This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
The Case for Complementarianism
In this episode, John Piper discusses the case for complementarianism. He shares about how his own upbringing—and the example of his parents—influenced his views on marriage, what a husband's leadership practically looks like day-in and day-out, and how we should think about complementarianism in the #MeToo era.
The rise of evangelical feminism challenges traditional Christian beliefs related to gender roles in society, the home, and the church. This comprehensive defense of complementarianism contributes to the debate with systematic argumentation and practical application.
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John, thank you for joining me on The Crossway Podcast today.
Thank you so much. I’m glad to be here.
One doctrinal emphasis that has characterized your ministry over the years, and has been quite controversial at times, is complementarianism. Was there ever a time in your life that you struggled to understand or accept what you now believe Scripture clearly teaches about men’s and women’s roles in the home and in the church?
I grew up in a complementarian home and I admit that. I know that predisposes me to think that way, and therefore I need to be careful that I don’t read the Bible through a lense. What was a little different in my home than some complementarian homes is that my mother raised me—basically because my dad, who was an evangelist, was away from home two-thirds of the year. I made sure to get that statistic right—he’s gone now—because I have his preaching schedule notebooks, so that any given year, for the years that he kept those notebooks, I can look to see how many crusades he was holding, and how long they were, and how long he was gone. And two-thirds is pretty average for him being away. Which means my mother was raising me most of the time without him.
And so what I watched—and this has colored my complementarianism, I think—was a woman who, as my father came home, rejoiced to have her man home and shifted gears in a most stunning way from running everything and being omnicompetent. My mother ran a small business, she taught me how to cut the grass, she taught me how to paint the gutters, she helped me with algebra, she taught me how to make pancakes that when they bubble around the edges you flip ’em over so they won’t get juice all over the place—she taught me everything. To me, my mother was to me omnicompetent. There wasn’t anything she couldn’t do. Therefore, it never entered my mind that what was going on in my home in the dance of submission and headship when daddy was home was inferiority, or competency-based headship. I don’t believe in either of those. I don’t think women are inferior when it comes to capacities of guidance and I don’t think that men are innately more competent than women.
And so somebody might respond, Well, why in the world do you say all men should be leaders in their home if women are competent? If a person asks me that question they are totally out of touch, I think, with reality. That’s an awful thing to say.
It requires a little bit of elaboration.
Yeah, let’s elaborate! The beauty of manhood and womanhood goes so much deeper than competence. By competence I mean skills to balance a checkbook, or read, or organize, or all kinds of skills that go into certain kinds of leadership. Far deeper than that is God-given manhood traits and womanhood traits that are not manifest primarily in competencies but in a sense of responsibility. A sense of responsibility to take initiative, a sense of responsibility to provide, a sense of responsibility to protect.
I’ve got little stories I love to tell. I mean, you think things are controversial today? In the late 70s with Virginia Mollenkott calling me obscene? Nobody calls me obscene in my face today. She did. This is not a new thing for me. This is an old war that we’ve been fighting and I’ve had to endure some . . . I have stories that I’ve developed that I use as a demonstration. I’ll give you one because I really want to get at why I’m saying that a man taking the leadership at home will, deep down, make a godly woman feel thrilled and glad that he’s taking this kind of leadership and will make the man feel like he’s doing what God has called him to do, and it’s not based on competence. She may be a better math person, she may be a better reader, she may be a better logician, and she knows, Deep down, I want this man to step up and take some leadership in this home.
So for example, say there’s a couple at my church, say they just met each other in worship. He’s twenty-two and she’s twenty-one and say they like each other. You can tell. They watch each other from afar and they’re standing beside each other in worship this time and he’s thinking, I could ask her to lunch! And she might go! I don’t know if she’ll go! And he’s watching her worship, loving it, she’s so engaged, and she’s feeling the same way about him. So afterward he says, You got any lunch plans? No? Would you like to go down to Maria’s and we could walk from here? She says yes, so they’re walking. And a guy jumps out—this is my neighborhood, I know this neighborhood between my church and Maria’s—with a knife and threatens them and says, I want your wallet and I want her purse. And as the guy, you would say, Well, I guess that would be the wise thing to do, hand over the wallet and the purse. And then the stranger says, And I want her. Now, little does he know that she’s got a black belt in karate. And this woman can take this guy down quick. This guy is not a fighter. And here’s my argument: everything that God has built into him as a man says, You can use your karate if you want to, but I’m stepping in between. That’s what I do. That’s what men do. And if people listen to this podcast and say, That’s purely cultural. That’s just Piper. That’s his home. That’s American macho. Blah. Blah. Blah. I think they’re out of touch with reality. I think written on the heart of every man is—karate or no karate—my manhood, my God-given manhood and not my macho, sinful manhood, but my God-given manhood, is compromised if I don’t seek to take this guy out for the sake of this woman’s life. So, what happens is he steps in, the guy cuts him, he knocks him down, and she takes him out. The police come, the ambulance comes, and whoever the guy is he gets put in the ambulance, he’s not mortally wounded—
This isn’t a true story, by the way.
—I’m making every bit of this up to make it work because it’s just so real. And so she gets in the ambulance with the guy riding down to Hennepin County and he’s conscious and everything in her says, This is the kind of man I want to marry. He’s useless when it comes to taking out knives, but that’s the man. That’s the kind of man I want to marry.
So that’s a vignette of what I mean by saying it’s not competency-based. Let me give you one other story because this is so crucial that people understand.
This a real story, okay? This is absolutely true,every sentence of it, I hope, if I don’t get it wrong. I was doing marital counseling for this couple. He had an eighth-grade education, she had part of college education, she’s quite articulate, he is just an average guy, a painter. They were both Christian, and their marriage was on the rocks again and again. I was rescuing them. And I asked them one time if they are having family devotions. No. And I turned to Jim—let’s call him Jim—and I said, Jim, that’s your responsibility. Responsibility. You should be taking the initiative to make that happen. She shouldn’t have to make it happen. You should make it happen. And he said, I can’t read very well. And she reads really well and it’s just embarrassing. I said, Okay, Jim. This is not something based on the ability to read. This is not what we’re talking about here, Jim. You’ve got three kids, right? Okay, let me ask this: can you say after supper tonight, “Hey kids, come into the living room.” Can you say that?
Okay, can you say, “Jane,”—let’s call her Jane—“Let’s meet with the kids in the living room and have some devotions tonight.” Can you say that?
Okay, when they’re all gathered together and sitting there stunned, can you say, “We’re going to have devotions and since mom is a good reader, mom’s going to read a chapter for us. And maybe we should read John together. And then I’ll pray for us as a family. Jane, would you read John?” Can you do that?
*Okay, that’s leadership. Do it. Do it. It’s making sure her gifts—which are better than yours almost on every score—are used with your initiative. She wants it."
I mean, I’m not making this up. She came to me and said, We don’t ever read the Bible together!
That makes me think the key issue—tell me if this is true to what you would say—is initiative. Even how it exactly works itself out might differ depending on the couple and the family.
My little way of remembering that is to say, Who says “let’s” most often? Let’s go out to eat. Let’s tithe. Let’s talk about the children’s discipline. Let’s get our finances in order. Let’s consider buying a home. Let’s. Let’s. Let’s. And when I say that, I’m not saying a woman can’t say “let’s.” Of course she can say it. But a woman who has a husband who never says it at the key points when they need family action with the kids, with the finances, with the spiritual life, if anything’s going to happen she’s got to get it started. He’s waiting, and waiting, and waiting.
So I deeply believe that there are clear pointers, especially from Paul, that men are to assume a God-given, holy, humble, Christ-like servant responsibility to initiate, or lead, and protect, and provide. And on every one of those—lead, protect, provide—given the dynamics of how it actually works out, they will do different kinds of things according to their gifts. But initiative, you’re right, is very close to the heart of the matter.
It seems like your argument is two-fold then, on that front, that there’s a Scriptural component that you just referenced, but then getting back to what you were saying before you would say there are these inherent qualities or dispositions within men and women that also testify to this being God’s plan.
Yeah, this is very controversial. When we were starting the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood—goodness, thirty years ago—there was a person who was part of it and excited to be a part of it and a few years later she read something that I wrote and she dropped out because she said, I had no idea that’s what you thought. And her issue was—and there are significant complementarians today who talk like this—that I didn’t just say The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it, no connection with nature, that’s irrelevant, who we are by God-given nature doesn’t figure in.
That God didn’t imprint this truth into us, it’s just an abstract truth we must conform to.
He flipped a coin. He flipped a coin. Oh! Heads. Men. Could have come up tails. No. I’m saying that is profoundly wrong. And I’ve written about why it’s wrong. I think Romans 1, for example, talks about nature against nature at the sexual level. And in 1 Corinthians 11, Is it not against nature that a man would do so-and-so. So, you got these pointers that nature matters.
So, for me then—and this is what got this woman’s back up—it applies outside marriage. I don’t think we should have a draft in America that, because women and men are the same, should be 50/50. That’s insane. Fifty percent of the armed forces—Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force—are going to be women which means half of our combatants on the front lines with the guns, and the grenades, and their bodies being blown to smithereens are going to be our moms! I think that’s insane! And I know that would get me crucified in a lot of places and I’m happy to be crucified for that. But I’m going there and I can go there in numerous other places. I think women wrestling with men, girls and boys wrestling with each other is insane. There are a lot of examples. Now the reason for this is not because I have a verse. The verses are trajectories and they are trajectories that have both an expository or explanatory command for and a nature for. And I’m saying the Bible shapes our conception of who we are by nature, and therefore it quickens—in the people who are born again—it quickens our intuitions so that we just know a fourteen-year old boy and a fourteen-year old girl locked in the missionary position as wrestlers is a bad idea.
We live in this #MeToo era, where we see lots of examples of men abusing their power over women, taking advantage of women, and sometimes Christians citing Scripture in support of that, or citing maybe some of these types of principles that you’ve explained here. What word of encouragement or exhortation would you offer to the person who is thinking of that and maybe has personally experienced that, and that just makes them wary of the argument that you just laid out?
Oh, I feel so strongly about this. I wrote an article a year or so ago in which I argued egalitarians—that think most of what I’ve been saying here is bologna—I think have sold the store when it comes to one of the main arguments of Scripture that is designed to protect women. Namely, the Bible says because of your differences men should feel an unusually God-given. special responsibility to protect women. Egalitarians would say, No. No. That’s just 50/50. There’s not a special calling on a male. They would mock it like, Oh, because you have the right genitals you have a unique calling to protect us? No, it’s far deeper than that. That’s just naive.
So what I mean is this: if you are an egalitarian, of course you’re going to oppose abuse. Right? And so will I. But their call for non-abuse would be, Treat each other the same, like you’d like to be treated. And I’d say, Amen. That’s true and that’s good. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you ought to be enough to stop all abuse. Guess what? It’s not. And I think God gave the world another antidote to abuse. Namely, Real men don’t do that. They protect their women. They die for their women. Ephesians 5: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”
If you’re an egalitarian you have to let that go by saying it’s unique. The woman has the same responsibility toward the man. They’re identical. No, they’re not identical. There is a unique responsibility for men, which means that when I stand up in front of a church that may have abusive tendencies in it, I’m going to have another weapon in my artillery besides egalitarian arguments like, Oh, hey all you men and women out there, you really are just alike . . . Frankly, I think that has produced movies that are going to produce abuse. I mean, what do you have? You have women doing everything men do. They kill, they fight, they are arrogant. We are portraying in our culture right now a kind of woman training men to treat them as harshly as they treat men. That’s what’s being done in our movies over and over again. And I watch it and I just say, This is tragic. This is so tragic. And of course, it looks so liberating. Right? It looks so liberating! These women can shoot the way men do, they can punch the way men do, they can swear the way men do. This is liberation and this will get rid of abuse. It will not. It will not.
When you get a man having a woman in his face like that and he doesn’t have Jesus Christ, he’s going to knock her down. And so Jesus Christ comes in and he says to a man, Not only is she a human being in my image and therefore you should love your neighbor as you love yourself—which is what Paul says in Ephesians 5, love her as your own body—but also, manhood treats womanhood better. So when you get a teenage boy who’s fourteen, he’s been raised well, and he’s told he’s going to have to wrestle a girl for the championship, he just quietly says, Thank you anyway. And that’s manhood talking. That’s not fear talking. That’s manhood saying, I don’t do that to women. I don’t slam women on the ground. I’m a good fighter, man. I would slam her on the ground. I don’t do that to women.
I feel strongly about this because I go to the Y every Saturday morning and the grappling association is there. It’s called grappling. I was stunned. I was absolutely stunned at the sexuality of it. I thought, Do they have any idea what’s going on in that fourteen-year old fifteen-year old boy at this age? Do you have any idea?
So here’s my answer. If a woman fears abuse because of complementarian teaching, she needs to have clarified what complementarianism teaching is. And if there are men in the church justifying abuse by using complementarian arguments, then they are not using them, they are abusing the arguments and that needs to be said from the pulpit and clarified. I think complementarians have the moral high ground here. We’re not playing catch-up ball when it comes to abuse. We’re not. We have the moral, historic high ground. We die for women. We don’t treat them the same as men. We treat them better. We protect them. We fight for them. We die for them. We do not abuse them. So a man who is abusing a woman is doubly sinful. He’s sinful as a human being and he’s sinful as a male because males don’t do that in Christ.
That’s helpful. John, thank you for joining me today on The Crossway Podcast and for sharing your thoughts on this important topic.