Women are subordinate but not inferior. The weaker sex. Created equal in value while called to a role of lower (or no) authority.
Evangelical Christians call these ideas about women (and men) “complementarianism” or the complementarian view of gender roles. We’ll talk about what this word means in a minute, but first a couple of notes.
I’m an insider, having been immersed in complementarian theology from birth. I know it inside and out.
I’m also an outsider.
I’ve stepped back from this theology to consider alternative interpretations. I am not blindly following but can see and describe the strengths and weaknesses of all the views.
This means I can interpret and critique. I can explain the jargon, the nuances of meaning in various words, the working presuppositions, and the arguments and objections. One main disconnect takes place around definitions, when people use the same word but mean different things by it.
Let’s start with some basic definitions
Dictionary.com defines “complement” this way: something that completes or makes perfect; either of two parts or things needed to complete the whole; counterpart
Complementarians add a layer to this definition. They believe that God created two genders to complement the other in a very rigid, narrowly-defined way. They teach that God designed men and women specific to fill very different (gender-based) roles and functions — regardless of their individual gifts and talents. For example, in marriage they don’t just see two individuals who blend each one’s unique strengths and weaknesses together into a marriage as unique as each person is. They see a male and a female bringing male strengths and female strengths together into an established structure with little variation from marriage to marriage. (You can see how this layered definition informs or feeds other definitions, e.g. marriage.)
This view says that men’s role is to exercise authority and lead the family and the church (some emphasize Jesus’s example of being “servant leader” better than others). Women’s role is to follow the male leader, supporting from under and behind. If a woman has authority, it is delegated to her by a male above her (e.g. over their house and children) and not exercised over a male.
The theology emerges from a very specific reading of Genesis 1-3 and Paul’s epistles: Adam was created first, then Eve; Eve tempted Adam to sin; they are a pattern for all men and women (this is where the doctrine of original sin came from — Adam and Eve passed it down to us).
The layers to their definitions make this a complicated discussion. But there’s more. Complementarianism covers a broad spectrum from abusive sexism to reasoned respect.
In the center are the moderates who may specify that women’s authority is limited rather than absent (as in the example above of delegated authority). They may limit this male authority/female subordination to spiritual structures like marriage and the church, and not try to extend it into the workplace or community (thus they would have no issue with a man reporting to a woman at work or to a woman leading men in government). They may limit this male authority/female subordination to a few specific relationships, teaching that a man only has spiritual God-given authority within his family, that a woman chooses to submit herself to her husband when she marries him, and that a pastor’s authority is limited in scope to church-related or spiritual things, not over every detail of a person’s life.
Then there are the extremists. They take the Genesis story and say because Eve tempted Adam, all women tempt men to sin and this is probably why God prohibited women from leading … lest they lead everyone straight to hell just like Eve did. Their logical conclusion is that for the safety and security of everyone, women must stay quiet and preferably invisible. Men must regard women’s opinions and input with skepticism and take serious the man’s role in keeping the woman on the straight and narrow. This leads to male domination and virtual ownership of females from birth to death (with the accompanying abuse and oppression you would expect).
The extremes plus the definitions make it difficult to find a place to start the conversation.
Complementarians vs Egalitarians
So where do we find common ground? What’s fascinating to me as I’ve listened to people argue on all sides of this is that we agree far more than we disagree.
We agree that all human beings carry God’s image within them and this make life and humanity infinitely valuable. We agree that no single person has all the gifts or talents or skills. So in that sense, we’re all complementarians. We agree that we complement each other and that God meant for us to live in community and help one another. We agree that God has given us guidelines for life, obeying those brings God’s blessing, and that Jesus is our example.
We disagree on how specific and prescriptive God’s guidelines are for men and women and whether God regulates how we complement one another.
Egalitarians believe that we have gifts, talents, strengths, and wisdom that do not depend on the sex organs or chromosomes we’re born with. They believe that some women can and do possess teaching, preaching, and leadership skills, while some men do not. They believe that God wants us to use our gifts and talents to the fullest. They see Jesus and his apostles elevating and empowering women. They teach that the second most important command to love your neighbor as yourself, one of two which undergird all the rest of God’s rules, looks like Paul’s words in Ephesians 5:21 — “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” They teach that we each should defer to one another without regard for gender (or race, or language, or country of origin, or income… Jesus really throws the doors wide open).
Slippery slopes and collateral damage
Egalitarians look at their complementarian brothers and sisters and see an interpretation of scripture that is ripe for abuse. They see how easily it leads to portraying women as unclean temptresses aggressively contaminating men with sin which results in a deeply rooted fear of women. They see a slippery slope leading downward from limiting women based on what appears to be arbitrary criteria to a terrible and unacceptable outcome — men treating women like children or property. They see the collateral damage to families and churches when men, out of their fear of being contaminated by women, silence and sideline women. This deprives families and churches of all the gifts and talents women have to offer.
Outsiders don’t see the hot debates within complementarian theology. They don’t see those who work hard to elevate and empower women as far as they believe God allows. They don’t see that these Christians respect and value the unique and invaluable contributions of women and are doing hard work to incorporate that into a healthy understanding of God’s design for men and women.
All of this is hidden because the extremists, the ones who teach the fear and subordination of women, are loud. Their fear-mongering damages the entire theology’s credibility and reputation, and that fear infects everyone within this space.
Moderate complementarians fear being seen or painted as compromisers diluting the Bible, theology, the Gospel, you name it. They keep their empowering of women quiet and hidden, behind closed doors. But in so doing, they discredit their own theological presuppositions.
Complementarians’ Achilles Heel
I have never seen any formal and clear means for the male leaders of complementarian churches to actively seek and incorporate women’s perspectives and wisdom into their decision-making and leadership.
I’ve looked for it, and I’ve asked. The answer I get is that pastors and elders seek advice and input from their wives. Good. That’s wise. But here’s the problem: they rarely talk about doing this. No one can see or follow their example. They only get one woman’s perspective. And even when they do talk about it, they always couch it in language that enforces the male’s authority and woman’s lack thereof.
My brothers and sisters, this is why so many find your arguments and statements about women’s value unconvincing:
IF women are essential to growing healthy families, churches, and communities (they are)
AND IF women do contribute unique perspectives and wisdom that men do not have by virtue of gender differences (they do)
AND IF women receive skills, talents, and gifts from God to use for the benefit of their families, churches, and communities (they do)
THEN your churches should start formal endorsed means to gather and incorporate the perspectives, input, advice, and gifts of women.
Your churches should teach and encourage husbands and wives to co-lead their families, maximizing their respective strengths and compensating for each other’s weaknesses.
You should be eager and up front about all the ways that you actively respect and value the contributions and gifts women bring.
This isn’t happening. And it’s because of fear.
Fear is complementarianism’s Achilles Heel, the root of their failure to live their theology of men and women consistently.
Making complementarianism beautiful
Even for those who disagree with the presuppositions of complementarian theology, there’s sense and even beauty in it… when it isn’t warped by fear. Complementarians can improve their credibility and marginalize the extremists destroying their reputation by overcome their fear and living the logical in their arguments.
If you truly believe that women are inherently unique and contribute things that men inherently cannot, act like it. Stop allowing fear to deprive you of God’s best. As they say in the writing world: show, don’t tell.
Pastors – meet with women regularly and listen to their stories, their struggles, and their victories. Learn about the spiritual lives of women and the unique ways their faith unfolds for them. As a man, you cannot know this yourself, which means you must ask, learn from, and listen to women in order to provide spiritual guidance fitting for the women in your church. You might even consider bringing in a women’s pastor to provide the women in your church with a spiritual guide who understand their lives, thought patterns, and perspectives in ways that’s impossible for you. That shouldn’t be threatening to you – it fits your complementarian theology. Don’t deprive women of the spiritual care they need and of the opportunity to provide spiritual care by refusing to acknowledge that you aren’t equipped to provide it.
Men in church leadership – your church wouldn’t function as well as it does without the talents, hard work, and management and organizational skills of the women in it. Recognize this publicly, thank them, and give them jurisdiction. Seek out activities and ministries where they shine, and set them loose to do their thing.
Work with your pastor to establish some visible mechanism (a women’s advisory council, for example) through which you can glean women’s wisdom and perspectives as you lead the church, care for all of her members, and guide people as they grow in their faith.
Churches – appoint gifted women to serve as women’s and children’s pastors. You have incredible leaders among the women in your church, and you suffer greatly when you dismiss or overlook what they could contribute.
Overcoming fear is difficult work. It probably means mandating new behaviors. But my complementarian brothers and sisters, if you succeed, you could show the world how beautiful your theology can be.
Take steps to ensure that the members of your churches and homes lean on women’s gifts and strength as much as they lean on men’s gifts and strengths. Live it out all the way. Quit being afraid of women. Prove to the church that you really believe women are essential, wise, and uniquely gifted to serve our families and churches.