6 Things That Complementarianism Is Not

Joe Henegan | 31 Jan 2018

A few years ago, at my request, the leadership at the church I was attending gave over an entire Sunday service to explore the idea of gender roles and clarify the church's position. I had been struggling to understand the Bible’s teaching, and the various claims of those who championed Complementarianism—men and women are equal, but have different complementary roles—and those who advocated Egalitarianism—that we are equal in both status and role.

It was all going perfectly well until towards the end of his talk one of the most senior leaders in the church made an offhand joke about women being useful in church life because they can fetch a good cup of tea for us men. My head was in my hands. All that he had done in laying out clearly and carefully the biblical position on male headship was underdone in a moment by a juvenile joke.

Like many, I have struggled to discover a good, healthy outworking of what God's good design for men and women should look like. So, for those who likewise struggle, here is what complementarianism is not.

1. It's not complimentary

It's not about praise or approval. The word complementarianism* is derived from complementary, which the dictionary defines as 'combining in such a way as to enhance or emphasize the qualities of each other or another.' The same way that complementary colours (yellow and purple, orange and blue) create a contrast which make each other more vibrant than they were on their own. Although, rightly expressed, I think complementarianism should lead to an increase in compliments, as men and women appreciate how others are humbly serving.

2. It's not a cultural cliché

Despite what you may have heard, complementarianism is not the promotion of the usual parade of stereotypes we see in cultural masculinity and femininity. Men can be into baking and women can fix cars if they want to. Not every church event for men needs to be at a curry house, and not every event for women needs to involve doing crafts!

It's primarily about responsibility. And in particular Men taking responsibility. Even though it was Eve who was deceived in Genesis 3, Adam was present—he just didn't act. So it was absolutely right that God came looking for Adam to confront him over what happened. So God expects the man in his family relationships to assume responsibility for spiritual welfare. And because church is God's wider family, God expects qualified men to take responsibility for the men and women under their care.

3. It's not tradition

In past generations it was still a societal norm for the married men to go to work and for the women to stay at home and raise the children. But this is just incidental. Before the proliferation of birth control in the 1960s it was significantly harder for women to pursue a career and a family, so the sensible economic decision was that the husband went out to work and the wife stayed at home and reared children.

Even though this might have the appearance of a complementarian arrangement, unless it's rooted in a biblical understanding of God's design and purpose for marriage it is just a pragmatic solution, albeit one that has existed for thousands of years.

Complementarianism, on the other hand, is the intentional structuring of family life to bring about the prosperity of both husband and wife in the way that God has ordained through his word. And in the Bible you will find a much greater variety and freedom of roles than this stereotypical marriage pattern of yesteryear.

4. It's not chauvinism

It is not an invitation for men to assert a superiority over women through means of aggressive behaviour or language. By contrast, God instructs husbands to love their wives "as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her" (Ephesians 5 v 25). Jesus serves the church by laying down his life for her and husbands are likewise exhorted to serve their wives through loving and costly sacrifice. Jesus wins the church's co-operation not through dominance and power but through "loving kindness" (Romans 2 v 4). Likewise, church leaders are to be under-shepherds of the Chief Shepherd, who are "eager to serve" (1 Peter 5 v 2-4). Although our culture values, respects and exalts leaders; Christian leadership is something different entirely.

5. It's not capitulation

As Paul explains in Ephesians 5, wives ought to submit to their own husbands "as to the Lord". In the same way that she gladly welcomes the Lordship of Jesus Christ, she is meant to willingly accommodate her husband's authority. And women can and should be encouraged to develop strong character under these arrangements. In chapter 5 of Kathleen Nielson’s book Women & God: Hard Questions, Beautiful Truth she gives a resounding ‘Yes!’ to strong godly women as a gift from God. She reminds us that “Deborah offers a hugely encouraging example of a strong woman who serves the Lord, who respects and exhorts the male leaders around her and who wholeheartedly embraces the work God puts before her.”

In the church arena it’s not about varying levels of gifting. It's not that women don't have teaching gifts or aren't good at making decisions. Men and women are gifted equally, and should both be using those gifts for the sake of the church. Complementarianism is about how those gifts are best used for the glory of God.

6. It's not unequal

Complementarianism does not seek to establish a hierarchy of dignity between the sexes. Scripture insists that God created men and women equally (Genesis 1 v 27). Complementarians assert, however, that there are significant differences in men and women which, when allowed to flourish in their natural constraints, prosper both sexes to equal measure. Both men and women are equally able to display God's image back to him in humble reverence to the ordering of genders that He has helpfully laid out for us.

What is at stake?

This is more than just about healthy relationships. When we get these things wrong it leads to the marginalisation of women in the church, which is wrong. But the greater tragedy occurs when we misapply these principles and actually end up skewing the gospel.  

As an example, marriage, Paul says in Ephesians 5, has a cosmic and potentially eternal purpose, and it wasn't until Jesus appeared that this mystery was fully revealed. When a husband leads his wife with loving sacrifice he presents a compelling illustration of our Lord's commitment to the church. When a wife responds with joyful submission she demonstrates the kind of reverence the church has for its Saviour. It's not just a design for good relationships and flourishing, as good as that is, it is a glorious invitation to live out the gospel to our family, friends and neighbours.


Women & God: Hard Questions, Beautiful Truth, by Kathleen Nielson, is warm, conversational and sympathetic book which  looks at what the Bible really says about women and what it reveals about God’s attitude towards them. She asks the hard questions about the Old Testament Law, the role of women in marriage and the role of women in the church, consistently pointing us to God’s word and his perfectly created order.

*The phrase became popular in 1988 when The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, along with some other leaders from the evangelical church in North America, released the Danvers statement which aimed to articulate the complementarian position. ‚Äč

Joe Henegan

Joe is our Marketing Manager. He lives in South London with his wife and two daughters and is a member at River Church Sutton - part of the Newfrontiers network - where he runs a small group and various outreach activities.