September 14

Men and Women in the Church by Kevin DeYoung: A Critique

I haven’t published any book reviews here before, and this book has been out since 2021.  But it’s come up in several conversations recently, so I decided to post what I wrote a while back.

I’m not sure why Kevin DeYoung wrote this book.  I didn’t find anything in it that I haven’t read in many other places.  Its main claim to fame, DeYoung says, it that it is shorter than the rest—“weightier than a pamphlet but lighter than a doorstop,”

You need to know first of all that my opinions are constrained by Scripture.  I cannot bring myself to adopt or advocate for anything I am not convinced of by the Word of God.  However, I have no problem challenging traditions that have encrusted, weighed down, and distorted the biblical teaching about males and females.

There are parts of DeYoung’s message with which I agree, although he tends to give with one hand and take with the other.  My main criticism is not about formal offices in the church or “roles” in the home.  My main criticism, and the focus of this critique, is the damage complementarianism has done to women by the way it shapes attitudes toward them.  DeYoung falls heavily into this tradition.  He does so in several ways. 

  • He asks the wrong question.  He wants to know, “Who’s in charge around here?”
  • He assumes the answer.  Men.  He takes a few verses from the New Testament and retrofits Old Testament and New Testament passages to support his thesis.  More specifically, he magnifies the differences between males and females and in so doing, diminishes the picture the Bible paints of women.  And it’s not good for men, either.
  • He creates non-biblical rules to protect and enforce his thesis.

We will take these issues in turn.

The Wrong Question

DeYoung assumes that there is an intrinsic hierarchy in the male/female relationship.  In order for it to be intrinsic, it would have to have been present from creation.  He assumes there must be one person in charge of everything in order to ensure peace and order.  But God’s introduction of humans into creation does not have that in view.  In Genesis 1, the emphasis is on humans as the pinnacle of creation.  They are made in the image of God, in his unity and his trinity.  The three persons of the Trinity are the same in substance, equal in power and glory.  As bearers of the image of God, male and female image his unity and diversity, and represent God on the earth.  They are given joint rule over that creation.  They have the same commission from God.  Genesis 1 is focused on their unity and equality.

Genesis 2 informs us that the male by himself is “not good,” is not sufficient to fulfill God’s purpose for humans on the earth.  And so woman is drawn out of man.  She is drawn out as a helper, but that must not be misconstrued to mean that man has a commission from God, and woman is there to take orders from him about how to help him fulfill his purpose.  As we have seen in Genesis 1, their purposes are the same—filling and subduing the earth and ruling over it.  It takes both male and female to accomplish the mandate.  She is his strong ally in a single purpose.

The question of hierarchy does not come into play until after the Fall, when God reveals that because of the entry of sin into the human story, males will rule over females.  Does anyone look at human history and doubt the veracity of that prophecy?  Who are the tyrants?  Who are the oppressors?  Who are the abusers?  This dynamic does not glorify God.

The Wrong Assumption by the Wrong Method: Diminishing or ignoring what Scripture does teach about women

I am very sorry to say that Kevin DeYoung does not do justice to Scripture as he argues his point that men are created to be in leadership over women in every sphere, and that women are to be limited to life in the home.  Let me illustrate.

Genesis 1

On pages 25-26, DeYoung cites Genesis 1:27-28 as teaching that both men and women were created in the image of God, both served as icons of God’s dominion over the world, and both were to rule jointly.  But he fails to draw out all that those concepts mean, especially for women.  First, and most importantly, it must mean that woman could have a direct relationship with God.  That is what separates humans from the rest of creation.  They were made in a way that enabled them to commune directly with God.  The woman did not need to go through the man to gain access to God.  God spoke directly to her, and she answered him directly.

Second, the woman was equipped to rule or have dominion over all of creation.  That is God’s stated purpose for creating humans, specifically defined as male and female (1:26), so certainly he would have equipped her to fulfill that purpose.  She had the characteristics and abilities necessary for ruling and having dominion.  Third, the woman was directed to rule over the whole earth.  That is the domain that was given to her.  Fourth, the woman was not the only one directed to multiply and fill the earth.  That was also directed to the man.  These directions together are known as the creation mandate.  They have traditionally been believed to encompass all of the lawful endeavors humans have done or will undertake, from science to the arts.  No exclusions were made to the woman.

Genesis 2

DeYoung mentions that woman was created as a helper for man.  But what kind of helper?  We sometimes think of that Biblical phrase “help meet” as describing a handmaiden, but God described her purpose, powerful helper (ezer), in the same terms he would eventually apply to himself as a helper to his troubled and needy people. If females look to emulate God in the exercise of their powerful help, they will find God conquering the enemies of his people, both defensively (as a shield) and offensively (as a sword). He comes in mystery, majesty and glory, riding on the clouds. DeYoung sucks the power from that phrase by describing it as “coming alongside” (p. 28). 

DeYoung especially diminishes the woman when he says, “It was not good for man to be alone because by himself he could not ‘be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,’” (p. 28) and, “Eve was a helper for Adam most fundamentally because she helped him fulfill the mandate to be fruitful and multiply—the one aspect of being an image-bearer that man could not accomplish himself.”  What hubris!  God said that both man and woman were needed and equipped to handle the creation mandate.  DeYoung is claiming that man is completely sufficient to fulfill the creation mandate by himself, with one little exception—sex and procreation.  That is not what God said, and is certainly not the only provision God made in man’s powerful ally. 

So in spite of identical instructions from the mouth of God, DeYoung bifurcates the creation mandate for image bearers into a male mandate and a female mandate.  He bases these separate mandates partly in biological differences.  His reasoning is that since men are generally stronger, they can handle being out in the larger world; and that since woman is equipped to bear children, she is fitted for work in the home, but not in the larger world.  That is a contradiction of the commission she received from God.  In other words, instead of interpreting nature by God’s revelation, DeYoung is trying to discern God’s purpose from what he sees in nature.  That’s a dangerous reversal.

Genesis 3

In Genesis 3:16, God says to the woman, “Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”  There have been several ways that the word “desire” has been translated through the centuries.  The newest was introduced in 1974 by a seminary student, Susan Foh, determined it meant that the woman’s desire would be contrary to her husband.  I can’t go into all the scholarship around this word, but from my reading, I don’t see her translation as being more compelling than others, which imply a turning toward her husband in devotion or desire.  The novel interpretation which DeYoung chooses puts women in the worst possible light, and has the effect of making men suspicious of women.

In my work with women in abusive marriages, I find that they cling to their husbands much longer than is safe for them.  It takes them a long time to see that their husbands are behaving as their enemies, and an even longer time to seek safety away from them.  This pattern is documented in the literature on abusive marriages.  It does not fit the dynamic of a woman constantly trying to overpower her husband.

Biblical Women

Just a reminder before we look at DeYoung’s descriptions of women in the Bible.  My purpose here is not to argue for particular offices or roles for women.  My focus is on what DeYoung leaves out about women which gives a truncated impression of their skills and capacities.

Judges 2-5

Deborah:  DeYoung says, “Deborah did not exercise a military function but came alongside Barak when he failed to go into battle by himself…the judges in Israel were national deliverers more than formal officers with constituted authority.” 

God raised up judges to deliver his people militarily.  There was no other leadership in Israel at that time.  I’m not sure what would be more formal or endow more authority than being called by God.  And her leadership affected the entire country.  Deborah gave Barak military orders from God:  to raise an army, and to ATTACK NOW.  She held court to which the Israelites came for justice, just as they did with Moses. 

In her song, she calls kings and rulers to listen to her.  She says it was she who mobilized villagers, commanders, nobles and princes; they were all cowering in fear until Deborah had the courage to rise up and call them to battle.  Think about the strength of leadership it takes to rally defeated people to rout their enemies.  Interestingly, she juxtaposes her call to arms with the title, “Mother in Israel.”  Mothers are fiercely protective of their children.  The land enjoyed peace for 40 due to Deborah’s direction.  And then her words became God’s words by virtue of being canonized. 

Jael:  DeYoung, without naming her, says, “It was to Barak’s shame that his enemy would have to be killed by a woman.”  In Deborah’s song, she sings the praises of Jael:  She calls this time “the days of Jael,” describes her valorous deeds in rather gruesome detail, and then calls her “most blessed of women.”  Even if this was a shame to Barak, it was to the praise of Jael.

Proverbs 31

DeYoung celebrates all that this wonder woman does, but categorizes it as “exercising all her physical, mental, and entrepreneurial powers by…serving her husband and household.”  There are several problems with this characterization.  First, the woman is a competent and successful business woman, independent of her status as a wife, mother, and household manager.  We could even suppose that she is the primary breadwinner since the only activity ascribed to her husband is hanging out with the other guys.  Second, if a man did all of those things, would he not be doing it to serve his wife and household?  So why does DeYoung feel the need to qualify the woman’s work in this way?  I think it is because he is trying to fit it into the woman’s supposed realm of home and family.  But there is no way to read the description of this woman honestly without seeing that she is out in the world.

Other Women Who Influenced Men

DeYoung states, “There are women in the Old Testament who make a name for themselves apart from men, but those are rare.  Most of the positive and negative examples of women in the Old Testament are positive or negative based on how they influenced men for good or for evil.”  What is the purpose of this statement if not to show that women revolve around men, that their service is primarily to men rather than to God?

The Wrong Rules

As I said earlier, DeYoung seems to find it necessary to emphasize the differences between males and females in order to justify men being leaders and women being followers.  Here are some of the ways DeYoung characterizes men throughout the book:  hortatory demeanor; honoring of wives; caring leadership; protector and provider; generally physically stronger and more interested in sports, war movies, competition and risk; wired for strength and confidence in the face of risk; tender-hearted, self-sacrificing, risk-taking strength. 

Female attributes include respectfulness; gentleness; purity; true (inner) beauty; modesty; self-control; doing good works; wired for beauty.  He says on page 80, “A woman who learns quietly embraces her submissive role and honors God’s designs for the sexes,” and on 87, “A godly woman embraces her true femininity in dressing modestly, learning quietly, bearing children…”

All of these attributes are based on verses in the Bible.  What could the problem be?  These characteristics do not do justice to the wide variety of female personalities and gifts lauded in Scripture.  They paint men with strength, but women as fragile and retiring.  Although he notes that “The Old Testament is full of heroic women influencing history, exercising personal agency, and displaying a range of godly virtues” (p. 38), his summary statement of male and female qualities is, “the crowning characteristic of a woman is true beauty and the crowning characteristic of the man is true strength.” (p. 127)

The result is a dysfunctional system.  All the burden of leadership and responsibility is placed on men.  Male leadership is cloistered and becomes an echo chamber, especially on the subject of women.  Men can deal with women’s issues theoretically and lay them aside; women live with the real world consequences every day.   Men are conditioned to feel and exercise power and agency, enabled by submissive women.  A sense of entitlement is inevitable for men.  Women are no longer counted as powerful allies, whose difference is seen as a valuable resource which should be sought to round out men’s natural deficiencies. They are seen as suspicious usurpers to be fenced out of the realms of power. On the other hand, it creates unrealistic expectations in the women that men should be the perfect leaders, which just leads to disappointment.

This system places no intrinsic limitations on men, but places many on women.  In so doing, they define women not by their nature, but by their functions.  Here are things women are allowed to do (aren’t they great?!) and here are the things they are not allowed to do.  Here are the places they can go, and here are the places they cannot go.  It creates a continual tension in women about what is appropriate for them to feel, think, and do.  How do you do that to a creature God has made to rule the whole world?

Let me stop here and clarify some things.  There are differences between men and women.  Those differences will influence how each carries out the creation mandate.  But those differences do not define different roles or realms.  I also am not suggesting males and females are interchangeable, something that DeYoung seems to be very worried about.  My concern is how DeYoung defines male and female identities in their biology rather than their imaging God.  He puts far more emphasis on the differences than he does on the sameness, and the sameness is more fundamental.  Being made in the image of God is more fundamental than being male or female.

The Danger To Women in the PCA

In spite of the claims of PCA men to the role of protector of women, women are being abused, retraumatized by unbelief, and further traumatized by sessions, Presbyteries, and even the SJC.  I have spoken with some of these women, with those who have worked with many of these women, with eyewitnesses to how they have been mis-treated, and I have read or heard the stories of many others.  The pattern repeats over and over.  Men in the PCA protect other men, and sacrifice the women.  This comes in several ways:  not believing women when they report abuse; advising women to return to or remain in dangerous situations; refusing to hear their claims; dismissing their formal complaints; treating them shamefully in church courts; subjecting them to an adversarial judicial process; dragging out the court process; allowing accused men to move quietly to another church; failing to warn other churches or members where the accused may have harmed others; exonerating men on the basis of technicalities or unreasonable evidence requirements; slandering women; calling women names.  

Women are not safe in the PCA.  Not because every pastor or every elder is unsafe; but because, as a whole, the PCA cannot be counted on to hear, believe (when appropriate), and protect women.  And women cannot rely on their presbyteries or the SJC to rectify harm done by lower courts.  There are too many examples to qualify as “a few bad apples.”

I believe there are several foundational reasons for the treatment of women in the PCA, and they flow from the kind of complementarianism DeYoung espouses.

  • They are seen by men as “other.”  The differences between male and female are elevated far above their sameness such that men see women as almost a different species.  The definition of feminine as meek, submissive, gentle, quiet, vulnerable, child bearer and nurturer, home-centered, helper serves as a foil to the supposed masculine qualities of muscularity, boldness, protectiveness, aggressiveness, decisiveness.  When females are defined as the opposite of males, they functionally become another species to men.  Men are happy to honor women for their stereotypical female qualities.  But when a woman steps out of her subservient role, men cannot see the appropriate exercise of her own boldness, aggressiveness or decisiveness.  All they can see is the woman veering out of her lane and into theirs.  They go into defense mode.  Witness  Overture 15 in response to women speaking to subjects in which they had expertise at a non-worship meeting at GA:  No woman shall preach, exhort, or teach at a public worship assembly,  including assemblies or chapel services where men are present in any congregation, educational institution, or gathering overseen by the Church or one of its agencies. 
  • Complementarianism and rule by men works well only when there is a preponderance of men with the integrity, humility, and respect for women as equals not only to protect the women in their own congregations, but to create and enforce that culture in all congregations.  There are too many stories of gross injustice toward women to make a case for that culture in the PCA.  And there are too few elders who are interested enough to examine what is happening to women in other churches and presbyteries.  Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

This system needs reform.


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  1. Thank you, Donna, for your wisdom and your care about those affected by the natural anthropology in our churches. Your review has hit so many important points. The same bad teaching on men and women keeps getting recycled. Kevin DeYoung has now moved to North Carolina, where patriarchy is largely assumed and where his thoughts might be less likely to be challenged. When \women are seen as subordinate by nature and secondary, whose mission relates to physical reproduction, we have drifted far from the canonical and biblical-theological unfolding of Scripture, which ends with the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end, and his bride, who with the Spirit says, "Come," to the water of life, the tree of life, in the holy city.

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