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What is Complementarianism?

As a Fellowship, we are keen to encourage the biblical ministry of women in our churches. Sarah Allen says key to getting this right is making sure we have a proper understanding of what the Bible teaches about women’s roles.

What is Complementarianism? primary image

I guess if you’re reading this article you fall into one of three camps.

You’ve heard of complementarianism and you don’t like it. You’ve heard of complementarianism and you’ve got it sorted. You’ve not heard of comple… what was that again?

Any one of those answers might mean that you just don’t want to read this. Please bear with me. I hope in a few short paragraphs to shake some of the cobwebs off this long and rather strange word. Because with renewed debate in evangelical circles and an increasingly powerful feminist lobby in the world this is a word we can’t ignore.

A radically different view

Most voices in our culture say that men and women are interchangeable. This influences what people think about sex and sexual orientation, what they believe about friendship, and importantly what the successful society looks like.

If you’re in your twenties or thirties, or if you’ve got teenage kids, you’re probably well aware of these arguments. Of course, there are some kicking against this: traditionalists who would say that men and women are polar opposites and who often end up (intentionally or otherwise) demeaning and hurting women.

Complementarianism isn’t a middle way offering the best of both worlds, but a radically different view of what it is to be a man or a woman.

A simple definition of complementarianism runs like this: men and women have different but complementary roles and responsibilities in marriage, family life, religious leadership, and elsewhere. That’s from Google. In the Bible, however, we don’t find either the word “complementarianism” or a single verse explanation, but we do find general principles which together form a consistent and clear position.

The Biblical Definition

In creation we see Adam and Eve created differently.

Adam is the one who receives the first command in Genesis (Genesis 2:16) and the one who is primarily called to account after the fall (Genesis 3:9). Eve is made as his helper (2:18). We can’t write off instructions we don’t like in the rest of Scripture as outdated for lots of reasons, but especially because those on gender find their root here, in creation.

The principle we see here is upheld and developed in the New Testament. The leadership (which is marked by authoritative teaching) of the Church is a man’s job (1 Timothy 2:12); wives are called to submit (Ephesians 5:22). That looks to the world like the nasty, unfair bit. But at the same time we see Adam and Eve created together in the image of God (Genesis 1:27) and rescued together by Christ (Galatians 3:28).

Men and women, boys and girls are all called to love, to submit to each other, to be strong and brave, to be patient and gentle. That looks like the nice, even part. In reality both elements – our difference and sameness – are very good, kindly created by God for His glory and our good. The complementarian pattern is so good, in fact, that we see it first in the relationship between Christ and His Church (Ephesians 5:25-28) and in the way the Son obeys the Father outlined in Philippians 2:6-8.

But before we start to think about what this goodness means in practice, we should get clear on what complementarianism definitely doesn’t mean:

  • …that women are of less value than men or that all women should submit to all men. Think about the role of women in Jesus’ life, especially their witness to the resurrection, as well as Phoebe, Priscilla, Mary, Elizabeth, Ruth, Naomi, Esther, Eve, Deborah, Huldah, Abigail, Miriam…
  • …that girls have to be like Anne in the Famous Five (remember her? She was always left behind to tidy up the camp because she got scared) and not George (the dog-owning Tomboy who had good ideas and was brave, if a little naughty). Just look at the list of names above; none of these were shrinking violets and many were commended for their courage.
  • …that wives must put up with abusive husbands. Domestic abuse is a grave sin and love does not call us to put up with sin. As the Church has a calling to protect the weak and vulnerable, it has a duty to help women protect themselves and their children from violent or bullying partners.
  • …that women should be seen and not heard at church or that their duties should be serving tea, teaching children and crocheting doilies. See above, plus that amazing text, Proverbs 31.

You see, if a key point of complementarianism is interdependence (as Paul says “In the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman” 1 Corinthians 11:11) then it goes almost without saying that society, home and church need men and women to work together.

Complementarianism in Practice

So what will a complementarian church or marriage look like? Given that churches and marriages are both made of unique individuals, there is mercifully no one identikit model. But certainly, from the Scriptures quoted above and elsewhere, we can sketch outlines.

In marriage we’ll see a husband who loves his wife and sacrifices himself for her good and who leads, taking responsibility for the spiritual care of the family. We’ll see a wife who respectfully and joyfully submits to this authority. Might she question his decisions? Yes! Might he listen to her advice? Of course! Does he have to make every decision? Certainly not! Do they work together on many decisions? Absolutely. Because within this pattern we see husband and wife living out their Christian calling to love, serve, exhort, bear each other’s burdens and build each other up.

In the church we’ll see godly women encouraged to serve and sought out for their advice. Women will encourage and teach each other. Their public prayers and testimony will be valued. They will be active in evangelism and in mercy ministries. Their practical and administrative gifts will be harnessed.

This is the stated position of the FIEC, though the detail varies across the churches. Some employ a female worker; a few are putting women through formal training; some have well-established discipleship programmes; a few are just beginning to work out what this could mean for them.

Size of church, culture and history all have a bearing, and so no two churches will be exactly the same. Yet, given our rapidly changing world in which the church is meeting the sad consequences of gender confusion, it is vital that we live out the truly liberating truth of complementarianism.

Recommended Resources

Elsewhere on fiec.org.uk
FIEC’s Women in Ministry statement
John Stevens explains why FIEC is Complementarian
David Shaw reflects on Romans 16 and women in ministry
An interview with Kathleen Nielson about developing Women’s Ministry in your church

Resources from The Gospel Coalition
Our Pro-Woman, Complementarian Jesus
More Pressing than Women Preachers
Does the God of the Bible Hate Women?

Books
Sharon James, God’s Design for Women
Michelle Lee-Barnewall, Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian
Jen Wilkin, Women of the Word
Andreas & Margaret Kostenberger, God’s Design for Man and Women