As one raised deep within the heart of fundamentalist, complementarian tradition, I do not make this claim lightly. Neither do I expect this to be something easily seen. Yet I feel it must be said. Complementarian thinkers create an environment of fear and intimidation by using Inerrancy as a weapon to insist questioning their views on gender is tantamount to denying the Gospel itself; it is the equivalent of embracing falsehood, abandoning God.
As I read/listen to complementarian authors, bloggers, and speakers, I cannot help but wonder:
How do we conceive of “male headship” beyond the confines of complementarity?
Is there is a way forward, of walking away from the hatred, vitriol, and misogyny inherent to complementarianism?
I believe there is. This way is paved with humility, embracing the way of the crucified Christ which exposes all systems concerned with privilege and power preserved by denigrating other persons. When tested by the crucible of the cross, complementarian claims are exposed for their myopic methodology, circular logic, and false dichotomies.
This is best demonstrated by considering a representative sample of thoughts from complementarian thinkers
- Complementarianism is the absolute, inerrant truth of Scripture.
Complementarians cannot claim to possess the absolute, inerrant truth of Scripture. Their very humanity means that they are subjective, that they must make and find meaning in their daily experience. If this identity is ultimately in God, they arrive at that meaning because of the appropriative work of the Spirit which inspires discernment of the text itself. They may claim to possess a revelation of God’s truth as they read Scripture, but they can’t claim to have arrived at a universal, unquestionable system of theology without insisting first that they are not taking part in a deeply interpretive enterprise.
Thus, I am often puzzled how they, or anyone, claim to have cornered the market on biblical truth. In order make this claim, one has to insist that all of Scripture is propositional, that
(1) God always communicates clearly in absolute terms.
(2) There is nothing in Scripture that requires interpretation, everything is clear and evident to the average reader.
This, however, can hardly be claimed to be true. In fact, the only way we can claim there is nothing hidden in the Bible is to assert ourselves as the primary audience of Scripture. To be specific, we have to assume that, regardless of whether or not God was laying out specific laws for Israel during their Sinai experience in Exodus, ultimately the whole event as recorded in Scripture was written with the 21st century reader’s time and place in mind.
Complementarians use Inerrancy to promote the idea that the Bible is “timeless” and “propositional”. They assert the Bible has had the same absolute meaning for all people, at all times. However, as is often the case, when we project our own opinions onto the text, we must first decentralize Jesus from the whole of the biblical narrative.
In my opinion, as we read Scripture, the Spirit of inspiration invites us to interpret, to experience, to discern how we fit beneath the text, how we encounter the truth of Scripture, the Word of God made flesh. That is, we are invited to participate in the meaning forming process of biblical hermeneutics. With this in mind it seems to me that with Jesus, God seriously buried the lead. The fanfare of Jesus’ birth in Matthew and Luke notwithstanding, it is notable that virtually no one in the Gospels has the slightest clue who Jesus is. They are quick to assign Messianic titles to him, but none of them can begin to conceive of his deity. Nowhere is this more clearly demonstrated than in the Emmaus Road account.
Even though Jesus earliest followers had the entire of OT prophecy at their fingertips, they entirely misunderstood Jesus. Despite Matthew’s insistence that all of Scripture points to Jesus, in Luke 24 the two men walking the Emmaus Road had no concept of what had just happened. They were discouraged and distraught because their Messianic hopes had been dashed by the cross. Jesus has to walk with them, explain precisely what is going on, how he fits into Scripture before they could understand. It was only after Jesus laid it all out for them that they even had the capacity to realize who he was.
If the meaning of the Bible is clear, if the truth of the Bible is the same for all people at all times, one has to wonder how the Jews didn’t get Jesus. They read their Bible, they knew their story, yet they thought Jesus was a blasphemer. The Pharisees directly recognized Jesus was making deific claims (cf Matt 9), and they rejected his messiahship and crucified him for it.
On the other hand, we have the irony of complementarian treatment of OT law. It is quite common for inerrantist, complementarian thinkers to argue the OT law is divided into societal (civil), moral, and ceremonial laws. In doing so, they argue that only the moral laws carry forward in Christ. They state that the societal and ceremonial laws were for Israel only. This directly undermines the claim that the truth of Scripture is timeless and propositional. For instance, such a treatment allows one to pick and choose what they want from a text that supposedly means the same thing for all people at all time, it says that the “timeless” meaning of Scripture was different for Israel than it is for a modern audience. It is a self-defeating argument.
It is also biblically dishonest. Anyone conducting a close reading of Leviticus 20 will note that the sexual practices prohibited therein are connected to the cultural and cultic lives of the Canaanite peoples. In Exodus 23 God prohibits making covenants with, worshipping the Gods of, or living with the Canaanites. This theme is carried forward in Leviticus 20. In verses 22-26, all the laws given are connected to Israel’s holiness. They are told that they are set apart from the other nations, they must not obey the laws or participate in the practices of their pagan neighbors. In fact, verses 1-5 introduce the laws of Chapter 20 by connecting the prohibitions to worship of the god Molech. These are not mere moral laws, they are laws for the cultic (ceremonial) practices of Israel and for the preservation of their way of living (society) in the presence of God. Yet inerrantists insist this passage is absolutely relevant to considerations of same-sex marriages, that it is an absolutely moral passage.
Yet, when the OT law repeatedly makes laws regarding the practice of slavery, laws including moral culpability for beating or murdering slaves, no complementarians argue that biblical law allows for ownership of persons (cf. Ex 21). So, the question must be asked, why is a passage that directly references a foreign god and societal preservation considered timeless moral truth, when a passage which sets out the moral limits of beating a slave is not?
Having considered this, it becomes clear that even complementarians, who claim to be simply presenting the clear clear reading of the text, bring presuppositions to the text. There is nothing inherently wrong with having presuppositions, but one has to be willing to examine them and allow them to be challenged. When we leave our presumptions unexamined, when we assert them as absolutes, we demonstrate that we either do not have the humility and/or intellectual capacity to question ourselves or, more insidiously, that we are – either consciously or unconsciously – seeking to preserve our own privilege and power.
I believe the latter is at play, and that the next 4 considerations will clarify this.
This is both the most profoundly disturbing and clearly errant assertions of complementarianism. In insisting the Gospel preserves our own privilege and status, we expose our own radical avoidance of the implications of Christ’s life. I think of the words of Paul on 1 Corinthians 2:2, that the entirety of his Gospel message is “Jesus Christ and him crucified”. Whatever the situation, whatever controversy, whatever praise Paul had to offer it was only rooted precisely in the cross of Christ. It was this cross which fueled Paul’s theology, it was because of Jesus he made his arguments. He looked at the cross, and thus changed how he read the OT. He looked at Jesus death and decided it included all persons in the kingdom of God. To put a further stipulation on the Gospel is to limit Christ, to dethrone him in order to promote one’s ideology. It demonstrates the profoundly suspect assumption that Jesus is not enough by taking peripheral discussions in Scripture, filtering them through an unexamined ideological paradigm, then insisting the final product is the only way to understand Jesus, the purpose of the cross.
On the surface, this one doesn’t seem too bad. Of course God has equipped a number of great, influential male leaders to advance his kingdom. There really is no questioning this. However, at the center of this assertions the presumption that God’s kingdom, God’s people flourish under male headship. Men are God’s chosen leadership and, in the end, it is men who hold God’s ultimate authority.
Yet, saying God only – or primarily – advances his kingdom through a specific subset of people is pure hubris. God preserved Israel through Esther. He chose Deborah to be both general and prophetess (Judg 4-5). He establish the Davidic monarchy, a symbol of Israelite hope and Messianic promise, by the courage of a Moabite widow (Ruth 4:18-22; Matt 1:1-17). He upheld Tamar as righteous against Judah (Gen 38). He chose a woman to first reach the Samaritans (John 4:1-22). He revealed himself as risen, as the exalted Lord of all to women and tasked them with telling the men (Matt 28; Luke 24).
Exploring an example from each of the testaments will help to further undermine this idea. Before I begin, I think it is wise to consider the advice of a former Bible professor: When the Bible is perceived as largely conforming to a set of narrative rules, it is important to note when the narrative breaks the rules. Thus, when considering the largely patriarchal overtones of the setting of OT narratives, it is important to note when the undertones undermine such a setting. For instance, the Abrahamic covenant required the father to circumcise his son at eight days old as a sign of covenant with God (Gen 17). Yet Moses, the chosen leader of God’s people out of slavery apparently ignored the covenant with God.
In Exodus 4, we are told that God became angry with Moses and attempted to kill him. While the motives are fuzzy, apparently his wife Zipporah understood perfectly what was happening. She grabbed a knife, cut off her son’s foreskin and touched it to Moses penis (feet in Hebrew is often a genital euphemism) averting God’s anger. This is no mere coincidence. As confusing as the incident is in isolation, certain aspects of Zipporah’s actions make sense in context.
It is notable that failure to circumcise one’s son was failure to claim the covenant of God for one’s family. As a natural born Jew and the called leader of Israel, God’s deliver, it is near unconscionable that Moses had failed to circumcise his son. Moses had failed, at the covenantal level, to be the man God had called him to be.
On the converse, we have Zipporah. Though a foreigner, Zipporah was the daughter of the priest of Midian, raised in the shadow of Sinai/Horeb, where God appeared to Moses in the burning bush. This same mountain was the dwelling place of God before the building of the tabernacle, the place where Israel first spoke with their God and committed themselves as his people. And from what we can clean from a story lacking in specificity, her experience living in the home of a priest who worshipped at the foot of Sinai equipped her to fulfill God’s covenant where Moses had failed.
Now, I will recognize here that Complementarians will argue that Moses failure is the only reason Zipporah can exercise such authority. As they see it, it doesn’t undermine Moses headship – it is an outlier. However, it is woefully circular to insist Zipporah cannot undermine absolute male headship in Scripture because such headship is the basis of complementarianism, which is the inerrant truth of Scripture. But in order to say their treatment doesn’t work, a better proposal is required.
Thus, I assert it is much more sensible to recognize that this incident is steeped in the language of patriarchy. Specifically, in Exodus 4:18, after already receiving the command from God himself at the burning bush to return to Egypt, Moses asks his father-in-law Jethro permission to leave. In patriarchal societies, the woman marries into the son’s family and comes under the headship of his family’s patriarch. However, Moses is under the headship of his wife’s patriarch. He has been joined into his wife’s family by the circumstances of his political exile and chooses to defer to her father. He must ask Jethro’s permission to leave.
This is a crucial part of the context of Exodus 4:24-26. The submission to the family patriarch, and departure from his family to undertake God’s purpose, forms the backdrop for the odd scene, which interrupts the flow of verses 18-31. Moses, in his first act as patriarch of his small family unit, has failed. He has offended his God and almost gotten himself killed. This is the man who will lead Israel, the man who saw the glory of God and met with him face to face. This is the one to whom the law was entrusted. If this text was meant to uphold patriarchy, to establish male headship, it does a poor job. Instead the audience is reminded that God – not ma -, is the source of authority and it is in faithfulness to the covenant that any person exercises authority. God honors all who honor him, and recognizes the authority of all who properly worship him, even the authority of women.
Moving on to the NT, it is important to consider two events, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. At the cross, the only male disciple faithful to Jesus even unto his death was the beloved (John 19:25-27). Yet all of the Gospels are clear that Jesus female disciples wept at the foot of the cross. Likewise, while the male disciples were in hiding, cowering in fear after Jesus arrest and death, the female disciples were heading to his tomb to anoint his body. These women were those to whom the first Gospel of the risen Christ of God was entrusted. Had the women not gone to them, the male disciples likely would not have learned of the empty tomb before the Romans had time to cover it all up (John 20:11-29).
This is notable for a couple of reasons. In both Jewish and Greco-Roman society women could not bear legal witness. Women were not considered reliable witnesses and were generally distrusted in court. Yet, the most significant events of the Gospels are largely dependent on the witness of female disciples. As Richard Bauckham argues in both Gospel Women and Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, the Gospel accounts are largely dependent on eyewitness testimony. In fact, Bauckham argues that the reason why specific names occur only in specific Gospels is because the story in question is based on that person’s testimony. That is to say, the Gospel writers are openly citing their source for that specific tradition.
If Bauckham is right (I believe he is) then the Gospel is carried by women, dependent on the witness of women, and entrusted first to women. The ability of the male disciples to be perceived as “heads” as carrying on the tradition of Christ is entirely reliant on their belief of female disciples. It seems dodgy at best that any religion functioning in a patriarchal context would build their notion of absolute, hierarchical, patriarchal “male headship” on the witness of females.
I have discussed this before (here, here) and will keep it brief here. What I will say is that attempts to derive a hard-set gender binary from the Genesis creation poem, the Eden story, or Jesus discourse in Matthew 19 all require one to completely decentralize God.
In Genesis 1, we cannot argue that God’s intended design was hard set gender roles without first asserting odd interpretations of key phrases regarding the image of God in humanity. We have to decentralize the importance of humanity in advancing the kingdom of God on earth and substitute the words “male and female” (a reference to anatomy) with “masculine and feminine” (carrying with them the gender trappings of complementarian theology). It not only requires one to confuse/substitute terms, it also requires to take a single phrase in passing and make it central to the entire meaning of the text. In doing so, complementarians insist from the words “male and female” in Genesis 1:27 that male and female have distinct and clearly differentiated gender roles and this is the clear teaching of this passage.
Likewise, it is tenuous at best to argue from Genesis 2-3 that God has an absolute gender binary in mind. For instance, many complementarians argue male headship from a gender binary established in creation order. This is an ironic assertion because here complementarians argue that coming first is most important. In Genesis 1, they argue coming sixth makes humanity the pinnacle of creation. Yet, the imagery of Genesis 1 makes day seven the most important day and the wording of Genesis 2 makes woman the more important of the two persons. Arguing supremacy of authority from creation order betrays both the selective, patriarchal, self-serving hermeneutic of complementarianism. They use the notion of primogeniture in Genesis 2 because it affirms their argument, not because the text support it.
In fact, when the man was created, we are told that he requires a helper to complete God’s calling. The man is not self-sufficient. Thus, God cuts his torso in half and creates a female counterpart from his bifurcates flesh. This female counterpart is his ezer kenegdo. As Carolyn Custis James points out in her book Malestrom, this phrase cannot denote a submissive partner/helper. Instead, ezer is a word that is used to depict divine intervention and military aid. It depicts the moment of desperation when an ally swoops in and deals the decisive victorious blow. It is language of deliverance. Kenegdo supplements this meaning, connoting the idea of being well-suited for a role. The woman was the perfect relief, the perfect partner, the perfect person to join the man in pursuing God’s kingdom on earth.
It is entirely counter to biblical witness to insist we may denigrate a person or persons based on birth. We cannot claim that God cannot use someone based on how he created them (cf. Gal 3:19-29). In God’s kingdom the poor are rich, weak becomes strong, foolishness is wisdom, shame is exaltation (1 Cor 1:18-31), sword becomes ploughshare (Isa 2), the wolf and lamb are friends, and a child is leader of all (Isa 11). In Christ, particularity is embraced, antagonism is eradicated, those who don’t belong now belong (1 Pet 2:9-10), sinners are declared saints, orphans become adopted children and co-heirs (Eph 1:3-10), and mutuality is the rule and order of his body the Church (Col 3).
Further, a patriarchal hermeneutic is undermined by Genesis 2:24, where the man leaves his family to become “One Flesh” with his wife. Unlike the typical patriarchal method of the woman leaving her family to join the patriarchal clan of her husband, the husband must leave his patriarchal protections and step out on his own. The words “One Flesh” mean literally “one body”. Thus, just as the woman was from the same body, same Flesh as the man, so the couple is to pursue to be “hewn from the same cloth” on every level.
As we are told in the NT tells us no man can hate his own body. Instead, we are called to love others as if they were of the same body, same flesh as ourselves (Eph 5). This same application is used to argue for love of all persons in Mark 12 with the command to “love neighbor as self”. If loving one as your own body applies not only in marriage, but in all relationships, then a gender binary with a submissive woman from Genesis 2 seems untenable.
Lastly, in Matthew 19 it makes absolutely no sense to make Jesus comments on being “man and woman” about establishing a gender binary. First, because Jesus is specifically talking about grounds for divorce. Second, because the context for the question asked is specifically a rabbinic debate taking place during Jesus time. Third, because the only way to arrive at such a conclusion is to have already read a gender binary where it doesn’t belong in Genesis 1.
Ultimately, the weakness of a gender binary is in its claim to identity. That is, complementarians claim I discover what it means to be a man in relation to the feminine. They state that primary identity, identity central to understanding the Gospel (as they see it) comes not in relation to Christ but in relation to other humans. I hope the reader can see the problem with such an assumption.
- Men must never relinquish their headship.
More than any other statement, this idea demonstrates the degree to which complementarian concepts of male headship are entirely self-serving protective strategies toward preserving the power of a set of men whose elite status gives them the influence to tell everyone what to believe.
Make no mistake, complementarianism is primarily a political commitment, not a biblical one. In order to demonstrate this, I want to briefly look at 2 passages of Scripture and then consider how they guide us in interpreting a third.
In Matthew 18, the author – as he does throughout the book – shifts from a section of narrative to one containing a number of sayings, teachings, and parables of Jesus centered on a single theme. This theme is introduced by the disciples, when they ask “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (18:1). The next three chapters (18, 19, 20) represent different ways in which Jesus develops an answer.
In 18:2-5, Jesus develops the notion of being “great in the kingdom” around the theme of children. Those who wish to be “great” must change themselves, becoming like children. In fact, they must assume a stance of humility that is described as child-like. The very concept of welcoming Jesus into their midst is tied to how they treat the children they are called to emulate.
This, in and of itself, thoroughly undermines any claim to a complementarian concept of male headship. In the ancient world, patriarchy was the norm. The male head of the family exercised near absolute authority, even the authority over the life and death of his family members. For Jewish fathers, marrying off a child was sometimes arranged from birth. Daughters specifically were, in many ways, treated like property. They were used as political pawns to negotiate an increase in family status through marriage. Further, to compensate for the loss of labor in the household, a dowry was paid to the family by the groom’s family. The groom’s family obtained a daughter, the bride’s family – in a legal sense – lost one.
It was also not uncommon for a child to be sold as an indentured servant to work off a family’s debt. This allowed the parents to pursue their own vocation while having one less mouth to feed. Regardless of feelings in situations like these, the importance for us now is the status afforded children in Ancient Israelite society. They held no personal property and had few legal rights beyond those afforded by family wealth or status. As such, in a very real sense, Jesus is speaking to a largely working class audience, the call to be as a child was a call to lay aside one’s status, privilege, and power.
Matthew doesn’t end here, though. Anyone who causes the “little ones” – both those who have chosen child-like humility and the children they imitate – to stumble is liable to punishment. In fact, it would be better to cripple one’s self than to live in sin. Here, again, Jesus calls for radical humility. The listener/reader is responsible for his neighbor, must seek their betterment not their demise. They must even be willing to pluck out an eye or amputate an arm to prevent their own stumbling, avoid becoming a stumbling block to others.
Matthew continues to develop this theme with the Parable of the Lost Sheep. A shepherd who has 100 sheep loses only one, yet leaves the 99 to graze as he pursues the last sheep, that it may be restored to the fold. According to the text, he rejoices more over one sheep restored than the 99. This is how God pursues his “little ones”.
What strikes me here is that, again, we are reminded that those who follow God are depicted as sheep, as “little ones”. We are cherished, we are valued, but we are nothing without our shepherd. Further, I am reminded that God’s not in the business of appeasing the masses or playing the odds, God’s business is total reconciliation and he’s playing for keeps. For the modernist audience, we are reminded that this isn’t about us, it isn’t about whether Jesus died for my personal sins – it isn’t about me as an individual at all. It is about God’s desire that all be reached, that none should perish (Ez 18:32, 2 Pet 3:-9). When we realize God has a universal goal in mind, we are humbled to know that our good is tied to the community, not to individual rights or privileged. As Jory Micah has so poignantly stated, “[God] will always leave the 99 to go after the one”.
As Matthew continues, he teaches that our forgiveness is deeply rooted in the forgiveness we receive in Christ, that we are responsible to serve and consider our neighbor, not to pursue our own perceived “good” (18:21-35). Jesus condemns the use of law for personal benefit (19:1-12). Jesus does not consider social or economic status, but extols children and humbles the rich (19:13-30). In fact, our concepts of justice have nothing to do with God’s justice. He has no regard for fairness, “just deserts”; his concern is for advancing his kingdom, redeeming his creation and providing for his people (20:1-16).
This brings us to 20:20-28. Here Matthew brings his theme to its climax as Jesus’ reveals, in no uncertain terms, the kingdom he is advancing has no place for our ideologies at all. He is not worried about status, he has no place for earthly leaders and power systems built on antagonism, on advancing one’s self on the backs of others. There is no hierarchy, no denigration, among the people of God. Instead, anyone who desires to be “great” in the kingdom must lower himself to the status of slave of all. He must be humbled, to use an image from John’s Gospel, he must model the creator of the universe dressed as a slave, washing feet before dinner (John 13:1-7).
Even more, as the Son of Man came not to be served, we must model also his radical humility in his death. We are to embrace the kenosis (self-emptying) of Christ – Yahweh himself incarnated as man (Phil 2:1-18). The creator of the universe stripped naked, cursed on a tree, sacrifices for all (Gal 3:1-14; Rom 3:16-25). The shamed and sin-filled God, weak and dejected, abandoned and beaten, spit upon and mocked (Luke 22:63-23:49). This is the kingdom ethic Christ espouses, this is the way he leads, this is the cross we are called to bear (Matt 16:24-28).
Through the cross, God turns our world upside down. The Lion of the Tribe of Judah is revealed as a slain and defeated lamb. Death at the hands of one’s persecutors is viewed as victory, and those who are killed receive victory even over that death (Rev 5). He “opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). So, in what way can we then claim that God has upheld a system of patriarchy inherent to the order of both Jewish and Roman societies?
This is precisely the weakness of Complementarianism. They assume that patriarchy is not simply the setting of Scripture, critiqued as all societies and situations are by God’s kingdom. Instead, they assert that because the Bible mentions it, God must affirm it. But, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:18-31, the cross of Christ critiques all human institutions. The state may have authority, but our duty is to love and respect our neighbor at all cost (Rom 13). Our head is Christ and only in imitation of him of him so we find our identity. In his body, self is defined and the societal distinctions and antagonisms of slave and free, chosen and rejected, male and female are dissolved and all particularities now function under the radically transformative mutuality of full participation and identity in the crucified body of Christ (Gal 3).
Thus, complementarian belief is undermined. Just as Christ gave up his authority, so also the man of God is to set himself aside (Phil 2). In order to exalt another person to a place of absolute authority, you first have to ask Jesus to step down. In order to insist it is the job of women to support and promote male authority in every aspect of life, you have to argue that identity and authority are rooted in human categories, categories that dichotomize and denigrate persons. In order to tell a woman she must have no direct influence or authority over any man (http://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/should-women-be-police-officers) you first have to tell her Godly feminine identity exists for and is defined by men, in comparison to the preferred “masculine”, rather than in communal participation gifting, and calling within the body of Christ.
The question must be asked, then,
How are males appointed as “heads” in Scripture?
Certainly the language exists. But how ought we to apply it. If those who exalt themselves are humbled and those who are humble are exalted (cite) in what way must we lead?
This brings us to Ephesians 5:21-6:9.
If I have said it once, I’ve said it at least a couple times more, context and genre are the crux of Scripture interpretation. We all read the text through certain lenses, none of us can be objective. The goal is, in our subjectivity, to first strive to let the text be the text and second to discern how that text conveys God’s grace in our lives by the inspiring and appropriative work of the Holy Spirit.
When reading Ephesians 5 it is absolutely imperative we consider the genre of Roman Household code. In a nutshell, all of Greco-Roman society was built on patronage. The rich owned the poor and ran their lives by continuous systems of economic and socio-political debt. Everyone was indebted to someone else, tracing all the way to the emperor himself, who owed patronage to the gods (as the mythology went). This system was held up and indoctrinated into every citizen via household codes.
These codes were designed to uphold the foundations of Greco-Roman society by clearly delineating the roles and rights of each person/stratus of people within the household. This was a hierarchical system with slaves at the bottom and the patriarch, or pater familias, at the top. In the middle were wives followed by children. The pater familias was the “emperor” of his home. For all intents and purposes, everyone below him was his property and owed them their very lives, which he could take as he saw fit. Likewise, the pater familias held power over the sexual lives of his slaves, he was free to rape and sexually assault them as he saw fit. He was also free to adopt a young boy of lower status. This young boy would receive status and privilege through the patron’s tutelage in exchange for sexual gratifying his “benefactor”.
This is the environment into which Paul writes his own household code. This is notable because, upon careful examination, there are some significant differences. First, verse 21 commands all who are in the household to “be subject to one another out of reverence to Christ.” This primary command applies from the top down. Wife is subject to husband AND husband to wife. Children are subject to their parents AND parents to their children. Perhaps most shockingly, slaves are subject to their masters AND masters are subject to their slaves.
Why? Because all persons in Christ’s body are subject to each other and, ultimately, subject to Christ. Thus, wives are to subject to their husbands as the Church (body) is to Christ. Now here is where things get interesting. It is no big deal in either Roman or Jewish society to make the husband head of the household. But Paul puts a subtle(ish) twist on the whole thing.
He states that a husband is head of his wife as Christ is head of his body the Church, “the body of which he is the Savior” (5:23). They are to love their wives “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind— yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish.” (25-27)
That is to say, the husband must in his headship demonstrate the love inherent to Christ. In case you missed it before, Christ submitted himself to death, “even death in a cross” (Phil 2:8). Jesus submitted himself to human authorities, he allowed himself to be crucified as a rebel and a blasphemer, as the embodiment of Sin (2 Cor 5:21). He washed feet, he allowed himself to be announced by prostitutes. The first born of all creation chose to become the last, the hated. Jesus, who was in his very self Yahweh, became a human baby – creator who was created – he described himself as a “servant of all” (Mark 10:45). He chose the sinner over the so-called “saints”. He touched the leprous, the bleeding, the unclean and declared them clean in the process.
As I consider these things, I recall how the chairman of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood Russell Moore has said that Complementarians must do more than say “male headship” and “wives submit”, they must lay out what that means in a system of Christ-centered disciples that speaks into our culture. Given the discussion above, the questions must be asked:
Does Complementarianism meet the basic categories set forth by its leaders?
Does complementarianism offer a view of male headship that is uniquely Christian and speaks into the brokenness of our world?
The answer to both is a resounding NO!
I am reminded of a story from Luke 20:45-21:4. Jesus was teaching his disciples and, during this teaching, he spoke on an issue taking place among the religious leaders of his day. Certain individuals who purported themselves the “keepers of the law” had taken up the practice of exploiting widows and robbing them of their property (v.47) by way of abusing the law. Just then, Jesus looks up to see a widow giving her offering at the synagogue. She gave a small offering, yet Jesus extolled her above all others because she gave all she had out of a place of need, not excess. Further, when read in context it seems clear she has just given money to an institution run by the very people who might seek to exploit her.
This is significant. Jesus words inspired his disciples to care for widows and orphans and an entire chapter in Acts is devoted to how the early church answered this calling (Acts 6). Yet, in both Roman and Jewish society, women and children took their identity from their male relatives. Orphaned children and widowed women had very little rights in these societies and were very vulnerable to exploitation and abuse because they had no male to protect them. Yet Jesus found intrinsic worth in these people because they possessed the image of God. God desires to see these injustices corrected and calls his people to give protection and identity to those without it. He calls us to serve those in positions of weakness by lifting them up, exalting them to a status above our own and taking a stature of servitude and sacrifice. Jesus teachings undermine the patriarchy of his day by placing a person’s identity and value in God, not in men.
Yet complementarians openly claim the patriarchy of biblical times is the affirmed truth of the bible.
How then can they speak into our world’s brokenness if their message is that women must respect the status quo of male dominance?
The reality is, in a world where one in four women has been sexually abused or raped, a majority by a close relative or romantic partner, complementarians tell women their bodies are inherently sexual and they are responsible for the purity of the men around them. Despite the fact that 98% of the 20 million sex slaves in the world are women and children, Complementarians insist the identity of women and children is defined in relation to male headship. And in the face of a job market where women make less than 80% of what a man makes in the same position with the same qualifications, Complementarians insist this is the status quo. After all, a woman’s highest calling is motherhood AND her feminine role is to support, encourage, and empower every man in her life to be her leader in some capacity.
I could go on, but even these three examples demonstrate that Complementarians have no unique, Christian vision for what male headship actually is. They fight to maintain the status quo. Jesus calls us to uplift and serve the poor and exploited. They defer blame onto women for the sins of men. Jesus refused to cast a stone. They insist a woman’s identity is in relation to men. Jesus insisted it is in relation to him and his body, the Church. They encourage inequality, trapping women beneath a glass ceiling and insisting it is their natural place. Jesus chose women disciples, invited them to learn as men (Luke 10:38-42), and trusted them, empowered them to be bearers of his Gospel in a world where they had no rights as legal witnesses.
Male headship does not look like the powerful male preacher, it looks like the crucified Christ. It exalts others as greater than self (Phil 2:3), it sets aside its own rights, its own privilege, its own status and pursues love, justice, and peace at all costs. The male “head” does this because it considers the other – his wife, his children, his slave, his neighbor, and his enemy – as an extension of his own corporate self and of the God in whose being he takes meaning.
This man, a man who is head like Christ, seeks the betterment of his children, he does not abuse or neglect (Eph 6:4). He treats those beneath him by societal standards as an equal in Christ. He models the love of Christ, who came to “set the captives free” and make God’s kingdom manifest in every sphere he is involved (Luke 4:16-30). He does not maintain the status quo, it upend it. He turns the world on its head and declares a New Creation breaking forth from the empty tomb.
A real man strives to be Christ-like, not “manly”.
 John Piper and Wayne Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Feminism (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991) pp. 56-85.
 Ibid. 477-482.
 Gospel Women, pp. 257-31; Jesus and the Eye Witnesses, pp. 5-10.
 Carolyn Custis James, Malestrom: Manhood Swept into the Currents of a Changing World (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015) pp. 77-94.
 Ibid. pp. 59-76.
 Biblical Manhood, pp. 25-55.
 Steve Farrar, Anchor Man (Dallas: Thomas Nelson, 2000), p. 27
 Anchor Man, 63.
 Biblical Manhood, 25-55.
**Cover image from http://findersfree.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/male-female-restroom-signs.jpg**
20 thoughts on “The Head of Man”
Well, it looks like we have a lot in common here, lol! I don’t want to spam your blog, but if you are interested, here are my takes on the same/similar issues you laid out using Scripture to support my views.
As far as I’m concerned, it’s not spamming if it’s relevant and credible. Always happy to help support others. I’ll take a look when I have a minute, my 2 year old just woke up from her afternoon nap.
Side note: A Cruciform Submission is a companion piece to this, if that helps you process anything.
It’s been nice “meeting” you. Peace to you 🙂
LikeLiked by 1 person
And to you. 🙂
LikeLiked by 1 person
Finally had a chance to sit down and read. I like what you’ve got going.
Thank you, Nate, I truly appreciate that. 🙂 I def. understand how hard it is to find time to read and think (let alone write) with kiddos! I have 3 myself, though my youngest is now 4.
I have an older blog I keep meaning to edit and transfer articles from. It is strictly theological and I wrote then anonymously because I was so afraid of backlash.
Anyway, I like the passion and points you make and look forward to future posts from you!
In my studying, I just happened to stumble across your blog, via CBE. Thank you so much. It’s very refreshing to hear you (and most of the younger generation) sincerely and deeply looking into Scripture and finding the TRUTH, instead of the ‘status quo”.
I have read many egalitarian authors and would like to mention Philip B. Paine. His book “Man and Woman, One in Christ” is an excellent resource if you haven’t read it already.
I have heard of it, but not yet read it. Thank you for the suggestion 🙂
Also, thanks for following my blog. I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts!
Hi Nate, thanks so much for this very thorough and thoughtful critique of complementarianism. You put it so eloquently when you note the huge differences between defining male/female and masculine/feminine, and the fight to retain the status quo instead of seeking Christ. You’ve enlighted my thinking on several Bible passages (notably Zipporah and the widow at the temple).
As a woman, it’s always refreshing (and reassuring) to read work from men who are thoughtfully seeking Christ-centered living that welcomes and equalises women. Thanks again.
LikeLiked by 2 people
Thank you for taking the time to read and engage. I am truly blessed to be able to write and always love hearing the kind words of readers. I’ve been truly blessed to see the responses to this post. It reminds me why I do this and who I do it for. Blessings to you.
Grace and Peace,
LikeLiked by 1 person
This was a very thorough dismantling of male headship and complementarianism using the scriptures. It’s so good that I had to break it into 3 chunks to make sure I was reading it closely. With 3 kids, we have a lot of distractions around here :). I’d consider memorizing large portions of this entry as it was very edifying and beneficial to my former complementarian self. I’d be curious as to what books I could read to help develop my egalitarian thought further. Thanks Nate
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you so much for the kind words. I’m glad it spoke some truth into you. As far as books go, I cannot recommend highly enough Malestrom by Carolyn Custis James. Also, I haven’t read her book, Jesus Feminism, but Sarah Bessey’s blog is an excellent resource. I also highly recommend the blog of Jory Micah.
If you are looking for highly scholarly works, Richard Bauckham’s Gospel Women was profound for me, but it is a very dense study.
Besides these, the greatest thing I think any person can do to overcome Complementarianism is to engage Scripture from a female perspective. There are a number of very gifted female authors and scholars who provide insights that simply don’t occur to most men. Learning to listen to female voices, discern the gifting of the Spirit in them, and internalizing them into your own life is a large step in the right direction.
I hope that is helpful. Again, thank you for the kind words. It truly blesses me to know I was helpful for you.
Grace and Peace in Christ.
I was quickly skimming through your post and making a mental note that I wanted to come back later and read more thoroughly. And then I read your comment to Jay, “Besides these, the greatest thing I think any person can do to overcome Complementarianism is to engage Scripture from a female perspective. There are a number of very gifted female authors and scholars who provide insights that simply don’t occur to most men. Learning to listen to female voices, discern the gifting of the Spirit in them, and internalizing them into your own life is a large step in the right direction.” Well, this stopped me in my tracks and brought tears to my eyes!
Thank you. I’m looking forward to reading more tonight.
LikeLiked by 2 people
Thank you for such a kind assessment. Knowing I was able to bless you through my writing truly blesses me as well. I am honored you have taken the time to read and appreciate your engagement.
Grace and Peace,
LikeLiked by 1 person
P.S. I have 3 kids as well and am a stay at home dad. I know the struggle 😉