The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) is an evangelical organization established in 1987 to “defend against the accommodation of secular feminism” in the church and promote gender “complementarianism,” which teaches that “distinctions in masculine and feminine roles are ordained by God as part of the created order.” CBMW’s mission is to counter the influence of gender justice activism and to push back against women’s, reproductive, and LGBTQ rights by making the case for complementarianism through biblical interpretation, “scholarship,” and arguments from “common sense.” Despite its modest resources and media footprint, CBMW’s work provides talking points and theological rationales against gender equality that reach a large swath of American evangelicals.
The organization’s priorities are laid out in its founding document, the Danvers Statement. It is CBMW’s position that forbidding certain roles to girls and women does not undermine gender equality, but rather that “masculinity” and “femininity” are equal in value but have distinct roles. In addition to promoting these “roles” within the family, CBMW opposes the ordination of female clergy, gender-inclusive Bible translations (which it calls “gender-neutral”), and church and societal acceptance of any relationships outside monogamous heterosexual marriage.
CBMW’s former executive director, Owen Strachan, has written that husbands are the “God-appointed ‘head’” of wives and households, and that women—not men—are “called to be workers at home” and “designed to be physically and spiritually nurturers of their children.” Strachan has also written that those who harass patients at abortion providers are “suffering with Christ” and risking violence from pro-choice advocates with “murder in [their] eyes.”
The current executive director of the organization, Colin Smothers, is a Ph.D. candidate in Biblical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and he advocates for strong anti-transgender and anti-abortion positions. Smothers even goes as far to argue that homosexuality will led to the accepting of incest.
CBMW’s teachings on female submission and patriarchal headship have particularly disturbing implications within the context of intimate partner violence. Founder John Piper preaches that the wives of abusive men continue to have a divine obligation to “submit” to their husbands, though he concedes that their obligation to “submit” to laws criminalizing spousal abuse may outweigh “duties” to violent husbands. This is a “clarification” of an earlier teaching that wives may have to “[endure] verbal abuse for a season … [or] perhaps being smacked one night” before seeking support from the church.
CBMW council member Bruce A. Ware has asserted that wives resist showing appropriate submission to husbands because of sinfulness and that men “may be required, in response, to reestablish [their] God-given rulership over” their wives. While Ware teaches that abuse is a “sinful” method of exercising that rulership, his remarks imply that abuse is a natural response by husbands to “threat[s] to their authority.”
CBMW used to have a small and dwindling budget, but they have recently experienced a budgetary revival—their 2016 budget was almost double that in 2012. Despite this, they still tend to spend more in expenses than they receive in donations. In 2016, the group received about $255,000 in donations but spent about $315,000. Even though CMBW has little visibility or direct political impact outside the evangelical world, it has deep connections and influence within some of the most powerful evangelical institutions in the United States. Its founders, John Piper and Wayne Grudem, are influential evangelical theologians and authors; Grudem is a former president of the Evangelical Theological Society. CBMW’s council members include Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (SBTS), and Bruce Ware, a professor at SBTS and also former president of the Evangelical Theological Society. The former president of the Council, Presbyterian (PCA) pastor J. Ligon Duncan, was also the former president of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.
Several board and council members are original signers of the Manhattan Declaration, which itself claims gender and sexual “complementarity” as a basis for opposition to reproductive and LGBTQ rights (see Fred Clarkson on the Declaration’s role in forging a new evangelical-Catholic alliance). Several members of CBMW’s board and council also belong to The Gospel Coalition, an increasingly powerful evangelical organization.
John Piper and Wayne Grudem are co-editors of Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (RBMW), a large collection of essays published in 1991 under CBMW’s auspices. Essays in RBMW cite not only scripture, but also biology, sociology, history, psychology, and law as evidence for the “wisdom” of complementarian gender roles. Topics include “The Biological Basis for Gender-Specific Behavior” and “Psychological Foundations for Rearing Masculine Boys and Feminine Girls”—the latter is an essay by the now thoroughly discredited “ex-gay therapy” proponent George Alan Rekers. Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood was honored by evangelical flagship magazine Christianity Today as its 1992 Book of the Year.
An abridged version of RBMW, “Fifty Crucial Questions: An Overview of Central Concerns about Manhood and Womanhood,” cites Rekers’ work as providing “clinical evidence that there is no such thing as a ‘homosexual child’” and instead that “there are dynamics in the home that direct the sexual preferences of [a] child.” Piper and Grudem write that fathers play a particularly crucial role in instructing children in the distinctions between “masculinity” and “femininity,” in “firm and loving affirmation of [those distinctions]” in their children, and in “[shaping] the sexual identity of their tiny children.” RBMW and “Fifty Questions” remain the primary publications touted by CBMW—they are available for free download from CBMW’s website—in addition to its Journal for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood published twice annually. The Journal includes articles discussing how Caitlyn Jenner (who they continue to refer to as Bruce) is part of a “gender rebellion” and another article referring to the “modern West” and “rural East’s” distinctions when discussing Christian gender roles.
CMBW’s most recent statement is the 2017 “Nashville Statement”, which has more than 20,000 including an advisor to President Trump and Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. The statement reaffirms CMBW’s anti-LGBTQ policies and adherence to strict traditional gender roles. It discusses the value of “chastity outside of marriage and fidelity within marriage,” calling anything else a “form of sexual immorality.” The Nashville Statement has been promoted not just within the American Evangelical Community but also internationally, and it has been translated into Spanish, German, and Chinese. It also continues to expand CMBW’s discriminatory rhetoric by explicitly calling “transgenderism” an “explicit departure from Christian faithfulness and witness.” The Statement also stresses that all Christians should believe in the immorality LGBTQ people, and states that it is not a “matter of moral indifference about which otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree.” The Nashville Statement is the key document CMBW wants to advocate for at their next event, the April 2018 T4G Pre-Conference, in order to increase their “coalition for articulating the biblical view of gender and sexuality.”
CBMW’s messaging through its publications, its website, and the teachings and writings of its influential members reaches millions of American evangelicals through the network of evangelical organizations to which CBMW belongs. Its teachings are taking on new relevance as the Right increasingly turns its attentions to the anti-LGBTQ battles it feels more confident about winning, specifically against transgender communities. CBMW’s copious teachings on gender difference and “gender confusion” are sure to play an important role in evangelical messaging against transgender rights and equality—and given CBMW’s relative lack of visibility, perhaps a stealth role.