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You're Going The Wrong Way: A Response To John Piper

On May 12, 2017

As a child, my family celebrated the beginning of summer by watching the Wizard of Oz. Everyone had their favorite scenes, and mine was Dorothy’s final encounter with the Wizard. Victorious over a powerful foe, Dorothy enters the Wizard’s sanctum expecting him to honor their bargain—the witch’s broom for her return to Kansas. But the Wizard shouts at her through flashing light and smoke, attempting to scare her away. Despite her fear, she spies a curtain and pulls it back to find that the Wizard is only a man. Dorothy exposes the Wizard for what he is—a farce. He pretends to be powerful but in reality, he's nothing but smoke and mirrors.

Male headship is portrayed as God’s ideal, a position imbued with theological strength, by complementarians like John Piper. But many who examine its foundations find it bankrupt—just like the Wizard. Though it postures greatness, it’s an expression of the chaos and destruction of sin. It has fueled suffering since Adam and Eve were banished from Eden.

When the curtain on male headship is pulled back, it shrinks from the light of logic and truth. Consider the most recent defense of male headship by John Piper. He offers three reasons why he believes it will endure, but in pulling the curtain back, we find each deeply flawed.

1. Male headship is “true to God’s word.”

Like the Greeks did, Piper believes there are two versions of humanity—male and female. And for Piper, maleness and femaleness shapes all of life. Both nature and Scripture indicate an essential difference between males and females which shapes the spiritual identity of each, says Piper. Because of this, complementarians believe Ephesians 5:22-25 teaches that males are to identify with Christ’s headship and females are to identify with the church’s submission to Christ. Women submit to male headship just as the church submits to Christ’s headship.

We must be diligent in pulling the curtain back on this particular interpretation. The verb “submit” is missing from verse 22 but it is found in verse 21: “Submit to one another out of reverence to Christ.” Translators carry “submit” from verse 21 to verse 22 because it is implied by Greek grammar.  So Paul’s thoughts on submission actually begin with the verb in verse 21! Paul’s overarching vision, framed by that opening verse, is that Christians, both male and female, mutually submit to one another. The call to submit is issued to all Christians; it's not uniquely applied to women.

In the previous chapter, Paul asks Christians to bear “with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit…” (Eph. 4:2-4). Turning to marriage as the supreme example of that unity, Paul tells husbands accustomed to privilege but unacquainted with sacrifice to imitate Christ: “Just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… In the same way, husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself” (Eph. 5:25, 28).

Husbands and wives are one flesh according to verse 32. Thus, husbands who hurt their wives do injury to their own flesh. Headship, as Paul illustrates it, renders those with the most cultural power, men, as sacrificial servants. Unlike the emperor—the head of Rome—who lorded authority over his body—the empire, Paul's understanding of headship aligns with the suffering Christ who gave his life to inaugurate unity and oneness in the church.

Yet, our true nature is at odds with unity built on mutual submission and sacrificial love. It was Paul’s continual struggle to help the churches place their newness of life in Christ ahead of their natural inclinations towards prejudice and domination of race (Jew or Greek), class (slave or free), and gender (male or female). By asking Christians to submit to one another, Paul is calling all Christians to imitate the submissiveness of Christ, who as the perfect human being, consistently obeyed God. Mutual submission unites the church as one body and husband and wife as one flesh.

Christ, not human nature, is revelatory—pointing to a perfect standard. Christ should be the new normal for both men and women. It is newness of life in Christ, not maleness or femaleness, that shapes Christian identity, marriage, and service. Sadly, Christians have too often allowed our “natural” but fallen instinct for domination to govern us.

In Piper’s words, male headship is “historical, biblical, beautiful and satisfying.” Yet throughout history, Christians have used Scripture to support slavery, apartheid, and the subjugation of women. Headship as authority is part of the long history of human dominance rooted in patriarchy, which draws its strength from the “he will rule over you” of the fall (Gen. 3:16). It is in harmony with our fallen nature.

2. Male headship and authority are embedded in creation, redemption, and God's order for church leadership (1 Tim. 2:12).

Though Piper sees two separate versions of humanity—males who rule and females who are ruled—nothing could be further from God’s original intent. The creation account makes abundantly clear that both Adam and Eve are created in God’s image and given the same commission—to govern the created world (Gen. 1:26-29). It is only after they rebel that Adam begins to rule over Eve (Gen. 3:16).

How is male-headship embedded in redemption? Perhaps Piper imagines that Christ’s maleness was essential to his saving work on Calvary? If this were true, then women would have no one to represent them on the cross.

Is male-headship essential to God’s ordering of the church? Again, Scripture makes clear that women were among Christ’s closest disciples, who often showed greater faith and leadership than the twelve male disciples. While the twelve represent a reconstitution of the twelve tribes of Israel, they often fail where women succeed. Women were also among Paul’s closest coworkers building the church as deacons (Rom. 16:3), prophets (Acts 21:9), teachers (Acts 18:26), and an apostle (Rom. 16:7).

Yes, Paul limits certain women from usurping authority to domineer over men in 1 Timothy 2:11-12. Women associated with the cult of Artemis held power over men. Were these women using their authority to domineer and press error on the church? I believe that was the purpose of Paul’s letter to Timothy. Remember, the church in Ephesus was built by Priscilla and Aquila. It was here that Priscilla taught the skilled teacher Apollos the way more perfectly. Having left Ephesus for Rome, Paul sends Prisca back to give Timothy help (2 Tim. 4:19).

But what about 1 Timothy 2:12? Paul, of all people, would have been the last to silence women unless there was a specific reason. Paul uses an unusual verb for “authority” in 1 Timothy 2:12, used only once in Scripture. It means to "usurp authority." Because of this, we must assume that the women at Ephesus were usurping authority to teach errors. Ephesian women were accustomed to gender privileges in the cult of Artemis at Ephesus. Likely, these same women were using their authority to domineer in the church. I believe that was Paul’s point.

There is no biblical appeal to the “embedded and created nature” of manhood and womanhood.

3. Male headship will endure because God is loving and good. He designed complementarianism for our joy—though there will be persecution for those who honor God’s design.

Is there joy in male headship? 

According to the research of Jack and Judy Balswick at Fuller Theological Seminary and the findings of Prepare and Enrich, couples who share responsibility for decision-making are the happiest, whereas relationships that allow for partner dominance and avoidance are most likely to be abusive.

Male rule fuels not human flourishing but human suffering. This is why most NGOs have incorporated gender equality into their long term goals. Gender equality is arguably the quickest path to ending the blight of disease, starvation, abuse, illiteracy, and war. This data evokes most clearly the teachings of Genesis. God created man and woman in God’s image for shared governance. The only “not good” in a perfect world was Adam’s aloneness—the absence of a strong and equal partner in Eve. Male rule is a consequence of sin and not part of God’s original design.

Piper believes those who support male rule will be persecuted. He attributes the sufferings of complementarians to their righteousness. But not all who suffer, suffer because of their righteousness. Perhaps the marginalization of complementarians, which cannot be compared to the sufferings of women abused by these teachings, points to the growing acceptance of better interpretations of Scripture and a pushback against complementarian ideas.

Grateful as I am for the gospel work of Christians like John Piper, I also fear how his influence lends support to a false doctrine that hurts the entire human family. I have heard stories directly from parishioners at complementarian-led churches who shared how male rule destroyed their marriages and allowed abuse to flourish unchecked.

To Dr. Piper I say: we are both guests at the feast of the lamb. But as your sister in Christ, I exhort you to turn away from these teachings. They are not supported by Scripture. They are destructive to families and marriages. Turn back. You are going the wrong way.

Thanks to all those who pointed out that we omitted a link to the original article by John Piper: "Is Male Headship A Lost Cause." We've added a link to his original piece above and you can also find it here.

Egalitarian advocates Allison Quient and Nick Quient, along with guest speaker Dr. Jamin Hübner, also responded brilliantly to the article on their podcast: Split/Frame of Reference. We encourage you to tune in to the conversation: "The Future of 'Male Headship,' A Response to John Piper."

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