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Indicatives, Imperatives, and Applications: Reflections on Natural, Biblical, and Cultural Complementarianism

May 23, 2022
By Joe Rigney

Editor’s note: The following essay appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Eikon.

As complementarians, we believe that both men and women are made in God’s image, and that God has designed us in distinct and complementary ways for his glory and our good. My aim in this article is to provide a framework for conceiving, celebrating, and expressing our complementarian convictions that weaves together nature, Scripture, and culture; or indicatives (statements of fact), imperatives (commands and exhortations about duties and responsibilities), and applications (wise extensions of biblical principles into new circumstances).

In offering this framework, I will make reference to a number of relevant passages in the Scriptures. I do not, however, intend to offer extended exegesis of these passages; that important work has been done elsewhere. Instead, my goal is to set forth a basic framework for linking together God’s world, God’s word, and our place within it as men and women.

The framework consists of three basic statements.

  1. God’s acts establish basic facts (indicative).
  2. God’s commands fit those facts (imperative).
  3. Our applications ought to fit those facts and those commands (application).

I. God’s acts establish basic facts.

Here we see the indicatives. Indicatives are statements of fact, statements about what is. And I have three kinds of facts in mind: facts of creation, facts of nature, and facts of redemption.

By facts of creation, I have in mind certain facts about humanity, established by God when he created Adam and Eve, revealed in Genesis 1–3, and echoed throughout the Bible. These are primal and original facts. One example of a primal fact of creation is male headship.

Many biblical scholars have noted that the early chapters of Genesis teach that men are the head of their homes. This teaching is revealed through the several primal facts of creation that are picked up, echoed, and appealed to throughout the Bible. Here are some examples:

  1. Adam was created first;
  2. Adam is the name of the human race;
  3. Woman is created from Adam’s side as a helper
  4. Adam names the woman;
  5. God gives Adam the moral design for the garden prior to Eve’s creation, implying that he was to instruct her;
  6. God holds Adam fundamentally responsible for the first transgression.

I’m calling these facts of creation. And God’s acts in creation establish these facts of creation.

By “facts of nature,” I have in mind those recurring aspects of humanity that are evident by means of general or natural revelation. We often refer to this simply as “nature,” or natural law, or divine design. Facts of creation are things that we learn from the Bible about God’s original creation of the world. Facts of nature are things that we learn from the world around us; nature refers to God’s design and purpose embedded in his creatures and evident to all people. Nature includes two elements: 1) the fundamental facts about what we are, as well as 2) the built-in tendencies and traits that emerge from and serve those fundamental facts.

Both of these are important. The latter refer to the various physical, psychological, and social traits and tendencies of men and women. Things like, “Men, in general, are taller and stronger than women;” or “Women, in general, are more people-oriented, whereas men, in general, are more thing- or task-oriented;” or “Men are typically more aggressive and competitive than women;” or “Women typically tend to excel in verbal and linguistic skills, whereas men typically tend to excel in mathematical and spatial skills,” all of which are relative to each other.

Now these sexually differentiated traits and tendencies are important and are part of what I mean by “nature.” But when it comes to rooting complementarianism in these traits and tendencies, we run into what I call “the bell curve problem.” Put simply, while these tendencies are real as traits and tendencies, they are not universally true for all men and women. Some women are taller than most men. Some men are as people- and relationally-oriented as any woman. There are excellent male poets and excellent female mathematicians. In other words, while natural, gendered traits and tendencies are real, especially if we look at men and women as groups, they are not universally true of every individual man or woman.

Thus, while these tendencies are useful as a guide and do help us understand the rationale beneath some biblical commands, when we use the word “nature,” we need to refer to something more basic and objective than merely these traits and tendencies. That’s what I mean by the fundamental facts about what we are as human beings. Here are some of the fundamental facts I have in mind:

  • Each human being is either male or female, a man or woman made in God’s image and for his purposes.
  • Concurrent with this fundamental identity as one of God’s creatures, each of us is the son or daughter of human parents (with the exception of Adam and Eve).
  • To be a son is to be a potential father. To be a daughter is to be a potential mother. This potency is present and real, regardless of biological irregularities and regardless of whether we actually beget or bear biological children. As a man, I am designed, directed, and ordered to the end or telos of fatherhood. That’s what it means to be a man.

These fundamental, perennial facts about human beings are the foundation of the natural family. We carry our identity as sexually differentiated men and women into every relationship within the natural family (and beyond).

Possible Male Relationships

Husband to wife

Father to son

Father to daughter

Son to father

Son to mother

Brother to brother

Brother to sister

Possible Female Relationships

Wife to husband

Mother to son

Mother to daughter

Daughter to father

Daughter to mother

Sister to brother

Sister to sister

Crucially, our sexual differentiation makes a real but somewhat elusive difference in these various relationships. A father relates to a son differently than he does to a daughter. A sister relates to a sister differently than she does to a brother. And so on.

To summarize these perennial facts of nature, our identity as human beings is indelibly relational. In relation to God, each of us is a creature. In relation to the rest of creation, each of us is human, an embodied image bearer of our Maker. As his creatures, each of us is male or female, a man or a woman. In relation to our parents, each of us is a son or daughter. As a son or daughter, each of us is a potential father or potential mother, a potential brother or potential sister. These are fundamental, objective, and unchanging facts about each of us as human beings. And the sexually-differentiated traits and tendencies, clustered along a bell curve, emerge from and serve these more basic, perennial facts about us as humans.

Finally, by facts of redemption, I simply mean the gospel of Jesus Christ by which we are saved and which is revealed to us in the Scriptures. For example, God’s redemptive act in Christ establishes a relation between Christ and his people which functions as a pattern for certain human relationships (husband-wife).

Thus, again, God’s acts establish basic facts — facts of creation, facts of nature, and facts of redemption.

II. God’s commands fit these facts.

Divine imperatives fit these divine indicatives — the primal, the perennial, and the redemptive. Introducing the notion of fitness communicates that we are not dealing with “bare” facts, but with facts as a fixed pattern or reality to which God’s commands and our behavior can conform. What we do ought to fit what we are. Since we are dealing with biblical commands, we are talking about moral fitness. God’s commands conform to the pattern that he has established in creation, nature, and redemption.

Consider 1 Timothy 2:11–12. “I do not permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”

Paul’s prohibition of a woman teaching and exercising authority in the assembly is rooted in two primal facts: Adam was created first, and Eve was deceived (not Adam). That prohibition fits those facts. There are reasons beneath the rules.

Now in this article, I do not have time to unpack that logic; that is your homework. I am simply drawing attention to the framework and structure of that passage.

Or we can think of Paul in Colossians 3, where he says, “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.” There is a harmony and fitness between a wife’s submission and who she is as a woman in Christ.

I believe this fitness is unpacked for us in the parallel passage in Ephesians 5:22–25:

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.

Here we have both facts and commands, indicatives and imperatives. The husband is the head of his wife. The wife is the body of her husband. Christ is the head of the church, his body, which acts as a redemptive pattern to which we conform. These are facts. Then, wives are called to submit to their husbands; husbands are called to love their wives. These are commands. And the commands fit the facts. The imperatives fit the indicatives.

Allow me to underscore this point: Paul regards a husband’s headship as a fact, an indicative, not an imperative. Let me say it again: male headship is an indicative, not an imperative. This is why we ought not exhort husbands to be the head of their wives. Instead, we ought to stress that they are the head of their wives, whether they want to be or not. I stress this in every wedding homily that I do: “God is not calling you to be the head; you are the head. The only question is whether you will be an unfaithful head, like Adam, or faithful head, like Christ.” Headship is a given. It may be a domineering headship; it may be an absentee headship. It may be a strong, sacrificial headship. But one way or another, the husband is the head.

This leads me to a parenthetical note: I do not think we should summarize the biblical teaching on marriage under the banner of “headship and submission.” As we see here, that is a category confusion, combining the husband’s indicative and the wife’s imperative. Instead, I think we would do well to distinguish the indicatives and imperatives, and link them appropriately. The husband is the head; the wife is the body. Or, if we want to draw in 1 Corinthians 11: he is her head; she is his glory. Headship and Gloryhood (to coin a term): these are basic facts, specially revealed in the Bible, from which flow the appropriate imperatives: love like Christ; submit like the church. Cherish like Christ; honor and respect like the church.

Speaking of 1 Corinthians 11, that passage is filled with an interplay between primal facts of creation and perennial facts of nature, on the one hand, and certain fitting actions and behaviors in corporate worship on the other. Specifically, Paul first highlights a fundamental order in reality: “I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God” (1 Cor 11:3). This sacred order, or hierarchy, is not reversible. Christ is not the head of God. Man is not the head of Christ. A wife is not the head of her husband.

Second, Paul recalls the language of Genesis 1–2 when he says that man “is the image and glory of God, but woman is the glory of man” (1 Cor 11:7). Paul explains the last phrase by highlighting two primal facts of creation about woman in Genesis 2. Woman was made out of man, and woman was made for man. She was built from man’s side, and she was built to be man’s helper.

These two primal facts mean that he is her head and she is his glory. This does not mean that she is lesser or deficient; she too is made in God’s image, and as the glory of the man, she is the glory of the glory. In biblical thinking, the fact that woman is man’s glory does not diminish her, any more than the fact that Christ is the radiance of God’s glory diminishes him (Heb 1:3). Nevertheless, because Eve was built from Adam’s side and as a helper for Adam in his call to work and keep the garden, woman is man’s glory, and she should reflect this fundamental fact of nature in how she worships in public.

Third, man’s headship and woman’s gloryhood entail a mutual dependence upon each other. It is not good for man to be alone. It is not good for woman to be alone. Our differences are not merely differences from each other, but they are actually differences for each other. The sacred order of man and woman includes a profound interdependence.

Paul demonstrates this mutual dependence by juxtaposing woman’s primal origin (from Gen 2) with man’s perennial origin as born from a woman: “As woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman” (1 Cor 11:12). The original woman was built from the side of the first man. Since then, every man has come into this world through a woman. These two basic facts — one primal fact of creation and one perennial fact of nature — are loaded with symbolic significance that highlights our mutual need for each other.

So 1 Corinthians teaches these facts of nature: (1) There is a sacred order in reality, stretching from God to Christ to man to woman. (2) Man is head, and woman is glory since she was made from man and for man. (3) As head and glory, there is a mutual dependence between men and women, witnessed in Scripture’s account of our origins and testified to in every birth. (4) These facts of creation and nature ought to guide and direct us as we seek to offer acceptable worship to God.

I highlight the issue of fitness because it is a significant discussion in our day, even among self-professed complementarians. Some complementarians say things like, “We do not know why God says that husbands are the head of their home, and wives should submit, and only men are able to be pastors. But the Bible says it, so we will do it.” Now, obedience is better than disobedience. But obeying because God says so without understanding the reasons beneath the rules is an immature obedience. And that sort of immature obedience can begin to regard God’s commands as arbitrary and perhaps even irrational, and thus that kind of obedience is difficult to sustain. And so mature obedience is better than immature obedience. Mature obedience recognizes that the commands of God are not arbitrary; they are fitting. There are reasons beneath the rules, and we should know and love the reasons beneath the rules so that we can joyfully and gladly and perseveringly obey the Lord Jesus.

Again, God’s acts establish basic facts (of creation, nature, and redemption), and God’s commands fit those facts.

III. Our applications ought to fit those facts and those commands.

In the same way that God’s commands fit the basic facts that he established in creation, in nature, and in redemption, our own efforts to apply God’s word in our own day should fit God’s facts and God’s commands, his indicatives and his imperatives. Together, God’s indicatives and imperatives, revealed in nature and Scripture, act as the pattern for our own application. Thus, here we are talking about culture.

Culture is the expression of nature (and for Christians, also of Scripture) in a particular time and place. It includes customs and traditions that testify to the basic facts and natural tendencies of our nature. As Steven Wedgeworth notes, a custom is a prudential application of a natural law principle in a concrete setting.[1] Thus, we use wisdom and prudence to steward our natural tendencies in a fitting and proper way as guided by God’s inerrant word.

And this introduces another helpful distinction. Earlier we spoke of moral fitness between divine commands and the facts of creation, nature, and redemption beneath them. Here I think we should talk about prudential fitness between God’s design as revealed in nature and Scripture and our own attempts to apply them in our context. Prudential fitness, as a category, allows for variation of form within a divinely defined range. It is why we can recognize a diversity of faithful expressions of nature and Scripture that differ based on cultural, historical, and ecclesiological context.

This is perhaps how we can understand the use of head coverings in 1 Corinthians 11. In the first century, head coverings were a culturally appropriate way (i.e. prudential fitness) of expressing the divine command for wives to honor their husbands, which itself fits the basic primal, perennial, and redemptive facts about men and women as established by God. Or again, the head covering was a culturally appropriate way of maintaining and celebrating the goodness of God’s design in nature and Scripture. So also we ought to find culturally recognizable ways of maintaining and celebrating the goodness of God’s design in nature and Scripture.

What is more, prudential fitness is a way of conceiving of our attempts to apply our complementarian convictions beyond the home and the church. It allows for us to embody and express the basic primal, perennial, and redemptive facts about who we are as men and women, as governed, guided, and corrected by Scripture, in such a way that also takes into account other prudential factors — our history and traditions, the complexities and temptations of our modern technocratic society, and the particulars of our situation.

And this is especially difficult in the modern world. We struggle with the relative authority of customs and culture. For example, because we clearly see different customs and cultural expressions, we conclude that they are completely arbitrary. “Who is to say which is the correct way to salute, or the proper form of address, or whether we should wear hats indoors?” Because we rightly recognize the difference between nature and Scripture on the one hand, and culture on the other, we assume (wrongly) that culture is just relative and does not have any binding force upon us. We want clear and absolute laws in the Bible, or we want total individual freedom. We think that if something is culturally conditioned, anything goes. In other words, when it comes to customs, traditions, and culture, Americans are highly individualistic and relativistic. We substitute fashion (which is an individual choice rooted in market transactions) for custom (a communal practice or habit that endures over time). A second factor that makes it difficult for us to rightly understand customs and culture is the simple fact of mobility. Customs require stable communities — communities where people are born, grow up, live, and die, passing on the customs of their people from generation to generation. And modern communities are anything but stable.

Prudential fitness thus allows us to see the natural law principle beneath the biblical command (the reasons beneath the rules) so that we do not treat them as arbitrary, as well as to distinguish the natural or biblical principle at work, from the various cultural expressions that those principles might take (so that we do not make cultural applications into divine laws). It allows us to acknowledge the cultural dimension of our complementarian applications, while still insisting that these applications are rooted in God’s design in nature and Scripture.


To conclude,

  1. God’s acts establish basic facts.
  2. God’s commands fit those facts.
  3. Our applications ought to fit those facts and those commands.

Our aim as complementarians should be that we celebrate the harmony and fitness between nature, Scripture, and culture; between indicatives, imperatives, and applications; between basic facts, divine commands, and cultural forms; so that the one voice of God in nature and Scripture is beautifully expressed in the harmonious and varied voices of wise and faithful cultural expressions.

Joe Rigney is the president of Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis and a pastor at Cities Church in St. Paul. He is the author of five books, including More Than a Battle: How to Experience Victory, Freedom, and Healing from Lust.

[1] Cf. Steven Wedgeworth, “Good and Proper: Paul’s Use of Nature, Custom, and Decorum in Pastoral Theology” Eikon 2.2 (Fall 2020), 88–97; “Nature Can Teach: A Biblical Introduction to Natural Law” (January 19, 2022),


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