At the very outset, it should be noted that every label has a history and its own limitations. In the present case, some who don’t fully embrace the divinely created differences between men and women (egalitarians) still espouse some form of complementarity, recognizing biological and possibly other differences yet minimizing or denying biblical male authority, while complementarians hold to male-female equality in essence while affirming male authority in the home and the church.
Individual yet Distinct
Complementarian interpretation of Scripture holds that God’s creation purpose for man and woman entails equality of individual value but also distinct roles. God established this intrinsic reality and order at creation as part of his blueprint for the man’s and woman’s mission on earth to be lived out together for his glory. According to the divine design, men are given the responsibility to lead in marriage and the family, as well as in the church as God’s family, while women are assigned a role of partnering with and supporting their husbands and are entrusted with bearing and nurturing children for God’s glory, as well as being active participants in the church’s mission. In what follows, we’ll highlight three myths imposed onto complementarianism from the outside (i.e. by egalitarians), plus two myths sometimes perpetuated by those on the inside (i.e. complementarians themselves who mistakenly push the boundaries of God’s design, perhaps to accommodate the culture).
At the very outset, it should be noted that every label has a history and its own limitations. In the present case, some who don’t fully embrace the divinely created differences between men and women (egalitarians) still espouse some form of complementarity, recognizing biological and possibly other differences yet minimizing or denying biblical male authority, while complementarians hold to male-female equality in essence while affirming male authority in the home and the church. The pointed subtitle of an egalitarian volume, Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy, underscores the limitations of labels (whether “complementarian” or “egalitarian”) and underscores the need for proper biblical grounding.
Myth #1: Complementarianism is obsessed with male authority.
Does complementarianism actually advocate a hierarchical, top-down authority structure in the male-female relationship? How far should male authority be taken biblically? Leading complementarians are united in the belief that there is no legitimate authoritarian pattern of a master-slave or general-soldier hierarchical-type relationship for men and women advocated in the Bible. Complementarians, nonetheless, are occasionally connected with extreme “hierarchicalism” (which is a verbal monstrosity as well!) and, along with this, an advocacy of female inferiority. Complementarianism, the myth goes, is tantamount to being antiwomen or anti-women-in-ministry with the intent of keeping women out of positions of leadership in the church, the corporate world, and the political sphere. This mischaracterizes biblical complementarianism, however, which in reality focuses on the beauty of complementarity within God’s purposeful and beautiful binary design where the husband’s leadership is exercised through love and servant leadership and women are included as significant participants in the church’s mission.
In biblical marriage, the husband is instructed to treat his wife as a fellow heir of the grace of life (1 Peter 3:7), serving and loving her as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25). While the husband’s authority is not absent from Paul’s instructions, love for the sake of the well-being and growth of the members of his family is the overarching theme (Ephesians 5:25–28). Wives, for their part, are encouraged to act humbly and sacrificially in submission to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22) but not presented as inferior or subservient to men. To the contrary, Scripture shows both men and women as created in God’s image with great intrinsic worth and equal value. The Holy Spirit is given to both men and women at the establishment of the church (Acts 2:17–18) and spiritual gifts are given to both for building up the church. A biblical perspective of the male-female relationship in the church’s ministry doesn’t picture a man wielding authoritarian leadership but instructs male elders not to lord it over those under their charge (1 Peter 5:3).
Myth #2: Complementarianism confines women to the home.
Another caricature of complementarianism portrays women as confined to the home. Biblical complementarianism takes seriously the biblical teaching that women who are married and have children be devoted to their roles in relation to their husband and children (Titus 2:4–5), but these roles are to be lived out by God’s grace and are freely entered by a woman as instructed by Scripture. At the creation of the first woman, Eve is presented as a companion and helper to her husband (Genesis 2:18). This portrayal is then reflected in the judgment she receives after the Fall: pain in childbearing and relational struggle in marriage, directly corresponding to her divine calling in relation to her husband and children (Genesis 3:16). In Paul’s letter to Titus, women are called to be “workers at home” and to love their husband and children (Titus 2:4–5; cf. 1 Timothy 5:9–10, 14). We believe that the joy and work of women’s lives will be best lived out as she centers herself primarily on her family and in her home.
At the same time, complementarianism is not ruling out that women ever work outside the home. In fact, it’s commonly acknowledged that the married woman of Proverbs 31 was active in the community while still being centered in her home. The need for each woman, then, is to determine God’s particular leading in her life as to involvement outside the home (work or otherwise) at any given stage of her life as it relates to her primary role in the family. Yet there’s no need to back away from God’s design for women as centered in family and home, barring extenuating factors such as the husband’s illness, etc. For unmarried women, the questions are similar, yet life responsibilities will differ, so that they may have greater availability for involvement in the community at various stages in their lives (1 Corinthians 7:34). Overreactions are common, however, such as insisting that women may engage in any activity outside the home with virtually no or minimal concern for God’s specific creation purpose for each gender. This is contrary to biblical teaching and deeply problematic.
Myth #3: Complementarianism leads to domestic violence and spousal abuse.
Because of its affirmation of male leadership and authority, complementarianism has occasionally been implicated with condoning domestic violence and spousal abuse. While evildoers will always corrupt clear biblical teaching to their own ungodly ends, and humanity’s sin nature inevitably causes corruption of the intended design, implicating complementarianism with domestic violence is based on a misconception of what complementarianism in fact teaches regarding the true nature of male authority (see discussion under Myth #2 above). It should also be noted that abuse of women is in no way limited to one side of this debate. Revelations in connection with the recent #metoo movement make clear that abuse of women is common among people and industries far from complementarianism in their perspective.
So, the charge that complementarianism insufficiently condemns or unwittingly condones or can lead to domestic violence and spousal abuse is manifestly untrue. Recent complementarians have gone on record to state unequivocally that they strongly condemn and oppose any form of domestic violence and spousal abuse. In their “Statement on Abuse”1 adopted March 12, 2018, which follows earlier, similar statements, the board of directors of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the principal complementarian organization, writes, “We condemn all forms of physical, sexual and/or verbal abuse.” They add, “We believe that abuse is not only a sin but is also a crime. It is destructive and evil. Abuse is a hallmark of the devil and is in direct opposition to the purposes of God. Abuse must not to be tolerated in the Christian community.” What’s more, “We believe that church and ministry leaders have a special obligation to report abuse to civil authorities.” As to the church, “We believe that the church must offer tender concern and care for the abused and must help the abused to find hope and healing through the gospel. . . . We believe that by the power of God’s Spirit, the Christian church can be an instrument of God’s love and healing for those involved in abusive relationships and an example of wholeness in a fractured, broken world.” Not only have leading complementarians gone on record as condemning all forms of domestic violence and spousal abuse, there are many examples of God-honoring marriages among complementarians that exhibit the beauty of God’s complementarian design in practice.
Myth #4: Complementarianism only limits women’s access to the pastoral office.
While the first three myths relate to ideas imposed upon complementarianism from the outside, mostly by egalitarians, myths #4 and #5 are sometimes espoused by those “inside” the movement of those who call themselves complementarians. Myth #4 contends that complementarianism only limits women’s access to the pastoral office. One might conjecture that, at least in part, this approach may stem from embarrassment in the face of, or perhaps a desire to minimize, the offense caused by complementarian teaching in the surrounding culture that views complementarian teaching as far too restrictive if not outright discrimination against women. Thus, a comprehensive affirmation of complementarian teaching is compromised and reduced to a single issue in order to appear “reasonable” and accommodate various constituencies, whether potential or current church members, prospective or current donors, the academy, or some other “politically correct” intellectual elite. Consequently, complementarians sometimes may be found to perpetuate a mythology of their own in response to challenges similar to the above-stated myths.
In recent years, for instance, we’ve increasingly heard it taught by complementarian pastors and other self-identified complementarians that the only restriction complementarians should impose on women is that of assuming the pastoral office; every other leadership role should be open to qualified women in the church. However, the biblical teaching on gender is much more thoroughgoing and profound than a singular negative stipulation would convey, a mere rule that restricts women from one particular (though highly significant) office, otherwise allowing unfettered male-female equality. Paul could easily have said in 1 Timothy 2:12, “I don’t allow a woman to be an elder,” if what he had in mind was merely the restriction of her holding the office of pastor or elder. But instead, he said, “I don’t allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man,” indicating that it is these functions she shouldn’t carry out, not merely the office in which such teaching and exercising of authority takes place. This means that in other contexts where the teaching of Scripture or the exercise of spiritual leadership occurs, this should be carried out by qualified men. Barring women’s access to the pastoral office as the only limitation for appropriate participation in the church therefore reflects a simplistic and reductionist view of God’s design for feminine involvement in the church. It is the teaching and ruling authority that leadership roles entail that is at issue here.
The biblical teaching regarding God’s design for man and woman has profound implications for life and ministry. Implicit in these identities—man and woman, boy and girl—and roles given by God to humanity—husband and wife, father and mother, son and daughter—is the expression of our maleness or femaleness lived out in communities and churches for God’s glory. The way in which we live out our male or female identity and relate to others as men and women is multifaceted and cannot be reduced to a single prohibition of women occupying one particular church office. The full-orbed creation mandate for man and woman, and its implications for masculine and feminine identity and roles, should be a concerted focus of attention from the pulpit and be upheld in our churches as beautiful, worthy, and desirable. Doctrinal instruction on these matters and mentoring in male-female roles should be an essential part of our ongoing discipleship and life of worship. Unduly opening all leadership roles in the church to female participation (except for the office of pastor/elder) without assessing other potential leadership roles for their suitability is hardly responsible, as it fails to engage sufficiently the overall theology of womanhood and manhood in Scripture. As it regards women, such reductionism bypasses God’s glorious plan for them in both motherhood and partnership with their husband in serving their families, as well as the appropriate extension of this kind of ministry in mentoring and teaching women in the larger context of the church family.
Myth #5: Complementarianism can and should be culturally compatible.
It is sometimes alleged that complementarianism is advocated out of traditionalism or conservatism regarding men’s and women’s identities and roles. Complementarians are thought to uphold tradition and the status quo rather than adhering to their beliefs on biblical grounds. They are holdouts in the face of the irresistible march toward enlightenment and the inexorable progress toward worldwide gender equality, espousing an archaic view of male dominance and patriarchy as well as female inferiority and subservience. While it is doubtless true that some hold to complementarian teaching because of underlying traditionalism or conservatism, biblical complementarianism in all its glory and truth is truly and deeply grounded in God’s design as expressed in the teaching of Scripture regarding male and female identities and roles.
The mischaracterization of complementarianism as merely traditional may cause some complementarians themselves to cower and overcorrect, or even to seek to atone for a past history of sexism in the broader culture. Eager to show that complementarianism is culturally inoffensive, even relevant, they may try to accommodate their teaching and practice to the culture to an extent that it becomes all but indistinguishable from egalitarianism. Less militant women may be placed in leadership by complementarians to avoid the feel of loud, aggressive, or perhaps more offensive feminist female-type leadership. However, to neglect proper theology and practice in this or any area is to truncate vital entailments of God’s creation and the gospel. In some cases, this is done by compartmentalizing biblical truth into multiple levels or layers, which will inevitably reduce the effectiveness of the church and gradually corrode the advance of God’s mission in our world.
It’s become painfully obvious that complementarianism, as a reflection of true biblical teaching, is profoundly countercultural, if not culturally unacceptable. For this reason, the effort by some complementarians to accommodate their teaching and practice to the culture threatens to render the church in this regard virtually indistinguishable from the world and cause it to abandon its calling to be the “salt” and “light” of the world. If we follow suit and deny this creation reality, we’ll inevitably become complicit in undermining the authority of the Word of God and the One who gave it to us. Those desiring to be faithful to the biblical teaching in this area can instead, boldly yet beautifully, hold the banner high and live out its implications faithfully, unapologetically embracing the responsibility and joy of living and teaching God’s design for man and woman in all its parts, along with every other facet of Scripture.