Every Monday in Citizenship Confusion, Alan Noble discusses how we confuse our heavenly citizenship with citizenship to the state, culture, and the world.

Last week, Rachel Held Evans organized a blogging event to promote egalitarianism titled the “Mutuality 2012 Synchroblog.” Along with other bloggers, Evans wrote a few thoughtful articles on “mutuality” (egalitarianism), including one particularly interesting post on the ways in which Greco-Roman household codes might have influenced Paul’s theology of mutual submission. Mutuality drew responses from Denny Burk (at his blog) and Joe Carter at The Gospel Coalition, who both made their cases for complementarianism.

What interests me about this discussion is the way in which power is often envisioned by both sides of the debate. Egalitarians accuse complementarians of promoting patriarchy, a system which is oppressive and abusive. As Evans pointed out last week, some complementarians admit to supporting patriarchy. And no one can reasonably deny the fact that some who support complementarianism are, in fact, abusive to their spouses. What I would like to explore is how both sides (at least at times) might assume a nihilistic view of power, authority, and headship in their arguments. And that this understanding of power is prominent not only in the way we understand marriages, but also politics.

Specifically, I think that many egalitarians and at least some (if not many/most) complementarians view power and hierarchy as always and necessarily coercive, violent (in some sense), and perhaps evil. Power is oppressive.

For some complementarians, this view of headship sanctions and baptises their oppression and abuse of women. If authority is necessarily oppressive, and the Bible gives husbands headship over their wives, then it is right and good for men to oppress their wives.

The solution for egalitarians like Evans is to abdicate power and to instead find mutuality and harmony. She, and many others, would point to Paul’s teaching of mutual submission (Ephesians 5:21) and equality (Galatians 3:28) as evidence that there cannot be any sort of hierarchical power or authority or headship in a marriage. For example, Evans writes:

“I believe the teachings of Jesus, and their application through Paul, lead us to the conclusion that power is overrated, and that the ultimate goal is harmony, just like we see in Eden.” (Patriarchy)

“If  wives submit to their husbands as the Church submits to Christ (Ephesians 5:24),  and if husbands love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25), and if both husbands and wives submit one to another (Ephesians 5:21)—who’s really ‘in charge’ here? No one.” (Household Codes)

While she’s absolutely right to point out how countercultural these verses are, we can also see that Christ and Paul do clearly establish hierarchies in their teachings. They both honor and support the hierarchy of the government. Christ and the Apostles establish a hierarchy within the Church. Then there is Christ’s headship over the Church. But most important to this discussion, there is Ephesians 5:22-33, which states that the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church. This chapter is challenging because if we wish to make the case that headship is necessarily coercive, violent, and oppressive, then we must say that Christ’s headship of the church is also coercive, violent, and oppressive.

But, if a leader is a servant to those under him, in what sense is he still truly a leader? Evans seems to answer (in the quote above) that he is no leader: “[W]ho’s really ‘in charge’ here? No one.” But I wonder if we need to complicate our understanding of power a bit and see that it is possible to be a servant-leader. This is, after all, the model that Christ gives. He does not cease to be the Head of the Church simply because He serves those in the Church and sacrificed Himself for us.

What is fascinating to me is that this radical understanding of power mirrors a discussion by James Davison Hunter about the way Christians view political power (See: To Change the World: There Are Better Reasons for Engaging Culture). Hunter argues that we tend to be nihilistic about political power. We assume it is necessarily abusive and violent. So, some Christians argue that we should abdicate politics because to do otherwise would be coercive and violent (Anabaptists). Other Christians agree that political power is always oppressive in some sense, but they feel justified in oppressing, since they are on the good side, God’s side (Theonomists, to pick an extreme example). Just like complementarians believe they are biblically justified in abusing their wives since that’s just what headship looks like, some Christians feel biblically justified in using the State to abuse others because that’s just the nature of political power.*

James Davison Hunter argues that we need to stop accepting the nihilistic view that political power is always and necessarily coercive and violent. We need to find an alternative way of envisioning social actions. Likewise, I believe that Christians need to think more about how authority and hierarchy can be service, sacrifice, self-giving, and gratuitous. To be perfectly honest, I don’t know exactly what this looks like in particular marriages. But I do know my responsibility based on Paul’s teaching. And my responsibility is to love, serve, and sacrifice myself for my wife. I appreciate the aid of wife, friends, family and the Church in discovering what that means each day. And perhaps, instead of reasserting an oppressive and unloving concept of marriage hierarchies (as some who promote patriarchy would do), or denying power, hierarchy, and headship altogether, we could begin to reimagine power through the image of Christ on the Cross.


*For those who are interested, David Bently Hart makes a very similar argument in The Beauty of the Infinite about “difference.” He argues that postmodernists assume that difference is inherently violent, whereas the Christian narrative views difference (think: The Trinity) as good.


  1. I think you’re generally right, though I also considering egalitarians need to have their practical considerations heard.

    The truth I’m trying to wrestle with is that hierarchies are so easily corruptible–and those who defend hierarchies tend to defend them in a “masculine” manner that doesn’t care for fine distinctions or diversity of experiences. “Servant leadership” itself is a word that gets thrown around a lot, and seems to mean less and less each time it’s used. And of course at least since Paul sent out letters ranting against false teachers, the church has been filled with those whose linguistic understanding is like Humpty Dumpty’s. (“‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’ ‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master–that’s all.'” I think this applies to “worldviews” as well as people.)

    So if “servant leadership” can mean “a bunch of men in a room thinking about men’s issues, with little understanding of the profoundly different experience of women in their church,” is that really Christlike? What if they tend to bond better with men than women, and thus accept husbands’ accounts of domestic situations more readily than their wives’? What if they preach much more feelingly of the ways single men and husbands work out their salvation, but not single women and wives? Are these men really being self-sacrificial? Are they really following Christ in turning away from power and glory and confounding expectations? Or are they just lording it over people within our own society?

    I still lean complementarianism (though I can’t point to a single moment in my own marriage where I gave an authoritative command rather than working through moral persuasion and mutual discussion.) But it seems these are deeply problematic issues when trying to balance Christ’s methodology with the Bible’s apparent (if ambivalent) view of authority in marriage and the church.

    My gut would be to say that even if men must be in authority, there should be a bias that encourages those men to be feminists–at least in the weaker sense in that “feminists” are those who seek a profound understanding of women’s lived experience and the particular spiritual and pastoral needs they generate. But so far, it seems that most supporters of complementarianism also see feminism as a dirty word. (And the exceptions tend to encourage women taking at least some positions of authority in the church, and tend not to be too doctrinare on exactly what specific instances of male authority should come up in a marriage, where men “serve” their wives by leading in a way that is inappropriate for women.)

  2. I think the difference between Hart and the average (but not the best) complementarianism, btw, is that Hart recognizes difference *within* the Trinity that parallels difference between men and women (and therefore, more broadly, within society.) This comparison doesn’t work if you’re obsessed with policing depictions of God so that God only is compared to male activities, temperments, &c., and never to feminine activities and temperments.

  3. Alan,

    On the whole, I really appreciate you column here and your insights. I do think you may skew a little away from charitability in your assessment that “no one can reasonably deny the fact that some who support complementarianism are, in fact, abusive to their spouses.” Are you correct? Undoubtedly so. But I travel in largely conservative and complementarian circles and have encountered very few clear instances of abuse, while I know of individuals who hold to no patriarchal or hierarchal divisions in family relationships who are abusive. My argument here is not to suggest some irony or reversal, simply to suggest that abuse may not derive from the theological or philosophical position so much as the nature of humans as sinful. Every complementarian theologian I’ve ever read has spoken out against abuse in the strongest possible terms. So to maintain, as you do, that “complementarians believe they are biblically justified in abusing their wives” without any qualifiers (e.g. “some,” “a few,” “may,” or “at times”) is a tad skewed.

    But you and Scott are right that complementarians do not effectively empathize with the female position and that this is a weakness in their theology. You are also, I think, quite astute in suggesting that hierarchies are not intrinsically abusive (though human nature will often lead to abuses in them). So again, I want to agree for the most part with what you are saying, simply suggesting that your phrasing toward the complementarians position could be qualified a little.

    Geoffrey R.

  4. Geoffrey,

    Yeah, there should have been a qualifier there. I missed that one some how. Thanks.

  5. Alan — I thought I was going to hate on you for saying, “this view of headship sanctions and baptises their oppression and abuse of women,” but then you when to Hunter’s book and said exactly what I would say. Nice work.

  6. @Geoffrey – the fact that you have not encountered abuse in complementarian/conservative circles may very well be because such circles do not encourage the ‘airing’ of such issues and because women within them are expected to put up with abuse in a way women will not in an egalitarian context. In an egalitarian marriage it would simply not be culturally acceptable so it is considered appropriate to ‘blow the whistle’ on such behaviour. It is worth bearing this in mind when considering actions that are often take place in secret – victims of abuse find it extremely difficult to speak up even with encouragement.

    You say that every complementarian theologian you have heard speaks against abuse in strong terms. What about John Piper? His response to this is pretty appalling: google ‘John Piper: Does a woman submit to abuse?’ to watch the whole interview. This is one quote from him:
    ‘If it’s not requiring her to sin, if it’s simply hurting her then I think she endures verbal abuse for a season and she endures, perhaps, being smacked one night and then she seeks help from the church…..’ He ends with the answer is to get the church involved because the church will discipline the man.

    When this is what egalitarians are hearing from the like of John Piper then it’s not surprising that complementarians and their attitudes towards women are getting such a bad press.

  7. Hey, Alan–good post. I ruminated an extra day on how to reply. I think your interchange with Geoffrey above covers about the strongest disagreement I could muster.

    I’m in an interesting position, here. For years, I have partly dodged this question by using the “bachelor” excuse; and for years, I simplified this into a question of “moral authority” versus “power hierarchy” which I could thread through most of the Biblical teaching with ease. I still think my intuitive views haven’t changed a whole lot, but now I’m married and intentionally in submission to a monarchical episcopacy. It makes me hesitate in a whole different way.

    What distorts this discussion, I think, is the need to keep creating simple disjunctions in a situation where the real judgment will always need to be made on a “family resemblances” sort of criterion. The Biblical evidence, the traditional teachings, the historical situation of both, the historical situation of our judgments, and the assumptions we tend to approach the problem with do not lend themselves to a quick up-or-down vote.

    I often think that an honest phenomenology of faithful family life would reveal practical agreement which belies the divergence of opinion. For example, even a couple reared to misunderstand the Bible as teaching the crude “woman, submit!” view that neither “complementarian” nor “egalitarian” teachings should countenance (I refer to those views which tried to systematically put *any woman* under *any man* in *any situation* except, of course, certain exceptional ones like when the man was of inferior race or class)–even a couple for whom such a view was normative might well make systematic adjustments to that view, by delegating whole areas of family life, habitually conceding to good sense, even by complex extended-family dealings in which the woman plays the mediator (or de facto arbitrator), etc. etc. Similarly, many archly “egalitarian” couples in principle are nonetheless blissfully traditional in their actual preferences–they feel (quite legitimately) free to enjoy conventional roles which they would nevertheless not wish to have *imposed* on them. On some level, the complexity of the lived relationships will always outrun efforts to systematize the teaching, and that the really *pastoral* concern has to be for the quality and effect of those lived relationships, without abandoning the *doctrinal* matter that will affect generations to come.

    So I kinda reject the “complementarian” versus “egalitarian” dichotomy, on several counts. Regarding just the terms themselves, I’d point out that completion/fulfillment is a much better endgame than equality. But I’d also point out that many “complementarian” arguments really do seem to be “woman, submit!” arguments aping their betters.

    Having said that, I should emphasize the superiority of the language of “complement” in the sense of “fulfillment or completion”–not as in remedying a deficiency (though at least in the case of men with a vocation for marriage, I feel confident I may say they will likely have an emphatic sense of “it is not good for a man to be alone”!) but as in being fitted to become together something greater than (to abuse Heideggerian phrasing) one’s “ownmost potential.” There is much in Scripture about the real, good, and right use of created difference, including not only the Creator/creature difference but that difference’s re-inscription through differences among creatures, including sexual and gender difference. (I am also speaking under authority, here, though I have been convinced of most of this since before my understanding that authority: see http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p1s2c1p6.htm#369 ff. and http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p3s2c2a6.htm#2331 ff. but do not neglect http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/p1s2c1p2.htm#239 )

    I like the language of “fulfillment” still better, because it carries some of the eschatological sense, the sense that God’s work in Creation and Redemption has epochs, both universally and individually, and that those epochs tend to reveal His endgame. Often the anti-type of some typical experience turns out to be unheard-of; the complexity and fulness of the reality which we have been led to believe we can expect transcends our expectations. We may find ourselves disappointed if we have been denying all but one kind of thing, in our expectations (as the messianic hopes of Jesus’ disciples, or the miracle-food hopes of some of the crowds, were disappointed)–but we will almost certainly find that the reality stands to those expectations as the Resurrection and the life of the world to come stand to the Davidic Kingdom. The pastoral goal, then, would seem to be to teach folks to temper their attachment to just one feature of marriage, while urging them to see the great intrinsic good of marriage *as a calling from God and an epoch of mortal life* as informing *all* of their marital experience, which then becomes tightly interwoven with their faithfulness and receipt of God’s gracious revelation. It would be a tragedy–an abuse–to let attachment to or reactions against any particular moment of secular life be too definitive of the norms of marriage.

    That seems to be, in fact, what we find consistently reinforced in the Scriptures. It seems to me very clear that Paul works a similar move in both Philemon (where he acknowledges the current legal and social conditions in which class slavery was an unavoidable reality, yet instructs the Christian master to receive the Christian slave on terms which will ultimately make “slave” an archaism) and Ephesians (where he instructs Christians to practice mutual submission within the Body of Christ, qualified by the wife’s more specific obligation to *her own* husband, and accentuated by the husband’s more specific obligation to *love her as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself for it* among other similar relations). The Body of Christ is a place which re-situates all human relationships, not by defying their cultural forms, but by describing them properly with regard to the Creator/creature relationship as articulated through Scripture under competent spiritual authority.

    I think, though, that we need some more terms in these discussions. For example, those who emphasize the transformative reality of the Body of Christ in terms of disestablishing [oppressive] power structures would get farther with me if they could robustly defend the significance of both sexual *and* gender difference as a creaturely good. I cannot accept an androgynous ideal, and actively resent being forced to choose between adrogyny and patriarchy. On the other hand, those who emphasize the transformative reality of the Body of Christ in terms of establishing [revealed] authority structures would get farther with me if they could robustly differentiate “authority” from “power.” In addition to that classic Hannah Arendt distinction, I think all sides of the debate could profit from some additional terms to distinguish various calls to or claims of authority, power, headship, service, ministry, leadership, priesthood, vocation, responsibility, etc.. One could, for example, speak of a “responsible initiative” which carries with it no prerogatives, but which requires that one accept the risks (of rejection, of damage to the relationship being one’s own fault, etc.) as part of one’s calling to that relationship.

    Which leads me, Alan, to the point where I have a specific criticism–rather, a specific call for additional development of this thought. I think your “nihilism” charge, which I take to mean that appeals to coercive force necessarily bespeak a Nietzschean view of the production of value, is too simplistic. There’s something to it, yes. “Stop oppressing me!” versus “stop being rebellious!” does, by itself, have the character of an argument about nothing. But we have to grapple with two very real truths which transgress our efforts to reduce all things to a mere will-to-power “values” scenario or a mere “truth will out” persuasion scenario. First, the order of Creation and Redemption does actually compel us to draw correct conclusions in certain matters. Jesus Christ will not end history with a debate tournament, much as a younger me would have loved that notion. He is not democratically elected. He will not tolerate all views and lifestyles. We have to keep this coercive reality in balance with a wisely tolerationist standpoint (both because affability is a virtue, though lesser than the charity we aspire to, and because pragmatically we ought to want the secular arm to accord as much scope for the Gospel as possible, which is best achieved at present by keeping the secular arm as weak and distant as possible). Simply put, God’s charity cries out *against* endless corruption and deceit, and He will *end it* at some point. We are bounded by that reality in our efforts to understand and establish relationships.

    Second, though, contemporary political reality, the order of the Fall, will not tolerate endless debate on these matters. There is no such thing as a secular administration which does not make cultural, social, and moral judgments–and these judgments will be informed by some philosophy, some point-of-view. And that point-of-view will be enforced; that enforcement will have consequences for the teaching of truth and the viability of institutions which seek to act upon it. We are compelled, then, to admit that we have been given some degree of secular power, and that it is our responsibility to use that degree of secular power in keeping with the divine order. I do not mean that we are called to maximize our secular power (there may be some who are; I do not speak to them, and I am not one of them). I do mean, though, that while we may even disclaim the use of secular power to foreclose debate, we must not refuse even to advocate the truth out of fear that advocacy may be construed as violence; that while we may seek to convert as much coercion into suasion as possible (I do–that is a main goal, perhaps *the* main goal, of rhetorical instruction), we must not erect this into a false principle. I do not believe that God will honor us with a martyr’s crown for refusing to *use* the power we have been given out of a false principle “only suasion has moral standing; coercion is always evil [or nihilistic].”

    There is much more to observe on this point. I remain persuaded that the principal goal in the use of *secular power* must be to *limit* its role as much as possible, in order to expand the role of institutions of greater ontological and spiritual significance, i.e., the family and the Church. If it be necessary to use secular power to refuse innovations against those institutions–say, by enshrining in a Constitution a right against spousal incrimination–then I think we can identify a “protective power” which differs from the “oppressive power” by its practical submission to competent spiritual authority. And, in fact, I end by suggesting this to you–whether we call it “authority” or “power,” the definitive mark of a rightly-structured relationship is the transcendence of all specific features of that relationship by their mutual submission to competent spiritual authority. Choose to be a two-income, public-school, investment-financed, mall-shopping, masculine-flavored-worship, hunting/sewing family, and each member faithfully submitting to membership in the Body of Christ under His divine headship, and I suggest you will find your choices being modified in all sorts of ways as you continually become more faithful. Choose to be a family-farming, home-school, freecycle-ing, family-integrated-flavored-worship family, and each member faithfully submitting to membership in the Body of Christ under His divine headship, and I suggest you will find your choices being modified in all sorts of ways as you continually become more faithful.

    But if “woman, submit!” becomes a husband’s principle message to his wife, or if “equality” comes to be abused as the first-order good that it is not, you can expect troubles. Expect hindered prayers, expect disordered desires to lead you away from sound teaching, and expect equally intemperate backlash from every kind of unreconstructed Fallenness.

    Because mutual submission only works if we *submit*.

    Which is hard.

  8. Thanks for an excellent column that addresses with more depth and insight than I tend to see in the egal/comp debate. I object to the terms, in part, as a decades-old binary that grew out or one reacationary response to another reactionary response.

    I would echo Geoffrey in pointing out that the few abusive situations that I’ve had firsthand knowledge involved couples who by no means were aligned with either of these schools of thought; in one case, the couple was de facto egalitarian.

    In understanding the concept of servant leadership by the husband (or anyone else), I can’t help but draw upon my own experience as the chair in an academic department. I have very little power and authority, but a great deal of accountability in that role. Someone has to make certain decisions, but most of the position involves empowering everyone in the department I oversee to fulfill their (largely self-chosen) roles.

  9. P.S. Which is not to say that there isn’t power, but that the role is really not as much about that as other things.

  10. PGE–thanks for your elaboration of the pastoral and doctrinal issues. I don’t want to speak for Alan, but I’m in a situation where a lot of my strongest theological influences tend to trace their roots back to Calvin. I suppose I tent to move towards a “coercion is bad” position if only because I’m constantly struggling against the logic of theonomy. It is a lot easier to say “Christians ought not to work by coercion but by abnegation of power,” because it’s a simple statement and other people can understand it. But I’m not happy with the statement as a full expression of the role of Christians in current society.

  11. Also, I want a bumper-sticker which reads “The Body of Christ is a place which re-situates all human relationships, not by defying their cultural forms, but by describing them properly with regard to the Creator/creature relationship as articulated through Scripture under competent spiritual authority.”


  12. Unfortunately, that argument is way too generalized. The particular relationship under scrutiny here is the husband-wife relationship.

    This *particular* relationship is one of national interest -one that the government we *submit* to has acquired sizable amounts of empirical evidence for. I suggest you look at the department of justice’s section on domestic abuse, or any marital counseling study comissioned by the government to date. *Parity* in a marital relationship is supported by this preponderance of evidence.

    So, from a two-kingdoms perspective, if you care to listen to government’s authority or actual empirically based studies (not someone’s general impression! my goodness), the egalitarian perspective makes much more sense. It has nothing to do with Nietzschean power dynamics.

  13. The only legal way to conduct a marriage in our society is egalitarian. Women are in law equally responsible for feeding and sheltering their children. They are equally responsible for debts and for retirement planinng. If their husband dies, they are respoinsbible for living off their savings Any notion that men have greater responsibility and greater accountability and therefore have greater authority, does not accord with our legal system. Paul supported the legal system of his day and we ought to support the legal system of our own day.

  14. Let’s get Trinitarian!!

    If we are “in Christ,” participating in the divine nature, then we are loving, submitting to and serving one another, with emphasis on “other.” To be truly countercultural, we are not self-centered but hospitable–xenophilia means loving the stranger and in marriage we are loving/serving the partner who is always “different,” always “not-me.”

    As the body of Christ, we celebrate our oneness in Christ but our differences from one another.

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