Does Complementarianism Undermine the Gospel?

In Genesis humans are depicted as bearing the image of God as male and female. God speaks in the first-person plural, “Let us,” and humans are created as a plurality. This means image bearing is integral to human relations of every kind: sexual relations, family relations, marriage relations, but also in relation with God (that is the human image presumes relation to the Origin). Male/female is of course a characteristic running throughout creation – so it is simultaneously that which humans share with other creatures. While human spirituality (bearing the divine image) and human created/creatureliness cannot be reduced to gender, gender pertains throughout, so that both human depravity and the heights of spirituality find expression in human sexuality. Idolatrous religion, in its Old Testament depiction and in Paul’s summation of that depiction in Romans 1, manifests itself in human sexual misorientation, while the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, the culmination of human spirituality, is depicted in terms of a fulfilled marriage relationship. This culminating wedding feast is the reconciliation of humankind with God, but simultaneously the restoration of right interpersonal, intrapersonal relations, and relation to creation (Revelation 19-21). In other words, resolution to the problem of gendered relations (through Christ as groom and the Church as bride) is not just part of the biblical story, this is the biblical story.

Gender problems are at the center of the human problem (male dominance and female desire, Gen. 3:16) and salvation is depicted, in a key motif of the New Testament, as the completion of the promise of Genesis that “the two shall become one flesh” (Eph. 5:32). Salvation depicted as the fulfillment of marriage must mean that male/female relations cannot be understood apart from understanding who God is, what the human predicament is, and the manner in which we are delivered from that predicament. Which is to say, the role of women in Church leadership or the relation of husband and wife cannot be isolated from the narrative sweep of Scripture. A typical error of isolating these issues is to misread the curse of the Fall, male domination and oppression of women (Gen. 3:16), as if God is accommodating or even encouraging this oppression, and then to read this into particular New Testament passages.

In both Ro. 7:1-4 and in I Cor. 11, Paul not only depicts human failure and success in terms of gender, failed and successful marriage and male/female relations in the church respectively, but apprehension and understanding of God, particularly God as Trinity, is interdependent with the full realization of male/female interdependence. “Belonging to another” in Romans (7:4) and male/female interdependence in I Cor. (11:11-12) are to be realized by being “joined to Christ” or being “in the Lord.”

In I Cor. 11, the image restored in the body of Christ calls upon a direct correlate between male/female relations and the Father’s relation to the Son (the key to understanding “headship). Just as there is no such thing as the Father independent of the Son (or any one member of the Trinity apart from relation to other members of the Trinity), so too there is no such thing as man apart from woman and woman apart from man (ontologically and universally). Identity depends upon how we relate to others but this in turn is best apprehended in Trinitarian relations.  Just as subordinationism is a Trinitarian heresy, the same applies to the relation to men and women (part of Paul’s prolonged argument against oppressing other people).

Romans 7:1-4 depicts the universal misorientation to the law as a marriage problem. The woman who would consort with a man, other than her husband, while her husband is still alive is representative of failed humanity. The resolution is not to kill off the living husband or wait around for him to die (abolish the law). Two realms of knowing, knowing the law with the mind and knowing in the Hebraic sense (knowing in the flesh), have come into conflict and cannot be coordinated. The woman’s troubled love life (legally married to one man and illegally consorting with another) is not simply her singular problem, but represents the human predicament.  The point of the illustration, deploying the conflict between sex and marriage, is that the law dictates and determines every aspect of this relationship. Knuckling under to the law (a submissive or passive relationship to the husband or law) or transgressing the law, are not the resolution.  The problem is the oppressive axis of the law (authority, the husband, the punishing law) coordinates even the most intimate relationship. Domineering authoritarianism (the husband or law calls all the shots), passive self-effacement or open rebellion, describe life under the law, which Paul equates with sin.

The resolution is to be found in coordinating the two kinds of knowing (mind and body) by becoming the bride of Christ: “you also were made to die to the Law through the body of Christ, so that you might be joined to another” (7:4, NASB). This enables a joining to another in a fruitful relationship (“in order that we might bear fruit for God” vs. 4). Redeemed humanity is the bride of Christ, pregnant with the fruit of true love. The attempt to “gain control” as an orientation to the law, in either the typical authoritarian or submissive role, is suspended.  Christ, as husband, represents a suspension of the force of the law and being found in Christ as bride brings an end to agonistic domination and submission, as authoritarian rule is suspended.

Self-alienation and alienation from others, are not ultimately resolved apart from this reconciliation to be had in Christ. In both Ephesians and Romans this discord overcome in Christ directly pertains to human sexuality: “‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (Eph. 5:31-32, ESV). In both instances this speaks of a simultaneous realization of right relations between men and women coordinated with a fuller realization and understanding of the work of Christ.

The New Testament accommodates culture in certain instances, and does not seek to simply overturn the law or kill the husband, as in Paul’s illustration. For example, the church came to decide that the institution of slavery, though widespread in the ancient world, was incompatible with the New Testament’s vision of the freedom and dignity of human beings. Those New Testament texts that seem to support slavery (such as Eph. 6:,5-9; Col 3:22-4:1; I Tim 6:1-2; Titus 2:9-10, I Peter 2:18) must be coordinated with the clear undermining of the institution of slavery by other passages and by the whole of the Gospel narrative. This undermining is accomplished not through directly attacking slavery, but through a revolutionary subordination, which even those passages seemingly allowing for slavery point to. As in Philemon, radical subordination to Christ (on both the part of Onesimus and Philemon) is a mode of undermining the accepted cultural norms. The slave or servant of all is now the position to be sought as the servant is following the example of Christ. Texts which accommodate slavery should not be used to perpetuate slavery in the church nor should those passages accommodating the traditional role of women be allowed to distort the point of salvation. Freedom in Christ is not simply a metaphor for release from authoritarian oppression, it is breaking the bonds of oppression in every form (but most especially in male/female relations).

The nature of the Christian revolution is an undermining of the Powers (slavery, marriage customs, powers of the state) through submitting but not succumbing. Jesus refuses to remain in the grave, though he willingly went there. Paul offers up his head to Rome, not in defeat, but knowing that “by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead” (I Cor. 15:21, NASB). Scriptures commanding subordination of women and slaves, or subordination to the power of Rome, are not meant to preserve authoritarian roles but to undermine them. Paul is beheaded, Jesus is crucified, and the apostles are martyred, not because they obeyed and hoped to preserve cultural norms, but because they submitted in such a way as to overturn those powers through an alternative Kingdom.

The story of Fall and redemption is to be read as pertaining directly to overcoming of authoritarianism, forms of subordinationism, oppression and alienation.   There might still be slave/free, male/female, and Jew/Gentile, from the perspective and logic of the world but in the Church these categories are suspended (Gal. 3:28), as with the law. Gender, class, and ethnicity, are not dissolved but a different logic applies and one can treat these categories, in Paul’s explanation, as “if not” (I Cor. 7:29-30). They are no longer definitive, they do not pertain, as this symbolic order is displaced with an alternative “Spiritual” grammar.  To miss this deep grammatical shift, from the letter that kills to the Spirit which gives life, (and it is missed and obscured both by the closed economy of this world and a theology grounded in this economy) is to miss the transvaluation of Christianity.

 While there is undoubtedly accommodation behind male/female instruction given in the New Testament, I am afraid Christian complementarianism, focused as it is on a few verses, is missing the narrative force of the story of salvation.  Though Paul commends a woman apostle, women evangelists, deaconesses etc. he also recommends male elders. Is the conclusion that women are excluded from Church leadership, or is this a dogged commitment to the oppression the Gospel is overcoming? In Timothy, is Paul commanding a peculiar submission of women to men or is he commanding that women too should study and learn? N.T. Wright claims, that his command that women be “in full submission” (I Tim 2:11) may in fact mean not in submission “to men” or “to husbands” but in submission to God or the gospel – as with the men. In the most perverse of examples, where Christ is portrayed as “head” who sustains and serves all, it has been presumed that a husband as head is the one who is the authority figure. As in the recent evangelical controversy (appealing to I Cor. 11:3), subordination of women to men has led to reinstituting of the heresy of subordinationism (the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father). (I have dealt with this here). The Godhead has been redefined, and one fears that the role of the Son as true head is lost.

Where these passages are cut off from their life situation and where theory is formed in isolation, some of these verses may be deployed as proof texts for complementarian forms of female subordination but this would seem to contradict the suspension of the law and its oppressive authority. This is the potential tragedy connected with reifying traditional roles captured in complementarianism. It misses the fact that the Gospel is overturning fallen norms of what it means to be male and female.

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.