Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

Why Mary Kassian’s claim that complementarianism represents the church’s “traditional, orthodox, historic belief” on gender is incorrect.

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 from 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:

  1. Women are inferior to men: 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. And (especially since the reformation) the main purpose or role of women is being mothers and housekeepers.

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, dating back to the late 1970s,[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 plan 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 story 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 equality, or mutuality, 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 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!


Footnotes

[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 Girls Gone Wise. It is no longer online.

[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 complementarian ideology probably dates from the 1970s when George W. Knight III published an article followed by a short book on the roles of men and women. This may be the first time the word “roles” was used in gender discussions in a significant manner. Roles, that is “gender roles,” continues to be a significant feature of hierarchical complementarianism.  Knight’s article “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. His  76-page book is entitled, The New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1977). Knight did not use the word “complementarian,” however.

A graph of the occurrence of the word “complementarianism” in Google Books shows the word first appearing in 1986. (See here.) Wayne Grudem claims that the words “complementary” and “complementarity” were first brought into gender discussions among evangelicals with the formation of the Danvers Statement on November 17, 1988. Grudem, Countering the Claims of Evangelical Feminism (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2006), 304-7, 537-40.

Egalitarian Christians, however, were already saying that men and women complement each other:
Paul Jewett wrote, “… man and woman are properly related when they accept each other as equals whose difference is mutually complementary in all spheres of life and human endeavour.” Jewett, Man as Male and Female (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 14.
Mary Evans used the word “complementary” in her book Women in the Bible (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1983), 132.
Elaine Storkey wrote about the sexes “complementing” each other in her book What’s Right with Feminism (London: SPCK, 1985), 154.
Kevin Giles wrote about the “complementarity of the sexes” in his book Created Woman: A Fresh Study of the Biblical Teaching (Canberra, Australia: Acorn, 1985), 22.
Some of the information in this footnote has been sourced from Kevin Gile’s article, “The Genesis of Confusion: How ‘Complementarians’ Have Corrupted Communication” in Priscilla Papers 29.1 (2015): 22–29. (Online source)

[5] Many 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 are two examples, one from the 300s and one from the 1110s.

[Adam] was unspoiled and innocent of evil and had no other name, for he had no additional name of an opinion, a belief, or a distinctive way of life. He was simply called “Adam,” which means “[hu]man.” A wife like himself was formed for him out of himself—out of the same body,  by the same infusion of breath. Epiphanius, Panarion 1.2-3, from The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis, Book I (Sects 1-46) Second Edition, Revised and Expanded Translated by Frank Williams (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 15. (Online source)

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).

© Margaret Mowczko 2011
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Image Credits

1. Banner: Icon depicting Emperor Constantine accompanied by the bishops of the First Council of Nicaea (325). Public Domain (Wikimedia)
2. Social Media pictures: 11th-century miniature of orthodox Church Father from Svyatoslav’s Miscellany. Public Domain (Wikimedia)


Explore more

Mary Kassian and More Scary Straw Women of Complementarianism
Misogynistic Quotations from Church Fathers and Reformers
Does “Role” Mean “Rank” in Complementarianism?
Bible Women with Spiritual Authority
Is motherhood the highest calling for women?
Wives, Mothers, and Female Slave Masters in the New Testament Household Codes
The Complementarian Concept of the Created Order
Wayne Grudem on “What Women Should Do in the Church”

11 thoughts on “Is Complementarianism a Traditional Belief of the Church?

  1. Thank you so much for your awesome site and all the information on it.
    I simply cannot understand how people can make such illogical, non biblical and non sensical statements and hide behind a title. I dont like this at all as it misleads people, thank you for the information and may God bless you!

  2. Lauren, I agree, complementarian teaching is misleading. It is also confusing at times, with their double-speak.

    Here’s a video where Mary Kassian does her best to sell complementarianism despite Jennie Allen admitting that it rarely works well and hurts women. The video has the Orwellian title “Boundaries are for your Freedom.”

    God bless you too!

  3. “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”: George Orwell put the complimentarian position succinctly in ‘Animal Farm’! Perhaps we should re-name complimentarianism the “Napoleon Complex”.

    Complimentarians can’t even agree with one another. Some say women can do everything except elder/pastor; some say they can do everything except elder/pastor/deacon some say they can do everything so long as it is only with/to other women. At least we know where we stand with the fundies! I am at a complete loss as to how each of these groups validate their positions.

  4. Hi Sharon, I’m amazed that Orwell’s quote isn’t used more in gender discussions with Complementarians. It is so apt!

    Complementarian Wayne Grudem has tried to work out the parameters of what women can and cannot do. You might want to have a look at this: https://margmowczko.com/wayne-grudem-women-in-church/

  5. Can you share a link to where one can subscribe. I couldn’t find the Kassian article you are referring to, nor could I find somewhere to subscribe to CBMW. I like to be informed also. 🙂

    Excellent research as well. CBMW often does a thing about “claiming equals reality”. Fortunately, claiming something does not indeed make it real.

  6. Hi TL, I deleted the link in the article itself because it became obsolete when the CBMW website went down a few months ago. I haven’t had any emails from CBMW since their website went down, so maybe you can no longer subscribe.

  7. This is an excellent blog Marg; thank you! You hit the nail on the head. So many comps believe that their theology represents the historic position of the church. I have encountered this time and again. Linda Mercadante wrote a short MA level thesis on 1 Corinthians 11. Its purpose was simply to note the changing exegetical stances towards 1 Cor. 11 by (mostly) comps. You made this excellent point: “The usual belief of the church, for much of its history, has been that:
    Women are inferior to men: spiritually, mentally, emotionally, intellectually, physically, etc.
    Women are more easily deceived than men, potentially more evil, and pretty much solely responsible for The Fall.
    The only worthwhile purpose or role of women is as mothers and housekeepers, and for serving their men. ” For anyone wishing to see an elaboration of this idea, allow me to recommend Kevin Giles’ Trinity and Subordinationism. He elaborates on this idea on one section of his book. Thanks again for a great post.

    1. Thanks, Noel.

      I recommend Kevin Gile’s book also.

  8. Are there any groups, like Facebook groups, that believe in equality and women’s ministry AND are against hierarchy and authoritarianism in the church, and are encouraging? I’m in a Facebbok group that you are in, and it’s a bit toxic and seems to be full of people who are ok with positional “power over others” authority in the church as long as women have equal opportunity to get those positions.

    1. I’m in a few Facebook groups. One of the larger ones isn’t especially edifying, but I don’t know if the majority of members are okay with positional power over others. There seems to be a variety of beliefs among the members.

      I don’t know of a Facebook group that has plainly stated they are against all hierarchy and authoritarianism in the church

      1. I think Scripture teaches a very flat hierarchy, where Jesus is Messiah, Savior and Lord of the church and its members and that is it. Any specific church (local or global) gets to decide about membership (who are in common fellowship with others of that church, based on their understanding of Scripture) to handle the verses where someone is excluded from fellowship until they repent.

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