A Shortcoming of Complementarianism

The complementarian ideology—that men are designed to lead and women are designed to submit to male leadership—has many 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 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.

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 has nothing valid 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.)

[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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