Rescuing Complementarianism

Those who study these things (e.g., historians, sociologists) write of three “waves” of feminism. First-wave feminism accounts for the women’s suffrage movement in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Second-wave feminism is associated with the legalization of birth control (Griswold v Connecticut, 1965), the legalization of “no-fault” divorce (and a rise in the number of divorces), the legalization of abortion on demand (Roe v Wade and Doe v Bolton, 1973), and the movement of women out of the home and into the full-time workforce. Inter alia third-wave feminism is associated with the rise of “intersectionality” and the transgender ideology.

In the wake of second-wave feminism fundamentalists, evangelicals, and conservative Presbyterian and Reformed folk developed a response which they characterized as “complementarianism.”

The CBMW Response

Complementarianism was spearheaded by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). They drafted the Danvers Statement in 1987 and published it the next year. In 1991 the complementarian agenda was explained and defended at length in John Piper and Wayne Grudem, ed., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991). That volume was revised and republished in 2021.

The framers of the Danvers Statement gave 10 reasons for producing the statement. The reader can read the statement for himself but some words stand out thirty-five years later: one is “culture.” The first thing the CBMW said that they wanted to address was “widespread uncertainty and confusion” in the culture regarding the “complementary differences” between the sexes. It closed with an expression of concern for “biblical authenticity” and a hope that the Holy Spirit might reform “our ailing culture.” In between the document turned to the rise in divorce and then to the “rise of feminist egalitarianism” and other examples of the influence of the sexual revolutions among Christians and culture more broadly.

The document articulated five purposes for the statement and then made 10 affirmations, e.g., “Both Adam and Eve were created in God’s image, equal before God as persons and distinct in their manhood and womanhood (Gen 1:26–27, 2:18)” and [d]istinctions 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).” They asserted that male headship in marriage is grounded in creation before the fall (Gen 2:16–18, 21–24, 3:1–13; 1 Cor 11:7–9) and the “[t]he Fall introduced distortions into the relationships between men and women (Gen 3:1–7, 12, 16).” In the church, they argued, “redemption in Christ gives men and women an equal share in the blessings of salvation; nevertheless, some governing and teaching roles within the church are restricted to men (Gal 3:28; 1 Cor 11:2–16; 1 Tim 2:11–15).” They closed by expressing concern for both the church and the culture.

There are many features that might be considered and which have been considered, defended, and criticized in a number of volumes, e.g., Wayne Grudem et al ed. Biblical Foundations for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Wheaton: Crossway, 2002); Rachel Green Miller, Beyond Authority and Submission: Women and Men in Marriage, Church, and Society (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2019); Aimee Byrd, Recovering From Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020); and Kevin DeYoung, Men and Women in the Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2021), but for the purposes of this essay I intend to focus on only two: complementarianism and eternal subordination.

Let us begin with the latter. The proponents and defenders of the CBMW agenda have proposed a few controversial arguments. Following the work of Susan Foh, one of the framers of the Danvers Statement, they have appealed to a particular interpretation of Genesis 3:16b: “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (NIV). In 2016 the English Standard Version read, “your desire shall be contrary to your husband, and he shall rule over you” (emphasis added). The New Living Translation (2013) had adopted a similar reading but typically English translations have left cryptic language ambiguous. The woman’s desire will be for her husband but what that “for” signifies is left unexplained.

By far, however, the most controversial argument proposed in defense of “biblical manhood and womanhood has the attempt to ground the relations between males and females in the so-called “eternal relations of authority and submission” (ERAS) between the God the Father and God the Son or the so-called “eternal functional subordination” (EFS) or the alleged “eternal subordination of the Son” (ESS) to the Father. This proposal has been hotly disputed. See the resources below for more on this controversy. At best ESS is a poor theory and unnecessary for complementarianism. At worst it is potentially heresy against the ecumenical faith.

Starting Over: Nicene Complementarianism

I propose that complementarians start over. Recently I re-listened to a friendly 2009 debate between Ligon Duncan and Tim Keller on question of female deacons in the PCA. In the course of his presentation, I was struck by how strongly and how often Duncan affirmed that the PCA is a “complementarian” denomination and Keller agreed. I have long thought of myself as a complementarian even as I realized what a grave and gratuitous mistake ESS. It is grounded in a seriously flawed theological method and a quasi-Socinian hermeneutic. Carl Trueman writes,

Cut some of the leading evangelical writers of the last decades and they bleed Socinus—without even knowing his name. For example, Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology, the most widely read text of its kind in English-speaking conservative evangelical circles, rejects eternal generation of the Son via a very narrow anti-metaphysical biblicism divorced from any engagement with the catholic tradition on that point. Eternal generation is, of course, a lynchpin of Nicene Trinitarianism and so, while such evangelicals may be far from Socinianism on many points of doctrine, in their narrow biblicism and disdain for historical theology, they are methodologically its heirs.

Trueman, Liam Golligher, and Todd Pruitt get to one of the more important differences between the historic Christian (and Reformed) way of reading Scripture and the prevailing biblicism of most American evangelicals and Baptists:

We understand that some strands of Baptist and evangelical life have not typically learned the habit of creedal thinking but have tended to emphasize independent Biblicism and personal exegesis.  Perhaps that lies at the root of much of this dispute.  But this is not to say that the debate is to be understood as taking place between those who take the Bible alone as the authority and those who add to the Bible a separate stream of authoritative tradition.  It is rather to say that it is between those who submit to the Bible on the basis of private judgment alone and those who wish to submit to the Bible in the context of the communion of the saints throughout the ages.

Instead of a biblicistic complementarianism rife with dubious biblical and historical exegesis (e.g., Grudem’s appeal to Charles Hodge)  we need a robustly and unequivocal Nicene Complementarianism.

One is struck by CBMW’s concern for the broader culture—which seems to assume a degree of evangelical cultural influence that no longer seems to exist if it ever did—one is also struck by the absence of any appeal to ESS in the Danvers Statement. It is true that CBMW has advocated ESS

We should affirm that order does not entail ontological subordination either between the persons of the Trinity or between men and women. We should distinguish between the submission of God the Son incarnate and any speculative theory of ontological subordination of the Son to the Father. On this see the traditional interpretations of 1 Corinthians 11:3.

Further complicating things is that fact that those who are, in fact, patriarchalists, i.e., those who believe that there is an “ontological” (their word) hierarchy in the nature of things between males and females, have begun calling themselves complementarians. Thus, some evangelical and Reformed folk, who, only a few years ago, would have called themselves complementarian are now eschewing that label. When I ask what we should use instead the only reply is a shrug of the shoulders.

There is a way forward. In 1962 William F. Buckley, who was leader of a group of young conservatives, realized that it was time to expel conspiracy-theorizing nuts from the conservative movement and he did it.  I propose that complementarians do the same with the patriarchalists. By definition a complementary relation is not ontologically hierarchical.

We need a complementarian complementarianism not patriarchalism pretending to be complementarianism. According to the Oxford Dictionary of English, a complement is “a thing that contributes extra features to something else in such a way as to improve or emphasize its quality.” This is what males and females do for one another, by divine design, by nature. God’s Word says, “Then the LORD God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him’” (Gen 2:18; ESV). Man needed a helper even before the fall, before sin, as a matter of nature.  The woman was literally taken from the side of the man:

So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said,

“This at last is bone of my bones

and flesh of my flesh;

she shall be called Woman,

because she was taken out of Man.”

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed (Gen 2:21–25; ESV).

The two sexes were designed to be complementary and they were. Even after the fall, with all of its corruption of nature, the two sexes continue to be complementary to one another. As a matter of biology and human physiology this is plain to any sane person. To anyone with adult experience it is also self-evident that the two sexes are meant to complement each other in other ways.

Recovering Nature As A Category

Because, as Trueman et al have observed, the complementarian movement has been dominated by Baptists there has always been an inherent flaw in it: because Baptists (like their Anabaptist cousins) have an over-realized eschatology (they expect to have too much heaven in this life) they do not have a robust distinction between nature and grace. In Anabaptist theology grace “destroys” (tollit) nature. Until very recently, most evangelical Baptists followed this pattern. Among some Baptists there is a new appreciation for nature and for natural theology but when CBMW was working out its response to second-wave feminism, though they did appeal to nature, the great fulcrum of their argument was the nature of the intra-trinitarian relations. In other words, they tried to leverage male-female relations with grace (i.e., the supernatural) rather than being content with nature as they ground of their argument.

To be sure, grace in the form of special revelation, the new creation in Christ, and the renewed relations that follow our union with Christ are vitally important to male-female relations (see e.g., Eph 5:22–33), in the Christian family and in the church, but had the evangelicals driving the complementarian movement in the late 1980s a more traditional Christian understanding of nature and grace (and had they been more thoroughly Nicene in their theology) they would not have been tempted by ESS. I know because I did not resist ESS when I first read it. I thought it was a clever response to “the feminists.” I was not a Baptist but I too lacked a clear understanding of the distinction between nature and grace. I too was not sufficiently Nicene in my theology to see the dangers inherent in ESS. It was not until an egalitarian feminist challenged me about the problems inherent in ESS (c. 1995) before I ever even considered that there might be substantial issues here. Mea culpa.

When Paul instructed Pastor Timothy regarding public worship and church order in 1 Timothy 2 [all] he did not appeal to any theory of eternal subordination of the Son (any such language should make an Athanasian Christian’s blood run cold) but he did appeal to the creational order.

Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control (1 Tim 2:11–15; ESV).

Just as the populist-right among evangelicals chafes at and seeks to marginalize Romans 13 so the egalitarian-left among evangelicals chafes at 1 Timothy 2. Because of it some dismiss the Apostle as “hopelessly patriarchal.” Others imagine fantastic (in the British sense) theories about “Amazonian feminists” to whom Paul was replying. Thus, they argue, now that we are no longer facing such a challenge, Paul’s restrictions are no longer in force. One wonders if they have taken a look at third-wave feminism? As Steve Baugh has asked, how is it that if Paul was speaking to feminism, he is still not speaking to feminism? On this see the resources below.

According to Paul, in the church and in the Christian family, the order between the sexes is grounded in creation, i.e., in the divinely-instituted order of things. Adam was formed first, then Eve. He also appeals to the history of the fall. Does he intend to suggest that females are inherently more gullible? That seems speculative but the order of the fall mattered enough to Paul for him to write about it and for the Holy Spirit to inspire and preserve it as holy Scripture.We dare not dismiss it even if it, with the following verse, remain somewhat cryptic to most of us. There is no missing his fundamental point and reasoning. There is such a thing as nature and there is a creational order for the way males and females are to relate to one another and to serve Christ together in the church.

According to Ephesians 5:22–33 the creational order, marred as it is by the fall, is renewed in grace and reflects the relations between Christ and his church. The order is self-sacrificial not one of dominance or hyper-masculine oppression. After all, Jesus allowed the authorities to arrest and abuse him and even to murder him for our sakes. John Rambo is not our Savior but Jesus of Nazareth is.

Though there are many things on which we disagree I agree with Brad Littlejohn when he writes,

And yet it is astonishing how rarely in discussions of “complementarianism” anyone makes the point that our sexual complementarity is a basic part of our animal nature. Perhaps we can learn more about what it means to be male and female by looking at birds and bees than by attempting to gaze into the mysteries of the Holy Trinity (“‘Look Around You:’ A Natural Theology of The Sexes” in Eikon 2.1 (2020), 43).

Complementarian is a perfectly good adjective and one that should not be abandoned simply because it has been appropriated by Patriarchalists or because it was ill-defined at the beginning of the complementarian movement. God created two sexes: male and female. They are complementary to one another by nature and all the more in creation renewed in the state of grace. Complementarian as a category is worth defending even though it has historically been defended, at least in part, using an errant theory. Its absence from the Danvers Statement shows that a complementarian understanding of male-female relations, in the family and in the church, does not logically entail ESS or an over-realized eschatology. Complementarianism is a valuable category and it can be rescued.

©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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17 comments

  1. R. Scott Clark,

    Thank you for the article and addressing the issue of ESS. One thought struck me as you finally got to the point of the order of “nature” used as an argument in I Timothy 2. That thought centers around the location of the Ephesians and I Timothy: Ephesus.
    Ephesus with the Temple of Artemis (Diana) in her midst was the centerpiece of the city. Practically everything was influenced politically, economically, and religiously by the Temple. Naturally (pun intended), this also affected the church and family institutions. Paul in Ephesians 5 and I Timothy 2-3 had “submission” (a military term) as the center of the response to the cultural mores.
    In the following order as found in Ephesians 5 and I Timothy 2-3 one sees Paul’s instruction (command?):

    1. Submission of wife to husband at home, to male leadership in the church.
    2. Love of wife by the husband at home. to love the church by seeking to be a “bishop.”
    In both cases, the husband, male, is ultimately held responsible for the success or failure of the home and church. That does not minimize the guilt or innocence of the other party.
    In both passages Genesis 2-3 are appealed to as proof of the arguments. Notice also that Paul is more specific in the roles of wives (women) Ephesians but even more specific in the roles of men in Ephesians and I Timothy.

    Finally, there is a difference between the Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian views in relation to religious services.
    In the Greco-Roman views, a woman could be prophetess and/or priestess, e.g. Oracle of Delphi and Sibylline Oracles. In Judeo-Christian views, women could be prophetess, e.g. Deborah as Judge and Prophetess, Huldah the Prophetess, Daughters of Philip, but not priests nor pastor. The role of women is much different, therefore, in Judeo-Christianity than in Greco-Roman worlds. Christianity could have women deacons, e.g. Phoebe, but not women pastors.

  2. Further complicating things is that fact that those who are, in fact, patriarchalists, i.e., those who believe that there is an “ontological” (their word) hierarchy in the nature of things between males and females, have begun calling themselves complementarians. Thus, some evangelical and Reformed folk, who, only a few years ago, would have called themselves complementarian are now eschewing that label. When I ask what we should use instead the only reply is a shrug of the shoulders.

    You’re defining patriarchalists as those who believe there is an ontological hierarchy in the nature of things between males and females. Have patriarchalists historically believed this? Which ones?

    • Walt,

      You seem to be assuming that it’s a historic view. I do not know that it is. I only encountered it in recent years.

      What I know about it is in the resources under the post.

    • I think the term “complementarian” came from Stephen B. Clark’s “Man and Woman in Christ.” The first chapter talks about men and women being a complement. I haven’t seen the idea of women being ontologically inferior to men until just recently.

      The definition of the terms, “Complementarian” and “Patriarchalist” seems to be separate from whether Creation is a patriarchy in the natural ordering of men and women. I’ll wager that every Christian in the past assumed that it was.

      • That there is an order in male/female relations it’s not a new concept at all. What does seem to be new is the use of the word “ontological.” That claim I have not seen nor does it seem tenable.

        Check out the resources.

  3. Paul’s reference (1Ti 2:14) to Woman’s fall and susceptibility to deception from sources opposed to God (i.e., the world, under submission to Satan) …

    Might not the issue of the corruptibly of sin— it’s polluting effect, on self and others, be in play here?

  4. Scott, think it is both. Yet, in 1 2:14, the “deceived” reference is fall, no? Pre-fall (natural) order is the basis for the head covering in 1 Co 11.

    • Hi Pip: I have to be honest that I was not surprised by Aimee’s recent actions. The only thing that has really changed is that she is no longer a member of the OPC. I always got the impression that there was a not so thinly disguised strain of feminism in her writings.

    • Pip,

      I’ve deliberately tried to stay out of this one. I don’t agree entirely with Bob, in part, because Aimee herself says that she’s moved. I don’t quite understand or know where she is and we have not talked about this episode. Her “trajectory” post seems cryptic. The defense, that in that service, she wasn’t “preaching,” seems strained. She seemed uncomfortable. She still knows what 1 Tim 2:12 says.

      Her talk was not a sermon. It was a conference talk. I don’t see why they had to create controversy but placing it in the service where the sermon would be. It was needlessly provocative.

      I’ve previously defended her freedom to speak to adults as a Sunday School speaker.

      I thought that Chris Gordon’s comments were helpful here.

      I’m more worried about what her association with Mike Bird signals and I’ve written to her about that. Mike is a provocateur and an advocate of the NPP. 1 Cor 15:33 seems apropos here.

  5. Thanks Dr. Clark, your response was helpful. “She seemed uncomfortable.” Yes, definitely at first, but she warmed to the subject (and the occasion) as she went along. But that is the way with sin, isn’t it? God help her! And thank you for the blunt statement on Michael Bird.

    Pastor Gordon’s understanding of the importance of the the creational order to the relationship of Adam and Eve is in line with Bruce Ware’s in his contribution to Biblical Foundations for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, chapter 2. Good to see agreement there.

    I would nit pick a little over your paragraph 7, “The proponents and defenders of the CBMW agenda have proposed a few controversial arguments. Following the work of Susan Foh, one of the framers of the Danvers Statement, they have appealed to a particular interpretation of Genesis 3:16b…..”.

    The way this reads implies that the Danvers Statement itself reflects Foh’s interpretation of Gen. 3:16. However, in the very CBMW article by Denny Burk that you link to in the above sentence, he says this further down:

    “If you are looking to Danvers for help understanding the so-called ‘eternal functional subordination of the Son,’ philosophy of Bible translation, Susan Foh’s interpretation of Genesis 3:16, or which Sunday school classes a woman can teach, then you are going to be greatly disappointed with Danvers. It does not directly address any of those issues.”

    It’s also worth noting that though Foh is mentioned once in the early history of the framing of Danvers, she does not seem to have been much involved otherwise, was not part of CBMW’s original board, nor on it’s “board of reference” (both listed in Appendix 2 of RBMW, 1991).
    However, Bob Godfrey was a board member at the time of RBMW (an original one in fact?).

    As my own pastor has commented, Danvers is in fact a very mild statement on the subject. Perhaps its best to more clearly distinguish between the Danvers Statement itself and these other concerns?

    • Pip,

      Foh may not have been on the board but she was one of the original framers.

      I agree that Danvers is mild and that it does not reflect Foh but I stand by my claim that “proponents and defenders of the CBMW agenda” have proposed controversial arguments, e.g., ESS and Foh’s reading of Gen 3:16b. My statement doesn’t imply that the Danvers Statement advocates those but does account for the historical facts.

      Yes, I’m aware of Bob’s role on the CBMW board. My dear friend and colleague Steve Baugh contributed to the CBMW volume. I’m not rejecting all that CBMW advocated but the very serious error of ESS was easily and widely accepted by influential figures associated with CBMW does give us reason to pause and take stock of the issues.

  6. Is there a more extended discussion of the rescued complementarianist view of gender you’re articulating–overextending neither role nor ontology? My pastor is pushing egalitarian, and he’s leading me through a more exegetical biblical theology of gender (Paul and Gender by Westfall) in order to show me he’s pulling his view from scripture and not forcing his ideology upon the text, but your articulation seems to make better sense of the texts. Can I find more somewhere, or are there other resources outside the ones on the page I can use to piece together a solid system?

    Thank you so much for all the work you do. I’ve been voraciously digging through your blog for months and you’ve helped me grow so much!

    • Michael,

      There are some resources here.

      There are critiques and responses to egalitarianism there and I still find some of the older complementarian material, which was aimed at refuting the egalitarians, helpful. So far, over the last 30 years, I’ve not found the egalitarian exegesis compelling. Most of it is faux exegesis. It has the apparatus (e.g., footnotes) but when one digs below the surface, as Steve Baugh has done (see the resources linked) the argument begins to fall apart.

      I’ve expanded the resource page just this AM to include the better chapters in the original CBMW volume as well as a chapter by D. G. Hart.

  7. Now you’ve done it! Since you mentioned the “better” chapters in RBMW (not CBMW) – care to say what you think are NOT the better ones, and maybe why?

    • Pip,

      I can’t speak to all of them but e.g., I can’t recommend the work of Wayne Grudem. That’s not to say that there might not be truth there or that parts of it might not be valuable but his work is shot through with a biblicistic method. That method has led him to embrace an untenable Pentecostalism and to deny or confuse ecumenical truth in Christology and the Trinity (in re the ESS controversy). My copy is not before me and I’m relying on the chapter titles provided by WorldCat. As I reviewed them I wondered if some might be missing but the chapters I listed I think are helpful.

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