Church Fathers, a miniature from Svyatoslav's Miscellany wikimedia

Orthodox Church Fathers
An 11th-century miniature from Svyatoslav’s Miscellany
(Wikimedia Commons)

Mary Kassian is a well-known complementarian.[1] In her blog post dated the 7th of April, 2011, Mary explains the term “complementarian” and writes: “It simply means someone who believes that the Bible teaches that God created men and women with equal, yet distinct roles. We are equal, but different.”[2]

According to complementarians such as Mary Kassian and John Piper, one of the major expressions of these “distinct roles” is that men have been ordained by God to have the roles of authority and leadership in the church and in the home, and women have the role of submitting to male authority.

I call myself a Christian Egalitarian. I too can see that God has created men and women with differences that complement each other. My beliefs differ to those of complementarians, however, in that I believe these differences do not mean that men have authority and women don’t, simply on the basis of their sex. I am a non-hierarchical complementarian, whereas the position of Mary Kassian, John Piper and others is that of a hierarchical complementarity.

I’ve heard Mary Kassian state that she dislikes the word “hierarchy” associated with complementarianism. But the system of complementarianism—where men, regardless of ability, are regarded as leaders with authority, and women, regardless of ability, are not—is surely a gender hierarchy.

Kassian goes on in her blog post to say that her brand of complementarianism represents the “traditional, orthodox, historic belief” on gender. This simply isn’t true.

With some exceptions, the overall belief of the church, for much of its history, has been that

  1. Women are inferior to men: spiritually, mentally, emotionally, intellectually, physically, etc.
  2. Women are more easily deceived than men, potentially more evil, and pretty much solely responsible for the Fall.
  3. The only worthwhile purpose or role of women is as mothers and housekeepers, and for serving their men.

Many of the early church fathers and later theologians have said terrible, derogatory things about women. This ignorant and hopelessly biased position of the church against women, like it or not, represents the traditional and historic belief on gender by the church.[3] The complementarianism that Mary Kassian writes about is a relatively new idea in the church[4] and has little in common with traditional or historical beliefs.

One profound difference between complementarianism and traditional, historic beliefs is that, previously, many theologians used Genesis 3:16 as their primary justification for the subordination of women. This is where it says that the husband will rule over his wife. Most contemporary Christian theologians, however, believe that Genesis 3:16 is descriptive and not prescriptive. That is, they believe Genesis 3:16 shows that male domination and rule is a consequence of sin and is neither God’s ideal nor injunction for human relationships.

Complementarians distance themselves from post-fall Genesis 3:16 and base their premise of male authority and women’s submission on the pre-fall “created order” recorded in Genesis 2:21-22. This is where we read that the woman was created second. It is a significant departure from traditional beliefs not to use Genesis 3:16 to support the concept of male-only authority.[5]

Complementarianism also has little in common with New Testament ideals. The New Testament teaches that the authority to minister is given by the Holy Spirit through the distribution of his gifts and abilities. This spiritual authority is not an authority over another person or over a group of people, rather it is the spiritual authorisation to effectively engage in certain ministry functions or roles. (More on this here.) As stated numerous times on this website, the New Testament identifies certain women who had significant ministries and were church leaders. These women were respected, valued, and endorsed in their leadership ministries.

The New Testament also contains seed ideas for social change. These changes include the possibility for egalitarian marriages of mutual honour and mutual submission. Tragically, the Christian Church has been appallingly slow to understand, embrace and promote the true equality of all believers, regardless of gender, ethnicity or socio-economic status.

Mary Kassian states that complementarianism is the church’s traditional, historic belief to validate her position. But complementarianism, thankfully, doesn’t come close to representing the tremendously oppressive “traditional, orthodox, historic belief” of the Christian Church towards women. Nevertheless, the fallacious understanding and application of “equal but different” by complementarians does little to encourage and promote the freeing New Testament ideals of genuine equality and a caste-less Christianity. Complementarianism and historic beliefs do have something in common: they both limit and suppress women under the flimsy pretext of male-only authority.

Redeemed men and women are different and equal—no buts!


[1] Mary Kassian is an award-winning author, internationally renowned speaker, and a distinguished professor of Women’s Studies at a Southern Baptist Seminary. Yet I often find her assertions and arguments illogical. Also, Mary is on the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood where she is first described as a homemaker. See here. It is telling that almost all of the women on the council are first described in terms of the home, but the men are first described with professional titles. It is also telling that no women are on the board of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

[2] Mary’s article first appeared on the 7th of April on her blog here.

[3] I avoid using the word “orthodox” because different Christian denominations use the word in different ways. However many Early Church Fathers, medieval church theologians, and even a few more recent scholars would view the complementarian assertion that “men and women are equal” as unorthodox. These same theologians would not have a problem with the complementarian concept of male-only authority.

[4] The term “complementarianism” probably dates from 1977 when George W. Knight III published his 76-page book, The New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1977). Before this, however, egalitarian Christians were already stating that men and women “complement” each other.
A PDF of a 10-page journal article by Knight with the title “The New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women with Special Reference to the Teaching/Ruling Functions of the Church” (JETS 18.2 [1975]: 81-91) is available here.
Kevin Giles critiques Knight’s “invention of the complementarian position”, as given in the 1977 book, here.

[5] Most Christian theologians of the past did not see a hierarchy of power between man and woman in Genesis 2, but expressions of unity and equality. Here’s one example.

When God fashioned the man, to recommend society as a higher blessing, he said, ‘it is not good that the man should be alone; let us make him a helper like himself’ . . . this power created a woman from the very substance of the man. In a beautiful way, then, from the side of the first human a second was produced, so that nature might teach that all are equal or, as it were, collateral, and that among human beings—and this is a property of friendship—there exists neither superior nor inferior.
Aelred of Rievaulx (b. 1110–d. 1167), a Cistercian abbot in England, from his work entitled “Spiritual Friendship” Source: Christian History, Issue 132, page 18 (PDF here).

© 20th of April 2011, Margaret Mowczko


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