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John Piper is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist and most recently Providence.
The Current State of Complementarity: Five Years After NashvilleBy John Piper — 4 months ago
In 1987, I wrote the first draft of the Danvers Statement. Thirty years later, I gave input on the final draft of the Nashville Statement (2017). The former was foundational for the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood; the latter expresses the Council’s abiding relevance and maturity.
Here at the five-year anniversary of Nashville, the leadership of CBMW asked me to reflect on similarities and differences between the two statements for their journal, Eikon (and allowed me to publish the article here as well). I address their question below, and then, as one of the early shapers and promoters of a “complementarian” understanding of manhood and womanhood, I also respond to some recent criticism.
First, as a shaper of both documents, I see a profound unity and prophetic difference between Danvers and Nashville. The unity can be seen, for example, in the following similarities.
The Danvers Statement affirms that “both Adam and Eve were created in God’s image, equal before God as persons and distinct in their manhood and womanhood” (affirmation 1). The Nashville Statement affirms that “God created Adam and Eve, the first human beings, in his own image, equal before God as persons, and distinct as male and female” (article 3).
Danvers laments “the widespread uncertainty and confusion in our culture regarding the complementary differences between masculinity and femininity” (rationale 1), and the tragic effects of this confusion in unraveling “the beautiful and diverse strands of manhood and womanhood” (rationale 2). Nashville similarly laments the fact that “it is common to think that human identity as male and female is not part of God’s beautiful plan, [so that] God’s good design for his creatures is thus replaced by the path of shortsighted alternatives” (preamble).
Danvers cites the “growing claims of legitimacy for sexual relationships which have Biblically and historically been considered illicit or perverse” (rationale 5). Nashville names them: “It is sinful to approve of homosexual immorality or transgenderism” (article 10). “We deny that God has designed marriage to be a homosexual, polygamous, or polyamorous relationship” (article 1).
Both statements challenge “the spirit of the age,” especially its encroachments into Christ’s church. Danvers warns of “the apparent accommodation of some within the church to the spirit of the age at the expense of winsome, radical Biblical authenticity which in the power of the Holy Spirit may reform rather than reflect our ailing culture” (rationale 10). Nashville sounds a similar alarm: “Will the church of the Lord Jesus Christ lose her biblical conviction, clarity, and courage, and blend into the spirit of the age? Or will she hold fast to the word of life, draw courage from Jesus, and unashamedly proclaim his way as the way of life?” (preamble).
The prophetic difference between the two statements is that Danvers confronts women who intend to be pastors, while Nashville confronts women who intend to be men. Danvers confronts men who are unwilling to lead their wives; Nashville confronts men who can’t lead their wives because they don’t have one — they are “married” to men.
“Danvers confronts women who intend to be pastors, while Nashville confronts women who intend to be men.”
As the term “complementarian” was coming into being in the 1980s, the antagonists were different from those of the Nashville Statement. For example, the subtitle of “the big blue book” Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood is A Response to Evangelical Feminism. Thus, the antagonists that we were addressing in those days were voices like Paul Jewett, Margaret Howe, Gretchen Gabelein Hull, Gilbert Billezekian, Aida Spencer, Patricia Gundry, Craig Keener, Berkeley and Alvera Mickelsen, and Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen. I regarded all of these men and women not only as Christian but also as evangelical — at least at first. Danvers was, you might say, an in-house plea to family members to reconsider how they read the Bible.
But the Nashville Statement is not an in-house document. It is a prophetic No to the collapsing social order of the West, and a Yes to the gospel-rich vision of God-designed sexuality. We did not expect, nor did we get, national, secular blowback to the Danvers Statement. The mayor of Danvers, Massachusetts, did not write to the Washington Post to distance himself from us. But the mayor of Nashville, Megan Barry, did: “The so-called ‘Nashville statement’ is poorly named and does not represent the inclusive values of the city and people of Nashville.”
In my judgment, both the social confrontation of the Nashville Statement and the complementarian breadth of the Danvers Statement, as unfolded in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, are as urgent today as ever. Of course, the Nashville Statement is more prominent and striking because so-called same-sex “marriage” and so-called “sex changes” are media firebrands at the moment. But the 35-year-old Danvers Statement, with its complementarian applications in many good books, is, to this day, more pervasively applicable to all of life.
Consider the difference in scope. First, with the Nashville Statement, we try to convince a man that he should not “marry” a man. “Okay,” he says, “I’m convinced.” Then we try to convince him that he should not seek to change his sex to be a woman. “Right,” he says, “I’m convinced.” Then we try to convince him that polyamory, in or outside marriage, is wrong. Again, he is convinced. Now, what’s left for him to decide about how to live as a man? Almost everything!
“Complementarity is still as urgent as ever.”
Which brings us back to the “big blue book” and the Danvers Statement. Complementarity, as it is unfolded in the Danvers Statement and Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, is still as urgent as ever. The Nashville Statement may feel more urgent because it addresses the current tragedies of so-called same-sex “marriage” and so-called “transgenderism.” But tens of millions of Christian men and women do not struggle with whether to “marry” the same sex or “change” their sex. But they do want to know, What does it mean to be a man (or a woman) in all the aspects of my daily life?
Response to Early Critics
In recent days, some have criticized the earlier formulations of complementarity because, they say, “Complementarians have neglected nature arguments, thus chipping away the ground on which we stand.” Or as another critic says, “RBMW [Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood], while well-meaning for the context it addresses, does not penetrate below the surface to actually define manhood and womanhood in terms of nature or essence.”
I think both of those statements are inaccurate. “Nature arguments” abound in RBMW. Not only does the book have a full chapter dedicated to “The Biological Basis for Gender-Specific Behavior,” but more importantly, it was a fundamental premise of the entire book that “masculinity and femininity are rooted in who we are by nature. They are not simply reflexes of a marriage relationship. Man does not become man by getting married” (52). Or as we said later in the book,
We are concerned not merely with the behavioral roles of men and women but also with the underlying nature of manhood and womanhood themselves. (73)
One of the theses of this book is that the natural fitness of man and woman for each other in marriage is rooted in something more than anatomy. There is a profound female or male personhood portrayed in our differing bodies. As Emil Brunner put it: Our sexuality penetrates to the deepest metaphysical ground of our personality. (108)
I see at least three reasons for the present tendency to overlook or minimize the outworking of this premise in early complementarity. First, we did not frame our analysis in terms of natural law. Second, even though our descriptions of what is at the heart of manhood and womanhood were confessedly partial and highly nuanced,1 they have been misread as totalizing and superficial. Third, we were eager to shed light on the implications of nature for how we live in human relationships — all relationships. Therefore, we moved from nature and essence to dispositions and behaviors more quickly than some of our critics would have.
This was a risk I think we would take again. We were seeking to give help to pastors and churches concerning the practical implications of the nature of manhood and womanhood. Those practical implications remain just as pressing today. The risks multiply when you move from nature to practical implications and behavior. Such risk-takers will always be needed.
I am happy that another generation of complementarians is eager to sink the roots of complementarity deeper into nature and natural law. I pray that they will be willing to take the risky and controversial step of helping the father of a 9-year-old answer the question, “Daddy, what does it mean to grow up and be a man, and not a woman?” Or, “What does it mean to grow up and be a woman, and not a man?”
It will not suffice to speak to our children about natures and essences without dispositional and behavioral specifics. This is why I said earlier that Danvers complementarity continues to be relevant today. So, biased as I am toward Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and happy as I am with confirming insights from natural law, I still commend “the big blue book” as offering crucial (not exhaustive) insights into the nature of manhood and womanhood and how the Bible helps us navigate all of life as male and female.