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Published Date: January 31, 2001


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Gender Authority

Editor’s note: This article has been in preparation for Priscilla Papers by the author for approximately two years. Because of its length, we plan to publish it in three parts, though each part is intended to stand alone. The outline is as follows:

Part 1, presented here, focuses on the radical redefinition of authority Jesus taught and set in motion for his church; it considers the complementarians’ circuitous idea of gender authority.

Part 2 critiques the use and abuse of complementarians’ concept of authority as formulated in their “theology of roles.”

Part 3 delineates the New Testament limits of authority and the scandal of hierarchical power in Christian ministry. These biblical standards that Jesus put into action and that apostolic missionaries established for the servant leaders of the New Testament house churches will be contrasted to the complementarians’ authority thesis, with final summary implications.

Great peril lurks when gender is identified with authority and incorporated into hierarchical models for Christian relationships

Authority is a word bearing power and pointing to the most fundamental issue in ordered human life. Among the words associated with Christian relationships and leadership, authority (Gr: exousia) is the most problematic. Encumbered with social and cultural weight, the parameters of authority become blurred when introduced into New Testament ecclesiology. But the greatest peril lurks when gender is identified with authority and incorporated into hierarchical models for Christian relationships.

The two major positions concerning male-female relationships are the “hierarchical” (or “traditional”) view and the “egalitarian” view. Representatives of the first viewpoint, however, have expressed discomfort with these labels. Intending to soften undesirable connotations of these terms, John Piper and Wayne Grudem propose the new label “complementarity,” believing this designation suggests equality as well as crucial role differences between the sexes.

But this new label is not an appropriate description of their real view, because “complementarity” denotes the need for two parts in order to make a complete whole, or unity. While complementarians affirm “equality” of personhood between males and females, they deny that this translates into equality of function. In other words, “complementarity” is not really at the center of their argument. Rather, at the center is a unique “hierarchical” male leadership, in contrast to an “egalitarian” shared leadership.1 This article will therefore use the more characteristic terms hierarchical and traditionalist as well as this newer (though inaccurate) term complementarian.

Complementarians’ major concern for relationships in church and home centers on power and authority, with authority summarized as “the right, power, and responsibility to direct others.”2 In order to designate exactly who has this kind of power over others, Piper and Grudem search for a biblical answer. But, in fact, there is no biblical text where exousia is conferred on a husband or a church leader. Piper and Grudem employ a simple ruse to override the biblical silence. Looking to the basic societal union between men and women, they declare that it is in the marriage relationship that “the transformation of authority is most thorough.”3 In this stratagem of hermeneutical “gerrymandering,” the authors subtly and indirectly arrive at their goal: “the husband’s authority.”4 In order to cushion the blow of this self-serving and nonbiblical claim, Piper and Grudem assure us that the unrivaled exousia Christian husbands have now achieved “is a God given burden”5 they must bear.

To complementarians, then, authority is gender specific, derived from masculinity. To operate successfully, Christian male power is executed through the performance of a divinely established gender “role” wherein the masculine gender is granted much more than a modicum of permanent power, rendering the feminine gender virtually powerless.

In what follows 1 shall critique the use and abuse of authority in light of the biblical parameters.

Overthrowing hierarchies through servanthood

A minor scuffle over who should get the best seats near the Master led Jesus to unveil the kingdom model of authority (Matt. 20:25-28). He knew the Gentile authority model was a rigorous hierarchy, in which “their great men make them feel the weight of authority over them” to achieve behavioral conformity. But, he warned, “Not so with you.”

When the religious hierarchs remonstrated with him about all this, Jesus contrasted two models of leadership to make the distinctions stark (Matt. 23:1-12). He chided them for creating a false dichotomy between word and deed; Jesus made them synonymous. Rather than giving preeminence to titles, rank, or gender, Jesus warned that the preeminent will be last. The Gentile model functioned from top down, the kingdom model from bottom up. So Jesus turned the whole issue of authority on its head and radically redefined its terms for his followers.

The scenario in John 13 is most instructive. The end was near, and Jesus’ fickle followers wanted a sign. So Jesus took a towel and washed his disciples’ feet, announcing, “I have given you an example,” and that “no servant is greater than his master” (John 13:15-16). With this dramatic demonstration, Jesus contradicted all paradigms of power and influence, making it axiomatic that one who makes the towel his/her badge is not one who maneuvers for a place in the power structures of life. Servanthood was conferred to his nascent church as the preeminent attitude of Christian disciples.

Marlin Miller suggests that “it may be that the equivalents for our word ‘leader’ in the first century culture were not used for the Christian church because of the shifts in understanding that took seriously Jesus’ teaching that ‘among you there shall be servants and not rulers.’ The old language for leadership was linked with the language for ruling and domination.”6 The New Testament’s concept of authority is unique and contradictory to our modern societal structures, not resting in power and never implying a right to control.

Our culture as a whole accepts the dictionary definition of authority as the right or power to direct the actions or thoughts of others, based on a leader’s rank or office. But the worldly ideas of hierarchy and power became scandalously contrary to the ways of the church’s foot-washing Master. Ever since, leadership power in the church has not been the issue. Rather, it is servant-hood.

In order, then, to understand the complementarians’ authority argument for the male’s right to rule in the home and church, let us pursue the issue viewed from the historical and cultural changes occurring within fundamentalist Christianity at the beginning of the twentieth century to the present, and from the assumption that maleness possesses congenital authority over and above femaleness.

Gender mythology and role confusion

The traditional hierarchical model of “male over female” dates from the earliest Middle Eastern and Hebrew patriarchal societies, and it was reinforced in Greek and Roman life. But it was the postapostolic writers who provided vigorous religious impetus. Over time, the model accumulated voluminous extrabiblical materials, including ancient and medieval ideas of feminine psychology, folk humor, economic work theories, and rigid sociological dichotomies. Today the notion attracts a plethora of defendants, both on the popular level and in scholarly works. Popular culture-role props range from innocuous pink and blue ribbons on newborns to the presumption that “men are from Mars and women are from Venus.”

Today’s “complementarianism” is descended from turn-of-the-twentieth-century fundamentalism, which was born in an era of anxiety and confusion over changing gender roles. This anxiety was fed in part by the newly organized dispensational theology in which management, or the dividing up, of the divine “household” was ordered (“dispensations”; Gr. oikonomia). In this perspective it was no huge leap to transfer the perceived obedient order of God’s oikonomia to the Christian biological family, especially to the role of women.

Dispensational teachers believed that women in particular were cursed by the Fall because of Eve’s sin, and so any attempts to end divinely proscribed female subordination were deemed counterproductive and thus doomed to failure. Consequently, the hankering for hierarchy and radical ordering of things was bolstered and ultimately helped support popular arguments for female submission. The sometimes humorous, oftentimes depressing, and occasionally unbelievable domination of male Christian “leaders” over subordinated female Christian “workers” is ably documented by Margaret Lamberts Bendroth in Fundamentalism and Gender, 1875 to the Present.7

In this historic mood, an antifeminist and robustly masculine spirituality developed within revivalistic fundamentalism. Evangelist and author John R. Rice provides a kind of caricature of the male leadership mentality of the times. In his colorfully titled book Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers, Rice wrote, “I have no doubt that millions will go to Hell because of the unscriptural practice of women preachers!”8 Even D. L. Moody switched from his earlier vision of training women for ministry and called instead for “gap men.”9 The old cliché of history repeating itself is increasingly observable in our time. A current example of coming full circle is seen in the zealous gender dichotomization reflected in the Promise Keepers movement, particularly in the all-male “Stand in the Gap” assembly: men alone taking charge of God’s work and the family.

Bendroth recounts that “the notion of a natural hierarchy in creation that governed the relations between the sexes encompassed the Fundamentalists’ existing assumptions about masculine strength and feminine weakness and theologically guaranteed masculine leadership in both home and church.”10 This correlation, then, substantiates the complementarians’ proclivity to masculine gender dominance. But it also exhibits their willingness to accept as normative a view of masculine Christianity that is essentially worldly and mythological. By infusing sub-Christian doctrines of hierarchy into a culturally based “traditional model,” complementarians indicate they are not as much concerned about discovering a biblical perspective on gender roles as in defending how cultural roles have become God’s ideal. Consequently, modern hierarchalists are indifferent in defending a relatively recent secular system of gender-role authority, a system that has arisen primarily since the Industrial Revolution.

Contemporary cultural confusion revolves around “gender roles,” a social-science term referring to a pattern of behavior one is expected to perform in certain social situations. The term role, in fact, comes from the theater: an actor “plays a role.” Over time, sexual role-relating has become greatly confused in our culture. For example, the sixties’ tv character “Archie Bunker” will always enjoy a sizable following of believers who long for the good old days “when girls were girls and men were men.” But the role is not the real person; Archie Bunker is not the real actor Carroll O’Connor. But in real life, people may choose to “perform” this way because roles either give them a measure of control and power or simplify their lives.

What, then, is a “role”? Social psychologist Mary Stuart Van Leeuwen points out that “the concept of a ‘role’ is a fairly static one: it suggests an unchanging set of behaviors—actual or real—that a person adopts without much question and with only minimal room for interpretation. Such analysis underrates both the complex history of gender relations and the agency of human beings created in God’s image.”11 Van Leeuwen believes that whereas sexuality refers to what is biologically given, gender is learned behavior, and that in all cultures, gender roles are invented as an expression of our God-ordained and creation-based sense that women and men need one another. However, when gender roles take on a rigid life of their own, they become cages in which God never intended us to be confined.12 Yet this very concept of roles is attractive to many traditionalist Christians whose system of interpretation stresses that God has a “blueprint” for all human life.

Van Leeuwen makes clear that femininity and masculinity are not aspects of femaleness and maleness existing independently of each other. Rather, femininity and masculinity are constructed and reconstructed in a relational manner, manifesting in reality that men and women are more alike than different. The small biological psychological differences present are greatly magnified by environment, parenting, and other factors, leaving the stereotypical differences nothing more than tendencies and averages, and often trivial.13 In fact, “anthropologists have learned through research that there are no universal roles for women or men beyond those of biological necessity.”14

“Masculinity’s” authority over “femininity”

The essential concern to complementarians is the structuring of authority, wherein male headship requires female submission. These sharply dichotomized gender roles are delineated in the massive book Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism.15 It is, in essence, a “bible on role theology,” written by traditionalist men and women who contend that modern complementarianism is consistent with the cultural patriarchalism of the Old Testament.

One of the book’s coeditors, John Piper, in a debate at Wheaton College about gender roles, argued the complementarian position of authoritative male roles over subordinate female roles. His defense echoed what he had written in “A Vision of Biblical Complementarity: Manhood and Womanhood Defined According to the Bible.”16 His authority construct of masculine leadership was defended from selective traditional and cultural gender dichotomy assumptions, but it had scant biblical data. This phenomenon is evident in Piper’s “The Meaning of Masculinity.”17 Five of his definitions are listed below (in italics), followed by a brief critique.

1. Piper declares that mature masculinity “does not assume the authority of Christ over woman, but advocates it.”18 This assertion is based on Ephesians 5:23, “the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.” Sensing how precariously close his idea of “advocacy” is to abandoning historic and evangelical orthodoxy, Piper recognizes that the analogy between Christ and a husband breaks down if pressed too far.

Yet Piper himself forces the analogy beyond limits by asserting that masculinity does “advocate” the authority of Christ. Consider: Exactly how can “masculinity” gain access to Christ’s exousia so as to “advocate” it? And if the masculine could do so, what would that mean? And why doesn’t “femininity” have access to that same authority? Is there a hierarchy of spirituality? Furthermore, how does the masculine gender (husband) “prepare a bride for himself” in a such a manner that the feminine gender (wife) cannot prepare a husband for herself? And how does he “act as Christ” to “prepare his wife for Christ” in a way that the Christian wife cannot “act as Christ” in preparing her husband for Christ? Where are Piper’s ideas justified exegetically?

Since the term headship is not in the biblical text, it cannot be easily defined per se; nor is the word head anywhere biblically described as human “authority over.” On the contrary, it is Christ’s superlative and transcendent headship that is “over every power and authority” (Col. 2:10; Eph. 1:22a). His is also a serving and sustaining headship of his body (Col. 1:17-19; Eph. l:22b-23), the source and cause of its life in growth (Eph. 4:15-16; Col. 2:19). In the context of these texts, Christ’s headship refers not only to his innate sovereign lordship, but to his servant role as provider and sustainer, using the language of source, servanthood, and saviorship. The hankering of hierarchical men to assume to themselves Christ’s exousia is to intrude into the realm of Jesus’ headship and to assume his prerogative. And the subtle imparting of Christ’s authority into the marriage union via the male borders on the cultic, because nowhere are husbands given the right to “advocate Christ’s authority over women.” (The biblical meaning of head will be more fully explained in part 2.)

2. Masculinity also “accepts the burden of final say in disagreements between husband and wife,” according to Piper.19 He thinks that, in well-ordered biblical marriages, both husband and wife acknowledge this principle from texts such as Genesis 1:27, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” But the plain meaning as historically understood is precisely opposite Piper’s deduction. The text says nothing about Adam acquiring a substantial share of God’s image so as to have authority over Eve, or a man having authority or say over his wife. Rather, it affirms Imago Dei equality.

3. Moreover, Piper thinks that masculinity “feels the responsibility to provide a general pattern of initiative,” and similarly, that masculinity “expresses its leadership in romantic sexual relations by communicating an aura of strong and tender pursuit.”20 Piper quotes James Dobson, but no attempt at biblical support is mustered.

4. Piper goes on to say that masculinity “expresses itself in a family by taking the initiative in disciplining the children when both parents are present. “21 Texts listed are Ephesians 6:1; Proverbs 1:8; 6:20; 31:1; but he acknowledges that these Scriptures teach joint responsibility. Nevertheless, his claims are made on the personal assumption that children need to see a dynamic division of authority between Dad and Mom when both are at home.

5. Piper further contends that masculinity is “sensitive to cultural expressions of masculinity and adapts to them (where no sin is involved).”22 His concern is that men learn to preserve cultural customs and manners regarding who does what, where. When couples appear in public places, he is anxious about who extends the hand at a greeting, who speaks for the couple at the restaurant, and who drives the car to dinner.

The pretentious notion that masculinity needs to preserve its dignity in matters like these is dangerously foolish. These are matters the Church Fathers called adiaphora, meaning “things indifferent” or morally neutral. What evidence exists that God cares one whit regarding such irrelevant matters? After all, women drive as well as men. And a feminine handshake is a fitting touch in many instances. In fact, until about 30 years ago, it was considered a great slight if a man extended his hand to a woman before she initiated the contact. Now people extend their hand when they choose to, regardless of gender.23 Also, some women can speak for the couple more effectively than the man. Ignoring the deception of adiaphora, Piper falls into the pit of cultural legalism.

“Femininity” can merely respond to “masculinity”

The “Meaning of Femininity” Piper defines as “how a woman responds to the patterns of initiatives established by mature masculinity.” And it follows that an arbitrarily diminished femininity would of necessity be “a disposition of submission to yield to the husband’s authority and an inclination to follow his leadership.”24 Piper admits that it’s risky business creating his masculine and feminine definitions, a risk conspicuous in “lite” suggestive phraseology used to bolster his definitions, as “implied,” “suggests,” “is illustrated in,” and “what is culturally appropriate.” In fact, his gender jargon totters on to piteous male quandaries, lamenting that a man’s sense of responsibility for leadership under God usually will “not allow him to flourish long under personal, directive leadership of a female superior.”25 And, since Piper’s “masculinity” is so incurably peevish, in arrogant desperation he laments that “to the degree that a woman’s influence over a man is personal and directive it will generally offend a man’s good, God-given sense of responsibility and leadership.”26

Adding insult to injury, Piper believes his definitions are actually based on biblical texts. He imagines they reveal gender roles permanently created by God before the Fall, reflecting “the way things were in Eden.”27 He solicits comfort from Genesis 2:18 for a diminished “helping” femininity in a “disposition of submission.” But, of course, the text is just as silent about the man having authority over the woman or vice versa. Although the English concept of a “helper” may connote a less-skilled assistant, it is well known that the Hebrew word helper (ezer) actually means “one corresponding to the other” in equal complementarity. How ironic, this oddity of so-called complementarians. asserting masculinity’s hierarchy over a femininity of equality. Hierarchalists’ harried hypothesis that women are equal in person but not in function thinks in circles, and, of course, is ultimately a made-in-God’s-image contradiction.

To those living under the Galatians 3:28 freedom of equality that Christ wrought, Piper’s cultural anxieties over masculinity and femininity are a Christianized version of gender legalism. The supercilious masculine mindset driving these fixations is shamefully sub-Christian in its divisive gender discrimination against half of Christ’s body. Moreover, where do the Scriptures suggest we should adapt to the world’s cultures, whether legalistic or antinomian? Clearly, Christlikeness in women and men is the fixed goal. And wise kingdom folk live out the goal of Christlike conduct in every cultural situation as a counter-cultural community. Against this perspective of cogender Christlikeness, Piper’s ruminations of “gender-unlikeness” expose more the shifting sands of male angst than Scripture.

Is there a higher plane above the “masculinity vs. femininity” morass that complementarians espouse? In their development of a “Theology of Roles,” a supposedly biblical system of male authority is concretized. This phenomenon will be critiqued in Part 2.

Del Birkey is a graduate of Columbia International University, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and holds the D.Min. from Bethany Theological Seminary. His pastoral and teaching ministry includes intentional church renewal through the house church model; he is the author of The House Church: A Model for Renewing the Church (Herald, 1988).


  1. Ronald W. Pierce, “Evangelicals and Gender Roles in the 1990s: 1 Timothy 2:8-15: A Text Case,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society (Vol. 36, No. 3, Sept. 1993). 343, n. 4.
  2. John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds., Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1991), 78-79. Piper and Grudem end up with a convoluted definition rather than a biblical one, since none of the five basic texts cited for support relate to believer’s exousia in Christ’s body (Matt. 8:9; Mark 1:27; 1 Cor. 7:37; 2 Cor. 10:8, 13:10; Rom. 13:4). Moreover, they cite Matt. 18:17 and 1 Cor. 5:1-8 as examples where “elders” lead the church in excommunicating, to infer that men lead in authority over the church body. But “elders” is not in these texts. On the contrary, both texts make it self-evident that the whole church gathered “in Jesus’ name” exercises his power and authority, arriving at the decision from community consensus.
  3. Ibid., 78.
  4. Ibid., 78.
  5. Ibid., 78.
  6. Marlin E. Miller, “The Recasting of Authority: A Biblical Model for Community Leadership,” Sojourners (February 1979), 25.
  7. Margaret Lamberts Bendroth, Fundamentalism and Gender: 1875 to the Present (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1993).
  8. John R. Rice, Bobbed Hair, Bossy Wives, and Women Preachers (Wheaton, IL: Sword of the Lord, 1941), 59.
  9. Bendroth, 27.
  10. Ibid., 10.
  11. Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, project coordinator and editor, After Eden: Facing the Challenge of Gender Reconciliation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1993), 42.
  12. Ibid., 70.
  13. Ibid., 257.
  14. Carol Penner, ed., Women arid Men: Gender in the Church (Scottdale: Mennonite
  15. Piper & Grudem, throughout all 566 pages.
  16. Ibid., 31-59.
  17. Ibid., 38-41.
  18. Ibid., 38.
  19. Ibid., 40.
  20. Ibid., 39^0.
  21. Ibid., 41.
  22. Ibid., 41.
  23. Mary Mitchell, Business Etiquette (www.ivillage.com workingdiva).
  24. Ibid., 47.
  25. Ibid., 52.
  26. Ibid., 51.
  27. Ibid., 49, 35.