Complementarian Theology in Crisis | CBE International

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Complementarian Theology in Crisis

This article first appeared in print in Eyes to See and Ears to Hear Women (Minneapolis: CBE International, 2018).

In June 2016, Professor Carl Trueman, of Westminster Theological Seminary, a complementarian, wrote:

Complementarianism as currently constructed would seem to be now in crisis. But this is a crisis of its own making—the direct result of the incorrect historical and theological arguments upon which the foremost advocates of the movement have chosen to build their case and which cannot actually bear the weight being placed upon them.[1]

Many other leading complementarians in the last two years have reached much the same conclusion.[2] The sharpest critics of the complementarian position are now within the complementarian camp. The crisis began when in 2016 several complementarian theologians denounced the hierarchically ordered Trinity, popularized by the de facto leaders of the complementarian movement, Wayne Grudem and Bruce Ware, as “heresy” and “Arian.”[3] Then came the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements which led to numerous evangelical women coming forward to say they had been abused by evangelical men who believed in male headship.[4] This made many complementarians realize that their headship teaching could, and often did, have harmful consequences for women. It could be toxic for them. What has not been publicly acknowledged so far by complementarians is the fact that in all the major exegetical debates they have had with evangelical egalitarians they have lost completely.[5] It is now obvious that the so-called “biblical argument” for male headship has no textual support, and that the complementarian appeal to the Bible can only persuade ill-informed anxious young men and already convinced complementarians.

The Invention of the Complementarian Position

In 1977, in the face of the growing impact of feminism on society and the church, George Knight III published his seminal work on the now-called “complementarian” view on gender, New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women.[6] He claimed that he was enunciating the historical or traditional view of the man-woman relationship, and this is true to some degree, but how he worded and formulated his case was entirely novel. He rejected the historic way of speaking of men as “superior” and women as “inferior,” replacing this with “role differences.” Men and women are “equal” but men’s “role” is to rule, and women’s to obey. These differing “roles,” he said, were given in creation before the fall and thus are transcultural and trans-temporal. He also introduced the novel idea that the hierarchical ordering of the sexes was grounded in the eternal triune life of God. This he claimed was what Paul clearly taught in 1 Corinthians 11:3: an “authority relationships that God has established between the Father and the Son, the Son and man, and man and woman.”[7] Just as the Father is “head-over” the Son so men are “head-over” women. Knight openly admitted that this hierarchical ordering of the divine persons has “ontological” implications.[8]

The most creative and significant element in Knight’s novel case for the permanent subordination of women and the eternal subordination of the Son was his introduction of the word “role.” In everyday usage and in sociological texts, a “role” speaks of routine behavior or acts that can change over time and differ from culture to culture. Without ever telling his readers, Knight used the word “role” in a totally different sense, found in no dictionary. For him, and every complementarian who has followed him, a “role” speaks of what identifies one as a man or a woman. In creation God gave to man the ruling “role”; women the obeying “role.” In other words, Knight used the word “role” to speak of fixed power relations given at birth based on gender. This was a brilliant ploy, enabling him and all the complementarians who followed to speak of the permanent subordination of women in fine sounding terms that obfuscated what was actually being argued. They could assert that men and women are “equal” yet role differentiated.

But Knight’s creative genius went further than this. He associated together a number of disparate texts, Genesis 2, 1 Corinthians 11:3–16, 14:33–34, Ephesians 5:22–33, and most importantly, 1 Timothy 2:11–14 into a theological construct. These texts, he argued, all spoke of the creation-given subordination of women and thus what they say is binding on the church for all times. Taken together these texts and their supposed creation grounding convinced many that Scripture permanently subordinated women to men. It is “what the Bible teaches.”

In this book, Knight enunciated for the first time, almost word for word as it is today, “the complementarian position.”

What is surprising is how many evangelicals uncritically embraced this novel teaching. They enthusiastically accepted Knight's use of the term “role,” taken from the theater and humanistic sociology, not the Bible, as a good-sounding way to speak of the permanent subordination of women and as an aid to the interpretation of their key texts. And they also accepted without dissent his hierarchically ordered Trinity that was a denial of historic orthodoxy.

The Trinity Argument

It is important to note that following Knight’s book, his “Trinity argument” got little attention.[9] I took part in many forums, verbal and written, on the status and ministry of women in the 1980s, and the Trinity hardly got a mention. What was central to the debate in these years was the interpretation of a limited number of texts that Knight had highlighted, especially 1 Tim 2:11–14. This observation is shown to be true by the absence of any mention of the Trinity in the Danvers Statement of 1987, which outlined definitively what is now called the “complementarian” position.

It was with the publication of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology [10] in 1994 that the Trinity argument first became integral to the complementarian position. It was apparent by then that the proof-text theology Knight had invented could convince no evangelical biblical scholar who was not an already-convinced complementarian. More theological firepower was needed.

Grudem gives a full chapter to the doctrine of the Trinity in which he argues for the eternal subordination of the Son, claiming this is clearly taught in Scripture and is what the church has always believed.[11] It is orthodoxy. He makes this the ultimate basis for the permanent subordination of women. He argues that the hierarchical ordering of the sexes on earth is predicated on the hierarchical ordering of the divine three persons in eternity.[12] Breaking with Knight, however, he argues that the eternal subordination of the Son in “role” does not have ontological implications (that is, his eternal role subordination does not necessarily imply that he is subordinated in his person—less than the Father in “essence/being/substance,” to use the technical terms—something the creeds and confessions of the church exclude). All complementarians followed him in this argument until 2016, when they capitulated, admitting that to eternally subordinate the Son must have ontological implications (meaning it implies what the creeds and confessions of the church deem heresy).[13]

Grudem quotes many texts in support of “the Trinity argument,” most of them highlighted by Arius, that may imply or do speak of the subordination of the Son,[14] and he appeals to 2 Corinthians 1:3 to establish a connection between the hierarchical ordering of the Father and the Son and men and women, but his primary argument for this ordering is found in the revealed titles, “the Father” and “the Son.” These are taken literally; the Father is a real father and the Son a real son. Fathers rule over sons and sons obey. He says,

The Father and the Son relate to one another as a father and a son relate to one another in a human family; the Father directs and has authority over the Son, and the son obeys and is responsive to the directions of the father. The Holy Spirit is obedient to the directives of both the Father and the Son.[15]

And then pushing the human analogy even further he says,

The gift of children within a marriage, coming from both the father and the mother, and subject to the authority of the father and the mother, is analogous to the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son in the Trinity.[16]

Grudem’s analogical argument seemed compelling for evangelicals who were ill-informed on the doctrine of the Trinity, had little interest in the creeds and confessions of the church, and had no understanding of the nature of human words used of God. The Son is like a human son and thus must obey his father. From this point on the Trinity argument became central to the complementarian case. Books and articles in support flooded the evangelical world. Possibly the most telling book in support was Bruce Ware’s, Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance.[17]

It is surprising that most evangelicals embraced uncritically this analogically-predicated theology. Evangelicals should always predicate our theology in Scripture, never on parallels with fallen human existence and relationships. In the New Testament, the Father-Son relationship is spoken of in terms of love, intimacy, and unity, never in terms of differing authority. When it comes to the Son, he is depicted as the Son of the King of Kings who will rule for ever and ever (2 Sam 7:2–4; Is 9:7; Lk 1:33; 2 Peter 1:11; Rev 7:10–12; 11:15; c.f. Eph 1:20). What is more, to argue by way of human analogy that the Son of God is eternally subordinated in authority to the Father is a denial of the primary Christian confession, “Jesus is Lord.”

The Biblical Argument

Genesis 1–3

Now we turn to the “biblical argument” for the permanent subordination of women, invented in its contemporary form by George Knight. This is based on the belief that God set the man over the woman before the fall. Male “headship” is the creational ideal; it is not a cultural phenomenon.

In support of the premise that the man ruled over the woman before the fall, complementarians characteristically argue that:

  1. The man was created first and this means he is “first,” the leader.
  2. God created woman as man’s “helper” (i.e. a subordinate).
  3. Woman was made from and for man, not vice versa.
  4. God gave the command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil to Adam, not to Eve, thereby making it clear that he was in charge in the Garden.
  5. Adam named the animals and Eve. Naming implies “authority over.”
  6. Eve was the first to be deceived by the serpent/devil. This demonstrates that women are more prone to sin and deception, and thus need the leadership of men.
  7. After Adam and Eve had both sinned, God spoke first to Adam, again showing that he had put him in charge.

If these are true, then the punishment God gives to the woman for her sin, namely that she will desire her husband but he will rule over her (Gen 3:16), introduces nothing new. Adam ruled over Eve before the fall.

These arguments have a long history. They were developed in a patriarchal culture where men ruled over women and no one questioned male supremacy. The problem for contemporary complementarians is that virtually no modern scholarly commentary of Genesis—Protestant or Catholic—endorses these arguments. The vast majority of scholars reject all of them. The Roman Catholic Church in a binding encyclical rejects every one, insisting that Genesis chapters 1–3 speak of “the essential equality of the sexes,” and makes the fall the basis for the rule of the man over the woman.[18]

All seven arguments are inferences. They are not exegesis but speculation. I now critically evaluate these seven proofs for the pre-fall subordination of women.

  1. The man was created first and this means he is “first,” the leader. This argument has no force. First, what is created second is often better or more preeminent than what is created prior. In Genesis 1, man and woman were created last, but they rule supreme. John the Baptist came first, Jesus second, but Jesus is preeminent. Second, the argument runs counter to what the dramatic narrative implies. Adam appears “first” to make the point that man alone is incomplete, help-less, not to indicate he rules supreme or is complete in himself. Paul once notes the fact that Adam in Genesis 2 is created first (1 Tim 2:13). He does so to back up his prohibition that a woman should not teach a man in a domineering (Greek authentein) way. In other words, women in Ephesus should not put themselves “first.”
  2. God created woman as man’s “helper” (i.e. a subordinate). The Hebrew word ezer (“helper”) is used twenty-one times in the Old Testament, fifteen times of God, the sovereign helper of Israel. Nowhere is it used of a subordinate helper. We thus must ask; what sort of helper does God provide for Adam? The text itself tells us that “the helper” is neither a superior nor a subordinate. The Hebrew word kenegdo that qualifies ezer, defines the helper as one corresponding to him—literally “according to, or the opposite of.”[19] The two words taken together thus speak of a fitting partner or companion for Adam.[20]
  3. Woman was made from and for the man, not vice versa. In Genesis 2, woman is made for man, because alone he is help-less, incomplete, and from man to highlight that woman is made of the same stuff as man. She is just like him yet she is woman and he is man. In neither case do these relationships imply subordination. In 1 Corinthians 11:8–9, Paul agrees that woman came “from” and was made “for” man in creation, but then says “nevertheless” “in the Lord” (in the new creation) man and woman are dependent on one another and he adds, man now comes “from” woman. In this argument, Paul first differentiates the two sexes by these two prepositions and then excludes the idea that differentiation implies the subordination of the woman.
  4. God gave the command not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil to Adam, not to Eve, thereby making it clear that he was in charge in the Garden. Yes, God gave the command to Adam, but Eve did not exist at that time and later it is said the command was given to her as well (Gen 3:1).
  5. Adam named the animals and Eve. Naming implies “authority over.” This scene in the narrative is given to make the point that no animal was a suitable partner/companion for Adam, not to teach that Adam had an authority denied to woman. In any case, naming does not imply authority over but rather differentiation. To name someone John means they are not Harry. To name an elephant an elephant means it is not a lion. What is more, if naming implies male rule over and excludes women ruling then it directly contradicts Genesis 1:28 where God appoints the man and the woman to rule over the animals. In Genesis 2:23 the man does not name the woman. He simply recognizes she is other than him, a woman. After the fall, Adam names Eve (Gen 3:20).
  6. Eve was the first to be deceived by the serpent/devil. This demonstrates that women are more prone to sin and deception, and thus need the leadership of men. Yes, the Serpent spoke with Eve and she first sinned but there are other possible inferences that can be drawn from these details in the narrative. More plausible than the one given by complementarians is that the Serpent reasoned, “If I can lead the woman into sin, the man will be a push over.” This was the case. We should also note that the author of Genesis says Adam was “with her” when she sinned (Gen 3:6). They thus sinned conjointly. In 1 Tim 2:14 Paul mentions the deception of Eve, as a warning to the women who have been “deceived” in Ephesians and are teaching in an authentein/dominating way.
  7. After Adam and Eve both sinned, God spoke first to Adam, again showing that he had put him in charge. In each of the seven scenes in Genesis 2–3, one actor is first. No one suggests this implies deep theology in each case. This phenomenon is best explained as stylistic. We should therefore not without any basis give weight to God addressing Adam first in this scene. In any case in this scene Adam is not depicted as the strong leader who is in charge, but rather as a weak man who blames his wife for his sin (Gen 3:12).

What must be acknowledged is that all these arguments are special pleading, not exegesis. They are a reading into the text what men in the past and some men today want to believe. In Genesis 1:27–28 in totally unambiguous language, man and woman are alike made in the image of God, together, side by side, they are given rule over creation (not one over the other), and to both of them is given the family mandate. Differing “roles” for men and women—in either the sociological sense or in Knight’s sense—are never implied or suggested.

So compelling is this interpretation of Genesis 1:27–28 that the dogmatic complementarians, Andreas and Margaret Köstenberger, in their 2014 book, God’s Design for Men and Women, admit that according to Genesis chapter 1, “Ruling the earth is a joint function of the man and the woman. Humanity is conceived as plurality.”[21] Despite this admission, they then argue that Genesis chapter 2 teaches the subordination of women and give the seven arguments just listed. In doing so, they not only set Genesis 1 and 2 in conflict but also ignore the fact that their interpretation has no scholarly support.

What we should believe, following almost all contemporary scholarly commentators, is that Genesis chapters 1 and 2 make basically the same points about man and woman in different literary genres. These chapters speak of the essential equality of the two sexes, their differentiation and complementarity, their joint dominion over creation, and that the rule of the man over the woman is entirely a consequence of the fall—not the creation ideal.

If in fact Genesis chapters 1–3 do not make male “headship” the creational ideal but rather a consequence of sin, then the complementarian view is without a theological foundation and it must be rejected.

The Rest of the Old Testament                                                

Most of the Old Testament reflects fallen existence where the man rules over the woman but God in his wisdom makes it clear that the subordination of women is not a reflection of his perfect will. He thus includes the story of Deborah, among others. Deborah is a married woman whom God raises up to be a judge and prophet set over his people Israel. (Judges 4 and 5). She cannot be explained away as all complementarians want to do. This story is included in our Bibles as a denial of the idea that the subordination of women is the God-given ideal and that God does not endorse the leadership of women. Deborah is a leader of God’s people, a judge or ruler and prophet like the men so designated. All scholarly commentators on the book of Judges acknowledge this fact.

Deborah is not the only woman called a prophet in Scripture. Miriam (Ex 15:21–12), Huldah (2 Kings 22:14), Noadiah (Neh 6:14), the wife of Isaiah (Isa 8:3), Anna (Lk 2:36), and other women who are unnamed are said to prophesy.[22] A prophet is raised up by God as his spokesperson. He or she is a leader among God’s people. A prophet could call to account a king or priest. Prophets among other things were teachers of God’s people. They were forthtellers more than foretellers.


In complementarian writings, Jesus’ teaching and example in regard to women is generally ignored; only the fact that he appointed twelve male apostles is stressed.[23] This is supposed to indicate that male leadership is a creation-given principle that Jesus endorsed. This omission of the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ interactions with women by those claiming to be giving “what the Bible teaches” on women is unpardonable. Scholarly studies on Jesus and women are united in concluding that his stance on women was revolutionary and counter-cultural. He related to women in the same way as he related to men. He said not one word in support of male headship and much to the contrary.

It is a fact of history that Jesus chose twelve men to be his apostles. It is an inference that this indicates the principle of male leadership. This inference is not supported by anything Jesus said or did. Other inferences are much more plausible. For instance, he likely chose twelve men because leadership in ancient Israel was customarily given by men and because women were not regarded as trustworthy factual witness by the Jews—and the Twelve were primarily witnesses of Jesus’ ministry, death, and resurrection (Acts 1:21–22). Furthermore, it seems the number twelve was what was most significant. In choosing twelve men, Jesus was indicating that his followers were the new Israel. Lastly, I mention that Luke also insists that the seven table waiters mentioned in Acts 6:1–6 must be men. To be consistent should not complementarians insist that all work in church kitchens be done by men? That they serve morning tea or coffee?

1 Corinthians 11:3–16

Paradoxically, this text is one of the most quoted in the complementarian case, despite being the clearest evidence that men and women led in prayer and prophecy in church in the apostolic age.[24] Charles Hodge says prayer and prophecy were “the two principal exercises in the public life of the early Christians.”[25] Complementarians quote this text primarily because they interpret Paul to be saying God is “head over” the Son and men “head over women” (verse 3). This they insist is the force of the Greek word kephale whenever it is used in the New Testament.

As in English, the Greek word literally refers to the top part of the body. Unlike in English, its metaphorical uses don’t include “leader” but do include the top part, beginning, or source of something. Despite denials by complementarians, the verdict is now in: kephale can mean “source,” and in this context this is the most likely meaning.[26] The Father is the source of the Son in his eternal generation and Adam is the source of woman according to Genesis chapter 2, a fact Paul mentions in verses 8 and 12. Why would Paul first say men have authority over women and then endorse them leading in prayer and prophecy?

This affirmation of women leading in prophecy is hugely difficult for complementarians because in the Bible prophets are teachers of God’s people. The Old Testament prophets were certainly teachers of God’s people; Jesus is a prophet who teaches, and Luke speaks of prophets and teachers as one ministry (Acts 13:1). Paul says that when prophets prophesy they “build up, encourage and console” the assembled church (1 Cor 14:3) and their hearers “learn” (1 Cor 14:31), which is what happens when people teach. In Revelation 2:20 we read of Jezebel, “who calls herself a prophet and is teaching and beguiling my servants.” In this verse a prophet, albeit a false prophet, is said to teach. In his important study on prophecy in the apostolic age, David Hill argues that prophecy is basically Spirit-inspired teaching.[27]

The passage certainly affirms male-female differentiation, but it says not one word on the subordination of women. Indeed, it is one of the clearest texts showing that women led and “preached” in church in the apostolic age.

1 Corinthians 14:33b–36

Complementarians next turn to 1 Corinthians 14:33b–36 where they find Paul saying, “Women should keep silent in the churches.” They take Paul to be forbidding women speaking in church in any way that would question male headship. This is a very unlikely interpretation because in 1 Corinthians 11:3, as we have just seen, Paul allows that women can lead the church in prayer and prophecy. The explanation that Paul is forbidding women from asking disruptive questions in the little house churches is far more plausible. He says, if the women have anything to ask, “let them ask their husbands at home” (1 Cor 14:35).

But there is a bigger issue; it is highly likely that Paul did not write these words but that they were added by a later scribe. This has long been argued as a possibility, but in recent years Philip Payne has put forward compelling evidence for the omission of these verses in the earliest written manuscripts.[28] This means that there is a big question mark over the authenticity of this text. An agreed evangelical rule is that if there is serious doubt on the textual authenticity of any text in the Bible, it should not be quoted in support of any doctrine.

Ephesians 5:21–33

The principle of “male headship” is basic to the complementarian position. Nothing is more often mentioned. However, not once in the whole Bible do we find the term “headship” and only once do we find Paul saying, “the husband is the head of the wife” (Eph 5:23). In Ephesians 5:22–23 Paul says, “Wives submit to your husbands . . . for the husband is the head (kephale) of the wife.” Like all verses in the Bible this verse must be read in context. When it is, we discover that in Ephesians 5:21–33, Paul both affirms the cultural premise that the husband is the paterfamilias, father of the family,[29] and subverts any thought that this grants him privileges and power in relation to his wife.

He begins his discussion of Christian marriage in verse 21 with an exhortation, “Be subordinate to one another.” This verse is transitional. It looks back to the string of imperatives that depend on the verb in the exhortation, “be filled with the Spirit” (5:18).[30] Paul believed that when Christians are filled with the Spirit they will sing and make melody, give thanks and subordinate themselves to one another. It looks forward by introducing what Paul goes on to say about marriage in verses 22–33.

Paul’s exhortation, “Be subordinate (hypotassesthai) to one another out of fear/reverence for Christ” tells Spirit-filled believers how they are to relate to one another. He exhorts all Christians, men and women, as those set free by the Spirit, to defer to and humbly serve one another. Next, Paul exhorts Christian wives specifically to be subordinate to their husbands, an exhortation in sharp tension with the prior exhortation to mutual subordination and the following exhortations to husbands to give themselves in service and love for their wives. The reason a wife should submit to her husband, Paul says, is because “the husband is the kephalē/head of the wife” (v. 22). Because Paul has just instructed wives to be subordinate, and he does so again in verse 24, his first readers would have taken the word kephalē to be speaking of the husband’s precedence as the paterfamilias, the master of the extended household, because this was their cultural understanding of the position of the husband in the marriage. In speaking of the man as the kephalē of his wife, Paul allowed his readers to think that he was simply reinforcing the cultural norms of that culture, what they already believed—men should have precedence and be privileged. It was only as they read on that they found he was giving entirely new content to what it means for the husband to be the kephalē.

In speaking of the husband as the head of the wife and in his exhortation to wives to be subordinate, Paul never mentions a supposed hierarchical, pre-fall creation order where the husband has authority over his wife. Nowhere in the New Testament do we find any hint of such an idea. What is reflected in verses 22–24 is the cultural order of that time, where men were set over women (and masters over slaves), an order Paul is trying to subvert but not explicitly reject. Behind this teaching lies Gen 3:16, which speaks of the post-fall situation where the man rules over the woman. In Ephesians 5:31, Paul does quote Genesis 2:24, not to establish the headship of the husband or the subordination of the wife, but rather to speak of the mysterious and profound oneness of man and woman in marriage.

Having given instruction to wives in three verses and having said nothing distinctively Christian or revolutionary, and having made no appeal to creation order, Paul devotes seven verses to husbands, asking of them things no one had ever asked of husbands before. In this section, we find much that is distinctively Christian and revolutionary. Paul asks husbands to love their wives “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her,” and also, “as they love their own bodies.” He does not use the Greek word eros (sexual love), or philia (brotherly/family love), but agapē (self-giving love). As far as we know, no one before Paul had used this word for the marriage relationship. Agapē is the noblest and loftiest word in the Greek language for love. We understand its meaning through the self–sacrifice of Christ who “loved (agapaō) the church and gave himself up for her” (v 25). What Paul says here subverts patriarchy; it envisages a marriage of two people of equal worth and dignity in which the man gives himself in sacrificial service for his wife.

Let me say again: Ephesians 5:21–33 does not make the rule of the husband over his wife the Christian position. The rule of the man over the woman reflects the fall (Gen 3:16) and fallen existence. It is the well-nigh universal reality in this world. Rather, Paul in this profound text depicts Christian marriage as characterized by mutual subordination, where the man gives his life for his wife in costly service to the point of death. Professor Andrew Lincoln says that here Paul sees, “submission and love [agape love] as two sides of the same coin—selfless service of one’s marriage partner.”[31] It is thus best to understand Ephesians 5:21–33 as a foreshadowing of the fully equal marriage, which for the first time in history can now be realized and enjoyed.

1 Timothy 2:8–15

For the complementarian case, no text is more important than 1 Timothy 2:12–14. Complementarians take Paul to be clearly forbidding women from teaching or exercising pastoral authority in church, and they see him basing this prohibition in the hierarchical ordering of the sexes in creation before the fall. Thus, they read this one text as a binding rule for all time for all Christians. In reply I make the following points.

  1. This prohibition is found in one of three related epistles (the Pastorals) in which false teaching is the primary concern (1 Tim 1:3–7, 19–20, 4:1–2, 16, 6:3–5, 2 Tim 2:14–19, 3:10–16, Tit 1:10–16, 2:1–2, 3:8–10). Writing to Titus in Crete where the false teachers were active, Paul tells his young deputy to “silence” the men who are “upsetting whole families” by teaching “what is not right to teach” (Tit 1:10–11). Writing to Timothy in Ephesus, Paul tells Timothy to silence the women who have been deceived and are teaching in an authentein way.[32] In Ephesus, Paul makes it plain the false male teachers were having a field day among the women. They had forbidden them to marry (1 Tim 4:3) and led some to “follow Satan,” and some women were “going about from house to house” [house-church to house-church] . . . “saying what they ought not say” (1 Tim 5:13–15).
  2. If this is a universal prohibition on women teaching/preaching then what Paul says here is in conflict with his own teachings elsewhere. He holds that the Spirit gives all ministries and the Spirit is given to men and women alike (1 Cor 12:4–31). He endorses women prophesying, and prophesying and teaching cannot be sharply divided. He almost certainly speaks of a woman apostle (Rom 16:7), and apostles definitely taught.[33]
  3. The verb authentein almost certainly does not speak of the rightful authority that pastors exercise. Despite a huge effort, complementarian scholars have not been able to come up with one example where this word is used in a positive sense before Paul or in the next 100 years. The etymology of this word, its cognate forms, and its usage all indicate that it speaks of self-appropriated and assertive authority. In this context is best translated “to usurp authority” or to “dominate.”[34]
  4. In 1 Timothy 2:8–15, the church as we know it today never comes into view. The context is the little house churches of the first century where everyone had an opportunity to minister (1 Cor 14:26) and to teach (Rom 15:4, Eph 5:19, Col 3:16). Speaking to such a church setting, Paul says, “I do not permit a woman to teach a man in an authentein way.” Note carefully the singular. He forbids a woman dominating a man by the way she teaches in person to person interaction. Paul says nothing about preaching in a large public church gathering, whoever does it. We thus cannot simplistically apply what is actually said in this text to a very contrasting modern-day ecclesiastical setting.
  5. Paul does not ground his prohibition in a supposed hierarchical ordering of the sexes before the fall. He forbids a woman teaching a man one-to-one in an authentein way. He uses two ad hoc arguments: Adam was created first (therefore you women should not put yourself first, claiming an authority not given to you) and like Eve, you women giving this false teaching are the ones who have been “deceived.” Given this interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:13–14, Paul speaks not of a hierarchical social order given in creation before the fall, but rather of the heresy-created disorder in the church at Ephesus in the first century. If this is the case, then Paul’s prohibition on women teaching and leading in church, however understood, is not universally binding.

Complementarians have built far too much on one possible and unlikely interpretation of one text, 1 Timothy 2:11. I here recall what Oscar Cullman once said, “the fountainhead of all false biblical interpretation and all heresy is invariably the isolation and absolutizing of one single passage.”[35]

At this point, I conclude my critical assessment of the so-called “biblical case” for the permanent subordination of women. What we have discovered is that no text in the whole Bible grounds the subordination of women in creation before the fall. And, none of the texts that supposedly unilaterally subordinate women to men or demand their silence in church actually do so. The Bible makes the rule of the man over the woman entirely a consequence of the fall. It is not the God-given ideal.

The Beginning of the End

By the 1990s, complementarian theologians had realized that their “biblical argument” could not win the day. Informed evangelical scholars were not persuaded by their appeal to a limited number of texts or of their interpretation of them, and they were agreed that the use of the term “role” to interpret the contested texts only corrupted the exegetic process. It led to eisegesis—reading our agenda into the text.

Let me give two examples to illustrate this point. First, because of their fixation with “roles,” complementarians insist that Adam and Eve’s sin spoken of in Genesis 2–3 was that of “role reversal.”[36] In fact, it was simply disobedience to the command of God. Second, whatever 1 Timothy 2:15 (women “will be saved through childbearing”) means, it does not mean or imply, “women will be spiritually preserved if they devote themselves to their God-given role in the domestic and familial sphere.”[37] This is not exegesis. It is imaginative pious platitude.

I agree with Werner Neuer, a German Old Testament scholar of complementarian convictions. He speaks of the “inappropriateness of role theory” to interpret the Bible’s teaching on the sexes, and concludes that, “in the cause of truth we [complementarians] should give up talking about the roles of the sexes.” [38]

But not only has the “biblical argument” collapsed, so too has the “Trinity argument”—and complementarians now publicly admit this. It has been deemed by their own theologians as heretical.[39] Denny Burk, the president of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the flagship of the complementarian movement and a long-time supporter of the Trinity argument, openly says, “I now believe in the whole Nicene package,” and he admits that the complementarian doctrine of the Trinity cannot be reconciled with it. For this reason, he says, I do not agree with “the specific formulations [of the doctrine of the Trinity] of Grudem and Ware,” “my friends.” Because he is now personally committed to the Nicene doctrine of the Trinity that excludes hierarchical ordering in the Trinity, he says, “I think it is good and right to leave behind the language of “subordination.”[40] But worse was to follow.

The #MeToo Movement                                                                  

Just as complementarians were accepting that they had to abandon the Trinity argument, an even more devastating assault began that exposed the awful practical consequences of complementarian theology. In the wake of the appalling revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s predatory behavior towards women, first on the hashtag #MeToo, and then #ChurchToo, large numbers of evangelical women came forward to speak of their abuse by evangelical men.

This led to the Paige Patterson scandal.[41] In the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, Patterson was one of, if not the, most powerful and influential leader of the Southern Baptist denomination, the largest protestant denomination in the USA. He was a key player in the conservative victory over the moderates in Southern Baptist seminaries and a leading complementarian who helped draft the 1987 Danvers Statement.

The charges against him include that he had counseled evangelical women to stay with their abusive husbands and taught that abuse was not a reason for divorce. He had publicly objectified a teenage girl by commenting on her good looks, and he criticized the appearance of many female theological students. In 2003, he had pressured a young Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary student (where he was then President), named Megan Lively, not to report an incident of sexual assault to the police. In 2015, this time as President of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, when another young female student reported that she had been raped, he insisted on speaking to the girl alone so that he, in his own words, “could break her down.” And finally, he lied to the trustees of Southwestern about these matters.[42]

While abuse and the putting down of women do not occur solely in complementarian communities, complementarian teachings seem to encourage it and condone it. When egalitarians abuse or put down women, they cannot turn to their gender theology for justification or to excuse their behavior.

Evangelical Christians, many of them complementarians, cried out, “If this is how complementarianism works out in practice, can it be what the Bible teaches?” Possibly no one put this question more forcibly and painfully than Beth Moore, perhaps the best-known Southern Baptist. As a Southern Baptist, she is of course not ordained and mainly speaks to women. She has long upheld complementarian teaching.

However, in the wake of the #MeToo movement and the Paige Patterson scandal, she broke ranks and wrote on May 3, 2018 an “Open Letter to My Brothers” [of complementarian conviction].[43] In this she says “she learned early to show constant pronounced deference—not just proper respect” to evangelical male leaders, to accept frequent unjustified criticism from them, and to be ignored and talked down to by these men. But in late 2016 when it emerged that many if not most the better-known complementarians’ views of women “smacked of misogyny, objectification and astonishing disesteem” she spoke up. She writes,

I came face to face with one of the most demoralizing realizations of my adult life: Scripture was not the reason for this colossal disregard and disrespect of women among these many men. It was only an excuse. Sin was the reason. Ungodliness.

At this point in time, she came to accept and acknowledge that “many women have experienced horrific abuses within the power structures of our [evangelical] world,” and male evangelical leaders have been silent. She says,

Many churches quick to teach submission are often slow to point out that women were also among the followers of Christ (Luke 8), that the first recorded word out of his resurrected mouth was ‘woman’ (John 20:15) and that same woman was the first evangelist. These men love to turn to the Household codes in their sermons, where wives are told to be submissive, but are slow to also point out the numerous women with whom the apostle Paul served and for whom he possessed obvious esteem.

What is now demanded, she concludes, is a “roundtable discussion” where these issues can be faced and addressed honestly and openly.

Not unexpectedly, many read her words as a rejection and condemnation of complementarianism. Beth Allison Barr for one read it as a “recanting” of complementarianism, even though Moore does not explicitly say this. She does, however, apologize for “being part of the problem” created by complementarian teaching that demeans women and for her “cowardly” deference to its teachers. Furthermore, she reminds her readers of the frequent affirmations of women and their leadership in Scripture that complementarian theologians ignore or downplay.

Melanie McMaster, writing in the Washington Post in reference to Beth Moore’s letter, says “The SBC leaders are well aware that they are [now] facing a continuing crisis over how women are treated [in their churches and seminaries]. Women such as Beth Moore have started to challenge men’s abuse of power.”[44] She then asks, could this be the beginning of the end of the complementarian ideology?

I think so. An appeal to the Bible that has awful consequences for millions of women, and demeans them by making them subordinate to men, must be wrong. Good theology leads to good outcomes. The Gospel liberates and lifts up the downtrodden.

Where to Now?

The complementarian hold on American evangelicalism has been strong, but now it is on the ropes. Complementarianism is in “crisis,” as Carl Trueman points out. Its biblical argument and its Trinity argument for the permanent subordination of women have collapsed, and it has been charged and found guilty of demeaning women and encouraging their abuse. Beth Moore has suggested a way forward, a “roundtable discussion” where evangelical supporters and critics of the complementarian position can listen to and learn from each other. To have this discussion, one thing is necessary. Complementarians must cease asserting that if anyone disagrees with what they say the Bible says, they have rejected the authority of Scripture. No evangelical egalitarian rejects the authority of Scripture. What we reject, for the reasons given in this essay, is the complementarian interpretation of a limited number of verses and the theological construct built on these texts. Let the discussion begin.

[1] Carl Trueman, “Motivated by Feminism? A Response to a Recent Criticism,” Postcards from Palookaville (blog), Mortification of Spin, Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, June 7, 2016,

[2] I document many examples later in this essay.

[3] I will say more on this latter. See also Kevin Giles, The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2017).

[4] Again, I will document this assertion later in this essay.

[5] As I will demonstrate later in this essay. See also Kevin Giles, What the Bible Actually Teaches on Women: A Reply to the Köstenbergers (Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2018).

[6] George Knight III, New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977).

[7] Ibid, 57, See also 33.

[8] Ibid, 56. Three times in the first paragraph on this page he admits this.

[9] For what follows, see for greater detail and with full documentation Giles, The Rise and Fall.

[10] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1994).

[11] Ibid., 226–61.                        

[12] Ibid., 459.

[13] Giles, The Rise and Fall, 35–52

[14] No one denies some texts do this. Nicene orthodoxy insists that such texts speak of the self–chosen subordination of the Son in his incarnation, as taught in Philippians 2:4–11.

[15] Grudem, Systematic Theology, 249.

[16] Ibid., 257.

[17] Bruce Ware, Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Relationships, Roles, and Relevance (Wheaton: Crossway, 2005).

[18] Pope John Paul II, Apostolic Letter Mulieris Dignitatem of the Supreme Pontiff John Paul II On the Dignity and Vocation of Women On the Occasion of the Marian Year (Boston: St. Paul Books & Media, 1988).

[19] On the words used and their meaning see Philip Payne, Man and Woman, One in Christ: An Exegetical and Theological Study of Paul's Letters (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009), 44–45.

[20] John Walton, Genesis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 177, thinks the best translation would be either “partner” or “counterpart.”

[21] Andreas and Margaret E. Köstenberger, God’s Design for Man and Woman: A Biblical–Theological Survey (Wheaton: Crossway, 2014), 30.

[22] See further on prophets, Kevin Giles, Patterns of Ministry among the First Christians, second ed. (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2017), 149–173.

[23] An exception is found in Margaret E. Köstenberger’s book, Jesus and the Feminists: Who Do They Say He Is? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008). However, her pages on Jesus are not serious scholarship. In the end for her, Jesus is just a nice man who speaks respectfully to women.

[24] I have a full chapter on prophets and prophesy in the Bible in my book, Patterns of Ministry among the First Christians, 149–173.

[25] Charles Hodge, A Commentary on the First Epistle to the Corinthians (London: Banner of Truth, 1958), 208.

[26] Payne, Man and Woman, 117–139 and Cynthia Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2016), 38–40, 80–89. No one has made an answer to Payne’s overwhelming case.

[27] David Hill, New Testament Prophecy (London: Marshall Morgan, and Scott, 1979).

[28] See Payne, Man and Woman, 217–270 and more recently with added evidence, Payne, “Vaticanus Distigme-Obelos Symbols,” New Testament Studies, 63.4 (2017), 604–625.

[29] For more on this concept see Giles, What the Bible, 108, 156–157.                          

[30] The Köstenbergers agree. See God's Design for Man and Woman, 185.

[31] Andrew Lincoln, Ephesians: Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1990), 393.

[32] I will justify this reading of 1 Tim 2 immediately following.

[33] I set out the compelling evidence for this in my, What the Bible Actually Teaches on Women, 118–129, 144–151

[34] Ibid., 144–151.

[35] Oscar Cullman, The State in the New Testament (London: SCM, revised edition, 1963), 47.

[36] As commonly asserted in complementarian literature. Knight, New Testament Teaching, 31, invented this idea.

[37] Köstenberger, God’s Design, 216                                                               

[38] Werner Neuer, Man and Woman in Christian Perspective (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1990) 30.

[39] See also Giles, The Rise and Fall.

[40] “My Take-Away’s [sic] from the Trinity Debate,” Denny Burk (blog), August 10, 2016,

[41] There are many accounts of this sad story on the internet. See for example, Kate Shellnutt, “Divorce after abuse: how Paige Patterson’s Counsel Compares to other Pastors,” Christianity Today, April 30, 2018 Kate Shellnut, “Paige Patterson fired by Southwestern, stripped of retirement benefits,” Christianity Today, May 30, 2018,

[42] See in particular, Sarah Pulliam Bailey, “Southern Baptist seminary drops bombshell: why Paige Patterson was fired,” Washington Post, June 1, 2018,

[43] Beth Moore, “A Letter to My Brothers,” The LPM Blog, Living Proof Ministries, May 3, 2018, All the following quotes are taken from this letter.

[44] Melanie McAlister, “How Beth Moore is helping to change the face of evangelical leadership” Washington Post, June 22, 2018,


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