Rachel Green Miller has written an exceptionally helpful book: Beyond Authority and Submission: Women and men in marriage, church, and society (P&R, 2019).
In it, she articulates a balanced and scriptural view of the nature and roles of men and women, identifying the good bits of feminism and rejecting the bad bits of ‘complementarianism’ to express a sane and satisfying position on what is often an unpleasantly contentious set of topics.
1. The focus on authority/submission is too narrow
For one thing, Miller zones in on a most troubling aspect of how male-female relationships are treated in contemporary conservative discussions – namely the reductionistic insistence on authority (men’s, obviously) and submission (women’s, obviously).
Complementarianism, for anyone who hasn’t come across it, is a response from within conservative Christian circles to various (sometimes unbiblical) cultural shifts blamed on feminism. (Although it presents itself as simply biblical, transcending history and culture, it is a response from within basically North American conservative Christian circles.)
It is perhaps because complementarianism was birthed as a response, or reaction, to perceived threats to men’s roles in marriage and church office bearing that it often fails to get beyond some version of ‘he says jump, she says how high (and that’s the biblical way)’ – varying only in the degree to which the accompanying rhetoric modulates its harshness towards women and its glorification of testosterone.
But rather than rejecting, or seeking to remove, authority and submission from the discussion altogether, one of Miller’s important contributions is to recognise and emphasise three further biblical principles for how men and women should interact – unity, interdependence, and service.
- Unity. Men and women are united in that we were all originally created in the image of God, and we are all fallen in Adam. In Christ, men and women are also equally re-made in the image of God, and joint-heirs of eternal life. (p37-39)
- Interdependence. Men and women need each other. That is how we were originally created, that is how things work post-fall, and that is how all the members of Christ’s body are meant to function. (p39-41)
- Service. Men and women have the same chief end, to glorify God and to enjoy him for ever. We are equally obliged to love our neighbour as ourselves, and to use our gifts for each other’s benefit more than for our own. (p42-43)
Miller states in the Introduction that husbands should lead their wives and wives should submit to their husbands (p16). This understanding comes from Ephesians 5:22-33. She is evidently and explicitly neither a feminist nor an egalitarian (egalitarians, for the uninitiated, are complementarians’ next-biggest bogeypersons after actual feminists). Rather, as Miller says repeatedly, it is the ‘hyper focus’ on authority/submission that is problematic for our understanding of sex and gender.
When you reduce human relationships to this one principle, it can only be unhealthy. But by presenting these three additional biblical principles of unity, interdependence, and service, Miller identifies the context in which authority/submission can be safely affirmed. It is safe, in the sense of not demeaning to women and not an ego trip for men, to affirm authority/submission when authority/submission is just one component of a well-rounded view of how we should relate to one another.
(This is also incidentally helpful for providing a framework that you can use when evaluating whatever latest teaching or resources you may encounter on marriage, or ‘a woman’s place’ – if it falls into the trap of reducing marriage (or whatever relationship it may be) to authority/submission to the neglect of these other principles, equipped with Miller’s three topics you can identify that reductionistic approach and specify the areas where it is defective.)
2. The theological problems of complementarianism
Secondly, Miller lays bare the theological problems of complementarianism, or at least of the brand of complementarianism that maintains this excessive, reductionist focus on authority/submission.
Problem 1: Extra-scriptural requirements for how men should behave and how women should behave.
Complementarianism is at heart an American cultural response to an American manifestation of a cultural problem. And so it not only presents a one-size-fits-all approach to being a ‘good Christian man’ or a ‘good Christian woman,’ but that one size is American-shaped.
The straitjacket itself cannot but stunt and entangle. If you like sports, science, maths, and holding opinions, you must be… not such a good example of a woman. If you like baking, art, and nurturing, you must be… not such a good example of a man. But these markers of ‘good’ masculinity and femininity are cultural, not scriptural.
Miller walks us through a series of examples from the Bible of women who did allegedly masculine things – Deborah, Miriam, Abigail, Jochebed, Zipporah, Esther, Ruth, Rachel, Lydia, Dorcas, Priscilla, the Shunammite woman, Shiphrah and Puah, Rahab, Mephibosheth’s nurse, Jehosheba, Jael, Manoah’s wife, Lois and Eunice, Anna. (Chapter 8) ‘The Bible gives us positive examples of women who led, initiated, provided, protected, demonstrated strength, and had theological discernment. Making decisions, earning money, running businesses, being physically strong, and being interested in theology don’t make women less feminine.’ (p136)
And of course, if you want good biblical examples of meekness, gentleness, or tender-heartedness, the best are men – Moses, David, or Paul for starters (Miller gives more examples and discussion in Chapter 9). Her point is, ‘What we need to be careful about is conforming to narrow or wooden definitions of masculinity and femininity … the Bible gives us a much broader picture of what it means to be masculine and feminine than many conservative Christians do. Jacob and Esau were extreme opposites, but both were masculine. Deborah and Esther were very different, but both were feminine.’ (p148)
This point needs emphasising because what Scripture holds out as non-gender-specific graces are, after all, graces – supernatural gifts of the Spirit, as distinct from natural temperaments. Being culturally conditioned or personally temperamentally inclined to be ‘meek,’ or ‘bold,’ for example, is not the same thing as having the grace of meekness or the grace of boldness. These are the fruit of the Spirit, not the culturally defined ‘right’ way of expressing masculinity or femininity.
Miller also mentions in passing that there is often variation from culture to culture in what is deemed appropriate behaviour for women and men. She doesn’t particularly expand on this point, but it is instructive. In Scotland, for example, we have a tradition in conservative Christian circles of ‘the godly old woman in the north.’ This is a woman who could cut and thrust in doctrinal discussions with women and men, she didn’t spare to dish out rebukes to wrong-doers in the community, and she was renowned for witty one-liners putting down the pretentious and the sanctimonious. She does not fit the complementarian ideal of what a biblical woman should be, but that really only proves that complementarianism is a localised phenomenon that simply cannot accommodate cultural manifestations of Christianity other than its own.
Problem 2: Making gender a ‘gospel issue’
There is also the astonishing presumption of elevating complementarianism – this ideology, these pieces of advice about how to be a suitably submissive wife and an adequately authoritarian husband – to a ‘gospel issue’. As Miller summarises it, ‘We’re told that these beliefs about gender and gender roles are inseparable from the gospel. “The two are one.”’ (p165, quoting Strachan and Peacock, 2016) It is hardly believable, but she has to spell this out: ‘Complementarianism is not the actual gospel. We’re not saved by faith in or faithfulness to a particular understanding of gender, men, and women.’ (p165)
Gospel issues, you’d imagine, might be things like justification by faith, the extent of the atonement, or perhaps the doctrine of the trinity, the divinity of Christ, or his mediatorial work. Things which, if you get them wrong, would either prevent you being saved at all, or else deprive you of much spiritual comfort and maturity. Gender roles really do not belong in this category.
Yet many proponents of complementarianism rely on a wrong understanding of the trinity in order to bolster their teachings on authority/submission. They claim that the Son has eternally been submissive to the Father, and that there is a hierarchy in the Godhead in which the Father has the supreme authority. This teaching is false. It goes right to the heart of our most basic understanding of who God is. It contradicts the fact that the three persons in the Godhead are ‘the same in substance, equal in power and glory’ (Shorter Catechism Q6). Miller (who deserves credit anyway for her previous work resisting this false teaching) here succinctly summarises the false teaching, its bad consequences, and the orthodox position (p114-117).
Additionally, some proponents of complementarianism distort and undermine Christ’s threefold mediatorial roles of prophet, priest, and king. They teach that a husband has the authority to act as prophet, priest, and king for his wife, somehow assisting Christ in sanctifying her (p156-197). Again I find it hard to understand how these teachings could ever find a foothold in even vaguely Reformed circles. When you think of the work that is actually involved for our Redeemer in his prophetic, priestly, and kingly offices (Shorter Catechism Q23-26), it is practically blasphemy to attribute that work, or any participation in it, to any human. Either it trivialises and secularises the work of Christ in accomplishing our redemption, or it puffs up (men’s side of) earthly, everyday human interactions beyond all proportion and propriety. The disparagement of Christ’s offices, in either case, can only result in loss of spiritual comforts and entanglement in spiritual bondage. Whereas the Reformation repudiated the role of priests, defined ecclesiastically, complementarians seem happy to reintroduce it, along with a couple of additional roles, defined on the basis of gender. But no man is competent to take on the role of applying redemption to any other person, and no woman has the right to look to a man instead of Christ, or between her and Christ, for the benefits of redemption. Gender is irrelevant to soteriology.
So there is a double problem associated with calling gender a gospel issue. On the one hand, it distracts from the actual gospel, the good news of salvation for sinners on the basis of what Christ has done, to focus on something of vastly less significance. On the other hand, it distorts the actual gospel, chipping away at its foundations by teaching a wrong understanding of who God is and a wrong understanding of Christ’s mediatorial functions. Miller is right to say, ‘Equating gender roles with the gospel, equating marriage with the gospel, and putting men in the role of Christ as priest and mediator for their wives and families creates a type of works righteousness: “Do this and live.” … When marriage is emphasised as living out a picture of the gospel and as the highest calling for women, along with bearing children, it tends towards making marriage and family into idols. This is especially harmful for singles and widows and for those who don’t fit the neat box of a nuclear family unit.’ (p165)
There is more, but I’ll be briefer.
Problem 3: Mere authority isn’t loveable
God’s grace makes God’s law loveable and a pleasure for God’s people to submit to. This is basically the whole point of the gospel, of finally finding the law in the hand of Christ instead of in the hand of Moses. But men have nothing comparable to grace to offer to make their rule with rod of iron something for women to joyously embrace. They are only fallen sinners like the rest of us. In fact, reducing our relationships to questions of authority (whether that is everyday relationships in society, ecclesiastical relationships in church, or what should be the loving relationship of marriage) only breeds antagonism and resentment. (p203) Pitting men and women against each other, in an endless battle for who gets to be in charge, is foreign to the spirit of the gospel. And the suspicion and hostility it fosters between one and another is increasingly pernicious the more close and loving the relationship is meant to be.
Problem 4: Presenting complementarianism as a sure way of getting your behaviour right
If only wives were more submissive! If only husbands would man up and be proper leaders! Sign up to complementarianism and save Western civilisation and your marriage!
But Miller is right to flag that abusers can take cover under complementarian teaching. (p237) Complementarians say things like, ‘Of course a wife shouldn’t be downtrodden by her husband!’ as if it’s the last thing that’s ever going to happen. Yet this is such naivety. Partly for the obvious reason that if you grant all this power to a sinner, it is inevitable that some will misuse it.
But partly also, and of more concern to the Reformed, it is so quaintly blind to the realities of our original and actual sinfulness and the human impossibility of sanctification. No ideology is capable of dealing with the corruption of our hearts, the transgressions of our lives, or the problems in relationships between sinful individuals. Complementarianism, for all its deployment of Scripture texts and its overlap with Christian concepts, is only another ideology. At its best, it offers some good advice which might help some people in some contexts. But it is not a means of grace, or something we can pin our hopes of temporal or spiritual salvation on, or something that can really enable or motivate us to be better people or have better relationships.
3. Moving on from complementarianism
Hopefully, in a decade or so people will only be talking about complementarianism the way we talk about woodchip wallpaper now – it played such a huge part in so many people’s lives, yet the question now on everyone’s lips is, ‘What on earth were we thinking?’
Miller is right to want to move the discussion beyond authority and submission. She has proposed those three further principles – unity, interdependence, and service – and fleshed them out across several chapters. This is a major piece of progress which deserves to be built on by others going forward.
Miller concludes with an invitation to “evaluate our beliefs and attitudes about women and men and test everything against Scripture.” (p258) Perhaps the most important of her diagnostic questions is, ‘Do your relationships with others tend toward co-labouring or toward antagonism?’ The tendency within complementarianism is towards antagonism, stoking conflicts and mistrust between men and women.
By contrast the co-labouring Miller recommends is Scriptural. It is solidly grounded in familiar truths: (1) men and women have the same chief end (WSC 1) and both bear the image of God (WSC 10), (2) we have all sinned in and fallen with Adam (WSC 16), (3) the same way of salvation is open to both men and women (WSC 20-37), and (4) the faith and obedience required of a saved sinner is almost entirely non-gender-specific (WSC 39-107).
Going back to Scripture and back to Scriptural expressions of orthodoxy and orthopraxy will grant us a perspective and an approach which restores friendship and mutual helpfulness to broken and inadequate relationships, and will adorn the gospel much more successfully.