That Word

Kathy Keller defines “submission” so much it no longer means submission. Which is just the point. Jesus did too. (But I have to say that when that word submission is defined this way one has to wonder if the term no longer has value.) It was beyond wise for the Kellers, in their book The Meaning of Marriage, to assign the marriage roles chapter to Kathy, not the least of which reasons is because when males define roles the game goes downhill fast.

You won’t be surprised if I have some questions about this chapter because of its content and focus,  but before we get there, a few observations about the substance of “Embracing the Other.” I begin here: this is simply the best discussion of the roles of a married couple I have read. A robust theology — christology and trinitarian thinking — is every where and it avoids simplicities that seem to find their way into discussions of roles. So here are some points from the chapter:

1. Every marriage, or close to that, discovers that men and women are different, and this is not only a statement about bodies. Defining that difference is complicated and often resorts to eye-rolling sighs. The reason this difference is important is because it is inherent to who we are to be gendered. (She disagrees that gender roles are simply social constructs.) And the woman was created according to Genesis 2 to be a “strong helper” (ezer kenedgo). This means each sex/gender is created to contribute to the other. 

2. The paradigm for these roles is Christ — in Philippians 2:5-11. The equal person surrenders for the glory of the other, and that leads to the “submitter” to be glorified in turn. Christ’s voluntary servanthood is the model for women. Women, she says, are called — as are men — to the “Jesus role.” Men as servant leaders and women as servant helpers. There are her designations of roles: leader and helper.

3. Christ’s role is also seen in John 13:1-17, the towel and basin. This is the model. Her point is the big one for me: “Jesus redefined all authority as servant-authority” (177-178). “All authoritarianism of authority laid to rest” (178). This so redefines submission so radically that everything changes, and makes me wonder if the word “leader” ever works when submission is so redefined.

4. Her most controversial — at least for some — statements will be how she defines the gifts of women vs. the gifts of men. She sees — “using all the qualifiers in the world” —  the woman as gifted with interdependence and men gifted with independence. Women sinfully chase clinging dependence or individualism while men chase alpha male individualism or dependence. Postmodernity, she says, emphasizes particularities and she sees these roles as something postmodernity ought to consider.

5. This otherness that is gendered is often incomprehensible to one spouse. But Christ embraced the other and that embrace is the model for marriage and for learning to love the incomprehensible. The home is the safe place to learn how to love the other, and there are very few details in the Bible on what this looks like (more below), and the details are not culturally shaped ideas that have prevailed in the West or in the Christian West or in the 50s.

Here are my hesitations.

1. There is a noticeable lack of use of the Song of Solomon, a love manual if ever there was one, for understanding the biblical view of marriage and what some concrete details look like. The Kellers focus on Genesis 1-2 (Genesis 3 was not discussed in this chp) and Ephesians 5. Those are two very important texts, but Song of Songs is perhaps even more important. I wonder aloud now: I have read two books on marriage from the Gospel Coalition folks — Piper and Keller — and I fault both for ignoring Song of Songs. Is there a reason why this book is ignored?

2. Any discussion of marriage that spends too much time on roles gets things out of order. Frankly, I don’t have much problem with her beliefs that independence and interdependence are features of our genders but those must be swallowed up again and again by discussing them as dimensions of love or arenas in which our love plays out. Well, I don’t want to suggest that Kathy Keller does not talk about love, for she does — and I think she talks about it well. In fact, when she’s talking about roles she sees them as ways to love one another. I’d like that to be more prominent. I don’t think God gave us roles so much as he created us to love and he made us in gender and loving the other gender works itself out in differing ways, and that I see as the “role.” Most of the time.

3. I often wonder — and I’m wondering aloud here — if we are all overdoing ezer kenegdo in Genesis 2. It deserves a place a the table, but the term is never used again for the wife. It is never used — or its equivalent — in the NT, where other terms are used.

"Hi Michael,I have only read some of his books and all these issues you are ..."

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption”
"Certainly the cultural context question has to be asked. Personally, I think that in this ..."

Universalism and “The Devil’s Redemption”
"I lived in Toronto (Canada) between 1980-1993 and long before people began to blather about ..."

Is Unity with Diversity Even Possible ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Goid thoughts, Scot. I have much respect for Kellers. Your review skills always present fair eyesore rations if the material and constructive thoughts for proving or going deeper. My friend, Bobby Valentine, at his blog, Stoned Cpbell Disciple, has written in detail about Qohelet and marriage. He is a regular presenter at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures. Check him out.

  • I think you raise a lot of good points. But this is so much better than a lot of other conservative Christian books on gender roles that I almost want to give it a pass. It acknowledges that roles are flexible. It acknowledges that culture should play a part. I think its point about leadership is important (your 2 and 3) and essentially takes all of the wind out of the complementarian sails.

  • Fair evaluations was what I was trying to say-got to love and sometimes hate auto correct on eye phone! Eyesore rations is wildly funny though.

  • mikeh

    I agree with Scot that talking about ‘roles’ can get a bit sticky. Especially, for those of us who buck against the roles that seem to be arbitrarily assigned by whatever flavor of expert happens to be discussing them. Having been married for 36 years, I have found that the less I place expectations on the relationship, role or otherwise, the better things seem to go. Roles are, at best, fluid in any relationship.

  • CGC

    HI Scot,
    I think you raise the issues and concerns or cautions very well on a hot topic. I will say I think what Kathy Keller says about authority and taking a servant posture is what Jesus meant and did. The one thing about the complementarian/egalitarian discussion or debate, is how both sides at times are looking for ways to out-maneuver “the other” or have authority (even in the name of equal authority) rather than about whose going to out serve the other? I mean it’s like we are still having debates about whose going to sit on Jesus right or left?

  • DRT

    Given the ancient concept of conception and child carrying, is it not likely that ezer kenegdo refers more to that than to other relational structures?

  • DRT

    This sentence is quite telling

    “:Postmodernity, she says, emphasizes particularities and she sees these roles as something postmodernity ought to consider.”

    Isn’t particularities another way for saying that we are treating people as individuals instead of stereo-typing them?

    Scot, why do they think it is appropriate to stereotype like this? Do they simply not see that there are many exceptions to the stereotypes?

  • scotmcknight

    DRT, equating particularity with stereotype is where I would disagree. Recognizing diversity is a better way of saying this.

  • RJS

    CGC (#6),

    You express here the thought that often occurs to me in discussions of complementarianism and egalitarianism. We are still arguing about who is going to sit on Jesus’s right and left. We ask the wrong questions and disregard the response given by Jesus. I think the mutual submission that runs through Paul, even overturning expectations of the day, is a reflection of this call of Jesus that we are to be the slave of all (Mk 10).

  • Anna

    The word “ezer” is most commonly used in the Bible to describe God’s relationship to human beings.

  • Appreciate your thoughts here Scot. The Keller’s and Mike Mason’s book, *The Mystery of Marriage,* are the only two I feel like I can recommend to anyone about marriage. Others are so reductionist that I actually believe them to be destructive–particularly with regard to gender/roles. Glad you brought the “ezer” point up Anna, because I think that its more common use in the Scriptures as referring to what/who God is for us as humans actually gives reason to draw out the large implications of the woman being referred to as “ezer.” This is a strong point of emphasis that, in turn, helps us understand Ephesians 5:21 as the most important point, with regards to submission, that Paul is making for the whole Christian community. And, I think it also helps us understand the beautiful, powerful, intertwined imagery provided by Song of Songs for both the woman and the man.

  • Glad you mentioned “Song of Solomon.” I agree that it is rarely talked about and that is too bad.

  • Tim Seiger

    Scot, aquestion about your hesitation #3 in the post. I have wondered whether the word translated helper in Genesis was referring to Adam or the situation of “aloneness” that God deemed “not good.” In other words was eve created to help fix the aloneness of Adam or was she created to help Adam more broadly? (Speaking only about the grammar here) In English it would appear the former is a legitimate reading. Does the Hebrew allow or even require a more narrow application of the help that is being provided than is typically read here?

  • michael

    It looks like (once again) Keller is the most graceful of the Gospel Coalition folks. And for that, I always like reading his books. (or in this case, “their” book)

    But I’m with RJS (#10) on this one: Why do we keep ignoring the mutual submission theme in Paul? I Peter 3:7: Husbands, “In the same way . . .” sounds an awful lot like mutual submission to me.

  • scotmcknight

    While ezer is an important word, there is always a danger of what is called “illegitimacy totality transfer.” That is, to transfer what it connotes in one setting (God is ezer, God is strong) to what it means in another setting (Eve is ezer, Eve is strong). The trick in word meaning is to let the word connote what the context suggests — so I would emphasize another powerful theme in the Kellers’ book: friendship. Adam was alone; Eve is the companion (in Arabic, habibi).

  • CGC

    Hi Michael and RJS,
    I think the whole Christian life is about mutual submission and I love the way RJS put all this. I remember talking to a woman on the internet (you’ve got to love these internet debates 🙂 where she told me that she submits to no man or no man-made authority but only to God. When I told her that I believed that Scrpture taught us all to radically submit to one another and even to church leaders, she said I believed in a different God than she did. I told her that might be the only place where we seem to agree. Her understanding of God and how that worked out in life was very different than mine.

  • Phil Miller

    I don’t see what the point is in discussing “roles” when it comes to marriage. It seems that in most marriages, roles are constantly changing. Sometimes I’m more of a helper to my wife, and sometimes she more of a helper to me. It just depends. I can’t say there’s any overriding principle that really determines this other than that we both love each other. I must confess I honestly don’t get this discussion any longer. What is the point?

  • John Inglis

    It is illegitmate to portray the debate between egalitarians and patriarchalists as being about who sits at the right hand of God. I suppose one could portray patriarchalists as implying that men sit closer to God, but I think they would take that as an unfair description. The egalitarians have no position as to who sits on the right hand. That sort of comment is merely a backhanded swipe at all discussion about theologically important topics.

    Most women certainly don’t think the argument is unnecessary or about who sits at God’s right hand. For them the argument has tremendous consequents. And the argument is not merely about who has authority and about giving authority to women. It is, indeed, about service. Women are prevented from serving God by men who usurp and claim all authority. Women egalitarians are not saying that they have authority, or that they should be given authority, they are saying, rather, that men do not have a divine right to be top dog when it comes to the bottom line or the buck stopping. They are saying that that both sexes get to serve God and that men who prevent this are wrong.

    It victimizes again the victims by blaming them for the argument. If one says that both sides should shut up, then one is saying that the oppressed, the excluded, the weak should not speak up about injustice, about injustice that flows from wrong theology, about a position that prevents God’s will and mercy from being done in this world (i.e., preventing the oppressed from serving God).

    It is analogous to saying that the anti-slavery evangelicals should not have argued about that subject because it resulted in war that had the effect of thousands of deaths and the destruction of much property.

    Finally, it’s obviously only a man that cannot get the discussion. Among other things, the results of the discussion don’t affect a man’s ability to serve, and avoiding the discussion means that one does not have to accept responsibility for the issue nor do anything about it.

    John I.

  • Paul D.

    Two thoughts: 1) Have you ever seen around NPU Randy Klassen’s book “Meditations for Lovers” on Song of Songs? (2) How about a book on marriage co-authored by Kris & Scot McKnight?

  • Phil Miller

    I actually am firmly in the egalitarian camp. When I say I don’t get the discussion, I mean I seriously don’t get what point it is that those who call themselves complementarians are trying to make. Are they claiming they’re more Godly than us? Are they intent on labeling many Christian women as living lives that aren’t Biblical? That’s why I say I don’t get it.

    I know a few people who insist that men and women have God-ordained roles within marriages. But the majority of people I know would say they don’t. I’m asking those who call themselves complementarians what their point is, not the other side.

  • Jeremy

    It’s impossible to escape the plain fact that complementarianism, where any kind of hierarchy is imposed or assumed, is simply inconsistent with reality.

  • AHH

    It seems to me that there is a significant difference between these two positions:
    A) More often than not, men have more of this set of characteristics while women have more of this other set. Therefore, in marriages (maybe also in the church) it will often work better for men to do these roles most of the time and women to do these other roles most of the time.
    B) By God’s design, men have more of this set of characteristics while women have more of this other set. Therefore, in marriages and in the church, men and women should always have these particular roles and not other roles.

    It sounds like Kathy Keller is advocating (A), which I have no problem with. But the rub is that Tim Keller is a pastor in a denomination where one of its key distinctives is position (B) or something close to it.

  • DanO

    While all this is pretty interesting. I think CGC has a good observation. “Our view is closer to God’s REAL view so we are closer to the throne”.

    RJS, if Adam & Eve are mythical, literary figures or some representative couple, or something besides a literal pair, how does that affect your interpretation of the story? Granted the Kellers wrote the book and that is the specific discussion topic but I am wondering if those of you who reject a literal creation, Garden of Eden and Fall have a hermeneutic you’d like to share?

  • P.

    Isn’t she complicating this whole situation a bit? Also, as someone else noted, mutual submission is at the beginning of the marriage verses in Ephesians and drives (should drive) the interpretation of the rest. Of course, in the PCA church where I grew up, they skipped over that verse and went straight to “wives submit”. I had no idea mutual submission was even in there until I read it for myself in my later teens.

    I’ve never understood the evangelical obsession with gender roles and “all men are like this” and “all women are like that.” I guess it began as a knee-jerk reaction to the feminist movement. Regardless, it’s never good to stuff people into pre-defined boxes. I’m an individual and reserve the right to be however God designed me. I have some traditionally female interests and some traditionally masculine interests.

    I don’t mean to be overly critical because I do think the Kellers have some great points in their book. I just disagree with the “man is always the boss” mentality, however they candy-coat it.

  • CGC

    Hi DanO,
    I really don’t recognize our view is closer to God’s view thing. What RJS said about mutual submission and being a slave to all represents what I was getting at. And both sides of the debate raises the whose in charge, power, and control issues. This is not to stop the dialog nor does everybody on each side of the aisle do this. It’s simply the wrong question whoever raises it and this is not just a problem with the complementarian side. I’ll let RJS respond to your question but if you would look back on the many posts on this topic, I think you will see RJS has given good responses to all of this.

  • John Inglis

    RE Phil Miller @ 9:25

    Hi Phil, I realized after posting that your statement could be interpreted two ways, and that one way was that for you the truth is so self-evident that it is honestly difficult to understand how the other side can be trying to have a discussion based on the hierarchical point of view. However, your framing was so broad that in the context of other posts, and the conversation that occurs at large on this topic, that I’d just let it stand until you responded or someone else made a related point.

    My point applies to those who want to avoid the issue without resolving it or taking a strong stand on it.

    Thanks for responding.

    Here’s to further conversation,
    John I.

  • Percival

    Woo Hoo! Number references for comments! Now if we could only have tiered comments like over at Roger Olsen’s blog.

    Scot #16, Habibi (for a man) is a term that means my beloved (habibti for a woman). But Arabic translations use a word that means ‘helper’ in Gen. 2:18, not companion or beloved. I can think of many instances where Arabic, a living language which conserves Semitic idioms, brings insights into our English translations, but this is probably not one of them. However, I know of 2 Arabic terms for helper, one implies a lower status to the helper compared to the helpee, and one term that does not. In this verse the term that does not imply a difference in status is used.

  • Phil Miller

    A) More often than not, men have more of this set of characteristics while women have more of this other set. Therefore, in marriages (maybe also in the church) it will often work better for men to do these roles most of the time and women to do these other roles most of the time.

    Even though I see this view as better than the alternative you mention, I don’t see the point of writing a book about it. Once you use the qualifier “most” you’re already saying your rules are arbitrary and meaningless. This isn’t a case of the exception proving the rule. It’s really the case that there are so many exceptions that it shows that our rules were wrong in the first place.

    In my experience, books like this have the potential to do more harm than good. I mean no disrespect when I say that, but people who are inclined to agree with them will simple have their views validated. People who don’t fit in these categories will just feel further ostracized.

  • Dana

    “Kathy Keller defines “submission” so much it no longer means submission. Which is just the point. Jesus did too. (But I have to say that when that word submission is defined this way one has to wonder if the term no longer has value.)”

    This is my experience in soft-complementarian churches. The hard complementarians (Vision Forum, quiverfull, etc.) plainly have a low view of women that most people can’t stomach, and the soft complementarians keep talking and talking and talking about something that no one is doing anyway. What is the point? To be able to claim to be Biblical with a capital “b”?

  • RJS

    John Inglis (#19),

    I don’t think it is illegitimate to draw the connection with the command of Jesus that we are to be slaves of all. First off, in this post we are talking about the marriage partnership, not teaching and service in the church. Within this context the point is mutual submission. Not who submits to whom, but how two become one. My husband and I become one … and this doesn’t involve discussion of who leads and who submits.

    In the context of the church nothing is about individual authority or rights, and from both sides it too often is about authority and rights. Again, all are slaves of all, nothing is beneath anyone. I think we get too hung up about authority and hierarchy in the church at all levels. This is manifest in all the talk of the leadership of men and submission of women. None of us should take the view of leadership, we should all take the view of servant.

    Yes, I think I am and should be able to teach in the church – because I have abilities in this area, not because I have rights.

  • RJS

    DanO (#24)

    Genesis 2:18-25 is about the institution of marriage as a God ordained good for man and woman. I never said I thought Genesis 1-3 was a collection of myths and stories before we get to the real truth. Whether Adam and Eve are a literal pair, literary figures, or something else, doesn’t actually change the message that marriage is a God ordained institution.

  • Jon G

    The context of the “It is not good for a man to be alone” text is God placing Adam in the garden to “work it and keep it” (2:15), no? Then, wouldn’t the purpose of God giving Adam Eve be to have her help in his imaging God (bringing order out of chaos)?

    If the purpose of Adam was to reflect God’s image into the world – to rule in His place – to be his hands and feet…then it seems Eve was placed alongside him to aid in that project. What we have in 2:15 is a hammer and what we have in 21-23 is the addition of a whole toolbox. The job just gets done better when you’re more equipped.

  • Amos Paul

    So are there *any* Christian books on marriage from an egalitarian of equalitarian perspective?

  • Jon G

    Sorry, bad analogy on my part in #33. More like Hammer and Nails or Peanutbutter and Jelly…it should be two items that work better together than on their own…

    Anyway, my point is that the context of God finding Adam a helper is in his tending the Garden. I think Marriage flows out of Mission…at least as far as Genesis is concerned.

  • John Inglis

    RE RJS’s comment at 10:29

    In many churches we can never get to the issue of abilities because patriarchalism excludes. It is not that egalitarians are hung up about authority, it is that certain roles and abilities (in church and in marriage) are denied women by patriarchalists. Patriarchalists are the ones that make this an issue about authority and individualism–not egalitarians–because patriarchalists use their authority to deny and suppress women and their gifts and abilities.

    It is not that egalitarians argue that women are to have authority like men, but that men do not have the patriarchal authority that they claim. Egalitarians argue that no one has the kind of authority that patriarchalists claim; all are servants who are to submit to each other. This submission applies in all areas of a Christian’s life, including marriage.

    Claiming that men do not have patriarchal power is not “getting hung up” about individual authority and rights. Using a phrase like ‘hung up’ tivializes the importance of the issue and is dismissive of egalitarian women (regardless of whether you are one yourself). If you still disagree, well then we disagree.


    All the nice things that Ms. Keller states married couples are to do are irrelevant to the issue. Egalitarians absolutely agree with all that stuff, too. The essential and only difference is patriarchal authority, i.e., the divine right of men to rule (benevolently of course, and self sacrificially, etc.–but rule nevertheless). Patriarchalists (so-called complementarians) are entrenched sexists who insist on the absolute inviolability of specific roles and uses of authority–entrenched complementarians. Egalitarians have no problem with couples self-selecting complementary roles, but do not insist on entrenching these roles as inviolable commands of God.

    All the good things that Keller claims for patriarchalism come about because of Christ’s second command: love one another as we love ourselves. That type of love is required of, is given to, and is part of the life of both egalitarians and patriarchalists as disciples of Jesus. That type of love is not, however, inherent in patriarchy.

    Patriarchy creates AND institutionalizes a permanent imbalance of power where the benevolence of the exercise of the power is defined by the one’s holding it. The wife disagrees with her husband that he is exercising his authority in self-sacrificial love for her, but the husband–because he has the divine authority–rules that his wife is wrong and that his exercise is self-sacrificial and for her good (but she just doesn’t see it because of her sin, her inherent weakness as a women, because she is giving in to and expressing her post-edenic desire to rule over him, etc.)

    Consequently patriarchy is inherently negative in its effect and consequences on women. For example, read Jeffords, C. R. (1984), “The impact of sex-role and religious attitudes upon forced marital intercourse norms”. Sex Roles, 11, 543-552. Jeffords found that Judeo-Christian beliefs consistent with male dominance contribute to a patriarchal system that assigns women a subordinate role to men. He investigated relationships among gender role attitudes, religious orthodoxy, and beliefs about forced marital intercourse and found that those who held traditional gender role attitudes and those who reported religious orthodoxy were more likely to endorse the use of forced marital intercourse than those with egalitarian gender role attitudes or those who did not report religious orthodoxy.

    The following are some quotes from patriarchalists that highlight the alleged nuances of patriarchalism:

    Here’s Russell Moore being interviewed by Denny Burk–> Russell Moore: “Gender identity and complementarianism… I hate ….the word ‘complementarian’, I prefer the word ‘patriarchy’ . . .” Mark Dever: “So then, why is it you don’t like the word complementarianism?” Russell Moore: “Because complemnetarianism doesn’t say much more than the fact that you have different roles. Everyone agrees that we have different roles, it just a question of on what basis you have different roles? So an egalitarian would say, “Yeah, I’m a complementarian too, it’s on the basis of gifts.” I think we need to say instead, “No you have headship that’s the key issue. It’s patriarchy, it’s a headship that reflects the headship, the fatherhood of God, and this is what it looks like, you then have to define what headship looks like . . .”

    Or Doug Wilson’s nuance complementarianism in worship: “To emphasize masculinity in worship is not a practice that excludes women. Rather, it includes them, brings them along, and makes them feel safe. If you reach the men, you will reach the women.” Riiiiiiight, because women are followers and not heads, they are secondary in worship, they don’t need to be addressed directly, and they are so weak and vulnerable that they need a masculine service to feel safe.

    Mary Kassian’s nuanced complementarianism connects how women dress to levels of rape—women need to listen to men and dress modestly or they will be raped. She states this with a straight face despite the fact that so-called “sluttily” dressed women in North America and Europe have a far lower incidence of rape (inside and outside of marriage) than women in strongly patriarchal countries like Afghanistan, Congo, Pakistan, India and Somalia (the five most dangerous places to be born a women).

    In “Real Marriage” Grace Driscoll writes that, “[Esther’s] example illustrates the repeated command across all Scripture that wives respectfully submit to their husbands and removes any excuse we have for disrespecting our husbands… Amazingly, when she had an extremely urgent request, she respectfully waited outside [her husband’s] room to be heard. She didn’t barge in and demand that he do what she wanted …She didn’t disregard his need for respect.” Ah, the beauty of complementarianism at work: just disregard the fact that Vashti would have been executed had she gone in, or maybe that is the point of a complementarian interpretation (see next).

    Paige Paterson’s expresed his nuanced complementarianism in his audio interview wherein he was asked how to reply to abuse situations in a complementarian relationship. He stated that women should stay in the abusive situation and never divorce or even leave—in fact, in all his years of ministry he had had only counselled separation in a couple of situations where the abuse was so bad that he could not repeat the details. In any lesser situation a women should continue “to be submissive” and “elevate” her husband and pray. Patterson even stated that women should not be surprised if the abuse gets worse as a result of the prayer.

    Complementarianism, a.k.a., the “sucks to be you gospel”.

  • Phil Miller

    @Amos Paul #34 – Perhaps Boundaries in Marriage by Henry Cloud and John Townsend? It’s been so long since I’ve read this, though. But I’m pretty sure that they aren’t complementarians. Actually, much of their book is helping people know when it’s OK to say no to their spouses.

  • Jon G


    I notice that you keep saying “patriarchalists” instead of “complementarians”. I think this is helpful. This describes what some people, labeled as complementarians, are really thinking. From my perspective, it describes the abuse of complementarianism.

    I think the Kellers’ view of Complementarianism is (much) less about what people can’t do and (much) more about how we were designed to work together. This is why I am a Complementarian. I believe it was good and purposeful that God created men and women like-opposite.

    Complementarianism, in this sense, allows me also to call myself Egalitarian – in that it describes an equality of worth or value.

    I think God creates and loves women and men equally, but differently and so I call myself a Complementarian Egalitarian.

  • CGC

    I don’t know if RJS is a complementarian or a egalitarian? She sure isn’t for patriarchalism. I find it strange that you as a man come across so strong to someone who is a woman all in the defense of egalitarianism. RJS may even be an egalitarian which means your kind of shooting across the bow of someone who is actually on the same team even if you don’t want to acknowledge some of the extremes that go on on both sides of the divide.

  • Phil Miller

    I think the Kellers’ view of Complementarianism is (much) less about what people can’t do and (much) more about how we were designed to work together. This is why I am a Complementarian. I believe it was good and purposeful that God created men and women like-opposite.

    I am starting to feel like a broken record on this, but the thing that bugs me is the issue of “designed to work together”. It is still making it sound as if there is some ideal for what a Christian marriage has to look like. If it doesn’t look like that it is sub-par and not what God designed. Why can’t we just say there’s no mold or no “Biblical” standard other than loving each other and mutual submission? What that looks like will vary greatly from family to family.

  • Dana

    “I think the Kellers’ view of Complementarianism is (much) less about what people can’t do and (much) more about how we were designed to work together.”

    Are we designed to work together with men leading and making decisions while women help and submit to decisions? Seems like there are some people who can’t do things in that design.

  • RJS

    John (#36),

    As a female professor of chemistry at a major research university, as one who most certainly feels called to teach and lead, and as one who was never a stay-at-home parent, I certaintly don’t fit into the CBMW mold of hierarchy and patriarchy. In the words that are used – but I don’t really like – I would be on the egalitarian side of the discussion.

    We complement each other, but many of the ways in which we do so are not controlled by gender (some are gender linked).

    But this post isn’t a “women in ministry” post – it is a post on marriage. Marriage is a partnership, not a hierarchy.

    And I still say the entire discussion would be on the appropriate grounds if we all (male and female) took the words of Jesus seriously. We are mutually slaves of all.

  • CGC

    Hi Dana,
    I simply love the Eastern Orthodox Church and always appreciate your comments. So forgive me for pushing back on this one but why does male leadership mean making decisions and women helping or submitting to those decisions? Is that really the christian description of Christian leadership in the Bible or is that a cultural version that has been hanging around for a long time? I think Leonard Sweet is right that maybe its time Christians or the church start more talking about followership than leadership? And I will say, an incarnational servant lifestyle that makes up more about serving, giving up one’s rights, and self-denial than who gets to makes the decisions or who gets the power over others.

    I’ve always wondered what would happen not only with EO’s response but some Protestants if the Catholic Church’s papacy decentralized it’s power, followed the path of downward mobility, and empowered others who were not part of the hierarchy, what would happen?

  • RJS


    I think this is a different Dana (Dana Ames usually comments on EO).


    I think you are not reading the Kellers for what they say, but for what you think they say. That doesn’t mean we need agree with what they say. I think the division of servant leader and servant helper is not quite right – but the emphasis is on servant not leader or helper and this is definitely right

  • Jon G

    Phil and Dana,

    I don’t know how either of you got that from what I wrote.

    First, Phil, in my earlier post, I specifically place the ideal of Complementarianism under the goal of “mission”, not “marriage”. It is descriptive of ALL mission fields, not just Marriage. But I’m confused as to why you’re pushing back against the idea of working together in marriage as well. It IS ideal for a marriage to have individuals working together, isn’t it? Would it be better to have them working in opposition?

    “What that looks like will vary greatly from family to family.” Agreed. I don’t see why my comment is in contrast to this.

    “Are we designed to work together with men leading and making decisions while women help and submit to decisions?”
    Dana, your statement is describing the Patriarchal view, not the Complementarian view. The Kellers (and I) would flat out deny what you are asserting here. We are (each)designed to have gifts that complement each other. In each marriage, you must figure out whose gifts apply where. In my house, I suck at not wasting money…so my wife takes the lead in what we spend. But on the other hand, she’s terrible at investing money, so I take the lead in that. We each have our talents (or crutches) and so connecting with someone who is strong where we are weak benefits the whole.

  • John Inglis

    Moore, whom I quoted above, exposes complementarianism for what it is: patriarchy, a.k.a. male supremacy in authority. That is the core difference between it and egalitarianism.

    Anyone who, like the Kellers, redefines patriarchalism as some sort of wonderland of equality in outcome, and so hides the essential nature of it with a disingenuous term like “complementarianism”, is engaging in the essence of Orwellian doublethink and doublespeak–obfuscating and hiding the truth, dressing lies up as truth, and changing the meanings of words so that the truth can no longer even be recognized let alone discussed (because the words that one would use to discuss it have been redefined so that the essential concepts no longer exist). To say that one is an egalitarian even though one supports a hierarchy of authority in marriage is to engage in double speak: hierarchy is equality, submission is egalitarian, slavery is freedom, hate is love, war is peace . . . .

    So-called complementarian theology is at its core political language, political language that serves to distort and obfuscate reality: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible… Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness… the great enemy of clear language is insincerity. Where there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms . . .” (George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”).

    Driscoll (an advocate of complementarianism), in a 2007 sermon in Edinburgh interpreted Song of Solomon 2:3 as referring to oral sex and then said, “Men, I am glad to report to you that o**l s*x is biblical…. The wife performing oral sex on the husband is biblical. God’s men said, Amen. Ladies, your husbands appreciate o**l s*x. They do. So, serve them, love them well. It’s biblical. Right here. We have a verse. ‘The fruit of her husband is sweet to her taste and she delights to be beneath him.'”

    Driscoll went on to tell an anecdote about a wife who he said won her husband to Christ by performing o**l s*x on him. Driscoll said he told her that giving him oral sex would be following the admonition of Scripture. A transcript of the sermon quotes Driscoll saying he told her, “1 Peter 3 says if your husband is an unbeliever to serve him with deeds of kindness,” referring to o**l s*x. Verses 1 and 2 of that chapter, however, tell wives it is their “pure and reverent” conduct that will win their unbelieving husbands. (source: Baptist Press).

    It is not far off the mark to describe the Driscolls’ new book about complementarian marriage as a book about servicing one another rather than serving one another. Driscoll also approves of a**l s*x, and that coupled with a male divine right to determine who in a marriage has the more correct theology and with a female obligation to submit to authority where there is a disagreement turns the wife in an organism of holes that are to be used for male pleasure.

    The fact that complementarianism is patriarchy dressed up and hidden behind nice sounding words cannot hid the fact that patriarch is inherently bad. Nothing good comes from it; any good that comes about in a patriarchal marriage comes about NOT because of the patriarchy BUT instead because of the practice of Christ’s command to love.

    And what would a discussion of patriarchalism be without hearing from John Piper? During a video interview Piper described how an abused woman should submit to her husband. In the video (which used to be proudly distributed on his website) Piper at first laughs when he is asked the question (about how an abused woman can be submissive). Piper goes on about the different kinds of abuse, and then states, “Just a word on the other [i.e., violent] kind. If it’s not requiring her to sin but simply hurting her, then I think she endures verbal abuse for a season, and she endures perhaps being smacked one night, and then she seeks help from the church.”

    In the rest of the U.S. a woman is beaten every 9 – 15 seconds and more than one million abused women seek medical help for injuries caused by battering each year—yet the F.B.I. estimates that only 10% of domestic assaults are reported. Battery is the single major cause of injury to women, exceeding street rape, muggings, or auto accident. Some 2,000 to 4,000 women are beaten to death annually.

  • CGC

    Thanks RJS,
    Oops, wrong Dana (okay, I hope to hear the EO wisdom on all this 🙂

  • Phil Miller

    First, Phil, in my earlier post, I specifically place the ideal of Complementarianism under the goal of “mission”, not “marriage”. It is descriptive of ALL mission fields, not just Marriage. But I’m confused as to why you’re pushing back against the idea of working together in marriage as well. It IS ideal for a marriage to have individuals working together, isn’t it? Would it be better to have them working in opposition?

    I’m not pushing back against the idea of working together. What I’m pushing back against is the idea of gender roles being “designed to work together”. The “design” word is very loaded. My wife and I too have different strengths and weakness, and we’ve figured out what we think works the best. But I’m not going to say that doing those thing the we do them was part of a grand design. It’s just what we found to work. If we found some other way, it wouldn’t mean we were going against a design. It would mean that we’re doing something differently.

  • Jon G

    Gotcha Phil. Thanks for clarifying…

  • John Inglis

    RE RJS: “Marriage is a partnership, not a hierarchy. And I still say the entire discussion would be on the appropriate grounds if we all (male and female) took the words of Jesus seriously. We are mutually slaves of all.”

    Amen to that.

    Having been married over 20 years, I agree that there is no other way to go about it.

    [BTW, I thought that RJS was most likely an egalitarian and that therefore she and I essentially agree. I try to read all her stuff on this site, as well as on her own site; she writes well. The only place in this thread where it appeared we disagreed was in characterizing the disputes that occur between patriarchalists and egalitarians.]


    Does patriarchalism have any–ANY–inherent beneficial effects? Nope. It doesn’t even lower marital conflict, including divorce rates. As B. Caplan reports “Controlling for church attendance, Biblical literalists actually look more likely to divorce. (Church attendance works as expected – more church, less divorce). Controlling for education (and any other demographics you might care to use), the effect of Biblical literalism is statistically insignificant, but still has the wrong sign (i.e., Biblical literalists are a tiny bit more likely to divorce). I confess that I’m surprised. I would have guessed that fundamentalists would take their vows more seriously, and that their traditionalism would eliminate at least some marital conflict.” (internet Library of Economics and Liberty”).

    Similarly, the Barna study in 1999 showed that fundamentalists and born-again Christians have higher divorce rates than average.

    Fundamentalist and traditionalist marraiges are a reasonable proxy for complementarianism. Even more so atheist and agnostic marraiges are a very good proxy for egalitarian marriages and those groups consistently have the lowest divorce rates.

    Egalitarian marriages, with no hierarchy of authority, but rather based on partnership, mutual submission, and non-sexist division of roles and labour, have better long term success and better conflict resolution (i.e., less divorce).

    On the other hand, the inherent imbalance of power within patriarchy correlates with less marital success and lower rates of conflict resolution (i.e., conflicts cannot be resolved and so divorce results).

    John I.

  • Dana

    1. I am another Dana – not Dana Ames. I wish wrote her comments!

    2. RJS – I probably wasn’t clear but I was responding to Jon G, not the Kellers. I should be more direct. Sorry about that.

    3. Jon G. – Many who identify as complementarians do teach the gender roles I described. Egalitarians don’t deny that husbands and wives have complementary gifts and should use those gifts to serve each other. The Kellers identify as complementarians and not egalitarians. So what is the difference between the Keller view of a complementarian marriage and an egalitarian marriage? Scot wonders in the first paragraph what value the word submission has when its meaning has been defined away. In this case, I feel the same way about the word complementarian. If they are talking about husbands and wives serving each other in complementary ways within an egalitarian marriage, why not just say so?

  • Jon G

    BTW, Phil…can you tell me how you are able to quote other people’s text and then italicize and offset it? I’m an idiot when it comes to formatting text on this blog…everytime I want to stress something, I have to write it in ALL CAPS – which just makes me look like I’m yelling. 🙂

  • Phil Miller

    Jon G,
    The typical html tags work in these comment boxes. For the quote feature, use blockquote. It looks like this (replace the [ ] with .

    [blockquote] Copy and paste the portion you want to quote here [/blockquote]

  • Jon G


    First of all, great question.

    Let me just start with your number 2…I get my complementarian thinking from Keller so, while much less thoughtful than them, I think my view is representative of theirs. And when RJS says you’ve misunderstood them, I think she’s correctly thinking that because I haven’t said anything that they haven’t said.

    But on to your question to me – “Many who identify as complementarians do teach the gender roles I described.” This is absolutely right. Just like many who identify as egalitarians would favor elevating women over men. These are the ABUSES (I’m not yelling, just can’t use italics) of the positions, not the goal. I think it’s a travesty that the word ‘compliment’ is being used to describe dictatorial positions. Just like “equal” is being used by some to describe an “unequal” status.

    Maybe the vernacular has changed, and I can see your point. To you, the word “complementarian”, in practice, means “patriarchal”. So, you’re right in fighting against that and maybe we’re talking past each other because we differ on the meaning of the term.

    I for one, though, think that the changing of the terms is a result of those talking loudest being able to redefine them and want to fight against that. Why should I have to give up a complementary label because somebody else misuses it? I think it’s a crucial element to being made in God’s image.

    Roger Olsen has a similar stance, I believe, on why he continues to call himself “Evangelical”…

    Again, that is why I think one can be both Complementarian and Egalitarian, which I am. Sorry if I wasn’t clear enough before…

  • Jon G

    The typical html tags work in these comment boxes. For the quote feature, use blockquote. It looks like this (replace the [ ] with .

    [blockquote] Copy and paste the portion you want to quote here [/blockquote]

    Did I do it?

  • Jon G

    Yes! Thanks Phil! (I’m such an idiot). Sorry to take up space here, Scot! 🙂

  • John Inglis

    One cannot be both a “complementarian” and and “egalitarian” because of the essential difference between the two: the former is based upon a hierarchy of authority with a man at the top and the later specifically and explicitly excludes that. Jon G. should clarify if he believes in the “complementarian” hierarchy; if not, then he is an egalitarian and not a complementarian (which term was coined by and defined by the CBMW people to refer specifically to a power structure of male supremacy in the church and home / marriage). The Kellers do endorse male supreme authority and female submission.

    Patriarchy (which, as Russell more observes is what complementarianism really is), patriarchy per se is inherently bad for women because it has an inherent power imbalance. That conclusion flows from the female experience of patriarchy all over the world, and throughout time.

    Of course the evangelical patriarchalists state that the male patriarch in a “complementarian” relationship should not abuse his wife. BUT, and this “but” is important, this stand against abuse does not flow from their patriarchal stance but from what they add to patriarchy. To patriarchy these evangelicals add the self-sacrificing love of Christ. This love is intended to ameliorate the negative effects of patriarchalism.

    The reverse is not true, patriarchalism does not add anything good to a marriage based on Jesus’ love (nor, obviously, does it ameliorate any negative effects of such love on marriage). That is, patriarchalism adds no benefits to a [christian] marriage that are not already present as a result of the practice of Christ’s love (self-sacrifice, servanthood, care, etc.).

    In an marriage based on the love of Jesus present in us through his Spirit [i.e., not one based on such love PLUS patriarchy], there is freedom to be a servant to the other in all ways that are needed, and to exercise ones gifts and abilities without regard to whether the needs, gifts, or abilities fall within those traditionally ascribed to one’s gender. Because there is no supreme male authority, all decisions must be made mutually; there is no way out of an impasse expect through love. No one party has the authority and thus power to define what is loving, what is correct, what is beneficial, what is best for the other. No one party suffers under the inherent disability of starting from a position that insists that a post-edenic grasping for power causes her to disagree with her husband and blinds her to the true source and nature of her disagreeement. In a complementarian / patriarchal marriage the male gets to define the rules and make the calls. He does not suffer from a post-edenic desire to rule over his wife–that is his eternal right. He is called to discern if his wife’s disagreement is godly or sinful.

    Furthermore, the soc-called “complementarian” view of marriage has eternal implications, as we read in in M.D. Walton’s article in vol. 11, issue no. 1 of Journal of Biblical manhood and Womanhood, titled “Relationships and Roles in the New Creation”: [quote follows}

    “Given, then, that relationships between those married on earth will in some sense remain in the new creation, it remains for us to inquire regarding the nature of those relationships. To put it more directly, will husbandly headship and wifely submission still obtain in the new creation? The egalitarian response, of course, is that all traces of headship and submission will have been removed. The evidence, however, argues to the contrary.

    First, consider the argument concerning man and woman as originally created. There is virtually universal agreement that man and woman are ontologically equal, equal in essence and worth, because both were created in the image of God. In the ordering of his creation, however, God formed the man first and gave him responsibility and authority as the head of the human race.41 This headship, far from being a result of the fall-feminist and egalitarian claims notwithstanding-is a central feature of the divine created order.42 Because the new creation is, fundamentally, a return to the divine order that prevailed before the fall, it follows that male headship will remain in the new creation.

    Second, consider that subsequent to the fall (and not as a consequence of it), the principle of headship and submission in male-female relations is clearly affirmed in the New Testament. Furthermore, nowhere in Scripture is this principle replaced or rescinded.43 Surely within the context of biblical teaching on the church there would be an unambiguous repeal of the principle of male headship if, in fact, its end reflected the divine ideal. Such is simply not found. There is every reason to believe, then, that male headship will continue as the divine order for male-female relationships.”

  • re: Grace Driscoll on Esther in comment #36… isn’t Grace getting it totally wrong? i had always read that Esther did in fact “barge in” on her husband. that’s what the whole bit between her and Mordecai about her not having been summoned is about.

    *checks Bible* ok, so (5:1-2) she waits in the inner court instead of the hall proper, but she still hasn’t been summoned, and it could mean her death just to come to the inner court (4:9-11). i would count that as barging in. especially since usually for a woman to be summoned by the king usually means to his bed, not to his political meetings. i would say she definitely takes the lead with her husband. but then, i’m not a patriarchalist either.

  • Dana Ames

    Jon G @56, you’re not an idiot. I haven’t been able to figure out how to work the the italic thingy either – that’s why I use asterisks to avoid yelling…

    But to your previous comment about which of you does what with regard to finances in your marriage: If that’s how things work for you generally in your marriage, on the ground, then I would say that you fit quite neatly into the category that was described by Mohler – or was it Moore? they all sound alike to me – “functional egalitarian”.

    You sound like a kind, well-meaning, faithful person. I have no worries about your marriage – spoken like it’s any of my business in the first place 🙂

    I think the whole resurgence of a patriarchal mindset at the end of the 20th century has been related to the need we have as humans to categorize things, which was elevated by the Enlightenment in which Protestantism matured, and morphed into stuff like Systematic Theology. This philosophical sea in which we swim has gone a long way to feed the (supposed) need for Certainty of Outcomes, which has engendered the idea of marriage relationships built on (supposed) roles. (“If we would all just do things **Biblically** then our lives would be better because [fill in the blank with desired outcome].”

    Problem is, there is no place in scripture specifically outlining timeless “roles” for men and roles for women, in marriage or any other relationship. And to say that a husband’s role over and against that of a wife is analogous to the Father’s role in relationship to the Son in the Trinity is poor theology; it very quickly leads to what Arius taught. And women who are not married are left out of the picture entirely. The whole scheme is absolutely unworkable, which is why people who really intend to given themselves for one another and meet one another face-to-face as Persons, like you and your wife, live differently on the ground than they say they believe, if they say they are complementarians.

    And anyhow, “roles” are for actors.

    Best to you.

  • Beakerj

    I cant wait for the days in which the character of Christ and how we display it in marriage is emphasised over and above any discussion about roles. Character must be the primary focus; any so called Christian role that isn’t carried out with true Christian love & other-centredness is just a sham, but unfortunately a sham that has too often been promoted as the real thing.

  • John Inglis

    Hence, according to the “sucks to be you” gospel, you women will still be submitting to your husbands in the life to come. Thus, if you (women) are a gifted and natural leader, with a calling to exercise gifts reserved to a man in this present age, you will never, ever be able to express those gifts and callings (or, rather, what you sinfully thought were your callings). You will always have to suppress them, and subordinate them to your current husband as well as other men. I suppose the “complementarian” answer would be that God will remove such disordered and sinful desires / abilities from you, but then you will be a substantially different person qua personhood than you are now (and not just different because you women are perfected). Men, on the other hand, get to hang on to their abilities and desires to be leaders and be in authority.

    Here’s how M.D. Walton puts it [same article as above]: “With both man and woman thus perfected and transformed, are we to suppose that the new creation will abandon the order established in God’s original creation? I think not. Rather, such relations will bring to each true joy, and to God, more glory than before. . . . There is every reason to believe that gender-based distinction of roles will remain. The social fabric of gender-based distinctions of roles was weaved in a pattern that accords with the prelapsarian decree of the Creator. In the new creation, that fabric will not be discarded or destroyed. The stains will be removed and rips mended. The fabric will be cleaned and pressed. But the pattern established in God’s “very good” creation will remain.”

    Perhaps the new creation will fit the “complementarian” vision of Voddie Baucham, who believes that daughter’s should shave their fathers, and sit in their laps even as adults, and stay at home “covered” by their fathers until the covering is transferred to the husband.

    Under “complementarianism”, the true fault boils down to the woman. For example, B. Ware links a women’s refusal to submit to their suffering of physical abuse (you sin, he sins): “[women desire to have their own way instead of submitting to their husbands because of sin] And husbands on their parts, because they’re sinners, now respond to that threat [no submission] to their authority either by being abusive, which is of course one of the ways men can respond when their authority is challenged–or, more commonly, to become passive, acquiescent, and simply not asserting the leadership they ought to as men in their homes and in churches”. OK, now the picture is clear, if only women would submit rather than sin, then they wouldn’t get abused.

    Or how about the complementarian daughters at home movement? According to the Botkins and their stay-at-home-sisterhood, if men fail in their work, marriages or faith, women are to blame: “If our men aren’t successful, it largely means that their women have not made them successful. They need our help . . .” and this gem: “Before you can accuse your father of being unprotective, ask yourself: ‘Do you make it clear to him that you are a woman of virtue, worthy of his special protection? If your behavior was more gentle, feminine, respectful and lovely would he be more inclined to be protective of you?’”

    I guess at least 50% of us can declare like the Pharisee at prayer, “I thank God he did not make me a woman”.

    BTW, none of what I right is intended as a charicature of complementarianism. I truly believe that complementarianism is a wrong theological position with very real, negative outcomes. However, the error does not rise to the level of Arianism (error about who Jesus is), and so I would not refuse to worship with a complementarian or take communion with one.

  • Dana Ames


    WRT hierarchy, Orthodoxy has a mixed record just like every other “organized” group. We don’t always live into our theology.

    But we do have a theology about this. It’s about voluntarily giving up your life just as Christ did, in whatever place or walk of life we happen to be. What is constantly put forward is that each person is to regard him/herself as the chiefest of sinners, and to seek humility above all else – the whole Phil 2 thing.

    The organizational scheme of Orthodoxy is pretty flat: the whole people, of whom priests and bishops are part, with bishops as shepherds and teachers in particular locales. Bishops are chosen from the ranks of monks. When something needs to be decided, the bishops get together and decide, with input from the rest of the church; how many bishops is determined by the scope of the problem. The bishops are supposed to act in council, not on their own. We don’t have anything like the Roman pontificate (although the archbishop of Alexandria has been called “the Pope” for a long time – go figure…) The press gets it wrong calling the Patriarch of Constantinople “the leader” of the world’s Orthodox. He is a good man, and Orthodox around the world listen to him – and technically the Orthodox he is the actually “the leader” of are the bishops of the Greek Orthodox residents/citizens of Turkey – of which there are very few. In terms of pushing papers, there are not many more layers, and they are mostly honorific titles. Most of our revered family members (saints) have lived in poverty and eschewed “power”. In terms of who gets to be “empowered” to do ministry, that’s basically anyone, male or female, with the blessing of his/her bishop. (Or sometimes without – the latest person elevated to sainthood by the Russian O. Church is Alexander Schmorrell, who was part of the White Rose anti-Nazi resistance group in Munich; I doubt he was able to let his bishop know about his leafletting activities – but he could have done.)

    If you’re interested in the O. view of what the bishop is about, a good resource is “Church, Papacy and Schism” (3rd edition) by Philip Sherrard. It’s very meaty, but relatively short and without much technical theological jargon. Sherrard was a very well-read and clear-thinking “layperson”.


  • CGC

    Thanks Dana 🙂

  • DRT

    CGC, I have enjoyed Fr. Thomas Hopko (EO) for a very long time now. If you are into podcasts (I am heavy into them), then he has one and he is on Part 31 of his series on Bishops in the EO 🙂

  • Dana Ames

    Been following them too, DRT 😉


  • Guest

    Scot, (Having twice checked the spelling of your name, I can proceed, phew.)

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for this, in the post: “I don’t think God gave us roles so much as he created us to love and he made us in gender …” I define myself as an egalitarian, and that is exactly what I mean. I don’t have to worry all the time whether I’m playing my role and doing it right. I have to love, which is often synonymous with serving (ahem, more so than leading). If I’m loving, I don’t need to examine myself constantly to see if I’m playing the right role. I love. As a woman. I don’t have to worry about acting the part of a woman. It’s already taken care of. It’s just love that I need to be deliberate about. Being a woman: no instructions needed. Can’t help it. It really comes through a lot … in all I do.

    Thanks also for your number 3 and for wondering aloud. It’s really hard to read the early chapters of Genesis without hearing the commentary of countless Bible teachers (pastors) in my reading. I’ve often thought that too much was made of the word “helper” and that it didn’t come from the text as much as from the explanations and really the additions made to it. To get from the simple word “helper” to the “man has a mission. He leads. Woman helps” theory of marriage is a stretch.

    There was one lonely caretaker of the garden. Now there are two. Eve is fully present on the scene with Adam now and I don’t see any justification for the idea that just because she’s going to be helping him now she needs to stay two steps behind and make sure she stays in a supporting role. That kind of argument cannot be made from the idea of a “helper.” That only means she needs to get busy and start tending the garden, which is a wonderfully creative process. What a great job (my favorite hobby).

    That “supporting role” argument really is best put forward on the basis of the fall or of Paul’s commentary on Gen.2/3, not on the basis of the fact that Eve was supposed to help Adam. In fact, maybe the men should all heave a collective sigh of relief because without the word helper, maybe Eve could have just enjoyed the garden and let Adam take care of her and the garden too. I digress…. but I don’t think the word “helper” gets us far beyond merely avoiding that scenario.

    Re: Song of Solomon. I never heard any interpretation of Song of Solomon growing up except that it was a metaphor for Christ and the Church. It will therefore come as no surprise that I have no idea what you are talking about. I’ve so far only managed to gather the impression (before today) that this interpretation from my childhood was actually the source of some amusement to those prepared to engage the text. So, how is Song of Solomon about marriage, about that relationship? Have you written anything about this before? I find that, when it concerns the Bible, I often need help making the initial jump to thinking in new ways, but it’s a very rewarding process. Song of Solomon as the basis for a book on marriage? I’m assuming you mean much more than physical enjoyment of each other.

    Finally to all: I choose to stay nameless today because of what follows. The conversations between egalitarians and complimentarians are fascinating, and it’s important for the church to put forth a theory of this intimate relationship that is right, good, and lovely. But where the rubber really meets the road is when the two approaches/views clash within a marriage. I understand at a visceral level the idea that I desire my husband and my heart turns towards him but he rules over me. It’s like the words have been seared into me and I really know them, now. It feels like rejection. The point is, it’s not about playing a role. I want the real thing. When I fell in love with my husband umpteen years ago, I thought he liked and enjoyed me. I trusted him. But he can’t seem to make room for my voice. At all. By personality and occupation he is authoritarian. And the focus on roles rather than relationship has afforded him something to hide behind. I suspected that was at play, and he made it explicit two days ago. And I do not know how I am going to communicate past that or through that with him. So six years ago, I remember sitting in our dining room and swallowing the lump in my throat and deciding I would just have to give it my best go for as long as I could, this marriage, even though I had accepted it was loveless. You cannot love what you cannot accept or make room for and what you seek to dominate. But the church has given him a framework to view things through such that I don’t know if he will ever see it. If the focus of the church is on the leader role, the fruit of it will be leadership obsessed men. I heard my dad, a Christian worker, tell my mom one day it would be her fault if he hit her. Can you really separate that from a philosophy of life that makes man central and puts him in the lead … by necessity, because of the essential nature of man and woman? No…… And why, I begin wondering, did God put man and woman together, when we are so different, and the balance of power is so skewed, and the idea of relationship seems doomed to failure? What is he up to?

    So, John Inglis really gets it. His voice may be a little edgy at times, but I’m telling you from my standpoint, it rings true, and this whole question really is as damaging as he makes it out to be. Complementarianism is an approach that is too easily corruptible. And by complementarianism I mean an obsession with roles and partitioning everything into what a man is and does versus what a woman is and does.

    Shall I even begin to describe what the patriarchal interpretation of Gen. 3:16 has added negative to the mix, that woman desires to control man in the same way that sin desires to control Cain in Gen. 4? Am I doubly fallen then, especially corrupt, does God see me that way, and is that why I have to be so strictly controlled and defined, subordinate, and am I just blind to my own most basic impulses? I first learned of this interpretation in 2006. Six years it’s been plaguing me.

    This question of roles, of a leader/authority and a submissive, doesn’t sound like healthy psychology to me, doesn’t feel like healthy psychology or relationship, and leaves me trying to have a relationship with a God who by virtue of my gender doesn’t seem to like me very much. I find it very hard, and I already have trust issues with God without all this.

    So please, church, please, is this really God’s heart towards women?

  • RJS


    Thanks for your comment. It is powerful, especially the last few paragraphs. I agree with you – complementarianism is an approach that is too easily corruptible. This doesn’t mean that all are corrupted, but that the view provides a space for justification of a destructive interaction.

    I picked the quote I did in my post Tuesday on Half the Sky because I was reflecting in the back of my mind on how deeply this kind of thinking reflects culture not gospel. Hierarchy and patriarchy are cultural – not the Christian ideal. We complement as partners in the ideal.

  • scotmcknight


    Kris and I both are thankful for your comment. The Kellers contend that the “leader” role is corrupted by some males to be authoritarian, but the cross kind of love of Christ deconstructs the authoritarianism of that word (submission). I agree with them on that. But you are not alone in having experienced males who mask themselves behind that word in order to carry out all sorts of deviations from love.

    Song of Solomon: I did a series on this book a long while back on this blog, but the book is not simply erotic poetry and it is only by extension (of the human marital love relationship) metaphorical for our relationship to God. But reading it only of the latter is not right.

  • DRT

    Guest, most excellent response, but I found this

    That “supporting role” argument really is best put forward on the basis of the fall or of Paul’s commentary on Gen.2/3, not on the basis of the fact that Eve was supposed to help Adam. In fact, maybe the men should all heave a collective sigh of relief because without the word helper, maybe Eve could have just enjoyed the garden and let Adam take care of her and the garden too.

    hilarious. Thanks for making my morning. I will be able to use that all over the place.

    One cannot help but wonder how alienating women, alienating gays, alienating introverts, and alienating everyone except straight extrovert heterosexual males is Jesus like.

  • Dana

    DRT –

    “…straight extrovert heterosexual males…” Please add “white” and “between the ages of 30 and 50”.

    As a middle-aged women who has listened to the voices of the straight extrovert white heterosexual males between the ages of 30 and 50 for the last twenty years or so, I’m pretty tired of them. At this point, I no longer think that most of them have very much to say to me anymore.

    I’m moving on. Stepping out of what “leadership” role I had at church and looking elsewhere for my spiritual sustenance and companionship. None of them ever wanted to be my companion anyway. They just wanted to tell me what to do and harness my considerable strength for their own purposes. They’ll have to do without me from now on.

  • Here are my comments on the points in the OP:

    No, “every marriage” does NOT discover that men and women are different, but that people are different. Sweeping generalizations that rely more on stereotypes about majorities but ignore the critical differences don’t help marriage or anything else.
    Christ is NOT the paradigm for “roles” of male and female but all Christians. The Orwellian terms “servant helper” and “servant leader”, without the “servant” part, keep people in contrived “roles” based solely on the flesh. It was Eve, not all women for all time, who scripture says was made to “help”; never is the “all women are helpers” idea repeated in scripture. And where is even one instance of “all men are leaders”? Does Eve being a helper automatically make Adam a leader? NO! A rescuer is neither a servant nor a boss, but “a strong ally equal to him”.
    In washing feet, agreed that Christ’s “role” was that of a servant. But then what is the point of adding “authority” to this service? In what way was authority being modeled, except to point out its absence? If it is devoid of “authoritarianism” then why keep calling it authority? Instead, to be clear and non-Orwellian, let’s just call it “service”.
    Strongly object to assiging all men with independence but all women with dependence— which is what “interdependence” really means. There are many dependent men and independent women, and none of these are sinning or wandering from any divine “role”. Blaming it on “postmodernism” may be popular, but it’s still a gross oversimplification that homogenizes all men into the blue box and all women into the pink box.
    For something the writer admits as few details in the Bible, she sure is confident that it nonetheless teaches all these details. To deny the cultural influence on them is to deny most of culture through most of history. There have indeed been matriarchal groups, even today there are very dependent men who cry in public, women have made many fine leaders and men have made many poor ones, etc. Our observations, combined with the Bible’s lack of specifying what all men are and all women are, teaches the opposite of rigid, flesh-based roles. Patriarchy was certainly reported and God worked through it just as he worked through many other human frailties, but none of this is any kind of endorsement. Rather, what we see is that whenever God did intervene, he chose the young, the weak, the small, and the humble. That in itself is a clear message that the “role-playing” theorists love to ignore.

    McKnight notes the omission of appeal to the Song of Solomon on any book about marriage, as well as ignoring Gen. 3 where The Fall takes place. While I don’t deny the value of SoS in this discussion, I think Gen. 3 is vastly more significant. Since the church is where all the old worldly hierarchies are abandoned (Gal. 3:28), and since pre-Fall Genesis never speaks of Adam having any rule over Eve but that both rule jointly over nature, we can trace all “enmity” and struggle for rule to sin rather than God.

    But he is exactly right in objecting to all this focus on contrived and stereotypical “roles”, which curiously always put the male in charge. Yet I think he is too lenient to Keller (or any other roles teacher) in accepting the stereotypes and redefinition of words like “leader” and “helper”. Love is not always and universally expressed one way by all men and another by all women; there is too much evidence to the contrary. The same can be said for any other human personality traits— which are commonly twisted into roles to play becaus they are presumed to be true without exception. They cannot be roles or rules when exceptions are present, and especially not when they are more common than the roles teachers will admit.

    McKnight mentions almost in passing something that is probably more central than anything else he mentioned and that I noted earlier: what was said of Adam and Eve was not said of all men and all women. Only Eve was made from the flesh of her husband, but as Paul pointed out to the Corinthians, ever since then all men (and of course all women) come from women, and everything comes from God. I’ve also pointed out elsewhere that the practice of reading Paul’s application of Genesis into its original context and then applying that interpretation back onto Paul is the fallacy of circular reasoning (not to mention the fact that his words to Timothy are grossly and deliberately misinterpreted, since he was discussing deception and not hierarchy— and again, only of one woman in the past and one in the present).

    I wrote all of the above before I read any of the comments. So here are my responses to some of those:

    In #16 McKnight argues that it is the fallacy of “illegitimacy totality transfer” to allow the meaning of ezer as used for God to extend to it as used for Eve. But the Genesis context only could narrow the meaning by inference: “it is not good for the man to be alone”. I would argue just the opposite: that Eve would turn out to be a “help” in the strongest and most encompassing way: by her “seed”. Genesis never states the reason Adam was not to be left alone, so it is pure conjecture to presume it was merely “loneliness” as in needing a friend or companion. Adam never expresses such loneliness, and God never defines it. But what happens right after Eve’s creation? The serpent shows up. Coincedence? Or maybe Eve was to help Adam stand against Satan, who shrewdly attacked the helper because Adam was a pushover while Eve had to be tricked, and such trickery would have been much tougher if Eve had first seen Adam fall. And what more “help” could Eve turn out to be than to provide the instrument of redemption? Both sides can invent a story to fill in the gaps, but the point is that I think the charge of assigning a fallacy to the broad meaning of ezer is unfounded. (I see now that comment #33 brings out this point as well.)

    Comment #24 raises a good question about whether Adam and Eve were meant” to convey universal relationships. But of course this requires an argument from silence. It should be noted though that both sides can appeal to Adam and Eve as representatives of more than only themselves: pats as “helper means subordinate”, and egals as “hierarchy was only caused by sin”. Comment #25 brings up the “candy coating” issue that many egals have noted as the way pats try to get us to swallow their bitter pill.

    But comment #29 succinctly states the crux of the matter: what’s the point of writing a book about roles when there are clear exceptions that disprove them? As I’ve said before, the old saying “the exception that proves the rule” has taken on the opposite meaning from the original. To “prove” meant to “test”, as in “proving ground”. If an exception were found it would DISprove the rule, such that the old saying would be rendered today as “the exception that tests the rule”. And in this case, the rule of “roles” is tested and found false, even by the author of the book. It is thus an interal contradiction and makes the book pointless.

    In comment #36 John Inglis brings up a point I have stressed many times: the teaching of “benevolent lording over”. Scripture does not allow us to turn NO lording over into “be nice about it”. What many do is to read the modern connotation of harsh rule into scripture while ignoring the context. As Jesus told the disciples who were arguing over who would be the greatest in the coming kingdom, wordly hierarchy is what “lording over” is. Jesus cited the fact of a chain of command, not the character of that chain, as being the opposite of how things will be in the kingdom of heaven. Several other good points are raised in this comment as well, especially the last line: Complementarianism, a.k.a., the “sucks to be you gospel”. 😀

    Iglis also brings up the Orwellian nature of patriarchy/complementarianism in comment #46, as well as the “elephant in the living room”: abuse. It must be emphasized that while some who identify as egal engage in abuse, the point is that pat/comp is the only teaching that justifies it; nobody ever cites egal literature in defense of abuse, but they often cite “woman, submit!”. Though many comps try to qualify and soft-pedal on this, the fact remains that when power is given to one spouse over the other for life (with no hope of escape), abuse is rationalized and excused, or even blamed on the victim.

    Beakerj in comment #60 expresses what many of us egals have said: in a world of lost people and suffering, why all this navel gazing? To elevate flesh attributes to primary (since the woman must always preface any interaction with a male over 13 with a theological assessment of how submissive she can be) is to relegate the gospel to the secondary. And as Jesus bluntly flamed the Pharisees, they “go over land and sea to win a single convert and then make them twice as much a son of hell” as they are. That is, I’ve seen far too many people cite male surpremacy as the primary reason they reject the Christian faith (that, and hypocritically preaching against sins they themselves commit). I marvel that so many women would convert to Islam, but when the plight and place of women in what purports to be Christianity are essentially indistinguishable from Islam, I wonder what Satanic spell it is that can pull this off. In both, women are hollowed out shells of the people they once were and reduced, as mentioned by John Inglis, to men’s blow-up dolls and maids “with benefits”. Of course the pats howl at such bluntness, but this is where the path leads. Many people, regardless of topic, are horrified when confronted with the logical conclusions of their beliefs.

    And what about the men? They are pampered and spoiled. As a former “quiverfull” woman put it (sorry, can’t find the link), we teach toddlers not to touch certain things (house-proofing the child rather than child-proofing the house), yet if the child is male and grows up, suddenly the rule is reversed. He is like a toddler blaming the delicate vase for making him pick it up and break it; he blames the woman, the object of his desire, for making him rape or abuse her. While a child he cannot use this excuse, but as an adult it becomes “God’s divine order”. Like Darth Vader, this is twisted and evil.

  • Anon

    Guest –
    What you are experiencing is not God’s heart towards women. You are experiencing a sinful attitude toward women in general and toward you in particular.

    At one point in my marriage I could have written your letter. The only difference is that my husband had no idea that he could use the Bible and the church to dominate me. So that was never in the equation in our relationship. I did not submit to his ridiculous demands or demeaning attitude. I served my husband, mostly with love, and stood up against him when he was wrong in his treatment of or attitude toward me. I’m glad I did. Life is pretty good now. He did not go into marriage intending to treat me so disrespectfully, but he needed help to stop.

    Please don’t listen to anyone who tells you that you are doing it wrong or that you would enjoy your marriage if you would only submit more or better. They are wrong.

    My heart goes out to you for entertaining the idea that this may be what God “designed” you to endure. What you are experiencing in your marriage is not what God intends for women.

  • John Inglis

    RE Paula @ 8:43 a.m. (no. 71?)

    So absolutely true your statement, “Jesus cited the fact of a chain of command, not the character of that chain, as being the opposite of how things will be in the kingdom of heaven.”

    I have long detested evangelical leadership seminars, and the whole concept of servant leadership. Jesus was never about leadership, but about servanthood, full stop. Jesus calls us to imitate him in his servanthood. The only “leading” Jesus ever did was “leading by example”. He only gave two commands, or rather reiterated them: (1) love God, (2) love others.

    Corruption of Patriarchy

    Given that patriarchy is not God’s design for marriage, we cannot expect patriarchal marriages to work as well as egalitarian marriages (which are God’s design). Sure God can bless the couples in each type of marriage, and work in the former in spite of the unGodly patriarchy, but the patriarchy itself is not blessed. So the patriarchal marriage suffers two defects: (1) it is not how God designed marriages to work, and (2) it’s hierarchical relationship is not the type of relationship God blesses.

    Sure, ’tis true that God blessed the Jewish “patriarchs”, but what was that other than God working through and in spite of existing social structures? It’s no different than God allowing divorce at that time because of the hardness of men’s hearts.

    But now we’ve been given new life and Jesus has sent us the Comforter to empower us to imitate him. The hierarchy of the new kingdom is pretty flat: King Jesus and then a nation of priests. Which, by the way, has always seemed to me to undercut the whole “no women preachers thing”. If women are priests in the new kingdom just as much as men, why should they be denied the ability to carry out the duties and exercise the abilities of a priest?

    John I.

  • John Inglis

    italics and bold

    to start italics, type the lesser than sign (usually same key as the comma , ), then type a lower case “i”, then type the greater than sign (usually same key as the period . )

    then type whatever you want to show up in italics

    then turn it off by adding a forward slash to the formula: type the lesser than sign (usually same key as the comma , ), then type the forward slash (usually same key as the question mark / ?), then type a lower case “i”, then type the greater than sign (usually same key as the period . )

    doing bold is the same, except replace the lower case “i” with a lower case “b”.


  • Phil

    I’m intrigued:

    “’…straight extrovert heterosexual males…’ Please add “white” and ‘between the ages of 30 and 50’.

    As a middle-aged women who has listened to the voices of the straight extrovert white heterosexual males between the ages of 30 and 50 for the last twenty years or so, I’m pretty tired of them. At this point, I no longer think that most of them have very much to say to me anymore.”

    While I understand the cause of the frustration, I wonder if anyone could have written those same sentiments here about another racial, ethnic, or gender group and not have been called out for being offensive or ad hominem.

  • Good question re. a kingdom of priests, John.

    Of course, the response pats use is to apply their powers of circular reasoning to a handfull of proof-texts. I encountered one who actually claimed that “the particular overrides the general”. That is, in spite of Jesus’ “not so among you”, Paul could completely reverse that general and foundational principle of the coming kingdom. My response in turn was to point out that this makes Paul greater than Jesus and in direct opposition to him. In fact, this is exactly how the Pharisees saw themselves. I once listened to a lecture by a modern-day Pharisee who explained that after God gave the law to the OT priests, not even God could tell them what to do with it. So either Paul was lapsing back into the “role” of Pharisee, or he kept contradicting himself by telling women how to prophesy one minute and then telling them to shut up completely the next. Instead, I think Paul has been deliberately misinterpreted and is a fine example of one who considered his former mindset “a steaming pile” (the sense of the Greek actually conveys that crudity) and turned completely from worldly hierarchies. (I wrote a whole book about that called Nicolaitan: Power and Control in Christianity at books DOT fether DOT net).

  • Dana

    Phil @ 75

    “While I understand the cause of the frustration, I wonder if anyone could have written those same sentiments here about another racial, ethnic, or gender group and not have been called out for being offensive or ad hominem.”

    I’m not sure why. I don’t think I said anything derogatory about them. It’s a free country. I can listen to whoever I like. It’s my own fault I spent the time I did listening to them. They don’t owe me messages that apply to my life. They speak whatever they feel compelled to say.

    And I can wander off to wherever I like.

  • DRT

    Let’s see if this works

    Do make text italic

    Type &lti&gtText you want to be italicized&lt/i&gt

    Do make text bold

    Type &ltb&gtText you want to be Bold&lt/b&gt

    To make text into a:

    blockquote text

    Type &ltblockquote&gtText you want to be in Blockqutoe&lt/blockquote&gt

  • DRT

    Let’s see if this works (sorry if you consider this clutter scot)

    Do make text italic

    Type <i>Text you want to be italicized</i>

    Do make text bold

    Type <b>Text you want to be Bold</b>

    To make text into a:

    blockquote text

    Type <blockquote>Text you want to be in Blockquote</blockquote>

  • Marilyn

    Thanks for this post. I’m a latecomer to the discussion (in fact, the discussion is pretty much over), but I would like to comment on Scott’s observation that complementarians seem to de-emphasize Song of Solomon.

    Complementarians typically acknowledge two general patterns in the way that husbands sin against their wives. First, husbands can be harsh to their wives and in the extreme, abusive. Second, husbands can withdraw from emotional engagement with their wives. To me, the phrase “fight or flight” summarizes the behavioral patterns that complementarian authors describe.

    Psychologists tell us that “fight or flight” are behavioral responses to the emotion of fear. I John 4:18 tells us that love drives out fear. So, I think it’s no surprise that God commands patriarchal husbands to love their wives because genuine love will drive out fear of the feminine.

    Secular psychologists tell us such as Erich Neumann tell us that patriarchal fear of the feminine is most typically revealed as a fear of female sexuality and a fear of female creativity. The latter is one possible explanation for the overreaction of a Tim Challies to an Ann Voskamp. The former is one possible explanation for the reluctance of complementarian authors to preach Song of Solomon, with its inherent mutuality. Even though patriarchal husbands have all authority, they nonetheless fear a wife’s power.

  • Marilyn

    A second late comment, this time on Kathy Keller’s interdependence/independence. First, thank you very much for affirming the existence of gender differences.

    I want to preface my remarks by saying that they’re speculative. My read on what Kathy Keller says is that she is in part basing her views on the work of psychologist Carol Gilligan, whom she references as supporting the existence of gender differences. Gilligan argues that male independence is represented by adherence to the rules of a code of conduct, irrespective of the impact of the rules on a particular individual. In contrast, female interdependence is best described as empathy for those who appear to be harmed by the application of the rules, irrespective of the rules.

    One possible interpretation of the Kellers’ views is that the female ethic of empathy must operate within the boundaries of the male ethic of the moral code. Related to this, empirical psychologist Jesse Prinz, whose work is summarized in David Brooks’ 9/29/2011 NYT column, Limits of Empathy, argues that empathy is not sufficient for human morality. It’s necessary to have a code of conduct. In contrast, Gilligan appears to argue for matriarchy when she concludes that the female ethic of empathy trumps the male ethic of the moral code.

    The Kellers provide several instances of Kathy confronting Tim for his failure to follow the rules. Of course, “rules” are nothing more than human application of God’s general commandments. When setting the rules, there has to be room for a discussion of the impact of the rules on those subject to the rules. Having read the book once, I wasn’t quite as clear about the Kellers’ perspective on a wife’s role in the setting of the rules, as I was about the Kellers’ perspective on a wife’s role in addressing the failure of her husband to follow/apply the rules.