Christianity,  Theology/Bible

How Complementarianism Is a Gospel Issue

Don Carson, Tim Keller, and John Piper had a discussion last April about why the Gospel Coalition is complementarian. Many people have asked why a group that majors on the primary issue of the gospel would put so much emphasis on a secondary issue like complementarianism. That’s a fair question to which these three men give good answers. Keller argues that the gender question is only “indirectly” a gospel issue. The egalitarian hermeneutic has the potential to undermine not only gender roles, but also the gospel itself. There is much more to this discussion, and I encourage you to take it all in from the video above.

On a related note, Don Carson has written a short, helpful essay on terminology as it relates to complementarianism. He explains why the term complementarianism was chosen to describe the biblical position over and against terms like “patriarchy” or “traditionalism.” There are some helpful points in Carson’s piece, even as it provides a gentle counterpoint to earlier discussions on this blog about the term “patriarchy.” You can read that earlier discussion here.


  • Andy Naselli

    FYI: I’ve conversed with Don Carson about this. He would never say that complementarianism is a gospel issue. Nor would he argue that TGC’s Foundation Documents contain only gospel issues. To call complementarianism a “gospel issue” uses rhetoric that Don finds problematic. He agrees that it’s an important issue and that the best, richest, most theologically faithful reading of Scripture is complementarian. But to speak of it as a “gospel issue” uses rhetoric that makes it sound as if anyone who disagrees has abandoned the gospel in any responsible sense. That is, he argues, both uncharitable and false. He argues that we should not elevate something true and important to a place Scripture does not quite give it.

    • Tony Reinke

      Andy, very good word and a helpful clarification from Dr Carson. Thank you. I’m wondering whether you would agree or disagree with the T4G affirmation/denial that says confusion over complementarianism (headship/submission) damages a church’s witness to the gospel in the world (Article XVI)? I’m not quite certain where I am at on this level, just curious where you stand when you think about complementation roles and gospel witness. Thoughts?

      • Denny Burk

        Tony, I know you addressed Andy on this one, but I’m going to chime in anyway. I think it all comes down to what it means for something to be a “gospel issue.” It seems that Carson is defining “gospel issue” fairly narrowly as that which pertains directly to the proclamation of Jesus Christ crucified and raised for sinners (1 Cor. 15:3-5). In other words, one can be an egalitarian and still believe in penal substitutionary atonement and the resurrection of Christ (e.g., Roger Nicole). In that narrow sense, one might say that it’s not a gospel issue.

        While the gender issue may not be a gospel issue in that narrow sense, it is a gospel issue in a broader sense. Inasmuch as the gospel has necessary implications and entailments, it is a gospel issue in the indirect sense that Keller spoke about. It seems like it’s in that latter sense that T4G reads the way it does. It’s also in that sense that Piper says that TGC emphasizes the gender issue in order to protect, display, and release the gospel for maximum human flourishing.

          • Andy Naselli

            I agree with Denny’s reply to you, Tony.

            I prefer not to call complementarianism a “gospel issue” so that we can save that rhetoric for the issues that are DIRECTLY tied to the integrity of the gospel. Far more issues are tied INDIRECTLY to the gospel, and if we call them all “gospel issues,” then it seems like almost everything will be a “gospel issue.”

            It’s very healthy to think of how issues relate to the gospel, so this is an edifying discussion.

  • Mike Aubrey

    I’ve always seen this as the ultimate irony of T4G.

    Baptism and issue that is constantly linked the gospel so closely in scripture is so thoroughly down played while gender is so thoroughly emphasized.

    • Denny Burk

      Eric, according to Ephesians 5, the relationship of husbands and wives IS a reflection of the gospel. The innermost meaning of marriage is the marriage if Christ to his church (“this mystery is great, but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church…”). The imagery is just as strong as it is for baptism, biblically speaking.

      • Don Johnson

        This is one place I claim that gender restrictionists see what they expect to see and NOT what is actually in the text and especially do not understand it in 1st century cultural context.

        What is actually in the text is a head/body metaphor, where head is to body as husband is to wife as Christ is to the church. The question is what does this head/body metaphor MEAN? The text itself explains it, but only if you allow the text to speak without gender restrictionist expectations. The head is said to sacrificially love the body, giving Christ as an example of sacrificially loving the church, so in the same way, a husband is to sacrificially love his wife. This was a radical counter-cultural concept in the 1st century, the reason to have a wife was to have legitimate kids.

        In this section of Scripture and is all the other places also where Christ is called the head of the church all of the actions Christ does as head of the church as serving actions, and no leading actions at all. Christ is Lord, but that does not mean the metaphor maps to Christ as Lord, it maps to Christ as loving servant of the church.

        • Don Johnson

          The teaching unit that includes 1 Cor 11:3 is about the church in general, but it is far from obvious that it is also about marriage or even uses marriage in any way.

          The teaching unit that includes 1 Tim 2:13 is at the least about the church at Ephesus (and perhaps more by application, but that is a discussion), but it is far from obvious that it is also about marriage or even uses marriage in any way.

  • Don Johnson

    I see incredible arrogance in the speakers. They SAY we need to be nice, but they they also SAY that the Bible CLEARLY says gender hierarchy, if you do not believe in gender hierarchy then it affects the gospel. Such is slander to all the incredible believers that are also egalitarian and TGC should stop making these claims and repent.

    They are very very similar to the slaveholders before the Civil War that formed the SBC and PCA. They said being a slaveholder was OK and if you did not believe that, then you were attacking the gospel; if you do not believe me, read what they wrote defending slavery.

    • Denny Burk

      Hey, Don. I’m wondering if we watched the same video. At most they said it’s a gospel issue only in an indirect sense. Its the hermeneutic that is the danger when it is applied to other more central gospel texts. The speakers acknowledge that there are many egalitarians who only apply the dangerous hermeneutic to the gender issue and who are otherwise solid on the central tenets of the faith (e.g., Roger Nicole).

      • Don Johnson

        If the group decided to call themselves “The Complementarian Gospel Coalition” at least they would be giving themselves a more honest title, as it is, the title they give themselves is misleading, because they have chosen to deliberately exclude some people who accept the gospel.

        Furthermore, the Bible itself tells us what at the most important things to agree about in (NET) Heb 6:1 Therefore we must progress beyond the elementary instructions about Christ and move on to maturity, not laying this foundation again: repentance from dead works and faith in God,
        Heb 6:2 teaching about baptisms, laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment.

        So we see that contrary to what the speakers said, the very next level of doctrinal agreement after having faith in Christ INCLUDES agreeing about baptism, but notice that this text says nothing about gender. In other words, what the Bible DOES say are the first things to agree upon they do not think is important to agree upon in a group that calls itself TGC, but what the Bible does not say is important to agree upon they claim it is important to agree upon. They could not be more out of phase with what the Bible says if they tried and so are revealed as following human tradition more than the Bible.

        TGC should respect the name they have chosen to give themselves and accept ALL who claim the gospel OR change their name. Remember, atheists are watching and alert to any hypocrisy.

  • Nathan Stuller

    Don, while I’ll agree that there are faithful gospel believing egalitarians, the Bible does CLEARLY teach male headship in marriage and the church. I’m sorry if that seems arrogant, but its true. Equally clearly, the Bible teaches that being a slaveholder is acceptable for Christians as long as they treat their slaves justly and fairly. And attacking the validity of the Bible’s teaching on anything, including slavery or complementarianism, is an attack on the authority of Scripture and iindirectly on its primary message, the gospel.

    • Don Johnson


      The Bible simply does not “clearly” teach male headship in marriage and the church for the simple reason that that word “headship” is never used anywhere in Scripture. What you are doing is imposing a hierarchical complementarian grid on the Scriptures and then reading them thru that grid. All of us have our own grids thru which we read Scripture, we cannot help it, but the goal is to align that grid with Scripture.

      What the Bible actually does “clearly” teach is that a husband is “the head-kephale” of his wife, but we also know that a wife has her own head-kephale that sits on the top of her neck when standing. The point is that Paul is using head-kephale as a METAPHOR, as we KNOW it cannot be taken in some places (Eph 5, 1 Cor 11) with itst literal meaning.

      And this is where many people do a magic trick on themselves and do not even realize it, since in the 21st century to call someone a metaphorical “head” of some grou or person almost always means they are a leader or boss of that group or person. But words are defined by the way they are used and what counts is what did the metaphor head-kephale mean in the 1st century when Paul wrote Eph. and 1 Cor. Cultures change and metaphors can change over time. Paul wrote FOR us but not TO us and it is a giant mistake to read his letters as if they were written TO us using OUR metaphors.

      But perhaps the metaphoric head-kephale also meant leader back in the 1st century? I agree this is possible, but one needs to look at how the metaphor is actually used in Scripture. Christ is called head-kephale of the church, so what does Christ as head-kephale of the church actually DO? This is using Scripture to interpret Scripture, the Bible gets to define and refine the words it uses and when it does we are to use those definitions and refinements.

      When we do this for the text of Eph 5, we find that the things that Christ does as head of the church are all serving functions and there are no leading functions. Christ IS Lord and therefore the ultimate leader of the church; but that is not what the head-kephale metaphor is saying in the immediate context of Scripture which is where it counts.

      • Derek Taylor


        There’s just no way that Paul would have phrased things the way he did in Ephesians 5, I Timothy 2, Colossians 3 and then Peter with I Peter 3. The meaning of kephale (head) is very plain and apparent when you look at the context of these passages. They gymnastics you have to employ to jam an egalitarian grid on any one of these passages is bad enough, but all four?

        Plus, if Paul and Peter had any egalitarian impulses whatsoever, why would they write anything remotely similar to what they did in this passages? It makes no sense at all. They would certainly know that their words would only be “distorted” by those with patriarchal lenses (to use your own term). That doesn’t make any sense either.

        • Don Johnson

          No, you are imposing a grid on the text that you have been taught. It just SEEMS clear to you as you have a chorus of others who taught you this. What you have built up is a comp. paradigm on how to read the gender verses and it is challenging to overthrow a paradigm, it takes work and study, but it can be done if one is diligent.

          What one needs to do is study both the comp. and egal. readings of Eph 5-6, 1 Tim 2, Col 3 and 1 Pet 3 (and other disputed gender texts as well). Read both sides’ arguments in their own words and see for yourself which side’s arguments make the most sense. I used to believe things similar to what you believe, until I studied both sides. Once I did that, I was able to see that Jesus, Peter, Paul, John, etc. were each egal. inside their culture. When I started the study, this was most certainly NOT what I believed, furthermore, I thought it was so obviously not what the Bible taught that it would be EASY to disprove the egal. arguments.

          Since I have walked this path, I can help others walk it and have done so with many people harmed by gender hierarchical teaching.

          • Derek Taylor

            Yes, Donald you have tried to show me and other this path, but at the end of the day, even when I try to suspend disbelief and follow your reasoning, I conclude that if in fact Paul and Peter were in fact egal, by necessity, they would not have worded things as they did. Even if I can agree with you that their society and most others are patriarchal in nature, this would actually HEIGHTEN their need to use clearer and more explicit egalitarian language that would not be misunderstood by the patriarchal society.

            • Don Johnson

              No, they needed to APPEAR to conform to cultural expectations (of patriarchy) as much as feasible in order that the gospel not be defamed. This is even made explicit in a few places in the NT, including one of the wife submission verses.

              • Derek Taylor

                Well, at least you’re honest enough to admit the reason that almost all Christians have been so confused and wrong these past 2,000 years: That Paul and Peter were using politically correct or carefully coded speech. If you’re right, it’s a good thing you cracked the code on their hermeneutic lo these past 30 or 40 years. Not that I think you’re right.

                • Don Johnson

                  Tit 2:3 Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good,
                  Tit 2:4 and so train the young women to love their husbands and children,
                  Tit 2:5 to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.

                  The last phrase tells us WHY Paul is telling Titus to have these things done. A believer is not to unneccessarily cause offense in the culture in which they reside (such as the 1st century with patriarchy assumptions due to Aristotle’s household codes).

                  Because of archeological finds and recognition of the Jewish context of the Bible, it is possible to now understand some verses better than gentiles in the 2nd century did. All protestants agree that the institutional church by the 16th century got some things wrong, the question is when did it start to get some things wrong and we can now see that it started as early as the 2nd century.

  • Jake Thielen

    I take issue with these discussions about gender issues when only one gender is represented and that gender is deemed to have the authoritative voice on the issue. The fact that the video is *three men* and *no women* makes the discussion inherently biased and flawed. This is not to say that they don’t have good points worthy of consideration, but if you want to find the truth you can’t just hear one side. Especially when that side is the one that has historically been the one in clear control of the power.

    Furthermore, Nathan it seems you need to reconsider that there are plenty of things within the bible that we no longer follow for good reason. The bible was written more than 70 years after Christ’s death and not only that but it was written for a certain time period and to those people in that time. While we must remain true to the main tenants of the gospel, it is exactly those main tenants to which causes us to abhor and abolish other parts of the bible such as slavery… even in light of the fact that elsewhere the bible says it’s “ok.”

  • Kathleen

    I find it strange that it is almost exclusively men that defend the complementarian position. Women don’t write books about it; women don’t defend it; even some among the more conservative women despise it. I am the only woman writing in this forum—notice how I differ in opinion. No one—not men, not women, not any dogmatic, fallen interpreter of Scripture—has the right to tell me what God may and may not call me to do. Let my vocation be between me and the Holy Spirit who directs me. You also have no write to tell me how God made me or didn’t make me. Not all women fit into your box, and the ones that don’t aren’t defective or sinful. I think the evidence and the voices of women stacked against the complementarian position tells me not that women have wrong beliefs, but that the complementarian interpretation of Scripture is wrong. Piper (and others), some of your books have left conservative Christians who’d like to treat the Bible as inerrant like you do in tears, feeling devalued and inferior. Women can lose their faith because of things like this. Luckily, I didn’t. Christ is the center of my life, and I’m on my way to seminary. The Holy Spirit gifted me with intelligence, scholarship, caring, leadership, strength, and an intense love that pulls me toward himself. How dare you say that these gifts are worthless, or worse, wicked. I don’t have the same gifts that would make me a good Sunday School teacher, nursery leader, or church secretary—sorry. Some women aren’t kitty cats, but tigresses, wildly pursuing the truth as a predator does her prey. The fire in our hearts is not easily squelched, nor our claws dulled. We lose neither of these things even when we are caged—just look at the passion in our eyes, a passion that makes lust or hunger look tame.

  • Craig Hansen

    Great. So now I learn I’m a Complimentarian (spell-checker just gacked on that, BTW), which has somehow always had sweeping consequences for my life, legacy and witness. Even though it’s apparently a secondary matter and not a direct component of the Gospel, it somehow has a deterministic influence on how I read the entire Bible. And the context of our unique cultural failures creates a sort of catalyst or accelerant, which apparently combines with scripture to make it an even more sweeping and important issue than is apparent in the text. It’s apparently even a reliable predictor of future theological failures. So yeah, it’s a Big Deal, but, you know… not really.

    Why am I both encouraged by these great teachers, whom I truly do honor and respect, yet also flummoxed and exasperated?

  • Adam Omelianchuk

    Hi Denny (and Andy too),

    I am a little surprised at how the discussion over the words “complementarianism” and “patriarchy” are going. I was always under the impression that what was wrong with “patriarchy” is that women are inferior to men. “Complementarianism” was meant to emphasize the equality of women with men while maintaining that hierarchal role distinctions are essential to differentiating the sexes. But it’s amazing to me that really, the difference between the words has to do with “connotations” as Carson says. My reading of Grudem has always suggested otherwise: complementarianism is the “middle ground” between “dominating” tendencies of patriarchy and the “sameness” of egalitarianism.

    • Denny Burk

      I agree with Carson that we really don’t want this to become an argument over words. Our real concern is with the theological substance as it is taught in scripture.

  • dr. james willingham

    I don’t think the complementarians are much into research on why congregationalism developed as a doctrine among the Pilgrims and Separatists int eh 1599s and 1600s. Likewise, they seem not to pay very close attention to the functional nature of the complementarianism that is presented in the Bible or the limitations put upon the elders as “not being lords over God’s heritage.” If one looks at the nature of the ekklesia, one must soon come to the conclusion that the members of it are equals in rights and privileges. The ekklesia of God is a theocracy of equals. Patriarchialism is as bad as radical feminism. If that was what God had in mind, surely He would have allowed for no such examples to the contrary as that of His saying to Abraham, “Do what Sarah says.” Blood bought individuals are equals, being redeemed from sin, ransomed from slavery, delivered to be the children of God……And children, the last count I had of them, are equals or else one has a dysfunctional family. Want to see where dysfunctional complementarianism leads? Just look at Germany in the 20th century. There the authority figure had no checks and balances. Functional complementarianism has checks and balances. The woman can speak. The church member has a right, a duty to express his or her viewpoint. A church where the government was by eldership did not even get to vote on the new elder pastor, and then the old elder pastor found out he had let in some heresy and he left along with others. But the damage had been done. And then in another elder governed church, they took a young man to task for his body weight (gluttony as they thought). But his problem was more hereditary than environmental. Of course, there are congregations which also make egregious mistakes, but the question is this: What else can an ekklesia mean but a democratic body of members with equal rights and privileges. The pastor is like the presiding officer of the assembly. The pastor/elder and elders have the spiritual rulership, but it must be exercised with the constraint of humility or else the congregation has the right to rebuke and to remove them, if necessary.

  • Suzanne McCarthy

    I too am wondering how complementarians affirm the language of power at the time of the reformation. For example, the creeds and confessions say that the Son is of equal power with the father. In fact, in the original German version of the Augsburg confession this was Macht, a translation for the Greek exousia.

    So, I am curious about how complementarians believe that the son is under the authority of the father, at the same time as affirming that he is equal in power and authority. I would love to hear some complementarian discussion of this. Thanks so much.

    • Johnny Mason

      the issue of authority is perfectly seen in Christ’s submission. If you recall in the garden of Gethsemane he submitted fully to the Father’s will. “Not my will be done, but thy will be done”. Christ, of his own volition, submitted to the authority of the Father. This is the picture we are to have. In fact, marriage is a picture of the Church’s relationship to the Christ. The Church is to submit to Christ’s headship.

      So let me ask you a question. Has there ever been an example of Christ submitting to the authority of the another (say a disciple or the Church). Do you think Christ should ever submit to your will?

  • James Kime

    I am always amazed (but not sure why) at the number of men who through laziness and cowardice refuse to take responsibility and lead as they have been told to. They are lazy because they want the wife to take on at least part of their job for them. They are cowardly because they hide behind their wives.

  • Suzanne Mccarthy


    “the issue of authority is perfectly seen in Christ’s submission. If you recall in the garden of Gethsemane he submitted fully to the Father’s will. “Not my will be done, but thy will be done”. Christ, of his own volition, submitted to the authority of the Father. This is the picture we are to have. In fact, marriage is a picture of the Church’s relationship to the Christ. The Church is to submit to Christ’s headship.”

    Some complementarians agree with the orthodox tradition that there is only one will in the trinity, not a meeting of two wills, and not the submission of one will to the will of another. However, the human Christ is totally submitted to the Father.

    When Augustine talks of the eternal Son, he is careful to say that the Son is both sender and sent, he is both the one who makes the offering and the offering. He does not have a separate will,

    In fact, Augustine stipulates that there is no disparity in authority between the Father and the Son, that he is not unequal in anything at all, and is only distinct in that he is sent and the father is the sender.

    So, the ONLY difference between Father and Son is that the Son is sent from heaven and takes on mortality and decay and is punished for our sins. Somehow, when I hear this preached in church as a model for marriage, I have a lot of questions.

    In addition, the Augsburg Confession said that the Son was “gleich machtig” “the same in authority”. the 39 articles, the Westminster Confession and the ETS doctrinal also repeat this when they say “equal in power” – it means “authority.”

    “So let me ask you a question. Has there ever been an example of Christ submitting to the authority of the another (say a disciple or the Church). Do you think Christ should ever submit to your will?”

    Let me response to your last question. The one who is our Help, the Ezer, is God in the Old Testament, but Christ, our Boethos, for early Christians. And surely the Ezer, which is the role Eve was created for, is about submission to those who are being helped. This is found in Grudem’s Systematic Theology. And so. according to Grudem, the one who is the Helper submits to the one He helps. So Grudem believes in mutual submission between God and humans, but not in marriage.

    So my questions, what I am trying to understand is if complementarians believe that Father and Son have two separate wills, or just one will, as is traditionally written in the expositions of the early creeds. And is the Son of equal authority, or under the authority of the Father?

    I just want to understand how these issues are reconciled.

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