The Definition of Complementarianism

Yesterday, I reposted an article on what I believe about women and men and why I’m not a feminist or an egalitarian. Part of my article discussed how complementarianism as a movement has been defined. There was some confusion over my comments, so I’d like to make some clarifications.

First, here are my beliefs about women and men. These are what I believe:

  • God made man: male and female in the image of God
  • In Christ, male and female are equal before God
  • Husbands are called to sacrificial, servant leadership of their wives, loving them as Christ loves the church
  • Wives are called to voluntary submission to their husbands, submitting to them as the church submits to Christ
  • Ordination is restricted to qualified men in the church
  • Marriage is between one man and one woman, ideally for life
  • Men and women need each other and depend on each other

The following beliefs about women and men are prevalent in complementarian teaching (I’ll get to that in a moment). I do NOT believe the following:

  • women were created to be submissive, responsive, soft
  • men were created to be leaders, providers, strong
  • men are supposed to be priests for their families
  • women are supposed to be at home and not in the workforce (unless there’s a really good reason, but even then)
  • divorce is wrong even when there is biblical justification for it
  • the eternal subordination of the Son, especially as it is applied to men and women
  • all women are rebellious feminists at heart and men must put down that rebellion (an interpretation of Genesis 3:16)

To clarify, these are commonly taught within complementarianism. That does not mean that everyone who calls him/herself a complementarian believes these things. I know many do not. As I said immediately following this list in my article, the point was that when I critiqued these particular teachings, I was called a feminist, a closet egalitarian, or a “thin” complementarian, i.e not a “true” complementarian. The comments were somewhat tongue-in-cheek, because no one should have to hold to these beliefs to maintain their conservative creds.

But my comments about what makes a “true” complementarian are based in fact. Each of those points on the list are taught by the people who founded and defined the complementarian movement. Brief history lesson (for those who may not know), in response to the feminist movement (2nd wave), some concerned Christians founded the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). They chose the term complementarian to describe their beliefs because it “suggests both equality and beneficial differences between men and women.” They rejected traditionalist because it “implies an unwillingness to let Scripture challenge traditional patterns of behavior” and hierarchicalist because it “overemphasizes structured authority while giving no suggestion of equality or the beauty of mutual interdependence.” [1]

The Danvers Statement, which was published in January 1989, outlines CBMW’s philosophy. In addition to the Danvers Statement, CBMW published a collection of essays on complementarianism in 1991. The collection, which was edited by Wayne Grudem and John Piper, was published as Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism. Together, the Danvers Statement and this publication define complementarianism as a movement. Since then, many of the founders and council members of CBMW have written extensively on biblical manhood and womanhood. These writings are what I referenced in my summary.

Here are some examples of CBMW authors defining complementarianism as I summarized.

Women were created to be submissive, responsive, soft:

At the heart of mature femininity is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships.

John Piper, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2006), 48.

Softness is at the core of what it means to be a woman … A woman is a responder. Having a receptive, responsive spirit is at the core of what it means to be a woman. A godly woman is an “amenable” woman – an agreeable woman. … It finds its expression in married life through a wife’s submission to her husband. But a soft, amenable disposition isn’t just for married women. It’s for women of all ages, regardless of marital status.

Mary Kassian and Nancy Leigh DeMoss, True Woman 101: Divine Design (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012), 63, 69-70, Nook version.

Men were created to be leaders, providers, strong:

At the heart of mature masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships.

John Piper, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2006), 36.

Strength refers to a man’s manhood—his potency, virility, and procreative power.

Mary Kassian, “Steel Magnolia,” True Woman (blog), Revive Our Hearts, April 13, 2009, https://www.reviveourhearts.com/true-woman/blog/steel-magnolia/.

Men are supposed to be priests for their families

A husband is, by God’s design, the priest of his family.

Bob Lepine, “The Husband as Prophet, Priest, and King,” in Building Strong Families ed. Dennis Rainey (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002), 102. Promoted on CMBW.org https://cbmw.org/uncategorized/the-husband-as-prophet-priest-and-king/

Women are supposed to be at home and not in the workforce:

When a wife goes to work outside the home, often her husband and children go through culture shock. Suddenly the husband has added to his vocational work increased family assignments. He is frustrated over the increase in his own assignments and guilty over his wife’s increased fatigue and extended hours to keep up at home. God did give the husband the responsibility of providing for the family (Genesis 2:15). To sabotage his meeting that responsibility is often a debilitating blow to the man personally and to the marriage. A woman’s career can easily serve as a surrogate husband, as during employment hours she is ruled by her employer’s preferences. Because the wife loses much of her flexibility with the receipt of a paycheck, a husband must bend and adapt his schedule for emergencies with the children, visits to the home by repairmen, etc. This leaves two employers without totally committed employees and children without a primary caretaker utterly devoted to their personal needs and nurturing.

Dorothy Patterson, “The High Calling of Wife and Mother in Biblical Perspective,” in Piper and Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 375.

Divorce is wrong even when there is biblical justification for it:

I don’t think the Bible allows divorce and remarriage ever while the spouse is living.

John Piper, What Jesus Demands from the World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006), 303.

Taken together, Jesus and Paul teach that divorce is not an option for believers. The only exceptions that they allow are in cases of immorality or desertion. Neither Jesus nor Paul says that a person must be divorced if there is infidelity or desertion. They are simply saying that it can be permissible in those two situations … Nevertheless, covenant faithfulness within marriage sends a message to the world about Christ’s covenant faithfulness to his bride. For this reason, upholding this icon of the gospel ought to be a matter of first importance to every Christian spouse – even when that spouse has what would otherwise be legitimate grounds for dissolving the marriage.

Denny Burk, What Is the Meaning of Sex? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 134-135, emphasis original.

The eternal subordination of the Son (for more detail, read this article and this one):

After all, God exists as one Godhead in three Persons, equal in glory but unequal in role. Within the Holy Trinity the Father leads, the Son submits to Him, and the Spirit submits to both (the Economic Trinity). But it is also true that the three Persons are fully equal in divinity, power, and glory (the Ontological Trinity). The Son submits, but not because He is God, Jr., an inferior deity. The ranking within the Godhead is a part of the sublime beauty and logic of true deity.

Raymond Ortlund, “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship Genesis 1-3,” in Piper and Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 103.

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.

Dorothy Patterson, “The High Calling of Wife and Mother in Biblical Perspective,” in Piper and Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 374.

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.

Wayne Grudem, “The Meaning of Kephale (“Head”): A Response to Recent Studies,”  in Piper and Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 463.

The discussion about the creation of man in His own image – male and female He created them. The discussion about creation of male and female took place between members of the Godhead. It may have been between all three: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But at the very least, it involved the Father and the Son, as Scripture draws parallels between that relationship and the relationship of a husband and wife. When God created man and woman, He had the dynamic of His own relationship in mind. God created the two sexes to reflect something about God. He patterned the male-female relationship (“them”) after the “us/our” relationship that exists within the Godhead. He used His own relationship structure as the pattern. Paul confirms, in 1 Corinthians 11:3, that the relationship between a husband and wife is patterned after the relationship between God the Father and His Son. … God purposefully created marriage to reflect the headship structure that exists within the Godhead. But He also created marriage and sex to reflect some other truths about the Trinity. … the Father and Son experience a divine intimacy. Their relationship is one of closest communion. Communion in marriage bears witness to the spiritual, divine intimacy between the members of the Trinity.

Mary A. Kassian, Girls Gone Wise in a World Gone Wild (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2010), 139-140.

All women are rebellious feminists at heart and men must put down that rebellion (an interpretation of Genesis 3:16):

Virtually every woman is a feminist to one degree or another.

Mary Kassian and Nancy Leigh DeMoss, True Woman 101: Divine Design (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2012), 110, Nook version.

I hope this helps those who didn’t understand my previous article. These quotes are a brief sampling. There are many more examples of these beliefs and how they’ve influenced what’s being taught in the name of complementarianism. In my book, Beyond Authority and Submission, I go into greater detail and address why these are not biblical views. If you have questions, please feel free to contact me in the comments or through my About page.

[1] John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (repr., Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2006), xv.

3 thoughts on “The Definition of Complementarianism

  1. Kathryn Annis says:

    Thank you for being brave enough to confront these unbiblical teachings by the CBMW!! I feel so encouraged when I read your posts – I go to a church that’s to some degree embraced CBMW.

    On Tue, Aug 6, 2019 at 1:28 PM A Daughter of the Reformation wrote:

    > Rachel Miller posted: ” Yesterday, I reposted an article on what I believe > about women and men and why I’m not a feminist or an egalitarian. Part of > my article discussed how complementarianism as a movement has been defined. > There was some confusion over my comments, so I’d lik” >

    Like

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