By complementarianism, I mean the view that men and women are equal as God’s fellow image bearers, but nonetheless have some differences of role in the church and in the home. The way I like to put it is equal, but not interchangeable. In other words, you cannot simply swap male and female in and out of different roles without any consequence; nor are the differences between male and female mere matters of anatomy. There are some fundamental, structural, psychological differences as well (though they are never matters of better or worse). Two specific ways this plays out: I think the husband is called to a loving leadership role in the marriage, and the office of elder/bishop/overseer (and pastor as we typically use the term) is reserved for men.
Let me be clear: as a complementarian, I oppose with all my heart (as much as any egalitarian, I hope) the misuse of male strength, so common in ancient cultures and still prevalent today. I recognize that many human cultures have indeed perpetuated systems and environments in which women have been denigrated and downplayed and devalued. But whereas egalitarianism tries to redress this problem by taking away the principle of male headship altogether, complementarianism does so by radically redefining it in light of the gospel. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). That means complementarianism is a call to die, to love, to serve. In my relationship to Esther, it means that I seek to be the first to soften and apologize in conflict, and that I seek to put her needs above my own – it means that I walk 10 miles to please her rather than walk 1 mile to please myself. I don’t do this perfectly, of course. But that is my target. That is what complementarianism means to me on a daily basis.
Why do I hold this view? A few reasons:
1) First, and this is more of a preliminary consideration than an argument per se, egalitarianism (as I use the term, the view that men and women have identical roles) is historically quite eccentric. To the best I can tell, its the product of recent Western cultures only. Almost every other civilization has conceived of men and women as having different roles in various spheres of life. I am not saying all ancient/Eastern cultures were/are complementarian. I think complementarianism, biblically defined, is radically subversive in every culture. For example, the call to Christ-like, sacrificial love from husbands to their wives runs counter to the staunch patriarchalism of many ancient cultures. Jesus’ own treatment of women (welcoming them as disciples, teaching them, etc.) was profoundly counter-cultural. I am simply saying that we should have some historical perspective in approaching this issue. Egalitarianism may be the default leaning in our setting, but if we widen our horizon its very much a minority voice. Unless we have a bias in favor of 21st century Western democratic cultures, this should humble us a bit and give us perspective. Why should our culture see the truth more clearly than others?
2) The Trinity is my model for all human relationship. And I would say the Trinity is pretty decidedly complementarian (Father-Son-Spirit), not egalitarian (Brother-Brother-Spirit). I am aware of the debate about this point in the literature, bit it seems basic to me that a father-son relationship is complementarian: each person complements the other with a unique role. In the case of the divine Father-Son relationship, for instance, the Son eternally submits to the Father, while the Father does not eternally submit to the Son. The very fact that this God reveals this relationship with our words “father” and “son” is quite telling. Has anyone ever seen a father and son relate to each as though they had identical roles? Does it sound egalitarian when Jesus says, “the Father is greater than I?” (John 14:28)?
That means before I ever get to debate about male and female, a crucial domino has already fallen for a long while back – namely, the premise that relationships of hierarchy and subordination, of headship and submission, are not necessarily bad or oppressive or unfair. In fact, this kind of differentiation of role characterizes the relationship, the architectonic relationship, the love and joy that pulses at the core of reality. Diverse roles within equality of being and value: this is what a perfect, overflowingly joyful, happy, free, loving God looks like. We don’t need to be scared of this. It’s not bad.
3) Before we ever appeal to Scripture, there are strong sociological reasons for believing that men and women are different in a variety of ways that transcend culture or upbringing. Again, at the risk of reiterating this point too much, the differences are never a matter of better or worse! But there are differences. That makes me further open to the fact that maybe these differences go back to something about the way God made us.
4) The creation narrative of the Bible emphasizes that men and women are equal as God’s fellow image bearers (Genesis 1:26-28). In fact, it seems to me that the text indicates that the image of God shines forth in humanity as male and female
5) Throughout the Bible, both men and women play a vital role in the life of God’s people. Both use gifts to minister to others in significant ways. But in both Old and New Testament, God establishes a pattern in which the office of highest authority and leadership was held by only men. Throughout the Old Testament, women could serve as prophets, which was an occasional, diverse, ad hoc institution, but only males could serve as the Levitical priests, the regular, ongoing office of leadership among God’s people. Then in the gospels, Jesus calls only male apostles in his inner 12. Egalitarians typically respond that Jesus was adapting to the culture, but is this really plausible? Jesus was not afraid to challenge the culture. He did so all the time. Is it really plausible that Jesus would challenge the culture of his day as radically as he did but capitulate here?
You often hear people say that its sexist to deny equal leadership opportunities for male and female; then was Jesus sexist? He could have chosen 6 and 6. Or 9 women and 3 men just to prove the point. But He chose 12 men. Was Jesus sexist? Was God sexist for the way He set up the Levitical priesthood? Should we be more progressive than Christ was? There is a pattern here already established before we ever get to the office of elder in the church (which, I would say, completes the pattern: priest –> apostle –> elder).
6) Then of course the Pauline texts, five of which stand out to me: I Corinthians 11:2-16, 14:33b-35, Colossians 3:18-19, Ephesians 5:21-33, and I Timothy 2:9-15 (I leave I Peter 3:1-7 aside for now). I remember reading through Two Views on Women in Ministry and struggling with Craig Keener’s contribution on I Timothy 2. I wanted to give him a chance to prove me wrong; I read with an open mind. Sometimes I got overwhelmed by the amount of background information he would present, and I would wonder, “hmmm, what if it really was just an issue related to the women in Ephesus?” (Egalitarians typically argue that Paul’s restriction was due to the fact that women were less educated in the first century and as a result more susceptible to false teaching, which indeed certainly did happen in Ephesus [I Timothy 3:6]).
But then a rather obvious thought suddenly hit me: if the problem was women in Ephesus who were teaching false doctrine, why didn’t Paul place a restriction on women … in Ephesus … who teaching false doctrine? Why would Paul universalize his concern along the lines of gender? That seems awfully sexist if it really only a problem with certain women. Were there no uneducated men in Ephesus who were susceptible to false teaching? What about women who had not succumbed to false teaching – wouldn’t it be unfair for Paul to exclude them if his concern was only with those who had? Furthermore, there is confirmation of Paul’s prohibition in I Timothy in I Corinthians 11 and I Corinthians 14. And in the latter Paul prefaces his comments with, “as in all the churches of the saints,” and grounds his teaching in “the Law,” which seems to suggest we are dealing with a trans-cultural principle.
There is a danger of appealing to murky, uncertain background situations in such a way that the actual statements of Scripture become neutralized. People do this to try to make Romans 1 not really about homosexuality per se. The bottom line is that Paul does not say that he doesn’t permit a woman who has been influenced by false teaching to teach and have authority in I Timothy 2. He says he doesn’t permit a woman to teach and have authority. Period. No qualifiers. I want to honor Paul’s words.
7) Ephesians 5:21-33 is perhaps the most profound passage in the Bible on the meaning of marriage. Marriage is an institution ordained by God at creation, prior to the entrance of sin into the world. And in this passage, there are clearly different roles for male and female in the way marriage is designed to operate. Certainly Christian husbands and wives are to practice mutual submission (5:21) in the way that all Christians are. But when Paul gets more specific about the husband-wife relationship, not all the arrows point in both directions. There are certain responsibilities that husbands have that wives do not, and certain responsibilities that wives have that husbands do not. For example, Paul nowhere says, “husbands, submit to your wives, as the church submits its (wife??), Christ.” It does not say that.
Gender means something. Diverse roles in gender mean something. In this passage, their meaning is bound up with the gospel. Male, female, husband, wife, Christ, and church are all somehow integrated in Paul’s thinking. “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” (5:32). If we flatten out the differences of role assigned to husband and wife, we are in danger of tampering with this God-ordained institution that pictures, and is predicated on, the gospel. Its a big deal to flatten out the differences and make all the arrows point in both directions.
I am not ashamed to be a complementarian. I do not accept that I am 60 years out of date by taking this view. I think it is the best and most reasonable synthesis of all the relevant biblical data, and I think it accords with much of what we know apart from the Bible in the arena of common grace, and I think it can work well in every day life for mom, dad, kids, and society as a whole. It is not a view to be scoffed at and dismissed as out of touch. It should be taken seriously as a non-sexist, non-patriarchal option on the table – even for we in the 21st century West.
A previous version of this material was originally posted here.