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Topic: Eikon

Danvers, Nashville, and Early Complementarianism

November 16, 2022
By John Piper

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

I wrote the first draft of the Danvers Statement (1987). Thirty years later, I gave input on the final draft of the Nashville Statement (2017). The former was foundational for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood; the latter expresses the Council’s abiding relevance and maturity.

Here I will try to describe the similarities and differences between the Danvers and Nashville Statements. Then, as one of the early shapers and promoters of a “complementarian” understanding of manhood and womanhood perspective, I will respond to some recent criticism.

Unity and Difference

First, as a shaper of both documents, I see a profound unity and prophetic difference between Danvers and Nashville. The unity can be seen, for example, in the following similarities.

  • The Danvers Statement affirms that “both Adam and Eve were created in God’s image, equal before God as persons and distinct in their manhood and womanhood.” The Nashville Statement affirms that “God created Adam and Eve, the first human beings, in his own image, equal before God as persons, and distinct as male and female.
  • Danvers laments “the widespread uncertainty and confusion in our culture regarding the complementary differences between masculinity and femininity,” and the tragic effects of this confusion in unraveling “the beautiful and diverse strands of manhood and womanhood.” Nashville similarly laments that the fact “it is common to think that human identity as male and female is not part of God’s beautiful plan, [so that] God’s good design for his creatures is thus replaced by the path of shortsighted alternatives.”
  • Danvers cites the “growing claims of legitimacy for sexual relationships which have Biblically and historically been considered illicit or perverse.” Nashville names them: “It is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism . . . we deny that God has designed marriage to be a homosexual, polygamous, or polyamorous relationship.”
  • Both statements challenge the “spirit of the age,” especially its encroachments into Christ’s church. Danvers warns of “the apparent accommodation of some within the church to the spirit of the age at the expense of winsome, radical Biblical authenticity which in the power of the Holy Spirit may reform rather than reflect our ailing culture.” Nashville sounds a similar alarm: “Will the church of the Lord Jesus Christ lose her biblical conviction, clarity, and courage, and blend into the spirit of the age? Or will she hold fast to the word of life, draw courage from Jesus, and unashamedly proclaim his way as the way of life?”

The prophetic difference between the two is that Danvers confronts women who intend to be pastors, while Nashville confronts women who intend to be men. Danvers confronts men who are unwilling to lead their wives; Nashville confronts men who can’t lead their wives because they are “married” to men.

As the term “complementarian” was coming into being in the 1980s, the antagonists were different from those of the Nashville Statement. For example, the subtitle of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is A Response to Evangelical Feminism. Thus the antagonists that we were addressing in those days were voices like Paul Jewett, Margaret Howe, Gretchen Gabelein Hull, Gilbert Billezekian, Aida Spencer, Patricia Gundry, Craig Keener, Berkeley and Alvera Mickelsen, and Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen. I regarded all of these men and women not only as Christian but also as evangelical — at least at first. Danvers was, you might say, an in-house plea to family members to reconsider how they read the Bible.

But the Nashville Statement is not an in-house document. It is a prophetic No to the collapsing social order of the West, and Yes to the gospel-rich vision of God-designed sexuality. We did not expect, nor did we get, national, secular blowback to the Danvers Statement. The mayor of Danvers, Massachusetts, did not write to the Washington Post to distance himself from us. But the mayor of Nashville, Megan Barry, did: “The so-called ‘Nashville statement’ is poorly named and does not represent the inclusive values of the city and people of Nashville” (Washington Post, Sept. 2, 2017).

Abiding Urgency

In my judgment, both the social confrontation of the Nashville Statement and the complementarian breadth of the Danvers Statement, as unfolded in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, are as urgent today as ever. Of course, the Nashville Statement is more prominent and striking because so-called same-sex “marriage” and so-called “sex-changes” are media firebrands at the moment. But the 35-year-old Danvers Statement, with its complementarian applications in many good books, is, to this day, more pervasively applicable to all of life.

Consider the difference in scope: first, with the Nashville Statement, we try to convince a man that he should not “marry” a man. Okay, he says, I’m convinced. Then we try to convince him that he should not seek to change his sex to be a woman. Right, he says, I’m convinced. Then we try to convince him that polyamory, in or outside marriage, is wrong. Again he is convinced. Now, what’s left for him to decide about how to live as a man? Almost everything!

Which brings us back to the “big blue book” and the Danvers Statement. Complementarity, as it is unfolded in the Danvers Statement and Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, is still as urgent as ever. The Nashville Statement may feel more urgent because it addresses the current tragedies of so-called same-sex “marriage” and so-called “transgenderism.” But tens of millions of Christian men and women do not struggle with whether to “marry” the same sex or “change” their sex. But they do want to know, What does it mean to be a man (or a woman) in all the aspects of my daily life?

Response to Early Critics

In recent days some have criticized the earlier formulations of complementarity because, they say, “Complementarians have neglected nature arguments, thus chipping away the ground on which we stand.”[1] Or as another critic says, “RBMW [Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood], while well-meaning for the context it addresses, does not penetrate below the surface to actually define manhood and womanhood in terms of nature or essence.”[2]

I think both of those statements are inaccurate. “Nature arguments” abound in RBMW. Not only does it have a full chapter dedicated to “The Biological Basis for Gender-Specific Behavior,” but more importantly, it was a fundamental premise of the entire book that

  • “Masculinity and femininity are rooted in who we are by nature.”[3]
  • “Masculinity and femininity are rooted in who we are by nature. They are not simply reflexes of a marriage relationship. Man does not become man by getting married.”[4]
  • “We are concerned not merely with the behavioral roles of men and women but also with the underlying nature of manhood and womanhood themselves.”[5]
  • “One of the theses of this book is that the natural fitness of man and woman for each other in marriage is rooted in something more than anatomy. There is a profound female or male personhood portrayed in our differing bodies. As Emil Brunner put it: Our sexuality penetrates to the deepest metaphysical ground of our personality.”[6]

I see at least three reasons for the present tendency to overlook or minimize the outworking of this premise in early complementarity. First, we did not frame our analysis in terms of natural law. Second, even though our description of what is at the heart of manhood and womanhood was confessedly partial and highly nuanced,[7] it has been misread as totalizing and superficial. Third, we were eager to shed light on the implications of nature for how we live in human relationships — all relationships. Therefore, we moved from nature and essence to dispositions and behaviors more quickly than some of our critics approve.

This was a risk I think we would take again. We were seeking to give help to pastors and churches concerning the practical implications of the nature of manhood and womanhood. Those practical implications remain just as pressing today. The risks multiply when you move from nature to practical implications and behavior. Such risk-takers will always be needed.

I am happy that another generation of complementarians are eager to sink the roots of complementarity deeper into nature and natural law. I pray that they will be willing to take the risky and controversial step of helping the father of a nine-year-old answer the question, “Daddy, what does it mean to grow up and be a man, and not a woman?” Or, “What does it mean to grow up and be a woman, and not a man?”

It will not suffice to speak to our children about natures and essences without dispositional and behavioral specifics. This is why I said earlier that Danvers complementarity continues to be relevant today. So, biased as I am toward Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and happy as I am with confirming insights from “natural law,” I still commend the “the big blue book” as offering crucial (not exhaustive) insights into the nature of manhood and womanhood and how the Bible helps us navigate all of life as male and female.

John Piper is a New Testament scholar, Reformed theologian, pastor, and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

[1] Cited from the online version of the article by Patrick Schreiner, “Man and Woman: Toward an Ontology” in Eikon: A Journal for Biblical Anthropology (Fall 2020),

[2] Cited from the online article “What Is a Man?” by Gregg Allison,

[3]John Piper and Wayne Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (1991; repr., Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2006), xxvi.

[4] Ibid., xxvi.

[5] Ibid., 60.

[6] Ibid., 86.

[7] For example, the descriptions of manhood and womanhood that I propose in chapter one of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood are cautiously presented as “not exhaustive descriptions of all that masculinity or femininity mean. . . . They are intended to embrace both married people and single people. . . . The definitions are not exhaustive, but they touch all of us. They are an attempt to get at the heart, or at least an indispensable aspect, of manhood and womanhood.” (Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 35).). Some critics have been inattentive to the nuances of these definitions. For example, when the descriptions begin with, “At the heart of mature masculinity. . .” the intention is that other important truths may also be “at the heart” of masculinity. That’s why the words “at the heart” were chosen instead of “the heart of masculinity is.” These and other nuanced wording do not seem to be carefully attended to by some critics.

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