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New Questions for Complementarians

May 8, 2013

By Owen Strachan

Recently a brand-new conversation began among complementarians. Wendy Alsup wrote a post called “A New Wave of Complementarianism” that met with an enthusiastic online response. Many took note, and key leaders weighed in, including Kevin DeYoung and Thabiti Anyabwile.

Any discussion on complementarianism is inherently interesting and important to me, and so this one has had my attention. I’ve waited to respond to Alsup’s post because I wanted to think carefully about it and to give it time to circulate. I’m thankful for the characteristically careful and gracious words both Kevin and Thabiti offered, and second them. I’m also thankful for the many friends who have weighed in through posts and comments. This has been a sprawling and invaluable discussion group, and it has cost CBMW considerably less than flying all complementarians to one location.

We are directly involved in all this, and I think it’s time for a few thoughts.


First, NWC seems helpfully determined to enfranchise single women. I am thankful for a renewed desire among godly women to think through what it means to be a woman in Christ outside of marriage. In light of many challenges over past decades to the institution and health of marriage, complementarians have focused a good deal of energy in extolling the goodness of marriage. So we should. The Bible certainly does, picturing the relationship between husband and wife as the enfleshed portrayal of the gospel. That is no small thing. In human terms, the Bible begins with marriage in the union of Adam and Eve, and in spiritual terms, it ends with it, as Christ and his people are eternally united.

But marriage is not the only state commended in Scripture. Singleness is as well (see 1 Corinthians 7:25-40). Jesus and Paul were single. We take note of these realities, even as we take note of our increasingly anti-marriage culture, which has affected the church and left a good number of godly young women without godly young men to pursue them. Complementarians need to continue to work at providing single young women with an excellent blueprint, a vivifying plan, by which to live. If we’ve been heard as saying “Nothing but marriage will make you happy,” then we’ve got corrective work to do. I haven’t personally heard CBMW leaders (board members, council, speakers, etc) say this, but in a movement as large as complementarianism, I don’t doubt that this message has been communicated somewhere at some time to some poor woman.

So let’s be as clear as we can: women of Christ who are not married (and never will be) can and should lead immensely meaningful and happy lives, and we complementarian leaders (including all pastors and elders) should help them seize hold of this truth.

Second, the desire among complementarian women for doctrinally-fueled lives is hugely commendable. Alsup doesn’t say this in her post, but her piece is thoughtful and bears thinking hard about. Furthermore, I’ve heard numerous women who associate themselves with NWC voice this desire. In an anti-intellectual age, I always thrill to hear Christians voice a desire for more doctrine, more thinking, and accordingly, more God. So, complementarian women who want to think deeply: amen and amen.

I would note that we don’t want to pit careful attention to homemaking, for example, against pondering the extracalvinisticum. Older women are called to mentor younger women, which clearly calls for biblically-fueled discipleship that will involve both doctrine and the application of doctrine (Titus 2:3-5). With many, I am grateful that the complementarian movement has seen several exemplary resources on godly motherhood and homemaking pop up in the last decade or so. May their number only proliferate. Everywhere women are being encouraged to “lean in” and leave their kids and homes, and yet there are many, many Christian women who have not bowed the knee to Facebook (sorry, Sheryl Sandberg).

Praise God for this, for the scores of intelligent, gifted, creative, well-trained, deeply thoughtful women in our churches who have embraced the scriptural call to the domestic arts. (Our culture foolishly construes “value” in terms of money and career. Did we learn nothing from the spectacular crash of Marxist thought in the twentieth-century? But I digress.)

In all this, though, Christian women should never fear deep thinking and the exhilaration of theological study. It seems to me that many women’s ministries know that conferences and Bible studies and a thousand other activities can be a marvelous mix of the theological and the practical. Let me give you one quick example from my church: led by Jill Hamilton, the very sharp wife of biblical theologian Jim Hamilton, the women’s Bible study of Kenwood Baptist Church recently read a book on marriage, then one on aesthetics. How cool is that?

Answer: very, very cool. To the outer limits of cool.

Anyway, ladies: in your pursuit of theologically enhanced discipleship, I’m fully with you. With accountability to your elders and care on the matter of mixed-gender adult teaching, go with gusto on this point.


It’s interesting to respond to NWC, because I confess that I’m not exactly sure what it is. In reference to Alsup’s challenge to the common complementarian reading of Genesis 3:16, the Danvers Statement (CBMW’s founding document), does speak of the fall bringing about the woman’s intended “usurpation” of her husband’s authority (notably, it also speaks of sin-wrought “servility”). I agree with this view, as do Kevin and Thabiti, but no leader I’ve learned from has made this interpretation of Genesis 3:16 the definitive mark of complementarianism, and I for one don’t intend to do so going forward. Stated positively, complementarians agree on the complementarity, distinction, and equality of the sexes and on manly headship in home and church.

So, no particular interpretation of Genesis 3:16 is mandated to be a complementarian, though I would say that Ephesians 5:22-24 has been surprisingly underplayed in the recent discussion. It is my view that sin very much does want to “rule” Cain (in a big way!), but even if one doesn’t read Genesis 3:16 alone in terms of attempted “rule” on the part of the post-fall wife, Ephesians 5 makes clear that faith in Christ undoes the effects of the curse in marriage (marriage being the context, of course, for the fall itself). What does the gospel reverse in marriage for a woman? It seems to reverse a wife’s natural temptation to undermine her husband. Christ frees wives, you could say, to joyfully submit to their husbands, even as he frees husbands to self-sacrificially lead their wives.

I fear, then, that NWC could be muting one of the Bible’s most celebrated effects of the gospel, right alongside the reversal of the man’s selfishness and temptation to dominate his wife.

It is true that single women are not directly affected by this gospel undoing. But it is also true that all Christian women will naturally want to emulate Peter’s call to wives to embody a “gentle and quiet” spirit, a spirit fostered by regeneration (1 Peter 3:4). Furthermore, single women do submit in a godly way to appropriate manly authorities in their lives—their fathers and elders, for example. Submission to the leadership of godly men, properly understood, is indeed a gospel fruit even for single women, in other words. The womanly temptation to rule men of Genesis 3:16 is reversed in Christ.

A second concern I have with NWC is its handling of the complementarity of Adam and Eve. Alsup notes a desire to read complementarity in light of Eve’s status as an image-bearer of God in Genesis 1:26-27 rather than as Adam’s helpmate in Genesis 2:18. Let’s be clear: Eve bears the image of God fully, just like Adam. However, Adam is never called Eve’s “helper,” her ezer. Like the point about Ephesians 5 sketched above, I’m concerned that NWC might unintentionally mute the clear teaching of Scripture. This pattern, after all, is not isolated to Genesis 2, but is picked up by Peter in 1 Peter 3:6, where we learn of Sarah’s joyful submission to Abraham’s leadership. She called him “lord,” not the other way around. Adam’s primacy in creation is not unimportant, and while Christians never want to undermine the value and potential of women, neither do we want to undermine the leadership role of men in homes and churches.

To Be Determined

Beyond clear strengths and weaknesses, there are a few matters raised by the NWC declaration that are more neutral in substance but still worth noting. In terms of feminism and its effects, no doubt there are some who call themselves “complementarian” who would bash the women’s movements in the 19th and 20th centuries without nuance, but the movement in its mainstream affirms some positive effects of these developments, particularly the early stripe. The later iterations raised some valuable questions, too, though the broader feminist program from the 1960s on posed and poses some pretty major challenges to biblical orthodoxy.

Second, some folks who’ve said they like NWC have gotten a little upset at the online response. I think it’s worth saying that if you take the time to put a view out in public, you have to know it will naturally draw some scrutiny. That’s a good thing, not a bad thing, because it shows a) you’re being taken seriously and b) fellow believers are thinking, which is always good (see tangent above).

Third, implicit in some of what I’ve seen in the pro-NWC discussion is a reaction—an understandable one—to bad teaching, over-realized authority (without recognition that pastors are under-shepherds, not the Good Shepherd), and even abuse. Where this is true, let me say publicly that complementarianism should never beget tyrannical authority, abuse, mistreatment, or the like. Sadly, we must factor human sin into our practical considerations, and so I would also say that we want to be careful about what we could call “reactive theology,” to which we are all potentially prone.


Here’s hoping that the recent discussion of NWC can bring health and encouragement to complementarians and those who identify with CBMW. I am not at the end of the day convinced that NWC is a full-fledged way forward; I’m not certain that its advocates consider it as such, though they may. It is true, though, that there does seem to be fresh energy in complementarianism. This is not triumphal, but is the natural and ideal result of a new generation answering God’s call to proclaim his vision of human flourishing as redeemed men and women in a fallen world. All this is very exciting.

With new faces and voices, and new cultural developments, there will be new and good questions to ask and consider. I fully believe that we will be able to do so in, if not unanimity, unity. After all, we share so very much, not simply our theology of sexuality and gender, home and church. Preeminently, we share one Spirit, who unites us through the gospel in a bond of love.

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