Complementarian Marriage and Gender Roles
Current events in American culture necessitate that Christians think biblically about issues pertaining to God’s creative intent for human relationships. We live in a time in which all lines of demarkation are being challenged. A neuroscientist from Emory University recently asserted in the New York Times that because dogs experience human-like emotions, “dogs are people too,” and closes with speculating about the future of “dog’s rights.”1 So, in the midst of a culture that prizes blurring lines and redefining terms to make room for inclusivist concepts ranging from transgenderism, to homosexuality, to no-fault divorce, to metrosexuality, to cohabitation, Christians must be informed concerning the Bible’s teaching on issues relating to marriage and gender and personhood.
The solution is not a return to some dated picture of apron-clad wives cooking and cleaning, pausing only long enough to push out babies. Nor is it helpful to dream of the good-ol’-days. The only way to move is forward, but the way to move forward to look backward to biblical teaching.
God’s Word gives the fundamental teaching on issues pertaining to marriage and gender. I am working from the premise that God exists and He has spoken clearly and infallibly through the Bible. The purpose of this paper is not to prove the reliability of the Bible, but rather to show what the Bible has to say about the issue of complementarian marriage and gender roles.
When surveying the Gospels, Jesus gives no exhaustive teaching on marriage and gender, but what he does is even better. Jesus affirms the principles from the Old Testament concerning marriage; he sets straight what the Pharisaical schools had misconstrued. Jesus specifically points to God’s creative intent for people and relationships.
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” 2
It is best to start at the beginning:
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the heavens and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
So, God made man in His image, and God made woman in His image. And mysteriously, man and woman together in a marriage relationship pictures the image of God. They both receive a mandate to fill the earth with children to populate the world. They are both charged with the task of cultivating and exercising dominion over all the other created things. From this, it is evident that God calls both men and women to obey His word. Both men and women are equally rational, moral creatures made in God’s image.
The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man. Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.
The naming of the Woman is significant. This is an act of authority, responsibility, and headship. Just as a father and mother name their newborn child, claiming responsibility for the child and claiming the right to name him/her, so Adam accepted his God-given role as head and leader of the Woman.
The Woman was made “a helper fit for him,” literally “like-opposite him.” The Woman was designed to fulfill her God-given role by coming alongside Adam to help him fulfill his God-given role. Western sentiment looks down on this notion of being a helper, but all throughout the Bible, God refers to Himself as our Helper.
God was clearly setting a precedent for all mankind for all ages because He says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Adam and the Woman had no father or mother. Therefore it is evident that God was establishing a definition of what marriage is for those who were to come afterward.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths.
And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” The Lord God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all livestock
and above all beasts of the field;
on your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”
To the woman he said,
“I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”
And to Adam he said,
“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you,
‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.”
The man called his wife's name Eve, because she was the mother of all living. And the Lord God made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them.
Then the Lord God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever—” therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.
Adam’s headship is further demonstrated when God comes to the Garden. He calls for Adam, not the Woman or both of them as a couple, to give an account for their sin. The Fall of Man did not introduce gender roles; it polluted and disfigured them.
In God’s curse upon the Woman, He says that her desire would be for her husband. This does not mean that she will be drawn to him merely as a companion. It means that her desire will be to rule over him. (This is confirmed by the same use of the word in Genesis 4:6-7 in the context of Cain’s hatred and eventual murder of his brother Abel. “The Lord said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”) Because of sin, women have a sin-tendency to be discontent with submission to their husbands.
Adam’s sin was one of omission. When the Woman was tempted by the serpent, Adam stood by passively - “she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate” - Adam neglected his role of leader and protector. So in God’s curse upon Adam, he is charged with listening to the voice of his wife - instead of the voice of his God - he had blatantly failed to lead.
However, in God’s curse upon the serpent, God promises that the offspring of the woman will strike the fatal blow upon the serpent’s head, though that same offspring will suffer a strike to his heel. God promised a redeemer, a messiah, that would overcome the Enemy. Adam and the Woman understood this as a promise; therefore, Adam renames the Woman “Eve” in faith that God’s word will prove true - Eve means “mother of all living.” In this renaming of the Woman, Adam begins to model for all people that men and women are still called to strive to obey the original roles for which God designed people.
Jesus is the Messiah; he is the Second Adam who loves, leads, and protects his bride, the Church; he is the true offspring of the Woman who has his heel bruised in his crucifixion but crushes the serpent’s head in his resurrection.
Concerning the New Testament’s understanding of headship and submission, there is even greater clarity. Jesus’ comments are primarily reaffirming and correctly interpreting the Old Testament teaching, while Paul fleshes out some of the more nuanced issues.
We see the heart of equality and complementarity within the Trinity. No Christian would argue that Jesus is less divine than the Father, that Jesus is somehow less glorious or worthy of worship. Yet through Jesus’ incarnation, he humbly submits himself to his Father’s will. This demonstrates that, within the Trinity, the roles of headship and submission are not a matter of essence or dignity or quality or glory, but rather a matter of role and function. Jesus’ character was displayed most clearly in his submission in a way that it would not have been if he were the head. The Father’s character is demonstrated most clearly in His headship and authority in a way that would not be as clear if He were not. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son and is sent out. In a similar way, a woman flourishes most in her femininity when she submits and helps her husband, and a man flourishes most in his masculinity when he leads and protects and provides for his wife as head. Both are called to model themselves after Jesus, males in sacrificial authority and women in sacrificial submission. 3
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.
1 Corinthians 11:3
Paul is helpful in applying God’s creative intent to the family while exposing human sin and circumstances that arise from living in a fallen world.
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “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.
However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
All women are NOT called to submit to all men. Wives are called to submit each to their own husband. Husbands should have a self-giving love for their own wives. Women are called to show Christlike submission, while men are called to show Christlike headship. Men and women are made to demonstrate the rich character of God in gender-specific ways. The Bible allows for freedom in the particulars while still upholding the obligatory nature of the principles. 4
The importance of this issue is profound because, as Ephesians 5 says, marriage is a picture of Christ and the Church, a picture of the gospel. Where biblical concepts of marriage and gender are nonexistent or cloudy, the clarity of the gospel is hindered. All marriage relationships are pictures of the gospel; the question is, “How accurate is the picture?”
In light of this brief biblical evidence, it will be helpful to define some terms, considering much of the current discussion is a matter of redefining terminology. What God has defined, let not man redefine.
Marriage is a sacred covenant between one man and one woman that is binding until one of the spouses dies; marriage is established by God (whether or not a couple acknowledges Him or not), in the presence of witnesses, consummated by sexual intercourse. 5
Complementarianism is that view of human interaction which affirms that God designed men and women with equal worth, glory, dignity, and value but with different gender-specific roles and functions in society.
“Biblical headship for the husband is the divine calling to take primary responsibility for Christlike, servant-leadership, protection and provision in the home. Biblical submission for the wife is the divine calling to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership and help carry it through according to her gifts. This is the way of joy. For God loves his people and he loves his glory. And therefore when people follow his idea of marriage, people are most satisfied and he is most glorified.” 3
In an age of gender confusion and sex changes, definitions are necessary. Gender is more than a social construct. Sex is more than a biological descriptor. The two are inextricably and definitionally linked. Males (sex) are designed to embrace masculinity (gender). Females (sex) are designed to embrace femininity (gender). Gender and sex are not independent variables. These things are bound to personhood and relational dynamics. If gender is at the heart of our nature, then we risk losing an important part of ourselves if we abandon our roles. 4
I close with a poem entitled “Comparisons” by G. K. Chesterton:
If I set the sun beside the moon,
And if I set the land beside the sea,
And if I set the town beside the country,
And if I set the man beside the woman,
I suppose some fool would talk about one being better. 6
2. All Scripture quotations are from the ESV 2011, Crossway.
3. Piper, John. What’s the Difference? Crossway.
4. Keller, Tim and Kathy. The Meaning of Marriage. Dutton.
5. Kostenberger, Andreas. God, Marriage, and Family 2nd Edition. Crossway