I often say that we need to listen to others who are not like us, and in that spirit, I read complementarian articles and I tune in to complementarian sermons on marriage and gender roles. Having been raised in a comp church tradition, I know the point of view intimately, yet am still surprised every time I hear comp teaching. The idea of gender roles was once so clear to me, but now I feel as though scales have fallen off my eyes. I can see how my socialization in patriarchy led me to read the Bible through that lens and to accept these kinds of sermons as being Good News.
Last week, I listened to a sermon on gender roles by Dr. R.C. Sproul, a Calvinist pastor and Reformed theologian, author of more than 60 books, and the founder of Ligonier Ministries, which broadcasts his sermons around the world. This is a theologian with a lot of influence within Christianity, so I believe it is worthwhile to test his teachings. The Apostle Paul told us to follow Jesus and not this preacher or that preacher, because it is human nature to adopt a favorite minister and tune into their voice religiously and not balance their influence with diverse voices. It takes diligence to wrestle with differing perspectives, panning for the nuggets of truth. There is no perfect teacher besides Jesus – we are all prone to error. And ideas have consequences. Compelementarian theology has consequences that often endanger women.
For example, Dr. Sproul’s son, R.C. Sproul, Jr., was a Calvinist minister and advocate of Christian patriarchy, even rumored to have practiced “wife spanking”. He was found to be subscribed to Ashley Madison when that scandal broke several years ago. Their motto was, “Life is short. Have an affair.” There is a slippery slope between “purity culture” and the sex industry. Patriarchy objectifies women. Period. I am not sure if there is an official connection between the Sprouls and the puritanical Head Covering Movement, but there is obvious respect for their voices in that community, as these memes suggest.
Below, I am offering egalitarian rebuttals to Dr. Sproul’s sermon, point by point. I am doing this to explain the egalitarian point of view that Dr. Sproul misrepresents for those who may be in the midst of a shift away from complementarianism. It is when we are in a period of transition that we are most open to new ideas, which is a truly humble stance. Otherwise, we respond to new ideas by becoming defensive, even more locked into our ideology. This is the power of confirmation bias – we dismiss information that contradicts what we already believe, and give extra weight to information that supports our ideas. Let’s bear this in mind as we pan for God’s Good News on the topic of gender roles.
Here is the sermon description from the “Renewing Your Mind” website:
In an age when the women’s liberation movement has reached all corners of society, the concept of a woman submitting to the authority of a man finds disdain. Now, more often than not, there is misunderstanding of the roles men and women have in marriage. Dr. Sproul looks at the issue in this message entitled “The Role of Man and Woman.”
Formerly, I would have read this statement and pictured a sinister darkness spreading across a map. In actuality, the women’s liberation movement was initiated by Christians who were offended by the marginalization and abuse of women and children by patriarchal society. (I once responded to the assertion that feminism is devoid of God here.) Going even further back, women flocked to the early Church because they were treated as equals there. I challenge you to reread the New Testament, being attentive to the stories of women prophesying, preaching, teaching, and there was even a female Apostle, named Junia. “Celsus, a 2nd-century detractor of the faith, once taunted that the church attracted only ‘the silly and the mean and the stupid, with women and children.’ His contemporary, Bishop Cyprian of Carthage, acknowledged in his Testimonia that ‘Christian maidens were very numerous’ and that it was difficult to find Christian husbands for all of them. These comments give us a picture of a church disproportionately populated by women.” [source]
The sermon was broadcast on February 20th, 2017 on the Renewing Your Mind program:
The Role of Man and Woman – Dr. R. C. Sproul
I thought this was a current sermon, but I found a video which places it decades ago:
Dr. Sproul is preaching on Paul’s household codes of Ephesians 5. I was happy to hear Dr. Sproul begin in verse 21, as most complementarian teachings on this passage begin in verse 22 after the heading. In the original letter, there were no chapters, verse numbers or headings separating topics. Paul had been talking about how Christians are to walk out their faith in their day to day life, and in verse 21 tells everyone to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, then continues the sentence to say, “wives, to your husbands” like this, and husbands, like this. “Wives, submit to your husbands” does not exist in the original Greek. “Submit” occurs in verse 21 and applies to both the husband and the wife. I recommend reading Rachel Held Evans’ post, “Submission in Context: Christ and the Greco-Roman Household Codes.”
Dr. Sproul calls the idea of mutual submission an “exegesis of despair” without any explanation of what he means. I have searched and cannot find this term anywhere. Who despairs under mutual submission? If you start Googling, you will find many women despairing under legalistic, authoritarian gender roles. Start at A Cry for Justice and Spiritual Sounding Board or this post from Diary of an Autodidact on why complementarians cannot actually condemn spousal abuse.
Dr. Sproul goes on to say that you would have to apply the idea of mutual submission across the entire passage, causing confusion and disorder. You would have to say that parents must submit to children, and that Christ is the head of the Church just as the Church is the head of Christ. My response to these assertions:
First, I believe that reading the Bible with an authoritarian view (complementarianism is all about a hierarchy of authority) leads parents to, mostly unintentionally, teach their children conditional, strings-attached love. This does not resemble God’s love for us. It has also led to abusive treatment of children. Physical abuse is certainly rampant, but coercive control of others is abusive and might never be physical. Obedient, docile children are trophies in authoritarian comp cultures, objectified for their behavior. If you teach your children to recite Scripture and play an instrument and never talk back, you will be given honor in your complementarian church. Brene Brown would describe parenting like this as coming from a mentality of scarcity and shame rather than from worthiness and wholeheartedness. Brennan Manning tells us that God loves us just as we are and not as we should be, because nobody is as they should be. In this way, egalitarian theology honors children’s individuality, gifts and callings. Egalitarians do not clip their children’s wings by forcing them into prescribed roles that may frustrate them if they are not naturally inclined to fit into those boxes. We watch our children to see their natural inclinations, we understand that their behavior is tied to their developmental stage and reveals real needs that we can meet. Yes, correction is needed on a daily basis, but it should be about developing character, honesty, generosity, and kindness, not perfect behavior. No parent is doing a perfect job (we need grace too!), but our theology deeply impacts how we respond to and guide our children. Young people are fleeing churches nowadays, and I don’t believe that would be the case if the ethos of the culture is worthiness and grace rather than power and control.
Second, Dr. Sproul brings us to the topic of headship. In our modern context, we read “head” and infer “boss,” “CEO,” “authority.” This was not the understanding of “head” in ancient times. We now understand that our brains are in our heads, but then they thought the function of the head was as the place that food entered to nourish the body; it was the source of the fuel to run the machine while the gut was believed to be the seat of knowledge, etc. In a patriarchal society, the father was the source of financial security for the family except in some cases where a single woman of means ran her own household. Men had nearly all of the privilege, education, financial control, and social power, and Paul is instructing men to care for their disenfranchised wives, to use their privilege for the betterment of his family, just as Jesus gave up his position in heaven to give his life for us. In this way, egalitarians understand “head” to mean “source.” Marg Mowzcko’s blog is full of insightful egalitarian exegesis, and her post on Paul’s use of “headship” is excellent.
“Rather, I think, as the consensus historically of Biblical interpreters has been…”
Yeah, let’s talk about the consensus of Biblical interpreters. Bob Edwards provides a fascinating overview of the roots of male authority in the church here. It is no coincidence that patriarchal theologians infused their translations and commentaries with patriarchal thought. Edwards’ talk includes translation errors by patriarchalists that have influenced complementarian teaching. In our post, “Quoting the Founding Fathers of Complementarian Theology,” we list some examples of sexist quotes by Augustine, Calvin, and others. For example:
“It is the natural order among people that women serve their husbands and children their parents, because the justice of this lies in (the principle that) the lesser serves the greater…. This is the natural justice that the weaker brain serve the stronger. This therefore is the evident justice in the relationships between slaves and their masters, that they who excel in reason, excel in power.” (St. Augustine, Questions on the Heptateuch, Book I, § 153)
Next, Dr. Sproul says that he sees women raging about Paul’s teaching as being chauvinistic and arrogant. He says that all authority was given to Christ, then Christ gives that authority to his apostles. This is the law of God. What is so controversial, Dr. Sproul asks? Women are willing to submit to the authority of Christ, so why not to their husbands in the same way? Dr. Sproul says that God has given a significant level of authority to husbands as the heads of the home. If a woman resists her husband’s authority, he says she is resisting God.
Again, this comes down to different interpretations on the meaning of headship. Complementarians believe headship means “authority” and egalitarians believe headship means “source.” Yes, Christ has all authority over heaven and earth (Matthew 28:18) and he gives authority to his followers, but that includes Christian women as well as men (Galatians 3:28). And Jesus is still the ultimate authority. There is no human that has authority equal to Christ. In an egalitarian marriage, the husband and the wife submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, and Christ alone is the final authority. Both are always seeking to honor Christ and follow Christ faithfully as the true leader of the family.
Dr. Sproul goes on to clarify that women do not have to submit if their husband is asking them to disobey the final authority of God on a subject. If a husband tells his wife to prostitute herself, she doesn’t have to obey. If a husband tells her to stop going to church, she should disobey him on Sundays because God commanded us to keep the Sabbath holy, but she doesn’t need to go to the Wednesday night service. I would say that a Christian husband should not be controlling the freedom of his wife. Living in the mystery of oneness does not necessitate losing any aspect of your God-given identity. I do appreciate Dr. Sproul’s distinction here though, as I’ve read other complementarians who say women should never disobey their husbands.
For instance, Elizabeth Rice Handford has said a woman should never voice her opinion to her husband unless he asks for it, and she should have an abortion, participate in sexual activities that she does not want to do and tolerate physical abuse even to the point of death if that is how her “head” directs her (in her book, “Me? Obey Him?“).
Dr. Sproul tries to lighten the burden of his teaching to women by pointing out God’s sense of humor in the translation of “submit to your own husband,” the Greek word idion being the root of “idiosyncrasy” and also “idiot.” He offers this loose translation: “Wives, submit yourselves to your idiot husbands.” Again, I say submit is absent from verse 22, so the Bible never says, “Wives, submit to your own husbands.” Second, I understand his point is to say that men are not superior to women, but I don’t believe it is ever appropriate to make gendered jokes, period. It is not OK to make fun of men or women from the pulpit, not to mention that this is not a true translation of Paul’s meaning. Egalitarianism avoids stereotyping of men and women, leaving space for both to become their best selves apart from socialized gender expectations. Many men do not feel freedom to live emotionally healthy, sensitive lives because complementarian culture rewards toxic masculinity and machismo.
Next, Dr. Sproul decries the 50/50 myth of marriage, saying “I can’t think of anything worse.”
Egalitarians do not teach that marriage requires 50/50 from each spouse. In fact, we teach 100/100. Bring your whole self to the marriage–there is room for two callings and two perspectives. Decisions can be made together in loving, mutual submission. It isn’t necessary to demote one half of a marriage to assistant status in order to function. In every other context, we understand that “two heads are better than one” and that iron sharpens iron. I personally have never witnessed an egalitarian marriage that seemed to be stuck in a “perpetual power struggle to get control,” even though Dr. Sproul believes this is inevitable. Authoritarians worry about control, not egalitarians. Egalitarians seek mutual submission to each other and ultimate submission to Christ. Disagreeing with Dr. Sproul’s interpretation of marriage roles does not equal “vilifying” a teaching of the Bible.
Dr. Sproul says God settles the “perpetual power struggle” by vesting all authority and leadership in the man, and he doesn’t see this as a privilege as much as it is a “weighty, weighty responsibility.” Women have been “bleeting” about this interpretation, but they need to understand that subordination never equals inferiority. The Son is subordinate to the Father, the Spirit to the Son, but none are inferior.
Complementarians see subordination within the Trinity while egalitarians see mutuality. In Marg Mowzcko’s “Seperate Spheres & Distinct Roles in the Trinity and Marriage,” she says,
When Jesus came to earth as a human being, he voluntarily laid aside his divine privileges (Phil. 2:6-8) and became completely dependent on the Father’s and the Holy Spirit’s guidance and power. Jesus submitted to, and obeyed, the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Some Christians believe that wives are to display this level of dependency, submission, and obedience towards their husbands. However Jesus, in taking human form, had become ontologically inferior and thus, subordinate, to the Father and the Spirit. He was even “a little lower than the angels” (Heb. 2:9a). Jesus had temporarily lowered and limited himself by taking human form for a very particular purpose and a vitally important reason: to save the world!
Wives, however, are not ontologically inferior to their husbands. That is, women are not lesser creatures than men. So it is unhealthy for wives to emulate the same degree of dependence and submission towards their husbands that Jesus had towards the Father and Spirit while he was on earth.
After describing women as raging and bleeting about wifely submission/male headship, Dr. Sproul says we should listen to women’s cries and men should not tyrannize their wives. Great. “But we also need to hear the cries of men” who have five times more nightmares than women and feel tremendous pressure in their role of provider.
I believe egalitarianism does in fact listen to the cries of men. We see how patriarchy harms men too, how hierarchy privileges a few at the top and tramples on women, children, and most men. We believe a husband and wife are a team, sharing equally the yoke of responsibility of caring for their family, trusting ultimately in our Great Provider who cares even for the sparrow and the lily in the valley. Rather than pressuring men to be Providers, Protectors and Priests, churches should encourage us all to surrender our lives and our money to Jesus. A couple excellent books came out in the last two years addressing the very real plight of men under patriarchy: Man Enough by Nate Pyle and Malestrom by Carolyn Custis James.
Dr. Sproul correctly blames culture for imposing these pressures on men, but does not recognize that it is the culture of patriarchy that he is in fact advancing. He goes on to explain that it has been like this since the beginning, when woman was created as man’s helpmate. In the original Hebrew language, Eve is describes as ezer kenegdo, which has been translated (by patriarchalists) as “suitable helper” (Genesis 2:18). In the other instances when ezer appears in the O.T., it is referring to God as a helper to Israel, often in war. For instance,
“There is no one like the God of Jeshurun, who rides across the heavens to help you and on the clouds in his majesty…Blessed are you, Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD? He is your shield and helper and your glorious sword. Your enemies will cower before you, and you will tread on their heights.” (Deuteronomy 33:26, 29; NIV).
Usages of ‘ezer in the Old Testament show that in most cases God is an ‘ezer to human beings, which calls to question if the word “helper” is a valid interpretation of ‘ezer in any instance it is used. “Evidence indicates that the word ‘ezer originally had two roots, each beginning with different guttural sounds. One meant “power” and the other “strength.”
The woman was never meant to be an assistant or “helpmate” to the man. The word “mate” slipped into English since it was so close to the Old English word “meet,” which means “fit to” or “corresponding to” the man which comes from the phrase that likely means “equal to.”
What God had intended, then, was to make a “power” or “strength” for the man who would in every way “correspond to him” or even “be his equal.”
The Torah Study for Reform Jews says, “From the time of creation, relationships between spouses have at times been adversarial. In Genesis 2:18, God calls woman an ezer kenegdo, a “helper against him.” The great commentator Rashi takes the term literally to make a wonderful point: “If he [Adam] is worthy, [she will be] a help [ezer]. If he is not worthy [she will be] against him [kenegdo] for strife.” This Jewish study also described man and woman facing each other with arms raised holding an arch between them, giving a beautiful picture of equal responsibility
Dr. Sproul says he believes women have the easy role within this complementarian doctrine. He wishes that “all he had to do was submit.” At the same time, he recognizes his leadership ability and chooses “precious few” others to follow.
We are socialized to associate stereotypical masculine characteristics as leadership qualities, i.e. decisiveness, assertiveness, even lower vocal registers; whereas, the same qualities in a female are not recognized as leadership identifiers. Girls are in fact socialized away from these qualities. Again, egalitarians avoid stereotyping. Each person is an Image bearer imbued with authority since the beginning in the Garden, when God gave both Adam and Eve the command to rule creation (Genesis 1:28). Singling a few out as leaders and ignoring the gifts and voices of the majority is the common practice of churches but this does not best advance the Kingdom. Throughout the New Testament, the message is to submit to one another, to consider others greater than yourself, to avoid lording authority over others but to become a servant of all. Serving others involves giving others opportunities to use their gifts and to follow God’s calling on their life, and having the humility to follow others. We are all called to fulfill the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20).
Dr. Sproul says that having a husband that loves his wife as Christ loves the Church, who is willing to give his life for his wife, liberates women. Jesus never exploits, tyrannizes, abuses or batters his Bride. Amen to that, but would Dr. Sproul feel liberated if he was never given opportunities to follow his call to ministry? He then says that in living out “your own part” of the passage, things naturally work out – if husbands love their wives, wives submit; if wives submit, husbands love their wives. Then he says something I find particularly dangerous and offensive: “I think if she dedicated herself to being a helpmate, that would be returned with sacrificial love and she would never be tyrannized.”
Patriarchy fuels abuse, and our churches are steeped in a silent epidemic of hurting, hopeless women. I believe awareness is growing, through the work of Leslie Vernick and Boz Tchividjian and many others, but pastors have been remarkably ignorant of the plight of many women in their congregations. Dr. Sproul is placing a millstone around the necks of victims of abuse, blaming them for their own victimization.
Divorce is the ultimate evil in many churches, and when women seek advice about controlling and abusive husbands in complementarian churches, pastors frequently direct them to stop complaining about their husbands and start submitting more, essentially silencing them so that they do not ask for help again until they are in real danger. Gary Thomas posted a powerful article about this, “Enough is Enough” that has gone viral. We shared a Facebook post from Naghmeh Abedini exhorting the Church to face the epidemic of domestic abuse, along with several resources for victims here.
One way for a woman’s voice to find a platform in complementarianism is for that woman to tell other women to make themselves small. Dr. Sproul gives a shout out to a “woman who understands men,” Marabel Morgan who wrote “The Total Woman.” In this book, which is written with advice to wives on how to keep their husbands happy and faithful (as though that is a wife’s responsibility), she says, “Women, here’s a secret. Your husbands don’t want your advice. They want your admiration.” Dr. Sproul points out that men have fragile egos, and that may very well be true for a man who is saddled with dangerous messages about masculinity and manhood, not only from our sexist, patriarchal society at large but also from his spiritual leaders in churches touting complementarian theology of gender roles.
Dr. Sproul wraps up by saying that “this isn’t a battle, this isn’t a competition for authority. This is that place God created where the two become one flesh. Paul goes on, this is the mystery. My job is to nourish her. In that, Christ is honored and marriages are made whole.”
As an egalitarian, I believe that Christ is honored when we love one another and submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. I disagree that God has given husbands alone authority over their families and men alone authority over the Church, not because I rage or bleet against teachings on submission but because following Jesus with integrity means obeying him, and he has never told me to not use my God-given authority for the sake of the Kingdom. In fact, I believe I would dishonor Christ by living in the box that complementarians give to women, and I do not want my husband to live in the box that complementarians give to men.
Sheesh, that was long! Thanks for hanging in there to the end! Kate Wallace wrote a beautiful poem, They gave me a box, that you will love. If you belong to a tradition that teaches gender roles, I pray that you find freedom in Christ to live out your true identity and calling. You are a gift to the world and God has prepared good works for you to do. God bless!
Oh, and you can find us on Facebook if you’d like to read all the links we find from around the web concerning gender equality in the Church.