In terms of gender, language is very important. Words carry connotations and definitions of key concepts that ultimately delineate the point one is trying to make. Since the topic of gender is very broad, it requires very precise language with very precise meanings so writers will not be misunderstood. One author expressively makes this clear in an 850-page polemic against egalitarianism entitled Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth (EFBT).1
The author addresses “Egalitarian Claim 10:6,” that reads, “If female subordination is based on who a woman is (as female) rather than her ability or choice, then it is subordination in essence. Therefore the Complementarian position leads to the conclusion that women are lesser beings.”2 He then cites a paragraph from Rebecca Merrill Groothuis’ Good News For Women:
Regardless of how hierarchalists try to explain their situation, the idea that women are equal in their being, yet unequal by virtue of their being, is contradictory and ultimately nonsensical. If you cannot help but be what you are, and inferiority in function follows inexorably from what you are, then you are inferior in your essential being…. A permanent and comprehensive subordination based on a person’s essence is an essential (not merely functional) subordination.3
The author then responds in dissent that such a case is only subordination in function, not being. He restates the complementarian position as equality in being (in the sense of equal value, honor, personhood, and importance) with differences in authority and reiterates that greater or lesser authority does not imply an “inferior function” nor a “superior function,” just a “different function.”4
The author goes on to suggest that Groothuis states the complementarian position in a misleading way by using the words “equal” and “unequal” with different meanings. He argues that, if her sentence were reworded to represent the complementarian position fairly, it would read, “the idea that women are equal in value and honor and personhood but unequal in authority by virtue of their being women is contradictory and nonsensical.”5 He objects that this statement is not contradictory nor nonsensical because it does not violate the logical law of non-contradiction: “A and not A.” He then concludes that Groothuis’ usage of “equality” is “simply a word trick” that obfuscates the complementarian position and creates a false contra-diction. Moreover, the author presses his case that a woman’s subordination to man’s authority is not based on an “inferior” being but a “different” being.
In response, I will do two things. First, I will examine the key words used in the debate over the so-called “complementarian position” between hierarchicalists and egalitarians by using standard reference books such as a dictionary and thesaurus. I will also look at the supporting definitions of “manhood and womanhood” from the complementarian volume Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (RBMW)6 as well as the statement concerning female subordination from Groothuis’ essay in Discovering Biblical Equality (DBE)7 in order to represent the language as clearly as possible.8
Second, I will offer a rebuttal to the charges that Groothuis has used a “word trick” to obfuscate the complementarian position and show that the gender hierarchicalists are in reality the ones who have used word tricks and obfuscating language to conceal the incoherence of their view.
The So-Called “Complementarian Position”
Men and women have equality in value, honor, personhood, and importance with differences in authority.
1. Greater or lesser authority implies a “different” function, not a superior or inferior function.
2. Women are equal in value, honor, personhood, and importance, but unequal (different) in authority.
3. Both are equivalent in:
a. value: worth, usefulness, and esteem in life
b. honor: respect, privilege,* reverence, admiration
*privilege: favor granted to some, not others, a freedom, an opportunity, an advantage
c. importance: significance, meaningfulness, consequence, magnitude
d. personhood (as defined as human capacities from the imago dei9), including:
i. spirituality (capacity to relate with God and be gifted by God)10
ii. rationality (having reason and understanding, comprehension, logical judiciousness, intelligence, sagacity, capacity to learn)
iii. command of language (capacity to read, write, speak, communicate)
iv. agency (capacity to administer control in order to accomplish)
v. self-consciousness (awareness of one’s self as an object of observation by others)
vi. moral responsibility (accountability to ethical imperatives [God])
vii. political function (men and women are set in dominion over the earth)
viii. volition (will, choice, decision-making, capacity to choose)
ix. sexuality (capacity to relate sexually)
x. emotionality (capacity to feel emotions)11
xi. memory (capacity to absorb and retain information)
4. Both sexes equally possess these capacities; one does not have greater human capacity than the other.
5. The capacities refer to elements (the powers of personality) in the human framework that enable the fulfillment of human function.12
6. The man’s function
a. one of primary authority
b. responsibility to lead,* provide for,† and protect‡ (duty, obligation)13belongs only to men rather than women (masculine)
*lead: guide, show the way, direct, command, manage
†provide: supply, give, grant, bestow, impart, endow, make available
‡protect: prevent harm or damage, defend, guard, look after, care for, shield, shelter, safeguard, and watch over
7. The woman’s function
a. to submit * joyfully and intelligently to man’s primary authority14
*submit: surrender, yield, accept, acquiesce, resign, defer
b. to affirm, receive, and nurture the strength and leadership* of men15
*leadership: management, guidance, control, headship, direction, supervision, regulation
Female Subordination and Male Headship16
1. Permanent (enduring, lasting, eternal, unending, continuous, constant, perpetual)
2. Comprehensive (complete, full, all-inclusive, entire, total), including comprehensive in scope (range, space, opportunity, choice, latitude)
3. Necessary (essential, required, needed, obligatory, indispensable, vital)
4. Unchanging (static, fixed, immutable)17
Analysis and Rebuttal
According to the complementarian position, a man’s role is one of primary authority. This unique preeminent position gives the privileges of rule and command to influence thought and behavior in the home and church exclusively to men, by virtue of their maleness.18 Therefore, man is ultimately responsible to guide the woman, family, and church in matters of decision-making. Hence, man is chiefly and principally responsible before God. The authors agree,
Male headship at home and eldership at church mean that men bear the responsibility for the overall pattern of life.19
What is being described is no mere occupation; rather it fulfills the real meaning of mature manhood and the fundamental nature of the masculine being, especially in ministry:
We believe that manhood and womanhood mesh better in ministry when men take primary responsibility for leadership and teaching in the church; and that mature manhood and womanhood are better preserved, better nurtured, more fulfilled and more fruitful in this church order than in any other.20
The complementarian position also claims that woman is equal with man in personhood. Human personhood includes the essential human capacities of agency, will, command of language, rationality, and moral responsibility. Therefore, woman shares equality in the essential “powers of personality” with man. Thus, the complementarian position could read:
Men and women have equality in agency, will, command of language, rationality, and moral responsibility before God, but have differences in authority.
What is the difference? Men exercise their decision-making ability guided by their reason in order to articulate the purposes of governing and commanding the will of the marriage relationship and the direction of the church from a matchless position of authority. The distinction is one of hierarchy where one is primary and the other secondary. A higher position entails a higher responsibility. Hence, man, by virtue of his maleness, is more responsible before God than woman. Nevertheless, woman is said to be equal in personhood with man, though personhood entails moral responsibility before God. Therefore, the complementarian position could read something like this:
Men and women have equality in moral responsibility before God with differences in moral responsibility before God.
But the use of “differences” obfuscates the supremacy of authority held exclusively by the man over the woman, which logically implies a higher degree of moral culpability. If it is said that greater or lesser authority implies a “different” moral responsibility before God and not a “superior” (greater, higher) or inferior (lower, lesser) moral responsibility before God, then either the word “authority” is rendered unintelligible, or the complementarian position is incoherent:
Men and women have equality in moral responsibility before God with inequality in moral responsibility before God.
Either men have greater moral responsibility before God than women, or they do not. If they do, then men are greater in human personhood than women, and therefore women are unequal to men in being׃
The same can be said about the other two equivalent standards of importance and honor. If the “difference” between the sexes is an exclusive position of authority, credited to the man (by virtue of his maleness), that grants freedom to sanction and regulate the will of the family and church (which therefore entails a greater responsibility before God), then man is far more important to the health of the marriage relationship and the function of the church. Though the woman’s input is respected, the man, by virtue of his maleness, is the person in command and, like a Supreme Court Justice, he makes the final governing decisions as to how the marriage and church will function.
While it cannot be said that man, by virtue of his maleness, merits relevant appeal as an expert on whatever issue is before the sexes, he nevertheless is entitled to such a status. To carry this analogy further, the man, being a Supreme Court Justice of the marriage and church, is so because he is a man and not a woman. Conversely, woman, by virtue of her femaleness, is relegated to a secondary position whereby she is subject to her sovereign male counterpart and must be subservient to his will.
Female subordination to male headship not only honors the male’s decision-making, but also his agency. Agency is an attribute of human personhood—it is an essential human capacity. Agency simply means instrumentality, the ability to administer control in order to accomplish certain tasks.21 When painting a general picture of what male headship looks like in the home, one author says the father leads the family in prayer, devotions, and drives the family car to church:22
[T]he leadership pattern would be less than Biblical if the wife in general was having to take the initiative in prayer at mealtime, and get the family out of bed for worship on Sunday morning, and gather the family for devotions, and discuss what moral standards will be required of the children, and confer about financial priorities, and talk over some neighborhood ministry possibilities, etc.23
He also says,
[I]f a woman undertakes to give this kind of leadership toward her husband she would not be acting in a properly feminine way, but would be taking up the masculine calling in that relationship.24
Though these duties are meaningful, significant, important, and vital to the health of a family, it is implied that women ought not to do these things (though they can) because doing them would go against the “root of our personhood.”25 But what root is he talking about? It is precisely the agency of the female, and it is by the very nature of her femaleness that she is deemed unfit for such vital and important tasks. Moreover, she must resign and positively declare such duties are more fit for a man in order for her to remain “properly feminine.” This is because the importance of these duties is fundamentally grounded in male personhood, something she is incapable of having.
But is it not reasonable to say, “Men and women have equality in importance with differences in importance”? Not if you are talking about male headship and female subordination. Man, by nature of his maleness, is deemed fit to lead, provide, and protect. Woman, by nature of her femaleness, is not seen as fit for such vital and consequential tasks (like leadership), but is reliant on man to carry them out. Moreover, without male headship, her femininity can never mature or become complete, seeing how there would be nothing to submit “joyfully” and “intelligently” to, nor “affirm,” “receive,” and “nurture.”
Mature womanhood is dependent on following male headship, while male headship can mature independently26 outside of solely ruling women (no matter how humble) as illustrated poignantly by the exclusivity of leadership in the church.27 As a complementarian author puts it,
God intends to equip and mobilize the saints through a company of spiritual men who take primary responsibility for leadership and teaching in the church.28
The word “primary” signals a higher level of teaching, leading, and responsibility and therefore a higher importance. So, if we go back to our government analogy, the man not only has the decision-making status of a Supreme Court Justice, but also the status of a President or head of state—all of which is supposedly natural for, and therefore determined by, his gender! Who could equip and mobilize the saints if there were no male leaders? Certainly not women!
Thus, the complementarian position teaches men and women are equal in importance and honor to the marriage and church, but are differentiated by an authority that implies greater importance and honor. Hence, it is not unreasonable to say that that complementarian position is incoherent.
If it is said that greater or lesser authority implies a “different” importance and honor, and not a superior or inferior importance and honor, then the word “authority” is obfuscated and equivocated, rendering it void of meaning. Since we believe “authority” has meaning, it would be more accurate to say that women are equal in importance and honor but unequal in importance and honor. Therefore, the complementarian position is shown to be contradictory.
Having plucked three of the complementarians’ four equivalent human standards (personhood, honor, and importance), we conclude it only stands to reason that men are more valuable than women. Though it is true that the blood of a woman is equivalent in worth to that of a man, it cannot be argued that women are just as useful as men. True, women can do certain things that a man cannot (childbearing and nursing). But, if the conditions of male headship and female subordination are permanent, comprehensive, necessary, and universal, then it must be said that this view so stresses the “differences” that it minimizes the equality of men and women at best and obliterates it at worst.
Complementarians would like to believe that they have vindicated their position by denying that men hold a superior function based on superior being by saying that men are neither “superior” nor “inferior,” but “different” beings. However, the obfuscation and equivocation of the word “authority” by the use of the word “different” is the real “word trick” in this discussion and it is ironically made by the complementarian argument, not the egalitarian one. Complementarians need to realize that function follows being, and by advocating for a hierarchy where one universally functions over the other, it inexorably follows that the differentiation between the sexes would, therefore, have to be one of superiority and inferiority.
- Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth (Sisters: Multnomah, 2004).
- Ibid., 441.
- Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, Good News For Women (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1994), 55, italics original.
- Grudem, EFBT, 441, italics his.
- Ibid., 442.
- John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1991). All quotations from this book are taken from an online version available at: http://www.cbmw.org/rbmw/, accessed April 21, 2005.
- Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, “‘Equal in Being, Unequal in Role’: Exploring the Logic of Woman’s Subordination” in Discovering Biblical Equality, ed. Rebecca Merrill Groothuis and Ronald Pierce (Westmont, Ill., InterVarsity, 2004), 301-33.
- It should be noted that the definitions are not selected simply to fit the intended meaning of the words used in the complementarian proposition. However, the intended meaning has been noticed and not excluded. The including of other definitions is to show how tricky language can be.
- I take a structural approach in defining the imago dei in that I discern with what substances humanity has been endowed that distinguish us from animals.
- Capacity here refers to the ability humans possess in relating with God that animals do not have. This must be distinguished from the Pelagian notion of self-sufficiency that can carry out good relations with God.
- It is often said that women are more emotional than men. However, this does not mean women have a greater capacity for emotions, but less hindrance in expressing them. Simply put, women are not designed in such a way that they can be more or less happy (emotional) than men.
- The functional aspect of the imago dei is where God gives the responsibility of representing himself to humanity. The structural capacities of the human self are thus given for the fulfillment of this function.
- Grudem, EFBT, 44. According to John Piper, this protection is not just against mortal enemies, but also against “Satan and sin” (“A Vision of Biblical Complementarity,” in RBMW, 30-35).
- Grudem, EFBT, 43.
- Piper, “Vision of Biblical Complementarity,” 37.
- Groothuis, “Equal in Being, Unequal in Role,” 304, 316.
- A good word that describes all of these definitions is “universal.”
- As opposed to ability, knowledge, and experience.
- Piper and Grudem, “An Overview of Central Concerns,” in RBMW, 59.
- Piper, “Vision of Biblical Complementarity,” 44.
- It is true that the sexes differ in agency (that is, are not the same) in that the sexes function differently and in certain situations are apparently better than each other. For example, it is commonly believed that men make better soldiers than women. But this is based upon the ability of the male to fulfill the needs of such a task, and it does not necessarily exclude females from such an occupation. It is feasible that a woman can be a better shot than a man and be selected for an operation requiring her marksmanship. In the church, however, complementarians maintain that, though a woman may be a superb orator, she still must be excluded from teaching because she was born female.
- See Piper, “Vision of Biblical Complementarity,” 25, 32.
- Ibid., 32.
- Ibid., 25-26.
- Especially in the case of a celibate male.
- Which is not only over females, but also males.
- Piper, “Vision of Biblical Complementarity,” 44.