Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood


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‘The Gospel has a Complementarian structure’. – Owen Strachan.

Pigs, Pipes, and Pacifism

Much recent furore generated by the council for biblical manhood and womanhood coalesced around their controversial 2016 conference entitled ‘The Beauty of Complementarity’. A veritable tour de force of conservative, white, male, North American pastors took it upon themselves to present a cohesive picture of Complementarian theology, described as ‘one breathtaking vision’, in Louisville, Kentucky. Yet the flurry of criticism that ensued was itself swiftly eclipsed by the controversy which accompanied CJ Mahaney’s appearance at the subsequent ‘Together for the Gospel’ conference. For a pointed critique and summary of the salient issues, see this article by Carolyn Custis James entitled ‘The Failure of Complementarian Manhood’.

She describes the [failed] ‘biblical manhood’ on display at these conferences as:

‘…a fallen brand of masculinity that dangles by the slender thread of a man’s ability to bring home the bacon, fight off a theoretical pipe wielding assailant, and take charge at home and in the church.’

Bacon aside for a moment, Custis James reminds us that contrary to John Piper and Wayne Grudem’s suggestion that a ‘mature’ man ought to be beset by ‘a natural, God-given responsibility to step forward and put himself between the [hypothetical, pipe – wielding] assailant and [a] woman’, Jesus ‘rejected the muscular power that the world admires and cherishes’. According to Piper however, any man who does not end up ‘unconscious on the floor’ having tackled such an attacker first, even though his wife may possess a black belt in Karate, is simply not a man. Presumably, as a direct corollary, the perceived weakness of women such a complementarian perspective entails leads to the ‘weaker vessel’ requiring protection, which ought to be provided by able bodied men; leadership roles are thus assigned on the basis of/in tandem with their physical strength. Might, for complementarians, perhaps equates to the right to assume authority and control over women. [1]

One imagines that this rules out the likes of Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, or even Jesus himself from embodying ‘biblical manhood’. Turning the other cheek is clearly unbiblical, at least according to complementarian anthropology. A great deal remains to be said about the conflation of ‘Just War’ theories, white power, nationalism, Calvinism, and the imposition of oppressive gender roles within modern, Western, North American Evangelicalism. Unfortunately, until I have time, money, and backing to pursue the three Phd’s (give or take) required to do justice to such complex matters, a mere nod in the direction of such connections shall have to suffice. To claim that Complementarianism has thus far offered a robust, pure, undiluted, unbiased, counter-cultural, and solely ‘biblical’ model of what Christian manhood truly entails is at best laughable. At worst, it is a blinkered, highly contentious, and thoroughly contextual composite ideology that masquerades as something it is not: orthodox biblical theology devoid of external influences.

As Custis James points out, such a typical complementarian ideal of masculinity ‘punishes and diminishes those who don’t measure up’ for myriad reasons (e.g. Job loss, sickness, old age, etc), and simply ‘remains perpetually out of reach’ for many men. Returning to the bacon, one wonders if the archaic mentality of insisting that men need to be the primary breadwinner is an attempt to foist a gendered reading of 1 Tim 5:8 upon modern families. Is it ‘biblical’ to pressure men into feeling guilty unless they bring home a fatter paycheck than their wives (if their wives are allowed to work outside of the home at all)?

Arguably, such a view of gender roles is in fact toxic and outdated, to say nothing of being difficult to infer from the collective witness of the New Testament. Custis James puts it well when she avers that this kind of ‘biblical manhood’, built on shaky cultural foundations, actually ’emasculates men who receive the strength, help, and wisdom God intends for his daughters to give them’. I could go on about the mystery of two becoming one flesh in marriage, thus blurring any notion of ‘biblical’ gender roles, but I’d hate to make a pig’s ear of it on this blog (so to speak).

9 Marks of Groupthink & Confirmation Bias, Nostalgia, Brainwashing, and Dangerous Ignorance

Groupthink & Confirmation Bias?

Two notable follow up posts on the topic of complementarian gender roles worth engaging with are Kevin DeYoung’s ‘9 Marks of Healthy Biblical Complementarianism’, and ‘5 Key Ways to Cultivating Biblical Manhood in Your Church’, by Jason Allen. DeYoung sums up the seemingly prevalent ideological entrenchment typified by the whole North American Complementarian movement in his opening paragraph:

In the conservative evangelical circles I mainly inhabit, there is almost no controversy about whether the Bible allows for women to be ordained as pastors and elders. The people I talk to and listen to are firmly convinced complementarians. That is, they (we) believe that God created men and women equal in worth and dignity but with different roles in the home and in the church. At least very least, this means the office of pastor or elder is to be filled by qualified men. The core of complementarianism is not up for discussion.’ (Emphasis mine).

No danger of groupthink or confirmation bias here then. Surely these comments aren’t suggesting that he has a closed mind on this topic, refuses to engage critics, or is happy running the risk of seeing what he wants to see in Scripture? To his credit, DeYoung makes a sincere effort to avoid needless polemic and polarisation whilst proposing a ‘positive’ articulation of what he considers to be a ‘healthy’, ‘biblical’ viewpoint. Yet as Scot Mcknight puts it, whilst the ‘tone’ of his article is ‘entirely acceptable’, his overall vision is ‘theologically inadequate’.


Mcknight’s helpful, point by point survey of DeYoung’s article also offers a particularly insightful critique of the incipient syncretism quietly at work in the background of statements like these:

‘The core convictions of complementarianism will not magically seep into our children or into our churches. The cultural breeze is blowing too stiffly against us. Biblical manhood and womanhood must be taught as well as caught.’


‘..we must be careful that our complementarianism is deep, thoughtful, rooted, biblical, and utterly at home with being despised, misunderstood, and counter-cultural.’

Mcknight reminds us that such Complementarianism is far removed from being ‘counter-cultural’ and ‘biblical’, and is instead steeped in an archaic form of ‘1950s white suburban American ideology’. As Michelle Lee-Barnewell notes, gender roles within North American society were almost certainly influenced by world war 2, and the subsequent economic prosperity that followed it:

‘War highlighted the differences, as the men had fought on the battlefield while women did mostly the supporting work on the home front. The economic prosperity of the 1950s also made it possible for women to stay home and rely on their husbands economically. As a result, “the idea that women and employment are by nature not meant to mix became the ethos of the decade.” ‘ [2]

And thus:

‘…there was a marked increase in articles promoting the traditional view of marriage and gender roles, including ones on women sacrificing their aspirations outside the home.’ [3]

Barnewell presents a substantial array of evidence that this contributed to ‘the 1950s’ being ‘a period in which the dominant expectation was that a mother would be the homemaker in a household where the man was the breadwinner’. [4] What is more, sharper distinctions were drawn between the ‘public world of men and the private, home-oriented world of women’. [5] Before long, the language of ‘headship’, based upon the assumption of original divine design, was levied by evangelicals such as C.W. Scudder to assert that:

“The wife cannot function in her feminine role if her husband’s masculine role is taken from him. The family group cannot function as a family if its natural head is dethroned.” [6]

So, whilst it may not be clear cut evidence of complementarianism directly mirroring or being based upon white, suburban, American culture from the 1950s, a compelling link does potentially exist. To be clear, this does not necessarily mean that a desire for cultural nostalgia is the driving force behind modern complementarian theologies of gender. However, it must be conceded that such theologies bear a striking resemblance to the spirit of a bygone era, and henceforth cannot claim to lift the excalibur-like sword of theological and epistemological neutrality from the stone of hidden bias. At the very least, if complementarians are intending to be taken seriously at an intellectual level whilst claiming to be faithful to Scripture, they must lay this particular card of correlation upon the table of any forthcoming dialogue (not that many of them seem keen to talk, mind you).


Allen arguably has a somewhat less nuanced approach to defining ‘biblical manhood’, which he describes as ‘sanctified testosterone’. The alarmist tone of his article goes on to claim that ‘when men don’t act like men, the church’s spiritual infrastructure collapses’. Apparently, ‘the church in want of biblical, masculine service and leadership is an anemic church’, suffering from a lack of the ‘defined role of leadership, authority, and protection’ that ‘men in the church must play’. In a disturbing shift of emphasis, he therefore believes that this necessarily leads to the need to ‘cultivate …intentional… gender distinction…even at the youngest of ages…to channel boys into men and girls into women’. It is hard not to perceive this as an attempt to instigate/reinforce a widespread, systematic program of Complementarian indoctrination, under the auspices of religious rhetoric and ‘Scripture’s clear teaching’.

After building one unqualified assertion upon another, his conclusion is that ‘Biblically, theologically, and logically, the indispensable ingredient to complementarianism is biblical manhood’. Tellingly however, a full orbed view of Scripture is conspicuously absent from his approach; a Christological or pneumatological focus even less so. Quite what ‘biblical manhood’ amounts to is somewhat unclear, at least from these brief examples.

Despite this, minds have been made up, and heels firmly dug in. The prevalent assumption within Complementarianism is that all significant leadership roles within the Church fall to men, thus implying the subjugation and disenfranchisement of women as a necessary consequence. Such ‘biblical manhood’ is contended to be a matter of divine design, which also tips the balance of power within marriage in the male direction. Proof texts abound, yet a clear presentation of how and why Complementarian hermeneutics cohere with, or base their model of manhood upon the example of Jesus is sorely lacking. [7] Worse still, the myriad scenarios whereby invoking a divine mandate for male authority within the home/Church can and does lead to abuse, victim blaming/shaming, and an appalling conspiracy of silence is not even acknowledged.

Dangerous Ignorance

Ruth Tucker’s recent book called Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife: My Story of Finding Hope after Domestic Abuse, provides some remarkably prescient/deeply troubling reading surrounding the potential danger women (and of course children) are routinely placed in when Complementarian theologies of ‘headship’ are misused by abusers. Ruth bravely and helpfully clarifies some of her concerns, based on her own experience, in a subsequent blog interview with Scot Mcknight . To my mind, the handful of Complementarian responses to Ruth’s humble testimony have been at best insensitive and blinkered, if not downright dimwitted (Her response to Tim Challies’ unhelpful critique is worth reading for an insight into this). If Complementarians aren’t even willing to listen to a survivor’s story and accept the danger their theologies have created by enabling malicious, devastating, abusive behaviour to go unchecked, then it is difficult to imagine what will be required in order to get through to them.

Needless to say, for the above reasons amongst (many) others, I am thoroughly unpersuaded that Complementarianism has a truly ‘biblical’ model of manhood or womanhood to offer; particularly in light of the example of Jesus Christ.

An Alternative: Self Emptying Servanthood

Space forbids a proper, scholarly, and theologically robust treatment of this contentious topic. Such an endeavour would require months, if not years of sustained work, which at present is a luxury I do not have at my disposal. Nevertheless, my recent Masters level studies have shed some light upon the implications of seeing Jesus’ mission in light of Philippians 2:5-11, wherein he is described as ’emptying himself’ into the incarnation, culminating in the humility of the crucifixion. Such an example could be written off as an impossible act to follow, particularly when it comes to emulating Jesus’ self sacrifice within a model of ‘biblical manhood’. Extrapolating self-emptying sacrifice into relationships, Church leadership roles, and marriage is surely unrealistic, and too much to ask?

Yet this is arguably what Jesus himself commands and models during his earthly ministry. It is made abundantly clear in numerous instances throughout the Gospel narratives that Christlike living necessitates an extraordinary prerogative to surrender one’s own rights, desires, status, and needs for the sake of the other. As Jesus variously puts it:

The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (Matt 23:11-12)

…“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10:42-45 c. f. Matt 20:24-28, Luke 22:25-27)

‘…Whoever receives this child in My name receives Me, and whoever receives Me receives Him who sent Me; for the one who is least among all of you, this is the one who is great.’ (Luke 9:48)

‘So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.’ (John 13:34-35)

‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.’ (John 15:12-14)

Jesus appears to expect his disciples to eschew any worldly hierarchical framework and instead choose to follow his supreme example of radical humility and self-sacrifice. This arguably makes Paul’s commandment in Ephesians 5 all the more scandalous, particularly for 1st century males steeped in a deeply patriarchal worldview:

‘Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ… Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.’ (Eph 5:21, 25-28)

So, husbands are to emulate Jesus’ own example by laying down their lives for their wives, an act which continually occurs within the context of mutual submission, and takes its point of departure from the atoning sacrifice of the crucifixion itself. Is there any weightier task for husbands to attempt to undertake? Granted, I avoided quoting verses 22-24, yet the call for a wife to submit to her husband is predicated upon the assumption of mutual submission, and specifically ‘Christlike’ self sacrifice being required of the man (and, perhaps notably, not the woman). [8] Love empties itself of it’s prerogatives and seeks to follow Jesus, which necessitates humble servanthood and death; this is a far cry from the Complementarian assumption of gendered authority.

Some might argue that ‘servant leadership’ is the order of the day implied by Jesus’ example of self-sacrifice, thereby attempting to reconcile his humility and commandments with various hierarchical frameworks, such as Complementarianism. Yet to my mind, the image of the bloody, humiliated, tortured God – Man hanging dead on a cross for the sake of fallen humanity is not evoked by the so called ‘biblical manhood’ espoused by Complementarian theology. Much more needs to be said, but it will have to wait for now.

Closing Thoughts

Doubtless, in this post I have said too much on some topics and not enough on others. The risk of shoddy scholarship and/or misrepresentation already looms large enough for me to cut my post off as it stands. I thus leave those of you who have had the patience to read this far with some simple, parting thoughts:

Jesus’ Gospel does not have a ‘Complementarian structure’. Instead, it has a cruciform shape that demolishes the straw edifice composed of patriarchal anthropologies, which collectively masquerade as divinely mandated doctrine. May those of us already in the recovery room, having barely escaped the ravenous maws of toxic/unhealthy gender constructs, quietly continue seeking the Spirit of God’s transformative divine power to renew our minds, looking to Jesus as the founder and perfector of our faith (Heb 12:1-3). In so doing, let us also pray for those with whom we fervently disagree, seeking the ‘wisdom that comes from heaven’ as we discern if/when/how to engage with our complementarian brothers and sisters (Jas 3:17-18). When we do so, may we remember to be ‘quick to listen, and slow to speak..the truth in love’ (Jas 1:19, Eph 4:15).

After all, Christ suffered and died for us all whilst we were yet sinners (Rom 5:8). We must therefore strive to ensure that our efforts at entering this debate also embody genuine Cruciformity. [9]



1. I am not suggesting that all Complementarians advocate this view by any means. My suggestion is an observation seeking out potential connections between broad, stereotypical views of masculinity (defined by physical strength) and femininity (defined by being physically weaker than men and/or delicate), based on nature over against nurture, and gender roles within Church, society, marriage et al. I thus offer this statement as a brief, speculative provocation, rather than an assertion or accusation. Also, whilst it may well be appropriate (even Christlike) for a man to step into a physical confrontation which he is sure to lose for the sake of (albeit momentarily) protecting others, this is hardly a marker of ‘manhood’ per se. Self sacrifice is obviously laudable, but the suggestion that manhood must be characterised by a bruising, warrior-like mentality is potentially unhealthy. What is more, such an image plays into the hands of far too many toxic, stereotypical views of how Western men and women are encouraged to define gender roles and/or identity.

2. Lee-Barnewell, Michelle, Neither Complementarian or Egalitarian: A Kingdom Corrective to the Evangelical Gender Debate, Kindle Edition, Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Academic, 37.

3. Ibid, 38-39.
4. Ibid, 44.
5. Ibid, 45.
6. Ibid, 46; Scudder, C. W. The Family in Christian Perspective. Nashville: Broadman, 1962, 13.

7. In fairness, I have not yet undertaken a thorough survey of Complementarian theologies. This comment is based on these two recent blog posts and my limited knowledge of the conferences in question.

8. Granted, arguably both sexes are called to Christlike living and submission, particularly since there is no longer ‘male or female… in Christ Jesus’ (Gal 3:27-29). Nonetheless, my point here is that Ephesians 5 clearly, unequivocally calls men to Christlike self sacrifice, and not women per se. Perhaps the historic imbalance of patriarchy is one underlying reason why a greater burden may be placed on men to be Christlike in their relations with women?

9. Where I have already failed miserably to demonstrate this, I sincerely apologise. It turns out that I too, am a flawed, sinful, work in progress.