Recent months have seen considerable controversy among conservative Christians around the topic of complementarianism, arising mainly from a false analogy between the subordination of wives to husbands and that of God the Son to God the Father. Depending on your perspective, the complementarian view has been either maligned, discredited, or reformed. My hope is that events will prove that the latter has taken place. I am in complete solidarity with those who reject the eternal subordination of the Son in any form, since no amount of nuance or affirmation of Christ’s deity can preserve it from functionally reproducing the Arian position. There are no ends for which a degrading of the Trinity is an excusable means. I am therefore grateful for the way this controversy, though regrettably contentious, has highlighted massively important issues of theology that tend to receive little attention. At the same time, my hope is that this attempt to reform the complementarian position will not truly damage the important stand it takes. To this end, let me offer 3 reasons why complementarianism remains important for Christians and why we should not allow the need for reformation truly to discredit it.
1. Because complementarianism summarizes the Bible’s teaching on husbands and wives.
In speaking to wives, the Bible uses clear and pointed language. Ephesians 5:22 and 1 Peter 3:1 are not “texts of terror,” nor are they cultural anachronisms. They are the loving Word of Christ for his people. Moreover, while these and other statements require proper interpretation, they are remarkably clear. The Greek verb hupotassomai means to be subject or subordinate to, teaching a wife’s willing embrace of her husband’s God-assigned headship (Eph. 5:21-23). To be sure, we should avoid and oppose extra-biblical add-ons or abuses of this teaching. Submission is about marriage: Paul and Peter do not tell all women to submit to all men. Submission does not make a wife the property of her husband. Notice, in this respect, that when Paul later addresses slaves and masters (Eph. 6:5), he uses a different verb for this relationship (hupakuo). Our approach to a wife’s subordination should be just as obviously opposed to slavish subjugation as Paul’s teaching is. Furthermore, the biblical teaching of male headship is never an excuse for abuse in any form. Rather, the analogy with Christ and the church and Paul’s subsequent teaching to husbands (Eph. 5:25-31) make it clear that wives should be showered with nurture and love from husbands. With these necessary protections having been made, the Bible’s teaching of the submission of wives to husbands remains crystal clear and authoritative.
2. Because complementarianism bears testimony to the Creator and his design for life.
I need not belabor the point that pagan secularism has recently aimed its assault against God directly at the male-female identity and relationship. This is not by chance. Having rejected God the Redeemer, replacing the biblical gospel of saving grace with the false hope of progress and pleasure, secularism now aims at God the Creator. What better way to assail the Creator, following the serpent, than to aim for the pinnacle of his creation: man and woman made in the image of God and joined in holy marriage. Facing this anti-Christian strategy, churches that downplay the Bible’s teaching on sex and gender for the sake of their witness achieve exactly the opposite. Our generation desperately needs the church’s testimony of God as both Redeemer and Creator. Believing, as I do, that there is such a thing as biblical masculinity and femininity, these patterns should be intentionally cultivated by the church. Christian boys and girls should have no doubts about the differences between male and female and how they should relate. The watching world should learn from our practice of human personhood and relationships what God is like and how he has designed human society. This is not to say that our primary witness as evangelicals concerns the submission of wives, in place of Christ in his person and work. Far from it! It is to say, however, that the testimony given to God by our commitment to the Bible’s teaching on gender, sex, and marriage is not a side issue in our generation. The questions addressed by complementarianism stand directly at the point of attack by an ungodly secularism and therefore have a high importance for Christians and our witness today.
3. Because complementarianism is a biblical remedy for sin as it strikes the vital institution of marriage.
Not only is complementarianism important because it is the Bible’s teaching and it stands directly in the path of secularism’s assault, but its message is also vitally important for the lives of Christian people. In Genesis 3:16, God cursed the woman for her part in the Fall, saying, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (see Nick Batzig’s excellent article on this verse). The context of God’s curse makes it plain that this is a problem that mankind is going to face – a big enough problem for God to give it prominence. Complementarianism did not begin with Eve’s curse, of course. The creation order of male headship tracks back to Genesis 2:18, where God spoke of his design to make the woman as a helper for the man. It is both because of this creation order and the problem posed by the curse of Genesis 3:16 that priority is given to the submission of wives and the loving headship of husbands in the New Testament. In short, complementarianism upholds the pattern that Christ emphasized as a remedy for the effects of sin within marriage. This means that complementarianism is a pastorally important issue, and our neglect or rejection of the Bible’s teaching on this topic will have harmful effects in the lives of Christian people. Unless we are determined to declare the Bible’s teaching “muddy” and “complicated” – charges often made without warrant against the complementarian texts – then our love for the church and the people of Christ will urge us to teach and emphasize biblical complementarianism with care, sensitivity, and conviction.
Richard Phillips is pastor of 2nd Presbyterian Church of Greenville, SC and leader in the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.