One of the dangers inherent in “complementarianism” is the perception that ordination to ecclesiastical office is a matter of semi-arbitrary positive law and private zones of jurisdiction, that male leadership in church is only a question of ordination or specific church polity and only because a few bible verses command it. Worse yet, it might simply be the practice and tradition of one particular tradition, a faith community or religious custom that is honored for the sake of history. The inequality inherent to its perspective on ministerial ordination is maintained, but reluctantly and without coherency. Taking this approach may appear as a middle way, satisfying all necessary demands, but eventually it will be seen to be what it is, a rather effete post hoc justification for a practice that no longer makes sense.
On the face of it, this seems a wrongheaded criticism. After all, doesn’t “complementarianism” argue that the two sexes complement each other, a universal truth grounded in creational distinctiveness? Yes, and very good. This is foregrounded in the Danvers Statement (see affirmations two and three). But complementarianism also frequently says that this logic applies in “church and home,” leaving the question of the rest of public life unaddressed. For instance the fifth affirmation of the Danvers Statement says, “Both Old and New Testaments also affirm the principle of male headship in the family and in the covenant community.” It then goes on to speak of authority in the family and in the church. When speaking of male leadership in the church, it presents its affirmation in something of a flinching way, “In the church, redemption in Christ gives men and women an equal share in the blessings of salvation; nevertheless, some governing and teaching roles within the church are restricted to men” (Affirmation 6.2). The statement isn’t wrong, but the emphasis is telling. Equality is pushed to the front, inequality is guarded by “some… roles within the church are restricted…” No further explanation is given. And nowhere in the statement is the word “nature,” once so common to Christian writers, even used at all.
Taken simply as an ecclesio-political document, one can understand the limited scope. The drafters likely wanted to build a broad coalition. And when they wrote it, they may not have felt the challenge that has subsequently arisen– “Yes, but this argument only applies to the family and to the church.” However, this is one of the most common explanations a complementarian is likely to encounter today. Complementarianism has regularly become restricted to a narrow, voluntary, and mostly private domain, what some critics have termed “thin complementarianism” and which we will here call, in order to avoid potential awkward associations, “narrow complementarianism.”1 Narrow Complementarianism produces slogans like “Women can do anything a non-ordained man can do” and disdains any prioritization of masculinity in the lay vocations as a disagreeable reluctance of the patriarchy. Sexual egalitarianism in the civic realm is taken for granted, perhaps even as sacred.
This challenge is significant, however, because if sexual complementarity is a basic feature of the creation itself, and if the family is the most basic institution of all human sociality, then male leadership would follow, not as an additional law added to the creation but as a natural feature of the way creation is constituted. Male leadership would be natural. And as such, it would be a basic feature of all of human life, from which laws and customs are derived. Male leadership in the family would be a matter of natural law, and male-only ordination in the church would be an indication that ecclesiastical leadership is itself naturally ordered, a feature of human social and political arrangement. Male-only ordination would be defended as a rational thing, not merely a perplexing New Testament injunction. The Church would be a picture of reality.
Of course, very few people in Western cultures today are willing to state that male leadership is a natural law and that it should be taken as a general truth for all of human social life (The developing world does still largely take this as an obvious truth, and so Western NGOs are busy attempting to “correct” them.). Indeed, most modern people are committed to arguing against such a proposition, even many otherwise conservative and complementarian Christians. As we mentioned above, anyone who would consider masculinity to be an important element of leadership as such should expect to be labelled toxic. Even Christians issue calls to help tear down the patriarchy, even as some of them hope that male-only ordination will survive the demolition. It is then hardly surprising when unchurched onlookers, and even the next generation of church members, find the exercise internally inconsistent and, at least on some level, disingenuous.
The Christian Tradition Has Always Embraced Hierarchy
Were the proverbial visitor from Mars seeking to understand the New Testament’s argument for male leadership in the church, he would find it a rather easy task. Verses like 1 Cor. 11:3, 14:34, 1 Tim. 2:13 and 1 Peter 3:7 all appeal to some sort of hierarchical arrangement, with male leadership or “headship” unequivocally prescribed. 1 Cor. 14:34 is so inescapable in this regard that the otherwise excellent commentator Gordon Fee is forced to argue that the verse simply cannot have been written by the apostle Paul. 2 The New Testament texts are considered “problem texts,” but the problem lies not with the history or with the grammar but with the modern reader.
Fritz Zerbst’s book, The Office of Woman in the Church, highlights Martin Luther and John Calvin’s comments on 1 Cor. 14:34. Zerbst first quotes from Luther’s 1521 The Misuse of the Mass, which says:
For he who would preach must possess not only the Spirit, but also a good voice, ability to express himself well, a good memory, and other natural gifts; whosoever does not possess these gifts should appropriately keep silence and allow another to speak. Thus Paul forbids women to preach in the congregation where men are who are able to speak, to the end that honor and order prevail; for to speak is more fitting and appropriate for man, and he is better qualified for speaking. And Paul did not issue this prohibition out of his own head, but he appeals to the Law, which says that women are to be under obedience.
…Order, decency, and honor require, therefore, that women keep silence when the men speak; if, however, there is no man to preach, then it would be necessary that women preach. (Zerbst, pg. 87)
In the surrounding comments, Luther very directly rejects the argument that the pastoral office is limited to men for sacramental reasons. He even allows women to preach in the event that no men are present, for in that case there would be no offense to order decency or honor. Instead, Luther grounds the argument for male-only ordination in natural gifts and propriety.
Zerbst next points to Calvin’s Commentary on 1 Corinthians, which we can easily quote from directly. Commenting on 1 Cor. 14:34, Calvin writes:
…the office of teaching is a superiority in the Church, and is, consequently, inconsistent with subjection. For how unseemly a thing it were, that one who is under subjection to one of the members, should preside over the entire body! It is therefore an argument from things inconsistent — If the woman is under subjection, she is, consequently, prohibited from authority to teach in public. And unquestionably, wherever even natural propriety has been maintained, women have in all ages been excluded from the public management of affairs. It is the dictate of common sense, that female government is improper and unseemly.
Calvin is clear. Women are not permitted to lead in the church because they are not permitted to hold positions of leadership in general. This is not only a matter of individual gifts but also of a kind of sexual hierarchy. The teaching office is an office of “superiority.” Ecclesiastical ordination is a subset of the larger question of political authority. Hierarchy is front and center.
In his treatment of 1 Corinthians 11, Calvin spends a good amount of time on the concepts of decorum and propriety. This is true of his commentary, particularly on 1 Cor. 11:2, but it comes out in much more detail in his sermons. Three of them have recently been published as a small book entitled Men, Women, and Order in the Church and are very helpful in highlighting ways of thinking which are largely forgotten today. The conceptual categories of hierarchy, decorum, propriety, and order are employed to provide much of the explanatory work. God’s command is exegeted not only from the text of Scripture but also the book of nature. It exists within the very fabric of creation. Male-only ordination is not only right. It is fitting.
Few if any earlier commentators understood these various passages in a significantly different way. John Chrysostom certainly does not. Luther and Calvin present their arguments as “common sense” ones and make no effort to answer any earlier contrary readings. It is only after “common sense” begins to lose confidence in categories like propriety, decorum, and even hierarchy that such views become unintelligible or embarrassing. Indeed, even sections of the Westminster Larger Catechism are then drawn into question. WLC 124-132 follow the same sort of logic as above, a logic that even many Presbyterians decline to accept, and so, from time to time, candidates for ordination express their discomfort with those questions and answers in the catechism, even as they remain constitutional fixtures within the various denominations. They are saluted but not accepted. And very few take such as a matter of concern, if they even notice at all. What could the cause of such a significant intellectual shift be?
The Dilemma of Unfashionable Texts
This essay has purposely been written in an objective and perhaps detached voice, but for a moment I can speak plainly. Luther and Calvin’s comments on these biblical passages are not comments that I would casually toss around in a mixed setting today. I understand that they can sound harsh, and I understand that there is a history of abusive patriarchy. I also know that there are just boneheaded “bros” who have no particular ideology and are instead led about by their bellies and lower appetites. No one should be a jerk about this stuff.
But the difficult questions nevertheless arise. Were Luther and Calvin misreading Paul? It’s one thing to say that Luther and Calvin brought cultural assumptions to the text, but in this case they also made claims about Paul’s assumptions. Are those claims wrong? Does the Bible itself suggest a form of patriarchy?
In the case of 1 Cor. 14:34, Paul says this: “the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says.” He immediately adds, “If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church” (1 Cor. 14:35). The speech in question is public and authoritative speech, not simply conversation on church property. And Paul clearly forbids it in women. In doing so, he also appeals to the domestic arrangement. The logic of ecclesiastical government is therefore shown to be consistent with and built upon the more basic hierarchy of husbands and wives. To subvert it, he says, would be shameful.
The term Paul uses for “submission” is one which can also be translated as subjection or subordination, and Paul says this subordination is supported by “the Law.” Commentators disagree over how to understand “law” in this verse. Some have suggested that Paul is appealing to the Roman law of his day. This seems very unlikely, but if it is so, then Paul would be giving some measure of consent to that law. After all, he isn’t merely tolerating such a law in the external society. He is appealing to it in order to give support to church law. More likely, however, Paul is here appealing to Torah, the law of Moses. He does not name a particular law, and so it is probably the whole of the law, or the general teaching of male/female relations found therein which he is referencing. In Genesis, Eve is created “for” Adam, as Paul himself states in 1 Cor. 11:9. Eve is also told that Adam will “rule over her” in Gen. 3:16. Adam and Eve are everywhere extolled as controlling types for all later humanity. This hierarchical pattern holds true throughout all of the examples of family life in the books of Genesis, and when Peter also teaches on this topic in the New Testament (1 Peter 3:1-7), he appeals to the example of Sarah and Abraham. Sarah, Peter says, called Abraham “lord.”
Earlier in 1 Cor. 11, Paul gives more of his logic. “The head of woman is man” (1 Cor. 11:3). The woman was made “from man” and “for man” and so ought to have “authority” on her head (1 Cor. 11:8, 9, 10). This too is the logic of the Hebrew creation narrative. Adam was made from the earth, whereas Eve was made from Adam. Eve was made for Adam, to be his helper in the dominion mandate. In 1 Timothy 2, Paul makes this same argument. Women are neither “to teach or to exercise authority over a man” because “Adam was formed first.” (1 Tim. 2:12-13). Paul does go on to add a punitive element, noting that Eve was deceived, but this is given in addition to the creational arrangement, not in place of or in opposition to it. Thus, 1 Cor. 14:34 is not some lonely example of out-of-place patriarchy. It is wholly consistent with the rest of the Pauline and New Testament landscape. It is entirely logical that Paul’s appeal to “the law” is but another way to say what he has already been saying, to summarize the Genesis account. And of course, there are many laws in the Torah which follow the logic of male leadership. Even the 10th Commandment locates the “wife” along with the man’s “house.” This does not reduce her to property (and indeed her place in the order moves forward in the Deuteronomy account), but it does show that the domestic arrangement was assumed to have a male head.
The “logic” of the New Testament’s teaching of male leadership in the church is consistently based on the creational pattern of Genesis 2. This is why churches who retain male-only ordination reject arguments that the restriction was based on human custom and only relevant to patriarchal cultures. This teaching was not only a cultural feature of the historical period but was indeed reflective of a natural law, the creation order itself.
But if this is so, then we cannot laugh off the more wide-reaching comments of Luther and Calvin. The one and same logic underpins both. And thus we are left to choose. Do we retain their logic, because it is indeed the logic of the New Testament, even as it conflicts with our modern assumptions about civil arrangement and equality, or do we reject that logic, along with the New Testament logic? And if we reject the foundational logic, why should we trouble ourselves with one contentious application of that logic? It seems like a waste of everyone’s time.
In any case, the middle way of narrow complementarianism seems the least intellectually attractive. One will eventually feel the pull to one of the two consistent positions.
Of course the intellectual attraction itself faces a formidable competitor, the visceral reaction of modern philosophical and cultural commitments, namely the current concept of equality. This is certainly why so many seek to “save” male-only ordination through other means. They want to eat the cake and have it. They very much do not want their faith to be seen as standing in contradiction to equality. But in the attempt to save the biblical injunction, they invariably discard all of the tools which make it explicable.
The Relevance of Retrograde Ideals
Suppose one is willing to accept that the Bible is a patriarchal text. What then? Our goal should not be to simply swallow every possible reductio and adopt unapologetically contrarian or even abusive positions. Still, coming to terms with reality is always necessary, and in this case, it both demonstrates new challenges and opens up new opportunities.
First, considering questions of male-only ordination necessarily highlights more basic questions of knowledge and authority. The Bible presents the ecclesiastical polity as a matter of nature, basic human anthropology, and a social ordering that is founded upon the domestic estate. Simply recognizing this will reveal how disconnected the modern mind has become from earlier and indeed biblical ways of understanding the world. It also shows that biblicism, even of the conservative variety, has already surrendered ground which the Bible claims and, in some ways, depends upon. It should not be entirely surprising, then, when disciples of Abraham Kuyper or Francis Schaeffer end up taking certain “left turns” on social and political topics. As great as those men were, they sometimes did employ philosophical and hermeneutical arguments which were themselves partially destructive, and as their projects became systematized by their students, certain deleterious features became solidified. Complementarianism must recover a robust category of “nature” and natural theology.
Second, this reveals a connection between questions of sexual egalitarianism and other forms of sexual progressivism, including LGBT+ ones. After all, the Bible also speaks of those sins as “unnatural” and “against nature.” They are not necessarily “hierarchical” in the same way, but they do call into question the same authority structures. And it is not at all uncommon to find even conservative Christians hoping to accommodate sexual disorder on the condition that it agree to limit itself to certain boundaries and certain locations. On this matter, Christians must not be intimidated by labels like “hierarchy” or “patriarchy.” While rightfully denouncing instances of hatred and abuse, they should not be bullied into the falsehood that heteronormativity or male-leadership are problems. Thus, many of the assumptions of modern social sciences must simply be rejected. It is not true that Biblical complementarianism is an alternative to the most general sense of “patriarchy.”
Thirdly, the challenges to male leadership and masculinity as such are also challenges to male-only ordination, and these are not limited to cultural shifts in the middle of the 20th century. As Allan Carlson has demonstrated, technological and economic changes made in the 17th and 18th centuries created the conditions by which what was once natural and obvious became unintelligible. Politics may have followed culture, but culture followed economics and civil society. Thus the Church cannot be content to merely hold the line at questions of ordination but must also challenge assumptions about what a “normal” family life should like, particularly at the intersection of work and home. The Church cannot continue to take a “hands off” approach to the outside world in the hopes that its internal practices will be granted a reservation-like status on the margins of society. Leaders have long understood that such an approach is detrimental to evangelism and growth, but changing legal realities are also making this an outright impossibility. The only defense at this time is a good offense. Young Christians need to know that there are positive vocations which do not contradict their religious and domestic values, and families need the help of a community that will only form if the church exercises its teaching office fully.
Fourthly, many of the images of “patriarchy” and “toxic masculinity” are actually drawn from the middle of the 20th century, a time which was already well down the road of progress in terms of sexual hierarchy. It was precisely because masculine vocations were largely impossible that masculinity looked to satisfy vocation in recreation or consumption. Such temptations are common to history, of course, and there will always be inordinate desires, intemperate appetites, and plain old misogynistic pigs. However, the condemnation of those sins will only be intelligible and persuasive if their contrary virtues can be demonstrated and extolled. And if the “home” is only an appendix to what really counts in life, then of course any argument that a subset of humans ought to focus upon it will be perceived as abusive. Toxic masculinity can only be defeated by actual manliness, and so manly virtues need to be unapologetically embraced. Effeminacy should be condemned. Productive households must be recovered. Grace must restore nature.
In conclusion, complementarians are right to retain male-only ordination, even when it seems counterintuitive. But this should be the beginning of the argument and not the conclusion.
- Thankfully there are leading Evangelical thinkers who embrace the title of “complementarian” and also resist the narrowing turn. This recent article from Andreas and Margaret Kostenberger is an admirable example: https://www.crossway.org/articles/5-myths-about-complementarianism/
- see Fee’s Commentary on 1 Cor. pgs. 780-792; pg. 791 is especially telling: “The author of this piece seems intent on keeping women from joining in the vocal worship of the churches. The rule he wishes to apply he sees as universal and supported by the Law. It is difficult to fit this into any kind of Pauline context….”