The Slippery Slope of Hierarchy Theology

by | Jun 23, 2021 | Theology of Marriage and Sex | 67 comments

The Slippery Slope of Complementarian Theology

Do evangelicals focus on hierarchy–or people having power over others–as a positive thing?

Keith’s been such a powerful advocate for giving women a voice, whether it’s professionally in his role as a physician or whether it’s in churches where he’s served on a deacon’s board that argued this, or whether it’s on our podcast.

He’s been mulling over this idea of the “slippery slope” argument against women being treated equally under Christ, and wanted to address it today.

So here’s my husband!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

​Sheila recently wrote a blogpost to pastors “Do you preach a form of marriage you don’t practice?”, tackling the question “Is it healthy to promote the idea that hierarchy in marriage is a Biblical principle that should be lived out?” The blogpost looked at the fruit of that teaching: Do marriages really do better if the husband makes the decisions?

Do marriages really fall apart if there is no “tie breaker”?

As Sheila and her team found in the survey of 20,000 women for their book The Great Sex Rescue, the majority of Christian couples say they believe these ideas, but in reality they are collaborative in their decision making. And those couples do well. But the ones who actually put hierarchy into practice, where the husband really is in charge, have bad outcomes.

Her point was that since we know that the “husband-as-boss” model of marriage results in bad outcomes, and that collaborative decision-making results in good outcomes, pastors should teach the latter rather than the former, regardless of what they personally believe.

I was not surprised to see that she got push-back from people who believe strongly in hierarchy in marriage.

I was also entirely unsurprised by the fact that they almost universally did not engage her arguments, but instead did the same thing they always do. They basically stated that “husband-as-boss” is the Biblical model, that anybody who says otherwise is twisting the Bible into their preconceived feminist ideology and that we are all headed for hell in a hand-basket if we allow this heretical idea–that husband and wife are equally sanctified, equally Spirit-filled and equally able to hear God’s voice–to prevail.

They always make some form of “slippery slope” argument.

The Bible is meant to be interpreted a certain way, they warn, and we will get further and further off-base if we ever deviate from that. I will leave aside the fact that some of our greatest heroes in Church history are shining examples of how amazing it can be for us to look at the Bible with fresh interpretation. Instead, I am going to focus on something that all these “slippery-slopers” miss: that there is a slippery slope in the other direction, too! If you cling to the concept of hierarchy in marriage, the natural and logical progression is to take you down truly bad pathways in several areas.

What does the “slippery slope” of believing in hierarchy and power get us?

First: It warps your sense of reality

My first blogpost was about how couples do better with collaborative decision-making. This has been shown time and again. Dr. John Gottman’s research showed that when husbands are unwilling to share power in their marriages, they had an 81% chance their marriage would self-destruct. Sheila’s research for the Great Sex Rescue showed that marriages were 7.4x more likely to end in divorce when the husband makes the decisions-even if he consults with her first. This is not opinion. This is fact. The collaboration model is better than the husband-as-boss model. But people who believe in hierarchy in marriage as God-given and who are unwilling to re-evaluate their interpretation of the Bible, now face a big problem. They find themselves in the situation where “God’s way” doesn’t do as well as “the world’s way”.

How does one reconcile that?

Answer: Ignore it completely and continue to believe what you want to believe anyway. Emerson Eggerichs is a typical example of this.  In his book Love & Respect, he says “To set up a marriage with two equals at the head is to set it up for failure. That is one of the big reasons that people are divorcing left and right today. (pg. 221)” He gives no statistics or evidence to back up his position for one simple reason—there are none that he could give!  All of the available evidence proves exactly the opposite of what he is teaching.

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Evidence is very important to me as a physician. When a new drug comes along it doesn’t matter to me what I “feel” about it. It doesn’t matter to me if a friend is on the research team that developed it. What matters to me is if it works. I don’t ever want to lose that; for me that would mean completely losing touch with reality. I reject hierarchy in marriage for the same reason.

Second: It warps your theology

The idea that if you stop believing in hierarchy in marriage, your theology will get progressively more off-base is completely unfounded. In fact, the very opposite is true, as we see with the current rise of the doctrine of the “Eternal Subordination of the Son”.  If you are not familiar with this, let me do a quick synopsis.  Basically, the idea of a wife being in subjection to her husband has not been a problem throughout the vast majority of history since society incorrectly saw women as fundamentally less than men. Saying that only men could lead, then, made sense, because women weren’t capable of it.

In our society, though, we have arrived at the point where we realize that women and men are actually equal. This creates a problem because we can no longer make a case for female subjugation based on women being innately inferior to men.

Enter Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and the introduction of the concept of “roles” in marriage.

Rather than consider that we have been misinterpreting some passages of the Bible and perhaps husbands and wives should share in decision-making as co-laborers in Christ, the proponents of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood insist hierarchy is God’s plan. Although husband and wife are equal, they preach that God has given the husband the “role” of being in charge and the wife the “role” of being subject to him.

The “fly in the ointment” is that it is perfectly obvious to everyone that it is impossible for two people simultaneously to be equal and to have one in subjugation to the other. These are mutually exclusive ideas. The “Eternal Subordination of the Son” doctrine fills the gap by explaining that just as Jesus is equal to God the Father, but eternally subject to Him, so wives are equal to their husbands, but also must be subject to them.

The only problem is that this is complete heresy.

In fact, it’s a heresy that almost tore the Church apart sixteen centuries ago, but was considered dead until its recent resurrection in the last few decades by those trying to promote male leadership. I stand amazed that I have personally been told that if I reject hierarchy in marriage I am rejecting the Bible. But those very people are so invested in clinging to the idea of hierarchy in marriage, that rather than considering maybe they are the ones mistaken in their interpretation, they are willing to change their concept of the Trinity, arguably one of the most fundamental aspects of our faith!

Finally, it warps your sense of justice

I recently read Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood. If you love history (as I do), it is a very informative and enjoyable read and I highly recommend it. In addition to giving a phenomenal description of the historical attitudes toward women in the church through history, she tells some of her own story as well.  As a university professor, she was not allowed to teach the high schoolers at her church since that would mean she, a woman, would be teaching men (i.e. 13-year old boys). When they challenged the matter with church leadership, her youth pastor husband lost his job.

How did we get to the point where a person who is clearly trained, equipped and (as her book shows) gifted as a teacher could be prohibited from teaching purely on the basis that she was born a woman? The prevalence of this teaching in the church is appalling to me in itself, but it gets even worse when I see the attitude of its supporters on-line.

The one commenter who did actually engage Sheila’s arguments countered that Sheila’s teaching also had “bad fruit”. What was that bad fruit? Basically, he was saying people are unhappy because they are being taught these damaging things about equality and don’t want God’s way anymore. It took me a while to understand what he was saying: namely, that women–having had a taste of freedom–are unwilling to go back to how things used to be.

In other words, the problem with Beth Allison Barr is not how unfair it is that she can teach in university but can’t teach at church. The problem is that she should never have been teaching at university in the first place! I am not suggesting that all people who promote hierarchy in marriage believe we should go back to not allowing women to have an education or to work outside the home. But it is clear that some do. And if we accept hierarchy as God-given, there is a certain logic to their argument. So that’s another reason I don’t accept it; I see the slippery slope where I would lose all sense of justice.

Perhaps the most appalling instance of this happened during a debate with a man whom I considered a friend at the time. I was suggesting that some of the Biblical passages which look like they call for the subjugation of women needed to be taken in the context of the culture and the time at which they were written. He responded with the standard argument that it was dangerous for me to shift beliefs based on cultural changes. If it was true when Paul wrote it, he said, it is true now, full stop. I then pointed out you could make the same case in favor of slavery since Paul talked about it and never specifically condemned it. I thought I “had him” and he would have to concede the argument, but he looked me straight in the face and said, “Well, maybe God doesn’t see slavery as evil.” I was floored. I still cannot process how anyone could ever believe that.

May I never see the day that I would be so wedded to a doctrine that rather than considering whether I could be wrong, I would instead twist my theology to the point that I could actually imagine that the idea of one human being owning another could ever be from God.

Nobody comes to the Bible as a complete blank slate.

The things we have learned or experienced in our life will undoubtedly influence how we interpret Scripture. Certainly it is wise to remember this and to consider when we study the Bible whether we are bringing something to the Bible which is not there.

But remember that this applies to all readers. 

We all come to the Bible with preconceived notions, including those who believe in hierarchy in marriage. And the more I hear men like Piper, MacArthur, Grudem and Strachan talk, the more it is clear to me that ultimately their main goal is not  preserving the authority of the Bible, but preserving the authority of men. And those men will only be happy when everyone else brings that same bias to the Biblical texts–or are completely silenced.

I admit that I come to the Bible with the idea that women are equal to men in dignity, value and significance.

I see this as self-evident, not needing Biblical proof to be true. I make no apologies for the fact that I believe God loves His daughters just as much as His sons.  So when I read in 1 Corinthians 14:34 “Women should remain silent in the churches”, I admit it makes me do a double-take.

This does not mean I am refusing to believe Scripture. It means I am trying to make everything I know fit together. In fact, my “check” over this passage prompts me to remember something those who espouse hierarchy seem to miss – that in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul talks about women praying and prophesying in church! How do they not see the contradiction? Do they believe the Corinthian women prayed and prophesied with some ancient version of sign language? (Or maybe it was mime!)

The intellectually honest approach is to wrestle with these difficult passages and see them in a way that truly honors God as well as women and men who are created in His image. But assuming hierarchy is God-given and embracing it wholeheartedly easily allows you to skip past all that, pluck 1 Cor 14:34 entirely out of context and use it to try to silence talented women like Beth Allison Barr. And Sheila. And Beth Moore. And so many others.

Tragically, I expect maybe that’s the point. The Jesus I believe in said whoever wishes to be greatest must be the servant of all and his first post-resurrection act was commissioning the women to go tell the men. Let’s all resist a slippery slope that would create a Church where women are silenced and where our focus is on who has the power rather than on serving one another as Jesus commanded.

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What if you’re NOT the problem with your sex life?

What if the things that you’ve been taught have messed things up–and what if there’s a way to escape these messages?

Welcome to the Great Sex Rescue.

Beware the Slippery Slope of Complementarian Theology

What do you think? Why do you think nobody talks about the slippery slope in the other direction? Have you ever heard anyone defend slavery to justify men being over women? Let’s talk in the comments!

Written by

Keith Gregoire


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Keith Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Keith has been married to Sheila for over 30 years! They met while he was in pre-med at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. He has served as Chief of Pediatrics in the Quinte Region, and has been the chair of undergraduate pediatric medical education at Queen's University, and participated in the Royal College examination board for new pediatricians. He is the co-author with Sheila of The Good Guy's Guide to Great Sex, and a new marriage book they're working on. An avid birder, he loves traveling with Sheila all over North America in their RV.

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  1. M

    There’s a two minute clip of John McArthur defending slavery. It’s easy to look up.

    • Anonymous305

      Disturbing, but not surprising given how his university treats rape victims. Just Google “Jane rape Master’s University.”

    • Liz

      First, I love what you guys are doing, in regards to the unhealthy sex messages being promoted and believe by so many of us evangelicals. I am blessed to not have been too effected by them (other than the modesty/lust message, but I am thankful I am coming out of that wrong way of thinking).
      Secondly, I believe you guys are dedicated to biblical truth and aligning with what the Bible actually says (not just what some bible teacher has told us it says).
      My question for you us, how do you reconcile your view of the marriage relationship in light of passages such as
      Colossians 3:18-19
      1 Timothy 2:11-15
      Titus 2:4-5
      1 Corinthians 11:3
      Ephesians 5:23
      I am genuinely interested to know your thoughts on this. Please let me know how you are wrestling through interpreting these passages.

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Hi Liz, I’d suggest starting with our submission series, and then reading the other ones linked there. I also think many others have done a much better job at this than I ever could. I’d suggest reading Cynthia Westfall’s book Paul and Gender, which is excellent, or Marg Mowczko’s site, which goes into all of these verses well. They’re actually Greek scholars.

  2. Andrea

    My egalitarian father grew up a pastor’s kid in post-WWII communism, which means he actually knows what it is to suffer for the Gospel. He used to help people sneak Bibles into places where they were illegal at the time. You should have seen his face contort in a hundred different ways when I told him that Tim Keller doesn’t think egalitarians take the Bible seriously. I’m just so sick and tired of these spoiled wealthy Americans telling the rest of us how to believe properly. Please nobody feel offended if some of us, like my immigrant family, just don’t feel there is anything white male theologians living in the richest country on earth, with the strongest army on earth, could possibly teach us about a Savior who showed himself to impoverished Jewish fishermen living under foreign occupation. Privilege has quite the way of twisting one’s interpretation of the Scriptures.

    • Ellie

      Your father was a hero. Also, Merry Christmas!

  3. Scott

    Keith – you stated,
    “I admit that I come to the Bible with the idea that women are equal to men in dignity, value and significance.
    I see this as self-evident, not needing Biblical proof to be true. I make no apologies for the fact that I believe God loves His daughters just as much as His sons. So when I read in 1 Corinthians 14:34 “Women should remain silent in the churches”, I admit it makes me do a double-take.”
    How have you come to reconcile this with equality of men and women?

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Beth Allison Barr in The Making of Biblical Womanhood makes a good case that Paul was actually quoting a common saying at the time–and then dismantling it. So it wasn’t actually his words. Marg Mowczko deals with these verses quite a bit at her site and has some great insights.

    • Jane Eyre

      When we think of “church,” we think of a brick building with a steeple, pews, stained glass windows, an altar, all of that. (Adjust as needed based on denomination.) The priest or pastor has a modern sound system and a building designed for acoustics.
      Except that isn’t what was happening in Corinthians. “Church” might be wherever people met to worship. If that’s a big field and the priest has problems because Martha and Leah keep waving their friends over and greeting them enthusiastically during the sermon, “tell the women to be quiet in church” means something quite simple.
      THAT is what it means to read the Bible in context. God gives us wisdom, a tremendous gift, and it’s our job to distinguish between the specific and the general.
      Imagine: “Annie, don’t touch the stove!” when the burner is on. That does not mean that Annie is never allowed to cook, even as an adult. It means that little Annie is about to burn her hand.
      That’s why context is important.

      • Laura

        Jane Eyre,
        I like your analogy about Annie not touching the stove. Like you said, that doesn’t mean she can never cook. She just should not touch the stove when it’s too hot.
        I believe that’s what Paul was implied about those particular women in that particular church. He was telling them not to speak out of turn, but he never said they could not teach.
        Scripture has been so twisted and translated many times that it’s hard to know its original intent. What matters most is what Jesus taught and how He treated others. Instead of Christians focusing on how to follow the man-made rules perfectly, we need to focus more on being like Christ.

    • Melissa W

      I think it is easy to reconcile it. First, “remain quiet” to women is pretty evident that it is a group of women and not a specific woman who is teaching. The “women” were being disruptive in the service and shouldn’t be. Pretty easy to understand being Paul doesn’t say anything about not teaching or leading but simply to be quiet. Second, if it was a command that women should not teach or lead and that was a fundamental Christian doctrine for all churches, for all time then why didn’t Paul include that in a letter to every church he wrote to? They didn’t have the internet to share Paul’s letters. So if it was that important then Paul would have told every church. He did not. Third, it is important to remember that Paul is writing to specific churches and often times in response to letters or questions he received. We don’t have the benefit of knowing those questions he was asked or the scenarios he was presented with for advise and counsel. So Paul’s letters often times have a missing component that is very specific to that congregation that needs to be taken into account. Fourth, if a teaching of Paul cannot be supported by a teaching of Jesus or if it goes against and is contrary to a teaching of Jesus then it is Paul that is being misinterpreted. Jesus and his teachings are the standard for interpreting all of the rest of scripture because Jesus is the point of all scripture. Jesus did not forbid women sharing the news of the gospel and as pointed our on numerous occasions, women were the first ones to share the good news of his resurrection. If Jesus didn’t restrict women then interpreting Paul as restricting women is a misinterpretation. Jesus is the standard, not Paul. Paul’s letters have to be interpreted through the lens of Jesus first.

    • Keith

      There are many great books to help understand these passages which appear to relegate women to second class citizenship if we read them through a “Biblical Manhood & Womanhood” lens.
      I just read “Paul and Gender” by Cynthia Long Westfall. It brings great theological insight to this and other passages like 1 Tim 2:12 for instance.
      Marg Mowczko’s website is also an excellent resource

      • M

        Totally agree !

      • M

        I totally agree: this book and website have helped me tremendously!!!!!

    • Lisa

      Punctuation was not used in the ancient languages of the Bible. The churches wrote letters to Paul and he wrote back, answering their questions. The sentences that come directly after that passage you quoted don’t even make sense … unless you put that quote into quotation marks and see that Paul is likely quoting their statement and then asking them how on earth they came up with such a notion.
      All punctuation in the bible is a modern addition, based entirely on the translators’ opinions.

  4. Amy

    Excellent post. I recently read The Making of Biblical Womanhood and am now reading another book on church history called Pagan Christianity. Overall, I’m amazed at how different the church looks now compared to the New Testament church in the 1st century. The modern institution church is attempting to superimpose the scripture on something that looks very, very different than the original church model, and it should come as no surprise that that isn’t working very well.

  5. Laura

    Thank you for posting this! On Father’s Day, my pastor gave a sermon on fathers being the “priests of their homes.” I’ve heard that taught in the past, but I cannot find anywhere in the Bible that says anything about the husband being the “priest.” That goes along with the hierarchy theology. I attend an Assembles of God church, and thankfully my pastor doesn’t talk much about the hierarchy doctrine.
    I agree that marriages where the husband is in charge are not as successful as the marriages where both partners collaborate equally. I can testify to that because in my first (so far only) marriage, my ex kept trying to lord it over me that he was the head of our relationship and whatever decisions he made, went and it did not matter what I wanted. Another flaw I see in this hierarchy view in marriages is the obligation sex message and marital rape. I experienced those and I know other domestic violence survivors who were in those types of marriages.
    Kristen Kobes Du Mez’s book Jesus and John Wayne opened my eyes to the whole thing on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Ever since, I’ve been devouring other books related to this and also read Beth Allison Barr’s book. I’m currently reading Aimee Byrd’s book Recovering From Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. I am appalled that plenty of Christian women endorse the hierarchy theology.
    I can understand why more people are leaving the church and I believe one of the reasons is this hierarchy theology. When I got saved at the age of 17 in 1994, I was turned off by organized religion a month later when I heard the “wives be submissive” sermon and the “husband is the king of his castle.” It would be years before I ever wanted to attend church. I’ve been a rededicated Christian for 19 years and thankfully my relationship with Christ is a lot stronger, but I’m rethinking organized religion.

    • Bre

      I also go to an AG church and I find this sad. It’s supposed to be an Egal. denomination. Actually, the fact that a female pastor leads the college ministry was what led to me struggling with the “woman question”. It was a really painful time and I was depressed and basically lost faith in other Christians for believing false things and not wanting to truly see the real texts and historical context. I was doing better…and then I found out that the “male headship” idea had infiltrated my church during a Bible study on the topic. A lot of the people believe that men are a “symbolic head” given by God, but that women are equal and can be called to ministry…HOW? They actually said that they’d have to ask God about why he made females equal and gifted and called and also gave a head…they didn’t realize how contradictory that was. Maybe because God never gave a head and that’s an idea that we came up with?!? Realizing that the people I love have been deceived by these ideas…it was so traumatic and I knew it was wrong. But, despite my conviction and all the reading I had done on the topic, I didn’t feel like I could speak out and say “no, that’s wrong” Aside from our pastor being in this small group, I was an unqualified, inexperienced college student. I was much younger that everyone else there and the only one who wasn’t married . I felt like I’d be brushed off as being an emotional and immature college kid. I ended up having a breakdown and crying in a corner in my college’s meditation room for 5 hours and had to have a friend come and pray over me and stay with me until I calmed down. It wasn’t great. Whenever I hear “Biblical Manhood” or “headship” stuff or talking points, it makes me internally freak out and panic. My church luckily didn’t preach anything or the sort on father’s day. I love father’s day because I’ve spend most of my life without an involved dad until my mom married my (step)day 5 years ago and I feel so blessed to finally have a dad who loves me. But it’s honestly a bit traumatic because of the inevitable glut of “men need to step up and reclaim their place in the home and community and lead and be real men and stomp down those rebellious women” ideas that end up being shared by both churches, Christian sites, and some of the political communities I’m active in.

  6. Natalie

    I agree with everything written above. I believe we are both equal in marriage and in God’s eyes. And yet the Bible is still very explicit that the man has a different role in the marriage than the wife. Some call it leadership, some call it headship. Either way, it appears to me we are equal but different. And honestly, it’s hard for me to put this in to practice in everyday life. How does my husband exhibit headship without the marriage dynamic taking on a hierarchy structure? This is something I’ve never quite understood and something we’ve never even come close to mastering, so we just continue to let our personalities lead, which is him being much more quiet and submissive and me being the more dominant driver of the marriage. I really don’t like that either.

    • Maria Bernadette

      “ And yet the Bible is still very explicit that the man has a different role in the marriage than the wife”
      This is your personal opinion, just like it’s my personal opinion that women and men can be different without husbands a having “leadership” role or “headship” role in marriage.

      • amy

        Personal opinion? Have you read Ephesians chapter 5?
        “ 22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church,his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          Actually, Amy, you should begin the passage at verse 21. In the Greek, that’s where it begins. The verb “submit” does not appear in verse 22; it is implied from verse 21–“submit to one another.” The verb has the same meaning in verse 22 as it does in verse 21, because it takes its meaning from there. So we are to submit to husbands IN THE SAME WAY as we all submit to one another. It’s not about hierarchy, but about serving, as Jesus talked about in Matthew 20:25-28.

  7. Anonymous305

    My pastor preaches a softer version of this, which can be confusing. I appreciate that he doesn’t want husbands to be dictators, but any use of the word “authority” scares me. Here are some other teachings that sound contradictory. Submission is mutual in the marriage relationship, but the husband has authority in the structure of the home (how do you separate those?). The husband has authority, but call the police if he’s abusive (I agree about the police, but how is the victim supposed to get past the “authority” mindset without additional explanation?). Decisions should be mutual as often as possible, and the husband should only need to be the tiebreaker less than 1% of the time (I like the 99%, but how does this fit with all the other stuff?). And then some of the “softer” ideas that limit authority aren’t mentioned every time authority is mentioned, so the feeling varies by sermon.
    The question of whether “head” means “leader” or “source” was addressed as it means “leader” because of the comparison to Christ. However, it wasn’t addressed that comparing everything to Christ makes the husband a priest, which is a more obvious contradiction of scripture than the leader idea.
    Speaking of context and authority, I also heard a famous pastor (different person from previous paragraph) say that no one, even ordained ministers, should serve communion in the home during online church because family is the wrong jurisdiction. Communion is in the jurisdiction of the church. My thought was, how do you define the difference between believers in a house and a housechurch?

    • Amy

      You might check out Pagan Christianity by Frank Viola and George Barna. They cover how ordination of ministers/pastors/priests is not biblical as well as how the original vision for communion and baptism is vastly different than what the modern church practices. After reading that book I’ve realized that if you strip away all the non biblical practices of the modern church the hierarchy and male/female role issues would also fade away.

      • Anonymous305

        Amy, that’s really interesting to hear about the history.
        I also remembered about the time a woman almost taught adult Sunday school while her husband was on a business trip because she didn’t know that her prior teaching had been “under his authority”. It was almost nice that the church didn’t advertise its rules, except that she almost started a controversy by accident. What a shock to her 🙁 !!
        Interestingly, our pastors don’t (that I remember) talk about adult single women as still under their father’s authority, although some individuals do. It’s weird how some churches put the same emphasis on husbands and fathers, while some only on husbands. But I’m happy for all the single women at my church who are officially allowed to be free adults!!
        I didn’t struggle with church teaching as much before marriage because I didn’t feel the pain of being told that I’m under the authority of someone who was making harmful decisions. And that’s how I ended up at such a church…

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          It is strange that a single woman can make her own decisions and can consult God and rely on the Holy Spirit, but as soon as she’s married she’s supposed to stop doing that and instead rely on her husband. It’s as if she takes a step back in her relationship with God upon marriage. That alone should tell us that there is something strange about this interpretation!

      • Laura

        You hit the nail on the head when you said this:
        “It is strange that a single woman can make her own decisions and can consult God and rely on the Holy Spirit, but as soon as she’s married she’s supposed to stop doing that and instead rely on her husband. It’s as if she takes a step back in her relationship with God upon marriage. That alone should tell us that there is something strange about this interpretation!”
        During the years I was single before I met my ex-husband and after I became single again, I would think that maybe I should stay single if this is what being in a Christian marriage is supposed to be about: me no longer being allowed to make decisions.
        After growing in my walk with God, I realize that’s not what He wants. I don’t believe He called for hierarchy in marriage and to say that does sound like I’m contradicting the Bible or Paul’s teachings (at least the way people interpret the Bible).

      • Anon

        I’ve encountered a few churches which believe that single women of ANY age are under the authority of their fathers, and if their fathers are dead, then they come under the authority of the church leadership…which presumably means they are unable to ever change church without getting permission from the church leaders!!!
        I got baptised in a church where it was mandatory to give a spoken testimony from the platform before being baptised. One woman asked if she could write her testimony for the pastor to read, since she was from a background that didn’t allow women to speak in public. She was told no, either you speak your testimony or you don’t get baptised. A couple of years later, another woman’s husband (who wasn’t a believer and never darkened the doors of a church) objected to her giving her testimony, and she was told she had to write it down for the pastor to read out to keep her husband happy…

  8. Mike

    I really want to grow in understudying here, but I am curious with regards to passages such as:
    1 Corinthians 11:3 (ESV)
    But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.
    Ephesians 5:23 (ESV)
    For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.
    I know a lot of this article focused on support of women in places of authority and leadership in the church (which I believe scripture supports). My curiosity lays how to interpret these passages that pertain to the marital relationship. I look forward to replies, thanks!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Hi Mike, I’d point you over to Marg Mowczko’s site where she does a great job on all of these passages. On her menu you can find the particular verses and read all about it. The book Paul and Gender by Cynthia Westfall is also wonderful. Both women are Greek scholars.

  9. Nathan

    > > the Bible is still very explicit that the man has a different role in the marriage than the wife
    I believe this in general, although I don’t believe that there are some specific roles that the husband always fills and other specific roles that the wife always fills. Each of us is different, and each brings different things to our marriage. Each husband and wife will likely have different areas of authority and skill sets, but I don’t believe that this will be the same for each husband and the same for each wife.
    For example, I do finances in our home, while my sister in law does them in her home.

  10. Jane Eyre

    On the authority and headship issue, something I say ad nauseam: do not vet married to someone with decision-making skills that you do not respect.
    Every single day, your spouse will make a pile of choices that affect you: how to parent the kids when you aren’t there, how hard to work at their job, how to behave to coworkers, how to put limits on the job to have a home life, how to exercise, what to eat, how fast to drive, what to buy at the grocery store, how much brain shopping to do versus convenience, which household chores to do well and which ones slide, how often to bathe the kids, how much to mow the grass, when to investigate a water leak and call a plumber, if you pay bills early or wait until they are due, how much affection to show the kids. You cannot, nor would you ever want to, micromanage someone into making decisions that you like.
    Moreover, if something happens to you, guess who is running the household? Your spouse. You get into a car accident and are unconscious, your spouse makes life or death medical decisions for you. You pass away, your spouse is the one managing the entire household and raising the kids. If those “kids” are teenage boys, one better hope that they see the need to respect their mother’s parental authority.
    So where does this notion of women being little doopsy-doos come from? How do you square that with the reality of marriage? How can you override the decision-making of someone whose judgement you rely upon every single day?

    • Maria Bernadette

      This is a really good point. And it makes me wonder: if you (general you) believe that you have to override your spouses decisions or dismiss their opinions, isn’t that admitting that you think you made a mistake in who you chose to marry?

  11. Katie S.

    Awesome job, Keith!!! It gives me so much hope to see real men standing up for truth and defending the gospel – in its’ entirety…not just plucking a verse here or a verse there like so many of the white male Christian authors you mentioned. Thank you for defending women and defending the church. We love you guys!

  12. Sarah

    Because I’m single and always have been, I tend to draw the parallel with friendship, particularly with ref to the casting vote argument. There’s no need, between two friends who respect each other, for one to have a casting vote. I’m going on holiday next week with a friend, and the Tuesday happens to be my birthday. I didn’t say to her that I would pick our holiday destination because it’s going to be my birthday, or because I’m driving is there. In the same way, a husband shouldn’t get a casting vote just because he’s a man. Two people who respect one another should be able to discuss and come to a compromise. I’m honestly astonished that I ever fell for the casting vote argument as a younger woman 🤦🏻‍♀️

  13. Laura

    To Anonymous305:
    I recall one pastor from a former church who believed that single women who did not have a father or spiritual father figure in their lives should be under the covering of the pastor. A friend of mine who got married at 42 believes that no matter how old a single woman is, she should be under the covering of her father and if the father is deceased, then the other parent should be that covering.
    Nowhere in the Bible do I see any evidence of this, yet there are fundamentalist evangelicals who strongly adhere to the importance of single women living with their parents until they get married. That doesn’t make being single freeing in that context.
    I definitely feel freer as a single woman than I did when I was married and adhered to the submission doctrine to appease my husband.

  14. Wild Honey

    There’s another word for Eternal Subordination of the Son that supporters of the doctrine don’t like to admit to, for fear of embarrassment.

    • Lisa


  15. Bethany#2

    This is the doctrine I read about in my parents books that had me subconsciously believing that marriage was a form of slavery for women. But it was the cost of safety, and only taking one man’s abuse. It took me a while to realize it and figure out what marriage actually is.
    Also at some point of reading Sheila’s equality message, I remembered Lottie moon. The 1st southern Baptist missionary to china. She was a teen during the civil war and then went to china. At some point her original mission board stopped supporting her(?) And she had to come back and convince the sbc to support a female missionary who preaches. It got me thinking and pondering again.

  16. Lady Di

    In my opinion I think that in marriage BOTH husband and wife should truely and willfully let GOD BE THE CENTRE of their marriage and ALLOW HIM to direct each of them in their important roles as husband and wife: TEAMWORK UNDER GOD’S LEADERSHIP.
    Unfortunately there are alot of liberal and apostate churches out there that are just messing things up for the community of believers who want to truely serve GOD… we are in the endtime, folks: GET READY FOR THE RAPTURE 🙂

  17. Cynthia

    With the caveat that I’m actually Jewish, here’s how I interpret it:
    1. If you go back to Genesis 1, the “adam” – first human – is created male and female, in the image of God.
    2. Genesis 2 talks about how it is not good for this first human to be alone, and the need for an “ezer k’negdo” – a help opposite. The first human is then split into two sides (the same word can be translated as rib or side), and only after that are the words ish and isha, meaning an individual man and woman, used.
    So…the narrative is about how a man and woman are two halves of a whole, and that whole is created in the image of God. It isn’t good for someone to be ruling over everything “alone”, so there is a split so that there can be discussion and input. There will be differences of opinion with every couple, because husband and wife are not the same, but those very differences that may drive them crazy are actually essential because TOGETHER, they form a unit which is in the image of God.
    With the New Testament, you can’t ignore the historical context of the Roman empire and the political situation. It was a society with lots of hierarchy and the father literally ruled the family. It was also a society with slavery, and a powerful government that wouldn’t tolerate any threat. The Judeans tried to revolt – 3 times – and were brutally defeated. So, a new religion preaching that there is no male or female, slave or master, Jew or Greek, could be seen as a threat, and the authorities could destroy the new church if they felt threatened. The advice, then, was “don’t rock the boat too much and threaten those in power, be patient”. It’s hard to read that, but the strategy was ultimately successful. But that power structure was Greco-Roman, not God’s.

  18. Kayla

    Thank you for this! I’ve been damaged by a website I found 2 years ago that was oppressive toward women- men disciplining their wives, restricting money, even marrying more wives after a man is already married. (And it’s an evangelical man with the gospel on his site!) It wasn’t just his opinions that bothered me, but the fact he was using the Bible, so it put me into a spiritual crisis. I realized that either my natural sense of love is different from God’s, or the Bible isn’t completely accurate, or I need a better way to interpret the Bible. It felt impossible to bend my natural sense of love (and I wouldn’t want to anyway, since I would become a less loving person). Then recently I was really shaken when I saw in the Bible that there was a punishment for women committing adultery, but no punishment for married men with single women (Deut 22:22). When I looked online for an answer, people were saying men were the property of men in those times- they’re implying God was accommodating the culture through the laws He gave- but I just won’t believe it. Even though I don’t have the answer for that passage, we do know what God thinks about love/justice/freedom from other verses, and I’m holding onto that. I think this article is a confirmation! Early this morning I was thinking of authority in marriage and the implications it makes for Jesus’ relationship to the Father (eternal subordination) and I prayed about it, then I found your email to this post- I’m so glad you mentioned that about Jesus’ relationship with the Father. So I think this is an answer to prayer. Thanks for this post 🙂

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Oh, Kayla, I’m so glad it could minister to you today and be healing for you! Keep asking questions. Don’t shy away from them. That’s how we grow and find truth, and God isn’t afraid of questions!

  19. Barbara Stephan

    I entered a comment last night but would like to add to this. Mr. Gregoire’s arguments against “hierarchy” as he likes to put it are pretty weak and without much if any Biblical support.
    He claims that early church leaders challenged long held false beliefs(justifying what he is challenging) but never states who he is referring to or what beliefs it was that they challenged.
    He claims those families with the male in authority are worse off than those who do not operate that way. I suspect he is conveniently using those who abuse Scripture for their own power and not obeying God’s word in its proper context, to prove his point. He never gives real statistics either. Of course if someone is a bully the family suffers. You don’t throw out God’s Word because there are those who abuse it.
    His contention that you cannot be regarded as equals unless you have equal authority is found nowhere in Scripture. His regarding the belief that Jesus was equal with the Father yet subject to the Father as heresy is extremely troubling .
    Gregoires reference to the man who said maybe slavery wasn’t evil since Paul never condemned it, to support his belief that conservatives are ok with treating women as lower than men, is totally disingenuous. Nobody who truly understands Scripture believes women are not equal. A truly Godly husband will treat his wife as a fellow human being to be respected and cherished. But someone has to have the last say in decision making. Nobody says the husband is always right. Our bosses are not always right yet we are told to do what they say short of comitting sin.
    the admonition to women to not take authority over men in the church
    is not a cultural thing. You are second guessing God by taking this stance. God has given women the freedom to preach the word to anyone provided it is not as a priest or a pastor over a church. To take the attitude that we are somehow” to good to lower ourselves to preaching only to other women or children” is pride talking. It is every bit as important in God;s eyes to witness to women and children. Why camp on the one thing that God has asked women to avoid instead of concentrating on all the opportunities he HAS given to us? This is how satan deceived Eve-making her think God was somehow holding something back and convincing her she either misunderstood Him or He didn’t mean what he said. The fact that women were allowed in church and allowed to preach on the streets with them was just unheard of back when the church was first beginning.

    • Maria Bernadette

      Barbara, you and I read he same blog post and may have seen it in two very different ways.
      As for statistics, he referenced the the research done for the Great Sex Rescue and Dr. Gottman’s research.
      From the article: “ Dr. John Gottman’s research showed that when husbands are unwilling to share power in their marriages, they had an 81% chance their marriage would self-destruct. Sheila’s research for the Great Sex Rescue showed that marriages were 7.4x more likely to end in divorce when the husband makes the decisions-even if he consults with her first.”
      If hierarchy (or whatever you think is a better word) does work, please cite your own evidence to support it. Or explain why God would give us a faulty model for marriage.
      As someone who holds conservative beliefs, I was not offended by this post. I also make distinctions among “status quo”, “old fashioned” and “conservative”. I am sure that you do, too. And everyone else, including Keith.
      And that we won’t always agree on whether something qualifies as conservation, or is merely old fashioned, or the status quo.
      Basically, I really don’t think he’s silently laughing at Conservatives. He never insinuated that every Conservative believes in the subjugation of women. Or that everyone who believes that also believes in slavery. The comment about someone defending slavery seemed more like it was an example of someone “slipping” on a slippery slope. Not that everyone comes to the same conclusion.
      And now, on to the topic of subjugation. This is a very particular way of having authority over someone. To say that subjugating someone (or an entire class of people) is bad does not mean that one thinks all authority is bad.
      For example, if someone gets dementia, their spouse will probably have authority over them, because they can’t make decisions anymore.
      Finally, people can respect the Bible while coming to different conclusions about what the text means.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Barbara, thank you for your comments. I know this is distressing to you.
      I understand you have a lot of problems thinking of men and women as co-laborers with each other, following Jesus their Lord, and listening to the Holy Spirit together. I know this sounds threatening to you. i am sorry that it does. I see another comment has already come through addressing many of your concerns, and I will leave it at that, since she did a good job.
      I will say that I am sorry that you find the idea of men and women being equal and being led by the Holy Spirit so distressing. I pray that one day you will experience real intimacy, where you don’t have to subvert your will for your husband’s, but rather you can each, together, focus on God’s will. Keith has never had to make the final decision in our marriage because life is actually pretty darn easy. We pray about things, we love each other sacrificially, and it works out. That’s how it should be. It’s truly beautiful, and I’m sorry that you see this as a threat rather than as a beautiful picture of what the Christian life should look like.

      • Ann

        Sheila, Barbara did not say she had a problem with being a co-laborer and that she was distressed about anything except the idea of Jesus nit being subject to the Father. You are making a lot of assumptions that fit your narrative. I think Barbara did a great job expressing very real and reasonable ideas and Biblical understanding. Way to go Barbara, I agree with you!!

  20. Justine

    Hi Keith,
    Thanks for a thoughtful article.
    Regarding this point: “The “Eternal Subordination of the Son” doctrine fills the gap by explaining that just as Jesus is equal to God the Father, but eternally subject to Him, so wives are equal to their husbands, but also must be subject to them. The only problem is that this is complete heresy. In fact, it’s a heresy that almost tore the Church apart sixteen centuries ago, but was considered dead until its recent resurrection in the last few decades by those trying to promote male leadership.”
    As I understand it, the “eternal subordination of the Son” argument is considered part of the Arian heresy, which held that Christ was not fully God but rather subordinate to the Father in nature. In fact, Christ’s submission to the Father is not eternal but a temporary part of his salvation mission (c.f.
    Nevertheless, Scripture is clear that Christ *did* submit to the Father’s will: “not as I will, but as you will” (Mat. 26:39, 42; Mark 14:46), “not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38), etc. When I’ve heard Christ’s submission invoked as a reason for wives’ submission, I’ve heard it in this context. The argument goes something like this: “Husbands are called to imitate Christ’s sacrifice in laying down their lives in love for their wives (Ephesians 5:25). Similarly, wives are called to imitate Christ’s sacrifice in laying down their will for their husbands.” (Obviously, neither Christ’s death nor Christ’s submission are eternal, but they both *did happen*.)
    I don’t really know if I believe this argument or not– the question of headship/submission has always bothered me, and I haven’t found a satisfying explanation for the complexities of this issue in Scripture. But I do think the “submission of Christ” argument is more serious and trinitarian than you give it credit here. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the more nuanced version of the argument!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Hi Justine,
      Great question! The thing is that the only way Jesus’ submission makes sense in the argument is if it were eternal. What patriarchalists are arguing is that women as a class were made to submit to men as a class. Yes, women are equal, but they are made to submit. It isn’t just a temporary thing over one decision–it’s why women can never be in leadership; never make decisions alone; never exercise many of their gifts. The only way this makes logical sense is if God created women to be different in some way from men, or else it’s totally arbitrary. And so the only way that it makes sense is if God created women to have a different role–women as a class, women for all time. And that’s why the submission that it’s comparing Christ to is eternal. I believe Kevin Giles (is that his name? I think so) has a really good book on this if you want to read more!

      • Laura

        Currently, I’m reading (or skimming) through Kevin Giles’ book The Rise and Fall of the Complementarian Doctrine of the Trinity. I haven’t gotten very far yet, but it’s tedious and full of scholarly language. Since I’ve been reading other books and articles about the Eternal Son Subordination doctrine, I’ve become familiar with its meaning and the push by Council for Biblical Manhood and Biblical Womanhood to promote their hierarchal views in marriage. Totally manmade. Giles writes other books, The Headship of Men and the Abuse of Women and What the Bible Actually Teaches on Women. I may have to look into those and just skim through them.

  21. susan's saddle stands

    we need more articles like this to balance out patriarchy lies in blogs such as a certain one with the initials “bgr” which contends that there is no word for husband in the OT and the word for a married man is “owner” thus he “owns” his wife and to further his false theology that if God said it then woe to those who think different.
    this blog also promotes wife beating–oops i mean discipline in the form of spanking. sad and pathetic, i guess we are seeing the weeds and tares among the wheat.

    • Maria Bernadette

      That blog you’ve mentioned sounds horrible. Wife beating? Yikes.
      In Biblical times, they used the Greek word for man when they wanted to say husband and you had to figure it out from context if that meant married man or man in general. It never meant owner. Classic example of someone reading into Scripture what isn’t there.

  22. Lisa

    Start looking at John Paul II’s Love and Responsibility and Theology of the Body. These are a fantastic antidote to the hierarchy culture. They are healing our marriage from the toxic effects of it.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      So many recommend Theology of the Body! I really need to read it. A lot of people have told me that I’ve basically re-written it without knowing it!

  23. Sabrit Miller

    The reason why Paul said that women should be quiet in services is because services were segregated. Women stayed separately. Now If a woman had a question about what was being said, some would call out acrossed the way, say to their husband and try to clarify what the teacher was saying. Paul is letting them know that asking questions should wait until later, maybe at home, and not to interrupt the teacher.

  24. Donald Johnson

    I think there is a straightforward Scripture verses that show that the comp model cannot be for a Christ follower: Eph 5 says that a husband is to love/agape his wife and 1 Cor 13 says that love/agape does not insist on its own way.

    • Judy

      This is perfect. This is everything.

  25. Ann

    I would be more likely to listen to this perspective if the tone was more charitable on the author’s part. This post is dripping with sarcasm, hostility and attacks. This is exactly why our country is in the state it’s in.
    If I (especially as a woman) believe that I should be submissive to my husband, primarily in decision making, how is that your business? And just because something “works better” according to your surveys, pastors are lacking somehow for not teaching your input vs the Bible’s. I believe fully that the Bible says I am equal to my husband in the eyes of God and that my husband should love me as Christ loves the church. But when there is an impasse , someone has to be responsible for making a decision. If a husband is wise, he will consider his wife’s spiritual gifts and her spiritual needs and seek her input before making a decision. If not, it’s my challenge to learn to live with the situation and trust God for the outcome. God never said life would be fair! He’s trying to make us holy and to stand out to the world as a different way of life, not conform to the world for convenience sakes.

    • Margot

      A few thoughts, Ann?
      I think it’s fair to say that no CORRECT interpretation of Scripture will ever clash with a TRUE observation about the natural world. If there is a conflict, one is wrong, or there’s a missing piece to the puzzle. This idea flows from the presupposition that God doesn’t contradict Himself, *and* that he wants wholeness for His creation. If you believe in a God that doesn’t mind harming people to accomplish His ends, that’s a different topic altogether. Or if you believe that God is not necessarily rational, we can’t even have this conversation. Keith comes from the viewpoint that God wants wholeness for each of us, which is ultimately a deeply Biblical idea. It is for this reason that the empiric (survey) data gets his attention, and makes him return to the Biblical passages with a different lens. This can be risky (because natural observations can be fickle), but that doesn’t mean it’s a wrong practice. I think it’s also the reason he isn’t afraid to use ideas like equality as starting points. (In the history of ideas, this is a deeply Christian way of thinking.)
      So if a replicable, well-done survey suggests certain beliefs are correlated with bad outcomes, it’s time to look at why, and to re-examine those beliefs and where they came from. (Remembering that we can be missing pieces to the puzzle and that correlation doesn’t equal causation.)
      Scripture translation is difficult! Understanding the language and context is tough. We need more humility about interpretation. I humbly submit that God wants us to be both holy AND happy, and that these two work together really well.
      A final thought: I’ve been married for the better part of 10 years, and my parents for the better part of 4 decades, and in neither marriage has “the final say” ever had to fall to one spouse. Decisions are mutual, always, or there is deference to what the spouse who appears to have the greater need is asking for.

  26. Marie

    First of all, I want to say that I bought “The Great Sex Rescue” and appreciate the many ways in which it brings important correction to imbalances, extremes and abuses in Christian teachings on sex. However, I do not agree that men and women having different roles in marriages, and men being in a position of authority is automatically a problem.
    Keith stated, “The “fly in the ointment” is that it is perfectly obvious to everyone that it is impossible for two people simultaneously to be equal and to have one in subjugation to the other. These are mutually exclusive ideas. ”
    How is the idea of having positions of authority automatically exclusive of human equality? If that were true, then we could tolerate no position of authority in our society. We could have no supervisors, no company presidents, no managers. Your statement is at odds with how the vast majority of society in America works.
    In other countries, yes, authority can equal differences in human value, but that is not how authority is carried out in most settings in America. If a person in authority is selfish, overly controlling, patronizing and belittling of those they are leading, they are said to be abusing their authority. This is actually the real issue in my opinion.
    I believe there are evangelical churches that have encouraged the abuse of authority by men, and that is wrong. But it does not therefore follow that the authority itself is wrong. Jesus showed us an example of authority that seeks to serve, that is radically sacrificial, and that is the kind of authority I believe men are called to Biblically. (I understand there are arguments for and against that idea in the Bible, but don’t have time to address that here.)
    So, yes, in practice, it should mostly look like collaboration, but that doesn’t mean that the idea of authority is necessarily invalid.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Let me ask you this, Marie. Let’s say I told you, “God loves everyone equally, but only white people are allowed to be in leadership at church.” Would we believe that there really was equality between the races? Of course not. We would see that that was wrong. But when it’s with gender, we skip over it.
      The issue with intimacy is this: True intimacy means that you are known inside and out, and are accepted and loved. A relationship where one person can overrule another is not intimate by definition. It means that one person’s opinions matter more than another’s. It means that only one person is really allowed to be honored. That’s a problem.
      Of course there can be good managers and good authority; no one is disputing that, nor the need for authority. But to say that we must have authority in a marriage relationship; that the authority must be male; and that this does not detract from intimacy or mean that women aren’t equal is simply logically inconsistent. And again, if you can’t see why, imagine it with race, not gender. It becomes pretty obvious then.

  27. S

    If all of the men who promote “male leadership” would be the kind of leader Jesus was — sacrificial, humble, serving, and washing the feet of others, including women, we wouldn’t have a problem. They wouldn’t try to subjugate other people.
    When Jesus’s disciples were arguing over who was greater, he told them that whoever wants to be first must be the servant of all. He said that he came not to be served but to serve and to give his life for others. This is what it means to be a leader.
    Unfortunately in the people who promote male leadership and female submission, you will frequently see the fruit of pride, arrogance, “lording it over” other people, and lack of listening or humility.
    Furthermore, the appalling number of pastors’ wives who experience emotional, sexual and physical abuse is a warning to us that something is very wrong in the way the church talks about and practices leadership.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire



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