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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