A little while ago a reporter asked me to define “complementarianism.” She didn’t know what it meant. And that’s not entirely surprising.
The word “complementarity” doesn’t appear in the Bible, but is used by people to summarize a biblical concept. It’s like the word “Trinity.” The Bible never uses the word “Trinity,” but it undeniably points to a triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Though the concept of male-female complementarity can be seen from Genesis through Revelation, the label “complementarian” has only been in use for about 25 years. It was coined by a group of scholars who got together to try and come up with a word to describe someone who ascribes to the historic, biblical idea that male and female are equal, but different. The need for such a label arose in response to the proposition that equality means role-interchangeability (egalitarianism)—a concept first forwarded and popularized in evangelical circles in the 1970s and 1980s by “Biblical Feminists.”
I’ve read several articles lately from people who misunderstand and/or misrepresent the complementarian view. I was at the meeting 25 years ago where the word “complementarian” was chosen. So I think I have a pretty good grasp on the word’s definition.
So I want to boil it down for you. In emulation of the popular “for Dummies” series of instructional books, I’ll give you a “Complementarianism for Dummies” primer on the intended meaning of the word.
1. It’s complementary . . . not complimentary.
The word “complementarian” is derived from the word “complement” (not the word “compliment”). The dictionary defines “complement” as follows:
Something that completes or makes perfect; either of two parts or things needed to complete the whole; counterparts.
Complementarians believe that God created male and female as complementary expressions of the image of God—male and female are counterparts in reflecting his glory. Having two sexes expands the view. Though both sexes bear God’s image fully on their own, each does so in a unique and distinct way. Male and female in relationship reflects truths about Jesus that aren’t reflected by male alone or female alone.
2. June Cleaver is so 1950s and so not the definition of complementarity.
In our name-the-concept meeting, someone mentioned the word “traditionalism,” since our position is what Christians have traditionally believed. But that was quickly nixed. The word “traditionalism” smacks of “tradition.” Complementarians believe that the Bible’s principles supersede tradition. They can be applied in every time and culture. June Cleaver is a traditional, American, TV stereotype. She is not the complementarian ideal. Period. (And exclamation mark!) Culture has changed. What complementarity looks like now is different than what it looked like 60 or 70 years ago. So throw out the cookie-cutter stereotype. It does not apply.
3. A proletariat-bourgeois-type hierarchy has no place in complementarity.
Feminist theorists maintain that male-female role differences create an over-under hierarchy in which men, who are like the privileged, elite, French landowners (bourgeois) of the 18th century, keep women—who are like the lower, underprivileged class of workers (proletariat)—subservient. Complementarians, however, do not believe that men, as a group, rank higher than women. Men are not superior to women. Women are not the “second sex.” Men have a responsibility to exercise headship in their homes and church family, and Christ revolutionized the definition of what that means. Authority is not the right to rule—it’s the responsibility to serve. We rejected the term “hierarchicalism” because people associate it with an inherent, self-proclaimed right to rule.
4. Complementarity does not condone the patriarchal, societal oppression of women.
Technically, “patriarchy” simply means a social organization in which the father is the head of the family. But since the 1970s, feminists have redefined the historic use of the term and attributed negative connotations to it. Nowadays, people regard patriarchy as the oppressive rule of men. ”Patriarchy” is regarded as a misogynistic system in which women are put down and squelched. That’s why we rejected the term “patriarchalism.” Complementarians stand against the oppression of women. We want to see women flourish, and we believe they do so when men and women together live according to God’s Word.
5. Complementarians believe God designs male and female to reflect complementary truths about Jesus.
Now that we’ve cleared up some misconceptions and false terminology about complementarianism, it’s time to give you a basic definition. Essentially, a complementarian is a person who believes that God created male and female to reflect complementary truths about Jesus. That’s the bottom-line meaning of the word. Complementarians believe that males were designed to shine the spotlight on Christ’s relationship to the church (and the LORD God’s relationship to Christ) in a way that females cannot, and that females were designed to shine the spotlight on the church’s relationship to Christ (and Christ’s relationship to the LORD God) in a way that males cannot. Who we are as male and female is ultimately not about us. It’s about testifying to the story of Jesus. We do not get to dictate what manhood and womanhood are all about. Our Creator does. That’s the basis of complementarianism.
If you hear someone tell you that complementarity means you have to get married, have dozens of babies, be a stay-at-home housewife, clean toilets, completely forego a career, chuck your brain, tolerate abuse, watch Leave It to Beaver reruns, bury your gifts, deny your personality, and bobble-head nod “yes” to everything men say, don’t believe her. That’s a straw (wo)man misrepresentation. It’s not complementarianism.
I should know. I’m a complementarian. And I helped coin the term.
Editors’ note: Learn more from Mary Kassian in this interview with Jennie Allen as they discuss the freedom of boundaries and the difficulty of submitting to sinful men.