Kevin De Young, a leading complementarian of The Gospel Coalition fame, on 19 July 2022 published an article on John Piper’s Desiring God website entitled, Death to the Patriarchy? Complementarity and the Scandal of ‘Father Rule. In it he offers a short defense of male authority, appealing to Scripture, social science and history.
Since I recently sought to refute the assumption of male authority in my book, “How God Sees Women: The End of Patriarchy” I decided to respond. That and because, in my view, a Christian community that seeks to be the last bastion of patriarchy, particularly in a more gender equal society, commits self-sabotage.
Kevin De Young who has written a book on the subject—Men and Women in the Church— is a complementarian apologist. In my view, he is the heir apparent to John Piper who championed the same cause in a previous generation. An apologetic is needed: having previously been a complementarian pastor myself, I know how often they are asked why God would select only men to lead.
Interestingly, the most common apologetic provided is that a woman’s subordination to a man mirrors the Son’s eternal subordination to the Father. To his credit, De Young does not hold to this dangerous argument. As I explain in another article, Jesus is not eternally subordinate. And anyway no one, including a woman, is commanded to mirror in their earthly relationships the Son’s unique relationship to the Father.
So what is De Young’s apologetic in the place of Trinitarian heterodoxy? This: it fits “with the way the world is and the way God made men and women.” In other words, empiricism and creational design support the ideal of male leadership. Men are to rule not only on the basis of (his interpretation of) biblical commands, but on the basis of—what he calls in his book—”deeper recognition of natural theology and sexual difference.” (p. 133)
I examine two things I think De Young gets right, then three places his (usually excellent) thinking goes awry. Finally, I express a concern.
Sex Differences are Biblical and Empirical.
The first thing De Young rightly contends, to which he allocates most of the second half of his article, is that God has made men and women differently. He calls this “complementarity”.
Having studied Genesis 2 and 1 Corinthians 11, I agree with this theologically.
Outside of obvious anatomic differences, I also accept that enough empirical studies demonstrate a variety of socio-behavioural differences. Though the contrast may be exaggerated by some reports, in a large sample from whatever culture there tend to be some minor differences between male and female subjects. In the meta-analyses I have read, men on average are marginally more analytical and assertive, for example, while women on average are slightly more compassionate and creative. Given the presence of these average differences in societies that minimize gender differences, I doubt they can be entirely attributed to socialization.
Complementarianism is Patriarchy.
Second, De Young correctly admits that complementarianism is a form of patriarchy. That said, he takes a roundabout way of getting there—first denying it, then finally affirming that the “biblical vision of complementarity” (by which he means complementarianism) “cannot be true without something like patriarchy also being true.”
His initial denial is based on the dictionary definitions he selects that home in on male domination. Yet he does not acknowledge that most dictionaries also give as a prominent meaning, “any form of social organization in which men have predominant power” (Oxford) or “control by men, rather than women or both men and women” (Cambridge Academic Content). This is why complementarians like Russell Moore and Owen Strachan outrightly admit that complementarianism is patriarchy.
Though Piper and Grudem in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood do not use the term patriarchy, and reject the term hierarchy, patriarchy is precisely what their edited work teaches. Most of its twelve exegetical chapters argue for female subordination as a divinely instituted norm. If this is not patriarchy, I know of no other single word to describe it.
Having been a patriarchalist, I am not implying that this is automatically the same as misogyny or male domination. Contrary to our secular culture’s overtones that portray men as bullies, predators and power-mongers, when I use the term, I do not mean that men are always oppressors, or that their masculinity is inevitably toxic. Encouragingly, more and more patriarchal churches are discovering the wisdom of listening to the voices of women. Yet while these churches give women a say, it is still understood that men have the final say.
Benevolent as this may be, if a two-word phrase is permitted to define complementarianism, I propose it is gender hierarchy.
Now let me suggest three ways in which De Young seems to err, and one way he exposes the diminishing effects of complementarianism on women.
Patriarchy or Anarchy?
Let’s start here: De Young claims that if men do not rule, then they will abdicate all responsibility. He asks,
“What school or church or city center or rural hamlet is better off when fathers no longer rule? Where communities of women and children can no longer depend upon men to protect and provide, the result is not freedom and independence. … The choice is not between patriarchy and enlightened democracy, but between patriarchy and anarchy.”
To be honest, I had to rub my eyes to see if I had read this argument correctly. Lynna Sutherland comically paraphrases it in a Twitter comment:“Either you believe in patriarchy, or you believe that men and women are identical and interchangeable. Either you believe that men should be in charge, or they [will] abdicate adulting and run around like spoiled toddlers.”
De Young’s statement is fascinating. I think the only explanation for his not realizing its absurdity is that he is wearing some kind of cultural blinkers which distort his perceptions. And what is “as go the men, so goes the health of families and neighbourhoods” supposed to mean? If it means that society is harmed by an absence of men, sure, but this has nothing to do with whether whether men, and men alone, should govern.
There is a third option: both men and women leaders, in complementary partnership, take responsibility for schools, churches, city centers and rural hamlets. “Let those with gifts of leadership lead diligently” (Rom 12:8)—does not this recognition of gifting regardless of gender explain the way Paul in his Romans 16 list of 27 names applaudingly gives ministry designations to ten people, of which a whopping seven are women?
What is Detrimental to Women Really?
Second, De Young suggests that if women do lead or co-rule with men, it will be to their detriment. He agrees with an author who says that men (who lead, protect and provide) “look to women for gentleness, kindness, and love, for refuge from a world of pain and force, for safety from their own excesses.” He then comments: “When a woman sacrifices all this to meet men on male terms, it is to everyone’s detriment, especially her own.”
Once again De Young skewers his usually logical brain on the horns of a false dichotomy: either women receive the leadership of men (and serve them in the process!) or they “meet men on male terms”?
It is unclear whether he is defending mothers who keep house and raise children as God’s preference. If that is what he argues, he overlooks the variety of callings that God may issue to his daughters. What of Phoebe, Paul’s patroness and carrier of his letter to the Romans? Or Lydia the business entrepreneur and church household leader? Or Deborah the mother of Israel and Barak’s commander-in-chief? Or Esther who politically intercepts a genocide? Or Priscilla who partners with her husband in pioneer church planting and doctrinal teaching of other teachers? These women did not “meet men on male terms.” Without denying their female uniqueness or whatever “gentleness, kindness, and love” they may have evidenced (as all Christian leaders should), they nonetheless fulfilled functions that their patriarchal society usually only recognized in men—and did this with God’s endorsement.
In the church, home and society, we do not have to choose between male-only leadership and man-style female leaders. There is a third way: gifted and called women who are secure in their identity as women may co-lead with men and also lead men who, as a bonus, enjoy the benefits of gendered diversity.
In fact it is detrimental to exclude female leadership. Take the instance of the complementarian church that cuts off the voice of women in the pulpit as well as high-level decision-making, yet bizarrely calls this “complementarity”.
Though De Young speculates that female functional equality in society may not have made women happier on the whole, he evades the more obvious fact: women in nations with equal legal rights and educational and vocational opportunities have a profoundly superior existence than those in unequal societies. I’ve just read Scars Across Humanity: Understanding and Overcoming Violence Against Women and discovered the sociological evidence for the way, when a culture or country gives men more prominence and subordinates women, a worldview is perpetuated that sees women as qualitatively “less than.” Even if only held unconsciously, this way of seeing women feeds what has been termed the war on women in which female foetuses are aborted; women receive less education, work, health care and income; violence and sexual abuse against women is normative; and women are trafficked.
This disastrous effect of the doctrine of female subordination is especially evident in the developing world, including my beloved continent Africa. As I marvel at the international reach of The Gospel Coalition and Desiring God online portals, my plea to the American church is to factor in the wellbeing of the world’s weakest people as you construct the theologies that are exported to their pastors through your dominion over the internet.
(Mind you, it’s not just women in developing nations who suffer, it may be our own daughters and the people they may be gifted to serve—I will come back to that in a minute.)
Conflating Complementarity and Hierarchy
De Young is wide of the mark, thirdly, in his conflation of complementarity with hierarchy.
Misapplying the data, he takes a flying leap from the fact that men are on average not the same as women to then affirming that men should lead women. That boys are, according to the studies he refers to, more disposed to aggression and risk-taking may explain brutal forms of patriarchy, as well as why men more commonly step up to lead. But these observations do not justify in the slightest the doctrine that only men should lead, especially when some women are more analytic and assertive than most men. Besides, biblical leadership callings and qualities are not based on temperament-types nor gender.
De Young quotes Gen 2:18 as if it supports his argument: True, Eve is “a helper fit” for Adam. This phrase “ezer kenegdo”, however, does not support patriarchy. It affirms complementarity and partnership: Eve is Adam’s “ezer,” a word usually used in the Hebrew Bible to describe God’s support or rescuing of Israel. Eve complements Adam’s deficiencies with her strengths. “Kenegdo” means counterpart. Eve corresponds to Adam. She is Adam’s partner. The passage may teach “beneficial differences” but does not specify functions. There’s nothing in Gen 1 or 2 to suggest that God apportions domesticity to Eve and dominion to Adam. Instead, in Gen 1 both the man and the woman are created to both raise children (“fill the earth”) and work (“rule” and “subdue the earth”).
De Young also misreads history. Patriarchy may be a universal fact of history—but this does not signal God’s endorsement, because it is a fact of fallen history. According to theological history, where does patriarchy come from? Gen 3:16 (“he will rule [mashal] over you”) explicitly accounts for the way it has pervaded human history following the fall. God’s dire prediction was that though Eve would still long for to Adam as her partner, instead she would have him as her leader.
Gen 3:16 is not the start of oppressive patriarchy—it’s the start of patriarchy. Pace the complementarian claim that “mashal” means oppress, in its 81 biblical occurrences it means to lead or rule, starting in Gen 1 with the sun “governing” the night and day, and Adam and Eve “ruling” creation. Both of the major biblical Hebrew dictionaries list not a single negative meaning for it. Its core semantic concept does not include tyranny. The sheer fact that the relationship between men and women has, as a result of the fall, become unequal and power-based is horrible enough in itself.
Even the Roman Catholic Church attributes the default subordination of women to men not to creation but entirely to the fall. Pope John Paul II wrote in Mulieris Dignitatem: “The overcoming of this evil inheritance [spoken of in Gen 3:16] is the task of every Christian.” De Young opts instead to defend this inheritance. We would do better to agree with John Chrysostom who in his 26th Homily on 1 Corinthians comments on Gen 2:
“Eve was not subjected as soon as she was made; nor, when God brought her to the man, did either she hear any such thing from God, nor did the man say any such word to her: he said indeed that she was bone of his bone, and flesh of his flesh.”
Since patriarchy follows the fall, and Jesus’ inaugurated kingdom is the dawning of holistic redemption, I propose we wrestle back complementarity from complementarianism, terminate its contorted relationship with hierarchy and marry it instead to its God-intended partner, mutuality.
There’s one more thing that concerns me about De Young’s article—something that’s not outrightly stated but is inevitable by implication…
The Diminution of Our Daughters
Though more and more complementarians try to limit male rule to the home and church so that women may still lead men in society, a consistent complementarian reading of 1 Timothy 2 cannot support this, a point underlined by De Young’s argument from nature.
De Young refers to 1 Timothy 2. If one (mis)interprets “Adam was formed first, then Eve” (1 Tim 2:13) to mean, “Adam (and his sons) was made by God to be the servant leader of Eve (and her daughters)” (as most complementarian scholars do), then male-only authority cannot be restricted only to marriage and church, and not also applied in business, government, non-profits and civil society. If one holds to a sexed hierarchy that correlates to our gender-specific nature, as De Young does, then it is nonsensical to apply it only in the domestic and ecclesial domains. The first couple are not merely the first marriage and faith community; they are also the first society under God. De Young knows this, and is more overt in his book. In chapter 9, he discloses what he teaches his kids:
“Male leading and female helping is what men and women should be intentional to find and eager to accept. Even in the workplace, where a company’s org chart may have men and women positioned at every level, I believe there is still a way for Christians to embrace masculinity and femininity in appropriate ways. … A man who leads in love makes it much easier for a woman to humbly help.”
This is a mixed message in which one comment is neutralized by another: 1) Women may find themselves leading men in society. 2) But women actually should be encouraging men to lead. (He even goes on in his book to seriously misread the story of Deborah, suggesting that she was trying to pass her leadership to Barak.)
I don’t doubt De Young’s love for his daughters, but as a dad of a daughter I cannot but conclude that this theology is at cross-purposes with the parenting task of raising children to fulfil their unique calling. It’s one thing putting a glass ceiling over your daughter’s life-long contribution in the church. It’s as bad to cast that limitation across her entire vocational life. I do wonder if De Young will counsel his four daughters to avoid leading and teaching men outside the church, too—in an article published in The Gospel Coalition, after acknowledging “women have vital spiritual gifts, including gifts of teaching and leadership,” he nonetheless ushers these gifts away from men: “Surely teaching children and other women is not a waste of a woman’s gifts?”
In light of De Young’s argument, the complementarian father who explains to his leadership-gifted daughter that she can do anything in the world for Jesus “except be a church leader” is inconsistent— I suggest that such a father either discourages her aspirations for leadership of mixed-gender adults both in the church and society, or (a much better option!) admits that perhaps complementarianism has not quite understood 1 Tim 2:12–14, its primary proof text, after all.
Many of us interpret this passage in a way that harmonizes with the way God has chosen many Scriptural and modern-day women to make high levels of kingdom contribution in society and the church. This has proven to be a powerful blessing to our daughters—and to the world and communities they serve.
The doctrine that says ideally men are always and everywhere to lead and women to follow is a damaging one. It also has no good apologetic at all: the alleged Trinity-gender parallel has failed to support it, as has De Young’s argument that it somehow fits “with the way the world is and the way God made men and women”.
About the Author
After a decade of leading the theological training, preaching team, and sermon content of a vibrant church in Cape Town, South Africa, as it grew into the thousands, TERRAN WILLIAMS has now taken to writing books that serve the wider church and its mission. He has authored the Reach4Life Youth Bible (with a print of three million in thirty languages), What’s So Amazing About Scripture? How to Read it Right and Tap into its Power, and How God Sees Women: The End of Patriarchy which Dr. Kevin Giles opines to be “the best book on the complementarian / evangelical egalitarian debate.” Terran is an avid surfer, father of five, and coffee-lover.