Where Complementarians Go Wrong on Headship

Get your heretical indoctrination while supplies last!

“Life is too short to subject myself to any more of those books.”

This was the conclusion my coworker and friend came to as we sat at lunch together a few weeks ago. I laughed, because I knew exactly to which books she was referring: those that promote a complementarian view of marriage. Needless to say, without getting into the gritty details, such teachings have caused my friend no end of grief in her own marriage.

Complementarianism is the belief that God created men and women to complement each other in marriage, and that the husband exercises headship over the wife as described in Ephesians 5:23. Many popular Christian leaders–most notably John Piper, Mark Driscoll, and Debi Pearl–promote this theory in their teachings on marriage.

Now, I’m not here to claim that such a view of scripture is completely wrong. If you want to find complementarianism in scripture, you can, and, if exercised correctly, it can make for a harmonious marriage. However, many complementarian teachers too often twist scripture–to the detriment of many Christian marriages. This is what I wish to address.

A Spiritual Leader? 

Many complementarians believe that God has ordained men to be the spiritual leaders, or priests, of their homes. They even go so far as to claim that the wife’s spiritual growth and vitality depends upon the depth of her husband’s spiritual devotion and his ability to hear from God. This concept is taken from…an authoritarian view of headship and some vague verses on priesthood cobbled together from the Old Testament. Don’t believe me? Search your Bible for a single verse that states or commands that men are to be the priests of their homes. It isn’t in there. No, seriously, it isn’t. Complementarian teachers just claim that it is.

But let’s just say, for kicks and giggles, that such a verse did exist. Or that you could reasonably glean the concept of male-based home priesthood from the gospel. What would such leadership look like?

Complementarians teach that such leadership includes leading the family in prayer and Bible study, providing a protective spiritual covering over the household, abstaining from sin, loving their wives as the Bible commands, disciplining their children, and having the final say in all major decisions. Which sounds good enough on the surface. But here’s where the doctrine really goes south…

See, some complementarians claim that the man’s ability to love and lead depends on the woman’s level of submission to his “godly authority.” They tell women that if their man isn’t demonstrating loving behavior, it’s because they aren’t giving him the kind of respect that he needs to thrive in his leadership. They base this idea on the fact that the command for women to submit to their husbands precedes the command for husbands to love their wives. They reason (either implicitly or explicitly) that the order of the prescriptions dictates the order of practice: first women submit, then the man loves.

There’s just one problem. That isn’t leadership. Spiritual or otherwise.

Kevin Kruse, an expert on organizational leadership, offers a good definition of leadership:

Leadership is a process of social influence, which maximizes the efforts of others, towards the achievement of a goal.

Notice that this definition doesn’t say anything about submission, hierarchy or authority. That’s because none of those things makes a person a leader. Leadership doesn’t begin with the submission of a follower. Leadership begins when a person effectively models the kind of behavior he wants to see in others and motivates his followers to emulate it through the nobility and integrity of his example.

“But just a minute,” you might say. “You’re arguing from a worldly perspective. That doesn’t count.” Well, I’m glad you mentioned that, because I was just about to show you how scripture totally backs this up.

In Ephesians 5:25, husbands are commanded to love their wives “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Let’s think about that for a moment. Did Jesus wait until everyone on earth was submitting to his authority before coming down and offering himself as a sacrifice for our sins? Hardly.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8).

In fact, the Bible says that we love because Christ first loved us (1 John 4:19). Did you catch that? We are only capable of loving and submitting to Christ because HE made the first move. That is the kind of love the Bible commands husbands to demonstrate toward their wives. Just as = exactly.

In other words, the textual order of the commands for wives to submit and husbands to love doesn’t matter. If men are truly called to love their wives as Christ loved the church, then the onus is on them to act first.

Which means using the phrase “my wife won’t submit” as an excuse for being an abusive jerk within your marriage doesn’t fly with Jesus, buddy. And it shouldn’t fly with your pastor, either.

Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers (1 Peter 3:7).

Now, I’m not telling women that a husband’s unloving behavior justifies disrespecting or belittling him. As I taught in one of my other posts on marriage, the woman’s role is to be a succor (i.e., comfort and refuge) to her husband. I stopped watching Everybody Loves Raymond a while back because I became so disgusted with how shamefully men were portrayed on the show–like clueless beings worthy of scorn. That’s not how I wish to treat my husband. He is my lover, provider, friend and the father of my child. He deserves my affection and respect as my gift–one made in the image of God, no less. That is my spiritual obligation.

But to say that men need their wives’ submission in order to lead, spiritually or otherwise, is just false. Nothing in scripture supports such a claim.

And even if it did, you couldn’t rightly call it leadership. In fact, when a woman practices submission in the midst of an unloving marriage, it is she who demonstrates spiritual leadership.

This is the problem I have with complementarianism: it too often gets the order of things all backwards. And too many young people have fallen prey to this false doctrine. Many Christian men often blame their marriage problems on their wives’ refusal to obey their every whim and, too often, the response of the pastor hearing such a complaint is to question the woman’s behavior. This is not Biblical. At all. And I’m glad that more people are speaking up and saying so.

12 responses to “Where Complementarians Go Wrong on Headship

  1. In our less-than-perfect world everything has its “shadow” or dark side. Hierarchical authority, properly exercised, can support order and stability; but when it degenerates into authoritarianism it becomes destructive and loses its legitimacy.
    Scripture also encourages us to submit to the authority of those who govern us. Without legitimate leadership social groups become anarchic and subject to exploitation by the most aggressively predatory. Perhaps interpreting the biblical teaching on submission to civil authority into an absolute principle played a role in the tragic rise to power of Hitler’s Third Reich in Germany where most Christians,both Catholic and Protestant, failed to present a collective witness against a moral evil with few, if any, grey areas.

    Temporal life is a relative good, Eternal Life is the Absolute Good. Dogmatic absolutism, claiming to have the wisdom to know good and evil with the infallibility of God, not coital knowledge as some sects claim, is the essence of the Original Sin. That is why Pharisaic judgmentalism was the only sin that evoked anger and condemnation rather than compassion and counsel from Jesus.

    Over thirty years ago I attended an ecumenical home bible study. A young wife from the local conservative Baptist Church showed up one week with a black eye and facial abrasions. The collective advice was to seek help from her pastor. She told us that she had already spoken to him and he told her that her husband had beaten her because she was “not submissive enough.” When one of the Presbyterians related the story to her pastor his response was, “if I said anything like that, my wife would kill me!”

    True religion is always about the power of Love to transform hearts, making us more Christ-like. When it is used to justify authoritarian human selfishness, religion loses its legitimacy. It is not just Christian marriages that are harmed by the “complementarian” heresy it is our collective Christian witness in a secular culture that is always looking for justification to reject religious faith.

    • “It is not just Christian marriages that are harmed by the “complementarian” heresy, it is our collective Christian witness in a secular culture that is always looking for justification to reject religious faith.” This is so true! Thanks for the great insight, as always.

  2. 1 Peter
    Servants, be submissive to your masters with all fear, not only to the good and gentle, but also to the harsh. For this is commendable, if because of conscience toward God one endures grief, suffering wrongfully. For what credit is it if, when you are beaten for your faults, you take it patiently? But when you do good and suffer, if you take it patiently, this is commendable before God. For to this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us,[f] leaving us[g] an example, that you should follow His steps:
    “Who committed no sin,
    Nor was deceit found in His mouth”;
    who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously; who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed. For you were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer[i] of your souls.Wives, likewise, be submissive to your own husbands, that even if some do not obey the word, they, without a word, may be won by the conduct of their wives, when they observe your chaste conduct accompanied by fear. Do not let your adornment be merely outward—arranging the hair, wearing gold, or putting on fine apparel— rather let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the incorruptible beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is very precious in the sight of God. For in this manner, in former times, the holy women who trusted in God also adorned themselves, being submissive to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, whose daughters you are if you do good and are not afraid with any terror.
    2:4 That they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children,
    2:5 [To be] discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed.
    1 Timothy
    2:11 Let the woman learn in SILENCE with all subjection.
    2:12 But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to USURP authority over the man, but TO BE IN SILENCE.
    2:13 For Adam was first formed, then Eve.
    2:14 And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.
    2:15 Notwithstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.
    1 Corinthians
    11:3 But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman [is] the man; and the head of Christ [is] God.
    11:7 For a man indeed ought not to cover [his] head, forasmuch as he is the image and glory of God: but the woman is the glory of the man.
    11:8 For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man.
    11:9 Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man.
    1 Corinthians
    14:34 Let your women keep silence in the communities: for it is not permitted unto them to speak; but [they are commanded] to be under obedience, as also saith The Law.
    14:35 And if they will learn any thing, let them ask their husbands at home: for it is a disgrace for women to speak in the community.
    Colossians –
    3:18 Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord.

    5:22 Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord.
    5:23 For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the community: and he is the saviour of the body.
    5:24 Therefore as the community is subject unto Christ, so [let] the wives [be] to their own husbands in EVERY thing.
    5: 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
    Now the Lord God said, It is not good (sufficient, satisfactory) that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper (suitable, adapted, complementary) for him.
    19 And out of the ground the Lord God formed every [wild] beast and living creature of the field and every bird of the air and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them; and whatever Adam called every living creature, that was its name.
    20 And Adam gave names to all the livestock and to the birds of the air and to every [wild] beast of the field; but for Adam there was not found a helper meet (suitable, adapted, complementary) for him.
    22 And the rib or part of his side which the Lord God had taken from the man He built up and made into a woman, and He brought her to the man.
    23 Then Adam said, This [creature] is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of a man.
    16 To the woman He said, I will greatly multiply your grief and your suffering in pregnancy and the pangs of childbearing; with spasms of distress you will bring forth children. Yet your desire and craving will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.
    17 And to Adam He said, Because you have listened and given heed to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, saying, You shall not eat of it, the ground is under a curse because of you; in sorrow and toil shall you eat [of the fruits] of it all the days of your life.
    20 The man called his wife’s name Eve [life spring], because she was the mother of all the living.

    • Thanks for sharing these scriptures. It’s nice to know that everything I said in my post is exactly in line with these verses and contradicts nothing.

  3. The thing is, people need to quote all of Ephesians 5, the part where we are commanded to submit one to another. It goes both way.

  4. Hi April. Just like you stated I don’t want to argue from a worldly point of view but unbalanced Complementarianism that you outline is basically due to codependency and control. It’s dsyfunction creeping into the church. God called us to be whole individuals married to him first. We are not to be spiritually codependent on our mates. There is no marriage in heaven (Matt 22:30) and each one (Matt 12:36) will give an account in front of him. I know the unbalanced complementarianist will quote 1 Timothy 2 but that is divine instruction on how to exercise the fruits of the spirit in a culture that prohibited women from learning because of man’s free will. 1 Timothy 2 no more advocates us to not speak and lead than Ephesians 6 and Colossians 3 advocate slavery.

  5. I think there are two sides to this issue.

    1) Paul, the early Christians, etc, would have clearly viewed men as the ‘head of the household’. They would of understood men’s roles in the home as being leaders and authoritarian figures. It was the way of life back then. Women were second-class citizens.

    Even though Paul said, ‘there is no longer Jew nor Greek, male or female, etc’ the reality of the first century is that women were not equals, and even in the Christian community women were not viewed as equals with men; both biblical and extra-biblical sources support this understanding.

    2) All that being said……..SO WHAT? That was THEN. Paul was writing to a culture VERY different from now.

    As Christians in 2013 are we supposed to practice the same cultural mores that the early Christians practiced?

    The reality of the bible is that over time certain issues evolved and changed over the course of jewish and christian history.

    God doesn’t seem bound to holding his people to the same standards year after year for all of eternity.

    In fact, with the advent of Christ, God seems to usher in a higher level of grace towards his people.

    conclusion) Just because we no longer live according to the same cultural values that Paul lived under doesn’t mean the message of Christ is in any way weakened.

    Men like Driscoll, Piper and others (all of who i’ve read and more) want to enforce first century biblical mores upon marriages of today and I just don’t think it works.

    We have to understand that Paul was writing to a very Jewish audience in most of his letters and Paul was addressing issues related to HIS day and age – NOT ours.

  6. Hi April,
    Thanks for posting this. I enjoy reading differing views on this issue. I have to admit that my wife and I believe in a complementarian marriage – but from the outside we appear to be egalitarian. And we are very harmonious – well, as harmonious as two sinners living together can be 🙂 I believe that many many men have abused the proof text in Ephesians to dominate their wives. I have never struck my wife, but we certainly do argue about money and the kids etc., we have two daughters aged 3 and 7 and I encourage her in her career (she works for the local courthouse and actually makes a little more than I do on her paychecks) I work hard to provide for my family as well. So while we appear to be egalitarian, the complementarian aspect comes into play in the home with regards to spiritual things.

    Here is a an article I wrote about the abuse of the text in Eph 5 by men. http://onechristiandad.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/is-your-wife-your-doormat-or-your-beloved/

    Anyway – keep up the good work 🙂

    In Christ,