January 18, 2021

My Latest Attempt To Become a Complementarian

If you don’t know what a complementarian is, please do that bit of research first. Thanks.

I’ve harped on this subject a bit before while wondering where is the secret book.

I’ve not been one to be convinced by a great deal of the exegetical reasoning I’ve heard from complementarians. I assumed the problem must be with my sources- internet pundits and preachers with little scholarly acumen. So I asked around for the best serious, scholarly treatment of the complementarian position on all issues related to gender, marriage and family. The recommendations were unanimous, and I dropped the cash (not Kindle format even) and acquired the recommended book.

I’ve just finished the chapter that explains the complementarian exegesis of Genesis 1-3.

I want to be impressed. I’m really open to seeing that scripture says Jared Wilson was living in sin when he was a stay-at-home dad. But I’m sorry. I’m not getting there.

I keep reading exegetical reasoning that is eaten up with the same problems:

Assuming conclusions with weak or no explicit textual support.
No text that actually says what is asserted in an important, Biblical command. (Relying instead on inferences and assumptions)
No interaction with the issue of interpreting scripture in the light of what we know about the place of women in ancient middle eastern culture.

For example, here’s a statement that the Bible commands a “division of labor” in marriage and family. I am, of course, aware that in ancient cultures it was assumed that men were the primary breadwinners, but I’m at a loss of how we get from there to a divinely endorsed “division of labor” that makes it, in fact, rebellion against God for my friend Chris to stay at home with the kids while his wife is a doctor. (In fact, one of the most prominent conservative pastors I know has a wife who is training to be a doctor. Does such a choice violate a divinely ordained “division of labor?”)

In another place, the text states that when the woman was made the man’s “helper,” she was placed “under his overall charge.” Am I the only one that wonders how far we are entitled to expound these kinds of ideas that take a Biblical statement and then build an “obvious” application that is, at best, considerably less-than-equivalent?

The idea of being “under his overall charge” is not offensive to me per se, but given the explicit language of mutual submission and mutual love given to all married Christians, there are massive areas of discussion and diverse interpretation possible. I have to admit that it’s this sort of “secret book of mandated interpretations” approach that causes me to question whether some complementarians have seriously considered the authority behind some of their pronouncements.

Another quote says that being the man’s helper “sums up her (woman’s) very reason for existence.” This seems to me to open doors that it’s simply not necessary to open. If we spend our time as evangelicals establishing the meaning and value of human life in reference to God, what happens when we tell women their “reason for existence” is to be “under the charge” of a man? A further quote says that women will only find happiness in this God-ordained role. Is this the Biblical framework for discussing personal fulfillment? Again, I’m left wondering if we can ride that horse as far as we’re trying to ride it.

Later, Eve is faulted for “failing to consult her God-given protector and provider” in Genesis 3. Is this how the Bible frames the issue of Eve’s sin at the fall? I’m quite prepared to accept the failure to act as a married couple should act as a valid application of what we read in Genesis 3, but I’m not ready to insist that the Bible is explicitly drawing those conclusions. It seems to me those are possible applications, but they can’t be cited with the same authority as scripture itself.

Finally, another section states that the Old Testament does not contain an explicit job description for husbands, but it is possible to “infer” such a job description. I agree, and would put such a set of conclusions on the level of inference, not explicit and authoritative commands. Given how far some advocates of hierarchical family life are willing to go in their “inferences,” it seems we should be cautious and not instantly enthusiastic about every sincere application of this principle.

Before leaving this subject, I want to voice one complaint that I have yet to see addressed regarding marriage and gender issues.

How do we evaluate the demeaning of women in the ancient middle east to the status of property existing for male pleasure and status? Particularly, how do we relate this to the complementarian approach to these texts?

At some point, we have to admit that between the pronouncements of God’s judgements on male and female in Genesis 3 and the status of women in the ancient middle east, there was a point crossed that Christians should not cross.

For example, here are some of the laws of Exodus 21:

Ex. 21:7   “When a man sells his daughter as a slave, she shall not go out as the male slaves do. 8 If she does not please her master, who has designated her* for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He shall have no right to sell her to a foreign people, since he has broken faith with her. 9 If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her as with a daughter. 10 If he takes another wife to himself, he shall not diminish her food, her clothing, or her marital rights. 11 And if he does not do these three things for her, she shall go out for nothing, without payment of money.

Christians obviously recognize that this world of polygamy and slavery is not their world and that the interaction of the genders here is not what anyone advocates as the Kingdom of God.

But what troubles me is that the connecting line from Genesis 3 (“He shall rule over you”) to this passage and other examples of ancient middle eastern devaluing and oppression of women is often not clear. This is ancient Israel’s version of men “ruling over” and “having charge over” women. It is in the context of the law and of inspired scripture. Where does it cross the line into sin? A man’s responsibilities toward concubines and slaves provides the author of the text I’m reading with authoritative expression of a man’s duty to his wife. I can’t imagine using such a text with my students without a clear explanation as to why I could use the text authoritatively in one sense and reject it in another.

The entire direction of the treatment of women in the ancient middle east is problematic, but for some complementarian advocates and scholars there is a sense that the various gender relations assumed in ancient middle eastern cultures are “safe” to use in interpreting texts about the roles of men and women today.

So much for my attempt to gain some traction in understanding complementarianism. Maybe next time.


  1. Jeremiah Lawson says

    I have met a few too many bitter single dudes who put all the emphasis on v 28 and not on v 29. Of course bitter single complementarian Reformed males are, I hope, a highly skewed sample of what a complementaarian take on Ecclesiastes 7:27 is!

    Ditto Wordgazer. Solomon’s first wife mentioned in Kings was an Egyptian, which suggests that on marriage he started out bad with respect to foreign women and went downhill over time, some of the more fanciful theories about Shunamites withstanding.

  2. It is definitely unclear to me where the Bible ever calls a woman with the term used in Ecclesiastes 7:29. I probably tossed out my only Hebrew lexicon and even so I am not sure it would have had an exhaustive entry for yshr “upright”–which doesn’t actually occur in verse 28 (but does in verse 29 according to my good ole BHS) but is apparently inferred somehow by NIV.

    This brings me to a point: if complementarians rely on a secret rulebook of interpretations, egalitarians seem to counter-rely on unchallengable dictates of common sense.

    What is the point of useless exegesis?

  3. Jeremiah Lawson says

    I don’t think any complementarian would see anything in Ecclesiastes 7:27-29 except a poetic statement of “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” That is really all you can say about it, given Koholeth’s propensity to pit proverb against proverb and test the limits of the wisdom tradition. Fixating on Hebrew words misses the point of the poetic and rhetorical structure of Ecclesiastes, John. Obviously neither complementarians nor egalitarians are going to get much mileage out of a book that so resolutely defies the glib answers both sides seem to like so much. 🙂

  4. o.h., regarding RC priestesses:
    I think you’re referring to the theory that women are invalid matter for the sacrament, in the same way that barley flour would be invalid matter for the host. I did not mean to endorse this theory, which is just one theory among many. I also find none of them entirely convincing.

    The ontological (or perhaps more accuarately, epistemic) dilemma I was referring to is the existence of the priestly character conferred at the sacrament of ordination. This is what any honest Catholic cannot know with certainty. Certainty comes from the unanimous testimony of Scripture and Tradition, confirmed by the Magisterium, all of which is lacking in this case. Agreed?

  5. Curtis,
    Sorry for the very late response (I lost track of this thread) but, yes, agreed; you’re right, ‘epistemic’ seems the clearer term here.

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