Mature Complementarianism

The evangelical debate between complementarianism and egalitarianism has mostly cooled off in recent years, but the end of this debate more closely resembles a stalemate than a proper peace agreement. The discourse on this issue has devolved into the occasional firing of proof texts from either side when the subject becomes relevant for a brief period on Twitter. This kind of engagement in discourse is not only immature from a behavioral perspective, but from a hermeneutic and exegetical perspective as well. If the issue of gender roles in the Bible is as central as both sides of the debate claim it to be, you’d expect proponents of either side to draw their conclusions from a wide variety of passages. This is not the case. Volumes upon volumes have been written trying to nail down the exact meaning of κεφαλη in Ephesians 5:23 (See chapter 8 of Piper and Grudem’s Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood), or whether the head coverings Paul commands women to wear in 1 Corinthians are merely a cultural convention that we have outgrown.

Focusing in on passages like 1 Timothy 2:11-15 or 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 not only demonstrates immature reading of scripture, but it actually degrades the statements Paul makes in passages like these. Paul was a master exegete. His mastery of the Old Testament is what allowed him to arrive at his conclusions regarding the sexes. Before we can have a debate over the proper places of the sexes within the Church and the family, we must learn to read the Old Testament as Paul did. Vern Poythress details a hermeneutical method in his article Kinds of Biblical Theology that teaches us to do just that. It is a three-step process, beginning with exegesis, moving towards systematic theology, and concluding with biblical theology. The process then starts again with exegesis having now incorporated the insights we found from the first reading. Genesis 16 can provide both things we’re looking for: Paul’s hermeneutic and the reasons for his conclusions regarding the sexes.

Immediately before Genesis 16, God had just enacted a covenant with Abram, wherein He promised to make Abram the father of a great nation. Genesis 16 sees Abram returning home to his wife, where we can assume he has recounted the covenant he just entered between himself and God. Knowing that her womb is barren, Sarai offers her Egyptian servant Hagar as a wife to Abram so that she might bear a child for them. Abram takes her as his wife, and she conceives a son. After realizing that she had conceived, Hagar begins to treat Sarai with contempt for planning on taking her child as their own (James Jordan, Primeval Saints, pg. 67-68). Sarai goes to Abram to get him to resolve this situation, but instead he concedes his authority by allowing Sarai to deal with Hagar in whatever way she deems fit. Hagar then flees to escape the harsh treatment of her mistress. Hagar flees to a well in the wilderness, where the angel of the Lord finds her and cares for her, promising to honor her son by multiplying his offspring. Abram and Sarai sinned by conspiring to use Hagar as simply a means to secure God’s blessing.

Following our exegesis of Genesis 16 is its placement within a systematic category. I have already made it clear that I believe it belongs within the same category as Paul’s passages on gender roles, but allow me to clarify why. Gorden Wenham notes that Sarai is the one initiating all of the actions is verse 1-6, with Abram responding and acting according to her instructions (Genesis 16-50, pg. 78). In light of James Jordan’s two-part article Liturgical Man, Liturgical Woman, this can be seen as a reversal of the gender roles that he sets forth: men are pioneers, and women are glorifiers. Or, put more simply, men start things, and women finish them. Abram should be the one who dictates how his family will obey God in order for them to receive his blessing, not his wife. Paul seems to agree in 1 Timothy 2.

As we consider where Genesis 16 belongs within biblical theology, the first passage that should come to mind is Genesis 1-3, where the reversal of the gender roles happens in nearly the same way. God comes to Adam with instructions for how he is to live in the garden. When God creates Eve as a companion for him, the expectation is that he also gives his wife the same instructions he received from God. Whether Adam ever gave his wife those instructions is unclear, but as is evident from the events that follow, he never really understood them to begin with. Though God intended for Adam to be the leader of the garden liturgy, he failed as his wife’s protector when he followed her into sin. What we can learn from this biblical theological connection is that a man’s role is to protect his wife from the serpent’s influence. Adam failed in the garden, and Abram failed when his wife suggested that they exploit her servant for their personal gain.

Despite the abundance of broken gender roles in the Old Testament, there are positive ones to be found, most notably 1 Kings 1-2. Here, David’s son Adonijah seeks the throne of Israel, despite David having promised to pass it on to Solomon. Solomon is anointed as the legitimate king of Israel while Adonijah believes he has secured it for himself. In an attempt to stage a coup against Solomon, Adonijah comes before Solomon’s mother Bathsheba and asks her to request that Solomon give him Abishag the Shunammite as his wife, which would certainly establish him as king over Israel. Bathsheba goes before Solomon with this request, and he recognizes it as a coup attempt. Earlier, Solomon and Bathsheba are said to have known that if Adonijah becomes king, he will certainly launch a campaign to destroy them so there is no competition for the throne. Solomon, in his wisdom, refuses to hand his brother the throne, and instead puts him to death. Solomon has succeeded in protecting his mother from the serpent Adonijah.

After following Poythress’s method in our interpretation Genesis 16, we can draw some conclusions about Paul’s hermeneutical method. We know that Paul understands the eschatological reality of the marriage between Christ and the Church, both from his place in time after Jesus’s ascension and from his writing on that topic in his epistles. Because he knows this, he is looking back into the Old Testament for other scenes with similar typological set pieces. Genesis 16 shows the similar breakdowns in gender roles as in Genesis 3, and 1 Kings 1-2 appears to be a positive example for proper gender roles. The roles we have discerned from the Old Testament help frame Paul’s instructions in Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her…” Christ loved the Church by crushing the serpent, thus we are to love our wives by doing the same.

While I don’t want to insist that Paul follows Poythress’s method exactly, using it has helped me come to a conclusion on this issue that pays more careful attention to Paul’s intentions and the theological foundation for Paul’s conclusions. This is the kind of reading that ought to inform our doctrinal positions. In the terms of Poythress’s method, the kind of discourse that involves nothing more than arguments surrounding shallow proof texts has yet to mature from the systematic step into biblical theology. This method encourages us to seek greater maturity in our reading and discourse. For our study of complementarianism, there are a few conclusions we can make. The serpent will seek to destroy the husband through his wife. This is true in marital couples as well as between Christ and the Church, and in both cases, it is the husband’s responsibility to rid his domain of the serpent’s influence. This domain could be a garden, a city, a home or a church. It is a man’s job to do this because women, as the glory of mankind, were created to enjoy the comfort of a man’s protection just as the Church enjoys the deliverance from sin that Christ provides. That man doesn’t have to be a husband. He could be a father, a brother, or a priest. The charge for men is to be fluent in God’s law so that when a serpent does slither their way, they are able to recognize it and banish it from their garden. This is how we are to mature beyond proof texts into a greater understanding of God’s purpose for the design of the sexes.


Ethan Wiens

Ethan Wiens is an undergraduate student in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where he attends a local ACNA church. He is currently participating in the Theopolis Fellows program.

'Mature Complementarianism' has 1 comment

  1. October 25, 2023 @ 10:53 pm Marissa Burt

    Do offering up cliches, eisegesis, and an over-reliance on a singular professor’s hermeneutical approach=scholarship?

    From the article:

    “men are pioneers, and women are glorifiers…men start things, and women finish them…the serpent will seek to destroy the husband through his wife,” the latter being, among other things, an incredibly irresponsible statement given the reality of domestic abuse in Christian families.

    Such unsupported cliches are interwoven with an eisegetical and incomplete retelling of various biblical stories to essentially suggest that women are more susceptible to “the serpent” than men and and that men’s role is to prevent sin from coming in via women.

    For instance, Wiens retells the story of Abram, Hagar, and Sarai to suggest Abram’s sin is listening to Sarai and failing to “dictate how his family will obey God” while completely ignoring Abram’s agency in mistreating and abandoning Hagar and no mention of things like Abraham’s betrayal of Sarai herself (Gen 12:10ff, 20:1ff). THe offers an unusual recounting of Adonijah’s attempted coup as Solomon “protecting his mother Bathsheba from the serpent Adonijah,” which ignores both the reality that Adonijah was a threat to Solomon’s reign (not his mother) and the fact that Bathsheba actively helped Solomon secure the throne. There also is the usual complementarian fill-in-the-blank supposition about Adam’s intentions in Eden and discussion of Eve’s deception with no mention of Mary as the new-Eve. These incomplete recountings of the biblical narrative are offered as archetypes for all men and all women and suggest that a man’s listening to a woman makes him vulnerable to the serpent.

    I agree with the Wiens’ suggestion that mature exegesis of the Pauline epistles requires an attempt to understand Paul’s thinking, but what we have here seems more to be an over-reliance on Vern Poythress’ favored approach that then leads to some sweeping conclusions where the author presents his unsubstantiated opinions as givens, like: “It is a man’s job to [rid his domain of the serpent’s influence] because women, as the glory of mankind, were created to enjoy the comfort of a man’s protection just as the Church enjoys the deliverance from sin that Christ provides. That man doesn’t have to be a husband. He could be a father, a brother, or a priest.”

    Husbands loving their wives as Christ loved the Church does not equal husbands becoming Christ to their wives (let alone all men to all women!) The conclusion here really reads as androlatry cloaked in spiritual language. Jesus delivers and protects every single one of us directly. I reject the idea that Christian men mediate for women and the resulting dehumanization of women as passive objects who exist to be protected.


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