In Defense Of Complementarianism: A Response To Allen Yeh (Part 2)

A few weeks ago I wrote this blog post as a response to this post by Dr. Allen Yeh on the Scriptorium, which was a non-theological case for egalitarianism. Now Dr. Yeh has written his second post, which purports to be a theological defense of egalitarianism. I am obliged to point out, however, that it is not in fact a theological defense, but rather a Biblical defense. This is an important difference, primarily because my response will be in two parts. In this post, I want to focus on “big picture” theological issues, namely the inherent patriarchal character of the Judeo-Christian worldview. As such, it may appear to some readers that I am simply talking past Dr. Yeh. In my next post, however, I will interact directly with some of the Scripture passages that he cites.

1. Christianity Is Inherently Hierarchical

John Mark Reynolds has said that there will be 12 thrones next to Christ at the Heavenly banquet, and neither he nor I will ever sit on one of them. There are prophets and Apostles, who are the foundation of the church, who walked with Christ, and who were especially empowered by the Holy Spirit to do works that I will never do. Their unique position entails that they will receive a greater reward. Yet, at the same time, we are all one in Christ. We will all experience eternal fellowship with Him.

Jesus Christ was God incarnate. His disciples called Him Lord, and they rightly worshiped and obeyed him. Yet He called them his friends, and his co-workers.

The point of all this is simple: Christianity sees no opposition between hierarchy and equality. Egalitarianism necessarily opposes these two, such that one must obliterate the other to survive (the subtitle of Discovering Biblical Equality reads, “Complementarity Without Hierarchy“). Because of the prevailing cultural and philosophical presuppositions of our day, egalitarians assume that equality must be preserved, even at the cost of hierarchy. But as we have seen, this need not be the case. Just as Christ is the head of the church, yet he calls us brothers and fellow heirs, so we find that a man is called to be the representative head of his family, and of the church on earth while Christ is away, yet this implies no inequality between men and women. It was a man, Adam, who was the federal head of all mankind, through whom sin entered the world, according to Paul (despite the fact that Eve personally sinned first). In other words, it might be better to view hierarchy in terms of representation and service rather than authority (which is a loaded word). Theoretically, anyone can represent or serve anyone else without being greater than them in an ontological way. So it is with men, who are called to represent Christ both in the church and in their marriages, and through that representation to serve others on Christ’s behalf.

2. Jesus Christ Is The Fullest Revelation Of God

Jesus Christ called God “Father” and instructed us to do the same. This is not insignificant. We are frequently reminded by egalitarians that Jesus used the analogy of a hen and her chicks to describe God, but an analogy is different from a name. To say that an aspect of God’s character is similar to a behavior exhibited by a female animal is hardly the same as calling God by the name Father. Further, if we are to take this as an argument that there is some sort of feminine principle within the Godhead (or that gender is completely insignificant when it comes to God, who is, after all, spirit), then is it equally valid to pray “Our Mother, who art in Heaven…”? Given the anthropological assumptions of egalitarianism, I cannot see why not.

More importantly, Jesus Christ, the fullest revelation of God to humanity, was a male. S. M. Hutchens, in a 1992 article for Touchstone Magazine, puts it eloquently when he says:

If what the Scriptures say about the nature of Christ is true, that this carpenter from Nazareth contains heaven and earth in some astounding way, being universal in his particularity and particular in his universality, the Everlasting Man, the Life and Light of the world, the Beginning and the End of all things, then how can it be a matter of indifference that when he was manifest in human flesh he came not as a woman, an angel, or some tertium quid, but as a man? His maleness, like everything else about him, cannot be regarded as incidental: it has timeless, cosmic significance.

As Adam was the head of his race, Christ is the head of his church; the church called to proclaim and represent Christ to the world. Given such a paradigm, male headship, at least in the church, doesn’t seem so strange after all.

Finally, I feel obligated to address Dr. Yeh’s concluding comments. He says:

…you may disagree with me, but I don’t think you can say I didn’t make a good attempt here! There are Scriptural arguments for egalitarianism to contend with, and I hope nobody writes this off as fluff. You may say that I am wrong (and, by all means, feel free), but you can’t say that I have no biblical case for my position.

To be frank (but I hope not unkind), I find this a bit disturbing. How can one be simultaneously wrong and yet have a “biblical case” for one’s position? Dr. Yeh seems to be suggesting that as long as someone quotes Scripture and makes an effort to use those Scripture quotations to build their case, one cannot possibly call their position unbiblical. This places the bar for defending one’s view from Scripture very low. As long as I can quote the Bible and make my opponent concede that I sincerely made a good attempt, I’ll never have to change my mind.

I hope that I have so far succeeded in undermining some of the presuppositions of egalitarianism and showing that Biblical Christianity is both hierarchical and patriarchal. Next time, I hope to take a closer look at some of the “proof texts” used by both sides.

Update: Click here to read part 3 of my response to Dr. Yeh. ‘

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David Nilsen

David graduated from Biola University in 2008, with a B.A. in Philosophy. He studied Historical Theology for three years at Westminster Seminary in California (his essays on Theology, Church History and Eastern Orthodoxy can be found here). David has been blogging about Philosophy, Politics and Culture since 2004. He has contributed to The White Horse Inn and The Gospel Coalition. You can also follow him on Twitter.

  • Lindsay Stallones

    Interesting thoughts, but unconvincing, I fear from a merely evangelical perspective. If you were arguing from sacramental theology, I could go much further with this argument. Just as Christ chose to become incarnate as a man, so priests who prefigure Him should be male. So Christ chose wine and unleavened bread for the Last Supper, so we should use those elements when celebrating the same. God has all of creation and more at His disposal, and when He chooses a symbol, that choice is not something to brush aside (as the evangelical church so often does).

    But this is hardly a robust defense of complementarianism. It’s hardly even a response to Dr. Yeh’s post. I look forward to reading your direct response to Dr. Yeh’s biblical exegesis, because I’ve never been able to understand the complementarian view outside sacramental theology. So far, alas, I’m still at a loss to describe your position or any of its defenses from theology or Scripture.

  • David Nilsen


    I’m still unclear as to how “sacramental” theology can make any unique claims in this regard. Perhaps you could explain? As I told you last time, it is false to suggest that the only evangelical alternative to sacramentalism is mere symbolism, but even if it weren’t, I’m not clear on why a Zwinglian could not say exactly what you have just said. The symbol may be merely a symbol, but it doesn’t follow that it can be changed or dispensed with. It would also be helpful if I knew exactly what you meant by “sacramental” theology (Transubstantiation, consubstantiation, the Orthodox view, etc).

  • Lindsay Stallones

    It’s an imperfect analogy, but it’s kind of like the difference between modern currency and the gold standard. A dollar bill today is only worth what we consider a dollar because we’ve all agreed that’s what it’s worth. A dollar bill backed by specie is worth a lump of gold locked away in a treasury somewhere, and has substantial, finite meaning of some kind.

    A symbol, no matter how solemnly we take it outside the sacramental context, is still merely a symbol because we say it is. We can say so with good reason, even historical or biblical precedent, but if we don’t believe that God works through that symbol in a Real, spiritual manner, it’s just a symbol because we say it is.

    In that context, the teaching that occurs through the agent of a human male in the evangelical (purely symbolic) tradition need only happen through a male because we say so. When it comes to the Eucharist, however, the priest stands in the place of Christ in a Real manner. In that instance, maleness is as important as the property of wine and unleavened bread in the Eucharist.

    But I’m nowhere near the best person to mount a defense of sacramental theology, so please forgive the weaknesses of my argument!

  • Lindsay Stallones

    I’m an Anglican, if that helps clear things up a little. Real Presence, not necessarily Transubstantiation or Consubstantiation.

  • David Nilsen


    In that case, all I can say is that you might be right (although I still think a Memorialist could argue that the symbols are instituted by God, not by any kind of human consensus), but your criticism would not apply to traditional Presbyterians, Reformed, and Lutherans, all of whom affirm (confessionally at least) some form of Real Pressence, and all of whom are “evangelical” (if not in the modern American sense).

  • Allen Yeh

    Thanks for that. I don’t think this is really an adequate reply until I see your second post, but let me make a couple of comments:

    1) Your explicit aim is “undermining some of the presuppositions of egalitarianism”. I’d use a more positive word here. “Undermine” sounds subversive and decidedly negative. But that’s just a stylistic point.

    2) At the end of your post, you said: “How can one be simultaneously wrong and yet have a “biblical case” for one’s position? Dr. Yeh seems to be suggesting that as long as someone quotes Scripture and makes an effort to use those Scripture quotations to build their case, one cannot possibly call their position unbiblical. This places the bar for defending one’s view from Scripture very low. As long as I can quote the Bible and make my opponent concede that I sincerely made a good attempt, I’ll never have to change my mind.”
    I don’t think this is placing the bar low, but rather to avoid arrogant dogmatism. There is a fine line between defending the truth and being hard-headed. I think President Bush went from the former to the latter and he couldn’t tell the difference between the two after a while. Part of me admired him for sticking to his guns, but part of me thought he unreasonably wouldn’t listen to other people’s sound advice.
    Let me suggest that you ought to consider the difference between relativism and pluralism. I’ve just written a post (not actually to address you but my students) but which is nonetheless relevant to this situation:

    I hope that at the end of the day we are being charitable as well as being truthful. See my blog here for what I mean:

  • Allen Yeh

    Also, regarding your assertion that I made a Biblical case, not a theological one:
    3) the Bible is where theology comes from. I’d like to see someone try to make a theological case for something without using the Bible. The only difference between Biblical theology and systematic theology is not that the former uses the Bible and the latter doesn’t. Both use the Bible, it’s just that the former’s theology comes from a particular book rather than the latter’s theology being arranged according to topic.

  • David Nilsen

    Dr. Yeh,

    Thanks for the comments!

    2) I read your post on pluralism. Overall I thought it was very good, but I’m a bit unsure about how you specifically apply it to theology. It’s one thing to admit that in the grace of God anyone can be elect and we don’t know who the elect are, so of course an Arminian peadobaptist complementarian can be a true Christian. But it’s quite another to say that such positions are really a matter of indifference. Don’t you think it’s kind of a big deal if God has commanded his people to baptize their infants and some of them don’t? In contrast to the sort of pluralism you seem to be advocating, I welcome the sort of honesty that Mark Dever showed recently when he called infant baptism a sin. I baptize babies, so I would say the reverse is true, but I admire his honesty. You can’t simply shrug your shoulders and say, “well, you have your verses and I have mine, the Bible just isn’t clear so I can’t say you’re sinning.” Either you believe your position to be the right one or you’re simply agnostic, you can’t have it both ways. (and on the subject of charity, Mark Dever is a founding member of Together for the Gospel, with several Presbyterians, so you can’t say that his honesty leads to a lack of cooperation and love).

    Moreover, Catholics have “biblical” defenses for their doctrines. I’m curious where you draw the line. How far does theological pluralism extend? It’s fine to say that you prefer an academic institution that represents different views, but a seminary is not the church. Pluralism is OK in the sense of tolerating people who you think are wrong, but you can’t consciously let that wrong (unbiblical, sinful) teaching into your local church. Would you agree?

    3) Right, but since I was making broad theological points and you were interacting with specific texts, I felt it was important to point out the difference. While you were asking, “What is Paul saying in 1 Timothy 2?” I was asking, “What is a Christian view of anthropology?” I didn’t want readers to think that I was going to completely side-step the biblical arguments you made. Hopefully my text post will be up soon! Thanks again for taking the time to interact with my posts!

  • Allen Yeh

    True, seminaries should be open to a variety of positions, because they’re educational institutions. Churches should stick to one position. I totally agree with you on this. This is why we have denominations. And why we can’t have Catholics & Protestants, or paedobaptists & credobaptists, in the same church, but we can still honor each other as brothers & sisters in Christ.
    However, I am *very* uncomfortable with Mark Dever calling paedobaptism a sin. Wow! Really? So David, you’re OK with Mark Dever calling you a sinner? I think that is very uncharitable. That is elevating a nonessential to an essential, I think. While I think the credobaptist position is stronger Biblically, I understand and appreciate the paedobaptist position. I don’t think their argument is as strong as the credobaptist one (so I stand firm on my position), but to name someone a sinner? That is going too far, methinks.
    Also, T4G allows for Baptists and Presbyterians, true, but doesn’t allow for non-Reformed people or egalitarians. So it seems to put Reformed theology and complementarianism as essentials but baptism as a nonessential. That just seems arbitrary to me! I would put the baptism issue as more of an essential than egalitarianism/complementarianism, personally!
    Well, these are some good back-and-forths between us. I appreciate your thoughts, David!

  • David Nilsen

    Dr. Yeh,

    Actually, no, I have no problem with Pastor Dever calling me a sinner with regard to this issue. For me it’s simply a matter of honesty and consistency. If you believe that it is a sin to disobey God (which I’m sure we both do) and that baptizing infants and not baptizing believers who have made a profession of faith is disobeying God, then it is a sin. Again, I don’t think you can have it both ways. You can’t simultaneously “stand firm” in the conviction that infant baptism is wrong, and yet be unwilling to confront it as sin. In my opinion, there is nothing more UNcharitable than not confronting sin. Is infant-vs-adult baptism an “essential” in the sense that those who do one over the other are not saved? Of course not. But to refuse to call it sin on that basis is, in my opinion, to trivialize sin.

    As for T4G, it actually makes a lot of sense for them to restrict their theology when it comes to Calvinism and complementarianism, but not baptism. First, even though they are open to all, they are essentially a Pastor’s conference. If you are complementarian, you cannot consistently invite women to preach and teach to a group of ordained elders (maybe if it were only unordained seminary students it would be different!). Second, they are together for the GOSPEL. Say what you will about the differences between Calvinism and Arminianism, but they really do teach slightly different things when it comes to the gospel message itself. Is man totally unable to contribute in any way to his justification? Or must he choose of his own accord to respond to God’s prevenient grace? Was Christ’s atonement on the cross (the very center of the gospel) for all, or only for the elect? Since the T4G conference is essentially a series of lectures explaining the content of the Gospel itself, Reformed theology is very important. In contrast to these two things, baptism does not pertain directly to the purpose, content or format of the conference, so it makes sense for it to be a non-issue. In any case, my point was simply that Mark Dever can at the same time say that Ligon Duncan and R. C. Sproul are sinning by baptizing infants, and yet work closely with them for the sake of the Gospel (and remain close friends with them).

    Thanks to you as well! I really appreciate you taking the time to comment.

  • Allen Yeh

    Hi David,
    For you it’s a matter of honesty and consistency, for me it’s a matter of knowing what is absolutely definite and what we can have a “strong educated opinion” on. I know that we are called to definitely baptize, but as to the method of baptism…that’s somewhat ambiguous.
    I see a huge difference between those things we can affirm in the Apostle’s Creed (which ALL Christians agree on–with the exception of that weird “and he descended into Hell” text), and things like paedobaptism vs. credobaptism, egalitarianism vs. complementarianism, Calvinism vs. Arminianism, and premill vs. amill vs. postmill. The fact that SO many good Christians disagree on these issues makes me have a good dose of theological humility, which is NOT to say I need to be wishy-washy on where I stand. But I affirm what I believe while also acknowledging that I may be wrong. I don’t think that’s inconsistent. I may be 80-90% certain about something, but I wouldn’t stake my life on it. As to the stuff in the Apostle’s Creed, I *would* stake my life on it. Acknowledging that there are shades of gray (which is *not* the “slippery slope to liberalism”) instead of everything being black-and-white is, to me, honest.
    At the end of the day, I think you and I just have different hermeneutics and as such we’re a little bit like ships passing in the night. But I hope that this doesn’t mean we can’t call each other brothers in Christ and band together for Christ’s mission in the world!

  • Allen Yeh

    I just read something that one of my friends wrote, which I think articulates it better than I could!
    “We need to hold in tension both the boundaries and the mystery of our faith. There are times that we as Evangelicals tend to define our faith through the articulation of right doctrine. In the process, we sometimes lose the wonder of what we don’t know. Our praise and worship should be nourished and sustained both by right doctrine and the acknowledgment that God is grander and larger than our imaginations can hold.”

  • David Nilsen

    Dr. Yeh,

    I’m not convinced that we’re using a completely different hermeneutic, because I agree with almost everything you’re saying! The only problem I still have with how you’re describing things is that you seem to be equating the accusation of sin with the accusation of being unsaved, or with attempting to burn someone at the steak! But that’s simply not the case. Pastor Dever is simply pointing out a clear (for him) instance of believers who are sinning by disobeying God. He is not saying that they are not true believers, nor is he calling us to treat them as such. In fact, I would say that it is his belief that infant baptism is sinful disobenience to God that is motivating his desire to defend adult baptism and see his Presbyterian brothers converted to Baptists.

    Also, if you are truly 80-90% certain that adult baptism is right, then you should be 80-90% certain that baptizing infants is disobedience to God. That extra 10% should keep you humble, to be sure, but it shouldn’t keep you silent!

    As for mystery, I’m a Calvinist! I believe in a LOT of mystery! But I should point out that mystery usually pertains to HOW something can be true, not THAT or IF it is true. For example, would you say that holding the tension between the “boundaries and mystery of our faith” when it comes to the Trinity means that we should be uncertain about whether or not God actually is a Trinity? Or should we wholeheartedly affirm the Trinity and label rejection of the Trinity a heresy, but affirm that it is a great mystery just HOW the Trinity can be? It seems, even given what you just said about the Apostle’s Creed, that we should do the latter. The same, I think, would go for lots of other beliefs that involve mystery. Keeping sight of the wonder and awe we should feel before an omnipotent God whose ways are so far beyond us should not force us into a practical agnosticism about all the wonderful truths that He HAS made known to us in His Word.

  • Allen Yeh

    I still think that there are some hermeneutical differences going on here. Steve Holmes, an Evangelical theology professor at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, articulates it well here in this blog:
    He basically asserts that to be Evangelical is not primarily to assent to a set of dogmas (dogmas should define a Christian, but not an Evangelical), Evangelicalism is mostly a “shape.” I have a book coming out next year in which I argue basically the same thing–except I say that one of the defining hallmarks of Evangelicalism is its “hermeneutic.” To be Christian is to affirm everything in the Apostle’s Creed. To be Evangelical is to affirm a certain way of reading Scripture, to affirm the centrality of the cross and of preaching, to highlight the necessity of being born again and of evangelism, and everything else is less important. Which is why, though I am a Baptist, I have more in common with a Presbyterian who is Evangelical than a Baptist who doesn’t affirm all those things I just said about Evangelicalism. This is why it disturbs me when I meet other people who are “Evangelical” who would call me a sinner for taking the opposite stance as me on eschatology, women’s roles, baptism, etc. I’m like, “Really? I thought we were on the same team!” This feels more like “friendly fire” when we pick on each other, when we realize that there are heretics, atheists, and “liberals” running around out there, who don’t take God seriously. This is why I think it’s SO important that we: a) be able to distinguish between the essentials and the nonessentials of our faith (yes, some things are uber clear and other things are in the gray areas); b) still be able to clearly articulate (i.e. have a good educated opinion on) what we believe about the nonessentials without making these hills we’re going to die on; c) work together as fellow Evangelicals for the good of God’s kingdom. This is how we can have an “ecumenical” spirit amongst Evangelicals. Too often Evangelicals are so concerned with “truth” (and rightfully so, but that can be taken too far) to the point where our “truth” just becomes divisive hair splitting rather than an opportunity to show the world that God loves them and desires to save them, instead of this negative witness of infighting amongst ourselves. Anyway, that’s what I hope will be the future of Evangelicalism and where I (and people like Steve Holmes) see how it’s manifested in the twenty-first century!