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Topics: Complementarianism, Current Events

What the New York Times gets wrong about complementarianism

April 20, 2017

Tim Keller argues that one of the first rules of polemics is this: “Never attribute an opinion to your opponent that he himself does not own.” Even if the view in question is a necessary entailment of his actual view, you may not attribute the entailment to him if he explicitly repudiates the alleged entailment. It is far better to accuse an opponent of being inconsistent than it is to accuse him of holding an opinion that he unambiguously denies. In fact, to make such accusations is otherwise known as “bearing false witness” (Exodus 20:16).

Unfortunately, Julia Baird’s article in The New York Times is a case-study in the violation of this rule. In “Is Your Pastor Sexist?”, not only does she caricature Tim Keller, but she also distorts complementarianism more broadly. Somehow she manages to describe complementarianism without any reference to The Danvers Statement, which is the most widely recognized consensus statement of complementarian conviction. Nor does she refer to official statements of well-known complementarian ministries like The Gospel Coalition, T4G, or the Baptist Faith and Message 2000. She might have avoided some of the gross distortions had she hewn more closely to actual statements of complementarian conviction.

In a modest effort to set the record straight, I want to highlight three distortions of complementarian conviction that appear in Baird’s piece:

1. All women must submit to all men.

Baird says that complementarianism “refers to those who believe the Bible set forth that men should lead and have authority over women.” This is actually not what complementarianism refers to. Complementarianism is the belief that men and women are created equally by God as his image-bearers. Both male and female have equal worth and dignity because they both share equally in being created in God’s image (Gen. 1:26-27). Men and women have different roles and obligations within the covenant of marriage and within the church. Within marriage, the Bible calls men to lead sacrificially, and it calls on wives to recognize and support that leadership (Eph. 5:21-33). Within the church, the Bible calls on congregations to recognize qualified men as pastors (1 Tim. 2:12; 3:2; Tit. 1:6).

That’s complementarianism in a nutshell, and it does not require women to submit to men generally. The relevant biblical texts call on a wife to affirm the leadership of her own husband, not of every man she meets (Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18; 1 Pet. 3:1). If she were to “submit” herself to every man, it would be a violation of her marriage covenant. As Russell Moore has written,

Submitting to men in general renders it impossible to submit to one’s “own husband.” Submission to one’s husband means faithfulness to him, and to him alone, which means saying “no” to other suitors… Women, sexual and emotional purity means a refusal to submit to “men,” in order to submit to your own husband, even one whose name and face you do not yet know. Your closeness with your husband, present or future, means a distance from every man who isn’t, or who possibly might not be, him.

Any view of “headship” that undermines the unique covenant obligations of marriage is an unbiblical view of “headship.” Nor does it express the consensus of actual complementarians. Yes, the Bible places different and complementary expectations upon men and women in the home and in the church, but that does not include the expectation that women must submit to men generally.

It is worth pointing out that submission is not primarily a women’s issue but a human issue. In 1 Peter 3:1 and elsewhere in scripture, submission is discussed within the broader context of our obligation to submit first to God and then to other rightful authority in our lives. We are a people under authority. It’s not unique to wives.

2. Wives have no choice over their lives.

Baird relies heavily on critics of complementarianism to define complementarianism. I suspect that is a major reason why the picture is so flawed. Baird quotes a feminist writer to who argues that complementarianism makes women into unwilling participants in their own marriage covenant. She writes:

The feminist writer Carol Howard Merritt, a pastor in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), called Dr. Keller’s theology “toxic,” arguing that the issue was “much, much deeper” than whether women can become church leaders.

“Complementarianism,” she wrote, “means married women have no choice over their lives at all.” At the extreme, she argued, the doctrine validates male control to the point of abuse.

There is no text of scripture that “validates male control” or that teaches “married women have no choice over their lives at all.” The apostle Paul might have said, “Husbands, subject your wives to yourselves.” Paul might have spoken in such a way that called on husbands to compel or coerce submission from their wives. Even though such a notion would have conformed to the patriarchal spirit of his age, that is not what Paul says. He addresses the wife (Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18; 1 Pet. 3:1). This means that the wife is called on voluntarily to affirm the leadership of her husband. The responsibility for this affirmation falls to the wife. It does not fall to the husband to make her submit.

Bottom Line: The Bible does not give the husband authority to coerce submission. Both husband and wife enter into the marriage covenant voluntarily, and they must meet its terms voluntarily. They must not be coerced by the sinful manipulations of their spouse. Which brings us to another one of Baird’s distortions…

3. Headship means women must submit to coercion and abuse.

Baird’s article contends that complementarianism is tantamount to abuse. For example, she writes:

Ms. Merritt said she is often asked about whether there is a “relationship between domestic violence and the Christian teaching that wives must submit,” and cited examples. If a husband wants his wife to lose weight, she must go on a diet. If he wants to have sex, she must acquiesce. If he wants her to home-school their children, she should obey.

“None of this is considered abuse,” she said. “It’s considered the husband’s God-given authority…”

This is the most serious error in Baird’s article and it would be quite an indictment if it were true. But it’s not true, and it’s why she has to appeal to a fierce opponent of complementarianism to make the point.

In a complementarian view, a husband does not have “God-given authority” to abuse his wife—either physically, emotionally, or otherwise. Any husband that abuses his wife is sinning against her and against God, and he does not have the authority from God or from anyone else to make her submit to his sin.

Complementarian leaders and congregations have the responsibility to protect the abused, to discipline abusers, and to report domestic violence to civil authorities. Abuse is not complementarianism. It is anti-complementarianism. Those who distort complementarianism in the name of complementarianism are hypocrites and liars. For complementarianism calls on men to love their wives self-sacrificially, not to abuse them (Eph. 5:25-31; Col. 3:19; 1 Pet 3:7). Women must never submit to coercion or abuse. Instead, they should expose it, and so should their churches.

There is more that can and should be said about Baird’s article, but these are the three biggest distortions I see in her portrayal of complementarianism. I wish that Baird had taken greater care to explain complementarians in terms that complementarians themselves actually recognize.

John Piper has said it well:

The intention with the word “complementarian” is to locate our way of life between two kinds error: on the one side would be the abuses of women under male domination, and on the other side would be the negation of gender differences where they have beautiful significance. Which means that, on the one hand, complementarians acknowledge and lament the history of abuses of women personally and systemically, and the present evils globally and locally in the exploitation and diminishing of women and girls. And, on the other hand, complementarians lament the feminist and egalitarian impulses that minimize God-given differences between men and women and dismantle the order God has designed for the flourishing of our life together.

So complementarians resist the impulses of a chauvinistic, dominating, and abusive culture, on the one side, and the impulses of a sex-blind, gender-leveling, unisex culture, on the other side. And we take our stand between these two ways of life not because the middle ground is a safe place (which it is emphatically not), but because we think this is the good plan of God in the Bible for men and women. “Very good,” as he said in Genesis 1.


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