A challenge to “evangelical complementarians”

A challenge to “evangelical complementarians” January 8, 2012

Following up on my earlier post about evangelical complementarianism…

I now see that it is possible to interpret the evangelical seminary dean’s comments about Eve being “cursed in her role before the fall” as NOT implying that she was cursed before the fall. The syntax of his sentence is tricky. I’d like to give him the benefit of the doubt here because it seems to me to say that Eve was cursed before the fall would be very strange indeed (if not a bit crazy).

As I said in response to one comment here, however, it does seem to me that at least SOME evangelical complementarians’ view of women implies that Eve was cursed before the fall. What is permanent, docile, subordination and submission if not a curse? To any doubter of that, let me pose a question: Suppose you knew that, in your life, you would always be like a child in relation to someone else no matter what your IQ might be, no matter what knowledge you gained, no matter what skills you acquired, etc. You would forever (at least in this life) be required to obey UNQUESTIONINGLY someone else. What is that but a curse?

I have held discussions with complementarians many times over the years. I’ve been immersed in evangelicalism and Christian higher education; I’ve pastored, taught, edited a scholarly journal, served as deacon and church board member, interim pastor, etc., etc. Throughout those 30 years of deep immersion in the evangelical subculture I have had many opportunities to dialogue with informed complementarians. I have read many of their articles and books. I have listened to them speak. There is ONE QUESTION they have never even seriously attempted to answer. I have posed it to many of them and the uniform response has been “Well, I’ll have to think about that and get back to you.” They never do.

So here’s my question. Feel free to pose it to your complementarian friends, family, teachers, pastors, whatever, and let me know what they say. Or maybe you have an answer. Feel free to offer it here. But what I’d really like to know is what do the leading evangelical complementarian theorists say?


Suppose a married couple comes to you (the complementarian pastor or counselor or whatever) for advice. They are both committed evangelical Christians who sincerely want to “do the right thing.” They are trying to live according to the guidelines of evangelical complementarianism. However, a problem has arisen in their marriage. The wife acquired sound knowledge and understanding of finances including investments before the couple became Christians. The husband is a car mechanic who knows little to nothing about finances or investments. A good, trusted friend has come to the husband and offered him an opportunity to make a lot of money by investing the couple’s savings (money for their childrens’ college educations and for retirement) in a capital venture. The husband wants to do it. The wife, whose knowledge of finances and investments is well known and acknowledged by everyone, is adamantly opposed to it and says she knows, without doubt, that the money will be lost in that particular investment. She sees something in it the husband doesn’t see and she can’t convince him that it is a bad investment. The husband wants to take all their savings and put it into this investment, but he can’t do it without his wife’s signature. The wife won’t sign. However, after long debate, the couple has agreed to leave the matter in your hands. The husband insists this is a test of the wife’s God-ordained subordination to him. The wife insists this is an exception to their otherwise complementarian marriage. You, the complementarian adviser of the couple, realize the wife is right about the investment. The money will be lost if the investment is made. You try to talk the husband out of it but he won’t listen. All he’s there for is to have you decide biblically and theologically what she, the wife, should do. What do you advise?

I have posed this or a similar scenario to many complementarians without definite response. My thought is this: IF the complementarian says the wife should sign in spite of her knowledge, just because the husband says so (and she is obliged by scripture to obey him), he is simply being unreasonable because where would such obedience stop? If the complementarian says it stops at the line of Christian conscience (i.e., wives are not required to obey their husbands if they command them to sin), he has to define “sin” in such a way as to exclude from it the wife’s knowing participation in financial ruin for their whole family. If the complementarian says this is an exception and the wife is not obligated to sign, he is ripping complementarianism to pieces. He is then admitting that obedience is tied to knowledge and not to role.

I think this is a defeating dilemma to rigid complementarianism such as I hear it taught and read it promoted in much of conservative evangelicalism. I’m not at all surprised I’ve never received a definite answer to it from any complementarian. It’s a true conundrum that exposes the impossibility of consistent complementarianism.

I fully expect some complementarian to say the wife should sign and trust God to honor her obedience. I seriously doubt any adviser would actually say that to the wife in the counseling situation. If so, then I can only consider that an example of the kind of legalism Jesus countered in the Pharisees. Jesus said the “the law” was made for man not man for the law. Jesus had no trouble “working” on the sabbath when it was a matter of healing someone or finding food to eat for his disciples.

So, there’s my challenge. Please let me know your thoughts and those of your complementarian acquaintances.

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  • I consider myself undecided (or maybe “still trying to decide”) with regards to this issue, so I will try a stab at an answer from a complementarian perspective. You can tell me whether it is convincing or whether my solution disqualifies this hypothetical position from being called “complementarian.”

    Complementarian teaching at its most biblically faithful always assumes that a man, as “head of the household,” has that role alongside – or perhaps even subordinate to – his membership and submission to the authority structures of a local church community. In other words, a man’s headship is not a matter purely between he and Christ alone (and I think you would agree that the best representatives of complementarian teaching would say this). Scriptural teaching about a husband’s role – interpreted from a complementarian perspective – assumes therefore an ideal situation in which a local community plays an active and formative part in how the husband conceives of his leadership within his family. This acts as an implicit and explicit filter through which the husband’s actions pass. In your example – in which the wife’s financial prowess is “acknowledged by everyone” and in which they have brought the matter to a trusted member of the community for arbitration – there should be members of the community who are wise and objective enough to help the husband see that, with regards to this specific matter, the “filters” assumed by Scripture with regards to his headship are not operative (he is failing to listen and bring wisdom to bear on his own decisions) and therefore he is actually failing to live into that role biblically. Alternatively, if the hypothetical other people in question are not part of a local church, or if the couple is not that closely tied to a local church, then I would argue that the husband has already failed – from a complementarian perspective – to truly act as “head of the household” in ways Scripture seems to assume, since (I would argue) close involvement with a local body is assumed on the part of all NT writers.

    As I said, I’m not necessarily saying I think this is the case, but you’ve been involved in these discussions much longer than I have and I’d be interested to hear what you think of my answer.

    • rogereolson

      You may very well be right; I just haven’t read or heard that answer in the complementarian literature or from any complementarian I’ve talked to. Of course, this just raises the question–What if the church sides with the husband? Should the wife then sign their children’s college fund away? Or, what if the church sides with the wife but the husband remains adamant about investing the money? Isn’t that a huge exception to complementarianism (to argue that he, as head of his own household and priest over his wife should bow to someone else’s human authority that favors his wife)?

    • We can use the example of Proverbs 31 where an ideal woman is seen as being an astute business woman who does not leave her family in penury.

      That’s in a truly hierarchical structure where women weren’t seen as being as important as men, but even there knowledge trumped gender differences.

      • rogereolson

        Well, I think that’s a stretch in interpreting Proverbs 31. It doesn’t say she does any other those things against her husband’s wishes. But, if that is what it means, then complementarianism, as taught by many conservative evangelicals, is qualified to death.

  • Wouldn’t the soft complementarian advisement be that the husband should willingly listen and engage with his wife’s opinions and doubts, and that any decision he makes should seek to lift her up, sacrificially loving her as Christ loves the church? In this case the husband should have the humility to perhaps engage some sound financial resources (material he can find online or perhaps a consultant) that the wife can suggest. This way he isn’t simply “catering” to her opinion, but prayerfully seeking out all means of making a wise decision.

    Also, making the investment seems to be something that would not just financially hurt the family, but would emotionally hurt the wife. Again, the husband is to (according to complementarians) sacrificially love as Christ loves the church. He should be putting his wife’s emotional needs above his plans for making a quick buck. If anything, he should be content to wait out his wife, to see if God will change her heart so that they can make this decision in accord. Complementarians often say that a husband can see the direction in which to move his family, but should have patience to wait for the rest to “catch up” as it were.

    Anyhow, as a former soft complementarian who is moving quickly towards middle ground (if not beyond), I sort of see that as a way out, without overstepping complementarian boundaries, if I were the counselor in question. At least, that’s the version of complementarianism that has been handed down to myself and many of my peers who are in our mid- to late 20’s.

    At it’s best, it’s about serving your wife and family first, and using your position of authority (or whatever you want to call it) to lift others up. It certainly has its hurtful permutations, as you’ve rightly evidenced, as well.

    • rogereolson

      That’s not what I recognize as complementarianism; that sounds much more like egalitarianism to me! This is my complaint. Every time I put a hypothetical scenario like this to a self-professed complementarian he either doesn’t answer or suddenly becomes an egalitarian! I don’t think most egalitarians have any problem with the husband thinking he’s the head of the wife if the relationship doesn’t really function that way. There have been lots of times when I have wanted us (my wife and I) to do something and had to wait until she agreed or we compromised. Sometimes it never happens because I bow to her wishes and put my plan on the shelf (or in the garbage).

      • Scott

        I think your answer is a bit disingenuous, to claim that Sean’s view is simply egalitarian , simply because you don’t think the exercise of authority fits your understanding on complementarianism. You have yourself rightly pointed this issue out on your discussions with the Calvinist argument of the sovereignty of God. The manner in which authority is “wielded” does not change the the authority itself. The Husband is by God made the leader of the household, yet God instructs how this authority is to be played out, and that is by sacrificially loving your wife, placing higher value on her than on oneself.

        • rogereolson

          Well, I don’t get it, then. All I hear from “evangelical complementarians” is how the wife is to submit to the husband’s authority. Sure, as a footnote or afterthought they say the husband is to love his wife. But when they are talking about submission and authority over and obedience the emphasis always falls on the wife submitting to her husband’s authority and obeying him (unless he tells her to violate Christian moral norms). I considered Sean’s “complementarian” answer to my hypothetical situation an example of killing something with the death of a thousand qualifications (or, in this case, maybe one!). IF complementarianism says a wife DOES NOT have to obey her husband in matters of judgment (not morals), then it is NOT (IMHO) complementarianism as that concept has been taught in thousands of churches and through hundreds of books in American evangelicalism these past 25 years.

          • Hi Roger, for myself I don’t think “submission teaching” should ever be directed at women.

            If a man wants a woman to submit to him he has to do the work on himself, to be the kind of man she can trust enough to submit to. Strength, wisdom, self-control and compassion are all attributes of a good man. Someone who just wants to get their own way cannot be trusted with leadership.

            In this example the man should demonstrate wisdom, acknowledge his wife’s superior knowledge in this area, and agree with her that such an investment would not be in their family’s interests.

          • rogereolson

            Yes, but is that what the leading conservative evangelical complementarians teach? I haven’t heard or read that from them.

          • And maybe that looks a bit egalitarian.

            I don’t really have a hard and fast theology on the relationships between men and women. God knows I find my own confusing enough without trying to make solid rules about it.

          • rogereolson

            Yes, my point all along has been that when push comes to shove complementarians nearly always cop out and suddenly turn into egalitarians.

      • Fred

        “There have been lots of times when I have wanted us (my wife and I) to do something and had to wait until she agreed or we compromised. Sometimes it never happens because I bow to her wishes and put my plan on the shelf (or in the garbage).”

        Yes!! I am not alone in the universe.

      • I agree, and that was my attempt to play devil’s advocate, according to the complementarianism that was handed down to me.

        Praise God that there are more balanced marriages despite whatever theological categories one is claiming to uphold!

    • This isn’t really addressing the question posed, but the way Sean described a husband’s sacrificial love for his wife reminded me that “sacrificial love” often looks suspiciously like submission… *cough* Semantics! *cough*

  • Buks

    I guess my response would not qualify since I don’t consider myself a “rigid” complementarian. Just like a “rigid” egalitarian would run into problems trying to explain why men cannot bear children while woman can, a “rigid” (fundamental?) complementarian will have a problem in the scenario above.

    My understanding of complementarianism has never been in isolation to other Biblical truth such as the the advice of Proverbs that in the councel of many, there is wisdom. It is not a matter of “blind” obedience just as Christianity is not a matter of “blind” obedience. It is a nuanced reasoned understanding of the roles of husband and wife with the understanding that sin has certainly distroted and made this relationship difficult in several ways.

    Anyway – what would I do? I would councel the husband to seek councel from other Christians knowlegible in the matters of finance and hear what they have to say. If he then obstanately refuses to listen to advice from others then I would tell him that he should perhaps look at his own relationship with the Lord and his own attitude (the plank in his eye?) before trying to straigten out his wife. Probably put a little more delicately though 🙂

    We live in a sinful world and for the same reason that God allowed divorce even though it is against his will, we need to understand that even though he assigned these roles and responsibilities (and I do not believe it is blind obedience!), we need to be humble enough to listen to advice – especially from a spouse!

    • rogereolson

      That’s certainly nuanced complementarianism. How many leading evangelical complementarians would agree with that? What I tried to portray in my hypothetical scenario is a situation in which there is a true stalement. The husband absolutely insists that he is right and the wife absolutely insists she is right. They are not going to change their minds no matter what. Then what? IF a complementarian says “Then the husband should wait until his wife agrees or he changes his mind,” that’s not what I understand complementarianism to be. The emphasis among conservative evangelical complementarians is always, in my experience, on the wife obeying her husband “in the Lord.” Okay, what does “in the Lord” mean? I think when confronted with hypothetical situations like the one I described most complementarians will suddenly become egalitarians. That’s my whole point.

      • I certainly agree with your point, and consider myself egalitarian, but I have had similar conversations with complimentarians. The complimentarians I know (I guess they are “soft”) would respond that the husband in question that is unmoving in his position is not “loving his wife as Christ loved the Church.” I don’t think that is a valid argument, but it seems the only way they have to get around it.

        • rogereolson

          Right, that’s where they “cop out” and become egalitarians! My whole point is that strict, rigid complementarianism that is not softened with egalitarianism to the point that it hardly differs at all almost doesn’t exist. The problems is that the leading complementarians do NOT make these exceptions, do not accommodate to egalitarianism, until pushed into a corner with a tough case such as the one I posed. The result is, of course, that husbands and wives in these conservative evangelical circles are getting the same impression followers of Bill Gothard received 30 years ago about “God’s chain of command.” There were cases documented in Christian magazines of wives standing by and saying nothing and doing nothing as their husbands abused the children, etc. And many pastors under the influence of evangelical complementarianism are advising abused wives to stay with their husbands and “just love” them and pray for them.

      • Buks

        I think we probably move in very different circles. I have not yet met the “hard” type of complementarianism you describe. In my understanding, complementarianism assigns differing roles, not in any way differing status before God. The husband, though he is the leader and has that responsibility, is also told to love his wife – like Christ loved the Church – can you love someone and at the same time dismiss what they say? Heck, even my boss would listen to my advice sometimes! Does that make us equal?

        In my understanding, complementarians see the wife and husband equal in status before God – both created in His image, both saved by the gracious work of Christ. They do however have different roles in the marriage and are equipped to fulfill those roles.

        • rogereolson

          Of course complementarians tell husbands to “listen to” their wives. In my hypothetical scenario the husband did listen to his wive; he just disagrees with her. Then what?

    • Buks, if you think a “rigid” egalitarian would have a problem explaining why a woman can bear children and a man can’t, then your understanding of egalitiarianism is skewed. “Egalitarian” doesn’t mean (even in its most “rigid” forms) that “men and women are, and have to be, exactly alike in every way.” I know no egalitarian, “rigid” or otherwise, that acknowledges no physical differences between males and females.

      Egalitarians in general dislike the fact that gender hierarchalists have co-opted the term “complementarian” to describe their position, as it implies that egalitarians do not believe in complementarity between the sexes. We do believe the sexes complement one another. What we don’t believe is that males are granted positions of authority in the church and home, and females relegated to subordinate positions in those areas, purely on the basis of gender.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Hi Roger,

    While I’m not a complimentarian, if I were to advise as a complimentarian, I would give this advice:

    To each of them (probably separately) to search their hearts and go before God to see God will impress anything in addition on them as to what to do. If that does not resolve the conflict, I would instruct the man to go seek out an expert in the field in question – one whose opinion the man would value – and pose the question (leaving the wife out of it). At the same time, I would instruct the woman to go seek counsel from another wife who has gracefully weathered such disagreements. If they cannot resolve it then, I’d advise that they take some time apart from each other – maybe a week – and to consider whether their relationship is really worth this. For if the woman does not relent, she sins by not obeying God (as she believes God’s instructions). For if the man does not relent, he sins by not obeying God (as he believes God’s instructions). And if what God has bound together can be frayed by an argument about money, something deeper than an argument about money is at work.

    • rogereolson

      As I understand complementarianism, as taught by the leading conservative evangelical promoters of it, the wife should simply bow to the husband’s wishes and demands after all is said and done. The solution you offer isn’t, in my opinion, a solution when complementarians also insist on the sanctity of marriage so that a separation would be sinful.

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Once upon a time, a pastor instructed his Church at Ephesus with the words of the apostle Paul. The Church there was having a difficult time – especially with some women who were busybodies and gossips rather than godly women. The instructions were these: “I do not permit a woman to teach . . . .”

    There was an original context to these arguments. Those in Ephesus did not have the advantage of time and space to say “These instructions were for people in another time and place and circumstance” – it was written, without filter, directly for them. They could not wriggle out of this with hermeneutical gymnastics, nor with historical-critical evaluations. If I understand you correctly, Roger, it seems that you’re saying that Paul announced that the women were now extra cursed and under the authority of the male. If that is the case, you would have allies with Daly, Reuther, et al. who seem to not like Paul very much.

    The same argument could be made in a similar fashion about “Slaves, obey your masters.” This was actually written to slaves. Was Paul cursing them as well – saying that they had to obey another in this way that you protest?

    I’m not actually trying to defend complementarianism, nor slavery. Rather, I’m expressing disagreement with your treatment of Scripture. Your broad, sweeping generalites and throwing about of curses makes me uncomfortable. These “chains” that you protest were actually written to specific peoples and intended for what they said. Things certainly have changed between now and then, but for those who still live in the 1st century church (in their ideals) this is not as true.

    • rogereolson

      May suggest you read Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis by conservative evangelical William J. Webb (endosed with forword by Darrell Bock)? It is published by IVP (2001). I won’t go into it except to say that his hermeneutic is biblically faithful (he believes in inerrancy) while explaining very carefully, step-by-step why we have to (and actually do in many cases) recognize cultural conditioning in scripture–especially with regard to slaves and women. He also explains why that is not the case with homosexuality. Now, let me ask you, what if someone said to a contemporary slave “The Holy Spirit, speaking through Paul, says you must remain a slave forever unless you are allowed to purchase your freedom or are freed by your owner.” Wouldn’t that be a curse on the slave? Or, wouldn’t you even regard the slave as cursed? I would. That’s why we had the abolition movement in America–with conservative evangelical biblicists in the forefront of it.

      • Tim Reisdorf


        Based on your response, I feel that you didn’t read my comment very closely. Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit did actually say to some women at some time “I do not permit a woman to teach . . . .” It was straightforward and intended to be followed literally. (I’m only talking about those for whom the letter was originally intended.) If you are saying that Paul was cursing them, then so be it. If not, what was Paul really saying to the women in Ephesus via his letter to Timothy?

        Concerning slaves, in the same way, Paul actually instructed slaves to obey their masters – and he meant it. That doesn’t mean he wanted the institution to continue. Yet while he was talking about how slaves ought to conduct themselves within his own context, it was about obedience to the masters.

        And yes, I’m sure I would agree with Webb on many things – as I do with Swartley in “Slavery, Sabbath, War, and Women”.

        If the Holy Spirit says to me to remain a slave to someone, I better obey it. Paul called himself a doulos (slave) and said that he was a slave to all that he may win as many as possible. I respect Paul’s example, and I dare not call a curse what the Holy Spirit commands. I would have expected you to encourage quick obedience to the Holy Spirit.

        • rogereolson

          As a non-inerrantist, I don’t think everything Paul said in his letters was from the Holy Spirit. For example, to the Galatians he said he wished the Judaizers (as we have traditionally probably wrongly called them) would “let the knife slip and castrate themselves.” Was that from the Holy Spirit. I don’t believe in the dictation view of inspiration. Similarly, as you yourself quote Paul, he wrote to the Ephesians “I do not permit….” I don’t take that as from the Holy Spirit. It was Paul’s apostolic instruction and I think it would have been perfectly valid for the Ephesian women to argue back. At times Paul admitting that things he was writing as instructions were from him, not the Holy Spirit. Besides, in my description of “curse” I consciously inserted the word “permanently.” I actually don’t think telling women or men in a particular situation to sit down and be quiet for a time is a curse. The curse is in telling them they are forever, permanently unable to use their God-given gifts. And yes, I will say it (and this is why I’m glad to be out of a context that emphasizes biblical inerrancy): I do think telling a slave to obey his master is a curse unless it’s just for a brief time with the future holding out promise of freedom. But I think the New Testament itself contains that trajectory.

          • Tim Reisdorf

            Roger, I appreciate your answer. However, as someone who does believe in my own version of inerrancy, I do have some obligations to the text that you might be able to avoid.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        I specifically asked you about the context of the NT – the one that Paul and others were talking directly to. If you admit that Paul’s restrictions on certain groups of people during those times was good (and inpired by the Holy Spirit), it completely undercuts the ferocity of your arguments as they relate to today.

        Since you mention a book on hermeneutics, I’ll point out that one of the first tasks in good hermeneutics is to find out what the text meant to the original recipients. Is there any question that Paul meant exactly what he said to the Ephesus church, “I do not permit a woman to teach . . . .”? So the question is still in front of you: Was Paul’s words to those women a curse?

        • rogereolson

          See my response to your other comment.

  • tim ellison

    Perhaps an illustration from my parent’s marriage will help. My dad said that when he married my mother they agreed he would make all the big decisions and she would make all the small ones. They have been married now for 57 years…and so far they say there have been no big decisions!

  • Jon G

    Roger, I see my complementarianism as reflecting Sean’s above. I think what many people are reacting to are the perversions of egalitarianism and complementarianism instead of the positive nature of each. Speaking as one who has been influenced heavily by Tim Keller on the subject, we are complimentary in that we are “like-opposite” (his translation of the word “helper” in Genesis). We are equal and yet different. So, as a man, I might have some strengths that might wife doesn’t and, as a woman, she will have strengths that I don’t. But, because of our sinful natures, we are not capable of correctly determining which those are so we are never to say “I can do this as a man” or “you can’t do this as a woman”.

    Keller would go on to ask, “but what if God gave us two places in which, in the protection of Christian love and submission, we were invited to ‘dance’?” (loose paraphrase). So his basic argument is, the church and home are two places where, because we are putting the other person first, it is safe to determine roles.

    I’m, admittedly, not on board fully with this thinking, but I react strongly to the perversion of the egalitarian viewpoint. I think the downplaying of gender roles has led to a society in which woman are not appreciated as mothers and fathers are removed as important to the upbringing of children.

    I also react strongly to the perversion of complimentarianism in which women are limited in realizing their true potential.

    I want to affirm our differences, fully giving God credit for his creative genius. At the same time, I want to acknowledge that we are fallen creatures who shouldn’t assume we have last word on truth. Keller would say that the only place safe enough to avoid these two pitfalls is within the community of the faithful.

    • rogereolson

      I haven’t read Keller on this subject. My familiarity with “evangelical complementarianism” (notice the correct spelling) is via Piper and Grudem and their “Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.” If all “complementarianism” meant was interdependence of two very different kinds of people, male and female, then I have no problem with it. Egalitarianism, for me, anyway, has nothing to do with obliterating the real differences between males and females. I have defended that irreducible (e.g., to mere physiology) difference here many times. See my new post for my objections to “evangelical complementarianism.”

  • Joel M. Ellis


    Is complementarianism wrong because it could, in situations like this one, expose a submissive partner to potential loss, harm, or suffering through the inferior leadership of another? Is it unreasonable to believe Christians will sometimes suffer because of faithful commitment to Christ (1Pe. 2:21-25)? Should we not expect children to submit to parents or Christians to their pastors in matters on which their opinions differ? Is financial prosperity and individual liberty our highest priority?

    It seems to me neither partner in this scenario understands or is submissive to their God-given roles. The husband’s leadership of his wife includes the general responsibility of mutual submission outlined in Ephesians 5:21 and 1Peter 5:5. The wife’s submission to her husband is to parallel the church’s submission to Christ, not the democratic permission by a constituency to be governed so long as their wishes are satisfied. Both partners are characterized by selfishness in this scenario, and all because of a question about money, not faith, not salvation, not sin, but money.

    If I were advising the couple, I think I would gently rebuke them both. He isn’t loving her like Christ, and she isn’t submitting like Christ either. This scenario isn’t about gender roles. It is about relationship to Christ.

    • rogereolson

      Respectfully, IMHO, that’s a cop out. Consistent complementarianism would have to advise the wife to sign the papers. Otherwise, it concedes so much to egalitarianism it hardly differs.

  • Eric Miller

    I think there are so many things wrong with this post. First of all, with respect to this:

    “Suppose you knew that, in your life, you would always be like a child in relation to someone else no matter what your IQ might be, no matter what knowledge you gained, no matter what skills you acquired, etc. You would forever (at least in this life) be required to obey UNQUESTIONINGLY someone else. What is that but a curse?”

    That is EXACTLY our relationship with God! Regardless of our knowledge or skills we are required obey God, though perhaps not unquestioningly.

    Complementarianism is NOT a curse but a God-ordained arrangement that allows for peace and stability in the the Christian home, in the same way that the Christ-over-Church arrangement allows for peace and stability in the body of Christ. The wife is absolutely and unequivocally free to exercise her God-given talents in this context and glorify God with her life (which is the purpose of all men). When you are free to glorify God with your life what else do you need?

    As to your challenge: For the wife to go ahead with the investment, knowing it would be a misuse of their money, would be to sin and as such she should refuse. If something unfortunate happens as a result of that decision it would in no way be sinful simply for that reason.

    • rogereolson

      Ah, as to your solution. I suspect EVERY important decision a complementarian couple could face could be seen the same way–as a matter of possible sin–so that the wife doesn’t really have to submit to her husband. To me, to say that in my hypothetical scenario, the wife should not sign the investment papers (and the husband should accept that and move on) IS egalitarianism. This is not a matter of “sin” as such. It is a matter of judgment.

    • Eric, that is one of my main objections to complementarianism (which I prefer to call gender hierarchalism). I have no problem being a “child” in relation to God, but I cannot see how it can be right to have the same relation to my (very human) husband that I have to my Lord and God. It looks like a form of idolatry to me.

      We are all children of God, males and females alike. But I am not a “child” of my husband. I’m his companion and best friend. We both need to be full adults in our relationship. Otherwise I may just as well be the oldest daughter, charged with responsibility for my little sisters and brothers.

  • Jae Lewis

    Mr. Olson,

    I read your books “Against Calvinism” and “10 Myths…” and really enjoyed both of them. I just wanted to drop a quick note to say thank you for such great work. What books would you recommend to continue on in my new found Arminianism? I just purchased Oden’s three volume “Systematic Theology” as well as “The Transforming Power of Grace”. Any additional recommendations would be greatly appreciated.

    Best Wishes,
    Jae Lewis

    • rogereolson

      With some cautions and qualifications (meaning I don’t agree with him in all details) I recommend the writings of Jack Cottrell on God’s sovereignty. He is a consistent Arminian even if some of his views (in my opinion) are a little strange and probably downright impossible. (E.g., that God didn’t “foresee” the fall of humanity until he decided to create humanity and give them free will at which time he “foresaw” everything–like putting a DVD in a player and watching it for the first time. To me that is a huge concession to open theism, which Cottrell criticizes.)

      • John

        It seems ironic that you recommend Jack Cottrell in this thread – even if it is to an off-topic comment. While thoroughly Arminian, he is also a council member for the CBMW and ultra-conservative in regards to gender roles and women in ministry.

        • rogereolson

          I said I don’t agree with him about everything. Where have I ever suggested that I must disagree with a complementarian about other things?

      • Robert

        I really like Pinnock’s edited volument, “The Grace of God, the Will of Man,” which represents a variety of viewpoints from across the spectrum of Arminian evangelicalism. I’m only just now working through it, but I’ve found it very edifying. It does reflect a range of views on foreknowledge, from “dynamic omniscience” (i.e., open theism) to simple foreknowledge and even a chapter on Molinism.

        • rogereolson

          And then there’s the companion volume Grace Unlimited also edited by Pinnock. Both are great.

  • I think JP II’s “theology of the body” answers your question. Complentarity does not necessarily imply subordination.

    • rogereolson

      Correct. “Complementarity” doesn’t necessarily imply subordination. But “complementarianism” does. Who is JPII? I’m blanking out on that one right now. I suspect I should know.

      • John

        I suspect OrthodoxDJ means Pope Jon Paul II’s Theology of the Body.

        • rogereolson

          Got it. Thanks, I as having a senior moment!

      • Tim Reisdorf

        John Paul 2. Former head of the Church of Rome.

        • rogereolson

          Got it. Thanks.

      • I suspect Pope John Paul II.

  • I am a complimentarian, and happily married to a wife who submits to my leadership in the home. I believe what Ephesians 5 says about husbands and wives and their roles.

    In this case, the question is not the responsibility of the wife, but rather the responsibility of the husband. The Eph 5 passage says, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself for it.” His responsibility here is to say no to the investment because his wife thinks it is a bad idea. 1) She knows more about it than he does and he should humbly accept that fact. 2) His responsibility is to lead (and to do so with wisdom). The wisest course here for him is to follow his wife’s advice. 3) Leadership is not about “having the final say, no matter what.” Leadership is about being responsible for the wellbeing of the family and taking charge to do what is best. Being “head” does not give anyone the right to be a fool!

    The counselor should tell him these things, and show him from the Bible what it means to “give himself” for his wife, and show him what the Bible teaches about exercising wisdom.

    It is the better part of wisdom to recognize your wife’s strengths especially in areas where you are weak, and to give way to her areas of expertise. Good leadership means being responsible for the good of the whole, not “getting your way” –it includes leading the family in ways that bring everyone’s specific strengths to the table for everyone’s benefit.

    My wife has definite strengths in areas where I am weak–and vice versa! Together we have been a strong team for more than 20 years. We’ve accomplished more together than either of us could have by ourselves. Each of us has gained from the other’s strengths, the other’s talents, and the other’s unique prespective on life.

    There is NOTHING in a biblical, complimentarian view of marriage that makes it wrong for the head of the wife–the husband–to “submit” to the wife’s obvious areas of strength.

    • rogereolson

      I’m glad you are a “complimentarian!” I take it that means you compliment people a lot. 🙂 What you are describing is not what I understand “evangelical complementarianism” to be. Your marriage, as you describe it, is egalitarian. My whole point is that when I read the leading evangelical complementarians and hear them speak (they’re all over youtube!) the over riding emphasis is always wifely submission. Sure, there’s always the side bar about the husband’s duty to love his wife, but the emphasis is on the husband’s authority and the wife’s Christian duty to follow and obey (except when the husband is asking her to do something immoral). My whole point is that when I pose such a hypothetical case as I did here, suddenly the so-called complementarians describe their ideal marriage arrangement the same way egalitarians do.

  • Vance

    My wife and I would be considered complementarian, but “obedience” doesn’t enter the picture at all. I don’t want her to think she has to “obey” me. That sort of language is foreign to us, and it’s probably more objectionable to me than it is to her. There is a huge difference between obeying and submitting. We submit to each other, but the submission of each to the other differs in that our functions in the relationship differ (Eph. 5:21 provides context for 5:22). I’m the “head” of the union, but that primarily means that the greater responsibility for our–and especially her–health, happiness, and well-being rests on my shoulders. I call that true, not “soft,” complementarianism. Is it “rebellion” when she refuses to go along with a foolish financial decision I’ve made (i.e., she won’t sign on the dotted line)? Of course not. That’s silly! My refusal to receive her wise counsel, in such a case, would indicate poor leadership on my part, and that’s hardly being a Christ-like “head.” To insist that submission means an obligation to obey is to misread Paul’s instructions to husbands and wives.

    • rogereolson

      That’s egalitarianism.

      • Vance

        OK. We’re egalitarian, then. But we’re egalitarians who don’t believe in women preachers.

        • rogereolson

          That’s possible. I don’t see why not. A marriage can be fully egalitarian even where the husband and/or wife (sometimes it’s the wife, believe it or not!) doesn’t believe women should preach or pastor. I have objections to that, too, but that’s a different subject.

  • K Gray

    May I add this situation: husband is set on something which wife believes to be unwise and possibly sinful – e.g., an investment w/quick profit potential — but she is NOT the financial expert, AND she earns more money than he does. So she listens and they discuss the investment. It sounds rational and reasonable, but she remains sincerely convicted this is a wrong course. She cannot really say why; after prayer and a whole-hearted loving effort to come around to his way, she feels the Lord is saying “no.” But HE feels the Lord has opened a door.

    They lock horns, pray, still cannot agree.

    Wife then says “I will go with your leadership.” Why? Not because he is more experienced in financial matters. Not because she gives up. Not because she wants to one day say I told you so or be a martyr. She voluntarily lays down her will, because she ‘faiths’ that the foolishness of God in spousal matters as laid out in the Bible is wiser than the wisdom of men — the cross being the primary example. She also believes there is an enemy, and it is not her husband. This difficult act of submission, based in faith that this is God’s will as set forth in His Word, is a weapon in overcoming the enemy.

  • Brad Sickler

    I don’t think this is as bad a pickle as you do, but let’s suppose it is. What’s supposed to follow – that complementarianism is therefore false? But that just clearly does NOT follow, because as you surely know, puzzles like this can be generated for every philosophical or theological position. Are we supposed to conclude that complementarianism should be rejected because there are bizarre instances where it’s hard to see how to apply it, or because sometimes it leaves us confused or unsatisfied? If that’s the standard – that a view is only tenable when it’s immune to conundra and discomfiture – then what position would be reasonable? Surely not egalitarianism. Indeed, surely not Christianity!

    • rogereolson

      With all due respect that sounds like the “tu quoque” argument that can always be used to fend off criticism. All I’m asking is that complementarians develop a version of their complementarianism that can handle this kind of situation which, surely, is not uncommon. I suspect that when/if they do, it will look a lot like egalitarianism.

      • Brad Sickler

        As far as the last sentence goes, I think you’re right, and that’s my experience too: most complementarians balk at times like this. But I’m not merely saying that egalitarianism is open to objections too, therefore it’s not any better off than complementarianism (though I think that’s true and that it’s not merely a tu quoque dodge). In this specific scenario you’ve set up, though, it’s not like there’s an obvious and wholly satisfying egalitarian solution either. At least, if there is I’m missing it. And if that’s true – that this objection can’t be handled better by egalitarianism than by complementarianism – then whatever damage it does to its opponent it also does unto itself.

        • rogereolson

          I disagree. An egalitarian response is twofold. The adviser should tell them to wait, don’t make the investment, until both are fully agreed (or find some compromise if one’s possible), or the husband should bow to the wife’s better knowledge in this matter (finances, investments).

  • DRT

    Let’s face it, Roger just proved that complementarianism exists just to let the poor guys think they are in charge. But we all know the truth.

    • rogereolson

      I love it!

  • I think when I was a complementarian, I would have said it was a sin for a person to violate their conscience, that knowingly endangering their children would be a violation of conscience, so the woman should not submit.

    However, to me the real conundrum would have been if I’d ever been faced with a very real situation one woman shared on the Internet:

    Her husband required her to scrub the kitchen toothbrush-clean every night before she went to bed. When she told him he was being too harsh with her, he said that what he was requiring was good for her character, was not a sin for her to obey, and that if he were a woman this was the standard he would hold himself to, to be an “excellent wife.”

    When she would climb the stairs, exhausted, after doing this task, he almost always expected her to willingly and cheerful have sexual intercourse with him. Nothing would convince him he was doing anything wrong.

    Should she have submitted?

    She did submit– for years and years, until she was more zombie than woman. Then she left him. In her mind, it was either leave him, or eventually die of illness caused by exhaustion.

    And the church blamed her for the breakup.

    Along the lines of Roger’s question, my question is not, “Was the husband wrong?” The question is, “Should the wife submit?”

    • Sorry, “cheerfully,” not “cheerful.

      I should also add that this is only one example of the kind of marriage this woman had with this man.

    • rogereolson

      Excellent question. And my question is: What would Piper and Grudem say? What have they said? Have they addressed cases like this? I hope so. Because they really do exist in those circles. If they do address them in any sensitive way I’ve missed it.

      • Link

        I wouldn’t be surprised if one of these guys wouldn’t consider church discipline for the man who did such a thing for the sin of embittering his wife, which is contrary to scripture.

        And the wife could pray for her husband to have temporary impotence and to be corrected in other ways. She could tell him after she prays it

    • I would say that he was not demonstrating compassion or wisdom and was consequently disqualified from being a leader in their household.

      • rogereolson

        Again, is that what conservative evangelical complementarians say?

  • Ryan Groene

    I have always considered myself a complementarian, but I don’t think that a wife’s submission to her husband is absolute. And I think that everybody would say that if a husband told his wife to sin that she should not obey him. I don’t think there are any complementarians, for instance, who would say that if a husband told his wife to to kill somebody or to steal something that she should do that. And if you really take this to its logical end that would essentially mean that a wife should submit to her husband only when not doing so would violate God’s command (the law of love to one’s neighbor and to God). In the situation you mentioned, the wife could make the argument that by signing, she was participating in an act that was INTRINSICALLY unloving as it would do harm to her family. On the other hand, where no moral issue is involved, a wife is called to submit to her husband. For instance, if a wife wanted to paint a wall in the house yellow while her husband insists that it should be white, the wife should submit to her husband and agree to have the wall painted white.

    Now, of course, we must also remember that the passage does not give a husband unlimited authority or say that a husband should NOT submit to his wife. In fact, it doesn’t even give the husband permission to insist that his own will be done or to try to “enforce” (whatever that would mean) his authority. So, a husband should always listen to his wife and be willing to make compromises and put her interests ahead of his own. That is what selfless (and sacrificial) love looks like.

    • rogereolson

      I take it, then, that virtually any disagreement between husband and wife could, conceivably, be interpreted by the wife as a matter of Christian conscience and morality (“If I obey him about this, the consequence might be that…; therefore I don’t have to obey him”). My point is and has been all along that all forms of “evangelical complementarianism” I’m familiar with die the death of a thousand qualifications once I start bringing up specific cases. As for painting a wall in the house. I just can’t imagine that any reasonable complementarian would say that the wife must submit in such a trivial disagreement. If so, then they are simply handing men license to dominate and control and subjugate their wives. Complementarians say that the husband is to be the “priest” of the family. I don’t see what being “priest” or spiritual head of the home has to do with paint. But once you move to anything more important than painting walls, you get into what complementarianism is really all about–the wife bowing to her husband’s wishes in even important matters such as finances (even when she is more knowledgeable than he).

  • Ryan, do you think the wife should have submitted to the toothbrush-clean-the-kitchen-then-give-me-sex husband I described above? And if not, what should she have done?

    I’m not asking whether or not the husband should have made such demands. I’m asking whether, once the demands were made (and they were not requiring her to sin, only to allow her sense of personhood and self-worth to slowly be eradicated), she should have submitted to them.

    • rogereolson

      Very good question. I would like to hear John Piper’s or Wayne Grudem’s or Mark Driscoll’s answers to that.

      • diane

        I’d never heard of complementarianism and egalitarianism up to a couple of years ago .
        I find that its just a name given by men/women to their own persuasion.
        Jesus gives us certain commands and the main ones are to love him,love others and preach the gospel.
        If we truly do this then there would be no need to cling to cultish man made doctrines all in the name of what ? being right ? its certainly not in the name of Jesus,is it ?
        Put it to bed now and concentrate on Him who died for us and redeemed us by His blood because after all if we do this then we will certainly treat our spouses and our opposite sexes in the right way.The joy of the Lord is our strength not Lording it over one another.
        God bless

        • rogereolson

          If everyone else will, I will! 🙂

  • Link

    I could tell him not to invest in that project, but rather to bless him with the opportunity to buy some swamp land in Florida or houses in Detroit from me, which is sure to go up in value soon.

    Seriously, though, there is a very complementarian approach to this for those who are really hardlined about it–tell the man it is his responsibility to prove for his own, and that he should use his own credit to invest. If he is against women working outside the home (which I am not), then he should be against using his wife’s credit-worthiness to invest in something. If he can’t invest in his own name to invest in this losing proposition, that could save the money.

    I’d also talk to him about the importance of listening to his wife on such matters, maybe pointing to Abigail or some other passages. I would point out that the Proverbs 31 woman had skill in investing in vineyards, and that God can give women wisdom in these areas. Wisdom in Proverbs is personified as a woman. He should listen to his wife’s counsel if she has more wisdom in this area (finances) than he has.

    Another approach the counsellor could take is to tell the man he knows the man will lose his shirt on this dumb investment, but he thinks the wife should submit, give her the pen and say, “Go ahead. throw your family’s savings away” in front of the husband. That’s a bit more risky of an approach.

  • Tim Chiarot

    Greetings to all,

    I am a professed complementarian, and a pastor. My wife handles the finances in our home because she has clearly demonstrated superior wisdom in that area. Many on this response page have rightly pointed out that a biblical understanding of submission must call the husband to his God-given duty to love his wife as Christ loves the church. As such, he must exercise sound wisdom and stewardship. His headship is significantly mishandled if he makes an decision without the counsel of his wife.

    One aspect of this debate that has not been considered here is as follows. Understanding that Orthodox Protestantism employs a biblical method of interpretation distinct from Rome and Eastern Orthodoxy, namely that scripture interprets scripture, an application of this principle is appropriate here. When examining the controversial text of 1 Tim 2:12, it is important to consider the fact that as a letter, it is situational. However, this fact, if properly interpreted, does not preclude its timeless biblical authority.

    In my extensive exposure to the debate between egalitarians and complementarians there seems to be one primary approach adopted by both camps. The egalitarian camp preposes to hypothesize as to why Paul would have made such a harsh statement (1 Tim 2:12). The problem I have with this is that Paul gives us his explanation in verse 13. The “For” (gar in greek) is a conjunctive, which means that either “for”/ “because” etc. are good translations. As such, it is questionable exegesis to inject such speculations as the presence of divisive women in Ephesus, or that women were not educated back then, or it was a man’s world etc. While I do not find these challenges to be hard to refute, if a possibility was presented that was difficult to refute, it would still be inappropriate because Paul gives his explanation.

    The one approach I see among complementarians is that since Paul’s explanation goes to creation, that this text applies to all women through out time. At the risk of further polarizing this debate, I agree with this assessment, but do not find it comprehensive.

    If any egalitarian parties have stuck with me this far, I hope you will consider the following: Applying the hermeneutic of scripture interprets scripture, I must allow my understand of the creation texts to be considered in light of Paul’s words, and vice-versa. As a result, a very important aspect of this debate is brought to light. While it is true that Paul, in his situational letter to Timothy, is highlighting male headship, another rather significant command is given by God in the creation texts; the cultural mandate. This command is not give to Adam or Eve, it is given to Adam AND Eve. As such, to exercise this dictatorship understanding of biblical submission is to restrict women, the other half of God’s image bearing people, in their pursuit of fulfilling this command. It also adds to males the pressure of fulfilling that command alone, which is biblical disobedience.

    I would like to add one last comment regarding the financial scenario. The pastor would due well to share with the husband, much of the above examination, as well as the excellent counsel given by other posters here. However I would further encourage him to read Prov. 31. Verse 11 notes that the heart of an excellent wife’s husband trusts her. In verse 16 she makes a wise financial decision when she considers a field and buys it etc. Some may interpret this as an excellent argument for egalitarianism, but I do not see any place where this wisdom text conflicts with Paul’s words to Timothy, or Eph. 5 etc.

    In closing, it is my hope that this post fosters the sharpening of iron rather that the dulling of another’s blade.

    In His Grip,

    Rev. Tim Chiarot

    • rogereolson

      And how exactly does your response to my hypothetical scenario differ from egalitarianism?

  • Tim Chiarot

    It differs because I do not believe biblical submission means blind obedience. In my response, I upheld the preservation of headship, and its commensurate duties; namely the husband’s biblical command to exercise wise stewardship by recognizing his wife’s superior knowledge in this particular area.

    • rogereolson

      If “wise stewardship by recognizing his wife’s superior knowledge” is complementarianism, then I’m not sure how it differs from egalitarianism.

  • Tim Chiarot

    It differs because complementarianism recognizes male headship, sadly history has abused it.

    • rogereolson

      But what does “male headship” mean if it includes acknowledging a woman’s greater knowledge and bowing to it in decision making? How is that “headship?” Think of it this way. Imagine a marriage in which the wife is ALWAYS smarter than the husband about EVERYTHING. (I’ve known a few.) What does “complementarianism” say the husband’s “headship” means in that marriage? What does it say if the husband refuses to acknowledge his wife’s greater greater knowledge and wisdom in decision making? Okay, according to you it says he should acknowledge it and bow to it. But what does complementarianism say to the wife in such a situation? Should she bow to her husband’s ignorance and lack of wisdom and let her life and those of the children be ruined by him? If no, then that’s egalitarianism. If yes, then that’s abuse.

  • Tim Chiarot

    It differs in its recognition of male headship. Do you not agree with the premise of headship? If so, then this would define you as egalitarian. However, the development of a scenario that highlights a husband’s poor use of his headship does not warrant a position change. It would seem that this is equivalent to subjecting theology to situational ethics; its interpretation is fully dependent on a case-by-case judgment.

    • rogereolson

      See my question to your earlier comment.

  • Tim Chiarot

    I’m not sure I like the use of the term bow for either party. The premise of a husband’s obedience in fulfilling biblical headship means that he is to pursue Godly wisdom, through biblical study, as well as other means of grace. Consider this example: In a corporation, the CEO delegates tasks to various employees below him/her, but no one would assume that his/her wisdom in choosing the appropriate people for such specific tasks implies that any of those chosen people can make the decisions that the CEO makes. Headship bears the burden of responsibility. A wise husband is not necessarily one who must possess superior knowledge in all things, but rather is one who considers deeply how he is to love his wife and teach his children. I employ the wisdom and dedication of a local Christian school to aid my wife and I in the task of teaching our children, but if it fails, I consider the burden of that to fall upon my shoulders. As an addition illustration, I do understand that Paul’s word to Timothy regarding this issue to be difficult, but he also, in other places, rests the burden of responsibility of the Fall squarely on the shoulders of Adam.



    • rogereolson

      I could call myself a complementarian and call myself the “head” of my wife, but if I make no decisions that affect both of us without her advice and consent, then I’m really an egalitarian. Again, I ask, where lies the difference? Just saying the husband is “head of the wife” doesn’t deny egalitarianism insofar as the “head” always consults the wife and never makes decisions affecting both of them without her advice and consent.

  • “You would forever (at least in this life) be required to obey UNQUESTIONINGLY someone else. What is that but a curse?”
    Do complementarians believe that wives must obey UNQUESTIONINGLY, or just that they must obey? Since questions often cause us to rethink and sometimes change our views, I hope it’s the latter.
    I’m not sure if I’m a complementarian or an egalitarian but regarding your scenario, losing a bunch of money is not the end of the world. If the wife were to submit, I do think it likely that God would bless her and I also think it likely that God would use this experience to help the husband grow in maturity. Many times we think that only bad will come from bad decisions, but my experience has shown me that God often uses our mistakes and bad choices to teach us and help us grow in godliness.

  • Here is what I would advise the conplimentarian husband: if your need to dominate and control your wife – to exercise what you consider to be a biblically mandated “right” to make the decision is greater than listening to her wise counsel and good sense (from her perspective she is doing what a “helpmeet” is supposed to do), you are not acting within the traditional Pauline ideal. In other words, you are falling into the sin of Pride, or inflated ego. Whether complimentarian or not, the Bible is not primarily concerned with demanding rights per se, but with doing justice, with a higher standard being set for those in authority. If the wife will not sign, how can the husband compel her to sign without sinning himself? The complimentarian focus as always been on taming and controlling women. If my reading of Paul is correct, he is more concerned with self-control and submission to God.