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Why IS The Gospel Coalition Complementarian?: Questioning Carson, Keller and Piper

September 26, 2012

In this video from The Gospel Coalition we see influential Christian teachers Don Carson, Tim Keller and John Piper explain why they have made male headship at home and in the church (a.k.a. complementarianism) a prominent part of the Coalition’s identifying beliefs. In this post I will express my dissatisfaction with their positive rationale and take exception with their negative rationale. My response is a bit lengthy, but I hope you’ll track with me so that together we can do a better job at mutual sharpening and understanding than the Coalition seems likely to do. (For fuller context you will likely want to watch the video yourself, but I think the excerpts below are a fair indication of its contents.)


Let’s begin with The Gospel Coalition’s main stated reason for being ‘complementarian’; namely, because it keeps worse Scriptural errors at bay.

Piper: “There are hermeneutical trajectories, if you dodge 1 Tim 2:13 or Eph 5, it bodes ill for gospel texts. You aren’t willing to stand on this issue, you are likely to cave on other ones, closer to the gospel.”

Carson: “We are often using hermeneutics today as a way of sidestepping …  instead of listening to what the Scripture says on its own terms…. [Egalitarian hermeneutics] does not feel like trembling at the Word of God…. This has massive repercussions down the road.”

These characterizations of the way egalitarians read Scripture may be applicable in some cases, but as a treatment of the view itself are tragically uncharitable and unfair. This would be like me claiming to respond to Don Carson and then confronting the views of Glenn Beck (or something) in his stead. To make matters worse, they seem uninterested either in rightly considering or properly representing an actual biblical egalitarian reading.

How can Piper call it a “dodge” to read 1 Tim 2:13 and be egalitarian when 1 Tim 2:14 itself provides the lens through which egalitarians read that difficult passage? Is it any less of a “dodge” for  the complementarian to make more of Adam’s “firstness” than God ever did (2:13, c.f., the patriarchs) and then to marginalize those who see Eve’s deception (2:14) as the primary focus of Paul’s illustration?  Furthermore, how can Piper call it a “dodge” to give an egalitarian reading of Ephesians 5 when it is this very passage which frames the ancient household codes between counter-cultural calls to submit to one another and to love and benefit one’s wife as one’s own body?  Is it any less of a “dodge” to read  the chapter through the lens of the one cultural constant in the text (the household code) and then to suggest that egalitarians are cowardly when it comes to standing against cultural norms?

Why can’t he just read these passages, admit there are two conflicting interpretations of it, and then make his best case against the other side’s best case? At least then you’d have two best cases rather than, well, two worst cases. What we have here are three of the most respected pastors and teachers in the evangelical West cornering  us into a false dilemma between their position and the lowest common denominator of the one they do not hold. This helps no one.

Another question comes to mind: Why must these men treat non-creedal issues as if they were creedal just so that they can keep actual creedal issues from coming up?

This brings me to another of the reasons given in this video, which is (ironically) that complementarianism is not directly related to the gospel.

On one hand I find that hard to believe; and on the other hand I’m grateful for the admission. To my mind it lends to the argument for egalitarianism!

See, biblical egalitarians actually do think their view of gender roles is directly related to the gospel. As Jesus is Saviour so he is Lord. Following on the gospel of Christ’s self-giving love for us, mutual submission becomes the heartbeat of a community that takes Jesus as its head. Submission to one another can take various forms–but given room it is going to change encultured presuppositions about power and leadership and hierarchical status. There will still be leaders in a communion of mutual submission (and many times they will still be men), but cultural distinctions related to ethnicity, class and gender are no longer determinative of the way the members of this community inherit the “full rights of sons” (Gal. 3-4).

Of course, complementarians will say similar things: The gospel of Jesus so informs the relations of men and women that the masculine leaders look out for the best in their feminine followers. Indeed, Piper explains that The Gospel Coalition not only wants to “protect” the gospel but also to “display” and to “release the gospel for maximum human flourishing.” So why say complementarianism is not directly related to the gospel? Presumably because it is not part of the creed, or because you can be saved regardless of your view on gender roles.

But then we’re back to the question of why it is essential to The Gospel Coalition; and there we might make an important discovery: The Gospel Coalition preaches a social gospel, and this is part of it. For them, loving male headship displays and releases the gospel for maximum human flourishing. In other words, it is central to God’s redemptive designs for human beings.

And that begs the question: How in line with the gospel is it? What exactly is the connection between the gospel and the importance of male headship? In this video we do not have an answer to that (and I haven’t heard a satisfying one elsewhere). A gospel coalition that is going to make this part of their platform needs to do a much better job of drawing out and defending that connection for us.

This brings us to another point, which has to do with the singling out of egalitarianism as a cause of brutal masculinity and the misrepresentation of it as an inept source for understanding gender.

Piper: “The collapse of the meaning of biblical masculinity has not produced a beautiful egalitarian society, it has produced a brutal masculine society. If you leave sinful men untaught about what godly, humble leadership is, they do not default to egalitarian kindness, they default to passivity (which flares up in moments of rage) or brutality. Egalitarianism, 50/50, doesn’t work…. The church needs an answer for the 8 year old boy who wants to know what it means to be a man and not a woman. Egalitarians cannot answer this.”

Full disclosure: Egalitarians probably cannot answer this the way Piper wants them to; that is, with a satisfyingly long and universally constant list of things men are that women are not.

But let’s think about this. Imagine, if you will, that you could lay out all the men and women in a society along a spectrum measuring them according to commonly “gendered” qualities such as  physical strength, bravery, leadership ability, smarts, nurturing instinct, or what have you. Next, imagine men and women you know and put stereotypical blue dots and pink dots on that spectrum accordingly. Next, imagine the men and women of other cultures and times. Now, let me ask you: Is there any overlap between pink and blue? In other words, aren’t some men more nurturing than women and some women stronger than men? Of course. So what good are your gender universals? Why must the minority-report men and women be held to a universal standard of masculinity and femininity?

If you are a die-hard complementarian I’ll take a guess what your answer is: It isn’t about enforcing gender stereotypes but about calling men to be good husbands and fathers and leaders. If that is your answer you may have already backed off somewhat from what Piper seems to be claiming, but here’s my response: As a biblical egalitarian I think you are better off making that exhortation on the basis of Christ’s commands and with a prayer for the fruit of the Holy Spirit rather than on the basis of a sustained and encultured gender construct of some kind.

I think it is just as likely that Piper’s ideology of masculinity could discourage waffling dads as it could spur them on. After all, what is a guy supposed to do who lands on the “pink” end of Piper’s spectrum? If he is more sure of himself he will take it in stride and apply Piper’s fish-and-tackle pep-talks to his personality accordingly. But how helpful–and in particular how Christian–will Piper’s pep talk have really been? I don’t mind comparisons of men and women in the general. Surely there are biological and cultural norms which are worth paying attention to (both for the sake of folk wisdom and for the sake of knowing what pigeon-holes the gospel will free you from). Men and women certainly do face each other as Others–but I think their differences are more mysterious and fluid and encultured than Piper admits.

If my eight year old wants to know what it is to be a man and not a woman I may have some basic things to say about biology and might make some general social observations, but I will lean toward teaching him about the self-giving love of Christ, and about respecting women (and men) as persons; attentive to their individual personalities and their particular gifts and callings. That may not be good enough for Piper; but it is good enough for me, and I don’t think it makes me a threat to the Bible or a failure in respect to the gospel’s flourishing.

Which brings us to Piper’s suggestion that “biblical masculinity” has collapsed and that egalitarianism is the cause of more brutal masculinity. There isn’t much to say to this except that it seems almost willingly ignorant of history. Patriarchy has often not been kind to women. Complementarianism is a step up from that, but it doesn’t secure kindness to women any more than egalitarianism might. Of course men do not default to kindness–but that’s not an egalitarian problem that’s a human problem!

And, again, I have to ask: Why do these men insist on aligning biblical egalitarianism with secular egalitarianism? Biblical egalitarianism is not about burying the Scriptures beneath some benign platitude about tolerance and equality; it is about Jesus making a new creation; about the gospel that brings male and female into a mutual communion, a priesthood of believers, and a sharing of the full rights of sons.

And with that I come to my last point, which has to do with Keller’s assertion that  there is a lot of room for diversity in how complementarianism plays out in homes and churches and cultures.

Keller: “We do not necessarily take it upon ourselves to tell every church in every culture exactly, specifically, how the principle of male headship plays out there…. Paul is forbidding women having authority, he’s talking about headship, how that plays out inside of your marriage (depending on the temperament and personality of the people), how it plays out in different cultures, how it plays out in different ecclesiologies—will look somewhat different…. We say here’s what the Bible says, and it leaves a lot of specifics up to time and place.”

To this I say: Exactly! So why not say that in an egalitarian culture a woman and man might share leadership of the home? Why not say that in a society where men go to work for female bosses they might also have them in their elders’ boards and lead pastorates? Because we have a disagreement about how to read the biblical texts in question; the ones which The Gospel Coalition thinks universally restrict women from the most senior roles of teaching and authority.

Carson: “We can live with all kinds of diversity. It seems that those two things are non-negotiables in the text.”

My argument would be that this is a distinction they are imposing on those difficult biblical passages from outside. Take 1 Timothy 2, for example. If we want to (perhaps anachronistically) match Timothy’s church polity to ours, we must admit that he seems to be the senior pastor of the Ephesians. So why apply Paul’s prohibition to only senior pastors and elders? In Timothy’s church it had to do with other teachers and other levels of authority, no? Who is “sidestepping” the text here?

To bring this to a close, then, let me come back to the main fear expressed by The Gospel Coalition, which has to do with where this hermeneutic allegedly leads.

Not only do the men in this video presume that egalitarians have a significantly different hermeneutic than they do (when in fact many do not), they also assume that they must ward off danger by opposing that hermeneutic at just this point. But I have a counter-proposition: If, as Keller says, “[t]here are plenty of people who loosen [their understanding of Scripture] only there and then keep it tight everywhere else,” why not help those evangelicals remain faithful rather than pre-emptively cast them as outsiders? And why not prompt the others to a more biblical egalitarianism rather than push them further to the margins?

My hunch is that the answer is that The Gospel Coalition is actually more committed to a certain cultural arrangement than it lets on. In other words, for all it might say against the ‘social gospel’, maybe the Coalition has one (and it is deeply indebted to its patriarchal inheritance).

But if you read Paul’s epistles carefully you see that he was not strictly committed to the ancient household codes that he was adapting. So why should we remain committed to those household codes we are inheriting–particularly when mutual submission out of reverence to Christ has led many of us to take the baton from our parents and to share church and home leadership with women in even more formally recognizable ways?

Furthermore, even if you are not convinced to go the way of mutual-submission-egalitarianism, shouldn’t the gospel coalesce you with the people who are?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 26, 2012 12:18 pm

    “If my eight year old wants to know what it is to be a man and not a woman I may have some basic things to say about biology and might make some general social observations, but I will lean toward teaching him about the self-giving love of Christ, and about respecting women (and men) as persons; attentive to their individual personalities and their particular gifts and callings.”

    Yes and amen. (And otherwise quite well-said, especially in attending to what arguments won’t be persuasive.) This is one of the things that I also love in Barth, in spite of the ways we might want him to be less thoroughly a creature of his time on further issues in gender and sexuality.

    TGC is making claims about human nature, and about the gender binary as dividing human nature neatly into a masculine nature and a feminine nature. That there is a God-given male nature and a God-given female nature. And that there are corresponding God-given cultural orders natural to the genders, as well as a God-given hierarchical order natural to gender itself. And they cannot conceive of the gospel surviving long without this anthropology! As you note, they look at it as a necessary bulwark against corruption of core teachings.

    But Genesis 1 would seem not to agree about “male headship.” We are created male and female, in the image of God. Barth points out that here is one human nature which is two in its kind but not subdivided–no taxonomy of humanity is given, no subgroupings, only fellow-humanity. Compared to the rest of the days of creation, it is clear that gender is not speciation. Gender does not divide. And from that, what it means to be a man is to relate to women as fellow-humanity, and what it means to be a woman is to relate to men as fellow-humanity. Further, as the image of God, Barth suggests that our binary interrelationships as humans are analogous to God’s Trinitarian interrelationships. They are also analogous to God’s relationship as “I” to our “Thou”–but man and woman are both equally I and Thou. This is the relationship between self and other in both directions. And at this point we have basically exhausted what can be said about maleness and femaleness, and proceed to discuss human nature. Which I find a brilliant reading in its refusal of natural law and natural theology.

    It says that there is a God-given human nature. Biologically, it is to be male and female. Morally, it is to be Christ before God and fellow-humanity. And it doesn’t say more! There are no God-given male or female natures, except to be in relationship with one another as fellow-humanity. And there is no eternal shape to that relationship of fellow-humanity, except by analogy to the intra-Trinitarian and divine-human relationships. Everything else changes as the boundaries of human limitation change–which is a novel view within the tradition in its own right.

    But the asymmetry of the self-other relationship is balanced by the symmetry of the common nature, as in the Trinity–until you decide to violate orthodoxy and claim that the relational asymmetry among divine persons is also a natural asymmetry, and not itself symmetrical. Which is the whole natural law tradition in a nutshell, trying to make the very important power-relationships of a privileged present culture co-eternal with God, or at least sneak them into the earliest historic point possible. Calling them necessary anthropology, and calling the anthropology divine, and putting the proclamation of grace second to law because grace obviously requires order.

  2. Tyler Wittman permalink
    September 27, 2012 1:35 am

    For what it’s worth, Carl Trueman is asking similar questions:

  3. September 27, 2012 5:00 am

    Deja vu. These are in essence the same questions I’ve been asking for some time.

  4. September 28, 2012 2:12 am


  5. anyone's dad permalink
    July 6, 2013 8:06 am

    Well I read all through this ,and I can only add two comments. Firstly we live in a time of forced egalitarianism (i.e. that it is a social pressure that is placed upon the church and not a biblical reading that is spurring egalitarianism onward). This by itself is problematic since the church should react only to biblical realizations.
    Secondly and more personal, I have been and continue to be quite uncomfortable in evangelical churches, since they have come to release a very feminine feel in their worship and how they do church . This is a huge issue these days , i am looking for a “masculine faith” and I have a difficult time finding it in evangelical churches in general.

  6. August 3, 2013 10:24 am

    anyone’s dad: I think there is internal evidence in the Bible to push us to seek not only a more complex view of gender roles than you are taking, but also to reckon with something other than secular egalitarianism (or patriarchalism). I would encourage you to see these articles for responses to both your points:

  7. April 30, 2014 8:22 pm

    Anyone’s Dad. Piper describes the masculine feel of a church service which makes it more erotica than a worship service: “the room is full and radiating with this male energy and this is how women are responding.” You say you don’t like the feminine feel. What I hear is that you do not like an equality feel because you are used to solely a masculine feel. I wonder if you have any idea how hurtful male headship is to Christianity. Not just to me, but to the body of Christ.

  8. May 1, 2014 6:24 am

    Its always easy to tear down the strawman that you pre-designed to be the weakest one possible. That is pretty much the way Piper and his followers operate half the time.

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