Complementarity Without Subordination: What Does it Look Like?
Complementarianism can in itself be a fine expression of Biblical headship, so long as it is not imbued with the false teaching of ESS and its implications.
Brad Mason, Complementarity Without Subordination
It’s an interesting thing to contemplate. What if complementarians eradicated the doctrine of ESS from their platform? What if the complementarian camp wrested ESS out by the roots, every last bit of it, and tossed it onto the rubbish dump? Well, some men in senior positions in seminaries might end up losing their jobs. And a lot of books would need to be revised and the old versions withdrawn from libraries. That includes the ESV Bible. (link) (link)
This post is going to engage with what I believe are helpful discussions in complementarian circles that are coming from a small number of cutting edge complementarians who are trying to work towards an understanding of complementarity without female subordination.
I’ve written this post in response to Brad Mason’s post Complementarity Without Subordination. I really appreciate Brad; I find him one of the most insightful thinkers exposing the error of ESS (Eternal Subordination of the Son). I recommend especially the section in his post sub-headed ‘A Few Necessary Corollaries and Clarifications’.
Brad is a member of a sister-congregation of First Reformed Church, Yuba City California which is the church our friend Sam Powell pastors. If any of you want to move to Yuba City, I know Sam and his church would welcome you and give you safe haven. And if you have techno-cyber skills, they would love you to help them in that way!
The natural complementarity of the sexes
Brad says, and I agree with him, that Genesis 1 & 2 and Paul’s teaching all point to creational distinctions and differences between men and women:
— a distinct order of creation: first Adam, then Eve; with Eve being formed from Adam
— a distinct orientation: “Nor was man created for the woman, but woman for the man”
— a specific purpose for Eve’s creation: “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.”
I’m happy to call all that ‘the natural complementarity of the sexes’. I agree with Brad that this ‘natural complementarity’ does not presuppose or necessitate hierarchy of authority, let alone an order of right to command and duty to obey.
Male leadership before the Fall?
I feel that this ‘natural complementarity’ — the Pre-Fall relations and differences and complementarity between man and woman — needs to be understood as including some sense of male leadership: a wholly benign and God-respecting male leadership in which the man protectively guarded his wife from danger. It didn’t confer on Adam the right to command Eve. I would not even say it gave Adam the right to issue instructions to Eve. I would say that Adam had a duty to faithfully convey to Eve God’s instruction about not eating the fruit of that particular tree. Just like Adam, Eve had a duty to heed and follow that instruction which originated from God, which Adam had conveyed to her.
But it’s wrong to say that Eve had to submit to Adam. Eve had to submit to God, just as Adam did. Adam was simply the conveyer of God’s law to Eve. Since Adam was created before Eve and heard that instruction directly from God before Eve had been formed, Adam had an obligation and duty to faithfully guide Eve and guard and protect her from making the mistake of eating that fruit. Without doubt, though Genesis 2 doesn’t spell it out, God made Adam responsible for protecting Eve from danger.
They both failed in their duty. Adam passed the instruction on to Eve well enough, but when Eve fell, rather than Adam getting down on his knees and praying to God for Eve to be forgiven, Adam just took the fruit and ate it too! Paul’s commentary on that is illuminating: the serpent deceived Eve by his craftiness (2 Cor 11:3) and it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression (1 Tim 2:14). Paul points to Adam being the primary sinner in the fall: death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam (Rom 5:14). And in Adam all die (1 Cor 15:22).
Where I sharply diverge from Brad is where he argued that
It is only as a result of the cosmic and relational disorder introduced by sin that right to rule and duty to submit are mandated and a hierarchical order of human relationships is introduced.
How I believe the Fall distorted gender relations
Unlike Brad, I don’t believe God was mandating an order of authority and submission in that statement he made to Eve. I think Genesis 3:16 is descriptive, not prescriptive. It describes in a nutshell the way gender relations will tend to be now that the fall has happened. It does not prescribe that gender relations have to be that way. It doesn’t give men a mandate to rule women; nor does it command that women must submit to men’s rule.
As I have already explained, I think that the natural complementarity of the sexes included the man’s duty to protect the woman and the woman’s need for the man’s protection. I think that natural creational pre-fall complementarity went horribly awry as a result of the fall. God announced this in Genesis 3 when He told Eve:
I will greatly multiply
Your pain in childbirth,
In pain you will bring forth children;
Yet your desire will be for your husband,
And he will rule over you. (Gen. 3:16 NASB)
In the second half of that verse, I believe God was saying that husbands would now in their sin-bias tend to rule harshly over their wives, and by extension men would tend to dominate and oppress women in society and culture. Men have done this by imposing a hierarchy of authority, with males been given unmerited privilege — and women being denied their right to dignity and fair treatment simply because they were women. I know that there are exceptions, notable and noble exceptions, but by and large male domination and female subordination is what we have seen throughout human history when we look at gender relations after the fall.
I also believe that in Genesis 3:16 God was saying that women’s focused attention would tend to be on their husbands. And if they were not married, women would tend to focus their attention on finding a man to bond with. (I’m talking about tendencies and speaking generally; please don’t get upset single women who are happy being single! I honour your path, and I’m one of that group myself at this stage of my life.)
In his 2016 article, “The Meaning of Hebrew תשׁוקה,” Journal of Semitic Studies 61 (2016) :365-387 (link1), Andrew A. Macintosh did a thorough study of the word תְּשׁוּקָה (teshûqâ) which is commonly translated ‘desire’ in Genesis 3:16. He came to an interesting conclusion:
In summary, I conclude that ‘desire’ is not a proper rendering of the Hebrew word תְּשׁוּקָה in the Hebrew Bible or in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Rather, on the evidence of comparative philology and of the ancient versions, ‘concern, preoccupation, (single-minded) devotion, focus’, appears to be more likely. (2016:385).
[red emphasis added by me]
If Macintosh is correct, then God was saying that a consequence of the fall would be that the wife’s single-minded concentration / single-minded devotion / focused attention would be on her husband.
Now let me try to put this all together: the wife’s focused attention and single minded devotion would be on her husband and her husband would rule over her.
Or by extension … the wife’s focused attention would be on her husband yet despite her devoted attention towards him her husband would rule over her.
I will put it one more way and sum up what I think:
The wife’s attention would now be especially and devotedly focused on her husband while her husband would take advantage of that by ruling over her … rather than him protectively loving her as she wanted him to, and as he had been created to do.
As a result of the fall, sinful man has a bias to rule over woman, and sinful woman’s (natural pre-fall) need for protection from man has become biased into a more strongly focused and attentive need for man’s protection and love — which makes her extremely vulnerable to exploitation by man.
To ameliorate that situation, I believe that men inspired and moved by God’s grace and truth need to exercise their pre-fall duty to protect women. They need to restrain themselves from giving in to their sinful bias to assume male privilege. And as part of that, they need to make a covenant with their eyes (Job 31:1) so they do not lust after women other than the woman they are married to. I suggest that they need to speak out about sexploitation in the media and advertising, and they need to speak out against the porn juggernaut (e.g., by joining Collective Shout). And because so many abuse victims are being mistreated by churches, I suggest that godly men need to become more wise about the tactics used by abusers, by reading our blog A Cry For Justice and interacting with our readers.
I believe that women inspired and moved by God’s grace and truth need to exercise their duty to be subject to their own husbands as to the Lord, and respect their husbands (Eph 5:22, 33). Now, for a wife to be subject to her own husband as to the Lord does not mean treating her husband as if he was God—being so devotedly attentive to him that his sin-bias will be enabled to have free reign over her. Rather, it means:
- submitting to her man where his leadership is according to the precepts of God (and especially where it is guiding and guarding her from falling / straying into sin and being deceived by the evil one)
- respecting her man
- Respecting the sin-bias which makes her man tend towards sin (even a regenerate man still has to battle with his flesh), not mocking or disparaging the man simply because he has a sin bias which is so different from the sin bias which she has.
- Respecting that since he has the natural complementarity to lead and protect her and their household, he may be taking more things into account in making his decisions than she is aware of, and he needs to come authentically to his own decisions in the way he exercises those responsibilities.
- but not submitting to her man where his leadership is not according to the precepts of God
- and resisting her own sin-bias to become so devotedly attentive to her husband that he can exploit or oppress her.
When a woman worships her man more than God, which we see continually in the patriarchal movement and some churches, she is living under the curse.
(comment by one of our blog readers)
I can hear some people saying that Ephesians 5:24 says wives must submit in everything (no exceptions)—
But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. (NASB)
Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. (ESV)
Paul is saying that a wife’s submission to her husband must be AS (analogical to) the church’s submission to Christ. Whenever there is an analogy in scripture we must be careful not to press it too hard, not to apply it beyond its logical bounds.
The church CAN safely submit in everything to Christ, because Christ never sins. But husbands sometimes sin, and some husbands make foolish or wicked decisions that deeply affect the family. It is neither safe nor wise for a wife to submit in everything to a foolish or wicked husband. A wife ought not submit in everything to a husband who is treating her like a mere servant and sex object whose opinions, feelings and personhood have no value. Such a wife may prudently decide to submit superficially, in order to keep safe. She knows her husband will escalate the abuse if she openly refuses to submit. But inside she will always be resisting her husband’s abuse by doing things to maintain her dignity and godliness and protecting the vulnerable – quietly and prudently not submitting to his sinful demands and coercive control. (Honouring Resistance)
Therefore we must read the first part of Paul’s analogy “as the church is subject to Christ…” as colouring and conditioning the second part “so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” We all know that husbands are not perfectly Christlike and sanctification is a process. I don’t want to press the analogy into a wooden rule by saying “In as much as a husband is like Christ, that much must his wife submit to him.” But when a husband is distinctly UNChristlike by oppressing or endangering his wife and/or their children, she need not subject herself to him. Even CBMW says “The supreme authority of Christ qualifies the authority of her husband. She should never follow her husband into sin.” (link)
Scriptural support for my interpretation
The woman’s first duty is no different from the duty of every believer: Submit therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. (James 4:7)
She must not egg her husband on in sin, as Jezebel did with Ahab, and as Zeresh did with Haman. She must not try to entice man into sin, as Potiphar’s wife did with Joseph. She must not follow along with her husband’s sin, as Sapphira did with Ananias.
Women inspired and moved by God’s grace and truth must not be like the weak women Paul warns Timothy about, the women who are weighed down with sins, led on by various impulses, always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.
Realize this, that in the last days difficult times will come. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, boastful, arrogant, revilers, disobedient to parents, ungrateful, unholy, unloving, irreconcilable, malicious gossips, without self-control, brutal, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to a form of godliness, although they have denied its power. Avoid such men as these.For among them are those who enter into households and captivate weak women weighed down with sins, led on by various impulses, always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. (2 Tim 31-7)
And note that Paul specifically names the gender of those arrogant brutal revilers: they are men. And those kind of men seek to captivate weak women.
A woman inspired and moved by God’s grace and truth must do what is good and not fear any intimidation (1 Pet 3:6 CSB). She must warn her husband if he is entering into sin, as Pilate’s wife did to Pilate. She must actively and prudently resist and not comply with her husband’s sinfully dangerous decisions, and she may even countermand his orders, as Abigail did with Nabal. She must resist and speak out about sexualised assault, as Tamar did with her half-brother Amnon. She can prudently expose a man’s sin when he has let her down, as Judah’s daughter-in-law Tamar did when Judah had not given her her rights. She can instruct a man so that he has a better understanding of the things of God, as Priscilla did with Apollos, and as the Samaritan woman did with all the people of her village. And she may tell untruths in order to protect the innocent from being harmed, as the Hebrew midwives did to Pharoah, as Rahab did when she concealed the spies, and as Michal did when she put that bolster in the bed to disguise the fact that David had fled.
More things in the Old Testament that support my interpretation —
When denouncing Ephraim and Judah, Hosea said, “like Adam they have transgressed the covenant” (Hos 6:7). Job, when responding to his unhelpful counselors, asked the question, “Have I covered my transgressions like Adam, by hiding my iniquity in my bosom?” (Job 31:33) The abusive man—the arrogant reviler—hides his iniquity in his bosom. And like Adam, when confronted about his sin, he shifts the blame to his wife and to God. Those texts point to Adam being the primary sinner in the fall and man’s tendency to deny his sins rather than confess them and be humbled.
In Numbers 30 Moses states the Law that a husband has the right to annul his wife’s vow, so long as he annuls it when he first hears about it. The husband can’t delay; if he thinks his wife’s vow is unwise he must annul it straight away, but if he does not, the wife’s vow stands and it cannot later be annulled by the husband. That text speaks to the husband’s duty to protect and wisely guard his wife so she doesn’t fall into sin.
And my interpretation fits with what Paul teaches about gender. Here are two New Testament texts where Paul is pushing back against men’s tendency to arrogate unmerited privilege and superiority to themselves:
Nevertheless, neither is man independent of woman, nor woman independent of man, in the Lord. For as woman came from man, even so man also comes through woman; but all things are from God. (1 Cor. 11:11-12).
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 neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:27-28).
And here are three texts where Paul is telling husbands to love their wives tenderly, to protect and cherish them and not treat them harshly. These texts completely fit with the idea that Paul thinks the ‘male rule’ mentioned in Genesis 3:16 is bad, and Christian husbands ought not rule their wives in that kind of way.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. (Eph 5:25-30)
Husbands, love your wives and do not be embittered against them. ((Col 3:19 NASB) … do not be harsh with them (ESV)
Husbands … live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered. (1 Pet 3:7)
I believe that in order for complementarianism to become truly biblical, it has to eradicate two male-sin-empowering doctrines. One is ESS. The other is the doctrine that Genesis 3:16 means the woman desires to usurp her husband’s authority.
1 I was only able to access the Macintosh article by going to a university library that subscribes to OUP journals. They got it online and gave me a print-out.
For further reading and listening
Necessary Allies – God as ezer, Woman as ezer — John McKinley’s address to the Evangelical Theological Society, November 17-19, 2015. (costs $4 to download)
Listening to the Women — in which Aimee Byrd applies the idea of women being ‘necessary allies’ to men and how that is seen in the Bible—and how is was NOT seen at a T4G conference.
The Taming of the Beau — in which Aimee Byrd argues that woman was not made to save civilization, nor to civilize man; she was made to be a companion to him, a necessary ally.
Hierarchy and Subordination vs. Headship and Household Mission — in which Aimee Byrd responds to Brad Mason’s post ‘Complementarity Without Subordination’
ESS, Slavery, and the Metaphysic of Oppression — in which Brad Mason demolishes the ESS-Complementarian doctrine of “the inequality of equals”
Men, Women, and the Nature of Christian Teaching: Two Responses to Aimee Byrd – by Alastair Roberts
Headship Without Hierarchy — by Sam Powell
What Headship and Submission Do Not Mean — a page we put together ages ago on A Cry For Justice