Why Protesting “Equal But Subordinate” is Not Just Me Having a Problem With Authority

Why Protesting “Equal But Subordinate” is Not Just Me Having a Problem With Authority March 23, 2014

by Kristen Rosser cross posted from her blog Wordgazer’s Words

I received some feedback in the comments on my last post regarding the logical fallacy of claiming women are equal and yet divinely intended for eternal subordination to men.  Here is a quote from the comments:

I feel so sad that whether or not you are are subordinate or authoritative is the means by which you determine whether or not you want to go to or will enjoy heaven? We will all be subordinate to Christ. . . I have been both a boss and an employee, both roles have their perks and unpleasantries, I for one am glad to be in submission to Christ and if He determines that a man should be in authority over me, then in His wisdom I welcome it. Not all men are abusive and brutish with their leadership. . .When the new heaven and the new earth are brought about. . . authority and submission will not be the same as here under this fleshly existence and curse.

When it was pointed out to her that my post was not about the abuse of authority, but about assigning authority to men because they are men and denying it to women because they are women, the same commenter responded:

[I]f abuse of power is not the issue, then what is? What difference does it make then who is in submission to whom?  I have seen people who initially did not seem qualified and capable of serving by the gifts they presently possessed, rise and exceed expectation. . . As an older woman I have placed myself under the authority of younger men and women and rather than watch them for inadequacies, I rather encouraged and helped them succeed in their role. Submission is not an inferior thing unless you make it so by your prideful reaction to authority. That’s why I say this real, argument has not gone beyond that line of thinking. . . I for the life of me can not see what is so evil about authority and submission in and of themselves. People can corrupt those positions, but I don’t see where one is greater than another?

I promised the commenter that I would try to explain more fully using some concrete examples, so this is not an attempt to put her on the spot, but rather to address the issues she has raised.

This appears to me to be related to the argument from the article from the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (“CBMW”) that male authority and female subordination are mere “functional” differences.  My commenter is saying that there is nothing inherently superior about being in authority, nor anything inherently inferior about being in submission to authority.  In terms of “functional” differences, she is of course, quite right.  Despite her reference to my “prideful reaction to authority,” it really is not authority in and of itself that I am reacting against.  What I object to is the idea that one group has a divine right to have authority over another group, based on nothing other than their identity from birth as part of the authority-holding group.

To put it in the simplest terms, it makes a difference who is in submission to whom if the nature of man is to be in authority over woman, and the nature of woman is to be under the authority of man– because submitting to authority is not equal to being in authority, and I believe this is self-evident. To be the one who acts and commands (authority) is not equal to being the one who is acted upon and commanded.  That’s why the one under authority is called a “subordinate.” The very word means “under.”

You can be equal and still in a position of submission to authority if the submission is part of the position, not part of who you are.  But if these unequal things then become part of our very natures as men or women, then men and women not equal. I’m not against authority; I’m against being made unequal when the Scriptures say I’m equal.

This shows more clearly when we look at how it works in other distinctions besides that of male/female.  Look at it in terms of economic class, for instance.  A century or so ago, if I had been born into the aristocracy, I could feel confident that my God-given identity was as part of the ruling class.  That is, for no other reason than what family I was born into, my inherent, inborn nature was to rule over the lesser classes.  Many older novels refer to “an unmistakable air of breeding” or similar words meant to show that a member of this class had not just been taught refined manners, but that he or she was inclined by nature and inborn ability to take authority over the serving and working classes (who were taught to “obey their betters”).

Another obvious example would be that of race.  If people of one race, for no other reason than being born of that race, are created and decreed by God to be in authority over people of another race, then there is no equality, no matter what anyone claims otherwise.

This really is something different from what the commenter calls “authority and submission in and of themselves.”  Here is what “authority and submission in and of themselves” look like.  My boss is in authority over me by virtue of the fact that he hired me and is paying me, while I was hired by him to work for pay.  This is what is actually meant by “functional” authority.  My boss’s authority over me is not essential to his being or to mine– it is circumstantial, time-bound and limited.  When the workday is over, his authority over me ceases.  If I invite him to dinner at my house, he cannot command me to make him steak instead of of pork chops– and if he did get that obnoxious and I asked him to leave, he would have to go if he didn’t want me to call the police and have him arrested for trespassing!  (It’s true that I might not keep my job after that, but that doesn’t change the fact that the law considers me to be in authority in my own home.)

Even the authority of the police is time-bound and limited.  They cannot search my home without a warrant, for instance, and when a policewoman clocks off her shift and changes into her own clothes, she no longer has the power to direct traffic.

Furthermore, neither my boss nor that policewoman were born into their roles.  They had to go through training and prove themselves capable, before they could take on any authority over me. And since they have gone through that training, I am perfectly willing to submit to their authority.  Nor do I protest even if (as the commenter described) they don’t seem qualified or very capable at first and need to grow into their positions.  In fact, I too have helped a less experienced new boss succeed.  No prideful reaction against authority has ever been noticed by a boss of mine.

The question, then, is how the authority of men over women is viewed and treated by the CBMW.  If it is a matter of “authority and submission in and of themselves,” then there ought to be times and places where women are not expected to defer to men or to acknowledge any inborn, natural ability and inclination towards authority in men over women, simply because of being born men.

Furthermore, if CBMW considers the difference in authority between men and women to be functional rather than essential, then the philosophical differentiation between “necessary” and “accidental” traits as I discussed in my last post should apply.  CBMW should not be found saying that all men have “headship” over women, but that some, because of certain personal traits and circumstances of their lives, have simply lost or missed out on”headship,” just as a person can miss out on being able to do calculus or ballroom dancing.

But here are the kinds of things CBMW and its spokesmen actually say:

John Piper gives this definition of manhood and womanhood, in his contribution to the CMBW book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, page 29 (he used all caps to show the centrality of this point, so I am rendering the text as he did):


On page 37 he quotes J.I. Packer:

[T]he man-woman relationship is intrinsically nonreversible. By this I mean that, other things being equal, a situation in which a female boss has a male secretary, or a marriage in which the woman (as we say) wears the trousers, will put more strain on the humanity of both parties than if it were the other way around. This is part of the reality of the creation, a given fact that nothing will change. [Emphases added.]

Notice that reversal of male authority and female submission is said to put a strain, not on the parties’ roles or even on their sense of their own masculinity or femininity, but on their humanity.  Male authority is part of male humanity, and female subordination is part of female humanity.  Therefore, if they don’t act in accordance with their own, very different kinds (and it would not be inaccurate to say classes) of humanity, they are going against creation itself.

On pages 41-42 Piper gives examples of appropriate behavior for men and for women which affirms male humanity in terms of its authority over female humanity.  First, for men:

The God-given sense of responsibility for leadership in a mature man will not generally allow him to flourish long under personal, directive leadership of a female superior. . . Some of the more obvious[situations] would be in military combat settings if women were positioned so as to deploy and command men; or in professional baseball if a woman is made the umpire to call balls and strikes and frequently to settleheated disputes among men. And I would stress that this is not necessarily owing to male egotism, but to a natural and good penchant given by God. [Emphasis added.]

And for women:

[A] mature woman. . will affirm and receive and nurture the strength and leadership of men in some form in all her relationships with men. This is true even though she may find herself in roles that put some men in a subordinate role to her. . . One or more of these roles might stretch appropriate expressions of femininity beyond the breaking point . . . [but]her demeanor-the tone and style and disposition and discourse of her ranking position-can signal clearly her affirmation of the unique role that men should play in relationship to women owing to their sense of responsibility to protect and lead. . . To illustrate: it is simply impossible that from time to time a woman not be put in a position of influencing or guiding men. For example, a housewife in her backyard may be asked by a man how to get to the freeway. At that point she is giving a kind of leadership. She has superior knowledge that the man needs and he submits himself to her guidance. But we all know that there is a way for that housewife to direct the man that neither of them feels their mature femininity or masculinity compromised. It is not a contradiction to speak of certain kinds of influence coming from women to men in ways that affirm the responsibility of men to provide a pattern of strength and initiative.
But as I said earlier, there are roles that strain the personhood of man and woman too far to be appropriate, productive and healthy for the overall structure of home and society. Some roles would involve kinds of leadership and expectations of authority and forms of strength as to make it unfitting for a woman to fill the role.

It appears that there are in fact no times when the CBMW would say women are not expected to acknowledge the God-given and innate authority of men.  The proof of the pudding, though, would be in a real-life situation where it might make sense to say that male authority and female subordination are not functioning due to the particular circumstances involved.  If male authority is functional and not essential, then there ought to be exceptions to the pattern.  If there are no exceptions– if male authority holds true even in the most adverse circumstances possible– then we are certainly not talking about “authority and submission in and of themselves,” but of inborn and innate authority which puts male humanity and female humanity in different and unequal states of being.
So here is the test case: the sad and lovely marriage of Ian and Larissa Murphy. Here is Ian and Larissa Murphy’s Story on John Piper’s Website.  If you have time, please view the entire 8-minute video.
Her-Meneutics Article on the Murphys from May 2012 describes it like this:

They met in college and fell in love. They talked about getting married, and he started looking for a ring. They dreamed about life together, a life of beauty and joy, raising babies and laughing with friends and growing old. They did not imagine a car accident. They did not imagine his brain injury. They did not dream about the need for constant care and a wheelchair and fear that food might choke him. They did not plan for this.

Larissa agreed to marry Ian even though in every practical way, she is required to be the leader in their relationship.  She must manage the household, she must be the breadwinner, she must take care of the finances.  She does all of this while feeding and bathing him and giving him his medications, because she loves him, and he clearly is capable at least of loving her.  I admire her and that kind of love very much.
The Her-meneutics article goes on to say:

She differentiates (following John Piper in his book This Momentary Marriage) between primary and secondary things within marriage: “Ian can’t do many of the secondary things, like working or making a meal for me. Everything that’s primary, though, he can do, which is leading me spiritually.”

I’m glad that Larissa and Ian Murphy have found some way that he can contribute some strength of his own to the relationship, so that it’s not entirely one-sided.  And it’s possible that, despite his severe brain injury and inability to communicate more than the simplest concepts, he is in some way leading her spiritually.  But to focus on that as the one primary aspect of their relationship, passing over all the ways that she can and must be leading him, is pretty good proof that in CMBW’s view of manhood and womanhood, authority for leadership is essential to maleness– without exception.

The Wartburg Watch wrote about the Murphys in June 2012:

In the video we learn that Larissa, along with her pastor, had to go before a judge to be granted permission to be marry Ian. This means that Ian was judged incapable of making that independent legal decision. . . Larissa must do just about everything for Ian. She works, cares for the home, etc. She holds his head while he throws up, and she interprets what he is saying. She is in charge.
[But] this story is quite threatening to the patriarchal movement. It is obvious the Larissa is in control and has authority but that is an anathema to their “authority” definition. So, this situation has been reinterpreted to put Ian back in the driver’s seat.

Piper said in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (see link above), pages 29-30:

[A] man may not be physically able to provide for or protect his family and yet be mature in his masculinity. He may be paralyzed. He may have a disabling disease. His wife may be the main breadwinner in such a circumstance.
And she may be the one who must get up at night to investigate a frightening noise in the house. This is not easy for the man. But if he still has a sense of his own benevolent responsibility under God he will not lose his masculinity.
His sense of responsibility will find expression in the ways he conquers self-pity, and gives moral and spiritual leadership for his family. . . .

Piper wrote these words in 1991, long before Ian and Larissa’s story began– but his words and their story dovetail together.  Whatever else a man may lose, he cannot lose his spiritual authority, because it’s essential to his manhood.  He may not be able to act on his authority, but he never loses it; and no matter how much she may be required to lead, a woman never truly loses her innate disposition to submit to the man.

Piper, and CBMW, clearly believe that this is about the God-given, inborn and innate authority of men and the God-given, inborn and innate subordination of women.  When men and women don’t function according to these inborn directives, they are in rebellion against God and their own natures. But gender distinctions really are not different in any way from the distinctions of race or class. When one group of human beings has a natural, inborn trait of (and divine right to) authority over another group of human beings, equality is simply gone.  Just saying there is still equality will not make it so. 

So this really isn’t about my having a problem with authority.  It’s about me having a problem with being delineated as a woman in such a way that the image-of-God equality of all human beings set forth in Genesis 1:26 is to all intents and purposes negated and denied to me.

Lip-service to equality doesn’t satisfy me.  I want the real thing.

Comments open below

[Editorial Note: This article is intended for those readers who have chosen to accept the Bible as authoritative for faith and practice. If you are not one of those readers, please be understanding of the intended audience and refrain from commenting on the assumptions on which it is based. Please refrain from this pertains to all Christians everywhere and show some respect for the writer please. For more info on the site please visit – Is NLQ an Atheist Website?]

Read everything by Kristen Rosser!

Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network member, Kristen Rosser (aka KR Wordgazer) blogs at Wordgazer’s Words

NLQ Recommended Reading …

Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich

Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce


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  • Nea

    Assigning all the authority to one group or another IS abuse of authority. It passes over the qualified disenfranchised in favor of the unqualified franchised.

  • SAO

    Obviously, the concept of male leadership and female submission is so fragile that all sorts of things threaten it, such as a man asking a woman for directions: “She has superior knowledge that the man needs and he submits himself to her guidance.”

    Happily, the commenter points out, “that there is a way for that housewife to direct the man that neither of them feels their mature femininity or masculinity compromised.” Which sounds to me like both dance around verbally to hide the fact that the woman has ANY superior knowledge, even something as better knowledge of local roads than a man from somewhere else.

    But regardless of the verbal dance, the woman does know something the man doesn’t know and he needs her advice to avoid wasting a lot of time — and if the question is how to get to the nearest hospital, a life might hang in the balance.

    So, if you examine the most trivial of cases, how to get to the highway, you realize that the male headship/female submission is based on a pretense that requires lots of work to keep up.

    And ultimately, it’s about stupid pride. If a man is incapable of accepting generously (if less than submissively) given, then the man is selfish, proud, and cares more about perpetuating a lie than any values that Christ might represent.

  • guest

    “You can be equal and still in a position of submission to authority if the submission is part of the position, not part of who you are. ”

    By this do you mean you are OK with the husband having authority and the
    wife rendering submission to his position of authority in their

  • Trollface McGee

    Some people like to have a leadership role, others don’t. That kind of relationship works for some people, the reverse works for others, and most prefer some sort of egalitarian arrangement. The issue is, it should be up to the couple to decide, not to have the arrangement decreed from high above because of the set-up of their naughty bits.

  • Trollface McGee

    That’s what they don’t see when they complain about the secular world being intolerant of them. They don’t understand that there is a very valid reason that someone might be intolerant of misogynists who see people solely by their genitals. There is no valid reason to automatically give leadership rights to men because penis – no valid reason (well, perhaps if it’s a literal pissing contest, though I understand that there are ways for women to compensate these days).
    That, combined with how frail the male fundie is that he can’t even take directions without being emasculated, it’s a recipe for disaster. I don’t care how properly submissive his wife is, one day he’ll have to encounter the female toll-booth attendant, the female police officer, the female judge and none of them are going to take his crap (at which point I assume his man bits fall off and he can start acting like a human being).

  • Indeed; as I am fond of saying, one’s ‘actions’ speak louder than one’s ‘stances’, in the real world.

    Yet they seem to have that reversed in their fundie fantasy land.

  • “Well, perhaps if it’s a literal pissing contest …”


  • Nightshade

    I think the voluntary component of the employer/employee relationship is important. During my work hours my time belongs to, or in a sense is being rented by my employer, I have no problem with being told what I am to do and how it is to be done. If my supervisor starts telling me to do something that I find unacceptable I am free to look for another job. If I’m not working to my employer’s satisfaction they can terminate my employment. Is it completely equal? No. Depending on the job market and how badly the employer/employee need their side of things one or the other will hold more of the power, but there is a voluntary element. My boss isn’t telling me ‘Do this job right or you’re going to hell.’ The power balance may not be completely even, but it is (in most cases) not 100% one-sided.

  • Dorothy Young

    You know what’s funny? So many QF adherents are also incredibly patriotic and loyal to America—but none of them would argue for the “Divine Right” of kings to rule. Wouldn’t they be more consistent if they apologized to England for usurping the “authority” of King George’s rule, instead of rebelling for “No Taxation without Representation?” Didn’t the king have the AUTHORITY to do everything he did? 😀

  • guest

    In my question I was referring to the patriarchal or complementarian marriage wherein the husband is always the one with headship/authority and the wife is the one who is supposed to submit to this authority. Most complementarian teaching describes this relationship as functional and limited to the marriage relationship and within the church, but only to an extent (women can’t teach doctrine to men). John Piper goes a step further than most of the complementarians I’ve read or listened to.

    Kristen clearly expresses her disagreement with an “ontological inequality” as John Piper teaches it (while denying he’s teaching it, of course), but states she has no problem with the “functional inequality” practiced and taught in complementarianism.

  • guest

    “I think the voluntary component of the employer/employee relationship is important.”

    Voluntary and limited. Your boss stops having any say in how you do things as soon as you leave the workplace every day, and you can choose to resign if it’s not worth working for him/her any more. Marriage is the one and only relationship where one is “stuck” for the rest of their life if they aren’t happy. Yes, there is divorce, but the conservative, traditional church is generally against it.

    Of course, there are people who also believe chidren are forever in submission to their parents, but that’s an extreme I don’t think Piper has gone to.

  • Nightshade

    Absolutely right. It’s the difference between proper authority, i.e. boss during work hours, laws about endangering other people, etc, and total dominance over another person. It’s limited and can be terminated if abused.

    As for Piper and his ilk…don’t give them any ideas, they might just go for it! 😛

  • gimpi1

    The whole idea of a “divine chain of command’ is pretty twisted. Such concepts have been used time and again as an instrument of oppression.

    I can relate to your story about Ian and Larissa. My father was injured in an industrial accident and suffered profound brain-damage, though not as all-encompassing as Ian’s. My mother had to take a great deal of responsibility for our household, even though she was disabled too, due to childhood polio and rheumatoid arthritis. Frankly, even as a child, I had to pick up a good deal of the slack. It worked out fine but the whole idea that my mother and I stepping up was somehow not appropriate, or that my dad was the ‘real’ head of the household is annoying.

    Personally, I do have problems with authority. I’ve been lucky that I haven’t worked in a field where there is heavy regimentation. However, I’ve wondered if my having to step up so young due to my folk’s disabilities might be why.

  • KarenJo12

    This relates to that discussion.

    I want to note also that all the other authority relationships — parent-child; employer-employee; police – citizen — the authority has the ability to punish the subordinate. If husbands have authority over their wives, how do they enforce that authority? How do they punish infractions? If there is no mechanism for punishment, there is no authority.

  • “Complementarianism” is inherently inequal; John Piper is no different than the norm in that particular sect of Christianity.

  • guest

    There are people who believe a husband has the authority to keep his wife in line and discipline her as needed.
    A preacher friend of ours praised a pastor’s wife’s declaration that her husband, among other things, is her “rebuker”. I asked him if the pastor had ever referred to her as his “rebuker” and he said that would be different, probably inadequate. When I asked him why he thinks it may be less proper for a wife to rebuke her husband, he proceeded to explain me the whole business about roles and all that. Needless to say, we didn’t get anywhere with that conversation but it was enlightening. Those men believe they can tell off their wives but it would be wrong for the wife to tell them off.

  • guest

    I agree with you because that is what it is. It’s inequality. But Piper is the first one I`ve read that actually says that women are supportive by nature and men are leaders by nature. I don’t exactly disagree with him on that point. I think men and women are different by nature, but we are also conditioned to act differently. In my opinion, man and woman were made to lead, rule and have dominion together, as a unit.

  • No, that’s not what I said. I do indeed have a disagreement with the husband being the authority in the marriage because he is the man, and with the wife being under authority in the marriage because she is the woman. The same goes for the doctrine that a woman can’t be pastor because she is a woman. I disagree that either of these are functional or positional just because they’re limited to the marriage relationship or within the church. A woman is not under authority in marriage or restricted in the church because she’s married or because she’s a church member– she’s under authority or restricted because she’s a woman. Hence her subordination is not related to her position but to her being.

    This is clear because when men become church members they don’t get restricted from pastorship. In other words, the restriction from pastorship is not related to one’s position as a church member. It’s related to one’s being as a female. A man is restricted from pastorship only by his qualifications, training and giftings. The woman is restricted even if she has the appropriate qualifications, training and giftings.

    The same goes for marriage. One doesn’t come under authority by getting married– one comes under authority by being a woman who gets married.

    The employer-employee thing is different. Either a woman or a man may be an employee or a boss in an employment relationship. The difference is in the position, not in one’s being when entering the employment relationship.

  • No, I’m not ok with that. See below.

  • Yes, that’s what I believe.

  • Do you mind if I post your question and my answer at my blog where this originally appeared, for clarification?

  • Trollface McGee

    Good point. It is exactly the same line of thinking!

  • Just because he’s willing to outright say it doesn’t make him any different in belief or actions. Just makes him unsubtle.

  • guest

    Sorry… I worded my post wrong. I didn`t assume you agree with complementarian inequality, but you could be read to potentially agree with it. This would better express what I was trying to say:
    “Kristen clearly expresses her disagreement with an “ontological
    inequality” as John Piper teaches it (while denying he’s teaching it, of
    course), but states she has no problem with “functional inequality”. Complementarians teach and practice what they believe to be functional inequality.”

    I actually agree with your assesment of complementarianism, by the way, although some complementarians would have no problem working for a female boss, complementarian wives work outside of the home, some as employees and some even as employers or in positions above men. Some complementarian women teach, even at Christian colleges, but they may be restricted from teaching doctrine. It seems like SOME complementarians really do believe in in a more functional and restricted inequality.

  • Rebecca Horne

    If your boss abuses their power, you may not even have to resign overt it. In a lot of jobs there are enough checks and balances that you might be able to just inform somebody that the boss is overstepping their bounds, and it’ll be addressed by the boss’s boss.
    So, the power structures is voluntary, limited by time, limited in scope, and kept in check by layers of authority that are designed to prevent abuse.
    Contrasted with, “they’re the boss of all, all the time, just because.”

  • Yes, some complementarians do believe in a more restricted inequality, but I still deny that it’s functional just because it’s limited to certain situations. Within those situations it still applies across the board, without exceptions, and is related to the woman’s being within the function, not to the function itself. I plan to do a 2nd follow-up post on my blog regarding this and hope you don’t mind if I quote you.

  • Freedom for the man from all rulers above him, extreme and minute control by him over all under him.
    Because it is Biblical™ !

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    I don’t think most of these people have any idea of the philosophical foundation of this country, and its roots in Natural Rights Theory, which rejects the idea of divine right (and which both the women’s movement and abolitionist movement used to make their cases). That would require knowledge of actual, non-revisionist history, the kind that is not in a Christian homeschool curriculum.

  • guest

    It seems like the more a man thinks he’s entitled to rule over his family, the less he accepts any rule or authority above him. They are the very ones defying laws and regulations because they are “ungodly”. They like to place themselves as judges of every law or law maker.

  • guest

    I look forward to your post, Kristen. Feel free to quote me.

  • guest

    Go ahead. I don`t mind!