We Need a New Name

In the 1980s, a new group was formed to combat the rise of egalitarianism in the church and the home. The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), in their early meetings, chose a name for their new movement: complementarianism. While there is debate over the origin of the name, the movement defined itself as the conservative answer to egalitarianism. The complementarian movement has done some good things in affirming the complementarity and equality of men and women. It is good to affirm that husbands are to lead their wives sacrificially and that wives are to submit to the leadership of their husbands. It is also good to affirm the ordination of qualified men.

However, over time, there has been increasing concern about some of what is being taught in the name of complementarianism. Many authors, myself included, have spoken out about these abuses. The recent debate over authority and submission in the Trinity has highlighted a very strong rift within the complementarian movement. The doctrine of the Trinity is of such vital importance to the faith that this divide is not a simple matter of agreeing to disagree.

Recently I have begun to wonder if it’s time for a new name and a maybe a new movement. Let me explain my reasoning. Whether or not CMBW came up with the term complementarianism, they are the public face of the movement and have defined what it means to be complementarian. Many of the CBMW leadership have written affirming Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS/EFS/ERAS) and grounding their view of complementarity in the hierarchy of authority/submission that they see in the Trinity. But they have also gone further than that. As the following quotes illustrate, they believe that ESS is necessary and inextricably linked to complementarianism.

Dorothy Patterson in her essay in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood:

But subordination is also possible among equals: Christ is equal to God the Father and yet subject to Him (Philippians 2:6-8); believers are equal to one another and yet are admonished to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). In fact, one can be called to subordinate himself to someone who is inferior, as Christ submitted to Pontius Pilate, making “no reply, not even to a single charge” (Matthew 27:11-14). The mere fact that wives are told to be subject to their husbands tells us nothing about their status. It is the comparison of the relationship between husband and wife to the relationship of God the Father with God the Son that settles the matter of status forever. (Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 379)

Wayne Grudem in the Appendix of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood:

At this point we must object and insist that authority and submission to authority are not pagan concepts. They are truly divine concepts, rooted in the eternal nature of the Trinity for all eternity and represented in the eternal submission of the Son to the Father and of the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son.(464)


Such an attempt to shift the understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity as it has been held through the history of the church does not appear to be accidental, however, for the fact that God the Son can be eternally equal to God the Father in deity and in essence, but subordinate to the Father in authority, cuts at the heart of the feminist claim that a subordinate role necessarily implies lesser importance or lesser personhood. (475)

Mary Kassian and Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth in True Woman 201:

Submission is a concept that goes hand in hand with authority. Like two sides of a coin, the two are inseparable. Both find their origin and meaning in the Godhead – in the relationship between God the Father and God the Son. The concepts cannot be properly understood apart from each other, nor apart from the context of this divine relationship. (227)

Mary Kassian in The Feminist Mistake:

The feminist practice of inclusive Trinitarian language obscures the intra-Trinitarian relation between the Son and the Father. The Son was obedient to the Father though He is equal to the Father. The Father, in love, sacrificed the Son. The Son, who had the right to refuse, submitted to the Father. Denial of the Trinitarian relationship denies the concept of equality and hierarchy that is evident in the Godhead and throughout Scripture. (171)


Male-female relationships also teach us something of the inter-Trinitarian relationship within the Godhead itself: Christ submits to and yet is equal to the Father. A wife submits to and yet is equal to her husband. When the male-female relationship functions according to God’s design, it illustrates inherent truths about God. Remember the creation account in Genesis? In the beginning God said, “Let us …” Note the plural “us” – this is a conversation between members of the Godhead: “Let us make man in our image. … So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:26-27, emphasis added.) Ultimately, therefore, who God created us to be as male and female has very little to do with who we are – and very much to do with who God is. That’s why it’s so important that we honor His design. (298)

Elisabeth Elliot quoting Kathy Kristy in Let Me Be a Woman:

We know that this order of rule and submission is descended from the nature of God Himself. Within the Godhead there is both the just and legitimate authority of the Father and the willing and joyful submission of the Son. From the union of the Father and the Son proceeds a third personality, the Holy Spirit. He proceeds from them not as a child proceeds from the union of a man and a woman, but rather as the personality of a marriage proceeds from the one flesh which is established from the union of two separate personalities. Here, in the reflection of the nature of the Trinity in the institution of marriage is the key to the definition of masculinity and femininity. The image of God could not be fully reflected without the elements of rule, submission, and union. (51)

Wayne Grudem in a discussion on Revive Our Hearts:

The equality and differences between men and women reflect the equality and differences in the Trinity. There is much more at stake in this issue of manhood and womanhood than just how we relate as men and women. … The idea of headship and submission began before creation in the relationship between the Father and Son in the Trinity. The Father has a leadership role and authority to initiate and direct that the Son does not have. That means the Father was Father and the Son was Son before the world was created. When did the idea of headship and submission begin? The idea of headship and submission never began. The idea of headship and submission never began. It has existed eternally in the relationship between the Father and Son in the Trinity. It exists in the eternal nature of God himself.

Leslie Basham: That’s Dr. Wayne Grudem, helping us understand that biblical marriages are important. When you accept your role in marriage, you are reflecting the nature of the Trinity.

As the recent Trinitarian debate has shown, ESS/EFS/ERAS is simply not compatible with orthodox, confessional Christianity. I had hopes that CBMW would move to distance itself from the ESS teachings. When Owen Strachan resigned as President of CBMW, I hoped they would take the opportunity to bring in someone who was not a proponent of ESS. With the appointment of Denny Burk this week as Strachan’s replacement, it’s clear that they are not moving away from ESS. This is a shame and a wasted opportunity.

So here’s my argument:

  • CBMW defines complementarianism
  • CBMW leadership teach Eternal Subordination of the Son
  • Confessional Christians explain that ESS is contrary to orthodox, Nicene Trinitarianism
  • CBMW leadership (Owen Strachan) says there is room for both Nicene and ESS views of the Trinity within the complementarian movement
  • CBMW leadership/authors say ESS is the foundation of complementarianism
  • CBMW picks new president who also affirms ESS

Given these points, as a confessional, orthodox, Nicene Christian, I don’t believe the name complementarian defines me or my position on the Trinity or gender roles. We need a new name. We need a name that reflects our beliefs that

  • God made man: male and female in the image of God
  • In Christ, male and female are equal before God
  • Husbands are called to servant, sacrificial leadership of their wives, loving them as Christ loves the church
  • Wives are called to willing submission to their husbands, obeying them as the church obeys Christ
  • Ordination is restricted to qualified males in the church
  • Marriage is between one man and one woman
  • Men and women need each other and depend on each other (1 Cor. 11)

Earlier this week, I read Wendy Alsup’s post on nomenclature and doctrine. What she said really resonated with me and how I’ve been feeling for some time:

Many evangelicals claim the name complementarian. I have myself identified that way since the time I first became aware of the term about fifteen or so years ago. For many who identify as complementarian, they use it simply to mean that they are not egalitarian. They believe that Paul’s instructions to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5 and on male-only elders in I Timothy 3 transcend time or culture and remain relevant for today. However, I have come to realize that the term complementarian was coined by a group of people with a very specific agenda related to evangelical feminism. The outworking of some of their agenda has been seen in the recent debate on the Eternal Submission of the Son. I personally have some big differences with those who founded the conservative complementarian movement and would love for there to be a different word to identify non-egalitarians.

It’s time for a new name. Instead of saying, “I’m not that kind of complementarian,” we need a new name. So, let’s open up the discussion. What name would you choose?

11 thoughts on “We Need a New Name

  1. Doug says:

    Not sure I understand the emphasis on authority-submission involved in this debate, nor its application to marriage. It would seem Christ primarily emphasized the Father-Son, not Trinitarian relationship (not to deny the Trinity). The relationship was usually mentioned in reference to their unity, agreement, and harmony. An emphasis is also placed on Christ as “begotten” of the Father, as likewise the woman (Eve) was “begotten” of the man (Adam), stressing mutual likeness, care and concern.


  2. Benji Magness says:

    I think we already have it: Confessional. Let’s start saying that in discussions of the Trinity and gender roles and maybe it will stick? It will certainly make people ask, “You’re what? Confessional? I thought there were just 2 options- egalitarian and complementarian. What does Confessional mean?”

    And it serves 2 purposes: It defines our view of God and gender roles.


  3. Persis says:

    You can add Carolyn Mahaney to the list of people teaching ESS. From “Feminine Appeal, Crossway, 2004, pg. 138, which contains this direct quote from Grudem from “The Key Issues in the Manhood-Womanhood Controversy” in “Building Strong Families”, Dennis Rainey, ed. Crossway 2002, pg. 61.The italics are taken directly from the book.

    The idea of headship and submission never began! It has always existed in the eternal nature of God Himself. And in this most basic of all authority relationships, authority is not based on gifts or ability, it is just there… [The relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit] is one of leadership and authority on the one hand and voluntary, willing, joyful submission to that authority on the other hand. We can learn from this that submission to a rightful authority is a noble virtue. It is a privilege. It is something good and desirable. It is the virtue that has been demonstrated by the eternal Son of God forever. It is His glory, the glory of the Son as He relates to His Father.”

    Re: a new name. I agree 100%. I do not want to be associated with an organization that tweaks the Trinity for its own agenda.


  4. hebrewsdnt says:

    I would just use the phrase “orthodox complimentarians” of ourselves. I think that is what we want to say. We hold to Biblical distinctions between men and women, but we don’t add all of the unnecessary, theologically and practically dangerous material such as EFS and this unusual view of submission.


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  6. NJ says:

    I’m with Jeff Crippen on this one. The trouble with movements is that because people are still sinners, they will eventually go off the rails. Even while still in the PCA, I would not refer to myself as an evangelical because of the mountain of baggage that comes with it. Instead of continuing with a reaction to feminism by inventing a new label that can also be corrupted in turn, I think the Church would be better served by reiterating 2,000 year orthodoxy on male-only ordination, and passages like Eph. 5 while leaving the details up to married couples. Anything beyond that is going to land Christians right in the theater of the absurd.


  7. A Pilgrim says:

    A little late, but what about calling ourselves “harmonists?”

    It connotes that there is some sort of difference between the sexes, but emphasizes the mutual dependence of man and woman. I think this term has promise.


  8. Michael in UK says:

    How about “eternal insubordinationists”. To the ESS gang, this is about hierarchy. Organisations I know with equal ordination or equal preaching / catechising are implementing identical oppression on the same explicit grounds, and against men and boys just as much.

    True sacrificial spirit as per the real Christ (if anyone remembers Him) was about space for the other other, about lack of jealousy, about trading generously with each other the diverse gifts distributed after Ascension instead of selling off each other’s souls.

    The controllers that are piling in on you are pretending this is about the sexes when Scriptures says umpteen times it isn’t, as a distraction from their bad dynamic which is the real one. It’s your soul and mine they sold off. You maybe don’t need to do much different overtly, but internalising this will express its fruit right.


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