Why Complementarianism Is Crucial to Discipleship

by Jonathan Leeman May 26, 2016

Complementarianism is crucial for Christian discipleship because pastors and churches need to hold up different pictures of Christian maturity for the man and for the woman.

It’s easy to err in one direction or the other either by homogenizing our conceptions of discipleship or by over-emphasizing the differences. However, to be faithful to Scripture in its entirety, a right conception of Christian maturity will put forward models of male and female maturity that are both the same and different.

For example, every Christian—male and female—needs to live a life of repentance and faith. Every Christian needs to grow in the knowledge of God and in conformity to Christ. Every Christian needs to be united to the fellowship of believers. But if that’s all your children’s Sunday School classrooms, home Bible studies, and weekly sermons teach about Christian maturity, then it will have implicitly smothered the God-intended differences between men and women, thus misrepresenting “maturity.”

Three things are necessary to help move discipleship in a complementarian–and, I believe, biblical—direction: (i) a theological vision of how the mature Christian man looks different than the mature Christian woman; (ii) examples of godly manhood and womanhood in our churches; and (iii) pastoral strategies for moving the church in this direction. I’m not going to take the time here to carefully color in these lines. I hope others will be inspired to do the more substantive work. But here are a few thoughts to get the ball rolling.

Theological Vision and Distinctives of Different Domains

It all begins with a complementarian theological vision for discipleship.

In the domain of marriage, here’s what the elders of my church tell couples in pre-marital counseling: According to Genesis 1, both the man and woman should focus on bringing God’s Lordship and dominion to the earth. But according to Genesis 2, they have different ways of doing that. The man is oriented to the Garden, while the woman is oriented to the man and being a suitable helper to him. She’s to employ her entire resume of gifts and talents to promote the work of his administration. He, in turn, is to steward her gifts to maximal effect and not bury them in the ground, like the unfaithful steward.

Now, it’s comparatively easy to see what this means in a marriage, where there is one man and one woman in an authoritatively structured relationship. But what does it mean for a single woman in a church, who is not called to submit to every man as a wife does with her husband? What does it mean for a married woman at work? What does it mean for a married man with other women at home, church, work, or in the public square?

Well, these are the kinds of questions a mature Christian man helps a younger man answer, and a mature Christian woman helps a younger woman answer. These are the types of questions that might be addressed in Sunday school, small groups, or inductive church Bible studies.

To fill out a “theological vision” of masculinity and femininity, we need to consider how Genesis 2 might relate to other Scriptures and the peculiar distinctives of the home domain and the work domain and the church domain and the public square domain. Then, we need to help our fellow believers live masculine and feminine Christian lives in those different domains—not just generically Christian lives.

Example of One Domain: The Local Church

In the local church, for instance, masculinity seems to be tied to teaching the Word. Every Christian man should therefore be taught to take a special interest in learning the Word and promoting its ministry. Not every man has the gift of teaching in the church, but every man should equip himself to teach it somewhere (like in the home). And every man has some gift, such as a gift of administration or a gift of relationship building, that he can use to promote the ministry of the Word in the church.

Instead of a church filled with passive men, who quickly rush their families to the car when the service ends, imagine a church full of men charging ahead to promote the ministry of the Word. Imagine the men doing this in the pulpit, in the music ministry, in the children’s ministry, in after-church events, in evangelistic work, in caring for outsiders. I dare say, that would be a church in which it would be easier for a godly woman to be a godly woman.

In other words, women are often stuck having to take initiative and leadership in churches because men fail to do so. But to the extent men work hard in the garden of the church, sowing the seed and tilling the dirt, Christian women have good work to do by helping those men. They do this by following the leadership of worthy men, by extending the Word’s work into areas in which it can be more difficult for men to travel, as in the lives of children or younger women.

Notice, I’ve provided an example of how biblical masculinity and femininity look different in one domain—the local church. Discipling young believers to engage with the local church, therefore, should not be unisex. Yes, there are points of commonality: everyone should be interested in promoting the work of the Word. But there are points of difference: men should be taught to take initiative and leadership, while women should be taught to facilitate, encourage, and help.

In every domain—I think it’s safe to generalize—women will better be able to pursue godly femininity when they are surrounded by men who pursue godly masculinity. When women don’t, men often only have themselves to blame.

Pastoral Strategy

Moving from a theological vision to a pastoral strategy for discipleship, church leaders should teach these different pictures of maturity in the children’s and youth programs, men’s and women’s ministries, and the regular pulpit ministry of the church. Teaching occurs in a number of places in the church’s life, and it’s worth reviewing them one by one. Is the instruction in each area uniformly unisex, or are biblical differences promoted?

In addition to teaching, church leaders should promote good examples of biblical masculinity and femininity in the flock. What kinds of men are recognized as elders? What women are publicly recognized in pastoral prayers? What men and women are placed in front of the youth group?

Too often, the discussion about complementarianism gets stuck at the borders. For instance, people get marooned on matters like whether it’s appropriate for adult women to teach high school men. Where’s the line, they ask. But focusing on the borders of what’s licit is a bit like the dating couple who asks, “How much can we do with each other physically? Hold hands? Kiss?”

There is a place for such questions, but what’s needed first is a positive statement about how to promote biblical masculinity and femininity among young men and women. The dating couple, instead of asking, “How far can we go?” should instead ask, “How can we serve one another and best prepare the other for marriage?” Likewise, in the church we should ask, “How can we best help these high school women become mature women, and these high school men become mature men?”

So let’s try again: Is it okay to have adult women teaching high school men? Well, frankly, I’m not entirely sure if it’s licit or not, but I do know I want those high school men to learn what it means for men to take initiative in the church. And I do want the high school women to learn what it means to love, affirm, and support male leadership in the church. Therefore, I’m going to be very careful about what models I place before them. In most circumstances, I’m going to have Bible-loving, initiative-taking adult men teach the group as a whole, while having mature women support and assist that ministry.

Complementarianism and the Goal of Discipleship

In general, complementarian is crucial to Christian discipleship because it gives discipleship a goal. As a man, I want to help the other men I spend time with know what it means to be a leader and initiator, to have courage, to be protectors, to make sacrifices for those weaker than myself, and so on. My wife, on the other hand, wants to help the women she spends time with know what it means to be a supporter, a helper, a facilitator, a counselor, a fan, occasionally a rebuker, and so on.

I want to help men know how to do this at church, at home, and elsewhere as is appropriate. She wants to help women know how to do this at church, at home, and elsewhere as is appropriate.

The harder questions come later: What do biblical masculinity and femininity look like in the many other domains of life? And what are we doing to promote these models through discipleship?

Complementarianism and the Gospel

Is emphasizing these differences really that important? Yes. God hard-wired these distinctions into creation in Genesis chapter 2. Why? So that all creation would have a picture of the gospel, which Paul later says that husbands and wives picture in their love for one another (Eph. 5). When a church holds up models of biblical masculinity and femininity, therefore, it makes the gospel easier to comprehend.

Without such models, the gospel is simply harder to explain, almost like the Bible translator who wants to a describe Jesus as the “lamb” of God in a jungle culture that’s never heard of a lamb or a sacrifice. Is it any surprise that the devil, who hates the gospel, would want to homogenize men and women as well, thereby blurring one set of images for picturing the gospel?

You can maintain belief in the gospel apart from a complementarian conception of discipleship, but your vision of discipleship will work against such belief, not for it.

Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared at 9Marks and was featured in the July-August 2010 Journal: Pastoring Women.

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