5 Things Everyone Should Know about Complementarianism

I'll never forget hearing a pastor give the following illustration: One night, a husband and wife wake up to the sound of a window breaking downstairs. The husband turns to his wife and says, “I checked the noise last night. It’s your turn.”

Is there anything wrong with the husband’s response? Is there a part of you that feels like the husband should go downstairs? If so, is it because he’s a man?

If you answered “Yes” to any of these questions, you may hold to some version of complementarianism.

What Is Complementarianism?

Complementarianism is a view of gender rooted in two fundamental biblical truths:

  1. Men and women are both created in God’s image and are thus equal in value, dignity, and worth.
  2. God has designed men and women to function differently.

Complementarians hold that God has given each gender unique responsibilities that the opposite gender doesn’t share in the same way. Said differently, there is a certain asymmetry in the way that men and women relate to one another, especially in the church and home. In these spheres, men and women function in complementary (but not identical) roles that enrich one another as they partner to advance God’s glory to the ends of the earth.

Equal in value. Distinct in function. This is complementarianism in its simplest form.

Two Clarifications:

In what follows, I’m not trying to make a biblical defense of complementarianism (for this, see Bruce Ware’s arguments for and against complementarianism here). Rather, my goal is to clear up some of the misconceptions about complementarianism that are common in our culture.

These misconceptions range from silly associations (i.e. Real men don’t skip leg day) to gross distortions (i.e. Women are good for sex and sandwiches). These are as unhelpful as they are unbiblical and do untold damage to the beauty of God’s design for men and women.

As a corrective to these common misconceptions, I offer five things that everyone should know about complementarianism.

1. Gender roles aren’t based on natural talent or skill, but on God’s good design.

Gender roles aren’t talent-based. Men aren’t called to lead their homes because they are more gifted leaders. The reality is that many women are smarter, more driven, more intelligent, better natural leaders than their husbands and their local church pastors.

In the same way, women aren’t called to partner with and help their husbands because they are fundamentally more selfless or collaborative. Many men are more compassionate, patient, and selfless than their wives.

Instead, gender roles are based on divine design.

Based on this view, the husband mentioned in the opening paragraph should go downstairs not because he can bench press more than his wife or is better at karate. It’s not fundamentally a tactical decision.

He should go downstairs because God has given him a unique responsibility to protect his wife to the point of sacrificing his own life for her—a responsibility she is not called by God to reciprocate (Eph. 5:25).

2. Headship in marriage doesn’t come with any perks, only added responsibility to sacrifice and serve.

Another common misconception about complementarianism is the idea that the man, as the head of the household, gets to have things his way. He gets to hold the remote. He gets to set the thermostat to a temperature that’s comfortable for him (everyone else can get a blanket or a fan).

Especially in households where the husband is the primary breadwinner, this “VIP” status is often an unspoken “perk” that comes with the hard work of providing for the family.

This is a tragic distortion of headship. Headship doesn’t come with perks, but rather, an obligation to die to personal preferences in service to others.

Jesus modeled this kind of leadership when he washed his disciples’ dirty, sweaty feet. After a rough three years of ministry and hours before his agonizing death, he wasn’t enjoying a little “me time.” The King of the universe was doing the work of a household servant and modeling the kind of selflessness and sacrifice that should characterize men’s headship in the home and the local church.

3. Submission in marriage doesn’t mean a wife must do everything her husband says.

When I’m doing an in-depth explanation of submission from Scripture, I work through many of the arguments and clarifications presented in this helpful piece by Ben Merkle.

But, if I only have 15 seconds to get at the essence of submission, I usually say something like, “[Ladies] your husband will one day have a conversation with God about how he led your family spiritually and made every effort to cultivate a Christ-centered home. Are you doing everything you can to make sure that conversation goes well? Are you a liability or an asset to your husband as he tries to fulfill his God-given responsibilities to exercise sacrificial servant leadership in the home?”

Understood this way, a wife’s submission is primarily concerned with helping her husband in his spiritual initiatives and responsibilities. When it comes to day-to-day decisions like deciding whether the drapes are red or white, the headship/submission paradigm simply isn’t in view.

This clarification serves as a crucial guard against the idea that submission for a wife means giving foot rubs, making sandwiches, or having sex with her husband whenever he asks. Any such application of submission in marriage is a gross and heartbreaking distortion of the mutually enriching partnership God has designed spouses to enjoy. A wife is never called to follow her husband into sin or tolerate harmful, abusive, or manipulative behavior.

4. Complementarianism fuels women’s flourishing.

It’s not uncommon to hear that complementarianism, or even the Bible in general, condones an oppressive patriarchy and is harmful to women. While it’s a tragic reality that men have too often distorted the Bible’s teaching on gender for selfish (and even harmful) gain, these are abuses of Scripture and do not represent God’s design for gender relations.

Even a cursory look at the Bible (especially when contrasted with the surrounding culture of the time) shows that it exalts the value of women and gives them a framework in which they can prosper. A few examples may be helpful:

  • Both men and women are said to be made in the image of God.
  • The absence of a woman is the first thing that is declared “not good” in the Bible.
  • Unlike many other Ancient Near Eastern texts, which express overtly sexualized views of women, the ideal woman of Proverbs 31 is praised for her strength, wisdom, kindness, and faith with no reference to her sexuality.
  •  Women are never said to have acted against Jesus.
  • The only people said to have regularly given of their own means to support Jesus are women.
  • Jesus’ final act of ministry before he died was to minster to a woman.
  • Women are the primary (first) witnesses to the empty tomb.

In a Greco-Roman society where female infanticide, abortion, groundless divorce, adultery and polygamy were accepted as normal, Christianity presented women with a stunningly attractive alternative:

  • Abortion, and infanticide were prohibited.
  • Widows were honored (not shamed) and qualified for unique care from the church.
  • Divorce was only acceptable under very restricted conditions.
  • For a man to have sex with a woman, he must marry her and only her. Sexual interaction with other women was explicitly condemned.
  • A husband was called to protect his wife to the point of sacrificing his life for her.

With this understanding, it’s not at all difficult to understand why the majority of the early church was female, especially in the upper classes.

5. At the core of gender complementarity are general postures or orientations, not gender-specific behaviors.

We’re all familiar with the “traditional” division of labor within the home:

  • Men mow grass, chop wood, kill bugs, and make money.
  • Women wash dishes, do laundry, change diapers, and make dinner.

But nowhere does the Bible teach that women shouldn’t mow the grass (I know plenty that love to) or that men shouldn’t clean the house—they should (“And all the women said…”)! In fact, God has intentionally withheld almost all the details of what the division of labor in marriage must look like it.

Instead, He’s given each gender big-picture responsibilities in their relationships with one another and grants them tremendous freedom in the way they choose to work out the details.

In marriage, for example, God has designed men to play a primary (but not exclusive) role in leading, providing and protecting their wives and children. He has designed women to play a primary (but not exclusive) role in helping and nurturing their husbands and children.

This design informs the posture each spouse constantly takes as they parse the details of their marital partnership. As long as spouses are operating in their “Lead-Protect” and “Help-Nurture” orientations, they are free to divide the labor before them in countless numbers of ways and be faithful to God’s design for gender roles.

Unity in the Gospel

The clarifications above are not intended to serve as comprehensive list, but simply a helpful one. In fact, there are many more clarifications worth noting:

  • Complementarians aren’t against women working outside of the home.
  • While there are some contexts reserved for men, complementarians aren’t opposed to women teaching in the local church.
  • Not all complementarians agree on whether gender roles extend beyond the church and home.

Discussing gender can be a touchy subject these days, even in the church. With all the clarifications and caveats, there are still Jesus-loving, Bible-believing Christians who wholeheartedly disagree with complementarianism (i.e. egalitarians). Thus, it’s important to constantly remember that our view of gender is not what saves us or unites us to one another. Only the Gospel does that.

It’s with this Christ-bought unity that complementarians and egalitarians can move the conversation forward and demonstrate both humility in their argumentation and charity in their disagreements.

Photo Credit: ©Getty/kieferpix

Chase Krug serves as the Lead Pastor of New Century Church in Roanoke, VA. After graduating from the University of Alabama with a B.S. in Business Administration, he earned his M.Div. from SEBTS where he is currently pursuing his Ph.D. in Systematic Theology. Chase loves singing and songwriting, Alabama football, playing golf, and eating food. He is married to his best friend and better half, Rebecca, and they are expecting their first child in January of 2020. For writing or speaking requests, you can contact Chase here. Follow him on Twitter.

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