Pursue Jesus, Not Complementarity: A Response to Owen Strachan and TGC

Owen Strachan wrote an article for The Gospel Coalition titled, Pursue Complementarity, Not Compatibility. He opens by claiming that the concept of “compatibility” has been the greatest hindrance to the development of love. He states that the real issue is that none of us is compatible because we are all sinners. And therefore we need something sturdier to ground our marriages.

I agree with Strachan, we need something sturdier than romance, attraction, or money to ground our marriages.

We need Jesus. Not complementarity.

Strachan goes on to misinterpret, misapply, and misunderstand scripture.

The Biblical perspective does not say that the root of a healthy marriage is gospel-shaped manhood and womanhood. The root of a healthy marriage is Jesus. The root of a healthy marriage is understanding that both partners are created in God’s image, and saved by grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Strachan says that the fact that the woman is created from the man’s body in Genesis indicates that he is called to protect her. There is absolutely nothing in the text that indicates that the man is called to protect the woman because she was made from his flesh. When God brings the woman to the man, the man states,

“This is now bone of my bone
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
for she was taken out of man.” (Genesis 2:23)

This is a proclamation of the oneness of man and woman. They are made of the same substance. They share flesh and bone. This is reflected in the Hebrew word “ishshah” meaning woman, because she came from “ish” or man. They are one. 

Verse 24 then states, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” The man leaves his family of origin, the flesh he physically came from, to be united to woman, and they become one flesh.

There is zero mention of the man being tasked with protecting the woman. There is only oneness and unity in this passage.

Strachan also states that the woman is to be the man’s helper. Here he is referencing Genesis 2:18, “ The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” There has been so much written about this particular verse, that I am always surprised that people still try to claim that this means the woman was designed to be a subordinate helper to the man, like an assistant or secretary.

The Hebrew words translated “helper suitable” are “ezer kenegdo.” The word ezer appears over 20 times in the Old Testament, and the majority of those cases it refers to God as a helper or savior or rescuer. Every time it is used it refers to a powerful saving help. Kenegdo means equal to, or level to.

“Helper suitable” is an anemic translation at best. The woman is described in this passage as a savior equal to, or a rescuer on the same level as the man.

Strachan then goes on to state that Ephesians 5:22-23 is the Bible’s preeminent passage on what marriage is and should be. It’s unfortunate that he has completely missed the beautiful and powerful message of the passage in Ephesians 5. He only references the first two verses, which are simply the opening verses to a passage which has its main message in verse 27 where it states that Jesus will present the church to himself, holy and blameless. Margaret Mowczko has written beautifully about this passage here. This is a passage about the unity between Jesus and the church, which is a great mystery. And this glorious unity is a model for marriage – again, the main themes in this passage are unity and oneness, just like the Genesis passage. There is absolutely no mention of leadership or authority.

Strachan then references 1 Peter 3:4-7 to claim that a wife is to cultivate a “gentle and quiet spirit.” However, the context is about women not flaunting their wealth, and realizing that their value is in being worthy to God, not to the world. Strachan also referenced 1 Timothy 3:4 to say that a man should spiritually lead his home. This idea is not found anywhere in scripture. And the passage in 1 Timothy is about church leaders, not about husbands and wives.

Here is where I agree with Strachan, “Of course, the couple shares much in their marriage. They must extend forgiveness, stir one another to godliness, and mourn together when loved ones die. In these and other ways, they care for each other as every believer should.” Of course. And if Strachan was able to lean on the beautiful descriptions of unity and oneness in Genesis and Ephesians, he would continue this thought to its logical end of mutual submission and equal respect and authority. But instead his next sentence comes out of left field, “But their marriage is no gender-neutral laboratory.” Where on earth did this statement come from? The idea of being compatible, which is what Strachan claims to be disputing, has nothing to do with being gender neutral.

He then states that scripture says being a wife means living for one’s husband. He references 1 Corinthians 11:9 here. Unfortunately, again, he has missed the point of the passage in 1 Corinthians. This is a passage about origins. It is in reference to the creation account in Genesis 2 again, where the woman was created to rescue the man from his solitude. The Corinthians passage ends with the reminder that, even though woman was created from man, every man is born of woman. This is not a passage about marriage.

Strachan states that no one is compatible. Whether or not one agrees with this statement may depend on how we define what it means for a couple to be compatible. Certainly no couple is perfect, and real life is not a fairy tale. Marriage is two sinful people coming together to share life. But the answer to making it work is not twisting scripture into instructions for gender roles. The Bible is not a book about human marriage. The Bible is a book about Jesus. It is the story of God’s redemption. It is the romance between God and humanity. And the glorious unity we experience in Christ is to be reflected in our marriages.

The root of a strong marriage is mutuality in Jesus.

Pursue Jesus.

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17 thoughts on “Pursue Jesus, Not Complementarity: A Response to Owen Strachan and TGC”

  1. Yes. Yes. Yes. And Amen! I wish I could have every person who read TGC article read this like right now.

  2. I would argue that the whole story of the animals not being able to solve the problem of the first human’s aloneness—and the woman being made from a piece taken out from the first human’s body—not to mention the meaning of the Hebrew phrase ‘kenegdo’—and then the man’s remarks about the similarities and kinship between him and the woman—and let’s not forget the one-flesh unity they shared—is *all* about how compatible the first man and woman were (Gen. 2:18-25).

    Also, Owen needs to read the whole chiasm of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 and not select verse 9 in isolation. Paul redresses verse 9 with verse 11: “Nevertheless (or, except that), in the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman.” Men and women need each other. Husbands and wives need each other.

    And just how does a husband obey the instructions in Ephesians 5:25 & 28 (about husbands deeply loving their wives) if the husband is not living for his wife, but he allows (or insists) that the wife must unilaterally live for him? This doesn’t sound like Jesus at all!

  3. “The root of a strong marriage is mutuality in Jesus.

    Pursue Jesus.”

    YES! There was so much wrong with Strachan’s article. Thanks for taking it on.

  4. Nicely done, Kelly. I fear that Mr. Strachan misses the point of those passages because he comes to them with an agenda. Patriarchists often say we should read the Bible for its plain meaning, but then look at Genesis 1 and 2 and convey allsorts of extra meaning into it. Not only is the woman created as a suitable helper, but when the man says she is bone of his bones, etc., he is recognizing that they are equal partners.

    1. Thanks! Yes, it seems clear to me that he’s deriving his understanding of the Biblical text from his theology, and not his theology from the Biblical text.

  5. Saw a blog post, wartburgwhiners, where the author thinks that instead of engaging the argument, the wartburgwatch ladies are actually engaged in cyber-bullying.

    I have to admit, there does seem to be a bit of that.

    1. Hi Marko, Perhaps this comment is off topic? There is no reference to the wartburgwatch in this post. I’m not sure of the connection you are trying to make.

  6. Kelly writes “Marriage is two sinful people coming together to share life.” I find this much better and far more theologically correct than what Strachan writes: “As stated above, no one’s compatible. Why? Because both spouses are sinners, and sin shreds even the most promising union.”

    Strachan’s statement makes me wonder if his version of the “gospel” includes the power of grace, resurrection, and restoration. He (and the likes of him) are so focused on the power of sin to destroy that in there proclamations I often fail to see any hope of redemption.

    Even if it can be granted (and I personally do not – at least not to the extent implied to by Strachan) that sin turns people into self-seeking monsters and completely destroys the ability to form lasting relationships, isn’t the power of the gospel to begin the process of healing and restoration in the here-and-now?

    1. Great points Mark. I often feel like complementarian theology chooses to live into sin rather that into redemption.

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