The Beauty of Biblically Broad Complementarianism

The Beauty of Biblically Broad Complementarianism

The most important exhortation in complementarianism is not for women to sit down, but for men to stand up. That is the most important exhortation: for men to act like men; for their eager posture that we see hints of already here in the garden—that the man and the woman are created with a unique design: to be a helper, to be a leader.

I’m here to talk about the beauty of complementarianism. I’m going to take it for granted that at the Gospel Coalition National Conference, that there is more or less a shared understanding that complementarianism is a good thing. It may not be a shared understanding when it comes to the particulars of what that looks like in the church or in the home, but I’m going to take it as a shared understanding that this is a talk and a conversation among friends—among people who recognize that God has made men and women, and He’s made men and women differently, and He’s given to them different roles and functions to fulfill within the church and in the home. Hopefully that much we can agree on, and if we agree on that much that’s an awful lot.

I’m also going to take it as a base-level sort of assumption that part of being complementarians is an understanding that men—qualified, gifted, called men—are to be in the ordained leadership of the church, in particular as pastors and elders (perhaps there’s differences among us on the role of deacons or deaconesses). But what I want to help us to see from the Scriptures, I hope, is that biblical manhood and womanhood—though it is that—is more than that. Some people have begun to use the language of “narrow” or “broad” complementarianism. A narrow complementarianism might say that, “Yes, we see that there are differences between men and women, but those are rather narrowly constrained and confined; and the husband is to be the head of the household from Ephesians 5, and that women ought not to be elders and pastors from 1 Timothy chapter 2. Beyond that and beyond the specific realms of those leadership dynamics within the house and within the church, there isn’t much else that we dare to say.” That would be a narrow complementarianism. A broad complementarianism would be one that says, “While those things are true and fundamentally true and perhaps fundamentally clear, there are other things in Scripture which indicate to us that being a man and being a woman cannot be simply defined according to a few rules in the church and in the home. In other words, there is a broader conception of what God means when He creates us as male and female.”

I want to argue for the second of those categories. Not an infinite (there are stereotypes that we want to avoid—and I’ll talk about those along the way), but for a broad complementarianism that says God created man—male and female—in the garden; He created it good; He created them good; and He created them uniquely, that they might show forth the image of God. And part of that is to show forth the image of God in their differences.

Explaining Men and Women to Boys and Girls

I have eight kids. I’m amazed he got their names right—most days don’t remember all of their names. I have five boys and I have three girls, and they are different—different in the sort of ways that you might imagine. These stereotypes aren’t always true, but stereotypes are there for a reason sometimes because they often are true. I have a son who sleeps with a small arsenal of knives and weapons under his pillow at night. If I ever have to move him or move his pillow, it makes a loud clunking metallic sound. Like good parents, we just let him have Swiss army knives in his pillow case under his bed. He has airsoft guns—not loaded (we’re good parents); various weapons in case bad guys would come into the house; he’s ready to do them serious harm.

And we have daughters, and they love many of the things that girls love to play with; and they are the people we hope will be taking care of us when we’re old. One time, not too long ago, we were in the car driving and I, with my wife, turned around and I just said, “Kids, who’s going to take care of your mom and dad when we’re old?” And without a beat, Jacob said, “Elsie will.” Very helpful. Probably that would be a better bet, that she might do a good job.

As they get older—they’re now ages three months through 15 years old—they keep doing new things, trying new things, learning new things, hearing new words, wondering what they mean; they have questions—lots of questions. And here is the central question that I want us to consider in our next 40 minutes together: What would you say—to an aunt or an uncle, or a mom or a dad—what would you say if your little boy says, “Daddy, what does it mean to be a man?” What would you say if your little girl comes up to you: “Mommy, Mommy! What does it mean to be a woman?” Hopefully we would have something more to say than, “You’re a boy: you can be a pastor.” What else might we say? Hopefully, you would say more than, “Well, nothing,” or “It’s simply a construct,” or “It means nothing at all, it’s whatever you want it to be.”

Now here’s what we should start by saying: “The first thing you need to know—son, daughter—is that you were made in the image of God. You are meant to show what God is like in the world; to be His little living image icon, representing Him, living like Him, speaking of Him, pointing to Him. That’s true for all boys and girls as they grow up into men and women.” And then I’d want to say to my son or daughter, “The next thing you need to realize is that you belong to Christ, and there are benefits of Christ and our position in Christ, and we want to grow into the person that we are in Christ.” In other words, I’d want to start with my son or daughter with these two doctrinal foundations in place: the image of God and our union with Christ. And actually, well before this point in my speech, my kids would be punching each other and they would be grabbing for Skittles or running out the door—so don’t think that any speech actually goes like that in my house. The kids know it often happens in the car or around the dinner table, I’ll say “Everyone quiet down, I have a Dad speech.” “Oh, a Dad speech again?” I give good Dad speeches. They don’t make it through, but they have good intent.

After attempting to lay these foundations—and you see what I’m doing there? Before we talk about what it means to be a man or a woman, and how those things are different, we do need to indicate how they are wonderfully the same. There is a sameness, in that we’re both made in the image of God called to bear forth that image in the world; and, if believers, we have union with Christ, growing into our fellowship with Christ. That’s what we want people to hear, whether you are a little boy or a little girl. But if they were still able to listen, I would want to talk to them about five categories: five ways men and women are different according to God’s good design. And I worked really hard to try to get these five points in some sort of mechanism whereby you can understand them, so A, B, C, D, and E. Pretty good.

A: “appearance”;

B: “body”;

C: “character”;

D: “demeanor”;

and E: (I had to cheat a little bit) “eager posture”.

Appearance, body, character, demeanor, eager posture—A, B, C, D, E.

Eager Posture

Rather than taking them in alphabetical order however, I want to take them in the order as they are revealed to us in Scripture, and that means we start with the E: “eager posture.” “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man shall be alone. I will make a helper fit for him” [Gen. 2:18]. A helper: this is, as we know, not a demeaning role to be a helper. Yahweh is often described as the helper of His people in the Old Testament, so to be a helper does not imply inferiority. But by design, according to the order of creation, the woman is to help her husband. That is her eager posture. And the man’s posture is to lead. We see that he was created first. We see in verses 19 and 20, he was charged with naming the animals. We see in verses 16 and 17, he was given the probationary command. And we see that—even though the record in Genesis 3 is that Eve took of the fruit and then gave some to her husband to eat—in Romans chapter 5, who is held responsible for that first sin? It’s a sin in Adam. So, we see Adam is the one held responsible for the transgression. 1 Corinthians 11:3: “The head of the wife is her husband.”

I use the word “posture” deliberately. Look, I know that the passage (verse 18 in particular) is talking about Eve—who will be the [wife] of Adam; and I’m speaking more broadly about the roles of men and women in biblical manhood and womanhood—but, the text that we see, especially related to the man, not all of them [are] specifically about his relationship to Eve, but rather about his posture as one who is given to be a leader.

Posture—think about posture. I use the word intentionally. You can slouch; you can sit very upright; you can be casual; you can be prim and proper; you can be formal. I use the word “posture” because we’re not talking here about an inflexible office, but rather an eager posture. It would be wrong—it would be sinful—for a husband to say to his wife, “You’re the helper; I don’t help you.” No, that would be wrong. This is not the same in every situation; it does not mean that men lead to the exclusion of helping; or the women help and they never are able to exercise leadership. We’re talking about what you are intentional to find and eager to accept. The wife is willing to be led, and the husband is eager to take the sacrificial initiative to lead. This has more to do, I think, with what men ought to be doing than what women should not be doing. The most important exhortation in complementarianism is not for women to sit down, but for men to stand up. That is the most important exhortation: for men to act like men; for their eager posture that we see hints of already here in the garden—that the man and the woman are created with a unique design: to be a helper, to be a leader.


Second, then: “body”. So, A, B, C, D, E, but we’re moving out of order as we go through Scripture. Eager posture, and then body. The text I have here I’ll just read it to you. Leviticus 18:22: “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination.” “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman”—that’s Leviticus 18. In Leviticus chapter 20, it gives a similar prohibition; and in 1 Corinthians 6 and then in 1 Timothy 1, Paul—in making the prohibition against homosexuality—uses this word “arsenokoitês,” “arsenokoitês.” And all the scholars agree that this is the first time the word has been used; Paul made up a word. It’s harder to know what it means when Paul made it up, but it’s actually quite clear what it means because Paul—being steeped in the Old Testament—was clearly drawing from Leviticus 18 and Leviticus 20, which if you could read in the Septuagint—that’s the Greek translation that Paul would’ve been familiar with—it uses those two words: “arsen,” meaning “man;” “koitai” meaning “bed” or “to take someone to bed.” The man shall not bed a man as he would a woman—that’s the prohibition [in] Leviticus 18 and 20, and that’s the word that then Paul puts together in 1 Timothy 1 and in 1 Corinthians 6.

The world says orientation is more essential than gender. The world says gender is a construct, and actions should correspond to our self-authenticated desires. The Bible suggests that gender carries with it its own oughtness; and that actions should correspond to divinely created identity. So, Paul takes “arsen” and “koitai” to say what Leviticus 18 and 20 said—namely, that as a man you have a body, and that body is uniquely fit together—this one flesh union—with a woman. It is not designed to be fit together in a one-flesh union with another man. There is an oughtness to gender; there is an oughtness to the body that you have been given by God.

I just gave a faculty forum at RTS last week, and I was going through this very fascinating book by Kyle Harper. He’s a professor at the University of Oklahoma. I don’t even know what his religious affiliation is, if any, but it’s on the sexual transformation from late-Roman antiquity into the Christian era. And if that doesn’t get you, I don’t know what will. But it’s fascinating, and one of the points that he makes—and his understanding of ancient Roman sources is phenomenal—but one of the transformations that took place is that in the Roman sexual economy, sexual deviance was a matter of social standing. That is, at the top of the social hierarchy were free Roman males. And yes—marriage was important; and yes—you were not to commit adultery with another married woman, or a free married woman. But it was understood in the Roman sexual economy that men needed to have sexual outlets. And so, for a man in his early years to have sex with prostitutes was not considered any sort of deviance; he can still be considered a virgin; for a man to have sex with prostitutes or with slaves, even as a married man, because it was considered a lower social status.

Very often, Roman men might have sex with young boys, called “pederasty.” It wasn’t a matter of orientation; it was a matter of—they thought—sexual overflow and needing an outlet for this desire.

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