Is leadership male? A response was kind enough to republish a few of my recent posts on gender roles, including “A letter to my daughter,” which I originally wrote during Rachel Held Evans’ Week of Mutuality.

They also repurposed my series on my journey from complementarianism, turning it into two articles for their “Is leadership male?” series (see part 1 and part 2).

Today, their series continued with Aaron Trommler representing the complementarian perspective. I’m grateful to for allowing me to contribute — and to Aaron for engaging in a constructive dialogue.

Because my original posts were intended more as a narrative of my personal journey rather than a defense of egalitarianism, I thought I’d use this post to engage some of the issues Aaron raised in his article.

Wives and slaves
Aaron began by citing 1 Peter 3:1-2, where wives are told to submit to their husbands “in the same way.” This leads Aaron to ask (quite rightly), the same as what?

Aaron notes that Peter mentioned “many other situations where Christians (not just women) are to submit themselves to different authorities… even if those authorities are harsh.”

In fact, Peter talked mostly about one other situation: slavery. The apostle commanded slaves to obey their masters, even the abusive ones (2:18-25). From there he moved immediately to wives, telling them to submit to their husbands in the same way that slaves submit to their masters.

I wondered why Aaron didn’t specify that slavery was one of the “other situations” to which Peter referred, but in any case, I think it reinforces my point that the arguments once used to justify slavery are inextricably linked to the those used today to argue for the unilateral subordination of women.

But that’s also why I was a little surprised to read this near the end of Aaron’s piece:

Furthermore, I don’t know about the arguments, supposedly used to justify slavery, that are being used to justify complementarianism, nor am I about to suggest that the Bible does the same. There is an article on the Desiring God website that quite clearly demonstrates that Paul did not think that way at all.

The Desiring God (DG) article claims the New Testament viewed a slave’s submission differently than a wife’s. DG proposes the instructions to wives “have theological strings attached to them that slavery does not.” But if that were true, then it wouldn’t make sense to argue (as Aaron does) that Peter’s instructions to slaves should govern how we read his instructions to wives. You can’t have it both ways.

As it happens, I think DG is wrong, as I argued in this post back in June. Both the wife’s submission and the slave’s were rooted in the same thing: obedience to Christ. Seems to me this is a pretty big “theological string.” And as Aaron reminds us, Peter told wives to submit in the same way as slaves.

So if we’re going to insist on wives submitting to their husbands on the basis of Peter and Paul’s “household codes,” then we’ll also have to argue for slavery and the submission of slaves to their masters.

Indeed, when you study 19th-century theologians from the American South, you will find the arguments they used to justify the enslavement of blacks leading up to the Civil War are the same as those used today to justify the subordination of women.

About Ephesians 5…
Aaron also cites Ephesians 5:22-23, claiming that Paul couldn’t have endorsed mutual submission, since he told wives to submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ. This is a better argument, though I suspect that as with most analogies, Paul wasn’t trying to suggest the husband-wife relationship is like that of Christ and the church in every way.

More importantly, Aaron didn’t account for two vital pieces of context. The first can be found just one verse prior, in Ephesians 5:21.

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

This is the governing statement for everything Paul says in the “household codes” of Ephesians  5:22–6:9. In fact, the Greek word for submit (hupotasso) doesn’t even occur in verse 22; it has to be supplied from verse 21. Grammatically and logically, then, Paul appears to subordinate the wife’s submission to the greater call for mutual submission. Which convinces me that the wife’s submission and the husband’s love (Eph. 5:25) are in some ways two sides of the same coin for Paul.

Second, we have to look at the historical/cultural context of the “household codes” in letters like Ephesians and Colossians. Rachel Held Evans has a good summary on her blog, but the short(-ish) version is that these codes were relatively common in first-century correspondence. You can find similar codes in the writings of Philo and Josephus, for example. The household codes were considered vital to the preservation of Roman society and the all-important pater familias. Any attempt to undermine the established system would have drawn unwelcome scrutiny from the authorities. So for the sake of the gospel, it was necessary to defer to Roman cultural sensibilities about how a family should be run.

Women, prophesy. No wait — women, be quiet!
In my first post for, I noted that 1 Corinthians contains an apparent contradiction concerning the role of women in the church. In chapter 11, Paul offers some ground rules for women who wish to prophesy. In chapter 14, he appears to tell women to keep quiet.

In response, Aaron suggests there’s a difference between “teaching” and “prophesying” — which may be true (though both involve speaking with some kind of authority), but that’s beside the point. Aaron never explained how he reconciles Paul’s apparent call for strict silence (the word Paul uses in chapter 14 could easily be translated “shut up”) with his instructions to prophesying women three chapters earlier. Unless, of course, women had to mime their prophesies.

Aaron closes with a brief reference to 1 Timothy 2:12, which someone once dubbed the “worst verse in the Bible.” If you’d like to know more about what I think was going on there, I encourage you to read this.

In the end, I think the values of mutuality and equality make better sense of the New Testament, especially its radical claim “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”


BTW, Aaron is continuing the conversation with a series of posts on his blog, starting here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s