Winsome Complementarianism

6a00e54fc7cbdb88340191045e9e17970c-250wiVarious factors over the last several years have been compelling me to revisit the issue of gender roles in the church and home. It’s a volatile and often dividing issue, especially in my setting in Southern California, and I don’t think it’s going away. In fact, I can think of few issues that come up as regularly in my relationships and conversations here than the fact that I’m complementarian. I recently read Zondervan’s Two Views on Women in Ministry, ed. by James Beck (2001; revised edition, 2005), which contains egalitarian presentations from Craig Keener and Linda Belleville and complementarian presentations from Craig Blomberg and Tom Schreiner. (I really enjoy Zondervan’s Counterpoints series ­– they are helpful in learning about various issues because you get to read not only proponents of different views, but then you get to see those different sides interact with each other. It’s a great way to get oriented on an issue.)

The book helped me chart out where I’m currently at on the issue, and I’m going to write out my thoughts in order to organize them better, and in hopes that they might be helpful to others or initiate some good dialogue. In this post I am going to outline what I think it looks like to seek a winsome complementarianism, and then in my next post I’ll talk about why I’m complementarian. (Warning: these will be longer posts.)

Being Quick to Listen, Slow to Speak

The more I study and think about this issue, the more I feel how important it is for complementarians and egalitarians to really listen to each other, and speak to each other with sensitivity and humility and carefulness. One recurring problem seems to be with the labels themselves. By this point, the words “complementarian” and “egalitarian” have been used in many different ways by many different people, and so there is the danger of lumping one particular view in with others that might be quite different. For example, I am complementarian but don’t necessarily agree with some things that other complementarians might say about gender roles. Similarly, there are all different kinds of egalitarians. I think it is always wise to ask, “what do you mean by that term?” early on in our conversations about these issues. Before we critique a position, we should make sure we really understand it.

Furthermore, for many people these words arouse caricatures and stereotypes. I have observed people on both sides of this debate be dismissive. Some complementarians assume that egalitarians are always liberal or moving in that direction, and some egalitarians assume that complementarians are sexist or at least highly insensitive to women. For example, I am saddened by the way some of my brothers and sisters in Christ seem to completely close off towards me, or perhaps even scoff at me, when they discover I am a complementarian. They seem to have such a low view of complementarianism that they aren’t even willing to give it a hearing. Sometimes they draw the conclusion that I am necessarily a sexist because I am complementarian. Sexism is a serious charge because it means a bias against one gender; even if complementarianism were wrong, it would not necessarily be sexist. I don’t think that is fair or helpful or charitable. And I’m sure some complementarians have been equally unfair in their treatment of egalitarians. Whatever else happens in our discussions on this issue, hopefully we can practice James 1:19: “let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”

One thing that I think has contributed to the miscommunication and misunderstandings is the way some complementarians have used provocative, unhelpful, and at times even offensive language. Some have been ungentle in their tone. Some have, in my opinion, overstated what complementarianism entails. And some complementarian cultures have indeed squelched the gifts and contributions of women. There have been real injuries done to some of our sisters in Christ, and it needs to be taken seriously.

A Prayer

Oh Lord, help us to be generous and humble in our attitude! Help us to slow down enough to really listen. Help us to remember that no one is beyond the need for listening, for patience, for openness, for learning. Give us a teachable spirit before your Word, and a generous spirit toward each other.

Some Practical First Steps

Since I’m complementarian, I can’t really control how egalitarians treat me. But I can control how I treat others and how I present myself. As I’ve been reflecting about this issue lately, there are a couple of ways that I think we complementarians can seek to be more winsome on this issue.

1) First, we should be enthusiastic about the myriad ways that God calls and uses women in ministry. Too often this comes across as a concession, rather than something to get excited about! And too many complementarian churches and cultures have simply failed to integrate women into the ministry of the church. They are not just “male lead,” but “male heavy.” (This is why I am sympathetic to some of the concerns implicit in Wendy’s Alsup’s post, which generated a lot of discussion about “New Wave Complementarianism.” I also appreciated Trevin Wax’s post about where complementarian cultures can go astray.)

Overreacting to feminism by downplaying the role of women is not only overreacting, it is unbiblical. In the Bible, women are involved in ministry in many different ways. Just to pick out two examples:

a) Many women throughout the Old Testament were prophets (Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, etc.), and in the New Testament the gift of prophecy is clearly given to both men and women (Acts 2:17-18, 21:9, I Corinthians 11:5). In our complementarian settings, do we seek to accommodate anything like this? Even if we are cessationist, do we seek to implement the principle? Are we saddened at where women have not been given a voice? The mere fact that spiritual gifts are distributed equally to men and women should already give some complementarian church cultures pause. Do we make equal room for both genders to exercise their spiritual gifts towards the entire body? Or are we top heavy in the male direction?

b) I think a strong case can be made that women served as deacons in the New Testament. While diakonos can be used in a non-technical sense to mean “servant,” the fact that “our sister Phoebe” is called “the diakonos of the church in Cenchrae” (Romans 16:1) makes it much more natural to take its more literal sense, referring to an official position in the church. But even more compelling is I Timothy 3:1-13. There are several good reasons, I think, for supposing that the “women” of verse 11 are indeed deaconesses, but the most obvious is this: why would Paul list requirements for the wives of deacons (the lesser office) but not for elders?

A final point: it is telling that the church had deaconesses at various points in her history (throughout the first few centuries, in Calvin’s Geneva, and elsewhere), despite generally operating in far more patriarchal cultures than we are in. Those who oppose deaconesses should probably offer an explanation of this.

Now think about this: if God gifts and calls women to prophesy and serve as deacons in local churches, think of everything else they can and should do! Why don’t we complementarians rejoice in this latitude, rather than (at it sometimes seems) reluctantly acknowledge it? Why are we, at times, more afraid of affirming what is forbidden than we are of forbidding what is affirmed?

2) Second, we need to show that complementarianism is not merely biblical, but that it is beautiful. We must show that Ephesians 5:22-33, for example, is life giving and affirming and safe. When people think of the term “complementarianism,” negative connotations too often come to mind, and the fault is sometimes ours! We must show that when complementarianism is truly lived out, it is the kind of thing that makes people say, especially in a post-modern, broken culture: “oh, that is what I have wanted. That feels right. That is something I was created for. I can understand why that makes sense.”

Of course, some people will never acknowledge that complementarianism is beautiful, no matter how much we do. But we cannot control that. We can control minimizing the offense, and taking away confusion, for some. I think many wonderful, regenerate people are confused about complementarianism because they’ve seen it practiced poorly or articulated unhelpfully. That makes me grieved.

Lord, forgive me for when I have as a man and husband given complementarianism a bad name by failing to exhibit the kind of Christ-like, sacrificial love that really makes it work!

3) Third, we need to show that the concern with egalitarianism is not simply that it is a slippery slope to liberalism, or opens the door to hermeneutical wishy-washiness. In a helpful video at The Gospel Coalition, several of my ministry heroes responded to the question, “why is The Gospel Coalition complementarian?” The question is understandable because it is, after all, the gospel coalition, and most people acknowledge that one can believe in the gospel and be wrong on this issue. In the video, Tim Keller emphasizes the hermeneutical concern: if we accept egalitarianism, it requires us to “loosen” in our treatment of Scripture. I agree, but I think we can go a bit further as well (as John Piper does later in the video). The Scriptures teach that marriage is a picture of the gospel itself (e.g., Ephesians 5:32). That makes our understanding of gender roles in marriage very important: it may not be a primary issue itself, but it is related to primary issues; in fact, it is meant to be a portrait of them. I also think complementarianism is an extremely practical issue, because it affects how churches and families, perhaps the two most important institutions God has created, operate day to day.

I think we need to show this larger theological context in which complementarianism is entangled. To that end, I think Tim Keller’s The Meaning of Marriage can really help people. I also think C.S. Lewis’ writings on gender can really help people. He showed how gender differences are not an arbitrary, unprecedented invention of God at the creation of humanity, but rooted deeper in the structure of reality (for example, see here).

4) Fourth, we should treat the relevant biblical texts with greater sensitivity to cultural background issues than is sometimes displayed. I can illustrate this from my own experience. I have thought before that it seems many egalitarians rely on a superficial understanding of Galatians 3:28 (“one” does not mean “interchangeable in role”). But I have grown to see that my own treatment of, say, I Timothy 2:9-15 has not always reflected a sensitivity to the points made in an egalitarian exegesis of this passage. For example, I used to think that Paul’s mandate here is obviously trans-cultural because it is rooted in his doctrine of creation. Then I realized that Paul’s instruction about head coverings in I Corinthians 11 (which I have always accepted is culturally conditioned) is also rooted in creation. There is no reason in principle why exhortation grounded in the doctrine of creation must necessarily be trans-cultural. For example, I could say, “take your hat off in church, because God created us to worship Him respectfully.” My appeal is grounded in creation, but still culturally conditioned.

Now don’t get me wrong – I don’t think an egalitarian interpretation of I Timothy 2:9-15 (as well as of I Corinthians 11:2-16, 14:33b-35, and Ephesians 5:21-33) is successful. (In my next post I’ll say more about that.) But I have realized that I need to take egalitarian exegesis of these passages more seriously than I have in the past. They are not always the result of a left-wing or feminist bias, and they raise important hermeneutical questions to which I have not always given sufficient attention. I also think complementarians need to show more clearly why Paul’s exhortations about marriage and slavery in Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 are different. Its a fair question for egalitarians to ask, and sometimes the answers are not very convincing, as far as I can see.

5) Fifth, we should labor to show how complementarianism differs from other non-egalitarian models of marriage and gender relations, including not only the patriarchalism of so many pre-modern cultures of the past, but also the repressive, abusive homes that many people in our culture grew up in. It is easy to oppose egalitarianism with good motives but bad pastoral discernment. When we are talking to people, we have to keep in mind that some of them (on both sides) are emotionally involved in this issue because of deeply personal reasons. We must labor to show, probably more clearly than we think we need to, that complementarianism is utterly opposed to abusive displays of male dominance and rudeness. It has as little to do with that as it does with aggressive feminism.

When people ask me a question about the bible or theology, I used to just dive in with an answer, to the best of your ability, or direct them to the appropriate resource. I have learned to pause before answering and ask a preliminary question: what, if anything, might be underneath this question? How can I most effectively shepherd this individual toward the truth? My answer might be true but not helpful if I don’t think about where the person is coming from. And I think we need to be really sensitive to where people are coming from, and what might be underneath their questions and struggles, when talking about this issue.

Lord, give us eyes to see the needs and hurts underneath the questions people are asking, as well as the questions themselves!

In my next post I will unpack why I am complementarian.

Share this post


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. Hi Gavin,

    I appreciate this. Thank you.

    Gavin, I would like to ask you a question about 1 Cor. 4–16. I’ve been studying that passage for a while now. I’m almost done with my post, but I would like your opinion on something, if you’re comfortable giving it.

    My husband and I are fairly convinced on head coverings for women in the worship service. Here is what is tipping us over: The commentaries from the old Reformers, Paul grounds it in the doctrine of creation just like 1 Tim. 2:9–15 (making it consistent with that passage and Pauline theology), appeals to creation transcend local customs, and the fact that in verse 10 Paul doesn’t just say “a wife ought to have a symbol of authority” but “a wife ought to have a symbol of authority *on her head*.” And lastly, R.C. Sproul’s discussion of the topic in his book “Knowing Scripture.”

    Let me know if you think my hermeneutic is off.

    By the way, I’m not on some crusade. This was not the change of heart I had in mind when I prayed that God would strip me of all a priori leanings when I went to study this section.


    Luma Simms

    1. Thanks Luma! I can see where you are coming from on I Corinthians 11, but I do see the specific behavior commanded in this passage as culture bound (though the principles are obviously still relevant, to gender issues not least!). The difficulty with taking every commandment rooted in theology or creation as still binding is when we get to books like Leviticus, we have so many commandments that are clearly culturally specific (like the commandment to not mar the edges of our beard, 19:27), and yet rooted in God’s nature (followed by “I am the Lord”). So I think its possible for a commandment to be culturally bound, and yet rooted in theology or creation. Thanks for sharing how you are wrestling with Scripture on this topic! Let me know if I can help at all in dialoguing further.

      1. Gavin, thank you for responding. Please don’t hear any of the following with a contentious voice, but let me share some thoughts with you:

        In his book, Knowing Scripture, R. C. Sproul has a chapter titled: Culture and the Bible, which I have found very instructive in distinguishing principle and custom. (BTW, I first read this book 10 years ago, it never gets old.)

        Dr. Sproul says this of the creation ordinances:
        “Appeals to creation ordinances reflect stipulations a covenant God makes with man qua man. The laws of creation are not given to man as Hebrew or man as Christian or man as Corinthian, but rooted in basic human responsibility to God. To set principles of creation aside as mere local custom is the worst kind of relativizing and dehistoricizing of the biblical content…. Here we see the existential method operating most blatantly.”

        I would say that the example you gave from Leviticus is one which God gave to man as Hebrew and not to man qua man. Hence, it’s not a creation ordinance which is transcultural.

        It’s in that chapter that Sproul discusses the hair–covering passage in 1 Cor. 11. He gives 4 distinct options which people take:

        1. It is entirely custom
        2. It is entirely principle
        3. It is partly principle–partly custom (Option A) “In this approach, part of the passage is regarded as principle and thus binding for all generations, and part is seen as custom that is no longer binding. The principle of female submission is transcultural, but the means of expressing it (covering the head with a veil) is customary and may be changed.”
        4. It is partly principle (Option B) “In this final option the principle of female submission *and* the symbolic act of covering the head are to be perpetual. The article of covering may vary from culture to culture. A veil may be replaced by a babushka or a hat.”

        He rounds off this section with “in areas of uncertainty use the principle of humility.” His discussion is very convincing. I recommend the entire book to you—there is a foreword by J. I. Packer. The book is full of wisdom, and at 125 pages, even a seminarian can squeeze it into his workload. :-)

        I won’t go on here, I quote him more extensively in the post I’m still working on.

        I am on no crusade to cover the heads of women in Christendom. As of now, what is tipping me and Geoff into option 4, is that verse 10 says the symbol of authority is to be on the head. If it had just said the woman needs to have a symbol of authority, I would have taken the wedding ring which contemporary women wear to show they are married, as the article that gets the job done…. I should add that if a couple is convicted that the wife’s hair should be covered, they may even have to refrain out of the higher law of loving the brethren and not causing division in the church.

        Please let me know if you see a hole in my logic. I’m happy to take this exchange of ideas offline, just email me through my website

        Gavin, believe me when I tell you that my heart wants to be talked into “this was just a custom which we don’t do anymore,” but I’m just not seeing that in the Scriptures. If you’re interested I can give you a bibliography for my upcoming post.

        Grace and peace to you!


  2. I don’t know if you remember me; I’m your cousin, Julie…

    I love your article! Very respectful and well thought out.

    I personally am tucked between the baby boomers and Gen Y, and my generation (Gen X) does not understand all this discourse on gender. For some reason, my generation chose very traditional roles. However, emphasis on “chose”. I see the benefit in being home and raising small children and the balance it brings to the home. However, due to how far things have come in our society, I have the power to choose that (I have the power to choose what is best for my family).

    Sexism, is not in fact just a gender bias. Just as racism is not a race bias, but a position where one race has power over another, sexism is when one gender has power over another. Emphasis on “OVER”.

    Because women now have fairly equal treatment politically and fairly equal pay (although there is still a lot of harassment in the work place), because we now have equal power in those arenas, we are able to truly have the power to choose the roles God designed for us to create and enjoy. We are able to truly value the power that our husband’s protection provides. Without political power or equal pay (behaviors that treat us as less than), we are not truly having the power to choose to be home, to choose to nurture, to choose to submit.

    Does that equal power belong everywhere? To my generation that is irrelevant. If you want to choose to do what is best for your family, then who cares whether women should have power in the home or at church. If our husbands truly would die to make us feel loved, then it is not about power. It is about choosing what is best for your family. IF a husband is demanding power, then he is sinning, and a women needs to make sure she is balancing respect but not enabling him to sin. Again, though, irrelevant to my generation. Because of where Gen X was in the women’s movement, we are able to reject most of their theses and truly embrace who God has called us to be. Ryan wants to know my thoughts on money and decisions, but neither of us feels threatened by some argument about who makes the final decisions…Who cares, life is demanding enough without fighting over power, and fighting over power gets in the way of our generation’s goal to enjoy marriage and raise children who are eventually capable of doing what God created them to do.

    I understand that other women younger or older may struggle with this paradigm; it’s just not one I see my generation struggle with. Even my non-Christian female peers wanted to be home to nurture and balance the home. Even my non-Christian friends think it’s not cool to speak badly of your husband. We don’t understand the gender clash, and we never will. We respect that it exists to other generations, but we don’t understand it.

    Ryan empowers me to be who God has created me to be by loving and giving himself up for me. I empower him by showing him admiration and respect, enabling him to be all God has created him to be. Are the gender needs different? Yes, but we both have equal power to do all we can to bring out the best in that person and help them be and do what God has created them for. Ryan uses his power to protect. I use my power via admiration and respect to encourage him to be all God has for him.

    I appreciate your article, Gavin. It is so respectful and empathic and Scriptural, and reminds me to be compassionate to genders who may struggle more with this issue.

    1. Thanks for sharing your perspective, Julie. Of course I remember you! Interesting to hear about the generational divide – I hadn’t thought about that much before …