This should tell us that complementarianism was not, and is not, an effort to defend or restate the historic theology of sexuality. It wasn’t an effort to re-issue the biblical view of our forefathers, only with a new emphasis on roles rather than purpose. It wasn’t that they hoped to downplay the offensiveness of gendered telos while still presupposing and upholding it, by focusing instead on the social beauty it produces.
On the contrary, complementarianism was an effort to brush the shameful matter of gendered telos—summated in the doctrine of father-rule—under the carpet, while still retaining the complementary roles that arise from it in the home and church.
Since these are mutually contradictory aims, only one could ever win out.
This is why complementarians forcefully eschew the term patriarchy, despite ostensibly reverencing the rule of God the Father. They are ashamed of the Bible’s general teaching on gender roles, but comfortable with the tradition of male-only pastors—and they know the Scriptures cannot be made to say anything else on that matter. They are sufficiently committed to the Bible to feel good about fighting for a basic minimum standard of complementarity—but sufficiently compromised by the androgyny of our culture to feel good about fighting against a thorough, biblical reform of gendered piety.
This is why complementarians are typically comfortable with women presidents, firefighters, police officers, and even soldiers—and when they’re not, they are dazed and perplexed as they try to explain why. They have excised telos.
And this is why complementarianism has been so ineffective at preventing the very thing it set out to prevent: “the emergence of roles for men and women in church leadership that do not conform to Biblical teaching” (rationale #7 of the Danvers Statement). They were trying to serve two masters. The past 30 years have been a struggle to see which will be stronger: the love of arbitrary gender roles unhitched from telos, or the love of our increasingly deviant culture? The fear of God, or the fear of man?
God and gender roles lost.
Beth Moore and Jen Wilkin are de facto pastors in the SBC—a confessedly complementarian denomination.
Mortification of Spin, Theology Gals, Heidelblog and their ilk are run by open androgynists in confessedly complementarian Presbyterian denominations.
The ESV, which removes effeminacy from 1 Corinthians 6:9 and replaces man and woman with husband and wife in 1 Corinthians 11, is produced by a complementarian translation committee.
Shameful movements like Revoice grew under the shade of a complementarian PCA seminary, defended by PCA pastors.
There is no need to multiply examples; anyone who has eyes knows what is going on. A tree is known by its fruit. We have experienced this fruit many times at It’s Good To Be A Man: not just apathy, but hostility, toward the idea that God made men and women for different purposes. Hostility toward the idea that men are made to rule, and women are not. Hostility toward the idea that women are naturally submissive and men are naturally dominant. Hostility toward the idea that different genders means different fundamental duties toward God and man. Even hostility toward the idea, taken for granted by our fathers in the faith throughout the history of the world, that men and women are different in their souls as well as in their bodies—and that this obviously matters for all of life, not just in the home or church.
So as a response to feminism, yes, complementarianism was compromised from the beginning. It was compromised by the idolatry of Athens: the desire to have a place in the academy. And this led to functionally jettisoning the very grounds for gender complementarity itself: the telos of sexuality.
It can be no surprise, then, that conservative complementarians keep endorsing androgynism. When R. Scott Clark and Carl Trueman pimp books like Rachel Miller’s Beyond Authority and Submission or even Aimee Byrd’s Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (an ironic, if revealingly-named swipe) it’s not an aberration. It’s foundational to the system. They’re drilling into the bedrock and they’re bringing up the ore. It’s all sand and slag, because that’s what the original complementarians built on, even if they themselves have not all gone mining afterward.
Complementarianism produces androgyny because it just is androgyny—with a veneer of ad hoc exegetical exceptions. As we discuss in Androgyny is Literally Paganism, these exceptions are just divine fiats under complementarianism, hanging in the air without explanation. The fact that some complementarians, like John Piper, have remained faithful on them doesn’t change the fundamental difficulty: that without a telos, they are ad hoc. There is no clear reason, grounded in the nature of reality, in the purpose of man and woman, to believe them—and so it is only natural that many complementarians end up denying them.
Complementarianism is just a halfway house on the road to egalitarianism.
Yet because it was the only thing that fit into the evangelical Overton Window, it became entrenched as the de facto “conservative, biblical” position against egalitarianism. For the past 30 years it has therefore left no alternative to implicit androgyny—and that implicit androgyny has been working its way out more and more explicitly in “conservative, biblical” churches until now.
There is a reformation coming. One way or another, God will consume the slag in the fire, and use the occasion to purify the doctrine of sexuality and gender piety. This happens with every critical doctrine. It is just our turn with this doctrine.