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Mere Complementarianism

November 20, 2019

I have noticed of late a growing chorus of what we might call “ex-complementarians” entering the fray of the evangelical gender debate. These folks are not identifying as egalitarians, but neither are they identifying as complementarians. They wish to embrace the Bible’s teaching about eldership being available only to qualified men, and some even wish to acknowledge a notion of headship in marriage. Nevertheless, they do not wish to be identified as complementarians because they believe that the complementarian position has fallen short in some way. A recent example of this perspective appears in Rachel Green Miller’s book Beyond Authority and Submission (which is reviewed in the current issue of Eikon). Miller explains:

The complementarian movement has done good things: affirming the complementarity and equality of men and women, affirming that husbands are to lead their wives sacrificially and that wives are to submit to the leadership of their husbands, and affirming the ordination of qualified men. But extrabiblical and unbiblical ideas have been incorporated into the movement’s teaching as well. These ideas have more in common with Greek, Roman, and Victorian beliefs than with the Bible.

Not all who call themselves complementarians share these beliefs. However, because complementarianism as a movement has embraced these ideas, I’m not comfortable with calling myself a complementarian.[1]

What are these “extrabiblical and unbiblical ideas” that have compelled Miller to distance herself from the complementarian label? She points to teaching about the eternal functional subordination (EFS) of the Son to the Father in the Trinity, Susan Foh’s interpretation of Genesis 3:16, and the prohibition of women teaching men in informal settings.[2] Miller is not alone in her concerns, as Aimee Byrd makes clear in her foreword to the book. Indeed, Byrd herself will advance similar themes in her forthcoming book titled Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.[3]

While it is true that some individual complementarians have taught a combination of all three of the items identified above, it is a category mistake to identify these items as complementarianism. Allow me to illustrate. While it is true that many college football fans drink alcohol and yell insults at the opposing team, it would be a fallacy to define college football fandom as drinking alcohol and yelling insults at people. Neither of those two things are the essence of fandom, although some fans do them. Likewise, none of the items that Miller identifies as pushing her away from complementarianism have anything to do with the essence of complementarianism (except for perhaps teaching, more on that below). They are teachings that some complementarians have advanced, but they are not the essence of the complementarian view. In fact, one can hold to the essence of the complementarian view while disagreeing with the three items that drove Miller away from complementarianism. Are ex-complementarians objecting to the actual teaching of complementarianism or to something else?

All of this raises the question of what complementarianism actually is. Can complementarianism be described as a discrete theological proposition, or is it just an ethos or an undefined subculture within evangelicalism? My argument in this essay is that the former is the case, not the latter. But to see this, we are going to have to define what we mean by complementarianism.

The Origin of a Neologism

While it was common for older commentators to point out that Adam and Eve were a complement to one another,[4] the exact term complementarian did not appear in theological discourse until the late 1980s. Some writers have therefore given the impression that the entrance of the term into the lexicon marked out a theological innovation — a peculiar expression of baby boomer theology that is soon to peter out when the baby boomers are no more. In his now defunct newsletter, Aaron Renn made this case at length earlier this year, saying:

The future of complementarianism looks grim, because it was developed as a response to a specific set of cultural circumstances in the late 1980s that no longer exist, and because it’s a theology of the Baby Boomers, especially the early half of that generation, that seems likely to fade away along with them.[5]

In Renn’s essay, the term “complementarianism” reduces to a sociological descriptor rather than a theological one.

I think this kind of analysis misses the mark. Complementarianism is not first and foremost a sociological descriptor or movement. Nor is it describing an ethos or a set of extrabiblical stereotypes. Rather, the term emerged specifically as a shorthand to describe the theological vision of the Danvers Statement. It is true that individual complementarians have extrapolated this theology in various directions. This or that complementarian might have espoused views not explicitly set forth in Danvers — me included. But that does not nullify the simple historical observation that the term came into the lexicon as a shorthand for an explicit theological proposition — that of the Danvers Statement. If we want to understand complementarianism, the starting point is Danvers. So what, then, is the Danvers Statement?

On January 19–20, 1987, John Piper, Wayne Grudem, S. Lewis Johnson, Susan Foh, Wayne House, and a handful of others met at Dallas Theological Seminary and then at the home of Wayne and Leta House to strategize a biblical response to a rising tide of feminism that they perceived within evangelicalism.[6] They aimed to draft a theological statement of principles for a new organization that they wished to found. On the plane from Chicago to Dallas, Grudem had outlined an initial set of points to be included. Echoes of what would become the Danvers Statement can be heard in this excerpt from Grudem’s handwritten notes:

(1) Adam & Eve equally in God’s image.

(2) Adam’s headship in family & human race: established by God before the fall, not a result of sin.

(3) The fall introduced strain in relationships — sin — tendency for women to try to usurp authority over men, tendency for men to rule harshly and selfishly.[7]

Grudem explains that his outline comprised the “bare bones of the Danvers Statement,” and that John Piper eventually penned an initial draft based on it.[8] The group modified and added to it as well. Nearly a year later, on December 2–3, 1987, they met again, this time with several other participants (now including Bill Mounce, Lane Dennis, Kent Hughes, Gleason Archer, Tom Edgar, and Ken Sarles), in Danvers, Massachusetts to finalize the statement. Again, Piper served as the primary drafter of the document at this second meeting. Their work eventually became known as the Danvers Statement, which summarizes the Bible’s teaching about male and female roles within the church and the home.

In 1988, a year after the Danvers Statement was published to the world, the group coined the term complementarian as a label for their position. Wayne Grudem explains:

For those first two years [1987–88] we were still a very secret, by-invitation-only group. But by December, 1988, at the ETS meeting at Wheaton College, we were ready to go public. We announced the formation of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) and handed out brochures. We even had a press conference (Christianity Today showed up, but nobody else). We coined the term “complementarian” as a one-word representation of our viewpoint.[9]

Grudem says that the group coined the term “complementarian” at a breakfast meeting of the CBMW council in the main dining room of Lisle Hilton on the morning of the press conference. John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Bruce Waltke, Wayne House, Kent Hughes, and a handful of others were all there for the 1988 meeting where the term emerged.[10]

Because the group specifically coined “complementarian” to refer to the theological position summarized in Danvers, the statement has been the touchstone of complementarian conviction ever since. Why did they choose such a strange neologism to describe their position? It’s not because the theological position was new. It was quite ancient actually. They settled on this word because there simply wasn’t another one that adequately described their view. The term has a profound exegetical and linguistic root in the Hebrew of Genesis 2:18 (kenegdo), which the lexicons define as “corresponding to.”[11] In their introduction to Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, Piper and Grudem explain why they chose this term:

If one word must be used to describe our position, we prefer the term complementarian, since it suggests both equality and beneficial differences between men and women. We are uncomfortable with the term “traditionalist” because it implies an unwillingness to let Scripture challenge traditional patterns of behavior, and we certainly reject the term “hierarchicalist” because it overemphasizes structured authority while giving no suggestion of equality or the beauty of mutual interdependence.[12]

Discussions about the best name for the position did not end in the late 1980s. In 2005, Russell Moore suggested that “biblical patriarchy” might be a better term to describe the complementarian view.[13] In a subsequent interview, he added, “I hate the word complementarianism. I prefer patriarchy . . .”[14] This particular suggestion emerged in the wake of Bradford Wilcox’s important sociological study of soft patriarchs.[15] But “patriarchy” was ultimately deemed no less problematic than “traditionalist” or “hierarchalist.” In a 2006 faculty lecture, Andreas Köstenberger argued that “patriarchy” simply has too many negative connotations owing to decades of feminist propaganda.[16] Three years earlier, Dan Block had suggested “patricentrism” as an alternative, but that never caught on either.[17]

To date, there really hasn’t been a better term than “complementarianism” to describe the position outlined in Danvers. Danvers envisions an equality between male and female that cannot be reduced to undifferentiated sameness. It celebrates complementary differences between male and female image-bearers. As Danvers states, “Both Adam and Eve were created in God’s image, equal before God as persons and distinct in their manhood and womanhood . . .   Distinctions in masculine and feminine roles are ordained by God as part of the created order, and should find an echo in every human heart.” That is complementarity. That is why the authors of the Danvers Statement chose that word to designate their view, and it is why we still use the term today.

What Is Mere Complementarianism?

The key thing for us to understand is that the term “complementarian” was coined to refer to the teaching of the Danvers Statement, which itself was drafted to reflect the teaching of scripture. While complementarianism emerged in a particular sociological context, it cannot be reduced to sociological categorization. Complementarianism is first and foremost a theological position rooted in a long history of exegesis of biblical texts such as Genesis 1–3, 1 Timothy 2:12, 1 Corinthians 11:2–16, etc. Complementarianism also has deep roots in natural law, as it reflects a “created order” that “should find an echo in every human heart” (Danvers Statement, Affirmation 2). In this sense, Danvers complementarianism is mere complementarianism.

Here I employ the term mere complementarianism in the same way that C. S. Lewis spoke of mere Christianity. In his famous book, Lewis explains, “Ever since I became a Christian I have thought that the best, perhaps the only, service I could do for my unbelieving neighbours was to explain and defend the belief that has been common to nearly all Christians at all times.”[18] Lewis does not aim to adjudicate theological differences that divide Christians into denominations. Rather, he aims to explain the core that all Christians everywhere have always confessed. For Lewis, that common core of belief is mere Christianity.

Likewise, my aim in the rest of this essay is to explain and defend mere complementarianism — that is, what has been common to all complementarians at all times. There is a need for this today because critics of the teaching often confuse the essence with the accidents and, as a consequence, cause a loosening of commitment to the essence of the teaching. If we could distinguish the essence of the teaching from that which is only incidental to it, we would be in a much better place to examine the teaching in light of the criticism that is sometimes levelled against it. Or to use our football metaphor again, if one can oppose drinking and yelling at people without opposing football, then he may also oppose EFS (for example) without abandoning complementarianism altogether.

So what is common to all complementarians at all times? If complementarianism refers to the Danvers Statement, then Danvers itself is mere complementarianism. The mere complementarianism of Danvers is simply a recognition that there is a discernible theological core to the complementarian position. Mere complementarianism does not deny that the teaching has been developed in different directions — some helpful and perhaps others not so helpful. Nevertheless, there have always been differences among complementarians over issues not covered in Danvers — differences which do not define complementarianism but which are nevertheless important. 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. One should not conclude from this omission that these questions are unimportant. Nor should one conclude that I myself have no opinion on these matters. Rather, we simply need to understand that the drafters of Danvers produced a confessional basis without including certain controversial matters that they knew might otherwise divide complementarians. In other words, they were aiming at a mere complementarianism.

Equality in Nature and Redemption

Mere complementarianism suggests “both equality and beneficial differences” between men and women without the differences cancelling the equality.[19] In what sense does mere complementarianism teach that women and men are equal? They each individually possess the full imago dei and, accordingly, possess equal value and dignity as divine image-bearers. Danvers says it this way: “Both Adam and Eve were created in God’s image, equal before God as persons . . .” This follows the scriptural teaching that, “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). This image-bearing distinguishes human beings from every other creature. Some writers locate the imago dei in male and female relationship, but mere complementarianism holds that “both” male and female are each individually created in God’s image. The man is no more an image bearer than the woman. The woman is no more an image bearer than the man. God assigns this dignity to both of them irrespective of their sexual difference or marital status. They share in this status equally. Because of this, they each individually have inestimable value and worth. No person — neither male nor female — can claim that some people are “more equal than others.”[20] Male and female have equal value and dignity because they share equally in the divine image. This biblical doctrine of the imago dei is why mere complementarianism eschews any notion of male superiority or female inferiority. As Danvers states, “The Old Testament, as well as the New Testament, manifests the equally high value and dignity which God attached to the roles of both men and women.”

This equality also has implications for God’s redemptive work among His people. In the incarnation, that which Jesus assumes He also redeems.[21] As the author of Hebrews writes, “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he could become a merciful and faithful high priest in things relating to God, to make atonement for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17 NET). Because Jesus assumed a human nature, He shares with both men and women that very same human nature. And there is no part of that human nature that is left unredeemed through faith in Christ. That is why the Apostle Peter is able to say that men and women are co-heirs of the grace of life (1 Pet. 3:7). Or as Paul says it in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” As Danvers affirms, “Redemption in Christ gives men and women an equal share in the blessings of salvation” (Affirmation 6.2). This means there is no distinction between men and women with respect to the benefits of salvation. According to God’s grace, they share equally in the grace of regeneration, justification, sanctification, indwelling, and every other benefit purchased for us through Christ. There are no second class citizens in the kingdom of God.

Male and female also share equally in the assignment to rule over God’s creation. God commands male and female to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28). In essence, God appoints male and female as his vice-regents on earth — the ones who would extend God’s dominion over creation by extending their own dominion over the whole earth. God addresses this command not only to the man but to the woman as well. That means that the mandate to rule over creation extends to men and women equally. This is not to say that they have no differences whatsoever in extending God’s dominion, but it is to say that God gives the command to both of them. The reason for this is clear. Mankind’s rule will extend by means of multiplying and filling the earth. Thus man and woman both have a necessary share in the procreation of the human race and in the fulfillment of the dominion mandate. Man and woman are each vice-regents in the rule of God over creation.[22]

Differences in Design and Calling

God assigns deep and abiding equality between men and women as image-bearers, as co-heirs of the grace of life, and as vice-regents in the creation mandate. Mere complementarianism insists, however, that this equality does not rule out the differences in design that God gives to both male and female. That is why Danvers says that male and female are “equal before God as persons and distinct in their manhood and womanhood (Gen. 1:26–27, 2:18)” (Affirmation 1). Scripture and nature reveal that these differences between male and female are biological, social, and good.

Biological Difference

The foundational biological distinction between male and female is the body’s organization for reproduction. We know this not only from the obvious differences between male and female bodies and how those differences enable procreation, but also from how these basic biological realities are confirmed in Scripture. In Genesis 1:26–28, “male and female” are not social constructs but designate biological realities. We know this because God commands the man and woman to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth” (Gen. 1:28). Procreation depends on the biologically different but complementary bodies of the man and the woman. God designs a procreative system that requires two bodies to become one, and He designs for the system of complementary differences to be united only within the covenant of marriage. As Alastair Roberts observes,

The difference between the sexes is a central and constitutive truth about humanity, related to our being created in the image of God. Humanity has two distinct kinds: a male kind and a female kind. Sexual dimorphism, the fact that we come in these two distinct kinds, is a fundamental fact about humanity.[23]

If this is true, then there are massive implications for our understanding of the differences between male and female identity. Our bodies are not lying to us.[24] A person’s maleness or femaleness isn’t socially constructed or self-constructed, but God-constructed. Sex is not something that is assigned at birth. It is something that is revealed by God in His special distinct design of male and female bodies.[25]

Social Difference[26]

While the basic biological differences between male and female may be clear, such is often not the case with social roles that stem from biological differences. In mere complementarianism, those social differences relate most explicitly to the home and the church. Danvers addresses those two spheres explicitly in Affirmation 6.1–2:

In the family, husbands should forsake harsh or selfish leadership and grow in love and care for their wives; wives should forsake resistance to their husbands’ authority and grow in willing, joyful submission to their husbands’ leadership (Eph. 5:21–33; Col. 3:18–19; Titus 2:3–5; 1 Pet. 3:1–7).

In the church, 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).

In the home, the husband is to be a loving and sacrificial head, and the wife is to affirm and support that leadership. In the church, only biblically qualified men are called to fill certain leadership and teaching roles, and the whole congregation is called to recognize and respect that leadership. While the wider cultural implications of these social differences are not developed at length, Danvers does say that “a denial or neglect of these principles will lead to increasingly destructive consequences in our families, our churches, and the culture at large” (Affirmation 10, emphasis added). Without spelling out the wider cultural implications, Danvers nevertheless says that there are implications of this teaching that reach beyond the church and the home.

In the modern secular West, this teaching about the social differences between male and female has been fiercely contested. And yet, scriptural revelation clearly teaches that God Himself has woven these differences into His distinct design of male and female. The foundational text on this point is Genesis 2:18–25:

18 Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” . . . 21 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. 22 And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. 23 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.” 24 Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. 25 And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.

In verse 18, the word “helper” corresponding to Adam designates a social role for Eve within her marriage to Adam — a role that is inextricably linked to her biological sex. Adam’s creation before Eve designates a social role within his marriage to Eve — a role that is inextricably linked to his biological sex. He is to be the leader, protector, and provider within this marriage covenant. And these social roles within the covenant of marriage are not only creational realities, they are also commanded in Scripture.

Tom Schreiner has written at length arguing that Genesis 2 establishes headship and  helper-ship as roles that are part of God’s good creation design. God’s appointment of Adam as leader and Eve as follower comes out in at least five ways in Genesis 2.[27] First, God creates Adam before He creates the woman.[28] This order of creation establishes a primogeniture relation that would have been apparent to first-century readers of the Old Testament (e.g., 1 Tim. 2:13; 1 Cor. 8–9).[29] Second, God holds Adam accountable first for breaking God’s Word, even though Eve was the one who sinned after being deceived by the serpent. Third, God designates the woman to be a “helper”[30] to Adam. In Genesis 2:18, Adam and Eve’s roles cannot be exchanged. Eve’s helping is oriented toward Adam’s leadership.[31] Fourth, Adam names Eve (cf. Gen. 2:19–20). When Adam “called” her name to be “Woman” (Gen. 2:23; and later “Eve,” 3:20), he was exerting a leadership role that God gave to him alone.[32] Fifth, the serpent’s attack represented a subversion of God’s pattern of leadership. The Apostle Paul confirms that it was indeed the undoing of the order of creation that was the basis for the fall of humanity into sin (1 Tim. 2:13–14).[33] In all of these ways, the text of Genesis 2 establishes the distinct, complementary social roles of male and female in marriage. The text sets this first man and woman forth as the paradigm for all marriages that follow. And it is important to recognize that Adam’s headship existed before the fall as a part of God’s original good design. His headship is not a consequence of the fall. As Danvers also affirms, “Adam’s headship in marriage was established by God before the Fall, and was not a result of sin” (Affirmation 3).

Some readers will object to this construal of social roles by observing that Adam’s headship and Eve’s helper-ship are covenantal obligations that apply to marriage, not creational distinctions that apply to every male and every female regardless of marital status. That objection  is partially correct and partially incorrect. Yes, headship and helper-ship are covenantal obligations that apply primarily to marriage. No, it is not correct to deny creational distinctions that make male and female fitted for such covenantal roles. As Bobby Jamieson has argued,

The Bible’s prescriptive teaching flows from a descriptive vision of the divinely created differences between men and women. The less attention we pay to the descriptive, the more arbitrary and constraining the prescriptive will appear. When Scripture instructs husbands to lead their families and wives to submit to their husbands, or limits pastoral leadership of the church to men, it formalizes, codifies, and extends what is already written into our nature.[34]

There are creational differences of temperament and disposition that reflect the reproductive distinctions between male and female and that make male and female fitted for the covenantal obligations of marriage. In other words, the biological differences between male and female have social consequences. And those differences must be celebrated, not denigrated or ignored or dismissed as a social construct.

Genesis 2:18–25 reveals that there is both sexual complementarity and gender complementarity embedded in God’s good creation. To understand the difference between these two, we must understand the conventional distinction between sex and gender. Sex refers to one’s biological organization for reproduction. Gender refers to the social manifestation of one’s biological sex.[35] Sex is a physical, bodily reality. Gender is a socio-cultural reality. The spirit of the age says that the relationship between gender and sex is purely conventional and in no way essential. It claims that gender is a social construct — that is, a set of customs and behaviors that one learns but which have no essential, intrinsic relation to biological sex. And that is why, they argue, it is possible for someone’s gender identity to mismatch their bodily identity.

The spirit of the age, therefore, involves a direct conflict with Scripture on this point. In a variety of ways, Scripture reveals that God has so made the world that there is a normative, holy connection between biological sex and gender. Notice that the social roles of the first man and woman in Genesis 2 are inextricably connected to their biological sex, and later scriptural revelation reaffirms that connection. Later scriptural revelation cites these roles not merely as descriptive of the first marriage but as normative for every subsequent marriage (1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:21–33).

It is important to point out that this social order within the first family forms the foundation for leadership norms within the Christian church. In more than one biblical text, Paul appeals to a marriage to establish a point about leadership and teaching within the church (e.g., 1 Cor. 11:3–16; 1 Tim. 2:12–13). I do not think this is an accident. The pattern for leadership in marriage is the basis for an all-male eldership. The gender norms for eldership derive from the gender norms for marriage. If this were not the case, the church’s leadership structure would be at odds with the leadership structure God has established for marriages within the church. That is why God has designed an expression of the headship principle for both the home and the church.[36]

If a mere complementarian reading of Scripture is correct, then God intends for a principle of male headship to exist not only in the home but also in the leadership and teaching ministry of the church. It means that qualified men are called to step up to the plate and to lead the congregation. It means that qualified men are supposed to be stepping forward, not hanging back passively. It means that women — and indeed the entire congregation — should affirm that leadership joyfully and willingly for the glory of God.

As a mere complementarian, I would wish to highlight one other item in particular that appears in Danvers: “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).” The Danvers Statement is admittedly relatively general as far as complementarian statements go. It allows for differences of opinion about who teaches in Sunday school and other contexts. Nevertheless, Danvers does say that some teaching roles are restricted to men, and it makes this assertion in connection with 1 Timothy 2:12. This perspective seems at odds with Kathy Keller’s view that says, “anything that an unordained man is allowed to do, a woman is also allowed to do.”[37] Keller contends that there are virtually no restrictions on the teaching ministry of unordained women, but Danvers says that there are at least some. Keller understands 1 Timothy 2:12 to prohibit women from holding the office of pastor. Danvers complementarianism agrees with the prohibition in 1 Timothy 2:12, which prohibits women from both the office of the pastor and from assuming the functions of a pastor (teaching and exercising authority).[38]

Good Difference

The Apostle Paul writes: “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with gratitude; for it is sanctified by means of the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:1–5). Where does Paul get the idea that everything created by God is good? When Paul says that God’s creation is good, he is simply taking his cues from the creation narratives in Genesis where it says that throughout the six days of creation, God looked at what He had made and said that it was “good” (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). When God made the first male and female bodies, he said it was “very good” (Gen. 1:31). In 1 Timothy 4:4, therefore, Paul affirms that what was true about male and female design before the fall is still true after the fall. This means that even though God’s good design in creation may be marred by the fall and by sin, God’s good design is not erased by the fall and by sin. Adam and Eve are indeed paradigms of difference even after the fall, and those complementary differences have been pronounced “good” by God, and they are still good today. If this is true, then our appraisal of male and female distinction in this fallen world must be the same as God’s appraisal of male and female distinction. If God says it is good, we must not say that it is otherwise.

Paul wishes to emphasize that his teaching about male-female difference is not something that is good for some people but not for others. It is not merely a cultural construct. No, it is part of God’s creation design, and it is the pattern that must prevail in the life of every individual and of every church. If that is true, then we ought to honor the headship norm just as all faithful churches do. And we ought to beware of any attempt to denigrate this teaching as a mere cultural construct that can be set aside. No, this is the Word of God, and as Christians we are duty bound not only to uphold but also to cherish this teaching.


Aaron Renn and others have warned of complementarianism’s impending demise and have argued that complementarianism is more of a sociological phenomenon owing to boomer evangelicals who wish to resurrect 1950’s gender stereotypes.[39] The reports of complementarianism’s demise have been vastly overstated. In my view, this analysis fails to take into account the theological claims of complementarianism — claims which are either true or not true, quite apart from their particular social location. In other words, if someone wants to make the case that complementarianism is failing, then they need to show in what ways the vision of the Danvers Statement fails as a theological proposition. They also need to show the extent to which churches and Christian ministries may be turning away from the actual essence of the teaching. Anything short of that is an evasion that fails to deal theologically with what is in essence a theological question.

God created human beings for His glory, and His good purposes for us include our personal and physical design as male and female. Being made in God’s image as male and female is not a matter of one’s own autonomous preferences. Rather, it is a part of God’s beautiful design and plan (see preamble to “The Nashville Statement”). Mere complementarianism teaches that God has designed male and female as equal and different. They are equal bearers of the divine image, equal partakers in the grace of life, and equal partners in the creation mandate. None of this precious equality diminishes at all the biological and social differences that God has woven into His design of male and female. These beautiful differences are not contradictions but complements. They are a part of God’s magnificent plan to make His glory cover the earth as the waters cover the sea (Isa. 11:9; Hab. 2:14). For this reason, these differences are not a bane to us but are good for us. Embracing and living into these differences are the pathway that God has designed for our full and lasting joy.

Denny Burk is the President of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.


[1] Rachel Green Miller, Beyond Authority and Submission: Women and Men in Marriage, Church, and Society (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2019), 16.

[2] Miller, 114–18.

[3] Aimee Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: How the Church Needs to Rediscover Her Purpose (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020) [forthcoming].

[4] E.g., Derek Kidner’s commentary on Genesis: “Companionship is presented in Eden as a primary human need, which God proceeded to meet by creating not Adam’s duplicate but his opposite and complement, and by uniting the two, male and female, in perfect personal harmony.” Derek Kidner, Genesis: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries 1 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1967), 38.

[5] Aaron Renn, “Complementarianism Is a Baby Boomer Theology That Will Die with the Baby Boomers,” The Masculinist (New York, NY, February 14, 2019), See also Jake Meador, “Will Complementarianism Die with the Baby Boomers?,” Mere Orthodoxy, March 5, 2019,

[6] Wayne Grudem described some of these details to me in a private email dated October 19, 2019. Also, see his remarks in Wayne Grudem, “Personal Reflections on the History of CBMW and the State of the Gender Debate,” 13–14. John Piper was also kind to share with me his journal entries that he wrote within days of the events recorded in this paragraph. Piper mentions in his journal that James Boice was also invited to the initial meeting. Boice was supportive of the group but unable to attend.

[7] Wayne Grudem, “Personal Reflections on the History of CBMW and the State of the Gender Debate,” The Journal for Biblical Manhood & Womanhood 14.1 (2009): 13.

[8] In a journal entry dated January 21, 1987, Piper says that he was the “key craftsman” of the initial draft of the Danvers Statement. In another journal about the second meeting later that year (December 4, 1987), Piper says that he was the main drafter of the document, even though he and Grudem worked closely together on it. While others made contributions to the document, it is clear that Piper and Grudem were the driving force behind the Danvers Statement.

[9] Wayne Grudem, “Personal Reflections on the History of CBMW and the State of the Gender Debate,” 14.

[10] Wayne Grudem described these details to me in a private email dated June 17, 2019.

[11] John Piper pointed this out in a private correspondence about this point. Piper elaborates: “What thrilled Adam when he woke up to this new creature was that she was gloriously the same and gloriously different and complementary” (private email dated June 19, 2019).

[12] John Piper and Wayne Grudem (eds.), Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991), xv.

[13] Moore initially made this suggestion in a paper at the 2005 annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. A version of that presentation was subsequently published in JETS. See Russell D. Moore, “After Patriarchy, What? Why Egalitarians Are Winning the Gender Debate,” The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 49, no. 3 (2006): 569–76.

[14] This statement occurs at 30:07 in “Feminism in Your Church and Home with Russell Moore, Randy Stinson, and C.J. Mahaney,” interview by Mark Dever, MP3, April 30, 2007,

[15] W. Bradford Wilcox, Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

[16] Andreas J. Köstenberger, “Of Professors and Madmen: Currents in Contemporary New Testament Scholarship,” Faith & Mission 23, no. 2 (2006): 14. I was initially sympathetic to Moore’s suggestion, but I became convinced that “patriarchy” had connotations beyond its etymology that undermine what complementarians try to teach.

[17] Daniel I. Block, “Marriage and Family in Ancient Israel,” in Marriage and Family in the Biblical World, ed. Ken M. Campbell (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003), 41.

[18] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Macmillan, 1952), 6.

[19] John Piper and Wayne Grudem (eds.), Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991), xv.

[20] George Orwell, Animal Farm (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1944), 118.

[21] Gregory of Nazianzus, “Letter 101: The First Letter to Cledonius the Presbyter,” in On God and Christ : The Five Theological Orations and Two Letters to Cledonius, trans. Frederick Williams and Lionel R. Wickham, Popular Patristics Series (Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 158.

[22] Much of the foregoing derives from Denny Burk, What Is the Meaning of Sex? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 160-62.

[23] Alastair Roberts, “The Music and Meaning of Male & Female,” Primer, no. 3 (2016): 36.

[24] Sometimes people ask if intersex persons have bodies that are “lying” to them. I address this question at length in one chapter of my book What Is the Meaning of Sex?. I argue that for many intersex persons there still remains an underlying chromosomal binary based on the presence or absence of at least one Y chromosome. Intersex conditions result from living in a fallen world east of Eden. In other words, the fall has obscured in some people what would otherwise be clear about biological sex. This doesn’t disprove a sexual binary. It shows that the fall is pervasive in the human condition, even sometimes obscuring the binary norm. Nevertheless, the sexual binary norm remains and will be renewed in the new creation. See Denny Burk, What Is the Meaning of Sex? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 169–82. For a view on intersex contrary to my own, see Megan K. DeFranza, Sex Difference in Christian Theology: Male, Female, and Intersex in the Image of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2015).

[25] On the foregoing, see Denny Burk, “Transgenderism and Three Biblical Axioms,” in God’s Glory Revealed in Christ: Essays on Biblical Theology in Honor of Thomas R. Schreiner, ed. Denny Burk, James M. Hamilton Jr., and Brian Vickers (Nashville, TN: B&H, 2019), 214–17.

[26] Much of this section is taken directly from my essay “Transgenderism and Three Biblical Axioms,” 217–21.

[27] The arguments enumerated below are an adaptation from Thomas R. Schreiner, “Women in Ministry: Another Complementarian Perspective,” in Two Views on Women in Ministry, ed. James R. Beck, revised, Counterpoints (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 289–97. These six arguments could be expanded; e.g., Wayne Grudem identifies ten arguments showing male headship before the fall. See Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth: An Analysis of More Than 100 Disputed Questions (Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah, 2004), 30–42.

[28] So Schreiner, “Women in Ministry: Another Complementarian Perspective,” 291. Contra Richard S. Hess, “Equality with and Without Innocence: Genesis 1–3,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy, ed. Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, and Gordon D. Fee (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2004), 84.

[29] Thomas R. Schreiner, “An Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:9–15: A Dialogue with Scholarship,” in Women in the Church: An Analysis and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9–15, ed. Andreas J. Köstenberger and Schreiner, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 106. “The notion of the firstborn having authority would be easily understood by Paul’s readers” (ibid., 107). Contra William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2001), 257–62.

[30] HALOT, “נֶגֶד,” 1: “that which corresponds.” So Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, Word Biblical Commentary (Waco, TX: Word Books, 1987), 68: “It seems to express the notion of complementarity rather than identity.”

[31] Kenneth A. Matthews, Genesis 1-11:26, NAC (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 221.

[32] David J. A. Clines, “What Does Eve Do to Help? And Other Irredeemably Androcentric Orientations in Genesis 1-3,” in What Does Eve Do To Help? And Other Readerly Questions to the Old Testament (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1990), 37–40. Clines writes, “The name of the woman by the man, on both occasions, I conclude, signifies his authority over her” (ibid., 39).

[33] Douglas Moo, “What Does It Mean Not to Teach or Have Authority Over Men?,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991), 190

[34] Bobby Jamieson, “Book Review: On the Meaning of Sex, by J. Budziszewksi,” 9Marks, July 30, 2018,

[35] Ryan T. Anderson, When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment (New York: Encounter Books, 2018), 2.

[36] Much of the foregoing come from Denny Burk, “1–2 Timothy and Titus,” in ESV Expository Commentary: Ephesians–Philemon, 400–401.

[37] Kathy Keller, Jesus, Justice, & Gender Roles: A Case for Gender Roles in Ministry, Fresh Perspectives on Women in Ministry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 21.

[38] This interpretation of the Danvers Statement is reinforced by Piper’s journals about the initial meetings of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. In a journal entry dated December 12, 1986, Piper discusses how they decided who to invite to the meeting in Dallas where the initial draft of the Danvers Statement was created. Piper writes, “The question they are asking people to determine common ground is: Do you agree that women should not serve as ordained pastors of churches or as elders or in capacities with roughly equivalent duties in parachurch groups?” This seems to indicate that they were not merely addressing office or ordination but any role that might approximate the functions of a pastor.

[39] Renn, “Complementarianism Is a Baby Boomer Theology That Will Die with the Baby Boomers.”

Editor’s note: A previous edition of this article erroneously referred to Rachel Green Miller as “Green” in multiple places.

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