Dismantling the Falsity that Complementarianism is “Clearly Biblical”

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Most complementarians are convinced that complementarianism is “clearly biblical” and have trouble understanding that many conservative and centric scholars and lay Christians alike disagree with them, and with John Piper, Wayne Grudem, and other complementarian theologians and celebrity preachers.

I often get comments such as, “It’s not complementarianism you have a problem with; it’s God you have a problem with.”

This in itself is a disquieting statement, because the truth is that there are many godly men and women, who study the Bible professionally, who staunchly disagree with complementarianism. Those who raise complementarianism to the level of God have most certainly made an idol out of their doctrine.

I have also noticed that complementarians are great cherry pickers. In my experience, they hold fast to just a few Bible verses (mostly 1 Timothy 2:12 & Ephesians 5:22-24) and seem to care very little about the historical and narrative context. It is important to understand that the Bible was not meant to be read this way. The Bible is a story, to which we later added reference numbers.

Not one Bible scripture is meant to stand alone.

Egalitarianism is not a perfect theology and should not be idolized, but it is more grounded in the full narrative of God’s Word than complementarianism is. Complementarianism is a lazy interpretation of the Bible, in my opinion. It relies on just a few select passages and flirts with heresy (which I will explain more later).

When interpreting the Bible, we must begin at the beginning.

Complementarians like to point to Genesis 2:18 to start their case that women are subordinate to men: the woman was created to be “the helper” of man. The issue here is that most complementarians do not understand the power of “the helper.”

The Hebrew word (the original language Genesis was written in) for “helper” is “ezer.”  This word is actually used 19 times in the Old Testament – twice to describe a wife and seventeen times to describe God Himself.

Examples to this include:

“Our help (ezer) is in the Name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth” -Psalm 124:8

“How blessed is He whose help (ezer) is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God.” -Psalm 146:5 (Read “Is the Wife the Helper and What Does that Mean”).

If God is our “helper,” then woman was not created to be an assistant or to play a secondary role to the man, but to provide an equal partnership – a “CEO team” if you will. This is further confirmed in Genesis, when God says that a man is to leave his father and mother and become one flesh with his wife (Genesis 2:24).

This leads us to the Trinity (God, Jesus, and Holy Spirit), as complementarianism entangles their doctrine of marriage and family into the godhead, which is also a concern.

Complementarians seem to create an “authority hierarchy” within the Trinity, which is borderline heresy. The idea they promote is that Jesus eternally submits to God, since Jesus submitted to “Father God” while walking the earth.

They ignore the biblical fact that Jesus was God and God was Jesus. Holy Spirit seems to get left out altogether, which is interesting since Southern Baptists (those who started complementarianism) tend to believe spiritual gifts like prophecy were only for the early church and are not for us today – something they have little to no biblical basis for.

I guess this is one reason many complementarians can continue to ignore Acts 2:17:

In the last days,’ God says, ‘I will pour out my Spirit upon all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy. Your young men will see visions, and your old men will dream dreams (NLT). 

Complementarians teach that Jesus is God’s subordinate, just as a wife is her husband’s subordinate, and it gets worse.

They then apply 1 Timothy 2:12 to their doctrine, and teach that women are not only to submit to their husbands, but to all men.

Complementarians have made up their own version of the Trinity and created a shiny “sacred sounding” stamp of approval for men and women both to continue to live under the curse of the fall – the very curse from which Jesus Christ died to set us free.

Genesis 3:16 clearly notes that “men ruling over women” is the result of the fall of humankind. When we cling to complementarianism, we cling to sin, sickness, and confusion. Complementarianism is simply “nice patriarchy,” but “nice patriarchy” can be compared to “nice cancer.” Complementarianism, even at its kindest, is still an illness and can and will lead to devastation.

While we are in the Old Testament, we cannot ignore Deborah. Complementarians ignore historical context when reading Pauline letters (1 Tim. 2, Eph. 5, and 1 Cor. 11), but cling to historical context while explaining Deborah’s leadership over both men and women.

Complementarians conclude that Deborah was chosen by God to lead as second choice (or even as a form of divine judgement) because the men of that time were too evil and not worthy to lead. This is a surprising stretch for complementarians, who generally tend to take most of the Bible literally (Read “Deborah: Judge, Prophet, or Both).

Further, much of complementarian doctrine relies on Pauline passages, but ignores the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the center of the biblical narrative and His example should weigh more heavily than anyone else’s example. Perhaps the most important Bible passage of all concerning a woman’s place is Luke 10:38-42.

Mary of Bethany defied cultural religious norms, sat at the feet of Jesus as her rabbi, assumed the position of a disciple (which was extremely inappropriate for a Hebrew woman), and ignored her “womanly duties.” Yet, when Mary’s sister (who obviously thought like a complementarian) questioned Jesus on it, He said,

Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.

When I remind complementarians of this passage, their reply is usually, “Mary sat quietly.” To which I respond, “So did all the men in the room because there is only one spiritual authority and His name is Jesus Christ.”

Christian men, you are not Christ, you are the bride of Christ, right along with all the Christian women (Rev. 19:7, Rev. 21:2, Rev. 21:9). The Church is Christ’s bride and male and female believers make up the Church. 

Which leads me to Pauline letters.

Let us first examine Ephesians 5:21-23. The very passage begins with Paul telling Christian husbands and wives to submit to one another. Complementarians under-emphasize this verse and over-emphasize husband headship and female submission. This emphasis in itself is troubling as it seems to be an attempt to control another human, which is the opposite of Pauline theology. However, complementarian leaders have taught their followers that “Submit to one another” is the “intro verse” and then Paul goes on to tell husbands and wives “how” they should submit to one another.

In other words, husbands should submit to their wives by loving them and wives should submit to their husbands by submitting to them? I put a question mark at the end of this statement because the logic makes no sense. Why would Paul tell husbands to submit by loving their wives, when love and submission are not the same thing? Likewise, why would Paul say to wives, “The way you submit to your husband is to submit to your husband?”

It makes a lot more sense to say that Paul told husbands to do two things and wives to do one thing. Husbands are commanded to submit to their wives and to love their wives. Wives are commanded to simply submit to their husbands. Perhaps Paul did not feel the need to tell women to mutually love their husbands because he knew they would naturally do it. Paul did feel the need to tell husbands to mutually submit to their wives.

When one reads all of Paul’s letters, it is easy to see that Paul is all about two things. One, bringing salvation to the gentiles and two, freedom from legalism.

The cornerstone message of Paul’s theology is Galatians 3:28: “There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Paul was accepting of Roman/Greek household codes, which permitted patriarchy and slavery, but he did not agree with them. Therefore, Paul charged husbands to be like Christ and lay down their lives for their wives (and also be kind to their slaves). It is important to note that Paul encouraged every Christian to be like Christ in his letters; therefore, this was not a unique command to married men only.

There is little to no linguistic evidence that “head of the wife” means “authority over.” Further, why would Paul charge husbands to take authority over their wives, when they very much already had authority over their wives in this male-dominated culture (Read “What does Husband Headship Really Mean)? Why would Paul give more power to the already powerful?

Would it not make more sense that Paul was trying to motivate men to lay down their cultural power-privilege for their brides as Christ did for the Church, starting with submitting to them? This would have been much more countercultural to the time than Paul encouraging men to “take authority” over their wives. 

This leads us to another way complementarianism flirts with heresy. Complementarianism teaches husbands to be Christ to their wives, but Christ is God in the flesh and no man can always behave like God. As I tweeted out last week, “Complementarianism gives women boundaries as if they are children & gives men unattainable responsibility as if they are God.”

But what about 1 Timothy 2:12?

But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet (NASB). 

First of all, women are not silent in most complementarian churches. So, complementarianism (for the most part) does not even take this whole verse literally. Instead, they tend to focus on not allowing women to teach the Bible or exercise authority over men. It all goes back to control, which goes back to Genesis 3:16 (men ruling over women) – remaining under the curse and using one Bible verse to perpetuate our human sickness.

I recommend reading this post by The Junia Project, which is a conservative egalitarian blog, to better understand the context of 1 Timothy 2:12 (Defusing the 1 Timothy 2:12 Bomb).

Second of all, it is imperative to read this Bible verse in light of the fact that Paul praises female leaders (who did hold authority over men and taught men) throughout his letters. Junia was an apostle (Rom. 16:7). An apostle was the highest level of authority in early church roles. Her female identity was covered up for years by sexist Bible scholars, but now even complementarians are beginning to admit Junia was, in fact, a woman.

Now, complementarians are beginning to argue that the Bible does not say that Junia was an apostle; but rather, “among the apostles.”

Greet Andronicus and Junias, my kinsmen and my fellow prisoners, who are outstanding among the apostles, who also were in Christ before me.

This is another attempt to downplay female leadership in the Bible and to continue to convince the Church to live under the curse of “men ruling over women.” Let’s get in touch with common sense here. If one says, “Jan is outstanding among the singers,” would we not assume that Jan is a singer and is a talented one as well?

Junia is only one of the many female leaders named in the New Testament, but complementarians continue to find ways to explain each of their gifts to lead and teach both men and women away.

Priscilla was a minister, whom Paul praised, and she taught both men (Apollos: Acts 18:18-28) and women the Scriptures in a time that very few Christians existed and the Word needed to get out about Jesus (who was the Word in the flesh).

Priscilla and her husband are praised by Paul as his fellow workers and are mentioned seven times in Pauline letters. Out of those seven times, Priscilla’s name is mentioned before her husband’s five times. This meant something in a patriarchal culture. It most likely meant that Priscilla was considered the stronger minister between the two (Acts 18:2-3, Acts 18:18, Acts 18:19, Acts 18:26, Rom. 16:3-4, 1 Cor. 16:19, 2 Tim.4:19).

Some complementarians would argue that Priscilla had her husband as her “male covering” to preach, but let’s say her husband died. Do we really believe Paul would tell Priscilla, one of his favorite co-workers, to stop ministering?

Please see my master’s thesis, in which I name all female leaders in the New Testament, found in Pauline letters (Here).

Another common argument among complementarians is that Paul names no female pastors or elders. We must understand, however, that Paul wrote his letters in the first century of the early church and pastors and elders were not well developed roles (as they are today). They were new titles and the Bible only names one titled pastor: Timothy.

The truth is that the Bible and church history tells us many females hosted and led churches in their homes and did serve as pastors, even if they did not boast the title.

In fact, this is exactly what has been currently happening in China. Women are at the heart of the house church movement, often leading the meetings (Source), and they are leading without demanding the title of “pastor.” Make no mistake though, these women are pastors and are shepherding their flock, even in the face of extreme risk and persecution.

As for elders, complementarians base their argument that females should not be elders on male pronouns used to describe elders in the Bible. The Bible, however, never prohibits women from being elders and to say that it does adds more legalism to the Gospel – something I don’t think Paul would approve of.

When complementarians get really desperate, they point to 1 Corinthians 11, which addresses cultural customs such as women covering their heads when they pray or prophesy – customs that almost no complementarian actually follows (Read More About All Controversial Pauline Passages in my MA Thesis).

Complementarianism is arguably the most unjust teaching the Church has to offer and God clearly hates injustice throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament. Somehow, complementarianism has gotten away with being unjust in the name of “Well, this is what God says, not us.” To which I would reply, “No, this is what complementarianism falsely teaches, certainly not God and clearly not the Bible.”

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Dismantling the Falsity that Complementarianism is “Clearly Biblical”

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36 Comments

  • Yes!!! I love the way you are bringing in 2016! It shows the arrogance and power thirst these teachers have when they equate their OWN view to God’s view. This keeps many from even questioning the validity of complementarianism. Who feels brave enough to question God. I left my old church because it was obvious that the all male elder board/ co pastors all read the same book (Recovering Biblical Manhood, I’m pretty sure), went to the same sexist seminaries, and had never been taught to THINK critically about women in leadership. WE as egalitarians MUST write like this. WE MUST highlight the inconsistencies and logical conclusions. MANY pushers of comp theology have NEVER even considered the other side. They’ve only read counter arguments against egalitarianism. They truly think they are god/ speak for God.

    • Patti – it doesn’t. It is an assumption based off the way students normally responded to their rabbis in Hebrew culture.

      • That’s what I thought, but I was open to have missed something all this time,because that argument from comps was a new one for me to hear.

    • It doesn’t say that she sat quietly in these verses –
      Luke 10:38-42New International Version (NIV)
      As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

      “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.[a] Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

      But perhaps you are thinking about 1 Timothy 2:11
      “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission.”

      I’ve read that the above was translated “quietness” but could also be translated “stillness”. Now let me ask you, back then, and even now, if you were going to have people gather in your house what would you be doing? You would be hustling and bustling around to tend to your guests! I’ve experienced it myself while attending mixed gender Missional Community Groups. The wife always ended up not fully engaging because she was sitting back out of the group a bit in a convenient location so she could control the temperature, offer refreshments, direct to the bathroom, and on and on. Jesus was telling the women to SIT, BE STILL, AND LISTEN. He was giving us his authority and freedom to not work and wait on guests. And he was making sure the men understood this as well. This was not a time for them to be worried about making Hostess of the Year.

  • I have so enjoyed reading your posts as they continue to stretch my mind! “Complementarians have made up their own version of the Trinity and created a shiny ‘sacred sounding’ stamp of approval for men and women both to continue to live under the curse of the fall – the very curse from which Jesus Christ died to set us free from.” I had never really thought of it that way—it seems logical that if Christ is the new Adam that he died to set us free from that which Adam (and Eve) could not! Just goes to prove that being taught complementarianism ignores many basic & logical truths about sin and salvation. Thanks for the thoughts!

  • This might be a silly question, and I am VERY much egalitarian, but today it is bothering me that Jesus’ apostles were all men. Do you think that was because of the culture? Or that the authors in the bible chose to write mostly about the men, even though Jesus was working with and cared about investing in women as well? (because obviously Jesus was going against the norm when he interacted with women, but they weren’t part of his 12 and that seems to get brought up by many complementarians)

    • Lanie, there are several points to be considered here. First, it was a patriarchal culture. The scholars of that era were listening to the words of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Thus men were the primary leaders. In order for Jesus to draw them to hear Him, he needed to teach the men first. However many women followed them about, which was pretty unusual behavior. Second, Jesus also chose only Jewish men, mostly from a certain region, and within a certain age group. Third, part of Jesus’ purpose was going to be to form the group, the apostles, to draw the Jewish tribes under the old covenant, into the New Covenant with Jesus. Jesus is the bridge and He needed to paint a clear pathway for the people He chose to enter into His salvation through belief in Him as Messiah.

      After the death and resurrection of Jesus, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on all who would believe, many women were called, anointed and used in all of the 5 fold ministries found in Ephesians 4. But the first 12 were chosen carefully for the purpose of paving the way for all.

      • Also remember, there was at least one female apostle – Junia. Maybe not one of the 12, but an apostle all the same.

        • yes, that was after the 12 did their job of laying down the foundations given by Jesus. They ushered in all of Israel who would believe. Then their were others who became apostles including Junia. There were likely women in each of the five fold ministries, although no man or woman is clearly named as pastor/shepherd. 🙂

    • Without going into all the evidences, which can be looked up online, it is a common error to equate the 12 apostles with today’s role of minister.

      1. They were not the same. Itinerant apostles/disciples of Jesus here on earth, that’s a role no one can ever play again.
      2. While not everyone agrees with this theology, it seems pretty sound to me: Before Jesus came, Christians were under the old covenant, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” This was based on human effort and works and demonstrated beautifully to humanity why we need to rely on God and grace to work in our lives. After Jesus came, Christians are under the new covenant (check out Hebrews 8:6-13 and Galatians 3:28 in particular, although there are many other passages too), which explicitly repudiates the social and civil power hierarchies of the secular culture of that time.

    • Lanie – I do think this was very much the culture, time, and place in history that Jesus and the writers of the Bible lived in. The Bible is active and is moving forward towards redemption. Thousands of years ago, patriarchy was accepted (even by good Christians) and not even that long ago slavery was accepted (even by good Christians). It hard to understand this, how anyone could justify such evils, but people are sinners who need God to help us let go of our love affair with sin. The interesting thing is that it is usually Christians who become the strongest activists against social injustice. It normally ends up with Christians challenging other Christians to let go of their bad habits/teachings in which they do in the name of “the Bible.”

    • I think it would have been a death sentence for women to send them out as apostles in Biblical-era Roman culture.

  • I guess I should pre-qualify that I don’t identify as “Christian” (the word is just to big for me). Many of the teachings attributed to Jesus in the bible do resonate with me and are even a guide for living (e.g., “love…”).

    Complementarianism just seems to me a complementary way of saying patriarchal misogyny.

    You note: “Those who raise complementarianism to the level of God have most certainly made an idol out of their doctrine.”

    Yeah, weird, eh? Yet the fundamentalists who espouse complementarianism would no doubt bristle at your suggestion, feeling and thinking that you are questioning God, not their beliefs or doctrine. That is the impasse I usually hit with fundamentalists, i.e., they equate their beliefs with “God,” so to question them is to question God. It seems an impenetrable wall that that leaves no room for dialogue.

    • Yes, this has been my ongoing frustration with many fundamental beliefs. Questioning theology (the study of God) is not questioning God. I agree that complementarianism is a way to find a “biblical” excuse to continue patriarchy/misogyny and I have had enough of it. 😉

  • I would add just one thing to this perfectly-reasoned argument. Saying a woman’s authority was the home in Biblical-era Roman culture was not demeaning or limiting. Most of life–business, money, education, employees–was centered in the home. It was a vastly different world from today.

  • Hi Jory, I found this via your link on Biblical Christian Egalitarians on Facebook, and I’m so glad I clicked it – what a fantastic, well-reasoned post! I am delighted to discover your blog and eager to read more.

    I am not at all trained in theology, but would love to know more about the near-heresy of the complementarians’ link between authority structure in the Trinity and marriage/family that you mention in the beginning.

    • Research “Eternal Subordiation of the Son.”. They have revived this old heresy to prove heirarchy in all relationships starting with the Trinity. They end up posing Jesus Christ as a lesser God. It is insidious. Kevin Giles wrote a book refuting their thesis that is very good. However, this doctrine has become very ingrained now. It is pretty much a staple teaching in many seminary’s. Grudem has been a big proponent.

  • A great read. I saw the email and thought “nah! Don’t want to read another “complemintarians vs egalitarians” article. Then my kiddo woke up and, as I’m putting her back down, I decided to click the link anyway. So glad I did! Some amazing points.

    At the end of the day, we can add to Paul’s letter: “and now there is neither complemintarian nor egalitarian”. All things, even our differences, will one day pass away and we will be just one happy family in Christ.

      • You are mistaken if you think we can “add to Paul’s letter.” The Bible is complete, God-breathed. We dare not add to it or we bring judgment on ourselves.

        • May I ask where you think I added to Paul’s letters? While I agree that the Bible is inspired by God, Scripture actually tells us that we see dimly now; so there is more to God than what is in the Bible or what we could ever even fathom. Lastly, I do not fear God’s judgment because I am saved, sanctified, and justified by the blood of Jesus Christ, who searches my heart and knows how much I love God and desire to do God’s will. I am simply a human trying to understand the Bible as best as I can. I will not be judged for that. I will be blessed for that. While man looks at the outside, God judges the heart.

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