Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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One Shortcoming of Complementarianism

The complementarian ideology—that men are designed to lead and women are designed to submit to male leadership—has several drawbacks. In this post, I want to highlight just one of them.

Complementarianism aims to explain how men should relate to women and how women should relate to men, but complementarianism tells us next to nothing about how women should relate to women and men should relate to men.[1] Considering that most relationships of women tend to be with other women and most relationships of men tend to be with other men, this is a considerable drawback.

So, for example, what happens when a room full of complementarian men (who truly believe they have all been designed by God to be leaders) get together? Do they all assert their “masculine” authority? Or do they behave with the mutual submission and deference that egalitarians espouse?

And what happens when a room full of complementarian women (who truly believe that their womanhood is largely dependent on their submission to male leadership) get together? Are they concerned that their womanhood is diminished because there is no man present who they can submit and respond to? I strongly doubt it.

Or could it be that men actually behave in more masculine ways when there are no women present? And could it be that women behave in more feminine ways when there are no men present? If this is the case, what does this say about complementarian ideology?

Culturally Informed Social Skills and Biblically Informed Christian Relationships

We can have a range of relationships with people of the same sex. Most of us have worked out, and continue to work out, how to relate with our friends, family members, and fellow employees of the same sex. Similarly, we usually know how to behave with our bosses, law enforcement officers, and others who hold a position of authority in certain settings, including those who are of the same sex as ourselves. Complementarianism does not seem to have anything to say about these same-sex relationships.

We have learnt how to behave and relate to people of the same sex, as well as to people of the opposite sex, by observing social cues, complex cues that differ from culture to culture. Furthermore, most of us have been given guidance from parents and teachers about behaviours in various social settings. Culturally appropriate social skills are important in relationships and should not be underestimated but, as Christians, we want to be especially guided by what the Bible says about relationships and behaviour.[2]

Here are a few Bible verses about relationships.

In humility consider others better than yourselves. Each should look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others.  Philippians 2:3b–4

Be devoted to one another in brotherly love. Honour one another above yourselves. Romans 12:10

Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.  1 Corinthians 10:24

Be kind and tender-hearted to one another, forgiving each other just as in Christ, God forgave you.  Ephesians 4:32

As God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Colossians 3:12

These verses, and others, tell us how we should behave towards our fellow Christians, but they do not specify gender. That is because how we relate to others and treat others in the church, as well as in a just and fair society, has very little to do with whether we are male or female: we should treat all people with respect, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, etc. As well as being kind, we should acknowledge and appreciate the unique talents and abilities of individuals.

Egalitarian Relationships and Mutuality

The Christian egalitarian ideology is about mutual submission and mutual service, and it’s about giving people freedom and opportunities to use their God-given gifts and abilities. These principles apply regardless of gender.

Friendship is just one kind of relationship that benefits from being egalitarian. Most of us would regard a relationship of two friends as unhealthy if one person was always the leader and the other person always the “submit-er,” and yet many complementarians teach that this dynamic should be the norm in Christian marriage and in the church, with men always being in charge.

The principles of Christian egalitarianism work well and are ideal in friendships, in families, in marriage, in the church, and in broader society. The principles of complementarianism, on the other hand, are limited and flawed and have no application to many relationships which are an important part of our lives.

It is difficult to see how the complementarian paradigms of manhood and womanhood can actually work in many settings and situations in real life.[3] It is also difficult to see how they can be beneficial in real life.


[1] Prominent complementarian John Piper states what he regards as male (masculine) and female (feminine) roles.

At the heart of mature masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationships.
At the heart of mature femininity is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships.
“A Vision of Biblical Complementarity: Manhood and Womanhood Defined According to the Bible”, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, John Piper and Wayne Grudem (eds) (Wheaton, IL: Crossways, 2006), 36.

Furthermore, John Piper believes that male and female gender roles should be played out, not only in marriage, but even with casual strangers. (I wonder what he would think of Rahab’s specific instructions to the two spies, instructions the men carried out to the letter.)

We are persuaded from Scripture that masculinity and femininity are rooted in who we are by nature. They are not simply reflexes of a marriage relationship. Man does not become man by getting married. Woman does not become woman by getting married. But it is clear that the form that a man’s leadership, provision, and protection take varies with the kind of relationship a man has with a woman–from the most intimate relationship of marriage to the most casual relationship with a stranger on the street.
“For Single Men and Women (And the Rest of Us)”, Recovering, p.21. (A pdf of this book can be downloaded here.)

There is no verse in the Bible that indicates women, in general, owe men, in general, a greater degree of submission than the mutual submission we owe to one another (Eph 5:21; 1 Pet. 5:5 NKJV). The wifely submission verses apply only in marriage.

[2] We need to wisely and carefully consider our own culture when implementing New Creation biblical principles. This is true for Christians all over the world, for Christians in, say, Pakistan, and for Christians in Australia. Sometimes it means compromising New Creation freedoms for the sake of the reputation of the gospel (e.g. 1 Tim. 5:14; Tit. 2:4–5). Nevertheless, the New Creation ideals of equality and mutuality remain.

[3] As well as friendships, another relationship where complementarianism doesn’t work is the relationship between grown men and their mothers. The paradigm of complementarianism indicates that mothers (because they are women) should submit to their grown sons (because they are men.) But the Bible teaches that children, including grown children, should honour and obey their parents. There is no gender hierarchy between fathers and mothers in Bible verses about parents and children (e.g. Eph. 6:1-3; Col. 3:20).

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Explore more

Bible Women with Spiritual Authority
Leading Together in the Home
Wives, Mothers and Female Masters in the New Testament Household Codes
Mutual Submission is not a Myth
Paul’s Female Coworkers
1 Corinthians 16:16: Another submission verse that affects women

artigos em portugues sobre igualdade entre homens e mulheres no lar e na igreja

13 thoughts on “Complementarians and Same-Sex Friendships

  1. I agree with the main post. I was surprised when I got to footnote 3 when you claim that children, including adult children, should honor and obey their parents. It is the obey part that I question as being what Scripture teaches.

    Once I became an adult, I no longer obeyed my parents, I made my own choices. Of course, at first I was going to college which they helped fund and afterwards I stayed with them for a year to pay off my school debt and so living in their home I obeyed their rules of their home, but then I moved to my own apartment and was my own person.

    1. All the instructions in the household codes reflect the society of the first century Greco-Roman world, and in that society all children, including adult children, were expected to obey their paterfamilias. What is unique is that Paul includes mothers in this instruction.

      As always, our challenge with these instructions is to see which principles still apply.

      In many cultures today, adult children are still expected to obey their parents, and they would have no issue at all with these instructions. The idea that a child has complete autonomy once they reach a certain age or status is not universal.

      That’s not to say that parents should order their children around, or that children don’t need to use discretion in when and how to obey. All biblical principles need to be implemented with wisdom, kindness, and, dare I say, simple common sense.

  2. It’s so simple it should be obvious! I never took a step back and looked at it that way. Honor and obey your parents, that includes your mother. Donald, I think “train your children in the way they should go and they will not depart from it” is a form of obedience to your parents.

    1. Hi Susan,

      Did you read the related article Leading Together in the Home? It shows that every bible verse which speaks about honouring your father always includes honoring your mother as well. One verse even has “mother” first, before “father” (Lev. 19:3).

      The biblical texts do not prescribe a gender hierarchy between parents.

  3. I think Complementarianism kills opposite-sex friendships just as much or more. Growing up, I always had more guy friends because I was pretty nerdy and the guys talked about far more interesting stuff and took things far less personally than the girls I knew did. Much less drama! The complementarian view of marriage isn’t so big on friendships between opposite sexes because it seems to view everyone as a potential (or probable) marital threat.

    Since shifting toward egalitarianism, I’ve been much more comfortable around my guy friends instead of feeling slightly furtive about it. I’ve missed that the last 20 years… Happily, my husband is not bothered at all. Actually, I think all these years he has been more egalitarian than I have but neither of us realized it. The shift has been harder for me than him.

    1. Hi Rachel,

      I don’t think complementarianism directly affects same-sex friendships, but I agree that is can affect friendships with the opposite sex. If men are inculturated by their church to lead and protect women, this can lead to stifling, unhealthy relationships.

      I have some genuine friendships with men. Thankfully none feel a duty to lead or protect me.

      P.S. I love your website!

  4. The obsession with gender is not Biblical. Galatians 3:28 tells us “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Also, gender is temporal and not eternal, for our gendered bodies will go to the dust while our resurrected bodies will be “like the angels” (Matt 22:30, Mark 12:25). While Paul favored a gender hierarchy, Jesus did not. He gently scolded Martha for her domesticity, while praising Mary for choosing “what is better”…an education leading to ministry leadership (Luke 10:38-42). He spoke to the woman at the well as no man was ever supposed to do…just as He would to one of His male disciples. He made no difference about gender.

    I would like to see John Piper really get into the Scriptures on one topic: Female leadership. Deborah was the greatest of all the Judges and 2 whole chapters are devoted to God’s story about her amazing, God-anointed leadership (Judges 4 & 5). She was not only a prophet and a spiritual person; she was also smart, capable, informed and highly educated. Some point out that the 12 Apostles were male…but God raised up other Apostles, one of whom was the woman Junia. (Romans 16:7)

    A passage attributed to Paul complains with a sweeping generalization that women are “easily deceived” and cites Genesis 3 to support that statement. Well, there is nothing in the actual text of Genesis 3 to suggest that Adam wasn’t as deceived by the devil as Eve. Also, let’s look at other passages about this “easily deceived” business. Who was easily deceived, the man Samson or the woman Delilah? (Judges 16) Who ws easily deceived, the woman Jael or the man Sisera? (Judges 4:16-22) Solomon, the wisest of the kings of Israel, was, in the end, easily deceived by pagans. It seems that the women in these passages are not deceived, but deceivers…they are quite in the know! Which brings me to the source of deception itself: Incomplete or inaccurate information. A woman who understands the facts will not be deceived at all. A man who understands the facts will not be deceived, either.

    Dear brother John Piper…come let us reason together!

    1. Hi Darla, It is indeed an obsession!

      I don’t believe that Paul advocated for a gender hierarchy. The verses in his letters that are used by some to promote male authority have been misunderstood and misapplied. I have a short post on this here: “Ephesians 5:22-33, in a Nutshell”

      Also, even though Paul is the only biblical author outside of Genesis 3 to mention Eve’s deception, he didn’t think women were easily deceived. He valued and trusted his female ministry colleagues and positively mentions eighteen women in his letters. Paul mentions Eve’s deception as a simple matter of fact in 1 Timothy 2:13-14 to correct a false teaching. (I’ve written about this a few times). And he mentions Eve’s deception in the context of the gullibility of both men and women in the Corinthian church (2 Cor. 11:2-4). More here: “Women, Eve, and Deception”.

      I agree with you that deception is the result of incomplete and inaccurate information. It is not tied to gender.

  5. “So, for example, what happens when a room full of complementarian men (who truly believe they have all been designed by God to be leaders) get together? Do they all assert their “masculine” authority? Or do they behave with the mutual submission and deference that egalitarians espouse?”

    In my experience they all assert their masculine authority until the real Christians can’t take it any more and either submit to them or leave the group…then the arrogant entitled men rise to the top. Pretty cynical, eh? They are no better with one another than they are with women…its just the rat race all over again.

  6. Great article Marg on the logical fallicy of the comp teaching on “gender roles”.

    Although, I don’t know about you, but in my experience, most of the teaching on gender roles with Christian teachers I have listened to in the past tends to be focused on addressing those who are married, husbands and wives, rather than male and female relations/friendships in general.

    But I can see how it could carry over into other relationships between men and women, for those who really take this teaching seriously and to heart.

    Thankfully, I haven’t witnessed too much of it personally myself as of yet.

    Again, great article 🙂 Don’t mean to sound ungracious, but it does just highlight how stupid the teaching is, and how much it doesn’t work naturally for every day relationships in reality. I too have enjoyed friendships with both men and women over the years, and I relate in accordance to our personalities, gender doesn’t even make any difference.

    Also, I don’t know about you, but I notice that the Bible doesn’t talk extensively about how we are to behave according to our gender. We are to be Christ like, and the Bible exhorts certain qualities/traits to believers as a whole, for example, the fruits of the spirit. Thank you also, for the verses you listed, they were helpful too.

    We are encouraged to be more Christ like and humble, the scriptures don’t go on about how to be more feminine or masculine. That obsession is just one comps are preoccupied with, but I don’t believe it to be biblical.

    If more of these types of Christians could be more focused on everyone being more Christ like and humble in our dealings with one another, their churches would be in a much better state, I believe.

    Thanks again for sharing your continued insights 🙂

  7. I grew up in complementarian churches, where we could only mix with the opposite sex in groups not one-to-one. But I ended up having a lot of male friends outside of the church, perhaps because I was not “allowed” to be natural with the opposite sex in church settings. In terms of same-sex friendships/ groups it was mostly talked about as “accountability groups” where we would have to share our struggles with each other and pray for each other. So I guess that’s kind of mutual submission but only between the same gender.

    1. I’m equally submissive to women as I am to men. I don’t make a special effort to be especially submissive to one sex or the other. Being submissive, like being kind, is just something I do. But as with everything, I apply it with common sense.

      Since most of my relationships outside my family are with women, I tend to submit to women more often. And the men and women in my life are mostly submissive (humble and deferential) to me. Mutual submission works well in society and families.

  8. I just found out that Debi Pearl, author of “Created To Be His Helpmeet,” describes close female friendships in her book as “a perverted expression of woman satisfying woman.” This is an extreme idea and does not reflect the views of sane and sensible complementarians.

    Complementarian Mike Challies (who I disagree with strongly on some points) says, “Much of Pearl’s counsel is utterly heartless and even that which is not is too often proud and terse and utterly devoid of biblical wisdom. She displays a distinct lack of wisdom.” (Source)

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