Taking the Lead: Headship and Submission Outside of Marriage

Carl R. Trueman
Monday, November 26th 2018

Debates about the distinctions between male and female lie at the heart of much political discussion in the USA today, so it is not surprising to find that John Piper was recently asked whether gender roles apply outside of marriage. Many pastors will have faced the same; and it was disappointing to read his answer, which relegated the matter of gender difference to terms of authority and submission. It is a move as predictable among a certain (dominant) strand of complementarianism as the move to categories of domination and victimhood is in poststructuralism, because it partakes of the same simplistic error: human life reduced to categories of power.

The problem with this approach is that it is neither true to human reality nor to the Bible’s own teaching. My own views have in the past been described as ‘thin complementarianism’ because I believe in male-only ordination, but am wary of claiming that the Bible sanctions 1950s American norms for other male-female relations. I do not dispute the admonition for wives to submit to their husbands, or Paul’s reminder that the husband is the head of the wife, but to effectively translate this as ‘she has to do what he says,’ and ‘he needs to tell her what to do’ is reductionistic as best and a tacit license for abuse at worst. A complementarianism which functionally sees everything through this grid of power and seeks to make it the foundation of gender difference is not just thin but dangerously emaciated. It reminds me of the rather simplistic approach of post-structuralism, where everything in life can ultimately be reduced to a matter of power. John Piper and Michel Foucault may make odd bedfellows, but neither offers a view of human relationships that reflects the complexity of reality.

For example, in seeing all male-female relationships in terms of a foundational model of authority and submission, we miss entirely the role of erotic love and the mystery of sexual attraction in matters of gender difference. But erotic love is fundamental to human existence and has been from the very start. As Gerald McDermott puts it beautifully in his new book, Everyday Glory:

Adam was thrilled [when he saw eve] not only, it seems, because the woman was beautiful and so similar to him. But now, unlike the animals he searched and named, she could share his joys because she seemed so much like him. In other words, he was excitedly grateful that God had given him a great gift. In answer to his loneliness and frustration from not finding a counterpart, God had again created from nothing – while using Adam’s own bones and flesh – a similar-but-different person with whom he could work and enjoy the garden.

And, as McDermott continues, enjoy sexual relations. In short, God did not create woman primarily because Adam lacked someone to lead and protect. He created woman for Adam because the man was lonely; because he lacked someone same-but-different who could complement him and keep him company, whom he could love and be loved by, with whom he could enjoy the life that God had given to him—no, given to them both.

Human culture testifies everywhere to the importance and the power of the erotic. Indeed, one might argue that there would be little or no culture without it. No Iliad, no Odyssey, no Oresteia, no Le Morte D’Arthur. No Miller’s Tale, no Shakespeare, no Passion of St. Teresa, no Tristan und Isolde. And pop culture is no different—without erotic love we would have one of the great songs so memorably recorded by Frank Sinatra or (so my editor tells me) someone called Taylor Swift. Seriously—from high culture to low culture, it is clear that the dynamic between men and women is not simply one of a power relationship and a power struggle. It is always far richer and more complicated than that.

Of course, erotic love has been perverted by the Fall, but that does not mean it is in itself a product of the fall—even after that event, it retains a positive function that cannot be reduced to, or comprehended under, the simple structure of authority and submission. Take the Song of Songs, for example, so often ignored in mainstream complementarian thinking, but surely of vital importance to what it means to be a man and to be a woman as they relate to each other. There is a joy, a playfulness about the interaction between the lover and the beloved which is lost in the prosaic accounts of marriage, of manhood and of womanhood which dominate contemporary complementarianism. Erotic love is one of the most powerful creative—and destructive—forces known to humanity, so it is not surprising that the Bible has something to say about it. What is amazing is how little importance complementarians seem to ascribe to the mysteries of human existence of which these passages speak. Sure, they are concerned about the power of sexual lust (hence all the hullaballoo about the Pence Rule, the latest piece of prudential advice now being used to separate the sheep from the goats). But the joyful playfulness of erotic love, the positive power it exerts in our lives, and the complementarity of male and female of which it is a foundational element, are conspicuous only by their absence from the discussion. I doubt very much that the only reason the present Mrs. Trueman gave me the honor of her hand was because she thought she would be happy and safe being bossed around by me. I may not be Steve McQueen and she may not be Faye Dunaway and our life may not be The Thomas Crown Affair, but there is far more to our relationship than can be explained in the simple categories of headship and submission, and far more to us falling—and staying—in love than the correct establishment and willing acceptance of a power structure.

So when Piper decides to address the matter of dating it is odd that his answer contains no sense of the mystery of male-female interaction, of the major manifestation of the importance of difference and complementarity—erotic attraction—in the dating game. Love is mentioned twice, but only in a quotation from Eph. 5. Is sexual attraction not a key element in seeking for a life partner? That the world has twisted such into the be-all-and-end-all does not mean it is not deeply significant (see Song of Songs passim). And does love in all of its richness, erotic and otherwise, not shape how we should understand authority and submission? Perhaps love is at the heart of a relationship where a husband is not rendered insecure by a woman’s business acumen or intelligence (Prov. 31) and a woman not feeling threatened by every suggestion her husband makes to her. Maybe it involves a mutual respect and delight in each other which reflects the fearlessness of the perfect love of God described in 1 John 4:18. Of course, not everything can be covered in a brief answer. But Dr. Piper himself chooses to raise the issue of dating, and the emphasis on Eph. 5 merely in terms of headship/submission, along with complete silence on Song of Songs is sadly typical of the imbalanced nature of so much complementarian writing. Gone is the idea of mutual erotic attraction as central to the question of man, woman, and marriage in any positive sense, leaving one wondering why Paul would ever have had to write what he did in 1 Cor. 7:9. (Taking a cold shower to address that particular problem would seem more applicable in the world where power is the only topic of relevance in deciding whether and whom to marry.) The focus on headship and submission catches an important part of Scripture’s teaching, but it’s a principle for those who are married, not general social organization. And a marriage that practices headship and submission detached from love in all its richness—from the erotic to the self-giving—is both prosaically reductionist and (in the hands of scoundrels) an excuse for spousal neglect and even abuse.

To be clear—I am not persuaded that Piper’s form of complementarianism leads to more domestic violence than other creeds as some have claimed. Violence against women is no monopoly of left or right, politically or theologically. My point is that this brand of complementarianism appears to take its cue not from the whole counsel of God, but selected parts of it, which results in imbuing 1950s-middle-America societal norms with an ethical and biblical weight they shouldn’t have. The trite and selective appropriation of Eph. 5 appears to be little more than a Christian spin on the obsessions and categories of post-structuralism, where everything is reduced to a binary struggle for power. It’s both tired and tiresome.

How then does a more comprehensively biblical understanding of man and woman in terms of their relationship in marriage apply to male-female relationships outside of marriage—to potential spouse, to neighbors, co-workers, friends? That was the original question which Piper was asked and on which he hardly touches. Maybe the Pence Rule is on to something important here. In highlighting the fact that erotic love is to be expressed only within the bounds of marriage, it reminds us that complementarity finds its primary locus there. And as I am not to engage a woman sexually to whom I am not married, perhaps I should not assert my headship over her either based merely on my chromosomes. That my editor at Modern Reformation and that the associate dean of my school are both women and both therefore in positions of authority over me is not a problem. And while I believe the Bible clearly precludes either of them from holding ordained office in the church, I see no biblical basis why they cannot hold the positions they do. Only a lack of professional competence, not the absence of a Y chromosome, should disqualify them.

Sadly, I suspect this application of the Pence Rule will not persuade those who see the world of male-female relations simply through the grid of power, where all women want to use sex to dominate men and all men are spineless dupes constantly in danger of falling for their sexual stratagems. But as I noted at the start, to reduce male-female relationships to matters of power is to end up oddly close to the two-dimensional world of the post-structuralists. And what’s worse is that in doing so you have trivialized the matter of the difference between men and women, reduced gender difference to matters of power structures, and ironically played right into the hands of those who claim that—guess what?—the matter of gender is simply a question of the ideology of power.

The elimination of male-female difference is one of the big political questions at the moment. I therefore sympathize with the intention of the kind of complementarianism John Piper represents. But bowdlerizing Scripture and truncating what it means to be human in the service of making normative certain cultural conceptions of masculinity is wrong. The answer to the simplistic world of Michel Foucault is not the simplistic world of Henry Higgins.

Carl R. Trueman is a professor at the Alva J. Calderwood School of Arts and Letters, Grove City College

Monday, November 26th 2018

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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