Will the real complementarian please stand up?

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Note: It should be taken for granted that I count my complementarian friends as dear brothers and sisters in Christ and would break the bread of communion with any fellow Christian in a heartbeat. My disagreements here are over the interpretation and application of certain biblical texts that have been discussed and debated for many years, texts that should never be used to jeopardize that most important common bond. It's nice to know that in the Family of God we can have unity without uniformity and that even in our most passionate disagreements we can take a moment to look around at all the mismatched members of Christ's Church and chuckle at the miracle of it. 


If you’ve read A Year of Biblical Womanhood, you will remember that in addition to following all of the Bible’s instructions as literally as possible for a year (sometimes taking them to their most literal, hyperbolic extreme!), a big part of the project involved exploring how a variety of people interpret and apply the concept of “biblical womanhood.” 

For example, throughout the year, I corresponded regularly with an Orthodox Jewish woman from Israel who shared with me her perspective on what it means to live “biblically,” particularly as someone who continues to observe Old Testament law. I also interviewed Amish women, a polygamist family, the daughter of a Quiverfull family, and a woman who is a pastor. I attended a “biblical womanhood’ conference, read from cover to cover John Piper and Wayne Grudem’s book, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, investigated the Vision Forum and other modern patriarchy movements, read commentaries from Jewish, Catholic, feminist, conservative and liberal sources, and managed to get through Created to Be His Helpemeet by Debi Pearl without destroying it after multiple dramatic tosses across the living room.  I quote everyone from Elizabeth Elliot to John Piper to Phyllis Trible to Carolyn Custis James to Dorothy Sayers to Teresa of Avila. 

All of these people have different perspectives on life and faith and the Bible, but what they all have in common is a commitment to some idea of “biblical womanhood.”  (It should be noted here that I connected with the polygamist family through an organization called “Biblical Families”!) My goal was to listen, learn, explore, and show that “biblical womanhood” might not be as straightforward as we’d like to think, that there does not exist in the Bible a single definition, or list of rules, for something as complex as womanhood.

Now, some in the evangelical complementarian movement—a broad group of evangelicals who often employ the terms “biblical manhood” and “biblical womanhood” in their literature—have said that I failed to represent what true complementarians really believe about “biblical womanhood.” One recently wrote that I took “cheap shots” at the movement and designed my entire project around taking it down. 

This is a common enough criticism that I thought I’d address it specifically here. 

The problem with accurately portraying what complmentarians believe about “biblical womanhood” is that complementarians do not agree on what they believe about “biblical womanhood.” 

This is why I never use the word “complementarian” in the book. It appears only once, and in the context of another person’s quote. I did this on purpose because 1) complementarianism is not a word, 2) I recognize that the movement is too diverse to summarize, and 3) I suspect a more general audience will be unfamiliar with the term anyway. 

Instead, I identify and cite what specific people (some of whom identify as complementarian) say about “biblical womanhood.”  

In the introduction, for example, I quote from the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood’s pivotal Danver’s Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood to try and capture the ethos of the movement. On page 22, I quote Dorothy Patterson’s statement in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood that “keeping the home is God’s assignment to the wife—even down to changing the sheets, doing the laundry, and scrubbing the floors.” On page 100, I quote Mark Driscoll as saying that “a wife who lets herself go and is not sexually available to her husband….is not responsible for her husband’s sin, but she may not be helping either.” On page 178, I quote Walter Chantry who said, “Woman’s hope, the church’s hope, the world’s hope is joined to childbearing…Women, here is a lifelong calling! It’s the highest any woman can enter,” and Dorothy Patterson again who said , “We need mothers who are not only family-oriented, but family-obsessed.” On page 203-204 I examine John Piper’s views on women’s submission from Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and on pages 207-214, I examine Debi Pearl’s. (Note: I never identify Debi Pearl as a complementarian.) On page 254, I quote again from Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood to share what John Piper and Wayne Grudem say there about women teaching and leading in the church. 

If most of these people and organizations identify as complementarian, and if I represent their views by quoting directly from their books or sermons, and their fellow complementarians disagree with those views….that seems like something complementarians need to discuss amongst themselves rather than with me. 

It’s ironic that some complementarains have criticized A Year of Biblical Womanhood for employing an inconsistent hermeneutic without seeming to realize that this was exactly what I intended to do with the project. My goal was to shine a light on this notion that the Bible offers a single perspicuous blueprint for womanhood that renders femininity down to a list of rules and acceptable roles. And all this disagreement within complementarian ranks only serves to prove my point. 

Owen Strachan is the president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He believes biblical manhood and womanhood requires sticking to traditional gender roles in the home, and has said that stay-at-home fathers and men who take on domestic duties are “man fails.”  Strachan identifies as complementarian.  Is this what all complementarians believe? Is this the complementarian view of “biblical manhood and womanhood”? 

Similarly, Pastor Mark Driscoll has called stay-at-home fathers “worse than unbelievers” and has recently released a book claiming that men who fail to be the exclusive providers for their families are a disgrace.  Driscoll identifies as a complementarian. Is this what complementarians believe? Is this the complementarian view of “biblical manhood and womanhood”? 

According to Wayne Grudem, the Bible teaches that a woman can be a choir director, but not preside over a baptism or communion service. She can write about book about theology that is read at Christian colleges and seminaries, but she cannot teach theology at Christian colleges or seminaries herself. She can teach Sunday school to children, but she cannot lead a Bible study with adults.  Grudem identifies as a complementarian. Is this what complementarians believe? Is this the complementarian view of “biblical manhood and womanhood”?

Some complementarians believe it is biblical for women to wear head coverings. Others do not. Some complementarians believe it is unbiblical for mothers to work outside of the home. Others allow it. Some complementarians believe it is unbiblical for a woman to even read Scripture aloud in church. Others disagree. Some complementarians happily identify as patriarchalists. Others are uncomfortable with the term. 

So my question for complementarians is this:  What is biblical womanhood and who gets to define it?. 

My point here is not to discredit a movement for having a diversity of perspectives within it. (I’m a feminist, for heaven’s sake; I get it!) My point is that, despite insistent claims that they simply follow the “clear teachings of the Bible,” complementarians themselves are not in total agreement on what those teachings are. And despite all these references to a patently obvious and consistent hermeneutic regarding biblical manhood and womanhood, complementarians have failed to produce it.  This should call into question the premise that Bible presents us with a single, straightforward blueprint for womanhood and that women who deviate from this blueprint are outside the will of God. 

One thing that frustrates me about complementarianism, as it is often expressed, is that it teaches men and women that God has specific expectations regarding gender roles but then fails to consistently or clearly explain exactly what those expectations are.  My hope is that readers will come to the end of the book reminded the Bible—this ancient, diverse, powerful, God-breathed text—is far too complex to be reduced to an adjective, and that womanhood was never meant to be reduced to a list of rules and roles. 

But even more frustrating has been a general refusal among complementarian leaders to engage in conversation about what the Bible actually says.  For the past three years, on the blog and in the book, I’ve been asking questions about common complementarian positions on biblical womanhood. For example: 







  • How can 1 Timothy 5 be used to characterize stay-at-home dads as “failures” when the context of those instructions is care for widows? 







The response by complementarians to these questions as posed on the blog has been mostly silence, even when I’ve specifically asked for engagement.  

And the response by complementarians to these questions as posed in A Year of Biblical Womanhood, with a few exceptions (Mary Kassian has been very kind to engage), has essentially been: “Look at this silly woman who thinks you have to make a sign and literally praise your husband at the city gate! She doesn’t understand basic hermeneutics. What an idiot!” 

I realize I am not entitled to serious engagement. I’m not a biblical scholar or member of the clergy…just a writer with a love for the Bible and an insatiable interest in how it is read and interpreted. There indeed may be some hubris at work here. Still, though the book has been generally well-received, it’s been disheartening to see this particular group of evangelicals gloss over my questions, and those of many of my readers, in favor of casting the more hyperbolic elements of the project as representative of the whole. 

It's frustrating because, for evangelical women in particular, th

is dismissal of good questions is an all-too-common experience. 



For folks who claim to have the corner of the market on “biblical womanhood,” complementarians have been surprisingly unwilling to engage in conversation with me on what the Bible actually says. Instead, I’ve been dismissed as a silly girl out to “confuse” other silly women with a silly blog and book. 

Owen Strachan is right. I’d probably flunk his course on biblical manhood and womanhood.  But it wouldn’t be because I’m too stupid to understand hermeneutical principles. It would be because I ask far too many questions about them. 


So what do you think? Is it worth even engaging anymore or should I give up?  


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