The Search for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

A Preliminary Response to the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood


by David C. Freeman


            The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) was formed in 1987 in “the hope that the noble biblical vision of sexual complementarity may yet win the mind and heart of Christ’s church.”  The Danvers Statement outlines the CBMW rationale, purposes and affirmations.  The CBMW sponsored the publishing of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, edited by John Piper and Wayne Grudem as well as a series of booklets in the “CBMW Practical Living Series.”[1] 

I affirm the CBMW goal of celebrating the complementarity of men and women.  However, I find that CBMW has actually fallen short of the noble biblical vision of sexual complementarity by:

1.  essentially reducing masculinity and femininity to roles of leadership and submission

2.  diminishing the unique and special relationship between a husband and wife by insisting that it is the model for the relationship between all men and all women.

Furthermore, the CBMW is not consistent in its conclusions.


The first mistake the CBMW makes is that it reduces gender differences to differences in roles.  The Danvers Statement presents 10 contemporary developments which motivated the formation of CBMW.  The first and presumedly, in light of the organization’s name, the most significant of these developments is “The widespread uncertainty and confusion in our culture regarding the complementary differences between masculinity and femininity.”  One would expect, therefore, that the CBMW would present a clearly stated and defensible definition of those “complementary differences.”  However, in practice, they essentially define complementary differences in gender as differences in roles.  They go from Affirmation #1 which affirms that Adam and Eve were created “distinct in their manhood and womanhood” to Affirmation #2 which affirms that “Distinctions in masculine and feminine roles are ordained by God as part of the created order” (emphasis mine).  This pairing illustrates the approach of CBMW, for Piper and Grudem define distinctions in manhood and womanhood primarily, and virtually exclusively, through identifying distinctions in roles. 

They claim not to do so:  “We are concerned not merely with the behavioral roles of men and women but also with the underlying natures of manhood and womanhood themselves.”[2]  Nonetheless, the thrust of their argument is that God established males as leaders at creation, and if females exercise primary leadership roles in the home or church, they are confusing not only gender roles, but sexual identity itself.  They believe that the “feminist minimization of sexual role differentiation contributes to the confusion of sexual identity that, especially in second and third generations, gives rise to more homosexuality in society.”[3]  That is a startling conclusion.  I am unaware of any research that can identify specific gender roles or the lack of them with an increase in homosexuality.  In any case, I believe that the equating of roles with sexuality actually diminishes sexuality, rather than affirming it. 

In reality, men and women can perform identical roles while doing so in a way that reflects their differing sexuality.  They will do so because God created them as male or female.  That is why Grudem and Piper worry too much, it seems to me, about the need for differentiated roles.  They argue:  “If all the emphasis is on gender neutrality and undifferentiated roles, how will sons learn the answer to the question: What does it mean to grow up to be a man and not a woman?  And how will daughters learn to answer the question: What does it mean to grow up a woman and not a man?  If these questions are regarded as anything less than utterly crucial, we think the resulting frustrations and confusions, through the loss of clear sexual identity in the generations to come, will erupt with a tidal wave of hostilities and perversions that we can now scarcely imagine.”[4]  Apparently they do not trust the natural maleness and femaleness which God planned would be in each of us and which will express itself without having to be told.  Blaming undifferentiated gender roles cannot, it seems to me, be used as a defense for their fear about the increase of homosexuality.  I know several men who claim to be homosexuals who come from homes with strong, Christian, male leadership.  I know hundreds of men who have grown up in homes which are increasingly egalitarian and who are not homosexuals.  The roots of homosexual orientation appear to be more complex than the breakdown of gender roles within a specific home or culture.

Piper and Grudem state that they “defend what Dr. Larry Crabb calls ‘enjoying the difference,’ namely that ‘the sexes are distinct in what they were fundamentally designed to give and in what brings them the greatest joy in relationship . . . .  At the deepest level, a man serves a woman differently than a woman serves a man.’”  I too enjoy the difference, but I have no need to defend such differences any more than I have a need to defend the difference between night and day.  God has built the differences into the universe.  At best we can try to describe the differences, not an easy task as it turns out.  Certainly we do not create the differences through prescribed gender roles. 

Dr. Crabb, writing the Foreword to 50 Crucial Questions About Manhood and Womanhood, writes:  “In my judgment, one of the central needs of western culture in the 1990’s is a clear definition of masculinity and femininity.”[5]  Surprisingly, in spite of the endorsement he gives to CBMW and receives from CBMW, the definition which Crabb himself presents does not address the issue of roles at all.  Note that the only role mentioned in the quote in the previous paragraph to which Grudem and Piper refer is the role of service.  Note also that Crabb is careful to point out that both men and women serve one another and that the difference is not in whether they serve, but in how they serve.  What is distinct is not the role, but how that role is done.  Crabb states:  “Masculinity . . . might therefore be thought of as the satisfying awareness of the substance God has placed within a man’s being that can make an enduring contribution to God’s purposes in this world, and will be deeply valued by others, especially his wife, as a reliable source of wise, sensitive, compassionate, and decisive involvement.” (emphasis his).[6]  He states that “Femininity at its core, might therefore be thought of as the secure awareness of the substance God has placed within a woman’s being that enables her to confidently and warmly invite others into relationship with God and with herself, knowing that there is something in each relationship to be wonderfully enjoyed.”[7]  Although one may debate the accuracy of these definitions, the point I am making here is that Crabb does not include role in his definition of maleness or femaleness.  In fact, Crabb specifically says that “Masculinity is not so much a matter of what a man does, but that he does it and that he does it for certain reasons” (emphasis his).  In other words, the difference is more in style, or in motivation, than in role.  If Crabb’s definitions of masculinity and feminity are accepted by CBMW, and apparently they are, they do not contain any clue as to why Piper and Grudem conclude that women in roles of leadership are somehow confusing gender differences.

The CBMW rightly concludes that God created Eve to complement Adam, but it wrongly concludes that such complementarity is expressed through roles of leadership and submission.  Grudem and Piper state: “we think the most natural implication of God’s decision to bring Adam onto the scene ahead of Eve is that he is called to bear the responsibility of headship.”[8]  It is clear that Eve was not some afterthought.  God’s plan was to create both Adam and Eve in His image.  The God who created animals as male and female, and who wanted people to be fruitful and multiply obviously knew that He would create Eve as well as Adam.  So why did he not create them simultaneously? 

It must be noted that God’s reason for creating Adam before Eve is never directly revealed in Scripture.  Piper and Grudem conclude that the “fact” that Adam’s prior creation affirms Adam’s headship is validated by I Timothy 2:13.[9]  However, one must be careful to distinguish between a conclusion based on a historical event and the cause or motivation of the event itself.  Although Paul uses the fact that Adam was created first to make a point about relationships between husbands and wives in I Timothy, Paul’s application of the event to circumstances after the fact is not determinative of the reason why God created Adam first.   

It is more probable that the Genesis account itself suggests why God created Adam first.  Indeed, it is more reasonable to conclude from the Genesis account itself that God wanted to show Adam that he needed a helper suitable for him and that it was not good that he be alone than that God wanted to establish a principle of headship. 

Since God already knew that it was not good for Adam to be alone, the delay in creating Eve was for Adam’s benefit. God apparently wanted Adam to realize what God already knew.  Note carefully the order of events.  Adam was given responsibility over creation, including the naming of the animals (Genesis 2:19). In the doing of that, Adam realized that there was no suitable helper, no complement, for him (Genesis 2:20).  God presented Eve to Adam (Genesis 2:22).  Adam then realized that Eve matched him unlike any thing else in creation: she was “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23).  Note that the Scripture does not say that Adam discovered that he had no one to be the head over.  It says that he discovered that he was alone and that he needed a complement. 

Why did Adam need a complement?  In order to fulfill the creation mandate of being fruitful and subduing the earth.  In other words, God’s plan for creation was that it be led through the complementary approach of maleness and femaleness.  God allowed Adam to be alone so that he would learn that maleness was inadequate, not only for his own personal needs, but in his responsibility to subdue creation.  To restrict women from positions of leadership denies the very reason God created a complement for Adam to begin with.

If we follow Piper and Grudem’s argument that differentiation of roles is essential to differentiation of the sexes to its logical conclusion, then women who are in leadership roles are less feminine than those who are.  Conversely, men who are in leadership roles are somehow more masculine than those who are not. The weakness of that kind of argument is obvious.  When masculinity and femininity are reduced to roles, then a change in roles would somehow result in a change in masculinity or femininity.  Furthermore, it would lead to the conclusion that the most manly males are those who hold the most significant leadership positions in the church – the elders.  Could it be that pastors are more manly yet?  The Pope?  What a man!  Except we Protestants don’t recognize the Pope’s leadership, so I guess that means that he is only manly for the Roman Catholics, not for the Protestants.  Before you accuse me of being ridiculous, remember that I am simply following the argument that role and gender are inseparably linked to its natural conclusions.  It is the CBMW that confuses role with gender.  The mistake that Grudem and Piper make is the assumption that masculinity and femininity are essentially defined by differentiated roles. 


The second error that Grudem and Piper make is the generalization of the marriage relationship to the relationship between all men and all women.  They argue that male leadership in the home is the model for male leadership in the church and, perhaps, for all of society.  They base this argument in the creation account.

They ignore the fact that Adam and Eve are not only the first male and female, but the first husband and wife.  In order to interpret how the roles in Genesis 1-3 apply to us today we have to differentiate between the responsibilities of males and females in general and the roles which they had in relationship to one another as husband and wife.  The commands to be fruitful and multiply and to subdue the earth were given to both male and female.

The command to be fruitful was a command that involved the relationship between a man and a woman.  We know from Genesis 2:24 that God ordained the unique relationship of husband and wife.  We know from the rest of Scripture that God’s plan is that the command to be fruitful is to be restricted to the marriage relationship.  In fulfillment of the command to procreate, there is a need for a level of intimacy that is only appropriate within marriage.  It is clear that in regards to the one part of the creation mandate, all men are not to relate to all women as a husband relates to his wife. 

However, the command to subdue the earth is not a command about the relationship between men and women, but a command about how men and women are to relate to creation. The command to subdue the earth does not need to be restricted to the husband-wife relationship, for the act of subduing the earth is not an act of intimacy.  Subduing the earth is a responsibility of all men and women, whether or not they are in a marriage relationship.

Furthermore, it is important to note that all men are not the heads of all women.  No man is the head of any woman but his wife. After all, if I Corinthians 11:3 refers to all men and women, then it must refer to any man or woman.  The verse cannot simply be used to restrict the eldership to men, for it is not that specific.  It does not say that just certain men who have been elected as elders are heads over the women. If the verse refers to a created order of men as heads over women, then it must mean that any man is head over any woman.  That would mean that no woman should ever, in any circumstance, take leadership over a man.  It would mean that Canada should not have a Queen, that the Supreme Court should be male only, that no woman should be a manager, let alone an owner, of a business, etc.  It also would mean that in every circumstance, any man has authority over any woman.  It would mean (to take an extreme example) that a male serial killer is head over my wife, simply because he is a man, and she is a woman.  Of course, we do not apply the verse that way, but once it is translated to refer to men and women, on what basis does CBMW and others restrict it to only refer to certain men and certain women? 

I suggest that the only way references to headship can be applied sensibly is to restrict them to the unique nature of the relationship between husband and wife.  To interpret
I Corinthians 11:3 as extending to all relationships between males and females is to undermine the uniqueness of the marriage relationship, not to affirm it.  The words translated “man” and “woman” in I Corinthians 11:3 and I Timothy 2:11-12 are the same words translated “husbands” and “wives” in Ephesians 5:22-24.  It is in marriage that there is a unique and special relationship that transcends all other relationships between men and women and that Paul is trying to protect in his writings about church leadership.


Finally, Piper and Grudem are not consistent in their conclusions.  They admit that “As we move out from the church and the home we move further from what is fairly clear and explicit to what is more ambiguous and inferential. . . .  For this reason we focus (within some limits) on how these roles are carried out rather than which ones are appropriate.”[10]   The problem with this approach is that it abandons the very arguments that they have used to restrict the roles of women in the church.  If, in relationship to society, they are able to focus on how these roles are carried out, rather than on which ones are appropriate, why cannot they do the same in the church?  If they argue that men are created to take primary leadership and that roles of leadership and submission are integral to maleness and femaleness then, to be consistent, they must argue that any role that violates the created order, whether in the home, the church or society at large must be contrary to God’s plan.  The CBMW cannot have it both ways at the same time.  Piper and Grudem seem unwilling to live with the consequences of their approach when it comes to “secular” life. 


Piper and Grudem are guilty of the same fallacy of which they accuse the founders of Christians for Biblical Equality – the fallacy of the excluded middle. They argue that the only way to affirm biblical manhood and womanhood is to ensure that hierarchical relationships of headship and submission are normative for all men and all women.  They fail to see that it is possible to affirm biblical manhood and womanhood while not restricting roles.  They fail to see the wonderful complementarity which God planned as men and women together take responsibility for creation, the church and the family, with each gender contributing a special dimension so that stewardship of creation, leadership in the church and parenting within the family reflect both maleness and femaleness.  They fail to see that it is possible to affirm the integrity of the marriage relationship, while at the same time allowing women to serve in the highest positions of leadership in the church and society.  They fail to see that the “noble biblical vision of complementarity” goes far deeper than roles of headship and submission.  Their failure to do so actually undermines masculinity and femininity and diminishes the unique and special relationship between a husband and wife.  They have not recovered biblical manhood and womanhood.  They have distorted them.





Crabb, Larry.  Men & Women: Enjoying the Difference  (Grand Rapids, Michigan:
   Zondervan Publishing House, 1991).


Piper, John and Wayne Grudem.  50 Crucial Questions About Manhood and Womanhood.
   (Wheaton, Illinois: The Council on Biblical Manhod and Womanhood, 1992).


Piper, John and Wayne Grudem.  Can Our Differences be Settled?
   (Wheaton, Illinois: The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 1992).


November, 1999

[1] I base my observation on two booklets by John Piper and Wayne Grudem:  50 Crucial Questions About Manhood and Womanhood and  Can Our Differences be Settled?  as well as on the Danvers Statement itself.   Although other volumes have been written or edited by the authors, including Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, I am assuming that these two booklets and the Danvers Statement summarize the position of the CBMW.

[2] 50 Crucial Questions . . ., p. 10.

[3] 50 Crucial Questions . . ., p. 43.

[4] Can Our Differences Be Settled?, p. 27.

[5] 50 Crucial Questions . . ., p. 3.

[6] Dr. Larry Crabb.  Men and Women:  Enjoying the Difference, p. 160.

[7] Crabb, p. 163

[8] 50 Crucial Questions . . ., p. 42

[9] 50 Crucial Questions . . ., p. 42.

[10] 50 Crucial Questions, p. 53