Complementary Insults

Benjamin Marsh
14 min readApr 22, 2021

A DeYoung Man Walks into a Byrd at the Barr. Ouch.

If you rub two books together of such diametrically opposed positions as Kevin DeYoung’s Men and Women in the Church: A Short, Biblical, Practical Introduction and Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood: how the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, can you start fire?

Verily. You can split the atom.

Add a third book, Aimee Byrd’s Recovering from biblical Manhood & Womanhood: How the Church Needs to Rediscover Her Purpose, and you threaten to rip open the space-time continuum.

You see, undoubtedly Barr, Byrd and DeYoung love Jesus and the church. But DeYoung desires the impossible: he wants to press forth a shorter reiteration of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, by Piper and Grudem without actually responding to the controversies of the day. To set a timeless work, it would seem, that operates above the fray.

Call it DeYoung’s Shorter ComplementiCatechism.

“I believe that God’s design is for men to lead, serve, and protect, and that, in the church, women can thrive under this leadership as they too labor with biblical faithfulness and fidelity according to the wisdom and beauty of God’s created order” (p. 19). He desires to “treat others, whether in person or in writing, as I would want to be treated — fairly, honestly, and with respect.”

Respect, my friend, begins by responding to the critics, the ones with whom “I may disagree with their positions and even think that they are wrong on important interpretive points, but I do not want to disparage their person or demean their sincerity in following Christ” (p. 20). This book acts as if the two most-discussed books among un-complementarians don’t even exist (to be fair, Barr’s didn’t really exist when he wrote it, but the arguments did). The Making of Biblical Womanhood is a personal narrative / historical analysis / commentary which, like Aimee Byrd’s Recovering seeks to deconstruct the work of the College of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and smash the sort of patriarchal/complementarian theologies like DeYoung’s. Rich in personal pathos and historical vignettes, Making has a more historical angle than Recovering, though both emphasize a truth complementarians casually ignore: complementarianism has enabled abuse.

Pretending ignorance of this, DeYougn asks the most important question about the whole dialogue, and never answers it:

“So what is the most pressing issue facing the church today when it comes to men and women?” (p. 18)

To which he can only say, “There is not scientific answer to that question.”

Did we not just exit the years of Ravi Zacharias, John Crist, Carl Lentz, Jerry Falwell Jr., Bill Hybels, etc all assaulting, raping, abusing, or destroying women? Beth Moore exiting the SBC? Joshua Harris kissing Christianity goodbye after kissing his wife goodbye after telling a generation of Christians to kiss dating goodbye? CJ Mahaney trying to destroy Rachel Denhollander? Bill Gothard’s sex factory?

Brother Kevin, this was the decade of evangelical men destroying women.

Or, rather, decades of destruction finally being unearthed.

We pastors exist in a narrative stream called lived history. We are wrestling with issues of unquestionable weight. Chief among them, in the eyes of women, who are not stupid, is this: are evangelical men all rapists and abusers? Is it just a matter of time before we find the next one?

DeYoung’s small attempt at assuaging this problem comes on page 17, and it is unintentionally (I am sure) massively offensive to actual victims:

“I want to say something to the men and women — no doubt, mostly women — who have been hurt in contexts where the truths I’m going to lay out in this book were affirmed. Oftentimes, the biggest hindrances to believing and resting in biblical truths are not objections of the mind but objections of the heart and of the eyes. It’s one thing to be convinced that complementarian exegesis is correct: it’s another to be sure that it is good. Like any biblical teaching, the truths about men and women can be misapplied, mishandled, or used as an excuse to mistreat others. This danger is especially poignant when the truths in question affirm the man as a leader and head and the woman as helper and nurturer. The biblical pattern of male leadership is never an excuse for ignoring women, belittling women, overlooking the contributions of women, or abusing women in any way. The truest form of biblical complementarity calls on men to protect women, honor women, speak kindly and thoughtfully to women, and to find every appropriate way to learn from them and include them in life and ministry — in the home and in the church” (p. 17)

Record. Scratch.

His first word to the abused: yeah, that sucked, but the bible is good.

Not, I am sorry. Not a call to repent to the men.

Instead, he hedge with his story of a comfortable life:

“Its important for me to recognize that I’ve seen in my life mainly healthy gender dynamics. My parents love each other. My churches have been full of godly, intelligent, flourishing, strongly complementarian women. Most of my friends have very good marriages. Whatever I know to be true in my head about abuse or whatever I’ve seen of sin and dysfunction in marriages in nearly twenty years of pastoral ministry, there’s no doubt that it still feels deep in my psyche like most husbands are bound to be pretty good and most complementarian men are apt to be fundamentally decent… My point is we should all be aware that we tend to assume our experiences are normative and the divergent experiences of others are exceptional. This should make us quick to sympathize and slow to accuse. (p. 17–18).

But, brother, you didn’t sympathize one ounce with the abused! Brother, in your experience in one of the whitest and richest denominations, as a reformed university professor and book author, how much do you interact with the abused, such that this would be your first word to them? Do you not hear the trauma in the voices of the women against whom you are writing?

Here is Barr’s story of her own abuse:

“I didn’t consider that as he listened to Gothard’s teachings about God’s ordained “chain of command,” this young man might become and abuser… I stayed with my boyfriend, hoping what I experienced as anger would mature into strength and that all would become right with my world. It didn’t. I became broken, exhausted, and tired of God” (Making, P. 202). She would have to flee the relationship, praying “Help me.”

The last thing you say to a woman like that, whom DeYoung says he wants to treat with respect, is “Oftentimes, the biggest hindrances to believing and resting in biblical truths are not objections of the mind but objections of the heart and of the eyes.”

Let’s try this:

“I am going to say something to the women who have been hurt by complementarians with whom I have been affiliated: I am sorry. I repent of anything that hurt you or led others to believe that you are allowed to be hurt. I want to ensure you that you are made in the image of God, that God loves you with an unquestionable self-sacrificial love that literally took him to the cross to die for you, and any man who does less than that — or who uses that sacrifice as an excuse to harm you — is the scum of the earth and deserves eternal hellfire for betraying his purpose.

“And to those scum men who might be reading this: repent, you sons of hell. You embarrass me with your addictions to power. You use my words to hurt women and ruin your children. You are in danger of eternal damnation. You are worthless in the eyes of God and rest in his angry hands until he sees fit to crush you as he should.”


Did you see a slight difference there?

The problem with DeYoung is that he unreservedly holds forth a theology of how men ought to be “protectors” and “lead” but spends the bulk of his book talking really specifically about how women ought to not do specific things. He reveals his actual answer to the question “What is the most pressing issue” in the way he sets out his book: Pattern one of the Old Testament regarding men and women, for DeYoung, is “Only Men Exercising Official Leadership.”

Why on earth is this the first point of the patterns of the OT regarding men and women, unless the question in the back of DeYoung’s mind was “can women lead?”

You only arrive at a book like DeYoung’s when that is your most pressing issue: can women lead. Not, how do I treat women. Not, how do I respond to women being abused. Not, what do I do about this raft of abusive leaders who have lead evangelicalism for years. No. It is, “can women lead?” Not even, what does a godly woman or man look or act like. But, can she lead!

Why don’t complementarians begin honestly: their principal occupation is ensuring women do not exist in positions of leadership. They are relatively unconcerned (and entirely unconcerned in some circles) with abuse. Until recently, many of them counseled that abused women had to stay with their spouses or, as one of my Southern Baptist seminary professors taught me, a woman married to a murderer had to stay with him even when he went away to prison for life. Instead, they craft entire theologies (even heresies, as both Byrd and Barr note) around complementarianism. All over the key question, which DeYoung does not specifically identify but clearly crafts the book around: can a woman lead.

His point is clearest in his applications:

“I’m simply noting that male leading and female helping is what men and women should be intentional to find and eager to accept. Even in the workplace, where a company’s org chart may have men and women positioned at every level, I believe there is still a way for Christians to embrace masculinity and femininity in appropriate ways” (p. 120).

Fact is, DeYoung scrambles to really identify these ways because he himself has not experienced them outside of his (safe) churches and marriage. “This inclination is seen most clearly — in the Bible and in practice — in marriage, but there are reasons to think the Genesis pattern was to be reflected in how women learn and how men teach in the church.”

Not until the very end of this application does he clarify, “the exhortation here is not for women to sit down but for men to stand up.”

What does that mean? Does it mean, as both Byrd and Barr highlight, that women ought to be taught to always listen to men at Board Meetings and subjugate themselves in all professional settings? To do all they can in those arenas to ensure they are not usurping male authority?

Again, the problem: if you wanted to write a book to the men, then do it. Shed the pages spent on what women can’t do, and excoriate men for being weak abusers who fail to lead. Why spend so much time on what women cannot do? Why focus on authority and power to the furtherance of the subjugation of women? Why does male leadership require waiting on female subjugation?

Because, as Barr points out, the subjugation is the point. Maybe DeYoung doesn’t mean that (I do not want to impugn motives) but he sure fits in the stream of patriarchy which would subjugate women across the board in all circumstances to all men. Byrd ID’s the problem most clearly in Piper’s Recovering:

“These teachings appear to say that all men lead all women. A man needs to be leading a woman, many women, to be mature in his masculinity. A woman’s function is to affirm a man’s, many men’s, strength and leadership… For example, if the mailman comes to the door and a woman answers, he needs to be thinking about how his leadership is affirmed as a man in their interactions. Or if a man is lost driving in the neighborhood and the only person he can find outside is a woman, the book considers how he can ask for directions from her without his masculinity suffering” (Recovering, P. 22).

Do you see the absurdity here, when the first question is, can a woman lead? Suddenly everything becomes gendered. Barr describes the situation most aptly:

“biblical womanhood as we know it today has thus become fully formed: Not only does history show that women have always been subordinate to men (patriarchy), not only does the New Testament confirm that women should be subordinate to men (Paul), not only did the Reformation restore the importance and dignity of the role and mother, but now we can state with assurance that female subordination is gospel truth. Women are created as distinct form men and, by the design of our female bodies, intended for domesticity and subordination. Women’s subordination even reflects the design of the Godhead itself. Just has Jesus is subordinate to God the Father, wives should be subordinate to their husbands. The Bible clearly preaches female submission, and if we disbelieve the Bible on this account, then we c all int question the entire veracity of the Bible” (Making, p. 200).

Oh complementarian pastors, listen! Do you not hear how this narrative has formed and twisted into such a baneful corruption as to become heresy! You can say all you want that you would treat those opposing you “fairly, honestly, and with respect,” but if your presupposition is that those with whom you disagree are maligning the gospel itself and abusing the Word of God itself, then you need be honest — there is no respect there at all! You may well say “I do not want to disparage their person or demean their sincerity in following Christ,” but you just did (Men, p. 20).


Let’s focus on Byrd and Barr.

They do not present an egalitarian systematic, but that’s not their purpose. Their books have important narratives about their lives and the lives of a generation of women around them who grew up with complementarianism and have seen its ravages. Byrd is most interested in the way these things affect the church in its purpose: how does our understanding of womanhood and manhood interact with discipleship? Barr gives a historical analysis (being a professor of history at Baylor) of how and why we got here, mingled with her own story of experiencing Christian patriarchy. Byrd desires that people use her book in the church, including discussion questions about how we live the Gospel in our churches, how we do ministry, and how we deal with gendered parachurch ministries. Barr has a hammer-nail approach, really aiming to smash the patriarchy without focusing too much on what we do after. Indeed, Barr’s book works like an extended Part One to Byrd’s Part Two.

You could, however, draw significant engagement with DeYoung (something I might do in the future) out of the Scriptures with which Barr and Byrd wrestle, including Ruth, 1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy, the many references to the acts of women in the NT/OT, and more. These books are not bereft of Scripture; rather, they reference Scripture in smatterings designed to chip away at the purportedly air-tight analysis of a work like DeYoung’s. Scrape through both and you can pick away at DeYoung fairly well. DeYoung opens himself up to this by admitting this is basically a reprint of a self-published book from 2006. Still, he does not touch on much of the new scholarship, and says nothing of Byrd or Barr.

Take, for brief example, the idea that Junia was a woman, and was notable among the apostles. DeYoung notes quickly, “it is likely that Junia is a man, not a woman” (Men p. 112). But Barr corrects “The Greek name Junia was almost universally translated int its female form until the twentieth century, when the name suddenly began to be translated as the masculine Junias. Why? Gaventa explains: ‘Epp makes it painfully, maddeningly clear that a major factor in twentieth-century treatments of Romans 16:7 was the assumption that a woman could not have been an apostle.’ Junia only became Junias because modern Christians assumed that only a man could be an apostle” (Making, p. 67). What do we say back to Barr? Well, DeYoung argues, the Greek is that she/he was “well known by the apostles,” but DeYoung knows the Greek is ambiguous, so such an argument only works if the first question is “Can a woman be an apostle?” He engages in the same assumption Barr identifies.

Barr makes a very serious allegation: “we have read Paul wrong” (p. 67). Her support is strong, but not quite the level, as I mentioned, of a systematic theology or academic paper. She has written a history, and her history is very compelling. The arguments she presents are sufficient as to require a response. More importantly, the criticism of Barr and Byrd require real scholarship in response, not the sort of pithy defensive take Denny Burk gave to Byrd. MOST importantly, the narratives of Byrd and Barr require response, especially as they are situated in a narrative stream of constant reports of abuse by church leaders. Is something wrong in the way we do Christianity? Have we exulted male headship at the expense of male protectionism? How do mean really lead as Christ did: unto self-sacrificial death? How have we so robbed our women of their callings to ministry?


These questions swirl as my own denomination, the Christian & Missionary Alliance, wrestles with the roles of women in ministry. Ours is a denomination of proud female servants of Christ, some of whom served as solo missionaries (and still do!) in extreme situations, some of whom led churches when no men could, some of whom prophesied and spoke in tongues and “spoke” from the pulpits (those were sermons, I tell you!). As we consider what women can or cannot do, let’s pause.

I do not have answers yet, but I do have some recommendations as to how we begin to answer these questions, and how we can do a better job than DeYoung of approaching the egalitarian/complementarian question:

1. The chief authority of teaching younger women how to be women falls on older women (Titus 2:3–5). The role of the Pastor was to encourage the older women to use their time to teach the younger women instead of getting drunk and gossiping. Have we, oh church, prodded our women to teach our women, or are we content with the DeYoungs and Pipers of the world trying to figure out what womanhood means? Women know what it means to be a woman more than I or you, oh man, ever possibly can. Respect that.

2. Churches abrogate the Scriptural norms of leadership in greater was than the woman/Elder/pastor question. For example, how can we have elders that or not pastors, or pastors that are not elders, when both are Shepherds in the church identified as such in Scripture? Or how can we have churches led entirely by Deacons, when such a leadership structure does not exist in the bible at all! Be humble in approaching questions of leadership, and be narrowly focused on the church.

3. Stop dragging women in the business world / life outside the church into this debate. My CEO friend isn’t ruining the church or wrecking society when she projects power and leads men.

4. Recognize the bigger problem, right now, in America, is abuse. Learn to be a healing church and a place where women know they are safe before you start telling them what they can or cannot do.

5. Respond to the criticisms of Byrd and Barr and others with a) care for their stories, which are very real; b) genuine scholarship, devoid of ad-hominems and further abuse; c) genuine belief that these women love the Church and are informed by the Holy Spirit.

6. Stop infecting all of the Bible with these men lead, women help nonsense, unless you preface it with the fact that the subtext of the entire Scripture is “Men failed, women often bailed.” See Zipporah slapping Moses with their son’s foreskin because the dummy failed to circumcise him. See Adam mute standing by as Eve eats. See Mary stoic as her husband prepares to divorce her quietly. See Sarah sighing as Abraham ONCE AGAIN passes her off as his sister. See David raping a woman and killing her husband but her staying with him as his wife. See… see… How many examples do you want? “Men lead” is not a theme of the bible. “Men fail” is. So we all need Christ, my brothers.

7. Repent, dudes. Our sisters are watching. The first question of the bible is NOT “can women lead,” but, “How great is our Savior God?” Start there, and then let us proceed together.