Complementarianism, egalitarianism and the differences between men and women

There is a huge debate raging in the Evangelical community about the place and role of women.

Egalitarians believe that men and women are not only equal but dispose of the same abilities in every respect.

Complementarians believe that men and women are equal but different with respect to their skills and roles.

I don’t share the belief in Biblical inerrancy of both camps and don’t base my thinking on culturally conditioned statements one can find in Scripture.

Nevertheless I am a complementarian.

Since this might shock many people, I reproduced a great post of Mike Patton explaining this:

The most common understanding of both Complementarianism and Egalitarianism goes something like this:

Complementarians: Do not let women be pastors over men.

Egalitarians: Do let women be pastors over men.


Complementarians: The husband is the leader of the family.

Egalitarians: The husband and wife co-lead the family, with no priority.


Complementarians: Wives submit to your husbands.

Egalitarians: Husbands and wives are to practice mutual submission.

While I think that these are characteristics of both groups, they are not foundational characteristics that define each group. In other words, I don’t think that they are helpful in defining what it means to be a complementarian or egalitarian and they serve to cause a great deal of misunderstanding that leads to emotional bias that is very difficult to overcome once set.

In fact, I am going to say something very radical here and then explain. Here it goes:

It is possible to be a complementarian and believe that a women can serve in the position of head pastor over men.

Did you get that? Reread it. Reread it again…

Complementarianism is not first defined by it view of the roles of men and women in the church, family, or society.

Here is what Complementarianism is:

Complementarianism is the belief that men and women have God given differences that are essential to their person. Men and women are ontologically (in their essential nature) equal, but often, functionally, take subordinate roles (like the Trinity). These differences complete or “complement” each other. Due to these differences, there will be some things that women are predisposed and purposed to do more than men. As well, there will be some things that men are predisposed and purposed to do more than women. Therefore, there are ideal roles for both men and women that should be celebrated, exemplified, typified, and promoted in the church, family, and society. To deny these differences is to deny the design of God and thwart his purpose.

Here is what Egalitarianism is:

The belief that God has created men and women equal in all things. Men and women are ontologically and functionally equal. The way the sexes function in the church, society, and the family is determined by individual giftedness, not role distinctions according to the sexes. Therefore, each person should be judged individually when being placed in a particular position. We should exemplify this reality by overcoming the stereotypical placement that has traditionally been a part of societies in human history, thereby giving freedom to individuals to follow the path that God has uniquely created them for, whatever that may be. In doing so, we should no longer educate or indoctrinate according to any of the former stereotypes, including those of basic masculinity and femininity.

These, in my opinion, are the foundational tenants of each position without giving examples on how this plays out in the family, the church, or society.

The case I am making here is that in order to be a consistent egalitarian, one must deny virtually all differences that typify men as men and women as women. It is not just about getting women behind the pulpit or the concept of mutual submission in the family. It is much more complex and, in my estimation, more difficult to defend with sensibility.

I had a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary who was an Egalitarian (he left because of this—I won’t mention his name). I loved this guy. Still do. Great teacher, thinker, and Christian. In fact, I had him come speak to our pastoral staff at Stonebriar to challenge us on why he became egalitarian and to defend his position. I wanted the staff to understand the “other side” from a very able defender. During his presentation, he painted himself into this very typical corner that I find most all egalitarians end up. 

He was advocating a foundational principle of egalitarianism: there are no essential differences between men and women other than reproductive stuff. We were all quite taken aback. Every example we brought up, he shot down by giving a counter-example in the form of an exception. His basic argument turned on finding exceptions to everything. Whether it was that men were less emotional, more aggressive, more one tracked in their thinking, less tender, more competitive, unable to nurture as well as women, or even liked the color blue more, he brought up exceptions that he believed neutralized the “pattern”. Finally, I thought I had him. I said “What about physicality? Men are stronger than women.” He would have none of that. He then brought up examples of German women who were stronger than men! We could not stump the guy!

The problem is that in order to defend egalitarianism consistently, he had to deny all of the common sense distinctions that people have made about men and women since the dawn of time. I won’t get into the science or psychology of this issue as there are many very good resources that do this. To me, it is rather bizarre that one would actually be inclined to produce evidence to prove that men and women are different!

I am of the opinion that many egalitarians would have been appalled by Peter who said that women are the weaker of the sexes (1 Pet. 3:7) siting every exception to this rule and bemoaning this stereotype until Peter cried “uncle.”

Complementarianism says that men and women are different by design. We are different and God did it. It is that simple.

However, most people would not be willing to go as far as my former professor. They realize that sustaining a proposition that men and women have no essential differences is a battle that cannot really be sustained in real life (only theoretical ideology). Men and women are different. Even most egalitarians that I know would give me this. Hear this again. Most egalitarians that I know would admit, when push comes to shove, that there are some essential differences between men and women. Most would even say that there are essential differences that go beyond reproduction and physicality. But I would argue that these people are not really egalitarians, at least in the way I have defined it. They would be complementarians because they would have given up what I believe to be a central driving tenant of egalitarianism and embraced the central tenant of complementarianism: men and women are different by design and their differences complement each other.

Now, having said this, I believe that it is theoretically possible to be a complementarian and yet not take a traditional complementarian stand on the issue of women in ministry. In other words, someone could believe that men and women are different by design yet not think that these differences have any bearing on women in leadership in the church. They may be convinced that the Bible does not really teach that women should not teach men, and yet be complementarian in other issues and, broadly, in their theology of the sexes.

I am interested and committed to complementarianism for more than just the women in ministry issue. This is just one application. But (and here is where I get in trouble with fellow complementarians), I don’t think that it is the most important issue in this debate. Neither do I think that it is the most “damaging” issue.

You see, when people are truly committed and consistent egalitarians, they have to defend their denial of essential differences. In doing so, they will advocate a education system in the home, church, and society which neutralizes any assumption of differences between the sexes. In doing so, men will not be trained to be “men” since there is really no such thing. Women will not be encouraged to be “women” since there is no such thing. The assumption of differences becomes a way to oppress society and marginalize, in their estimation, one sex for the benefit of the other. Once we neutralize these differences, we will have neutered society and the family due to a denial of God’s design in favor of some misguided attempt to promote a form of equality that is neither possible nor beneficial to either sex.

We will have troubled men and women groping to find their way and feeling pressured to repress their instincts and giftedness. We will no longer be able to train up men and women in the “way” they should go since there is no “way” they should go. Women can act masculine and men can be feminine. Men can retreat in the face of responsibility because, in truth, they don’t have any “responsibility” other than the one that they choose. This is to say nothing of the implications this has on the issues of homosexuality and gay marriage.

But in a complementarian worldview (even one that allows women to teach men in the church), men are taught to be men and women are taught to be women. They both have defining characteristics. Masculinity and femininity find their place and are exemplified and celebrated. Men protect women from physical danger and take their positions of leadership seriously, without trepidation or fear that they will be seen as power mongers. And women support this. Women take up their positions of nurturing and supporting the emotional well-being of the world. And men support it. No role distinction is seen as inferior because in a complementarian worldview both are seen as essential and of equal importance. Only in complementarianism do we not define the rule by the exceptions and bow to the least common denominator. Only in the complementarian worldview, in my opinion, can freedom to be who we are supposed to be find meaning.

The true spirit of complementarianism is that God has intentionally created men and women with differences and we are to celebrate this in every way. The true spirit of complementarianism is never domineering (that is a sinful corruption). The true spirit of complementarianism provides no shame only freedom. The true spirit of complementarianism speaks to God in appreciation.

When we attempt to neuter this design, we have lost much more than authority in the pulpit.

Complementarians, while I believe that the Bible teaches the ideal that women should not have authority over men in the church, let us promote the true spirit of complementarianism then simply defending its particular applications.

I believe that female preachers and pastors can be really great and are an enrichment for the Church. I do hope that the Church of Rom will allow them to become priests over the next decades.

However, I do believe that (statistically speaking) men and women are both psychologically and biologically different and that there are therefore some types of work which are (statistically speaking) more appropriate for females than for males and vice-versa.

I am convinced that if a man and a woman apply for the same position, there NEVER should be any discrimination.

However I believe that endeavors such as Gender Mainstreaming (aiming at erasing all differences between the sexes in society) are profoundly stupid and noxious.

My position lies on empirical grounds and is shared by many French (and to a lesser extent German) secular people who are extremely skeptical of the gender ideology.

15 thoughts on “Complementarianism, egalitarianism and the differences between men and women

  1. I believe that female preachers and pastors can be really great and are an enrichment for the Church.

    Alright. Why? What have they done that can be pointed at as ‘great’ or ‘an enrichment for the Church’? We have test cases in other churches at this point.

    • Do you have an evidence that preaching women (in general) cause more harm than preaching men?

      I believe it is an enrichment because due to their very differences (and stronger emotions) female preachers can convey different and complementary messages.

      This is an experience I have made in countless churches.

      • I believe it is an enrichment because due to their very differences (and stronger emotions) female preachers can convey different and complementary messages.

        Sure, different messages. But different doesn’t cash out to better. How do we know this is an asset, and not a liability?

        Off the top of my head, it seems like every church known for their female clergy also happens to be known for their rapid decline.

        • Dear Crude, it is amazing that with my positions I often get very emotional reactions from both sides of the debate.

          I started a discussion at the facebook page of Christian for Biblical Equality (CBE).

          Look at the comments of the post entitled “Lisa MacLean I like this guy. He really has it down….”
          I was always respectful but ended up being FIRED from the group because I believe that females and males are biologically and psychologically different.

          I wrote the following email to one of the responsible:

          “Hello, I am really saddened by your decision. I have always been quite respectful and loving towards my opponents in the conversation and have never personally attacked anyone.
          What is more, I made it clear I agree with a large number of purposes of CBE. I am really disappointed by that. This gives me the impression that feminists are not able to deal with disagreements in a rational manner.
          I wanted to back up my statements by giving links and now I no longer can. There is one ground rule of human decency: always treat respectfully a respectful opponent,
          Jesus taught us to love our enemies and I have not been the enemy of anyone.
          It is a bad example for the external world if Christians treat each other in this way. We should show our communion with Christ by remaining loving EVEN IF we strongly disagree with each other.
          I wish you nevertheless God’s blessings in all your endeavors.”

          I think you are going to find emotional rhetoric and personal attacks on all sides of a debate, this seems to be sadly inevitable.

      • Dear Crude, it is amazing that with my positions I often get very emotional reactions from both sides of the debate.

        I bet. But surely you’re not including me in that equation, right?

        I don’t hold it against you that you disagree with me. You’re an independent thinker – many times we agree, sometimes we disagree. We disagree now – no big deal.

        I’m just focusing on, as I saw it, a claim you made. You said that female clergy would add something. I’d like to know what, since as near as I can tell, ‘disaster’ has been about the only thing. I don’t look to the episcopalians or the Anglicans with particular inspiration.

        • Of course I do not include you 🙂

          Generally many culture warriors disguise their self-righteous hatred as a legitimate moral indignation.

          In that respect, liberals are not better than conservatives.

          There is a huge need to learn to agree to disagree in a loving way.

  2. Nothing radical here, IMHO. You’ve presented the classic straw man in saying that egalitarians don’t believe in gender differences. Perhaps that was the view of the professor you mentioned, but it is certainly not a characteristics of the egalitarians I’ve known, or the position of the numerous conservative denominations that believe in the full inclusion of women (Salvation Army, Free Methodist, Wesleyan, Foursquare, Society of Friends, American Baptist, Nazarene, Church of God, Churches of Christ, etc.). Quite the contrary, we value the differences enough to believe God intended for both men and women to partner together in the home and the church. I think your error in logic is saying that because of these differences women should be limited to certain roles.

    And we don’t believe Jesus supported any kind of gender hierarchy in his time on earth, but rather confronted any such leanings whenever the opportunity came up. We are not about deconstructing gender in society, as you imply with your graphic on gender mainstreaming. Ridiculous! Perhaps you need to rely on something more than anecdotal evidence for your position.

    • Hello Gail, thanks for your comment.

      Since I am actively supporting female preachers , I think we are to a large extent in the same boat, so there is no need to view me as an enemy.

      I never said that Biblical Egalitarians support Gender Mainstreaming, so my criticism of this movement was not aimed at them.
      Sorry for not having explained this more clearly.

      I am convinced there are psychological differences between men and women which stem from biology.
      It is for example extremely plausible that women like to show off their bodies in a way men do not and that men like to physically desire females in a way females do not.
      Likewise women tend to be more emotional than men.
      This is of course only statistically the case.

      I am no inerrantist and base myself on empirical evidence

      So I believe that men and women are equal but different .

      Optimal decision making in family should depend on the empirical grounds I mentioned above rather than on dogmas and traditions.

      I am by no way dogmatic about my beliefs and am ready to revise them if new evidence come in…

      Lovely greetings in Christ and Shalom.

    • Quite the contrary, we value the differences enough to believe God intended for both men and women to partner together in the home and the church. I think your error in logic is saying that because of these differences women should be limited to certain roles.

      How do you get from ‘men and women are different’ to ‘they are therefore interchangeable in all roles’? And if you say they’re not interchangeable, you’ve conceded in principle role limitation.

      And we don’t believe Jesus supported any kind of gender hierarchy in his time on earth,

      Every one of the twelve was male. If you don’t believe an entirely male hierarchy – such as the apostles – is gender exclusive, then complaints about a male-exclusive clergy die immediately.

  3. Question: Since you do not define the rule by the exceptions, but instead apparently maintain the rule despite the existence of exceptions, what is your position about the exceptions? Is a man who is more nurturing and less leadership oriented less of a man? Is a woman who is more leadership oriented and less nurturing denying her womanhood or going against her own nature? And if so, how can you say complementarianism provides no shame?

    Second question: what do the exceptions do to the rule? If they are not actually shameful anomalies, people who are in rebellion against their own masculine or feminine natures, what are they?

    • Hello, thank you for your comment!

      All what I have said is descriptive but not prescriptive .

      In other words, I was speaking about what is statistically the case and completely agree there are exceptions.

      There is absolutely nothing wrong about people acting like the husband and wife you just described.

      Likewise, I believe that a minority have a homosexual nature and that it is healthy for them to marry someone of the same sex since this is not harmful:

      I am currently writing a post responding to a girl who was traumatized by fundamentalist complementarianism where I will display this.

      You are warmly welcome to comment there 🙂

      Otherwise I really like the response you wrote to Denny Burk 😉

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