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Does “role” mean “rank” in complementarianism?

One of the basic tenets of the ideology known as complementarianism is that men and women have equal value and worth as human beings because we are all made in the image of God. Despite this tenet, complementarians also believe that men and women have different roles in the home and in the church.[1] Some even believe that men and women have different roles in broader society. When complementarians use the word “role,” however, their meaning seems more like “rank.”

Dictionary.com gives a definition of “rank” as “a number of persons forming a separate class in a social hierarchy or in any graded body.” It looks to me that many complementarians have effectively graded and divided the church into two main classes: #1 men and #2 women.

Complementarians, such as John Piper, claim that men were created by God to be leaders and have spiritual authority. And they claim that women were created to be responsive and submissive to this all-male leadership and authority. This is not a difference in tasks to be performed; it is a difference in rank or status, with the lower class serving and submitting to the higher class (contra Eph. 5:21; 1 Pet. 5:5 NKJV).

The Bible says very little about gender-based tasks, activities, or “roles.”[2] Moreover, the Bible has enough examples of women with spiritual authority—women who taught, advised, and led men—to call into question the concept of hierarchical authority underpinning complementarianism. Nevertheless, some complementarians seem intent on dividing the church along gender lines.

Generally speaking, men and women have a few basic differences, but we also share many more things in common. Christian men and women share profound things in common (Gal. 3:26-28). We share our common faith and hope. And we each share the responsibility to love our neighbour and minister the gospel of grace, hope, healing, and forgiveness. Our varying abilities to love and to minister are not tied to gender. (See Romans 12:6-8, 1 Corinthians chapter 12, Ephesians 4:7, 11; 5:1-2 cf. 1 Cor. 14:26; Col. 3:16).

The message of the New Testament is that the body of Christ, the church, should function as an interdependent unity and not a social hierarchy. Instead of a hierarchy, I, for one, want to promote mutuality in the church as well as in other relationships. I want both women and men to be encouraged and supported to fulfil whatever roles, functions, and ministries they are equipped and gifted for. Surely this will help the church and relationships to thrive.

[This post was inspired by, and borrows from, an interesting comment made by counsellor Bob Edwards on his Facebook page.]


[1] Complementarians say that women are equal with men in their being, their ontology. However, they also claim that there is something about the ontology of women that makes them unsuitable to lead men.

[2] Kevin Giles has written an article on the misuse of the word “role” by complementarians. Philip Payne has posted the article on his website, here.

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22 thoughts on “Does “role” mean “rank” in complementarianism?

  1. Yes, it’s rank not role. If, within the diversity of complementarian thinking, the only consistent difference between men and women is that men must lead and women must submit, then we’re talking rank not role.

    “…they claim that women were created to be responsive and submissive to this all-male leadership and authority. This is not a difference in tasks to be performed.” Yes exactly. The more patriarchally-inclined types give women a difference in tasks, too, but the central idea of women submitting to men is still a rank not a role. This is why no form of heirarchical complementarianism, however soft, will ever be acceptable to me.

  2. Sophie, I was having an interesting conversation with a young man the other day about so-called “gender roles”, and he said that some women have a problem with “gender roles” because they have a problem with authority.
    I replied that the problem wasn’t one of authority but of hierarchy. And he was stumped.

    I think we are on the same page with this. 🙂

  3. “As Christians, men and women share many profound things in common. We share our common faith and hope, our relationship with Jesus, and our fellowship with each other. And each of us shares the responsibility to love our neighbour and minister the gospel of grace, healing, hope and forgiveness.”

    Yes, yes, and yes. I completely agree with you.

    But when you put words into complementarians mouths: “When Complementarians use the word “role” what they really mean is “rank”.” that is completely unfair.

    Role and rank are two different things, and to say that a complementarian means one thing when saying another is an invalid argument. Respond to what they are saying; don’t make up what they are saying.

    I do not think that having different roles equates to having different ranks. As a mom, am I superior to my daughter? Of course not. But I certainly have a different role than her. A teacher has a different role than her students, but that does not make her superior. A CEO has a different role than her employees, but that does not make her better.

    1. Actually, yes it does make you superior, at least in authority. A teacher is superior to the student in knowledge and authority. A CEO is superior to her employees in authority, as well.

      1. Hi Irene,

        I agree that parents have authority over their children until they are capable adults. There are several verses where children are told to obey their parents. On the other hand, women (or wives) are never told to obey men (or their husbands) in the Scriptures in their original languages.

        Let me reiterate that one day the student may become more knowledgeable than their teacher, and one day an employee may become the CEO. It happens all the time.

        Moreover, teachers and CEOs only have a functional authority limited to their school or workplace. They are not superior human beings possessing an overall higher, permanent, and unchanging level of authority.

        What Complementarians wrongly believe is that men are always the ones with authority in every situation because of an intrinsic and permanent design. If that is true (thankfully it isn’t) that makes men truly superior to women, and puts them in a higher rank or class than women. And there’s nothing women can do about it.

        1. if i may add to your succnct way of discussion and explantation….

          Here are my meanderistic conclusions about the matter of women in leadership/pastoral/deacon/bishop or other positions over men vs. not being allowed to have leadership roles because of what “the bible says.” …..This comes from years of study, research and a lot of criticism from other Christians in the form of name calling and saying that allowing women to lead or think for themselves without male headship is “feminist” ideology.
          To prove that women do not need to be under male authority, then all it takes is one, just ONE women to have that personal relationship with Christ where she obeys His calling on her life and bypasses any male leadership/authority and does what He calls her to do and in doing so is revered by christians.
          Then let me introduce you to 3 women that the Christian church highly reveres but if they were an every day person like me would be called “feminist”.
          In reading about them a decision must be made concerning “ were they under male headship or authority and then how they lived (live) their lives and the resulting impact on the church….And if they were successful and managed to live a godly holy life spreading the gospel sans male leadership then the resulting conclusion must be one of the following— 1- the way the church tradtionally thinks about women in ministry is wrong or 2- those 3 women are wrong or 3- God is wrong. We know it can’t be #3.

          —These 3 women who are accepted as highly esteemed women of God in complementarian and patriarchy churches are Lottie Moon, Corrie Ten Boom and Joni Eareckson–all 3 have taught men with their books and preaching. All have done things apart from a man’s authority over them, getting their leading straight from God.

          How come they get a pass and the rest of Chrsitian women do not?
          Because Joni is in a wheel chair? She is married so her husband should be in authority over her at all times. But she was an independent woman of God with a ministry and already hearing and acting on God’s leading in her life before she married.
          Corrie Ten Boom hid Jews and spent time in a concentration camp. She never married. She lived with her sister and father (so he may have been her male authority) But he died the night she and her sister went into the concentration camp. It was a special circumstance pat/comps say. Yes, it very much was but why does she get a pass to go against scripture as it is taught?
          Lottie Moon was a missionary to China in the late 1800s. She had to act on her own apart from the men who were head of missions back in the good old USA. Communication took time. She had only God to rely on and what did she do? She taught men and women. Was it ok because it was Chinese men she taught? She also wrote several articles about women being independent and equal to men. Boy, if the Baptist church only knew. But she makes so much money for them at Christmas as her name is on a fund raising campaign every year, so she gets a pass!
          The question remains- Either these women were/are sinning by not being under authority to a man —-or—- women do not need to be under any spiritual authority other than God. It cannot be both.

  4. Hi Kate,

    I’ve read your comment, but I still think that “rank” is an appropriate word.

    One day a daughter may become a mother. One day a student may become a teacher. One day an employee may become the CEO of the company. But, according to complementarian ideology, a woman can never become a leader or spiritual authority of men. They believe that all men, by default of their sex, and not because of their abilities or maturity or life experience, are to be the leaders and authorities of women.

    John Piper has said many times that the main difference between men and women, and between masculinity and femininity, involves male leadership and female submission to male leadership, so I think the word “rank” is particularly apt.

    I don’t know how old your daughter is presently, but I would be surprised if leadership and submission defined your relationship with your daughter, especially if she is a capable adult. And I doubt you would be averse if your daughter taught you things, including spiritual things, either now or in the future when she is older.

    I am aware that complementarians don’t use the word “rank.” I am not putting words into their mouths. I am making an observation, an honest observation. Complementarianism is hierarchical, and this fixed gender hierarchy means that men hold different positions in society, in the church, and in the family compared with women. Thus men and women are effectively divided in two different ranks or classes.

    If you can think of a more apt word that “rank”, I’d be happy to use it. I have no desire to misrepresent complementarianism or to be antagonistic.

  5. Yes, complementarians use obfuscation with the meanings of words, very Orwellian. They make up their own language to mask what they are really doing, altho they will admit it once you pierce their flowery language. The best way to deceive others is to deceive yourself so that you actually believe the deception.

    A believer is to be a plain-speaker, Jesus told us this.

  6. Marg,

    After reading Kate’s comment, I decided to post a comment to this one. You know I really love reading your posts! Lots of good thoughts come from them. I agree with you and I would like to expand on this from my particular view point as I spent 27 years in a military style organization and 41 years in the Churches of Christ, who are very complementarian/border line patriarchal. I think the word rank and role are really basically interchangeable because the complementarians see Rank (specifically as in command structure) within the Role (as in a more general definition of leadership ability).

    Rank is basically a military term used in organizations that rely on a military or hierarchal style of leadership (eg: Army, Police, Security, team sports, etc). Role tends to be more civilian/social and less specific in command/hierarchal structure but is STILL a descriptive of rank within those areas.(eg: corporation positions, volunteer organizations, churches, etc).

    From the Dictionary.com: RANK
    1. a. A relative position in a society.
    b. An official position or grade: the rank of sergeant.
    c. A relative position or degree of value in a graded group.
    d. High or eminent station or position: persons of rank.
    2. A row, line, series, or range.
    3. a. A line of soldiers, vehicles, or equipment standing side by side in close order.
    b. ranks The armed forces.
    c. ranks Personnel, especially enlisted military personnel.
    4. ranks A body of people classed together; numbers: joined the ranks of the unemployed

    From the freedictionary.com: ROLE:
    1. A character or part played by a performer.
    2. The characteristic and expected social behavior of an individual.
    3. A function or position. See Synonyms at function.
    Synonyms: capacity, position, responsibility, duty.

    Rank would be an honest description of the role of the patriarchal male in a patriarchal family, a general in an army, or a police chief of a police force. Role implies the same exact thing by defining a more general class of leadership with associated follower who does not have leadership capabilities and fits very well into the complementarian views.

    The word “rank” in it’s common use is brutally honest. It is to the point. It describes who is in command within the organization by order of the individual’s particular amount of power to make decisions that cannot be questioned or reversed by anyone under that particular person in rank.

    The word role, as used by complementarians, is dishonest at best because it is never equated directly with rank, although they describe the role of men as leadership, a position of rank. They use it in the sense of power for males but they lie about the word when it is about women because they then use it to say women are equal to men. They then use role because I think they really believe that will keep women happy while defining them to non-ranking positions within Christianity by saying they are equal but their role (rank) is different. They are essentially using the word ROLE as a synonym for RANK but they will NEVER equate ROLE and RANK because they do not want to appear patriarchal.

  7. Thanks for this, Wiley. So role and rank are sometimes synonymous. I had a looser definition of “role” in my mind than the definitions offered by the Free Dictionary. Your comment is interesting and persuasive.

  8. Their theory of ‘God given’ always threw me personally.

    When something is God Given to me it is automatically clear, and not something that can’t be taken away from you.

    For example, if you have someone that has a gift when it comes to art – or more specifically lets say drawing. This gift was always present, and yes it can improve in time with practice, etc. That gift of drawing can’t be taken away EVEN if someone permanently took the pencil and paper away – or any other media. This gift will never leave. It just IS!

    So if men were created to be as these men state they are created for that also could not be taken away, and all the harping against feminism, etc. is basically fruitless. Its a total waste of time. Women can’t take away what God created. It’s a lack of faith to say some human could take away a gift you claim God gave you.

    The way they describe it? It would be plain instinct. Like a cat bathing themselves, or a wild animals capturing DINNER! God created them this way, and it just IS!

    The fact they have to continuously bang away at these ‘God Given’ roles SHOULD show them maybe they were not so God given! So – YES – it does make it more RANK than ROLE to me!

  9. Great point, Hannah!

    If something is a “given” it should be clearly seen as a reality and fact. But the reality is that not all men are leaders. Some men are lousy at it!

    And I just don’t get why complementarians are so concerned about who the leader is in marriage – why they keep banging away at these ‘God Given’ roles (as you put it.) Why does a married couple need one person to always be the leader? An organisation of more than a few people may need a leader, but two capable adults simply do a hierarchy to function better. In fact I would say that a hierarchy between two equally capable adults hinders effectiveness, affinity and mutuality.

    1. I agree with you that a “hierarchy between two equally capable adults hinders effectiveness, affinity and mutuality”. In the book Outliers (by the same man who wrote The Tipping Point) there is a story of the Korean Air Line’s terrible safety record and how it was corrected. It turned out that as the black box conversations in the cockpit were studied, that the co-pilot and crew were so extremely deferential to the authority of the pilot that when the pilot was over tired and stressed and making poor decisions, the lower ranked crew members gave their advice in very subtle hints and insinuations instead of being plain and straightforward with him. Their extreme respect for authority hindered communication and the result was a tragedy. The way this problem was corrected was to forbid speaking Korean in the cockpit and to lessen the differences in rank, so that the crew of the airplane worked together as a team. I think it is the same way in marriage and in church. Right now my church is searching for a new pastor (because our pastor died last year) and basically, the only ones involved in this are the men. As a single woman in the church, I feel that I have no voice. Without the input of half the church, how can the best decision be made? In marriage, too, husbands can make poor decisions when there is no balance of power.

      1. This is such an interesting anecdote, Jan. Thanks for sharing it.

        I am truly sorry that you have no voice in your own church community. It is not right.

  10. I agree with Wiley regarding the complementarian use of the word “role.” It sounds “nice.” I think that is the whole point of using the slogan, “equal in value, different in role.” The fact remains, however, that in complementarian thinking men lead and women follow. There is, in reality, a hierarchy here. Rank might not sound very nice, but it certainly seems to be accurate. People often attempt to rationalize injustice by couching it in polite language. One step towards positive change, I think, is challenging the language. “Equal in value, different in role,” is a poor rationalization for social inequality.

  11. Thanks for stopping by Bob.

    Given that “role” and “rank” can sometimes mean the same thing, “role” does sound more polite and acceptable than “rank.” But “rank” is the clearer, more comprehensible word in my opinion, and it more clearly and succinctly expresses the true nature of some forms of complementarianism.

  12. I think the focus is on complimentarian’s use of language as opposed to their interpretation of scripture on how they came to teach the doctrines they are advocating is unfair. What in scripture are they misunderstanding? I am more interested in how their critics interact with their understanding of scripture than their use of language which seems to be the main focus from the author and those agreeing with the author of this blog. Scripture is our guide not doctrinal persuasions based on what should or shouldn’t be. I agree the body of Christ should function as a unit but as the bible guides us on how to go about it.

    1. Hi Zama,

      Yes, exactly. The focus of this particular article is on the use of the word “role” by hierarchical complementarians.

      You will find many other articles on this website that looks at complementarian arguments in the light of scriptures.

      If you are interested in these articles, perhaps a good place to start is here: https://margmowczko.com/tag/complementarian-arguments/

  13. […] Does “Role” Mean “Rank” in Complementarianism? […]

  14. […] Furthermore, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood have plainly stated that the ESV is an “unapologetically complementarian” translation. That is, they believe the ESV upholds distinct gender roles (i.e. a gender hierarchy). […]

  15. […] Complementarians hold to the view that men and women are “equal in being but unequal in role,” a view I fail to see as logical. While complementarians believe men and women are “equal but different,” I maintain that men and women are “different and equal—no buts.” […]

  16. […] The ESV is known for not including even one female scholar in their translation teams. Furthermore, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood have plainly stated that the ESV is an “unapologetically complementarian” translation. That is, they believe the ESV upholds distinct gender roles (i.e. a gender hierarchy). (More on gender bias in the ESV here.) […]

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