What is complementarianism?

At Grace Church (as with many other churches) we hold to a view of male-female roles in very specific contexts known as complementarianism. This idea may be new to some. It is therefore important to clarify what we do and don’t believe.

To my mind, much within feminism has been a very necessary corrective to an unhealthy dominance by men that has shown little concern for women’s contribution to society or the particular burdens they have had to carry. This cannot be justified by the Bible. God created men and women equally in his image, and commissioned them both to “subdue the world” through industry, as well as with filling it by raising godly children (Gen 1v26-28). Both Adam and Eve were to cultivate the garden (2v15-18) and parent the kids. But our conviction from the Bible is that God wants this to be worked out through men and women complementing one-another, and (in certain contexts only) each playing a different role that gives expression to differing strengths.

In short, complementarianism holds that men and women are created equal by God, but assigned and designed for differing roles in family life in which they operate as a team (Gen 1v26-28, 2v18). This is important not just because it benefits family life, but because God intends it to pattern the union and delight in each other of Christ and the church, who work together in nurturing spiritual children and doing good in the world. Husbands are therefore called to lovingly oversee their family as Christ does the church, and especially by taking primary responsibility for ensuring spiritual development, protection and provision for their wife and children (Eph 5v25-6v4). And the compelling wisdom of this is that that by doing so, the husband frees his wife to be able to focus for however many years on her primary responsibility for having and nurturing younger children if she is able, and whatever else she engages in within the home, church or world (1 Tim 5v9-14). So, made in God’s image, both men and women are to display his character, but with men expressing that in marriage by imaging his role of gracious-ruler, and women his role of life-giver (the meaning of the name Eve).

But it is important to note that this is about primary responsibilities, and so shouldn’t be understood in an overly prescriptive manner. With a concern not to undermine the God-given relational dynamic, and with a consideration of the needs of the children, the call to be a team means that the couple will discuss and agree a pattern for their life together in and outside the home, that best fits the circumstances, personalities, and combination of gifts that the Lord has given them. For some, this may necessitate the wife being the primary earner and the husband the primary carer. Nevertheless, the husband will continue to oversee everything, making whatever sacrifices are necessary to ensure the flourishing of his wife and family as he serves rather than domineers them, just as Christ does for his church. And whatever the balance, as the wife gets on with her own activity, she will inevitably have a focus on children when young, and in all things will respect her husband’s oversight by readily acting inline with what she knows of his will so far as it is not sinful or abusive, just as the church does to Christ.

Because, from Genesis to Revelation the Bible grounds all this in creation and in Christ’s relationship with the church (Gen 2v15-18, Eph 5v21-32, Rev 21v1-2), we believe that complementarianism should be expressed in all times and cultures, and is important in helping marriages to operate in the way God has designed them to, and in picturing to us, our children, and others, the sort of relationship we are called into with the Lord Jesus. Moreover, in an age when men are increasingly unsure of their role, gender is being blurred, women are often treated appallingly by men, and marriages regularly break down due to a lack of responsibility in husbands, this teaching could not be more relevant or important to uphold. And in order to affirm and uphold it, the Bible teaches that the principle of male-oversight in families is also to be reflected in the church as God’s family, by reserving the spiritual oversight of men to men (1 Tim 2v11-15), whilst encouraging women to be active in all other ministries according to their God-given abilities.

In practice, this means that the overall leadership in our church is given by men, as is the regular authoritative teaching of mixed-gender contexts, whilst women and men lead, teach, and minister in all sorts of other ways. Indeed, one aspect of complementarianism that is often not noted, is that by acknowledging the complementary differences between the genders it better recognizes the particular contribution woman can and should make, rather than presuming that men or women can do all without the other. So, a healthy complementarian church should be one that more actively seeks to promote the ministry and input of women.




What follows, is an article Bethan and I have found helpful in addressing concerns people may have in our culture with these sort of teachings, and then a very basic outline of the biblical arguments for men being the overseers in the home and church.

Complementarianism for dummies.

By Mary Kassian


Accessed 6/9/21

A little while ago a reporter asked me to define “complementarianism.” She didn’t know what it meant. And that’s not entirely surprising.

The word “complementarity” doesn’t appear in the Bible, but is used by people to summarize a biblical concept. It’s like the word “Trinity.” The Bible never uses the word “Trinity,” but it undeniably points to a triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Though the concept of male-female complementarity can be seen from Genesis through Revelation, the label “complementarian” has only been in use for about 25 years. It was coined by a group of scholars who got together to try and come up with a word to describe someone who ascribes to the historic, biblical idea that male and female are equal, but different. The need for such a label arose in response to the proposition that equality means role-interchangeability (egalitarianism)—-a concept first forwarded and popularized in evangelical circles in the 1970s and 1980s by “Biblical Feminists.” I’ve read several articles lately from people who misunderstand and/or misrepresent the complementarian view. I was at the meeting 25 years ago where the word “complementarian” was chosen. So I think I have a pretty good grasp on the word’s definition. So I want to boil it down for you. In emulation of the popular “for Dummies” series of instructional books, I’ll give you a “Complementarianism for Dummies” primer on the intended meaning of the word.

1. It’s complementary . . . not complimentary.

The word “complementarian” is derived from the word “complement” (not the word “compliment”). The dictionary defines “complement” as follows:

Something that completes or makes perfect; either of two parts or things needed to complete the whole; counterparts.

Complementarians believe that God created male and female as complementary expressions of the image of God—-male and female are counterparts in reflecting his glory. Having two sexes expands the view. Though both sexes bear God’s image fully on their own, each does so in a unique and distinct way. Male and female in relationship reflects truths about Jesus that aren’t reflected by male alone or female alone.

2. June Cleaver is so 1950s and so not the definition of complementarity.

In our name-the-concept meeting, someone mentioned the word “traditionalism,” since our position is what Christians have traditionally believed. But that was quickly nixed. The word “traditionalism” smacks of “tradition.” Complementarians believe that the Bible’s principles supersede tradition. They can be applied in every time and culture. June Cleaver is a traditional, American, TV stereotype. She is not the complementarian ideal. Period. (And exclamation mark!) Culture has changed. What complementarity looks like now is different than what it looked like 60 or 70 years ago. So throw out the cookie-cutter stereotype. It does not apply.

3. A proletariat-bourgeois-type hierarchy has no place in complementarity.

Feminist theorists maintain that male-female role differences create an over-under hierarchy in which men, who are like the privileged, elite, French landowners (bourgeois) of the 18th century, keep women—-who are like the lower, underprivileged class of workers (proletariat)—-subservient. Complementarians, however, do not believe that men, as a group, rank higher than women. Men are not superior to women. Women are not the “second sex.” Men have a responsibility to exercise headship in their homes and church family, and Christ revolutionized the definition of what that means. Authority is not the right to rule—-it’s the responsibility to serve. We rejected the term “hierarchicalism” because people associate it with an inherent, self-proclaimed right to rule.

4. Complementarity does not condone the patriarchal, societal oppression of women.

Technically, “patriarchy” simply means a social organization in which the father is the head of the family. But since the 1970s, feminists have redefined the historic use of the term and attributed negative connotations to it. Nowadays, people regard patriarchy as the oppressive rule of men. “Patriarchy” is regarded as a misogynistic system in which women are put down and squelched. That’s why we rejected the term “patriarchalism.” Complementarians stand against the oppression of women. We want to see women flourish, and we believe they do so when men and women together live according to God’s Word.

5. Complementarians believe God designs male and female to reflect complementary truths about Jesus.

Now that we’ve cleared up some misconceptions and false terminology about complementarianism, it’s time to give you a basic definition. Essentially, a complementarian is a person who believes that God created male and female to reflect complementary truths about Jesus. That’s the bottom-line meaning of the word. Complementarians believe that males were designed to shine the spotlight on Christ’s relationship to the church (and the LORD God’s relationship to Christ) in a way that females cannot, and that females were designed to shine the spotlight on the church’s relationship to Christ (and Christ’s relationship to the LORD God) in a way that males cannot. Who we are as male and female is ultimately not about us. It’s about testifying to the story of Jesus. We do not get to dictate what manhood and womanhood are all about. Our Creator does. That’s the basis of complementarianism. If you hear someone tell you that complementarity means you have to get married, have dozens of babies, be a stay-at-home housewife, clean toilets, completely forego a career, chuck your brain, tolerate abuse, watch Leave It to Beaver reruns, bury your gifts, deny your personality, and bobble-head nod “yes” to everything men say, don’t believe her. That’s a straw (wo)man misrepresentation. It’s not complementarianism.

Mary Kassian is the author of several books, including Girls Gone Wise in a World Gone Wild and True Woman 101: Divine Design. She teaches women’s studies modules at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Mary and her husband enjoy biking in the Canadian Rockies, not far from their home in Edmonton, Canada. Check out her blog at GirlsGoneWise.com.

Basic biblical arguments that support the idea of male headship in the home and church.

1.     The Old Testament can’t be dismissed as simply reflecting the patriarchy of the Ancient Near East, first, because Jesus taught it to be the trustworthy word of God, and second, because of the preponderance of female deities and priestesses in Egyptian and Canaanite religion. This meant that in many ways its teachings set Israel apart from the wider culture.

2.     By creation, wives are presented as helpers to their husbands in the tasks of ordering the world and filling it with others who would know and serve God to (Gen 1v26-2v24). Although both husbands and wives are involved in raising children and working to provide (Prov 31v10-31, Gen 18v19), their different focus of responsibility is signalled by God’s concern with wives in childbearing and husbands in providing (Gen 3v15-17).

3.     The idea of the husband as the overseer of the family is evident in the fact that Adam is held most responsible for the sin of Eden, despite Eve initiating it (Gen 3v8-12, Rom 5v12-21). Elsewhere the Jewish idea of the firstborn as bearing the authority in the family is also appealed to as Adam was formed first (1 Cor 11v8-10, 1 Tim 2v13). This idea is affirmed in the New Testament by Christ being presented as holding supreme authority as “firstborn” over all creation (Col 1v15-18).

4.     This positioning of the husband as the overseer and head of the family is further confirmed by God describing his relationship with his people as like a marriage covenant with him as the husband (Hosea 2), and determining that men be the heads of families, clans and tribes throughout Israel (Gen 18v19, Num 30v3-16).

5.     God also required that priests and Levites within Israel could also only be men (Ex 28v1, Num 3v15ff), despite the history of Israel showing that there were often more godly and gifted women in other families and tribes (eg. the contrast between Hannah and Eli in 1 Samuel). This meant that the formal teachers and spiritual guardians in Israel had to be men (Deut 17v8-9, 18, 24v8, 2 Chr 15v3, 35v3).

6.     The idea of male headship in marriage is reaffirmed in the New Testament as Christ is said to be head of his bride and family, the church, which is his body just as Eve was to Adam in being taken from him (John 3v29, Rev 21v2-4). The physiological nature of the term “head” includes ideas of prominence and origin, causing the body/wife to grow and flourish (Eph 1v15, Col 2v19). This makes the idea a wonderful one. But ideas of authority are present too. Christ is head “over” all things, which are “under his feet” (Eph 1v22).

7.     The apostles therefore affirm the headship of husbands on the grounds of creational order and the pattern of Christ’s relationship with the church. Both grounds transcend culture and so teach that the principle of headship does too (1 Cor 11v2-16, Eph 5v22-33, 1 Pet 3v1-7).
Given all this, it is no surprise to find the same principle required for the leadership of the church, which is presented as a household comprising households (1 Tim 3v12-15):

  1. Men were those appointed apostles, including after Christ’s resurrection (Acts 1v21-22).
  2. Men were those looked to when non-apostolic church leadership first emerged after Pentecost (Acts 6v1-6).
  3. Men were those it was presumed would oversee the various churches (Tit 1v6-9).
  4. Men were those who were to formally teach and exercise spiritual authority in those churches (1 Tim 2v11-15).
  5. It is probable 1 Corinthians 14v34-35 teaches that only men were therefore to be the ones involved in weighing and correcting contributions in services.

None of this implies inability in women who were involved in all other ministries, which was radically counter-cultural. It is simply that in its structures, the church is to uphold and affirm the dynamic God ordained for marriage, which is important because it displays God’s own relationship with his people, and when rightly adopted enables the flourishing of wives and children.