Complementarianism is a counterfeit doctrine, an unbiblical compromise between the false doctrine of egalitarianism and the true doctrine of Biblical patriarchy. The sad truth is that in many ways’ complementarianism is more dangerous than egalitarianism, because complementarianism proports to uphold the biblical doctrines of male headship and woman’s submission where egalitarianism unequivocally denies these doctrines.
You have to look very close at the teachings of complementarianism and biblical patriarchy, like two bills, to really see the differences between the two teachings.
Origins of Complementarianism
Complementarianism was started as a reaction to the false teachings of egalitarianism. The term “Complementarian” was coined by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) in 1988.
According to John Piper, who was one of the council’s founding members, complementarianism was born out of an effort to address the error of “the negation of gender differences” by egalitarians.
Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE), an egalitarian organization, lists these egalitarian principles on their website:
“We believe that women and men are equally created in God’s image and given equal authority and stewardship of God’s creation.
Patriarchy (male dominance) is not a biblical ideal but a result of sin.
Patriarchy is an abuse of power, taking from females what God has given them: their dignity, and freedom, their leadership, and often their very lives.
While the Bible reflects patriarchal culture, the Bible does not teach patriarchy in human relationships.
Christ’s redemptive work frees all people from patriarchy, calling women and men to share authority equally in service and leadership.
The unrestricted use of women’s gifts is integral to the work of the Holy Spirit and essential for the advancement of the gospel in the world.
Followers of Christ are to oppose injustice and patriarchal teachings and practices that marginalize and abuse females and males.”
So, as you can clearly see from the list of egalitarian doctrines above, egalitarianism was an all-out assault on the biblical practice and doctrines of patriarchy. Christian egalitarianism was simply a rebranding of feminism for Christian consumption.
While the CBE helped to organize and codify their doctrines in the late 80’s, these doctrines had already been spreading within churches long before that time and this is what prompted the formation of the CBMW.
The CBMW issued the famous “Danvers Statement” in 1987 which included the following key statements below in response to egalitarianism:
“Distinctions in masculine and feminine roles are ordained by God as part of the created order, and should find an echo in every human heart (Gen 2:18, 21-24; 1 Cor 11:7-9; 1 Tim 2:12-14).
Adam’s headship in marriage was established by God before the Fall, and was not a result of sin (Gen 2:16-18, 21-24, 3:1-13; 1 Cor 11:7-9).
The Fall introduced distortions into the relationships between men and women (Gen 3:1-7, 12, 16).
In the home, the husband’s loving, humble headship tends to be replaced by domination or passivity; the wife’s intelligent, willing submission tends to be replaced by usurpation or servility.
In the church, sin inclines men toward a worldly love of power or an abdication of spiritual responsibility, and inclines women to resist limitations on their roles or to neglect the use of their gifts in appropriate ministries.”
So, if you look at the two statements above, it is very easy to see two primary differences between egalitarianism and complementarianism.
Egalitarianism completely denies the biblical concept of gender roles, while complementarianism appears to affirm it.
Egalitarianism completely denies the biblical concept of male headship while complementarianism appears to affirm it.
But while complementarianism proports to be the genuine article when it comes to the biblical view of gender roles, upon closer examination we will find that complementarianism is actually a counterfeit doctrine of biblical gender roles.
The Complementarian Abandonment of Patriarchy
Egalitarianism was not the only reason complementarianism was formed. In an article entitled “God Created Man Male and Female – What Does It Mean to Be Complementarian?”, John Piper explains that complementarianism was designed to take the “middle ground” between what he and other Christian leaders saw as “two kinds of errors” in the churches. The first error which we have already addressed was egalitarianism.
But then there was a second error that complementarianism was designed to address. And that error, from their point of view, was male domination of women in society, the church and the home. They believed the terms “traditional” and “patriarchy” were linked with male domination and “the history of abuses of women personally and systemically”. And it was because of this, that the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood decided that a new term must be coined to replace “traditional” and “patriarchy” in regard to the discussion of gender roles. So, they coined the term “complementarian”.
Complementarians Limit Male Headship to the Home and the Church
If you look closely at the Danvers Statement from the CBMW, you will notice that they only speak of “headship” in the home and “limitations” on women’s roles in the church. In other words, the Danvers Statement only recognizes male headship in the spheres of the home and the church but it does not recognize male headship in society.
In 2008, when John McCain was running for President with Sarah Palin as his running mate, John Piper tried to fill in this large void left by the Danvers Statement. In his article entitled “Why a Woman Shouldn’t Run for Vice President, but Wise People May Still Vote for Her”, Piper wrote the following:
“My convictions about the implications of manhood and womanhood for political life are nuanced and rooted in Scripture. They are also complex and controversial. So they don’t fit blogs well. But I’ll try. The gist is this:
I think that the Bible summons men to bear the burden of primary leadership, provision, and protection in the home (Ephesians 5:21–33) and in the church (1 Timothy 2:8–15). Add to this that these texts (and others, like Genesis 1–3) build their case not on the basis of culture (which changes) but on the basis of God’s design in creation (which does not change).
Therefore, I am not able to say that God only speaks to the role of men and women in home and church. If our roles are rooted in the way God created us as male and female, then these differences shape the way we live everywhere and all the time…
These and other teachings in Scripture incline me to believe that manhood and womanhood are not mere social constructs. They are rooted in God’s design for creation. They are meant to shape culture, not merely be shaped by culture…
And I certainly do not think all of my conclusions should be codified in law. It should not be illegal, in this fallen age, for a woman to be President of the United States. Christ does not implement his revealed will in this age with guns and fines. But all human government (rightly) enforces its laws with guns and fines. So law is not the way to deal with this issue. Christians should not crusade in this fallen age to pass laws to forbid women from the Presidency.”
As you can see from the statement above, complementarians while holding strong to the fact that male headship is God’s design for the home and the church, tend to get a lot more wishy-washy about male headship outside the home and the church.
Look at the way Piper couches his language as if he is sorry that it appears that God’s design might prohibit a woman from becoming President or Vice President. But then of course he quickly states that he does not believe God’s design of gender roles should be “codified in law”.
Complementarians Dismiss Patriarchy as a Cultural Rather than Biblical Concept
In the Numbers 30:3-5 we read the following:
Complementarians deny God’s design of the social classes of men, women and children and instead embrace the false humanist social classes of “adult” and “minor” that were invented by John Locke in the 17th century. They believe that once young women reach adulthood, they have the same autonomy as men to determine the course of their lives and that fathers have no right to override the decisions of their daughters once they reach the social class of “adult”.
Complementarians dismiss Numbers chapter 30 and its prescriptions regarding Patriarchal order with fathers being able to override their daughter’s life decisions and husbands being able to override their wife’s life decisions. They see the commands of Numbers 30 as well as other examples of Patriarchal order in the Old Testament as temporary and “cultural” and only specifically apply to the theocracy of Israel.
Complementarians Fail to See the Moral Law of God in the Civil Laws of Israel
Exodus 22:16-17 provides a good example of the blindness of complementarians to the moral law of God found in the civil laws of Israel.
Complementarians deny that the right given to a father in Exodus 22:16-17 to allow or refuse his daughter’s hand in marriage to a man was lasting moral law, but rather they teach that it was temporary civil law which was done away with in the New Covenant.
The reason their interpretation of this passage is flawed is because they fail to see that many civil laws in Israel also contained the moral law of God. In other words, many civil laws of Israel handled the punishment or reparations to be made for violating God’s moral law.
Below is a breakdown of the moral law and then civil reparations to be made for breaking God’s moral law in Exodus 22:16-17:
God’s Moral Law: “And if a man entice a maid that is not betrothed, and lie with her”
God’s Civil Reparation for the theocracy of Israel: “he shall surely endow her to be his wife”
God’s Moral Law: “If her father utterly refuse to give her unto him”
God’s Civil Reparation for the theocracy of Israel: “he shall pay money according to the dowry of virgins”
So, if we separate the moral law from the civil reparation for breaking that moral law, we can see there are two moral laws presented by God in Exodus 22:16-17.
The first moral law presented is that God does not allow sex outside of the covenant of marriage.
The second moral law we see in Exodus 22:16-17 is that of a father’s right to allow or refuse his daughter’s hand in marriage. When a man and woman have premarital sex, they have both sinned not just against God, but also against the woman’s father. The woman has sinned against her father by giving away that which was not hers to give and the man as well has sinned against her father by taking that which was not his to take.
Complementarians Teach That Male Domination Was A Result of the Fall
Complementarians actually agree with Egalitarians in their belief that male domination was a result of the fall. In his article “Manhood and Womanhood: Conflict and Confusion After the Fall” , John Piper wrote “And when sin has the upper hand in man, he will respond in like manner and with his strength subdue her, or rule over her”. And in another article entitled “Lionhearted and Lamblike: The Christian Husband as Head, Part 1“, Piper stated that a husband’s “headship is not a right to control” and a wife’s submission to her husband should not be “coerced” but that it must only be submission that is “free and willing”.
Complementarians and egalitarians say that the word “shall” in the phrase “he shall rule over thee” is not God’s command for husbands to rule over their wives, but rather God predicting that sin would cause men to dominate their wives.
But the complementarian position fails to take into account God’s command to Cain in Genesis 4:7:
The parallels between Genesis 3:16 and Genesis 4:7 cannot be denied. In both instances God commands that the person should rule over the other person who is trying to control them. In the case of Cain, God personifies his sin nature as a man that is trying to control Cain. But God commands that Cain should rule over that man. And in the same way God says in Genesis 3:16 because of the corruption sin wives would try to control their husbands, but that husbands must rule over their wives.
Complementarianism Teaches a Limited form of Submission for Women
In his article entitled “Lionhearted and Lamblike: The Christian Husband as Head, Part 1“, Piper states the following:
“submission is not slavish or coerced or cowering. That’s not the way Christ wants the church to respond to his leadership and protection and provision. He wants the submission of the church to be free and willing and glad and refining and strengthening”
Piper uses three key words which he says are the opposite of Biblical submission and those are “slavish”, “coerced” and “cowering”. So, let’s look at each one.
A Wife’s Submission is to Surpass that of a Slave
I have previously written an article entitled “8 Biblical Differences Between Wives and Slaves” which details the differences between the wives and slaves in the Bible. The difference could be summed up as follows.
Biblically speaking, wives and slaves are both owned by masters (Exodus 20:17, Deuteronomy 22:22, 1 Peter 3:6). Both slaves and wives are told to obey their masters in everything except if they are told to sin (Ephesians 5:24). Wives are told that their bodies are for their husband’s sexual satisfaction and use (Proverbs 5:18-19, Romans 1:27). A wife’s submission to her husband is to be even greater than that of slave to their master because her husband has the right to the sexual use of her body for his satisfaction.
So, if a wife’s submission to her husband as her master is to be greater than that of the typical master/slave relationship what is the difference between a wife and slave? The answer is found in the Biblical requirements for husbands in regard to the treatment of their wives.
A husband is required to love his wife as his own body, and to provide for her needs as he would his own body (Ephesians 5:28-29). He is to be willing to lay down his life to save his wife (Ephesians 5::25). A husband is responsible for the spiritual discipline and teaching of his wife. A husband is required to give his wife sexual access to his body (1 Corinthians 7:3-5). A husband is required to allow his wife to enjoy the fruit of her labors (Proverbs 31:31). None of these things were required of masters toward their slaves.
The Danvers Statement says a woman’s submission is not about “servility” and Piper said in the statement we are examining now that is not “slavish”. And both of those statements are completely wrong. Biblically speaking a wife’s submission to her husband is to surpass “slavish” or “servile” submission because unlike slaves, God has created wives to serve their husbands with their lives (1 Corinthians 11:9).
A Wife’s Submission Can Be in Response to Coercion
Piper’s assertion that a woman’s submission is to not come as a result of coercion from her husband is directly refuted by Christ’s statement to his churches in Revelation 3:19:
While it is true that Christ wants his church to freely submit to him, the fact is that Christ will receive submission from his church based on him using coercive means just as God used coercive means with his wife Israel to compel her submission.
And since we know that a husband is to model his love for his wife off Christ’s love for his church and that the wife is to model her submission toward her husband off the church’s submission to Christ – we can rightly say that complementarianism again is absolutely wrong on this. A wife’s submission can Biblically be coerced from her husband.
A Wife’s Submission is to be Cowering
Piper’s assertion that a wife’s submission does not involve cowering is again directly refuted by the Bible in 1 Peter 3:1-2:
Women should absolutely fear their husbands in both the sense of showing reverence toward them and also fearing discipline if they disobey. Cowering is a Biblical aspect of a woman’s submission to her husband.
No one would argue that there were not abuses committed against women both by individual husbands as well as systematically by various cultures. And even in post-feminist cultures like America today, some men still abuse their wives. But that does not mean we throw out the baby with the bathwater. We can as Bible believing Christians uphold God’s order of patriarchy and at the same time call out the abuses of patriarchy where they occur both at the individual family level as well as the larger cultural systematic level.
In regard to the term “traditional” as it relates to gender roles. We can uphold traditional and cultural values that do not conflict with the Word of God and especially those which match with the Bible and at the same time set aside some traditional values our culture may have that conflict with the Word of God.
Hebrews 9:1-10 shows us that only the civil prescriptions for punishments or reparations for breaking God’s moral law as well as the ceremonial laws are set aside in the New Covenant. But the moral law of God remains. That means we are still under the moral law found in both the Old and New Testaments.
And contrary to what complementarians and egalitarians teach, it is not a sin for a husband to dominate (rule over, control) his wife, but rather it is a sin for him NOT to dominate his wife.
In the complementarian view, a husband may only lead his wife by example or suggestions to her, but he may never lead her by commanding her or seeking to control her through coercive methods. And it is precisely because of the denial that male domination of woman is God’s command, that complementarianism teaches a hollow and weak form of male headship and female submission in the home.
When it comes to the doctrines of the Bible concerning gender roles, there is no “middle ground” and no room for compromise with egalitarianism. Complementarianism is a counterfeit doctrine of male headship and female submission.