Interview with

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Audio Transcript

Pastor John, here’s today’s question: “Hello Pastor John, my name is Jennifer and I live on Long Island. I have a question about complementarianism. It is something I have struggled with for a long time, and it is something I need to have worked out before even considering a relationship or marriage in the future. I know the Bible clearly states that men and women are equal in their standing before God as far as salvation. But in other areas of life I still struggle with feelings of inferiority, because of certain comparisons used in the Bible. For example, regarding submission, the Bible says that the servant is not greater than his master, and wives are called to submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ. However, servants are not equal to their masters, and the church is not equal in worth to Christ. In almost every area of life, those in positions of authority are considered more valuable than those under that authority. Just like the President is more valued than the secret service men, and in businesses, managers are more valued than the workers under them, and throughout history women have always been treated as less valuable than men. In light of these things, I greatly struggle with feeling inferior in worth to men. Is there something that you might be able to see that I am missing, as I read through Scripture? Thank you.”

I want to tackle the two particular kinds of texts that trouble Jennifer in just a moment. But first, let me venture a general statement about female superiority and inferiority and male superiority and inferiority in relationship to each other. I think most of the time we are so eager to say the appropriate thing about equality that we overlook the obvious inequalities that exist between men and women.

“Both men and women are given indispensable roles in the achievement of God’s ultimate purposes.”

So, how should we speak about these? I am thinking about things like, in general, men are physically stronger so that, in the Olympics, in most events, men and women don’t compete with each other. Or things like women being superior at singing soprano or bearing children or nursing children. And my guess is, if objectivity were possible in the research — which, in our politically correct day, I don’t think it is — but if objectivity were possible in the research, there would be countless studies about nuanced psychological, verbal, analytical, synthetic, emotional differences between men and women in general that, in some areas, would give women the edge and in other areas would give man the edge. I think those studies probably have been done and buried because they would be offensive, perhaps. I don’t know. But that is my opinion.

Here is my theological bottom line on this matter: If God were to make a list of female superiorities and inferiorities and a list of male superiorities and inferiorities and if God were to attach to each of these a relative value in his whole scheme of things, the sum of the pluses and minuses at the bottom of each column would be equal. Now, I can’t prove that. And I don’t think anybody can disprove that. I infer it from:

  1. Male and female are both created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27).
  2. Both are fellow heirs of the grace of life (1 Peter 3:7).
  3. Both are given an indispensable role in the achievement of God’s ultimate purposes.
  4. Paul seems to be thinking this way in 1 Corinthians 11:11–12 when he says, “In the Lord woman is not independent of man nor man of woman; for as woman was made from man, so man is now born of woman. And all things are from God.” So, he seems to be bent on affirming differences and affirming that, with every difference, there is a kind of counterpoint of indispensability.

Now, I hope that one of the effects all of those thoughts have on Jennifer and others who struggle with the same thing she is feeling is that she wouldn’t have to be artificial in her thinking about male and female differences in order to believe in profound, ultimate, overall, God-designed equality. It is not a simple thing like insisting that women are as good at everything as men are or men are as good at everything as women are. They are not. Neither man is nor woman is.

God calls men to humble leadership and women to glad affirmation of that leadership.

Jennifer mentions, however, two texts that have really troubled her, and I think I get it. So, let me try to help. This is one kind of text, but two times Jesus says, “A servant is not greater than his master” (John 13:16; 15:20). And since servants are to be submissive to masters and wives to husbands, this makes Jennifer feel inferior or less great. A servant is not as great as the master. But notice two things.

1. Servants may, indeed, be greater than their masters in many ways. They may be stronger, more intelligent, wiser, kinder, more industrious. And Jesus knew that as well as we do.

2. The other thing to notice is that, in the context, Jesus’s point in both of those passages is not to comment on the absence of a servant’s equality, but the absence of the servant’s superiority. In the first case he did this, he emphasizes this to stress that the servant should do the same kind of foot washing that Jesus did. And in the second case to stress that the servant should expect the same persecution that Jesus did.

So the point, surprisingly, is to stress the equality of the service to be rendered and the equality of the persecution to be experienced — not that slaves are in every way or in some overall way inferior to masters.

The second text that troubles Jennifer is the comparison between marriage and the relationship between Christ and the church. Wives are to submit to husbands as the church does to Christ (Ephesians 5:22–24). But, she observes rightly, the church is not equal in worth to Christ. Now, what I would ask Jennifer to consider here is whether the point of comparison between Christ and the church on the one hand and husband and wife on the other hand, whether the point of comparison is the degree of inferiority or superiority. Is that the point? Clearly Christ is sinless and the church is sinful. Is that the point of comparison: husbands sinless, wife sinful? Clearly Christ is infinite and eternal, and the husband is finite. The church is finite and temporal. Is that the point of comparison: husbands infinite, wives finite? We have to be so careful with analogies or comparisons lest we assume a point of comparison that is not the point of comparison that is being shown.

“The Bible’s teaching on manhood and womanhood is meant to be liberating and satisfying, not troubling.”

Now, I would say — this is my venture to try to understand — I would say that the point of the comparison between Christ and the church here and husband and wife here is that, owing to creation and God’s design for it — Genesis 2:24 is cited right here in Ephesians 5:31 — owing to God’s design in creation, the point of comparison is that godly, mature manhood and womanhood are of such a nature that they both experience a sense of fitness and suitableness and appropriateness in the roles of manhood as humble leadership and protection and provision and womanhood as gladly affirming that leadership and partnering with a man in the use of her gifts to carry it through — and whether that fitness lies in some overall superiority or inferiority need not be implied in this text about husbands and wives. I don’t think it is implied.

So, I pray that God would give to Jennifer — and there are many I am sure who feel what she feels — a wonderful sense of peace in who she is in Christ with all the glorious things that being in Christ implies for his care and her value and her inheritance. And I pray that she would find the teaching of the Bible on manhood and womanhood liberating and satisfying rather than troubling.

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