One of the many challenges confronting complementarians today is trying to avoid sounding too much like a broken record. In the face of a veritable cottage industry of egalitarian publishing, which perennially puts out new arguments as to why the church should abandon her traditional position on men and women, complementarians are tasked with re-articulating the same position over and over and over again. But what I’ve come to realize is just how necessary this task is.
Not only is it helpful to frequently revisit why we believe what we believe, but a new generation is always rising for whom the complementarian/egalitarian arguments are new. Every year, a new batch of young men and women encounter afresh questions surrounding what the Bible teaches about men and women, and many are wrestling with what biblical fidelity requires of them. This struggle is made especially difficult by a culture which from the crib has subtly catechized them in male-female interchangeability. Egalitarianism is in the air we breathe and the water we swim. We could say that in our current moment, egalitarianism is easily caught while complementarianism must be taught.
I write this short piece on complementarianism with this new generation in mind. It is not my aim to give a comprehensive account of every biblical nook and cranny; you can find that elsewhere. What I want to do here is to give a concise, re-presentation of why I am a complementarian, and why I believe you should be, too.
Complementarianism is most often defined generally by the theological position articulated in the Danvers Statement. At root, complementarians believe men and women are equal yet different by divine design, and that God’s design makes a difference in how we ought to live as male and female.
Most concretely, complementarians believe the Bible teaches male headship in the family (1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:23), a principle that is affirmed and not undermined in the covenant community by restricting some governing and teaching roles to men (1 Cor. 14:33–34; 1 Tim. 2:12). Just as importantly, complementarians also believe biblical headship and authority are subordinate to God’s headship and authority (Eph. 3:15; Col. 1:18), are to be ruled by the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23), and are servant-hearted and sacrificial, never overbearing or abusive toward those under authority (Mark 10:42–45).
With this definition in mind, my thesis is simple and involves three parts: I am a complementarian because (1) Scripture clearly teaches male-female complementarity and the principle of male headship, which is grounded in (2) the pre-fall creation order and (3) nature.
I am convinced by Scripture and by plain Reason of complementarianism, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Below I hope to briefly unpack why.
(1) Scripture clearly teaches male-female complementarity and the principle of male headship
Bearing the divine image is a person’s most significant aspect, and the imago dei establishes male-female equality in dignity and worth. In the very first chapter of the Bible, we learn that God created both male and female in his own image:
Genesis 1:26–27: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’
So God created man [adam] in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.”
In Genesis 1:26–27, not only are male and female both created in the image of God, but they are also both denoted by the generic term “man,” or adam. Importantly, this term becomes the particular name of the first man in the very next chapter. But in Genesis 1, this name signifies equality between the sexes while also establishing Adamic headship and, by implication, male headship in the family, a concept developed in Genesis 2 and referenced in later revelation.
Directly after the Bible establishes male-female equality in the imago dei, we are taught in part why God established male-female difference: for procreation.
Genesis 1:28: “And God blessed them. And God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’”
We see male-female equality reinforced in this verse as both male and female are addressed by this divine command: God “said to them.” But the command cannot be carried out apart from complementary difference; the male and female have different obligations in carrying it out. The act of procreation requires male-female difference working together — itself a reflection of bodily complementarity. Moreover, some interpreters have recognized that the command to “be fruitful and multiply and fill” plays more to feminine attributes, and the command to “subdue” and “have dominion” more to masculine attributes. While each domain of activity is given to both the man and the woman in ways fitting with their bodily uniqueness, how this activity is carried out will necessarily be inflected through the gendered reality of God’s crowning creation.
Male-female similarity and difference are further affirmed and developed in the second chapter of Genesis. Take time to read this chapter carefully and note especially the detailed differences in how and why the man and woman are created. Man is made first and from the ground (Gen. 2:7) and put in the Garden to work it and to keep it (2:15) and to name the animals (2:20); woman is made second and from the side of man (2:21) as a “helper fit for him” (2:18) and is named by the man (2:23).
Why these differences? God could have made man and woman at the same time and in the exact same way. But the different, complementary way in which God makes the man and woman is meant to teach us something already from the beginning about male and female peculiarity. We see something similar in how God created the universe. Instead of creating everything instantaneously, God created in six days and rested on the seventh. He did so for a purpose, in order to establish the pattern of the week (see Exod. 20:11). In a similar vein, the very way God created man and woman is meant to teach us about the pattern of male-female equality and difference. Genesis 1–2 are meant, in part, to prepare the people of God to receive special instructions from the Scriptures about what male-female difference means for their lives.
While we believe all Scripture is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training all of God’s people in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16), the Bible does give certain commands according to male-female difference. Some of these commands point to particular callings. The principle of male headship and authority in the family and the church is not only affirmed but commanded in multiple places in the Bible. Perhaps it is helpful to list the verses that directly address upholding and honoring this principle:
1 Corinthians 11:2–3: “Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.”
1 Corinthians 14:33b–34: “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
1 Timothy 2:12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”
1 Peter 3:1–7 “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.
“Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.”
Ephesians 5:22–24: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.”
Colossians 3:18–19: “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.”
We could bring in other Scriptures that have implicit application to the complementarian position on upholding the principle of male headship — such as the fact that the Levitical priesthood was male, Jesus chose twelve male disciples, and the elder qualifications in 1 Timothy and Titus are male. But a plain reading of the texts above conveys, at the very least, that the position of the New Testament writers is that men are called to lead their families and to lead in the church, a position we refer to today as complementarianism.
(2) Scripture’s teaching on the principle of male headship is grounded in the pre-fall creation order
Some would argue that the verses on male headship and authority cited above were applicable during a certain era of the church because of the patriarchal culture into which the church was born. Due to this culture, certain concessions were made for the sake of the spread of the gospel that would later be overturned when the church reached greater maturity. Many egalitarians point to the issue of slavery as an analogous concession.
Interestingly, Jesus seems to have had a category for this kind of concession. When countering the teaching of the Pharisees on divorce in Matthew 22, Jesus appeals to the pre-fall chapters of Genesis. In so doing, he articulates a normative hermeneutical principle: “from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:3–9). In other words, God’s original creation presents what ought to be “so,” and by implication what ought not be “so.”
The problem with the egalitarian slavery analogy, then, is that Scripture nowhere grounds slavery in the creation order. But the biblical authors do ground male headship and authority in God’s good, pre-fall creation.
God’s creation in the beginning has a certain divine order that, though marred by sin, is sustained and restored through grace. Grace, then, helps us understand nature. Thus when the New Testament authors write about male headship and authority, they follow Jesus back to the beginning and appeal to the creation order. They invoke what seem to be minute details in the creation narrative in order to ground their gendered exhortations to the churches on male headship. Note carefully Paul’s reasoning in 1 Timothy 2 for why he restricts ecclesial teaching and authority to men only:
1 Timothy 2:12–13: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve.”
Paul does not “permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man” for a creational reason: “for Adam was formed first, then Eve.” (1 Tim. 2:13). The creation narrative reflects the creation order, which embeds a divine intention that is to be upheld in God’s churches. Because this is a creation order issue, it cannot be said that Paul’s prohibition on women teaching or exercising authority is rooted in any cultural consideration. It is rooted in God’s divine order.
Paul uses similar reasoning in 1 Corinthians 11. After establishing the principle of male headship in 1 Corinthians 11:3, Paul goes on to give one example of how this principle should be affirmed and not undermined in the covenant assembly through a discussion of head coverings. His reasoning is instructive:
1 Corinthians 11:8–9: “For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.”
Regardless of what you may think is normative for the church in Paul’s teaching about head coverings, this practical outworking of male headship is grounded in the pre-fall creation order. Paul here is teaching that God created the world in the way he did in order for creation to fulfill its created purpose. Part of God’s purpose is the principle of male headship, which he established from the beginning through the way he created mankind: woman from man, for man. But Paul doesn’t leave it there. He seems to raise the stakes by tagging this strong admonition at the end of his section on male headship: “If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God” (1 Cor. 11:16).
Following Jesus, Paul points us back to how it was “in the beginning,” before the fall, in Genesis 1 and 2. In this way, the New Testament writers exhort Christians to live according to our divinely created purpose.
(3) Scripture’s teaching on the principle of male headship is grounded in nature
Complementarians debate among themselves the full range of implications of the creational differences of men and women. But since Christians confess that God created everything from nothing, all of creation reflects God’s creative purposes. The Scriptures affirm that nature reflects God’s purposes, which can be perceived even by non-believers through their God-given faculties of reason (see Rom. 1).
Think about what it would be like if the opposite were true. If nature consistently taught one thing while the Scriptures affirmed another, we would be left wondering at God’s purposes for creating the way he did. If God’s word affirmed the principle male leadership in the home, for instance, but nature taught us females are better equipped to lead, protect, and provide, it would be enough to affirm and to seek to obey God’s will, but God’s will would stand over against God’s acts in creation in a dissonant way.
Thankfully, this is not what is reflected in nature when it comes to God’s purposes for male and female. The Scripture affirms a certain fittedness to male headship that accords with nature.
For instance in 1 Peter 3, after commanding wives to be subject to their husbands and husbands to live with their wives in an understanding way, Peter goes on to argue why it must be so: because the woman is the “weaker vessel” (1 Pet. 3:7). While there are many different interpretations as to what exactly Peter means by “weaker vessel,” we can at least recognize that Peter is appealing to something inherent to women as women that is not inherent to men as men. This womanly difference means that a husband must relate to his wife in a way that will be incongruent to the way his wife relates to her husband — the husband has a responsibility to be more tender than his wife!
The concept of natural fittedness is related to the point above about scriptural teaching being grounded in the created order, but it is also more than that. If we didn’t have the creation narrative, we could still arrive at some approximation of the way men and women are designed to function and relate to one another. Men, on average, are stronger than women and have larger frames that are better suited to physicality. Women, on the other hand, have bodies better suited to caring for and nurturing the next generation, as their very bodies are the site of growth and sustenance for the very young. This is why men across time and space are generally more given to leading, providing, and protecting, while women are more given to nurturing and raising the next generation. This is not to deny that there are exceptions to this admitted generalization, but the fact that they are exceptions proves the rule. The predominant sociological data we have from societies around the world generally reflect the biblical order of male-female difference and the principle of male headship.
Thus, when we consider the Scriptural commands in light of nature, and vice versa, there is a certain harmony to the way God’s world works. We can say that what we see in Scripture is fitting with what we see in nature. To put it another way in line with language from older theologians, the Book of Nature accords with the Book of Scripture. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, when efforts rooted in disobedience to Scripture run contrary to nature or even actively attempt to disrupt or overturn nature. But this is not the way of complementarianism, which recognizes and affirms the beauty of male and female equality and difference.
Why I am a Complementarian
In conclusion, I am a complementarian because Scripture clearly teaches male-female complementarity and the principle of male headship, which is grounded in the pre-fall creation order and nature.
Just before Paul writes to the Corinthians about male headship in 1 Corinthians 11, he commends them because they “maintain the traditions even as [he] delivered them” (1 Cor. 11:2). What does it look like for us to maintain the traditions we have been delivered today? One helpful practice to getting this answer right is to look at what the believing church has always confessed. I am a complementarian, finally, because I believe this is what it looks like to continue in the biblical and historical tradition, which brings glory to God and is for the good of my brothers and sisters in Christ — and for the good of a watching world.
That is why I am a complementarian, and why I believe you should be, too.
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