Go Big or Go Home: Why Complemegalitarian Doesn’t Work (2)

(This is part two of a three part series. For part one, go here.)


Equality was the first of Stott’s four key words. Complementarity was the second. The third word is responsibility. In this section we see clearly how general categories in the debate (like equality) are often used to mute or negate specific Scriptural texts. We also see in this section Stott at his most conflicted. He’s too good an exegete to buy the typical egalitarian arguments that headship is based on the fall, or that culture or a specific situation dictated Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 5 and 1 Corinthians 11, or that submission to husbands can be dismissed because slavery has been discredited. And yet, time and again Stott backs away from any understanding of headship that doesn’t conform with the broad, controlling category of equality.

Let me walk you through Stott’s argument and point out a number of missteps.

1) Stott claims that Paul “adds” the idea of masculine headship. Genesis only taught equality and complementarity, but now the Apostle adds the new idea of headship. This claim, however, does not do justice to the specifics of Genesis 2 that we enumerated above (336).

2) He is always looking for a third way, here a third way that can harmonize headship and equality. While this sounds alright on paper, what it forces him to do is take a secularized version of equality and use it to disregard a priori any strong notions of male authority. So when Stott sets out to explain headship he starts with the first option he calls “traditionalist” or “hard-line.” This “lordship” position “understands Paul’s prohibition of women speaking in church or teaching men, and his requirement of female submission and silence, as literal, permanent and universal injunctions. It therefore deduces that, although women do have ministries, leadership and decision-making in both the church and the home are male prerogatives” (337). Now, I might want to clarify a few points in that explanation, but basically this is the complementarian position. Amazingly, Stott simply dismisses this view in one sentence, saying it “seems impossible to reconcile [this kind of thinking] with the full equality of the sexes which has been established by creation, redemption and Pentecost” (337).

Later, with a similar wave of the hand, Stott asserts that we certainly have to reject any language of hierarchy patriarchy or subordination (342). It’s as if Stott can’t fathom headship actually having “teeth” to it. I think it is telling that Stott spends most of his time trying to defend some element of headship. In this effort his exegesis is tight and he sticks closely to the text. Clearly Stott is writing to bring those on his left just a bit more to the right. But it’s as if he can scarcely conceive of anyone really making a good case to be further on the right. Stott deals carefully with egalitarian objections, but routinely dismisses full-blown complementarianism without critical reflection. His “third way” approach hems him in and prevents him for letting the text lead him to conclusions he’s already determined are unpalatable.

3) Stott asserts, without any supporting evidence, that authenteo in 1 Timothy 2:12 means to “domineer” (341). Besides the fact that no modern English translation renders authenteo this way, H. Scott Baldwin has in recent years demonstrated from exhaustive research of the word in ancient Greek literature that authenteo can mean to rule, to control, or to be responsible, but it does not carry the negative sense of “to usurp” or “to domineer.” The unifying concept is that of authority. In other words, Paul is not prohibiting women from abusing authority, something he would not permit for men either (and all the problematic teachers in the Pastoral Epistles are men). Rather, he is, as a general rule, prohibiting women from having authority over men in the church.

4) The headship espoused by Stott ends up, on a practical level, evacuated of any notion of authority. Once again, Stott argues for a third way. He shows little sympathy for recent attempts to redefine kephale as “source.” He even claims that headship “seems clearly to imply some kind of ‘authority’, to which ‘submission is appropriate” (343). But then he quickly warns that “we must be careful not to overpress this” (343). So in the next paragraph he sidesteps the lexical debate between “source of” and “authority over” and argues for a “third option which contains an element of both” (343). Headship implies “some degree of leadership” but this is not best expressed as authority but as responsibility (343-44). Thus, male headship means husbands have the responsibility to love sacrificially and to care selflessly.

Of course this is right, but we must say more. If headship is simply the responsibility to love sacrificially and care selflessly, what makes this a distinctive command for men? Are women not also meant to love sacrificially and care selflessly? Headship certainly implies sacrificial, selfless leadership, but it also implies authority. The husband is a first among equals in the marriage relationship. He is not told to submit to his wife (the participle hupotassomenoi in Ephesians 5:21 being a general statement about various relationships where submission is called for). Headship cannot be divorced from authority.

And yet, Stott concludes his responsibility section with a view of headship that focuses more on the wife’s need for self-actualization than on the biblical command to submit.

The resolute desire of women to know, be and develop themselves, and to use their gifts in the service of the world, is so obviously God’s will for them that to deny or frustrate it is an extremely serious oppression. It is a woman’s basic right and responsibility to discover herself, her identity and her vocation. The fundamental question is, in what relationship with men will women find and be themselves? Certainly not in a subordination which implies inferiority to men and engenders low self-esteem. Only the biblical ideal of headship, which because it is selflessly loving may justly be called “Christlike”, can convince them that it will facilitate, not destroy, their true identity. (345)

Biblical headship which is Christlike will be selflessly loving. No doubt about that. But Stott has practically turned submission on its head (no pun intended). His anchor is not the meaning of the Greek word kephale, nor the context of Ephesians 5 and 1 Corinthians 11. His anchor is the desire of women to develop and use their gifts. His anchor is woman’s basic right to discover herself and her vocation. His anchor is that we must not accept any principle which smacks (to him) of inferiority or gives women low self-esteem. I hope it goes without saying that I love my wife deeply and want for her to flourish and use her gifts. I would shudder to think that my headship was a crushing burden to my wife. But none of this should determine our exegesis of disputed texts. Our experiences must be interpreted and vetted according to Scripture, not the other way around.