…just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him “Lord,” and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear. – 1Peter 3:6
Bill Mounce is a scholar who taught New Testament at my alma mater, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, although he wasn’t there when I was. Mounce has written the most popular Greek textbook.
Mounce also served on both the feminist New International Version’s Committee on Bible Translation and the anti-feminist English Standard Version’s New Testament committee. How does Dr. Mounce spread his feet from translating both the best-selling liberal neutered Bible and the best-selling conservative (supposedly) non-neutered Bible?
No problem. Bill Mounce announces that he is a “complementarian.”
Recently, Mounce did a post condemning Abraham for allowing his wife, Sarah, to call him “lord.” Mounce said he would never allow his wife to call him “Lord.” If she called him “lord,” Dr. Mounce declares:
I would see it as a failure to lead on my part.
We’ll return to Mounce’s post in a bit, but first some backstory on Mounce’s moniker “complementarian.”
The complementarian equivocation
‘Complementarian’ is the word invented by a small group of scholars who were trading the presidency of the Evangelical Theological Society among themselves a couple decades ago. These men intended their neologism to provide them a place to stand somewhere between Scripture’s father-rule and Evangelicalism’s rebellion against authority.
Picture a group of Evangelical guys who went off to uni to get their terminal degree, then returned to North America where, as freshly minted Bible scholars, they began writing books and pulling in serious royalties. Breaking into the top cliques and the conference circuit, it wasn’t long before Evangelicals with serious wealth began to court them as advisors in their foundations and trust fund distributions. Wealthy corporate men of a certain conservative disposition in their private religious life enjoy hobnobbing with Christian celebrities—particularly seminary profs. Soon our Evangelical guy with his terminal degree was a frequent flyer staying at the best hotels. In time, he had negotiated donations to this or that seminary allowing him to be appointed “Research Professor,” and was able to leave teaching mostly behind. Students are sheep, and a pain.
To be sure not all Evangelical and Reformed Bible scholars are this way. Some do honor God and tremble at His Word. Not nearly all of them, though. Maybe not even the majority of them, I might argue as a former member of the Evangelical Theological Society.
Like me, I suppose you have noticed how your motivations get muddled as life goes on?
A few decades ago, the Evangelical and Reformed world was in its heyday, so the wealth and influence accrued by its celebrities and scholars was massive. No wonder, then, that the damage it did was also massive.
Nevertheless, back then Evangelicals were still somewhat conservative. Knowing which side of their bread was buttered, these Bible scholars knew they had to mount some minimal defense of authority in the church and home. And fortunately, there were a couple verses in the New Testament Epistles that served their purposes. Also fortunately, some of their famous and wealthy patrons wanted those verses defended.
Still, patriarchy set off catcalls among their fellow scholars. There must be some place to take a stand that would be halfway between God and man, between Jerusalem and Athens. There must be some place to stand where these eminent scholars would still be viewed by their constituents and patrons as brave and gifted defenders of the faith while maintaining their credibility among their scholarly peers.
Having given it careful thought, they created a label for themselves that would allow them to avoid looking old and passé as they defended a few of the last vestiges of historic father-rule in those private spaces removed from the world’s eyes. Most of them did, in fact, want their preachers to remain men. Also, most of them did very much want to hold on to what Tim Keller liltingly refers to as the husband’s “tie-breaking authority.”
Keeping in mind how embarrassing it was to have to explain God’s Creation Order to their peers, they searched for some equivocation that would distance them from uneducated Christians who didn’t get it. They needed a way of framing things that would distance them from Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Paul, and Peter.
Men back then did slavery, lived in tents, and didn’t use deodorant, but now our daughters and sisters have helped us see all the ways Scripture and the church have oppressed women through the ages. So out with Abraham and Sarah. Out with my grandfather and grandmother. In with a kinder, gentler, more integrated, holistic, engaging, sustainable yet robust sort of Christian manhood. Out with the hard man and in with the soft man—a soft man whose one act of leadership would be barring his wife from ever, ever calling him “Lord.”
I mean really! What could Peter possibly have been thinking? What could Abraham possibly have been thinking? You can imagine the sort of self-image Sarah had.
So, in time, these Evangelical and Reformed scholars got together and adopted a set of compromises centered around a mutually-agreeable equivocation they named “complementarianism.”
Embarrassed by our fathers
A century ago, Chesterton pointed out the bigotry and small-mindedness of men who condemn their fathers:
Nearly all the talk about what is advanced and what is antiquated has become a sort of giggling excitement about fashions… They regard their fathers of another age exactly as the most insular would regard the foreigners from another country.1
Evangelical complementarians are nothing if not insular.
Anyhow, calling each other “complementarians,” these men limited their defense of God’s creation order to the privacy of the church and home. It was a sweet spot where they slouched their stand.
Men today hate the Fatherhood of God. The Bible teaches God is “the Father (Greek, patera) from whom all fatherhood (Greek, pasa patria) in Heaven and earth gets its name” (Ephesians 3:16). The Bible declares also that, through His Creation Order of Adam first then Eve, the Father Almighty delegated His Fatherhood to Adam. The Bible reveals that the federal headship and authority of Adam—over his wife, family, and race—flow from our Heavenly Father’s delegation of His Fatherhood to Adam—not Eve. The Biblical doctrine of sexuality reveals father-rule and father-authority are binding through the ages. They extend to the ends of the earth and the end of time because God is the Father from Whom all fatherhood in Heaven and earth gets its name.
Fatherhood is authority and authority is fatherhood. If you want to understand the battle over sexuality in the church today, you must meditate on the fact that God wrote father-authority into all His creation. Even the animals:
You shall take with you of every clean animal by sevens, a male and his female; and of the animals that are not clean two, a male and his female. (Genesis 7:2)
Every authority comes from the Father and is established by the Father. Those who despise man’s authority are rebels against God’s authority. This is what all Scripture reveals and what the Apostles Paul and Peter open up more fully:
Every person is to be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God. Therefore whoever resists authority has opposed the ordinance of God; and they who have opposed will receive condemnation upon themselves. -Romans 13:1, 2
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether to a king as the one in authority, or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the praise of those who do right. For such is the will of God that by doing right you may silence the ignorance of foolish men. -1Peter 2:13-15
Yet regardless of whether the authority is the private authority of the Christian home and Church or the public authority of the workplace and government, the principle of rebellion at the heart of American political identity manifests itself among Evangelicals in such a way that our default position is minimizing authority. Yet it would be too scandalous to deny this authority in its entirety, so we hold on to some vestige of that authority and submission in such a way that we are able to protect a modicum of our male privileges, thus maintaining an appearance of Biblical piety.
Thus as the Evangelical minimizes authority, he necessarily minimizes sexuality, also.
Delimiting authority, complementarians delimit the Fatherhood of God and man, robbing the Church and the world of the Biblical doctrine of sexuality.
They assure their naive and credulous students that father-rule is really only “complementarianism;” that it only means husbands as “servant leaders” who have tie-breaking authority in marriage and family life—but only in the home. They reassure Evangelicals that it is best for those normally occupying the pulpit Sunday mornings to be men. Still, a good number of complementarians (including high-profile scholars like J. I. Packer) are happy for women to preach in corporate Lord’s Day worship so long as their preaching is under the authority of male elders who (they assure us) stand over her and supervise her doctrine. Supporting the occasional use of women preachers Sunday mornings, complementarians only draw the line when it comes to taking a vote on the discipline of doctrine or morals in an elders meeting.
So rather than holding to any remotely Biblical theology of sexuality, complementarians put on a show of defending a couple texts while the majority of their academic peers dissect those texts until they’re shredded into such a Humpty-Dumpty mess that they can never be put back together again. Thousands of articles and books have been written on the meaning of this and that word in 1Timothy 2:12, 13:
But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve.
What does “allow” mean? What does “teach” mean? What does “exercise authority” mean? What does “remain quiet” mean?
Actually, nevermind about that second sentence: it’s so terribly awkward.
No wonder the people of God are in disarray concerning the meaning and purpose of father-authority and sexuality so that now, we are all lost in a maze of views and practices surrounding fatherhood and authority in the home and Church—all of them much less than anything imagined by any Biblical Patriarch, Apostle, or church father who lived before 1960.
The Apostle Paul’s simple explanation of God’s Fatherhood deposited through His Creation Order in the state of perfection—that because Adam was created first, woman teaching or exercising authority over man is forbidden by God—is no longer a foundational confession of Christian faith.
Instead, this Biblical doctrine has been atomized. It’s been delimited, then its application has been squelched. We’ve only stopped just short of denying the plain meaning of New Testament commands that are so explicit concerning, for instance, the duty of wives to “submit” to their husbands. To deny such explicit New Testament commands would appear impious, wouldn’t it?
See how the complementarian is the man who tries to defend a modicum of God’s Fatherhood resident in the Christian’s private home and church life while publicly tipping his hat to our revolution against the Fatherhood of God.
Is there anyone surprised the church is left wondering why male authority is ever necessary if we’re free to abandon it in missions, education, the military, business, and government; and if in the home it is merely tie-breaking authority while in the church it is merely formal disciplinary votes in elders meetings and men being the preacher in the pulpit Sunday mornings, usually?
Back to Bill Mounce and the Apostle Peter commending Sarah for calling Abraham “Lord”
Now then, back to the eminent Evangelical Bible scholar Bill Mounce whose left foot is planted in the neutered NIV and his right in the complementarian ESV.
Dr. Mounce published a post titled, Am I ‘Lord’ of my Wife? showing all the classic complementarian dance moves that render the Word of God innocuous.
On the one hand, the Apostle Peter writes:
…just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear. – 1Peter 3:6
On the other hand, Bill Mounce responds:
In this day and age, this is obviously a controversial verse, but it is chock full of interesting Greek tidbits, not the least of which is semantic range.
Note Evangelical Bible scholars’ habits when they speak of the Word of God, written. Scripture’s words are “controversial,” yet “full of interesting Greek tidbits” concerning the “semantic range” of these words by the Holy Spirit inspired.
Dr. Mounce is ready to help us. He’s our man of the hour, able and ready to provide us with an explanation of the continuum of semantic meaning of words which, by him explained, will render the embarrassing utterances of the Holy Spirit less cringeworthy.
Note his conjunction ‘but:”
but it is chock full of interesting Greek tidbits, not the least of which is semantic range.
“But” is in opposition to the word “controversial.” What follows “but” is intended to soften the controversy. Among academics, controversial statements of the Holy Spirit are regularly in need of scholars’ tinkering and sophistic explanations.
Dr. Mounce continues:
Peter is encouraging Christian wives to respect their husbands, being submissive (ὑποτασσόμεναι, 3:1) to them, and placing an emphasis on internal qualities and not external beauty. The goal is evangelistic; their behavior may win their husbands to the faith.
Yes, but in what way is Sarah calling her husband “Lord” evangelistic? How does such submissive behavior and habit of speech win unbelieving husbands to Christ? Is it evangelistic because the wife’s free confession of her husband’s father-authority helps him see her love for the authority of the Father Almighty from which it descends?
Dr. Mounce doesn’t say. He moves on:
As an example of submissiveness Peter refers to Sarah, who was submissive to Abraham her husband, κύριον αὐτὸν καλοῦσα. The participle καλοῦσα is expressing one way in which she expressed her relationship to Abraham. She addressed him as “lord.”
Note that Dr. Mounce doesn’t give the Apostle Peter the honorific “Apostle.” It’s simply “Peter.”
Nevermind that the Apostle Paul insists upon his apostolic office each time he writes. Our eminent scholars dissecting the Word of God two millennia later feel no need to mention the Apostolic authority of the Apostle Peter or the Apostle Paul. Go back above and feel the shift in respect and submission to authority that would be conveyed to his readers if Dr. Mounce had instead written, “As an example of submissiveness the Apostle Peter refers to Sarah….”
Dr. Mounce moves on:
…I want to talk about the issue of semantic range here. BDAG gives the range of meaning for κύριος as: “one who is in charge by virtue of possession, owner (such as the owner of the vineyard or the master of the house); one who is in a position of authority, lord, master of earthly beings, as a designation of any person of high position (which is where they place our verse); of transcendent beings.”
“BDAG” is the classic authority on Koine Greek. It is the authoritative lexicon (dictionary) for the words that are used in Scripture. Be aware, though, that in recent years BDAG has regularly been revised so that, as Vern Poythress has demonstrated, the pressures of political correctness have crept across it.
We have it on the authority of the esteemed Dr. Mounce:
κύριος is a common example of why we need to pay close attention to semantic range. Now before we go any further, those of you who know me know I am not a “raving liberal.” I am a complementarian (see my commentary on the Pastorals). But I really do wonder how far we can, or even should, push the meaning of κύριος.
As Dr. Mounce requested, pay close attention. We must not “push” the plain meaning of this word “lord” (Greek, kurios) into anything approximating the meaning when applied, for instance, to our “Lord” Jesus Christ.
Dr. Mounce does his best to deny his motivation here is any commitment to political correctness. He assures us he is a “complementarian.” But as we have asked earlier, what exactly is a “complementarian?”
Dr. Mounce delimits our choices to “raving liberal” or “complementarian.” He tells us he’s not the first, but the second.
Is this any comfort?
Yes, says Dr. Mounce, I am a complementarian, but about Peter’s infelicitous word “lord”: shall we talk about semantic range for a bit?
Dr. Mounce again:
I am more than cognizant of the fact that Abraham and Paul lived in a highly patriarchal culture. And I also recognize that the argument was not based in creation as is 1 Timothy 2:13. But I find myself uncomfortable pushing the meaning of κύριος very far. I certainly would not want my wife, Robin, to call me “lord” or “sir.” We have a traditional marriage relationship based on love and trust and respect. But if Robin were to call me “sir,” I would see it as a failure to lead on my part.
When Mounce writes “I am more than cognizant of the fact,” he simply means “I understand.”
What does Dr. Mounce understand?
He understands the oppressive ways of the culture of the patriarchs. He understands this is what led them to such ill-bred behavior as to allow their wives to call their husbands “lord.” He understands such boorish behavior and communication today is that very behavior and wording up with which we ought not to put.
You remember how I noted that no Evangelical scholar is willing to defend the patriarchs today?
Apparently they’re not willing to defend the matriarchs, either. Neanderthal Sarah used such misbegotten language.
Yet Dr. Mounce is so delicate in his treatment of Sarah. He seems not to believe in the moral agency of women, studiously avoiding any faulting of Sarah for calling her husband “lord.”
I certainly would not want my wife, Robin, to call me “lord” or “sir.” We have a traditional marriage relationship based on love and trust and respect. But if Robin were to call me “sir,” I would see it as a failure to lead on my part.
Ah yes, it’s always the man’s fault, isn’t it? It is Abraham’s fault. It is Abraham’s “failure to lead.”
Here, sneakily, Dr. Mounce places his readers on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, we can allow the Apostle Peter’s exhortation concerning Sarah to speak to the the heart of our own wives, leading them to call their own husbands “Lord.”
But then Dr. Mounce shows us his other hand, holding a high trump card: any Christian man who allows his wife to obey the Apostle Peter’s commendation of Sarah would be “failing to lead.”
Yikes! We don’t want that, do we? “Failing to lead?”
Poor Abraham. He failed to lead. Poor Apostle Peter who wrote this commendation: he too failed to lead. Poor church fathers across salvation history: all of them failed to lead.
But not the eminent complementarian, Dr. William Mounce. Not the esteemed Greek grammarian who translated the ESV.
Surely his wife will yield to her husband’s superior understanding of semantic range such that she never ever gives in to the temptation to sign her submission to her husband, verbally. He doesn’t abdicate his leadership. Rather, he contradicts the Apostle Peter, Abraham, and Sarah, commanding the poor woman never, ever, ever to call him “Lord.”
Examine the semantic range of Dr. Mounce’s words and it’s apparent his rebuke falls upon Abraham for allowing his wife to speak to him in this way. But really, how much can we fault the Biblical patriarchs for simply being obedient to the DNA of their ancient culture? The Apostle Peter used the patriarch Abraham as a positive example, but not Dr. Mounce. Father Abraham lived in a culture of disrespect towards women, but thankfully, our own culture has become enlightened enough to know it would be sin for Christians today to employ patriarchal habits of speech.
Dr. Mounce again:
Under definition 2, BDAG says this. “As a form of address to respected pers. gener.; here, as elsewhere, = our sir (as Mod. Gk.) Mt 25:11; J 12:21; 20:15.” My marine son addresses his superiors as, “Sir!” But given all the biblical teaching on marriage, Robin calling me “sir,” as I said, would be a sign of my failure to lead.
The point in 1 Peter, culture aside (if that were possible), is that the wife is to treat her husband with respect (according to v 1, in a “submissive” way), but I am not convinced that there is a term in the English language that conveys that properly. I can’t think of a specific word that Robin could use to address me that would convey respect without violating the other aspects of our relationship such as love.
Well, as a simple matter of fact, culture is never “aside.” Any halfway intelligent student of Scripture knows culture is never neutral.
No wonder “complementarians” of the ilk of Dr. Mounce “can’t think of a specific word that means ‘lord’ that would still “convey respect without violating …love.”
Dr. Mounce and his fellow complementarians have thrown in the towel on the Fatherhood of God and man. They’re little men with little male perquisites they sometimes defend—bud oh so very timorously.
Nothing any complementarian has ever written bears the slightest resemblance to the Apostolic witness of the New Testament.
Dr. Mounce concludes:
As far as translations are concerned, you can leave it “sir” (much better than the servile “lord”) and expect people to understand it in its ancient culture. But if a translation is trying to make an ancient book sound totally modern, I don’t think there is a word. Better something like, “Just as Sarah respected and submitted to Abraham, as shown even in how she addressed him ….”
In the final analysis, all Dr. Mounce’s highfalutin language about “semantic range” was just cover for his conclusion: “I don’t think there is a word.”
“Better something like…” he writes.
What? He doesn’t say.
Something like what, Bill? Yo! Biiiilllll! Where’s your English translation of the Greek word ‘kurios’ inspired by the Holy Spirit?
Give it up.
It’s a complementarian doing the translating, so the word ‘kurios’ is gone. If our eminent Greek scholars allowed God’s words to speak for themselves, there would be the grave danger of someone thinking their Ph.D. had not emancipated them.
From their servility.
(Originally published in a different form November 14, 2013.)