Overview: Rachel Miller’s Beyond Authority and Submission
In her new book, Beyond Authority and Submission, Rachel Green Miller evaluates the Complementarian doctrine of men and women through the lenses of both history and Scripture. Her motivation for writing this book comes from the general discussion on human sexuality, gender identity, masculinity and femininity, and what social norms we should advocate as Christians. She lists four broad categories that attempt to address these topics. They are Feminism, Egalitarianism, Complementarianism, and Patriarchy. These categories are typically conceptualized on a spectrum.
Miller is writing primarily to a conservative Reformed Christian audience, and she holds certain basic beliefs about men and women that, on the surface, appear Complementarian.
- God made man: male and female in the image of God
- In Christ, male and female are equal before God
- Husbands are called to sacrificial, servant leadership of their wives, loving them as Christ loves the church
- Wives are called to voluntary submission to their husbands, submitting to them as the church submits to Christ
- Ordination is restricted to qualified men in the church
- Marriage is between one man and one woman, ideally for life
- Men and women need each other and depend on each other
In practice, it seems, that conservative Christians use the term “complementarian” as a catch-all for holding to these basic beliefs. But Complementarianism is an ideology that goes beyond these basic beliefs. As a result, Miller rejects Complementarian doctrine since it goes beyond by claiming:
- women were created to be submissive, responsive, soft
- men were created to be leaders, providers, strong
- men are supposed to be priests for their families
- women are supposed to be at home and not in the workforce
- divorce is wrong even when there is biblical justification for it
- the eternal subordination of the Son, especially as it is applied to men and women
- all women are rebellious feminists at heart and men must put down that rebellion (based on an erroneous interpretation of Genesis 3:16)
Miller explains this in the introduction to her book, and you can read about these distinctions in her article, The Definition of Complementarianism.
Since many self-described complementarians may (and do) object to how Miller defines Complementarianism, it’s important to be absolutely clear: Miller derives her definition of Complementarianism directly from the architects of the doctrine, including John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Mary Kassian, Dorthy Patterson, and other vocal advocates including Douglas Wilson. She cites her sources clearly in her article (linked above) and in the book.
Miller is one of a growing number of women and men in Reformed circles questioning and objecting to the teachings of Complementarianism. At the same time, however, there also appears to be a growing interest in so-called “Biblical patriarchy” in Reformed circles. Both Complementarianism and “Biblical patriarchy” are reactionary teachings to Feminism and its influence on Christian orthodoxy.
Miller’s concern is that forming doctrine in reaction to the culture, rather than simply holding to explicit Scriptural truths, is giving way to some harmful syncretism between true doctrine and unbiblical and extrabiblical ideas. She invites equally concerned readers to suspend judgement on their own self-labeling in order to allow an honest reevaluation of what it is that the Word of God says about men and women.
In what follows, I present a synopsis of Miller’s book and then offer some of my own commentary at the end.
PART 1: A LENS FOR OUR RELATIONSHIPS
Part 1 of the book serves as a starting point for defining ‘authority’ and ‘submission’ from Scripture.
“Authority and submission aren’t bad things in themselves. What bothers us, rightly, are the ways they have been abused. It’s crucial that we separate out misuses of authority and submission from the biblical picture of godly authority and appropriate submission. How do we do that?” (pg.22)
Miller explains how God is the source of all authority and submission and that Christ is our model for both. And she points out that only God’s authority is unlimited, but whatever authority human beings have, is limited.
“… because we are created beings, our authority must be limited … [this] is essential for us to grasp. Submission—voluntarily yielding to the authority of another—isn’t feminine or masculine; it’s characteristic of our human nature. Each of us has authority in some relationships and owes submission in others.” (pg. 23)
Rachel Miller also uses the Westminster Larger Catechism on the 5th commandment to discuss the various ways we can relate to one another in authority and submission. She then illustrates what this looks like between husbands and wives, parents and children, in the church, and then in society. She states,“The nature of each relationship determines who should lead and who should submit,” (pg 32) and that it’s not on the basis of gender.
According to Miller, while authority and submission are important elements in human relationships, they aren’t the most important. By hyper-emphasizing authority and submission as the basis for human relationships, we miss the broader theme of Creation, Fall, and Redemption. Men and women are both created to be co-laborers, called to work in unity, interdependence, and service in diverse ways. While these have been frustrated because of sin and the curse in the fall, there is a fundamental restoration through Christ’s Spirit in the life of redeemed people.
Part 1 prepares the reader for Part 2, where she “peels back” the historical-cultural layers influencing the “traditional” view of men and women.
PART 2: WOMEN AND MEN IN HISTORY
Women and Men in Greco-Roman Society & the link to the Victorian Era
Part 2 may be the most eye-opening. Here, Miller provides the historical backdrop, not just for how Complementarianism came to be, but the origins of many commonly held “traditional” ideas about men and women. Miller is quick to point out the difference between what is biblical and what is traditional, noting that what is traditional is not necessarily biblical.
If Part 1 serves to illustrate what God created man and woman to be, then Part 2 shows the overlap of the Fall; a distortion of the nature of men and women through the eyes of Greco-Roman pagans and Victorian idealists. This distortion leads to the manifest frustration the Fall brings on relationships, as modern feminist movements bring to the surface a myriad of problems women have faced in society which reaches into every corner of the culture.
“[In ancient Greco-Roman society], the family was “the basic unit of social organization and moral authority” and was central to the well-being of the state. The Roman government attempted, at times, to recover “family values.” Since family was the foundation of society, and since marriage and children were necessary for the continuation of the state, the government made laws to encourage marriage and childbearing. However, these laws were considered an intrusion of the public sphere into the private sphere of the family and were hard to enforce. (pg. 53)
Sound familiar? Miller spends an entire chapter illustrating for us the life of a Greco-Roman pagan woman. From education and work, to religious life, to politics (and denial) of the rights of women. By contrast, Miller also explains the effect Christianity had on this culture. The way Jesus treated women, and what Paul taught on women1, was comparatively radical. “Women were treated with greater respect and honor because of Christian teachings. Christian women also had more freedom than pagan Greek and Roman women.” (pg. 59)
These Greco-Roman ideas had a lasting effect on humanity for centuries even up through the Protestant Reformation. The Enlightenment period and the American Experiment opened the door for a twist on these ancient conceptions of men and women with the Victorian Era.
The influence of ancient Greece and Rome appeared everywhere—in artwork, literature, mythology, philosophy, and even medicine. Old, pagan themes about women, men, and gender resurfaced … Victorians combined the Greco-Roman philosophy of the Renaissance, the technological advancements of the Industrial Revolution, and the evolutionary science of Darwinism. All of this they added to existing Christian religious and moral beliefs. (pg 62-63) The Victorian era is a significant link between ancient Greece and Rome and our society today … After the Victorian era, ancient Greek and Roman beliefs about women and men were taught as if they were biblical. (pg 65)
First and Second Wave Feminism and the Conservative Christian Response
We now have the historical context for the Women’s Rights Movement and the subsequent formation of Feminism. Miller cites Mary Wollstonecraft, a woman often referred to as the “mother of feminism” because she wrote The Vindication of the Rights of Woman.2 Miller further points out that first-wave feminists were responding directly to the treatment of women in Victorian culture which included not just the denial of women’s rights, but added a double-standard of morality to women. (This would later become the basis for modern day “purity culture”).
There’s a great deal of history that Miller sorts through here, but the most shocking is learning how the Sexual Revolution not only hijacked the Women’s Rights Movement to form modern day Feminism, but that this aspect of the movement was led by men.
“Larry Lader, founder of … the National Abortion Rights Action League … convinced Betty Friedan to add abortion as a platform of the National Organization for Women. ‘That’s right. The 1960s’ women’s movement was hijacked largely due to the tireless efforts of one man, whose greatest passion was to make abortion legal.’ You may think it’s odd that men would be so interested in abortion. But abortion freed men more than it ever helped women. Men led the legal push for abortion because it allowed them to have sex with fewer responsibilities.” (pg. 94)3
But it’s particularly in response to Second-wave feminism and the sexual revolution that Complementarianism took shape.4 Complementarianism was first articulated in the Danvers Statement, soon to become a sort of test of “orthodoxy” among many conservative Evangelicals, with the establishment of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) in 1987.
From this point forward in the book, Miller carefully examines Complementarian doctrine in light of God’s design for men, women, and our relationships. She presents the prevailing Complementarian teaching on the nature of women, and their activity in marriage, church, and society. Miller continues the pattern of measuring the prevailing teaching against Scripture while continually peeling back layers of extra-biblical ideas, to reveal a genuine Biblical idea beneath.
PART 3: THE NATURE OF WOMEN AND MEN
In Part 3, Miller addresses the Complementarian conception of human nature which posits two human natures, one male nature and one female nature. This conception has ramifications on the orthodox teachings of the image of God in mankind; the doctrine of the Trinity; and the fundamental nature of the curse in the Fall.
An erroneous interpretation of Genesis 3:16
Complementarianism holds to an interpretation of Genesis 3:16 proposed in a paper written by Susan Foh when she was a student at Westminster Theological Seminary in the 1970s. Foh’s paper was a direct response to second wave feminism. She argued that Eve’s desire for Adam was the same as sin’s desire for Cain. Miller notes that Foh’s interpretation is also behind the ESV translation change in 2016.
“As of 2016, the ESV text of Genesis 3:16 reads, “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you.” The words in [bold] are the ones that have been changed. In earlier editions of the ESV, the verse had been translated “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” (pg. 113)
Miller argues there are major problems with this interpretation. Not only does it fail to account for the reality that not all wives oppose their husbands, but it also teaches a Christian husband to be suspicious of his wife’s counsel as inherently deceptive or seeking to undermine or usurp authority. Likewise, it teaches wives to doubt themselves and the love they have for their husbands. Miller asks, “How can husbands love their wives as Christ loved the church when they see them as adversaries?” (pg 119) To be clear, Complementarianism extends Foh’s interpretation of desire in Genesis 3:16 to all male/female relationships, not only in marriage. They take it to be the single cause of Feminism and women’s claims to certain rights and gender equality.
The erroneous doctrine of ‘Eternal Subordination of the Son’ (ESS)
Miller also discusses the fact that some Complementarians, like Wayne Grudem, have stated that authority and submission within the Godhead “is the fundamental difference between the persons of the Trinity.” (pg 115) ESS is arguably the determinative doctrine for making Complementarianism a “Gospel issue.”
Miller cites Pastor Jared Moore who explains,
“If complementarians can prove that there is a hierarchy in the immanent (ontological) Trinity, then they win, for if a hierarchy exists among the Three Persons of God, and these Three Persons are equally God, then surely God can create men and women equal yet with differing roles in the church and home . . . The hierarchy in the home and church, and the submission of women to men in the church and home does not necessarily mean that women are less valuable than men.” (pg. 115)
In contrast, Miller points out several examples from Scripture where men and women take on characteristics commonly attributed to the opposite gender. She shows specific examples of women providing for and protecting men, taking the initiative as leaders, and using their physical strength. Likewise, she cites specific examples of men being gentle and quiet, giving life, and responding and helping women with soft and tender hearts.
After providing the lens through which to view relationships in part 1, and peeling back the historical, cultural, and doctrinal layers clouding our view of relationships in parts 2 and 3, Miller moves on to examine particular relationships between women and men in marriage, the church, and society in parts 4, 5, and 6. She illustrates that the Scriptural depiction of men and women is not the one presented by Complementarianism, nor one as understood through the lens of “feminized” culture.
PART 4: WOMEN AND MEN IN MARRIAGE
In Part 4, Miller addresses marriage. Complementarianism teaches that men are prophets, priests, and kings of the home, and that women are “keepers of the hearth.” Miller contrasts this with a clearer reading of Scripture, highlighting marriage as a creation ordinance, noting the unity, interdependence, and mutual service of husband and wife depicted in Adam and Eve. Entailed in this comparison is the difference between the unlimited authority Complementarianism claims husbands/fathers have, and how their authority is actually limited by Scripture.
Miller goes on to discuss how each individual marriage will look unique in a variety of ways that cannot be prescribed. She also touches on how Jesus himself approached the matter of divorce, which challenges the Complementarian idea that divorce is always wrong even when Biblically justified.
PART 5: WOMEN AND MEN IN CHURCH
In Part 5, Miller discusses the Complementarian view of “masculine piety” viz the muscular Christianity promoted by John Piper, Doug Wilson, Tim Baylay and several others. This is the idea that the church is “distinctly masculine” and the reason why men aren’t as religious as women is because the church is presented as too feminine.5 In this paradigm, men are the leaders and heavy physical and intellectual lifters, tending to the business of the church, while women are sidelined as the “adorning” extras doing the secondary work of the church; eg., nursery duty, Sunday School and VBS, throwing baby and bridal showers, etc.
Once again she contrasts this view with Scripture, citing examples of women in Scripture being far more than secondary adornments to a “masculine” church. Miller points to several women; Phoebe, Mary, Junia, Persis, Julia, Tryphena, Tryphosa, Nereus’s sister, and others. She cites John Calvin who, in his commentary on Philippians, explains that Paul “calls them his companions in war, inasmuch as they had struggled hard with him in the gospel.” Miller is careful to distinguish these Christian women, who held prominent positions and performed crucial services, from ordained officers of the church. Chapter 15 is dedicated to her explanation of why only qualified men may hold ordained office in the church.
PART 6: WOMEN AND MEN IN SOCIETY
In Part 6, Miller deals with the question of gender roles in society. Complementarianism teaches a certain view of gender roles which applies beyond marriage, family, and church. According to Complementarianism, a man should take leadership roles and a woman should take subordinate roles, with her “highest calling” being that of a wife and mother. In this view, any education of women should focus on female social duties and not confusing women with notions of assuming leadership, or other masculine roles.
This is also the section that Miller deals with the “elephant in the room” – that is, abuse. “In this [Complementarian] system, men are the authority that’s been put into place by God over families. To reject or resist that authority, even when it’s used abusively, is to put oneself at risk of spiritual and physical harm. As a result, women are told to submit to their husbands’ authority even if their husbands are cruel, harsh, or abusive …” (pg. 238)
Miller’s final point here is that the world is watching how the church is responding to abuse. And how we respond says something, not just about individuals who may be directly involved, but it says something about what we believe Christianity is about, and what Christ represents. “The gospel, Christianity, the universal church, and Christ Himself are judged by our response to abuse. As Paul warned, the gospel is in danger of being reviled because of our actions.” (pg 241)
Unlike so many Complementarian books, Miller doesn’t conclude with legalistic solutions, but encourages readers to be honest and examine themselves. She doesn’t tell you what to believe, or offer an alternative system. She asks you to weigh the evidence; use the Bible as your standard, to honestly examine your own beliefs, and to seek reform of your own heart and life by the Word and Spirit of God.
Why this book matters
What’s really at issue in the question of Complementarianism is fundamental teaching on the doctrines of sin, the Trinity, and the image of God in mankind. As Complementarianism seeks to reinterpret these doctrines, other doctrines, including Christology and soteriology are also at stake.
Human nature and salvation
Complementarianism makes erroneous assertions about human nature and Christian identity. (For example, see my recent review of Rachel Jankovic’s book, You Who?) Miller explains that Complementarianism divides human nature into two separate natures: a male nature and a female nature. I discuss this troublesome belief in an interview I did on the Glory-Cloud Podcast. According to Foundations of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Complementarians believe that man “mediates” the image of God in woman. It is supposed that a woman, as such, does not fully image God. And yet, on the surface, they acknowledge that Eve was created in the image of God.
In the Danvers Statement, Affirmation 1 reads: “Both Adam and Eve were created in God’s image, equal before God as persons and distinct in their manhood and womanhood (Gen 1:26-27, 2:18).” Simple enough. John Piper says here that men and women are created in the image of God. It’s part of the “True Woman Manifesto.” Doug Wilson also says it. But what does Complementarianism mean when they say that women are image bearers of God?
In Foundations of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Bruce Ware writes,
“Now, the question before us is whether any of these male/female differences relate to the question of what it means for men and women to be created in the image of God …”(pg 82) … “woman possesses her common human nature only through the prior nature of the man. Put differently, she is woman as God’s image by sharing in the man who is himself previously God’s image. A male priority is indicated, then, along with full male-female equality, when God names male and female “man.” (pg. 84) (emphasis added)
Similarly, Miller cites Elizabeth Elliot in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, “the image of God is only partially displayed in both men and women—women reflect certain aspects and men others, and so it takes both women and men to reflect the full image of God.” (pg 107)
This is very shaky ground. To claim Complementarianism is a “Gospel issue,” and to hold that men mediate the image of God to women, and to split human nature into a male nature and female nature, ultimately leaves women without the hope of being redeemable.
If the Complementarian view is true, then Jesus doesn’t have a human nature, but has a “male” nature, and therefore cannot be the Redeemer of women who have a “female” nature. If Christ can’t redeem women, women are left to earn heaven on their own. Is it any wonder why Complementarian books on “Biblical Womanhood” are so strikingly legalistic? The fact is, women bear God’s image in their own right and there is only one human nature, which Christ took on to redeem both men and women. There is no mediator between women and Christ.
One reason Complementarianism should be called into question, concerns the limits of legitimate church authority. Prominent advocates have claimed that Complementarianism is a “Gospel issue,” even “the Gospel” itself. If Complementarianism is a matter of the Gospel, then it ultimately warrants excommunication if you reject it. A wife working outside the home would be grounds for church leadership to censure her. This is just one example, of course, but it indicates that Complementarianism involves much more than whether one believes that legitimate marriage is only for one man and one woman.
Just as authority is limited in the home and society, Miller makes the case that Scripture also limits authority within the church. Not only this, but office holders must be above reproach. (Titus 1:6-9) Those in church office who abuse their authority are disqualified from office. And Scripture threatens them with greater judgement (James 3).
Diane Langberg, a Christian psychologist of 45 years, explains that church leaders who misuse and abuse authority do so when they become more focused on the ministry (the business of the church) than on the Master (Christ, the Good Shepherd), and the simple fact that they too are sheep like the rest of us.
True Christian liberty
Miller sets out to unravel the giant, ugly knot that we know as Feminism. An exhaustive history of feminism would be out of place, and Miller only provides a survey. But she does it superbly. She helpfully distinguishes first and second wave feminism from the sexual liberation movement. This can be taken a step further by additionally distinguishing the women’s rights movement from feminism, and also from the sexual liberation movement.
Many of the problems raised by feminist movements can be resolved differently through a libertarian understanding of self-ownership and property rights. We, both women and men, own ourselves, as a stewardship from God, and our God-given rights are based on that self-ownership. You’ll find more about that here.
I highly recommend that you add this book to your home library. It is faithful to historic Reformed teaching on Scripture while simultaneously clearing away so much false teaching that entangles the issue which prevents Christians from getting a straight answer. Misrepresenting the gospel is a gospel issue, and this book is a helpful guide in avoiding Complementarian misrepresentations.
Of particular importance is Miller’s explanation of what voluntary yielding means for Christian submission. Not only is it not genuine submission if it’s involuntary (coerced), but the voluntary nature of submission is necessary for resisting misuse and abuse of power. Christians are called to have a proper balance between Christian submission and Christian liberty. And this involves understanding that none of us are called to be doormats. Some have been persuaded that resisting those who misuse authority is “disobedience,” “insubordination,” or “disrespecting authority.” Nothing could be further from the truth! Choosing to resist illegitimate uses of authority comes from a high respect for legitimate authority.
If you have questions about the Complementarian-Egalitarian debate, and want a resource that avoids the errors of liberal theology, this is the book you want to get.
- Probably the toughest thing for us to grasp, is reading Paul through the lens of Christ and not through the lens of Greco-Roman and/or Victorian ideals. Our tendency is to do the latter.
- She also wrote A Vindication of the Rights of Man.
- This is important to distinguish, because often times the Christian derision of “women’s rights” is that it’s all about abortion, sexual liberation, and irresponsibility in relationships. But this is NOT what first and second wave feminists were seeking. There was indeed a split, and some feminist embraced the ideas of the sexual revolution, but it was never the driving force of early efforts to recognize the rights of women.
- “CBMW has been in operation since 1987, when a meeting in Dallas, Texas, brought together a number of evangelical leaders and scholars, including John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Wayne House, Dorothy Patterson, James Borland, Susan Foh, and Ken Sarles. These figures were concerned by the spread of unbiblical teaching. Under Piper’s leadership, the group drafted a statement outlining what would become the definitive theological articulation of “complementarianism,” the biblically derived view that men and women are complementary, possessing equal dignity and worth as the image of God, and called to different roles that each glorify him.” https://cbmw.org/about/history/
- the abandonment of historic Protestant liturgies and the adoption of therapeutic/entertainment-oriented “worship” (particularly since the time of the so-called “Second Great Awakening”) is certainly overly subjectivistic and emotively-focused, often trite and saccharine. But this infantilizing of worship can be equally masculine as feminine.