Terran Williams asked if I would review his book, How God Sees Women: The End of Patriarchy. I feel honoured to be asked because I consider it a first-rate book, a superb piece of work that should be widely read among evangelicals. However, for me to simply outline the contents of his book and comment on what he says is not adequate. I must first set his book in its historical context.
What Has Taken Place Since the Late 1960s
From the late 1960s, the call to recognize women’s equality in every sphere of life grew in strength and gained wide acceptance. At first, most evangelical Christians stood in opposition. They insisted that God had given men headship and to deny this was to directly contradict the Bible. In support of the traditional view that God had appointed men to lead, a number of well-known evangelical theologians put their minds to reformulating the historic position that gave precedence to men, called patriarchy, so that it sounded acceptable to modern ears. They rejected the historic position that spoke with one voice of the “superiority” of men and the “inferiority” of women, speaking instead of men and women as “equal” (a new idea for many) yet “role differentiated.” Uncoded, this meant that men and women are spiritually equal, of the same value and dignity in God’s sight, but also that some things are the domain of men and some of women—specifically, that leadership is the domain of men.
To make their case, they mined the Scriptures to find every text that could be read to say that God had appointed men to lead and women to be subordinate. The impact of their “biblical case” for this view, which became known from 1991 as “the complementarian position,” it must be acknowledged, is impressive. It convinced most evangelicals that this was “what the Bible clearly taught.” Thus, to argue for the unqualified equality of the sexes was to deny biblical authority.
From the 1970s onward, the few evangelicals bold enough to argue that the Bible made the substantial equality of the two bodily differentiated sexes the God-given ideal were denigrated as deniers of biblical authority. In hotbeds of complementarianism such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Anglican Diocese of Sydney, evangelical egalitarians had a tough time. They were “shunned” and shamed by the complementarian majority. Nevertheless, they kept working toward the biblical case for equality, and in 1988 Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) was founded. This united and gave voice to the many scholarly evangelicals who were convinced the Bible made the substantial equality of the two differentiated sexes the God-given ideal. At an academic level, CBE articulated its biblical case for the equality of the two sexes in a new journal, Priscilla Papers. This meant the evangelical establishment so heavily invested in patriarchy could not silence their critics nor deny that many well-informed evangelicals believed the Bible taught the substantial equality of the sexes. CBE faced a long uphill battle, but gradually the evangelical egalitarian position came to be seen as a possible alternative to the complementarian position, and then as the position that most accurately reflects what the Bible teaches on the relationship of the sexes.
For reasons I will give below, I believe 2016 is the year that the evangelical egalitarian account of what the Bible teaches on the man-woman relationship gained ascendancy in the evangelical world. It was seen at that point in time to capture the teaching of Scripture on this matter most accurately. Sensing that complementarian theology was at the point of collapse, Andreas Köstenberger—the most trusted and theologically able second-generation complementarian—in conjunction with his wife, Margaret, published God’s Design for Man and Woman: A Biblical-Theological Survey (Crossway, 2014). Their effort was unsuccessful: refuted exegetical conclusions were rehashed, telling criticisms of complementarian arguments were ignored, and the book insisted the central issue is male-female differentiation, something evangelical egalitarians unambiguously affirm. The central and fundamental issue in dispute has always been, does or does not the Bible permanently subordinate women to men, never male-female differentiation. In my book, What the Bible Actually Teaches about Women (Cascade, 2018), I make professor Köstenberger my primary debating opponent, contesting virtually every claim and argument he makes.1
My book is only one of several written by evangelical scholars in the last few years rejecting the complementarian “biblical” arguments for the permanent subordination of women. In my opinion, the most important of these is Discovering Biblical Equality, third edition, edited by Ronald Pierce, Cynthia Long Westfall, and Christa McKirland (IVP Academic, 2021, reviewed on pp. 24–30 of this issue of Priscilla Papers). Every biblical text that complementarians quote in support of the permanent subordination of women is critically assessed by the most able of evangelical scholars and found wanting. The texts quoted in fact do not permanently subordinate women to men or exclude them from preaching/teaching in church. With great confidence, I believe no answer to this new edition of Discovering Biblical Equality will be attempted by complementarian scholars.
One part of the complementarian “biblical” case for the permanent subordination of women or “role differentiation” is the so-called “Trinity argument.”2 Just as the Father has authority over the Son, so men have authority over women. The persons of the Trinity are ordered hierchically in heaven, and this prescribes how the man-woman relationship on earth should be ordered. First Corinthians 11:3–4 is quoted as proof for this belief. From the mid-1970s to 2016, this argument was an essential part of the complementarian position. Its importance to the complementarian case cannot be overstated. In 2004, Wayne Grudem, the de facto leader of the complementarians, said he believed how the Trinity is understood “may well turn out to be the most decisive factor in finally deciding” on the status and ministry of women.3
This complementarian hierarchical construal of the Trinity has insurmountable problems. To begin, 1 Cor 11:3–4 almost certainly does not speak of the hierarchical ordering of the divine persons or of men and women. For it to do this, the Greek word kephale, translated into English as “head,” must mean “head over” or “authority over.” This understanding of the Greek in this context makes no sense because Paul goes on to endorse men and women leading the church in prayer and prophecy. It is far more likely the Greek word in this context implies the meaning “source” or “origin,” as it usually does. The “source” or “origin” of the Son is his eternal generation by the Father to be equally God, and the “source” or “origin” of Eve, the first woman, is Adam, the first man (Gen 2:21–22). But the biggest problem with the so-called “Trinity argument” for the permanent subordination of women is that it directly contradicts and denies what the creeds and confessions of the church say on the Trinity. The creeds and confessions of the church give the historic, communally agreed interpretation of Scripture on the major doctrines of the Christian faith. They define orthodoxy. They unambiguously affirm that the three divine persons are the one God, differentiated as persons yet one in divine being, majesty, and authority. They exclude hierarchical ordering in any way. The divine persons are “co-equal.”
In 2016, suddenly and unexpectantly, some of the most theologically informed complementarians recognised this. They conceded that what some were teaching on the Trinity was a reworded expression of the Arian heresy. Evangelical egalitarians had been making this point for about thirty years. Civil war then broke out in the ranks of the complementarian army. In a very short time those arguing for a hierchically ordered Trinity completely capitulated. Complementarians have now abandoned the Trinity argument. Remember Grudem’s words, that how the Trinity is understood “may well turn out to be the most decisive factor in finally deciding” on the status and ministry of women. Because of the huge significance of the loss of the Trinity argument for the permanent subordination of women, I mark the year 2016 as the point in time when the debate between complementarian theologians and evangelical egalitarian theologians over what the Bible teaches on the man-woman relationship was won by the latter.
Another argument complementarians constantly made over the last forty or more years is that they represented the historic understanding of the male-female relationship; egalitarian evangelicals are the innovators. In arguing for the equality of the sexes, egalitarians simply embraced modern secular cultural ideas. Evangelical egalitarians rejected this charge, arguing that until the 1960s virtually everyone spoke of men as “superior,” women as “inferior, and that no one had ever differentiated the sexes on the basis of differing “roles.” Complementarians either ignored or dismissed this reply. In 2021, new evidence came to light showing that in fact the church had never with one voice taught the subordination of women. This evidence was amassed by Beth Allison Barr, a onetime Southern Baptist and presently professor of history at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, in her book, The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth (Brazos, 2021).
Barr begins by telling her readers of her own agonizing journey in breaking from complementarian theology and her Southern Baptist congregation, as it dawned on her that what complementarians are teaching is an historical novelty and lacks substantial biblical support. She shows that the complementarian “history argument,” on which she focuses, is false on two fronts. First, as I have just mentioned, until the 1960s virtually everyone spoke of men as “superior,” women “inferior.” “Equal yet role differentiated” is a novel description of the man-woman relationship. Second, and more importantly, as an historian she documents the evidence proving that in every century the full equality of the sexes has been upheld by one or more Christian scholars. This means that arguing for the equality of the sexes is not without historical precedent, a reflection solely of contemporary cultural ideas. What has happened in the last fifty or so years is that the minority opinion has step by step become the majority opinion. Following Barr’s book, to argue that complementarianism represents the unambiguous and the uncontested historical understanding of the male-female relationship is impossible.
In 2017, perhaps the greatest challenge to complementarian theology took place when the extent of the abuse of women in homes and churches where male headship teaching prevails was made public. Complementarians, from that time onward, had to face the fact that teaching that men have authority over women can, and often does, encourage and condone men abusing their wives and other women as well.4 I have written a book, The Headship of Men and the Abuse of Women (Cascade, 2020), substantiating this assertion, drawing heavily on the scientific evidence and the testimony of many evangelical women who have travelled this road. This disclosure deeply wounds complementarianism. In a world where the safety of women is demanded, I cannot see a way forward for this theological opinion. The claim that God has given men authority over women is not “good news” for women.
Complementarians on the Retreat
The conclusion that complementarianism is now a lost cause is not unique to evangelical egalitarians. Some of the most informed complementarians have reached the same conclusion. 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.5
More devasting is the conclusion reached by Aaron Renn in the Masculinist newsletter of February 2019—a surprising place to find a nuclear attack on complementarianism. He is a well-informed complementarian of long standing who now thinks complementarianism is at the point of collapse. He says, “the future of complementarianism looks grim,” it “has the air of a project in deep trouble,” it is a theological position no longer “sustainable,” it “has arrived at a place that is untenable,” and he refers to its “pending demise.”6
Possibly no one has so shaken complementarians in general, and Southern Baptists in particular, in recent years than Beth Moore. She is the best-known Southern Baptist. In 2010, Christianity Today called her “the most popular Bible teacher in America.” She has 990,000 Twitter followers. As a Southern Baptist, she is, of course, not ordained and mainly speaks to women. She is a self-professed complementarian. However, in the wake of the “MeToo” movement and the revelations of the widespread abuse of women in Southern Baptist congregations, and its acceptance by church leaders, she broke ranks and wrote on May 3, 2018, “A Letter to My Brothers” [of complementarian conviction].7 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 key evangelical leaders’ views of women “smacked of misogyny, objectification and astonishing disesteem,” she spoke up. She says,
I came face to face with one of the most demoralizing realizations of my adult life: Scripture was not the reason for the colossal disregard and disrespect of women among many of these men. It was only the excuse. Sin was the reason. Ungodliness.8
Moore has not embraced evangelical egalitarianism, but she certainly has inflicted a mortal wound on complementarianism. She has made it plain that complementarian theology reflects and propagates a low view of women. In March 2021, she left the Southern Baptist Convention.
Trueman, Renn, Moore, and numerous other evangelical theologians today recognise that complementarianism as a theological position is bankrupt, but they do not offer an alternative, let alone embrace evangelical egalitarianism. Terran Williams, in contrast, not only deconstructs complementarian theology, he also constructs a coherent and biblically grounded account of evangelical egalitarian theology. One of the many strengths of Williams’s book is that he tells how he came to be “converted.” This means his book is both biographical and theological. For some years, he was a pastor and teacher in a megachurch that took pride in its complementarian theology. At one point, as the leading theological articulator of complementarianism in his church, he was tasked with writing a definitive defence of it. Much to his great surprise, as he carefully studied the biblical texts quoted in support and the many subsidiary arguments found in complementarian literature, he changed his mind. He found that the Bible does not permanently subordinate women to men, does not set God the Son eternally under the authority of God the Father, and does not ever speak of differing “roles” for men and women. It instead makes the subordination of women a reflection of the fall, something to be opposed by Christians. This led him to think long and hard about what, in fact, the Bible says about the sexes, about ministry in the church, and about the marriage relationship. Having told the story of his “conversion,” he then goes on to outline his new evangelical egalitarian theology.
It is in this context, where complementarian theology has collapsed, that Williams writes. He is not seeking a hearing for the biblical case for male-female equality, as I and certain others did for thirty or more years; he is putting the biblical case for male-female equality as it is now firmly established and deconstructing the post 1970s novel case for the subordination of women. If no evangelical theologian of complementarian conviction makes a substantial reply to him, then it is undeniable that complementarianism has collapsed as a theological position.
On one matter, Williams takes his own path. He sees himself as standing firmly and unambiguously within the evangelical egalitarian family but prefers to call himself a “mutualist.” He points out rightly that complementarians say: 1) they believe in the equality of the sexes, 2) affirmations of equality can eclipse male-female distinctions, and 3) equality of the sexes is not the only issue in contention (22). But I ask, is “mutualism” a better and less ambiguous term than “evangelical egalitarianism”? I think not. The adjective “mutual” speaks of shared feelings or actions, something common to two or more parties. However, like the term “complementarian,” this word does not define the nature of the relationship between the parties in mind. A complementary relationship can be hierarchical or equal and so too can a mutual relationship.
Yes, the self-designation “egalitarian” has its limitations that require clarifying comments, but its strength is that it focuses on the central issue, on what is implied when the Bible speaks of men and women both being made in the image and likeness of God. I dissent from his innovative suggestion for a better name for the position he and I hold, but please note that this matter gets very little discussion in his book.
Williams’s wife, Julie, writes the foreword to his book. It is a gem. She tells how she grew up as a dogmatic complementarian who only converted to evangelical egalitarianism after her husband, when she came to see that her marriage and her church ministry did not correspond with her complementarian theology. Her marriage was a profoundly equal relationship, and she preached and gave leadership in her church. After her change of mind, she says, “now my theology matches with my lived experience” (13). What good news; becoming an evangelical egalitarian can set us free!
Assessing the Book
Now to the book, How God Sees Women. First, I note that Williams competently covers the biblical teaching on the status and ministry of women as it now stands after fifty years of debate. All the key texts that have been in dispute are dealt with carefully. He convincingly shows that there is not one verse that supports the complementarian position and much that supports mutualism/evangelical egalitarianism.
For evangelicals, lack of biblical support for a position means it cannot be binding on the Christian conscience and it may well need to be rejected. We may think nothing more needs to be said, but Williams recognises this is not the case. All the proof texts that complementarians appeal to have been long disputed, but to no avail. Complementarianism is a highly developed theological construct that is supposedly based on Scripture yet determines how Scripture is read and interpreted. To refute complementarianism, one must reject one by one the many interlocking elements that constitute this theological position, that make it sound plausible and form the basis of its problematic hermeneutic. The whole building has to be deconstructed. Williams does this well. He notes the following:
- Complementarians have until very recently consistently argued that the subordination of women is illustrated and grounded in the eternal subordination of the Son. The hierarchical ordering of the sexes is not a doctrine based solely on a few texts, but rather on how the Father, the Son, and the Spirit are hierarchically ordered in eternity. This argument almost won over the evangelical world, but in the last few years it has been almost universally rejected by Reformed theologians of both egalitarian and complementarian conviction. It is agreed that the argument introduces an Arian-like doctrine of the Trinity that all the creeds and confessions of the church make heretical.
- Complementarians for more than forty years have claimed that evangelical egalitarians are seeking to impose on the church a novel understanding of the man-woman relationship: Egalitarians were innovators and complementarians represented historic Christianity. Williams amasses the evidence, now well-established, showing this is simply not true. Until about the 1960s, virtually everyone spoke of men as “superior,” women “inferior,” an understanding of the sexes complementarians say they reject (29–39). They tell us they believe that men and women are equal yet “role” differentiated, an idea never heard before the late 1970s! What this means is that in the last fifty or so years both egalitarians and complementarians have begun speaking of the man-woman relationship in different but novel ways. A change in culture has forced all Christians to change their thinking about the man-woman relationship. Williams writes, “The complementarian position, ‘equal but different roles’ is every bit of a departure from the historical position of the church as gender mutualism” (35).
- For complementarians, no word is more important or more used than the word “role.” Basic to their position, they tell us, is that the Bible teaches that men and women are “equal” yet have different “roles.” Williams outlines this argument well and concludes that nothing can be found in Scripture to commend it. In complementarian literature, gender “roles” are ascribed by God and cannot change. They speak of who rules and who obeys. Following dictionary usage, roles can change and are not gender specific. He concludes, “Though the idea of roles is compatible with equality, the idea of permanent power relations assumed at birth is a statement of inequality” (53).
- Complementarians argue that they affirm male-female differentiation and egalitarian evangelicals deny this. This is an “absurd” argument, Williams says (54). Complementarians cannot quote one example of evangelical egalitarians denying or even questioning male-female differentiation, and they have to blatantly ignore egalitarians’ consistent, unambiguous affirmations that God has made us man or woman, excepting in rare cases of genetic confusion.
- Complementarians argue that the parallel exhortations to husbands and wives and masters and slaves to be subordinate or obey those set over them are entirely different in nature. They are like “oranges and apples.” The former are based on God’s ordering of the sexes before the fall and are thus transtemporal and transcultural, and the latter are time-bound and culturally limited. They simply give practical advice to those living in a culture that took slavery for granted. Nothing in these parallel exhortations suggests this contrast and their close association implies otherwise. Moreover, the learned Reformed theologians of the Old South (Hodge, Dabney, Thornwell, etc.) vehemently rejected this contrast. They argued the exhortations to wives and slaves were of the same nature and force and were prescriptive for all ages and cultures.
- Complementarians cannot agree on the fundamentals of their position. They cannot agree if the Bible subordinates all women to all men, or simply wives to husbands; they cannot agree whether male headship applies only in marriage or in marriage and the church; and they cannot agree on what the husband’s headship involves. Is he to make all the major decisions, have the casting vote when the couple cannot agree, be a servant-leader or the redeemer or the paterfamilias?
- Many arguments complementarians make to support their position are clearly special pleading. They have no force. I give one example of many that Williams discusses. Complementarians tell us the whole Bible was written by men. This, they infer, shows us that God has appointed men to be teachers of his people. In answer, Williams points out that several well-known Bible scholars have argued for the possibility that Priscilla and Aquila wrote the Epistle to the Hebrews, but most tellingly he reminds us that until modern times almost all women could not read or write! This means they were not barred from writing because of some theological reason but rather because men excluded them from education.
The Lure of the Soft Complementarian Option
Faced with the fact that classic complementarian teaching does not describe the profoundly egalitarian nature of the husband-wife relationship in the best of contemporary marriages, and that women preach in so many supposedly complementarian churches, Williams observes that in ever-growing numbers evangelicals speak of themselves as “soft complementarians.” This, they hope, will allow them to say they believe one thing and behave in another way. Williams says they would better call themselves “inconsistent complementarians” (61). He sees the insurmountable problem with this trend with absolute clarity. He writes, “If complementarianism is wrong [and he argues it is indeed wrong] then even a soft form of it is no more acceptable than merely a soft form of racism would be” (21).
Where to Now?
In one of his six appendices, Williams asks “why facts might not change our minds.” This is a hugely important question to ask at this time when complementarians have undeniably lost every argument they have used—Williams’s book makes this undeniable—yet they are just as vocal as they have been for fifty years. They continue to dogmatically insist that the Bible clearly teaches that God has given different “roles” to men and women. They are equal before God, but men are to lead, women to be submissive.
Williams’s reply to this pressing question is the icing on the cake. He points out that resistance to changing our mind on matters that impact us deeply is not limited to the man-woman relationship. To be a fallen human being means we find thinking in new ways a huge challenge; we want to stick with what we have always believed and most of our friends believe, and more importantly, we do not want to accept ideas that might subvert our privileged status. For complementarians, then, to agree that what they have long believed the Bible clearly teaches on the hierarchical ordering of the sexes is in fact not what the Bible clearly teaches, but denies, is just too much.
Why is it that facts do not count? The answer is that complementarianism is an ideology. An ideology is a set of ideas that aim to explain the world and seek to change it. Facts that do not support or counter the great idea are simply ignored or dismissed. Because complementarianism is essentially an ideology, a belief in how the man-woman relationship should be structured, it is not going to be abandoned simply because its biblical and theological foundations have been shown to be untenable. Complementarians are convinced that God wants men to exercise authority and women to be submissive, or in their obfuscating language, “role differentiated.” The arguments to support this belief may need to change, but the belief cannot change because it is an essential part, for some the most important part, of their Christian worldview.
My Final Word
How God Sees Women: The End of Patriarchy is a great book. It is, in my opinion, the best book on the complementarian/evangelical egalitarian debate. Buy a copy, buy copies for complementarian friends, lend it widely. It highlights the truth that the gospel sets the oppressed free. The Bible from cover to cover is good news for men and women.
1. I sent Köstenberger the manuscript before sending it to the publisher, asking him to critically read and comment on my work. I asked him specifically and more than once to let me know if at any point I had misrepresented his views. He made no reply.
2. For what follows see my book, The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity (Cascade, 2017).
3. Wayne Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth (Multnomah, 2004) 411n.12.
4. Of course, I am not claiming that every man who calls himself a complementarian abuses his wife. Most men who claim to be complementarians, the evidence suggests, have profoundly equal marriages.
5. Carl Trueman, “Motivated by Feminism? A Response to a Recent Criticism,” Postcards from Palookaville (blog), Mortification of Spin, Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals, June 14, 2016, https://reformation21.org/mos/postcards-from-palookaville/motivated-by-feminism-a-response-to-a-recent-criticism#.W8TfuHtKiUm.
6. Aaron Renn, “Newsletter #30: Complementarianism Is a Baby Boomer Theology that Will Die with the Baby Boomers,” Masculinist (newsletter), Feb 14, 2019, https://themasculinist.com/the-masculinist-30-complementarianism-is-a-baby-boomer-theology-that-will-die-with-the-baby-boomers/.
7. Beth Moore, “A Letter to My Brothers,” The LPM Blog, May 3, 2018, https://blog.lproof.org/2018/05/a-letter-to-my-brothers.html.
8. Moore, “A Letter to My Brothers.”