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Sarah Palin and the Complementarian Compromise

Written By
William O. Einwechter

Sarah Palin’s selection by John McCain to be his running mate in his bid for the presidency of the United States is not only a surprise political move, it also carries with it implications of historic proportions. If Senator McCain is successful in his candidacy, Mrs. Palin will become the first woman to fill the office of vice president of this country and be in place to assume the presidency, if necessary.

She will also be in line to take up the Republican nomination for president in the future. If John McCain becomes president and chooses to serve only one term, it is quite possible that the next presidential election (2012) will be between Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin. But Palin’s nomination to the vice presidency is not only an historic occasion for our country, it is also a watershed moment for evangelical Christians, particularly those who claim to be complementarian in their views of men and women (i.e., those who believe that men and women have different but complementary roles according to the revealed will of God).

The Dilemma Facing Complementarians

One would surmise that the nomination of Palin would create a dilemma for politically conservative Christians who say they believe that God has given a woman the distinct and important roles of wife, mother, and keeper at home. How so? On the one hand, Palin is a political conservative who seems to hold the right position on the issues most important to Christians; she purports to be pro-life, pro-second amendment, pro-marriage, pro-family, and she herself is a professed evangelical Christian.

More to the point is the fact that Sarah Palin is a professing Christian, a wife, and a mother of five children, one of her children being a baby with Down syndrome. The inescapable dilemma for these politically conservative complementarians, it would seem, is how to reconcile their support of Palin’s candidacy with their professed support of Palin’s biblically mandated roles of wife and mother. In addition to these considerations, the complementarian must face the question of whether or not it is biblically proper for a woman to rule over men in the civil sphere; after all, in their view, women are not to serve as pastors, and women are to submit to their own husbands in the home.

But, as it turns out, there is no real dilemma here for the complementarians. Sarah Palin the vice presidential candidate and Sarah Palin the mother of five presents no necessary contradiction in their system. A wife and mother of five children who is called by God to be a keeper at home (Titus 2:5), and who, in their view, is not qualified to be the head of her home or to be the elder of a local church (simply because she is a woman), is qualified and free, they believe, to seek the vice presidency of the United States of America. How can this be? Two recent blog entries by David Kotter [1] and Albert Mohler [2] reveal how this all fits together in their worldview.

Their First Argument: Biblical Standards Do Not Apply to Civil Magistrates

First, David Kotter tells us that since there are no biblical standards that define the qualifications for civil magistrates today, Christians are free to support Palin’s candidacy. The state, argues Kotter, is strictly a secular institution, and God does not require civil leaders to be Christians or even to be ethical. He says that when we vote on November 4 we will not be electing a “national minister or pastor in chief.” We agree on that. But what is Kotter’s point? I am not sure, but since he follows this point with the statement that, “A president is not held to the same moral standards as an elder of a church,” he implies that there are no explicit biblical standards of ethics, faith, character, or gender that Christians are bound to follow when casting their votes for their civil leaders. In Kotter’s view of things, Christians are at liberty to follow political expediency when it comes to voting and supporting political candidates.

Their Second Argument: Egalitarianism Is Biblical in Public Life

Second, both Mohler and Kotter say that the doctrine of male headship and the existence of distinct and separate roles for men and women only apply in the home and in the church. In the sphere of politics and civil government, these complementarians argue for egalitarianism (i.e., they say that the doctrine of male headship is not relevant here, and all public roles and positions are equally open to men and women). Mohler writes: “The New Testament clearly speaks to the complementary roles of men and women in the home and in the church, but not in roles of public responsibility.” Kotter states: “The Bible calls women to specific roles in the church and home, but does not prohibit them from exercising leadership in secular political fields.” This means, to them, that it is perfectly acceptable for a woman to be a judge, legislator, governor, vice president, or president of the United States.

Their Third Argument: Historical Examples Like Queen Victoria, and Exceptional Biblical Cases Like Deborah Are Valid Guides, Even Though Old Testament Precept Is Not

Third, they infer that both biblical and historical examples demonstrate that God is pleased when gifted women govern in the civil realm. David Kotter holds up the biblical examples of the Queen of Sheba and Queen Esther, as well as the historical example of Queen Victoria, as support for women magistrates. Al Mohler uses Queen Elizabeth I and former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher as his examples. According to these men, if God was pleased to raise up such women in the past, we can expect God to raise up gifted women in our day to lead us and rule over us. They both seem confident that Sarah Palin is one of these gifted women.

Their Conclusion: National Leadership for Mothers is as Pleasing to God as Faithful Service in the Home

Fourth, both Kotter and Mohler emphasize their respect for the homemaker, and they say that they are thankful for those women who fulfill the “monumental” tasks that God has given women in the home. But Mohler also notes that it is okay for wives and mothers to pursue careers outside of the home, both in business and in politics, if they fulfill their roles in the home first. Kotter concludes, based on the three points above, that a wife and mother exercising national leadership in political office is just as pleasing to God as a wife and mother faithfully serving her family in the home. Apparently Mohler agrees with him, and says he is “thrilled” with Palin’s candidacy. What is confusing here is how they can praise women who stay at home and fulfill their enormous tasks and, yet, at the same time praise a woman who leaves her home to fulfill the demanding life-style of high political office. What shall we say to their arguments in support of Palin’s bid to be vice president? Well, David Kotter rightly pointed out that we should “think biblically” about a female vice presidential candidate, and that we should “look to the Word of God” as our guide in sorting through issues like these, e.g., whether it is biblically proper for a wife and mother to pursue a career in politics.

With these admonitions we fully agree. The problem is that neither Kotter nor Mohler give us any real biblical guidance for sorting through these issues. Kotter appeals to two ambiguous biblical examples, says that the Bible does not prohibit women from holding civil office, and suggests that, unlike the case of church leaders, the Bible gives no guidance to Christian voters concerning the qualifications they should look for in those they would place over them in the state. Let us consider the position and arguments of these complementarians with the Word of God as our guide.

The Sufficiency of Scripture and the Biblical Requirements for Christians Selecting Civil Magistrates

First, every Christian should recognize that the Bible does give explicit teaching on the qualifications for civil magistrates [3]. The two primary passages are Exodus 18:21 and Deuteronomy 1:13. These texts teach that if God’s people have the privilege of choosing their magistrates, they should choose wise and able men who fear God. Significantly, both of these texts specify that civil leaders must be men. There are a host of other passages that teach what God requires in civil magistrates (Deut. 16:18-20; 17:14-20; 2 Sam. 23:3; 2 Chron. 19:6-7; Neh. 7:2; Prov. 29:2; Rom. 13:1-6), and in every one of these texts men, not women, are in view. In the light of this, it is strange that Kotter and Mohler dismiss the notion that the Bible speaks directly to the subject of qualifications for civil rulers. It would seem that if we are to “think biblically” about voting, and it is important to “look to the Word of God” for guidance in our ever-changing political situation, these texts are where we should begin. It is true that on November 4 we will not be electing “a national minister or pastor in chief,” but neither was Israel when God revealed the qualifications that they should look for in the men who would be their judges and civil leaders.

The reason why Kotter and Mohler think that the Bible does not specifically define the qualifications for civil rulers is based, most likely, on a theological construct that denies the applicability of the Old Testament with its precepts, principles, case laws, commandments, and wisdom directives to guide our vision of Christian ethics. And, so, when it comes to voting ethics, only the New Testament counts. And since Kotter believes that the New Testament has nothing specific to say on the issue, he concludes that there are no ethical requirements for secular governments. This means that there are no ethical requirements for voters, and Christians can dismiss Exodus 18:21 and Deuteronomy 1:13 and vote for whomever political expediency seems to dictate.

The problem for those who take this approach is that the New Testament teaches (in 2 Tim. 3:16-17) that the Old Testament passages that relate to voting ethics do apply today because they are “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness” (i.e., how to cast a righteous vote) so that the believer in Jesus Christ can do the good work of voting for those whom God approves. It is troubling that Christian teachers would set aside and/or ignore the instruction in righteousness contained in the Old Testament texts that directly speak to the qualifications of civil leaders, because Jesus Christ emphatically denied that He had come to destroy (i.e., to repeal, abolish, make invalid) the law or the prophets, and because He commanded His disciples to teach and do even the least commandments of the law (Matt. 5:17-19). If we are to be Christ’s disciples when we support candidates or vote, we must continue in His Word (John 8:31).

The question then, is, “Does Sarah Palin meet the biblical standards for civil magistrates?” According to the Word of God, she does not because God’s law says that we should choose men to be our civil leaders [4]. The record of some of our finest and most influential Reformation Bible commentators stand in opposition to Mohler, Kotter and others arguing for a semi-complementarian, semi-egalitarian position on the jurisdictional roles of men and women. These men not only believed that all of the Bible informed our view of ethics, but that there was harmony between the Old and New Testaments on the issue of the role of women and the jurisdictional governments established by God. In his commentary on 1 Timothy 2:11-13, John Calvin explains that it is improper to use the example of Deborah to argue for women holding public office given that such is against the “ordinary system of government” ordained by God and revealed in his Scriptures. The great reformer John Knox, put it this way: “To promote a woman to bear rule, superiority, dominion, or empire above any realm, nation, or city, is repugnant to nature, contumely [an insult] to God, a thing most contrary to his revealed will and approved ordinance, and finally, it is the subversion of good order, of all equity and justice.”

Male Leadership and the Creation Order

Second, the conclusion that God’s Word instructs us to choose men to lead us in the civil sphere stands in stark contrast to the complementarian position. According to complementarians like Kotter and Mohler, the doctrine of male headship and of role distinctions between men and women only apply to the spheres of family and church. This is a curious doctrine for which there is no support in Scripture. On the contrary, everything in Scripture supports the view that the distinction between men and women in terms of headship and roles is an essential distinction that applies to every area of life. The difference between men and women in terms of their place, calling, and function is based in God’s plan for them and is expressed in the creation order (Gen. 1:27; 2:18; 1 Cor. 11:8-9; 1 Tim. 2:13). This creational difference is as essential and unchanging as the physical differences between men and women. Manhood and womanhood are facts of humanity, and the significance of each can only be interpreted in light of God’s plan for each, and that plan is revealed in Scripture. Neither human reason or human experience can define the assigned roles of men and women, nor determine the relationship they sustain to each other in terms of authority and submission; only the Creator’s Word can do that.

The Bible is clear that man’s headship over the woman is an essential and all-encompassing part of God’s plan and part of His established order of government in the world. This fact is made explicit in 1 Corinthians 11:3: “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.” By its very nature, this order must apply in all areas of life; it is an essential order that knows no exceptions. Complementarians would agree that in every area of the divine government God is the head of Christ, and in every area of life the head of man is Christ. But, incredibly, they argue that the order of male headship has only limited application, and that there are many areas of life where it does not apply, and one of them is the civil sphere. They justify this interpretation by stating that 1 Corinthians 11:3 is in the context of church order. This is true, but the place in which this text appears and the sweeping statements in the text itself show that Paul is establishing the theology that the world is governed according to a divinely given order, an order that he will presently apply to church order. The fact that Paul is not giving a principle that only applies to church order is evident from what he says about Christ and God, and Christ and men.

The Bible Does Strictly Prohibit Women From Leadership as Civil Magistrates

Furthermore, Kotter is simply wrong when he says that the Bible does not strictly prohibit women from holding the office of civil leader, and Mohler is surely mistaken when he states that women serving as officials in government is no affront to Scripture. As we have seen, the Bible strictly prohibits women from holding civil office by declaring that rulers ought to be men. What Kotter should have said is that since He believes that Exodus 18:21 and Deuteronomy 1:13 no longer instruct us in righteousness, because these verses only applied to Israel, we can safely set these verses aside and vote as reason and experience dictate.

But do Kotter and his fellow complementarians realize what they have done to their own argument for male headship in the church? The New Testament does not explicitly forbid women from the office of elder either. Nowhere does the New Testament state: “Women may not be elders.” But, in spite of this, complementarians still maintain that women are forbidden to serve as elders; and they do so on the basis of the general role relationship of men and women established at creation and by the stated qualifications for elders given in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1. In other words, they build their doctrine of male elders in the same way that those who are against female civil rulers build their doctrine of male civil magistrates, i.e., by means of the biblical order of creation and the biblical qualifications for the office that require the leaders to be men. How can this procedure of interpretation and logic be correct in one case and wrong in the other? In rejecting the biblical arguments for male headship in the state, they are laying the ax to the root of their own doctrine of male headship in the church.

The problem with a complementarian position that is egalitarian in the public sphere is that it is unbiblical, illogical, and dangerously inconsistent. This inconsistent complementarianism is theologically unable to withstand the rigorous consistency of the evangelical feminism that says that complete equality exists between men and women in terms of authority and roles in every area of life. That compromised complementarianism cannot sustain itself in the battle with feminist egalitarianism is evident. Their open endorsement of egalitarianism in the public sphere, in response to the Palin nomination, can only expose the inconsistency and weakness of their semi-complementarian system. They do not seem to understand it, but, by their enthusiastic support of a wife and mother of five children (one being an infant) for vice president, they are jeopardizing their own ability to defend complementarianism in the home and in the church. How so? They have denied, at least in part, the biblical doctrine of the created order of male headship, and the biblical doctrine of the unique, non-transferable roles of men and women in God’s plan.

The Elevation of Experience Over Scripture; Fundamental Hermeneutic Principles Violated

Third, the examples used by David Kotter and Albert Mohler to support their contention that female magistrates are according to God’s will are not only an inconsistent and selective use of Scripture and an elevation of the authority of experience, but are also a fundamental violation of biblical hermeneutics. It is a curious thing that Kotter would appeal to the examples of the Queen of Sheba and Queen Esther to justify female rulers. A queen is a king’s wife, and normally the position of queen is not considered a political office. There is no indication that Esther exercised any ruling authority in Persia beyond the management of her own household and her personal influence on the king. The analogy of Esther actually applies to John McCain’s wife, Cindy, and not to Sarah Palin, his vice presidential choice.

Furthermore, there appears to be an inconsistency in David Kotter’s use of the Old Testament. Apparently, it is okay to use Old Testament examples to establish the propriety of female rulers, but it is not okay to use Old Testament instruction from the law of God to disprove the propriety of female rulers. If Old Testament law is off limits in this debate, then so are Old Testament examples. Those who reject the authority of the Old Testament on this issue, should appeal only to New Testament examples of women rulers. But since there are none (unless someone wants to use Governor Pilate’s wife, King Herod’s wife, or Governor Felix’s wife), we can conclude, if we are consistent with a New Testament only hermeneutic, that Scripture does not approve of women magistrates. Their use of examples of women rulers from history is also pointless. History is not a self-interpretive phenomenon, and the experience of history is not the final standard of faith and practice for Christians. Scripture is our only infallible standard of truth and the measure by which the facts of history must be interpreted. History presents us examples of every kind of civil leader one can think of. There have been capable female rulers and bad female rulers.

What should we conclude from this in regard to the biblical doctrine of the civil magistrate and the role of women in the civil sphere? Nothing. “To the law and to the testimony, if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them” (Isa. 8:20). The method of those who use examples such as Deborah or Esther to prove the normative character of women magistrates violates the basic principle of interpretation that narratives and examples are not the basis for interpreting or overturning the meaning of didactic (direct teaching) texts, rather, the opposite is the case. The example of a woman like Deborah cannot be considered normative because it contradicts the explicit teaching of the law of God in Exodus 18:21 and Deuteronomy 1:13. The example of Deborah no more proves that we ought to vote for a woman for civil office, than the example of Abraham proves that a man should take his son to a mountain to sacrifice him to demonstrate his devotion to God, or the example of David proves that a man may have more than one wife.

The Devaluation of Christian Womanhood

Fourth, the praise that Kotter and Mohler give to the woman who chooses to focus all of her energies on being a wife and mother is not only blunted by their endorsement of Sarah Palin, a woman who has made a different choice, but is also subverted by the message their perspective sends to the Christian community: the choice between full time homemaking and a full time career is one each wife and mother is free to make in accord with her own ideas of calling and “fulfillment.” Rather than upholding the biblical role of the woman, they have undermined it; rather than exalting biblical womanhood, they have cheapened it; rather than standing for biblical complementarianism, they have compromised it.

According to Scripture, the woman was created to be man’s assistant in his dominion task (Gen. 2:18), to function under his headship (1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:22-23), to be a mother and nurturer of children (1 Tim. 2:15; 5:10, 14), and to manage her home (1 Tim. 5:14). These “monumental” tasks require married women to be “keepers at home” [5] (Titus 2:5), i.e., they are to stay at home to give their full time and attention to the enormously important roles that God has given to them. But, according to these men, the roles of wife and mother are limited in time and scope, leaving them free to be “CEOs in the business world” and “officials in government.”

Why this Evangelical Compromise Is So Significant to the Future of the Church

The nomination of Sarah Palin to be John McCain’s vice presidential running mate has electrified social conservatives and “thrilled” the hearts of partial complementarians like Albert Mohler. But those of us who seek a biblical reformation of the family and the defeat of feminism’s vision for women look at the matter in a very different light.

Sarah Palin identifies herself with the anti-Christian philosophy of feminism. She uses feminist terminology, identifies with feminist political objectives, publicly praises liberal icons of the feminist movement, and has built her lifestyle around the feminist ideal of motherhood and careerism. She represents the feminist lie that a woman can do it all; that she can be a wife and mother and pursue a full-time career outside of her home and still meet all her responsibilities in the home. She personifies the feminist image of the tough, take-charge woman who is fitted to rule and govern in any sphere she chooses. She establishes the feminist principle that if a woman can do something, and she wants to do it, she ought to do it; there should be no constraints placed on her by her family, her church, or her society. She validates the feminist notion that it is fine for a mother to leave the care and training of her children in the hands of others while she seeks her own version of success in the world. Sarah Palin has brought to light the degree to which feminist ideology has triumphed in American culture and in the American church. [6]

In commenting on the evangelical church’s enthusiastic embrace of the candidacy of Sarah Palin, Doug Phillips wrote these very sobering words:

. . . the widespread acceptance of a pro-life professing Christian Republican, self-proclaimed feminist mother of an infant and four children as a candidate for the highest office of the land is the single most dangerous event for the conscience of the Christian community of the last ten years at least. The IQ of the Christian community has dropped 50 points. In order to win an election they have sold the core of what is right and true about the defining issue of our generation—the family! Once this threshold is passed, it will be virtually impossible apart from widespread repentance to recapture this ground. [7]

Albert Mohler and David Kotter (and other semi-complementarians) are Christian men who have done much good for the kingdom of God and for the family. They do desire God’s order for the family and the church. But the fundamental compromise and inconsistency of their view on the role of the woman in the public sphere has led them to praise and support the feminist vision of womanhood as it is personified in Sarah Palin. This feminist vision is the arch enemy of the biblical vision of the godly woman who is the helper of her husband, the nurturer of her children, and the keeper of her home. And so, intended or not, their stance is a tragic betrayal of the cause of restoring Christian womanhood and the biblical family.

By arguing that the absence of a formal and express prohibition against female magistrates means that women can be magistrates, they have undermined the integrity of their argument for an all male eldership because there is no formal and express prohibition against female elders. By selectively and with insufficient explanation drawing from one or two obscure examples in the Old Testament, while dismissing or simply ignoring clear examples and precepts, they have modeled an improper approach to Scripture. By defending the propriety of a mother of young children ruling over the nation, they have undermined the doctrine of male headship and women as keepers at home.

In addition, their theology of the state is problematic. It introduces human autonomy into Christian ethics and undermines the doctrine of the full sufficiency and authority of all Scripture to define righteousness for every aspect of life. Both this theology and its conclusions as applied to the doctrine of the female magistrate are certainly inconsistent with historical interpretation of Scripture of orthodox Christianity as articulated by men like John Calvin and John Knox, both great fathers of the faith whose considered opinions on these matters should not be lightly dismissed or ignored.

I pray that our semi-complementarian brothers will recover their biblical moorings before it is too late. Otherwise, the standard for their daughters and the next generation of Christian women may very well be the feminist Sarah Palin, not the biblical Sarah (1 Pet. 3:5-6), not the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31:10-31, not the woman of Titus 2:4-5.

This article originally was published on the website of Vision Forum Ministries in September 2008.

1. ^ David Kotter, “Does Sarah Palin Present a Dilemma for Complementarians?” Gender Blog of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (September 3, 2008) at www.cbmw.org.

2. ^ R. Albert Mohler, Jr., “An Unexpected New Motherhood Debate,” Blog (September 2, 2008) at www.AlbertMohler.com.

3. ^ For a discussion of these texts, see “Biblical Standards for Choosing Civil Magistrates."

4. ^ For a more detailed defense of this conclusion, see “Should Christians Support a Woman for the Office of Civil Magistrate?”

5. ^ For an exposition of the biblical concept of keeper at home, see “Keepers at Home.”

6. ^ For a presentation of the feminist vision for the family and the degree to which it has been successful, see “The Feminization of the Family.”

7. ^ This quotation is taken from a private e-mail correspondence dated September 2, 2008.