Should a wife "submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband"? Not according to 69 percent of respondents to a 1998 Gallup Poll. But the evangelical jury is still out on the matter.

Should gender or gifts primarily determine the roles performed by husbands and wives? Have we too readily accepted the tenets of feminism? Have we allowed the patriarchal tradition to limit women?

Two groups have taken opposing stands in this impassioned debate on two fronts: the home and the church. This article focuses on the debate about the home—and on the marriages that live out the two models.

The Beginning of the Debate

Before the 1980s, evangelicals' understanding of gender roles was largely implicit; few theologized about it. Most evangelicals practiced male leadership in the home and in the church, but they tended not to explain it in a way that would get the attention of the secular press.

Since the late '80s, though, two Bible-believing movements—the egalitarian Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE) and the complementarian Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW)—have given us a language for the gender debate.

Complementarians talk about headship of husbands as well as submission of wives. Egalitarians speak of biblical equality and mutual submission of the spouses.

CBE was formed in 1987 by members of the Minnesota chapter of the Evangelical Women's Caucus International who withdrew from the caucus after it officially recognized a lesbian minority. CBMW was born later that same year. "Our cause exists because an alternate vision has arisen," president Bruce Ware said at a CBMW marriage conference last year. Both groups say theirs is the biblical view. How do adherents of those views live them out?

Headship and Submission

If a wife gives up or suspends her career to raise the children, and yields to her husband even when she disagrees with him—while the husband functions as the spiritual leader of the home—then the couple very likely subscribes to the complementarian philosophy.

A case in point is an episode from the life of Don Balasa, a Chicago lawyer and CBMW's legal counsel, and his wife, Kate Balasa, who homeschools their daughter. The Balasas were visiting Buffalo, New York, when the terrorist attacks suspended air travel. They had airplane tickets for September 13 but weren't sure they would be able to fly home that day.

"An area that Don usually defers to me is travel," Kate told me. "So he asked me, 'What are our options?' After giving him all the scenarios, I told him I'd prefer to wait at the hotel and fly home." But Don thought it would be safer and a better use of time to drive home to Chicago immediately.

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"I told Don, 'I'm deciding to submit to you here, but I really disagree with your decision.' He just very lovingly, very kindly said, 'I think this is the direction we need to go,' " she says. They ended up renting a car and, "as it turned out, we would have been stuck there for several more days."

Does she feel resentment when Don goes against her wishes?

"No bitterness has built up," she says. "I trust God that he has put Don in a place of headship in our home, and Don's leadership is loving." She adds that many times Don is clearly opposed to something she wants to do—like a recent home renovation—yet he gives her a go-ahead.

Wayne Grudem, a CBMW council member who coedited the complementarian magnum opus, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Crossway, 1991), made a big sacrifice for his wife, Margaret.

For several years, she has lived with constant pain due to fibromyalgia. The soreness eased whenever the two visited hot and arid Arizona, and they entertained the idea of moving there. The move could have hindered Wayne's career. A scholar at the well-known Trinity International University in Deerfield, Illinois, Wayne found one school he could work at in Arizona: the little-known Phoenix Seminary.

"I came to Ephesians 5:28, 'Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies,' " Wayne later wrote in a newsletter. "If I were to love my own wife as I love my own body, then shouldn't I move [to Arizona] for the sake of Margaret?" Wayne applied to teach at Phoenix and the two moved last year.

How does this differ from the egalitarian concept of mutual submission?

"Our decision process did not look at all like mutual submission," Grudem told me. "I did decide to move to Arizona out of love for my wife, and I believe the Bible teaches a lot of mutual things, like mutual love and mutual deference to each other's needs, preferences, and desires. But at no time did I submit to Margaret's authority or yield my leadership role in the marriage."

Complementarian Kate Balasa adds: "Mutual submission suggests that authority or headship alternates between husband and wife. Deference, on the other hand, is a part of the sacrificial love and wisdom of headship."

Even the wife's exercise of her gifts has to be subject to headship, says Karen Poulos, whom I met at CBMW's marriage conference in Longwood, Florida. Karen, who has enjoyed homeschooling her children for years, believes she has a gift of teaching the Bible. She gave up teaching when her husband, Gregory, wanted to change the curriculum. She suggested that he teach the new material because "it is more important for our children to see the biblical pattern of the husband as head, and the wife as the helper, than for me to teach."

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"My freedom comes from letting my husband be in charge," she says.

Could Paul's call for husbands to lay down their lives for their wives imply mutual submission?

To a degree, yes, Don Balasa says. While egalitarians support their commitment to mutual submission with Ephesians 5:21 (among other passages), Don and his wife believe submission is based on the directive to husbands in verses 25-28. "Christ's giving himself up for the church had elements of self-giving and self-denial," he says. "But wives are to relate to their husbands like the church must relate to Christ. Throughout the Scripture, Christ is Lord." He notes one difference, though: husbands and wives are equal in value.

Gifted Leadership

A tongue-in-cheek summary of this understanding comes from egalitarian scholar Gordon D. Fee. At a CBE conference in Dallas last year, the Regent College professor said, "The only way for a man and a woman to be equal is for the woman to submit."

InterVarsity will publish CBE's response to Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood in 2003. The working title expresses the egalitarian vision in six words—Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy. Spouses' gifts differ, filling in for the other, and there is no unilateral submission.

When asked who the leader is in their marriage, men and women I spoke with at the CBE conference said, "Both of us," or "It depends on whose gift applies to a given situation."

In an egalitarian marriage, tasks are divided between spouses in accordance with their gifts, not genders, says Kathy Dudley, who attended the conference with her husband, Sayres.

Kathy's gifts are "strategic thinking and the ability to see what God is saying," says Sayres. So it's no wonder that Kathy, a president of a ministry to Dallas's inner city, leads in areas requiring vision, he says.

"My leadership gifts are the most visible," she says. "I see the abstract and, by God's grace, I'm able to create systems and structures that create concrete action. Seeing ahead and being able to say, 'I think that God's leading us to move to West Dallas, to an impoverished area,' is leadership. Does that mean that's the only kind of leadership in our home? No."

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Sayres, whose gifts are "compassion, joy, perseverance, exhortation, service," leads when he encourages her or when he helps someone out, she says.

How do they get out of an impasse?

"We don't try to overrule each other if we are at loggerheads," Sayres says. "We back up and try to come to a consensus."

"[CBMW] wants us to believe that there has to be a final decision maker," adds Kathy. "In 28 years, I cannot remember one decision that we couldn't back off from." (Fee, married for 45 years, also said he and his wife never reached a stalemate.)

In addition, says Sayres, having equal say in all decisions fosters spiritual growth for both husband and wife.

"If we hadn't been willing to wrestle, grow together, sometimes not even know the answer," Sayres says, "we would have missed out on seeking the will of God together and on bathing our life in prayer."

Shared decision-making has practical benefits. Says Alvera Mickelsen, one of CBE's founders, "It is fine to divvy up responsibilities, but both spouses should know as much as possible about the other's—and take enough turns doing them to be comfortable." Take decisions about money. A widow herself, Mickelsen says that both spouses "should help the other prepare to be alone."

"Some women know too little about the finances of the family," she says. "When a husband dies, they don't know about their liabilities, bank accounts, investments, taxes, and where all the records are. This is a terrible burden to put on someone in grief."

"One person making final decisions isn't a good model of conflict resolution," says JoAnn Lieffers Swart. "It's hard for one person to make all final decisions for the group" and still be the group members' equal. JoAnn and her husband, John Swart, who is on CBE's board of directors, are busy putting their gifts to work. Egalitarian convictions freed JoAnn to complete a graduate degree in theology, lead worship, and become an elder at her church.

Yet the Swarts' occupations are more commonly the mark of complementarian marriages: John is a vice president of a telecommunications research firm, while JoAnn suspended her career as a personnel manager to focus on raising their four daughters. But why not?

"We should not forsake gifts that traditionally come with our genders just because we're egalitarians," says Becky Leverington, a marriage counselor attending the CBE conference. "You miss out on contributing to the kingdom if you don't use them."

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Becky and her husband John, both marriage counselors, concede that egalitarian marriages have their challenges. Spouses shouldn't think they are equally gifted in all areas, John says. "If a wife is a gifted conference speaker and the husband is not, then in that way they have different gifts. But the husband can encourage the wife's use of her gift [for others' sakes]."

Egalitarian marriage may take more work, they say. "It's more complicated to meet both people's needs than to agree that only one person will decide," Becky says. "If you're going to recognize both spouses' gifts and one spouse gets a job offer, it may involve more negotiation."

"But it's more rewarding in the end," John says.

"Open negotiation is better than manipulation," Kathy Dudley adds.

The Bible Tells Them So

CBMW and CBE agree on many things. The groups share commitments to salvation through Christ, thorough biblical scholarship, and the well-being of marriages and churches. They agree on values, but not on how to implement them. They read the Holy Book differently.

William J. Webb explains the crux of this difference in his irenic work Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals (IVP, 2001). The entire debate comes down to how CBE and CBMW answer one question: Which biblical passages dealing with women's roles are culturally relative and which are transcultural? In other words, which are time-bound and which are timeless? The following is a quick (and necessarily incomplete) summary of the groups' hermeneutical differences.

Egalitarians believe that men and women were created to be equal partners and were both told to exercise dominion. CBE holds that the Bible teaches the full equality—in function and in value—of men and women in Creation and in Redemption. The first woman's designation as a "helper" does not connote inferiority; the same noun (ezer) is used to describe God 16 out of the 21 times it's mentioned in the Bible.

Complementarians, on the other hand, say that though both Adam and Eve were created equal before God, they remain "distinct in their manhood and womanhood" as part of the created order.

In CBE's view, Adam's rule is a result of sin and not a part of the original created order. After the Fall, the woman is told her husband will rule over her, and moments later Adam names her Eve.

CBMW says Adam's headship was established by God before the Fall, and thus not as a result of sin. Husbands will be held accountable before God for the spiritual and general well-being of their wives and children.

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What happens in Redemption? Egalitarians say Christ works to redeem the results of the Fall, including the lack of equality between the sexes. Through faith in Christ, we all become children of God, one in Christ, and heirs to the blessings of salvation, without regard to race, class, or gender.

CBMW agrees with the last sentence, but says that salvation in Christ does not remove role distinctions, which CBMW believes were present before the Fall. Husbands should forsake harsh or selfish leadership and grow in love and care for their wives; wives should forsake resistance to their husbands' authority and grow in willing, joyful submission to their husbands' leadership.

At an Impasse

The key actors in the evangelical gender debate have clearly reached an impasse.

Egalitarians ask: Is there something intrinsically wrong with women that they need a head and a leader—while men don't? How does a husband's functioning as a priest for the wife provide a service beyond what Christ accomplished on Calvary?

Complementarians ask: Don't many factors prior to the Fall point to Adam's headship (man naming woman, Eve's being Adam's helper, and God's looking for Adam after they both sinned)? Even though members of CBE do not support homosexuality, couldn't the interpretive method they employ be used to argue that homosexual practice is not a sin?

The groups are unable to meet in the middle.

When asked whether he can conceive of godly egalitarian couples who are happy and fulfilled, CBMW executive director Randy Stinson says, "I just think it's the wrong question. The question we ought to be asking is, 'Is it right?' I think more is at stake than personal happiness. [CBE and CBMW] both cannot be right. I say that with a sense of brokenness."

CBE President Mimi Haddad agrees: They both cannot be right. "We will argue until we are in our graves about certain issues. We can never know, this side of heaven, everything that's right theologically." Haddad's solution? Yes, let's be right, she says. But when in doubt—let's at least be loving. "We need to ask, Does the Bible teach us to love? We want to be right, but do we want to be good?"

Stinson replies, "Being right and being good here is the same thing. Some non-Christians say it's not loving to tell them that they are going to hell. [But] we're concerned about what God wants and what he has revealed, and that thing will be good and right. We're concerned with love, but the central thing is what is biblical."

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Haddad counters, "Isn't love central to Scripture and God-honoring? There is clear biblical evidence for mutual submission in marriage and the church, yet Christians disagree. This is when we must follow the biblical call to love. Scripture is not clear on slavery, either, yet Christ's call to love is clear and triumphs over passages that appear unclear. Christ said to love your neighbor as yourself. Does love demand one-sided submission?"

Scholars on both sides have attempted to crack various exegetical puzzles central to the debate. The disputed terms include kephale in Ephesians 5:23. The Greek word literally means "head," but metaphorically its meanings can range from "beginning" or "source" to "authority." Controversial passages include 1 Timothy 2, which contains admonitions that men pray with their hands raised and women learn in silence, and other texts in which Paul limits the roles of (certain or all) women.

Both groups read the passages on the Trinity slightly differently, and in turn disagree on how the marital relationship should reflect the Trinity. For treatments of these and other difficult passages, see the resources available through the groups' Web sites ( and

There's Always the Trinity

In a CT gender roles survey, 88 percent of our readers agreed that "there is a lot of confusion about male and female roles in the Christian world today." Perhaps it is so because a clear understanding of both positions requires rigorous Bible study, best if aided by a knowledge of Hebrew and Greek and the scholarship packaged in many commentaries.

Some wonder if it matters if they belong to either camp. We've all seen marriages on both sides of the fence that look puzzlingly alike. Both complementarian and egalitarian marriages are capable of the kind of love that does not demand power or respect—regardless of the language used to describe the marriage.

Those stuck in between the two opposing perspectives would do well to research both stances and perhaps adopt one. But if for some reason that's not possible, they can be helped by ageless truths.

Few mainstream evangelical marriage guidebooks try to persuade anyone to commit to either becoming an egalitarian or complementarian. Nor do they talk much about roles. Instead, the books focus on, among other things, healthy communication and conflict resolution.

Another way to transcend the debate comes from someone who, like most evangelicals, is an intriguing mixture of both egalitarian and complementarian convictions. Says Larry Crabb, a popular evangelical counselor and the author of Men and Women: Enjoying the Difference, "I hate the word 'roles,' because more often than not they refer to the wife and not to the husband," and they feel "so impositional and boundary-like."

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Crabb supports a wife's submission, but he defines it as the wife's "liberty to use who she uniquely is to further God's purposes for her husband." This means that "disagreement with her husband may at times be a godly response," he says, adding that husbands do the same for their wives. He wants to see his wife's gifts released, but he also wants to help her serve God with her femininity. We can't deny the "clear distinctions between men and women," he says. "Instead, we ought to celebrate them."

The other key to marital success is found in the Trinity, Crabb says. "There's such a radical other-centeredness and simply no competition in the Trinity. The Spirit is always talking about Jesus, Jesus is revering the Father, and the Father is always honoring the Son. When I'm not getting my way, then I must recognize that my energy of angry, competitive maneuvering is coming from some source that is illegitimate that reflects my non-Trinitarian fallenness."

This is what we all—egalitarians, complementarians, and those in between—can recognize. When we do that, our marriages just might look remarkably alike.

Agnieszka Tennant is an associate editor of CT.

Related Elsewhere

A ready-to-download Bible Study on this article is available at These unique Bible studies use articles from current issues of Christianity Today to prompt thought-provoking discussions in adult Sunday school classes or small groups.

Also appearing on our site today:

Adam and Eve in the 21st CenturyWhen it comes to gender roles, CT readers oscillate between complementarian and egalitarian ideas.
CT Classic: Adam and Eve in AmericaIn 1990, readers first revealed what they thought it means to be created male and female.
CT Classic: Can We Talk?We may never resolve all our differences about women in leadership, but we can help each other toward better understanding.

In preparation for this article, writer Agnieszka Tennant attended the annual conferences of Christians for Biblical Equality and The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and wrote exclusive online dispatches from each:

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A Different Kind of Women's LibA dispatch from the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood conference. (October 12, 2001)
Seahorses, Egalitarians, and Traditional Sex-Role ReversalA dispatch from the Christians for Biblical Equality conference. (July 11, 2001)

The Christians for Biblical Equality Web site has information on the organization, FAQs, and online resources such as free articles and its statement on biblical equality.

The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood's Web site has information on the organization, extensive resources, and 50 questions on manhood and womanhood.

Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and Slave, Women and Homosexuals are available at

Men and Women: Enjoying the Difference is available used at

Earlier Christianity Today articles on gender roles include:

The Next Christian Men's MovementJust because Promise Keepers no longer fills stadiums doesn't mean men's ministry is dead. Far from it. (Sept. 15, 2000)
What Has Gender Got to Do with It?Wesleyan-Holiness churches were led by women long before the rise of the modern women's movement. (Sept. 12, 2000)
A Woman's PlaceWomen reaching women is key to the future of missions. (Aug. 4, 2000)
Integrating Mars and VenusGender-based ministries may be effective, but are they biblical? (July 12, 1999)
Finding Power in SubmissionTwo feminist scholars write about women you'll recognize. (Apr. 27,1998)
Will Episcopalians Step into the 'Radical Center'?Homosexual ordination discussed, women's ordination mandated. (Sept. 1, 1997)
Presbyterian Groups Sever CRC TiesWomen's ordination splits two denominations. (Aug. 11, 1997)

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