Defining Terms (Covenantal Complementarianism Part 1)

“Covenantal complementarianism” serves as a clarification, and sometimes a substantial correction, of the standard view of complementarianism within modern evangelicalism. It also serves as a vital bulwark against forms of egalitarianism that are clear departures from both Scriptural truth and physiological realities. The biblical, covenantal view departs from both ends of the spectrum.

Christians, in general, should expect some pushback from various radical ditches anytime they take a stand that is not merely a caricature of conventional cultural liberalism or conventional cultural conservatism. Any orthodox view of Christianity will presuppose that worldliness and pagan philosophies can influence the Church from all directions, not just the Left. Christianity does not acquiesce and cooperate with the cultural paradigms of “conservatism and liberalism.” The covenantal view is neither from American cultural conservativism or American cultural liberalism. Likewise, the covenantal view is neither anarchy nor tyranny.

We live in a culture of identity politics, dramatic shows of outrage, demonization, and shutting down the conversation. It is of utmost importance for Christians to reject that cowardly attitude towards disagreement, take the time to explain what they mean and let those to whom they are opposed (or think they are opposed) explain themselves. Instead of silencing the “opposition” like a mob of so-called anti-fascists on the campus of Berkeley, we should be asking more questions and we should be open to dialogue. This is especially true when the disagreement is contentious or controversial.

The crux of this debate is the nature of covenant and authority. Is authority given out by God without qualification? What does the Biblical model of the covenant teach us about authority dynamics within marriage? Is authority contingent upon something besides ontology? For example, is authority based on the office, gender, age, or ethnicity of the supposed authority bearer? Can authority be lost while the office remains? When can that happen? The covenantal view, which I will argue is both old and distinctively Protestant, is that authority has always been contingent upon the ethical stipulations placed, by God, upon the covenant in question. Service to God, and to one another, is that ethical stipulation and the details of what that means will depend on the nature of the particular relationship.

In this first of these three essays, I will cover some common hot-button terms for definition and clarification. In the next part, I will be going through the five-point covenantal model as a means of explaining Biblical and Covenantal Complementarianism.


While it is not in itself the crux of the debate, it is still important to define the terms. One may not be happy with a term used, but the meaning is what should be focused upon and considered. Discussing the wisdom of using a popular or unpopular label is permissible, but if terms are defined, plain honesty dictates that we deal with those meanings and not a different and less defensible strawman. We should be careful not to slip into merely fighting about words (2 Tim. 2:14). That said, the words we choose can communicate or signal in the culture ideas that we do not want. There is a natural tension between desiring to use words in the most etymologically and technically accurate way, while at the same time understanding and admitting the cultural baggage some terms have. Whichever terms are adopted, wisdom should be considered alongside technical definitions and historical definitions.

For example, different people use different definitions of egalitarianism. Different people also use different definitions of complementarianism. In this article, I use these terms in a way that is best understood by the typical  “John Piper, Gospel Coalition, Reformed Southern Baptist crowd.” Admittedly, that also does not nail it down, but it gets us into the same ballpark. Let’s then narrow it a bit more.

Egalitarianism and Complementarianism

When I say egalitarian or egalitarianism in this post, I mean radical ontological equality. This ontological egalitarianism necessitates a functional egalitarianism. It acknowledges no difference between the sexes except physiological differences, and these are considered largely irrelevant. This includes no difference in strength, function, purpose, ability, etc. It is both a radical ontological and functional egalitarianism. All orthodox Christians should reject this ideology.

Keep in mind that I affirm entirely an ethical egalitarianism which asserts equal value, dignity, social rights, and legal equality for women. Women can own property, work outside of the home, are equally Image Bearers, etc. Because, however, of the common usage of this term in the Reformed evangelical tradition, I will be addressing these ideas according to how the Center for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) define them. Right or wrong, CBMW is widely considered a standard for “gender issues” within Reformed evangelicalism. There are philosophical and etymological meanings for egalitarianism that are more faithful to the historical usage of the term; nevertheless, I will be using the understanding from CBMW. The power of “triggering” rhetoric is substantial, and because I have no allegiance to or affinity for the term, I see little value in subscribing to the term or employing it in an unqualified manner.

One article from CBMW written by Dr. Bruce Ware, a Professor of Theology at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, defines egalitarianism in this way:

God created male and female as equal in all respects. Gen. 1:26-27 makes no distinction between woman and man insofar as both are equally made in His image (i.e., ontological equality), and both are given the responsibility to rule over His creation (i.e., functional equality).

They define complementarianism in this way:

Male and female were created by God as equal in dignity, value, essence and human nature, but also distinct in role whereby the male was given the responsibility of loving authority over the female, and the female was to offer willing, glad-hearted and submissive assistance to the man. Gen. 1:26-27 makes clear that male and female are equally created as God’s image, and so are, by God’s created design, equally and fully human. But, as Gen. 2 bears out (as seen in its own context and as understood by Paul in 1 Cor. 11 and 1 Tim. 2), their humanity would find expression differently, in a relationship of complementarity, with the female functioning in a submissive role under the leadership and authority of the male.

CBMW is right in their view of equality under God in dignity, value, essence, and human nature. CBMW is also correct in that men and women have distinct roles. Getting into the weeds of what those exact roles are is a discussion for later, but suffice it to say, there are normative gender roles. There remains a need for clarity and correction in when, where, and how men are given authority.

Christian husbands should indeed have authority. However, there is something “in between” the office/ontology and God-given authority—a qualifier and a basis for that authority. It is service. Service, or in other words, we could rightly call this standard ethics, law, or faithfulness. There has been an oft-repeated misunderstanding of the term “service” when it is regarding authority. What I mean is not that the spouse who washes the most dishes is “in charge” or that the spouse who works the most hours is automatically “in charge.” If your purpose is to determine who is “in charge,” you are already missing the point. What I am asserting is the same as what our Lord argued in Matthew 20:25–28:

But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”

Neither position, as commonly defined in the broad Reformed community, has authority contingent upon anything other than ontology. In an all too common twist, both gutters on the side of the road find strange unity in their error. The egalitarians and the complementarians agree that ontology is central. Egalitarians are incorrect about ontology, and because of their mistake, flatten God’s ordained distinctions. Complementarians lay ontological distinctions as the foundation and standard for authority. Both views hold ontology as its basis, and both positions are wrong for the same reason.

Not only are these two views both incorrect, neither are conducive to protecting and serving the weaker vessel.

Egalitarianism, because it flattens out all distinctions, revokes the idea of there being a weaker vessel or a weaker party in a marriage covenant. With that flattening out also comes a logical rejection of the God-given responsibility for men to protect and serve their wives. Further, it removes the duty of any man to protect and serve women. If there is radical and unqualified equality, there can be no special responsibility to look out for and serve a weaker party.

Complementarians very often preach and teach the responsibility of men, the duty of the stronger vessel, and so on. However, because their view of authority is foundationally ontological and not ethical, this opens the door to various abuses and neglect. Abuse of authority and a neglecting of service are certainly not promoted, but a structure of authority that allows for those exact things is taught and reinforced.

That covers, for the sake of this paper, complementarianism and egalitarianism. But what about patriarchalism and feminism? Complementarianism and egalitarianism, although often vilified from different corners, are milder terms, so what about those scary and controversial terms?

Root words

First, Scripture speaks about patriarchs. The root word for patriarchy is found in Scripture; πατριάρχης (patriarch). Patriarch is a Biblical term and is, in general, used in a positive way. It is a noun and refers to individuals.

Patriarchalism, as a distinct term, is not found in Scripture. Further, just because its root term is found in Scripture does not mean we should find it acceptable or biblical. The root word for feminism, for example, is also found in Scripture. נְקֵבָה (female). It is a noun and refers to individuals. Feminism, as a distinct term, however, is not found in Scripture. The devil is in the “ism.” To claim that one term is intrinsically Biblical because the root word is in Scripture (usually this claim is made of patriarchalism), while the other is automatically evil would be special pleading. In order to prove or disprove one or the other, a lot more work is required than just calling one Biblical and the other humanistic. We must not mix up a root word with its ideological derivative—especially an ideological derivative divorced from all cultural and historical context. We do not adopt pietism because we are supposed to be pious. We do not adopt sinless perfectionism because Matthew 5:48 calls us to be “perfect.” We do not adopt socialism because being social at a get together is polite. Neither should we adopt feminism because femininity is good or adopt patriarchalism because of the Old Testament patriarchs.

What about feminism as a term or a label? First, modern forms of humanistic feminism are Godless and often place men and woman at odds with one another. Though early women’s rights movements were worthwhile, it did not take long for a radicalization to occur that was humanistic in nature. The domination by women of men was sometimes taught as a replacement of the domination by men of women. As R.J. Rushdoony said in Marriage and Women,

Women’s rights was a legitimate movement. But the tragedy of women’s rights was that it developed very quickly into feminism, it pitted women against men, and it was the men’s fault. So, when we condemn feminism, we must condemn the men who created it.

Feminism, like many terms, has a complex and diverse history and, I’ll readily admit, much of that history is absolutely antithetical to God’s Law/Word. To restate what I and others stated in the Adam and Eve Declaration published on Reconstructionist Radio’s website because certain strains of feminism are laudable and were fighting for real justice, I cannot condemn all feminism. I do not, however, wish to be associated with or labeled with the term due to its historical and modern, commonly-held connotations and associations. Feminism, grammatically, only means “a belief or idea having to do with femininity.” As a basic term, there is nothing intrinsic to it that I disdain, but the associations are far too strong in my opinion.

Unlike feminism, patriarchalism is generally antithetical to scripture and covenantal thinking. The grammatical meaning is literally “rule of father.” This ideology is no more biblical than the later development of feminism. Even in a faithful Christian society, fathers are not rulers of households. Husbands are covenantal heads. This is an important distinction. A father is not the same thing as a husband. Father rule is clanism and tribalism wherein the oldest generation father rules. Instead of a husband serving faithfully as a covenantal head, the eldest grandfather or uncle rules the extended family.

This is why patriarchalism was opposed so adamantly by Dr. North and others. It supplants and destroys the covenantal and Scriptural family. It actually destroys the headship of husbands and transforms the covenantal family into a non-covenantal clan.

Furthermore, the term is ontological only. This logically leaves no guard against an unfaithful father. It is not “Rule of Faithful Father,” it is just “Rule of Father.” Again, this is a non-covenantal and non-ethical relationship based on ontology alone.

Another form of patriarchalism that is not tribalistic in nature is where the wife is viewed functionally as a child of the husband. The wife is under the husband in the same ethical way as children would be under the mother. Therefore, a non-tribal family unit could still adopt patriarchalism because the husband is seen as a father to the wife. Like the other terms, it will be used in different ways, however, in large part historically the term and the ideas have been a tool of domination and not Biblical dominion. Therefore, although I’ll believe in and pray for faithful patriarchs, I reject patriarchalism as a term and as an ideology.


The husband, as long as he remains a husband, is the head of the household. Also, those who have headship in a marriage or over a corporate group of individuals should have more authority, and often they do. However, it is crucial to understand the difference between headship and authority. Headship should indicate and point to legitimate authority, but what should be is not always what is.

Headship is representational. It signifies that someone bears a greater weight of responsibility for a group. Civil rulers and husbands are two of the most common examples. Still, headship does not imply a command to obey. Evil kings can retain headship, and it is their headship that forms the basis for why they will bear greater condemnation for their wickedness (i.e., the fourth point of the covenantal model, sanctions, as we shall see).

The most glaring example of headship that does not necessitate authority or obedience is the covenantal headship of Adam over fallen man. Scripture teaches us that those who are unregenerate are “in” Adam in a covenantal/representational way:

Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—for until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. Nevertheless, death reigned from Adam until Moses, even over those who had not sinned in the likeness of the offense of Adam, who is a type of Him who was to come (Rom. 5:12–14).

The headship of Adam over fallen humanity is legitimate in that it is a reality. However, this headship does not indicate a call of obedience nor submission to Adam. The headship of Adam does not imply any authority in Adam. Instead, the Gospel calls all men, even while they were still sinners (Rom. 5:8) to repent in obedience and submission to Christ.

Headship is a significant covenantal reality, but it should not be conflated with a command to obey or with God-given authority.


Because the aforementioned definition of egalitarianism is so very far gone with the Biblical realities of gender, I find myself much closer to the complementarian position. But while egalitarianism tells falsehoods, complementarianism leaves out a vital doctrine: covenantalism.

Further, according to the definitions made in this paper, both feminism and patriarchalism represent even more radical versions of humanistic egalitarianism and complementarianism. Again, some may have different meanings, but taking in the words themselves as well as the historical baggage, this is where I am in using these terms. In any case, we should have the grace and humility to allow others to explain their meaning, even if you vehemently disagree with word usage. We should judge the ideas first, and then judge the rhetoric as a secondary consideration.

As I said above, I am much closer to complementarianism and I can honestly adopt the most general precepts of that view, but the ideas must be clarified and qualified. That is why Covenantal Complementarianism will be helpful. Using a covenantal model to reflect on the nature of authority in the marriage will be part two.

Originally published on Dec 15, 2018 at The American Vision.

Covenantal Complementarianism Part 1

Covenantal Complementarianism Part 2

Covenantal Complementarianism Part 3

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