Complementarianism for Dummies

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.

Boundaries Are for Your Freedom from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

  • Jeff Atnip

    Good article and good summary of complementarianism…except for your fear that people will be offended by the June Cleaver character. She was a strong character and a good example of a helpmeet to her husband. I don’t remember her being oppressed by any heirarchy or patriarchy. I think you may be reacting to a mythical June Cleaver stereotype that in fact does not exist…however, I admit I haven’t watched every single episode.

  • AJG

    Owen Strachen says that women are called by God to be housemakers and that men are called to work outside the home because Adam tilled the ground. He openly mocks husbands that help equally with chores around the home.

    Denny Burk and Doug Wilson prefer the term patriarchy to complementarianism because its easier to remember and spell and people know what the term means. They admit that patriarchy AND complementarianism are the same thing.

    So it seems that even highly visible self-proclaimed complementarians do not agree on what the term means. It’s no wonder that egalitarians are suspect about complementarianism because if it looks like hierarchy and smells like hierarchy, it’s probably not equality in any sense of the word.

    • Caleb


      “Technically, “patriarchy” simply means a social organization in which the father is the head of the family.”

      “Denny Burk and Doug Wilson prefer the term patriarchy to complementarianism because its easier to remember and spell and people know what the term means. They admit that patriarchy AND complementarianism are the same thing.”

      So Mary herself would say that the actual definitions of patriarchy and complementarianism are the same. But her concern is not the definition of patriarchy, but perception of patriarchy. And her point is that the perception of what patriarchy has become is twisted from what it means so she avoids the term. But then you jump from patriarchy straight to hierarchy which indeed proves her point that the term is misunderstood in our context. Complementarianism is the same as a true patriarchy in which the father is the head of the household, but it could not be more different from a hierarchy in which the wife is treated as a slave who has no voice. She is simply to model Christ in His submission to the Father and the church in her submission to Christ. And that is not a dishonorable task.

      • Rachael Starke


        Truthfully, I’m wondering if Mary would would conflate patriarchy with complementarianism. Many comps like myself strongly disagree with this approach. The term “patriarchy” has too much historical and contemporary baggage. Per my comment below, I don’t believe it’s complete, and it leads to all manner of distorted applications, like, well, dear brother Owen’s. :)

      • AJG

        Caleb, it seems that if you are changing a word to something more palatable without changing the meaning you are engaging in deception. That is my biggest issue with complementarians (well besides not giving any practical advice on how complementarians differ from egalitarians). At least a guy like Owen Strachen comes out and says what he means: that a woman’s place is in the home and a man’s place is in the workforce. I can appreciate the honesty even if I find the attitude antithetical to Christianity.

        • SM

          Yes, ALG, there seems to be much equivocation among complementarians. Kassian and other complementarians say authority means service, unless of course there is an impasse, and then authority means what it is commonly understood to mean, that is, the right to rule, direct, command, decide–and the husband uses his authority to break the tie. Also, if authority means service then why won’t complementarians say females/wives have authority over their husbands? Do wives not serve their husbands? Of course, they do, but we have not and will not hear complementarians say, “Wives have authority over their husbands,” because it is commonly known that authority doesn’t mean service.

          Kassian and some complementarians say it is not a hierarchy, but if there is male authority, even with a moving definition and he rules to break a tie, it is hierarchy. If a husband even out of a benevolent motivation exercises his “headship”, i.e. authority to make a decision to which his wife must decidedly submit, though joyfully and intelligently, despite whether in good conscience she can affirm its wisdom, benefit, etc. then there is hierarchy. Kassian says complementarians believe in mutuality except mutuality doesn’t mean by each to the other, but rather by only one to the other, i.e. female submission to the husband in exchange for his male authority.

          Doublespeak indeed.

  • ian

    Mary, if you are reading this, please could you respond to this question:

    You said at the end that complementarianism does not mean that ladies have to bury their gifts. Great. I know a number of women who are gifted to lead churches and to be preachers and teachers (to the whole church, not just in ladies meetings). Is this a gifting you would support?

    • mel

      No you don’t. Satan is the one that convinces people that scripture doesn’t really mean what it means.

      • ian

        mel, your comment is out of order. It’s not acceptable to demonise people who interpret the Bible differently to you.

        How do you know your understanding of the scripture is correct?

      • Lydia Smith

        Hi Ian

        I agree that Mel’s comment was out of order.

        I also agree that women have gifts of teaching and leading. I believe that I am one of those women and I am privileged to use those gifts in my local church and beyond.

        However, God does not give gifts to anybody, man or woman, in order to fulfil their need to express their gift. He gives gifts to build up the church. And he the church is built up the way God wants – not the way we want.

        In other words, I do not believe that a woman is ever called to use a gift in an unbiblical way. The women you know who are gifted to teach and preach have an exhausting array of possible ways to exercise those gifts in ways that conform to God’s pattern expressed in His Word.

        • ian

          Hi Lydia,

          I agree completely that God only gifts and calls men and women in the way that He wants, as set out in the Bible, to build up His church.

          Where I think we disagree (you don’t explicitly say so) is that I do not believe God places any restrictions on women’s roles. In particular, God can and does gift and call women to teach and lead the whole church, men and women. My friends are evidence of this, and there are many more.

          The view that God limits women to only teaching and leading other women is not one that is supported by careful study of the Bible. I would suggest it’s a false teaching. Read, for example, “What’s With Paul and Women?” by Jon Zens or “Women in the Church’s Ministry” by RT France. There’s also an excellent DVD set called “Women in Ministry – Silenced or Set Free?” by Cheryl Schatz. All these authors are Bible-believing evangelicals who conclude that the scriptures teach equality, not just in creation and redemption, but also in ministry in the church.

    • dwk

      I like John Piper’s answer to that question from the What’s the Difference? seminar. He said something to the effect that he doesn’t try to tell people what their giftedness is or isn’t, but rather ask them how they can make much of that giftedness.

      In other words, there are plenty of ways to use your gifts, ways that do not run counter to Scripture. So, your friend(s) might be gifted leaders, but are they “gifted to lead churches”? I think the Bible’s answer is “no”, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t put their gifts to powerful, God-honoring use. I would encourage your friends to look for opportunities to creatively use their gifts, rather than frustrate themselves with what they can’t do.

      All of that said, if you hold a different interpretation of the Biblical qualifications for elders and overseers, you’re sort of barking up the wrong tree by asking a complementarian for their support on women preaching and leading churches.

      • ian

        dwk, my friends are actually leading churches – they’re not at all frustrated!

        What I was trying to suggest was if you are female and gifted to be a church leader, if you are in a complementarian church, you will end up having to bury your gifts, contrary to what Kassian says.

        In other words, there are some gifts that do have to be buried because their validity is denied by complementarians.

        I have to disagree with you over the Bible’s teaching – I think the scriptural case for egalitarianism is extremely strong. My friends would definitely say that they are gifted and called to lead, and I agree with them.

  • Blake

    How come GC is making such a big push for women only? I have seen so many videos, articles, books, etc, for women and nothing for men. I love that GC is helping women, but men are probably more confused then ever before. We live in a generation for the first time in the history of mankind that women have better paying jobs then men. My wife is the bread winner in our home, and her sisters are the bread winners in their home. Her mother is the bread winner in her home. I have men tell me that i need to leave the ministry to get a real job so i can support my wife as a stay at home mom. I admit it is the most confusing thing to figure out what a real man looks like in the church and the home. Women’s rights have been fought for by men, but i don’t know that i have ever seen (besides Elizabeth Eliot) a women fight for mens rights. As a man it is the most frightening thing to discuss this topic because so many women get heated & start labeling you as a chauvinist or a bigot. I honestly am just looking for answers of what it means to be man in a time where the meaning of that is changing. If the GC could try to answer that (as well as what it means to be a women), i would be very thankful.

    • BryAna

      I would say that enough has been written for men to fill whole libraries. I am always hearing that men need to “man up.” So many things have been written about men leading their families, and being loving and being a man and what that means, that it is almost exhausting. While, it seems that much of what is said to women is watered down and tip toed around. I think that so many preachers are afraid that they will come off as “Chauvinistic” or a “bigot”…. that it seems that the subject gets skipped quite often. Men are held accountable and get blamed for so many things wrong with the family… whenever many times the wives aren’t held accountable. It’s a subject that has long been negleted. I’m so thankful that people are “Man’ing up” to address the issue of true womanhood- the forbidden subject.

      • Blake

        Thanks BryAna. I agree with everything you said.

      • Daniel Suh

        “Wild at Heart” by John Eldrege. If you haven’t read this yet, read it. This should answer your questions about manhood and beyond. I cannot stress how highly I recommend you check this book out if you want to know what man of God is and does. Enjoy!

    • EMSoliDeoGloria

      Blake, brother, what if “what a real man looks like” isn’t just one thing?
      What if the practice of Christian manhood and womanhood is as varied as the faces of men and women?
      What if both look like following Jesus? (not he follows the ‘leader Jesus’ and she follows the ‘submissive Jesus’ but they both just follow Jesus?)
      What if you knew that your following of Jesus, cultivating the fruits of the Spirit, using your strengths to serve and encourage and teach and bless according the “one anothers” of the New Testament absolutely WOULD result in you becoming the manliest man you were intended by God to be, regardless of cultural stereotypes AND your wife following Jesus in all the same ways WOULD equally result in her becoming the most womanly woman God intended her to be?
      What if you don’t need to be taught to be a man (or she to be a woman) according to some sort of formula, but you both need to learn to be disciples of Jesus Christ (as do we all)?

      • Clarice

        Poetic, but falls flat, since if being a man does mean something distinct from being a woman then practicals would be different. And I think Blake may be talking about how to practically apply the distinctions. In which case, it’s important for both men and women to be taught clearly on the distinctions and how to apply them. We need more than just a “be a good Christian” toss up. Since gender is part of our metaphysical selves it would naturally inform how we walk out our Christian lives. Christianity taps into the whole self, not just our “humanity”.

        “How do I live the ‘one anothers’ as a woman/man?” is a good question.

        • EMSoliDeoGloria

          “How do I live the ‘one anothers’ in my particular life circumstances?” is a very good question.

          And our life circumstances certainly include relating to others as a man or woman.

          But are there really distinctly different ways to manifest the fruits of the Spirit for men and women (i.e. two different categories of “man-gentleness” vs. “woman-gentleness”)? Can I sin by doing a fruit of the spirit in a way that is atypical for my sex? Are there different ‘one anothers’ based on whether I’m male or female? Or do we simply live those out as Spirit-led people in the life circumstances where God has placed us?

          Do we ask, “what does it look like to love my mom when she has dementia?” or “what does it look like to care for my husband when he has a degenerative disease?” or “how can I be gentle and peaceable, but still honest, with my rebellious daughter?” or “how can I support my spouse in his/her vocation?” or “what does it look like for me to be an encourager to my son?” or “how can I show honor to my grandmother?” or “what does it look like for me to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly as a citizen of a free country?” or “how can I be a more effective ambassador of Jesus Christ in my community today?” etc, etc…

          In other words, is my defining question about discipleship? Christ-followership? or is my first question – “what is the most masculine / feminine way to approach this circumstance?”

          • Clarice

            Hmmm…you make good points. But maybe still missing the question. You are answering the question “What does it mean to be a Christian?”, which is a good question. But the question here is “What does it mean to be a Christian MAN/WOMAN?” I’m already a Christian and I got that, now how does that affect my masculinity/femininity? That’s the question and it needs to be answered because being a Christian and a woman is different than being a Christian and a man IF we believe that God specifically calls women to womanly godliness and men to manly godliness. And yes, I think there is womanly godliness and manly godliness because gender is God’s idea and is an expression of himself. So there has to be a way that I am a woman and godly in a way that my husband cannot be because he is not a woman. Does gender go to our very souls? I think so– which means that there is something unique about my god-like-ness as a woman, distinct from my husbands god-like-ness as a man.

            Clear as mud, I know. :)

            • scottie


              Hello. I feel you’re overanalyzing this, making things much more complicated than is necessary. Just go for patience, kindness, etc., and simply treating people the way you want to be treated. The weight of this perplexity is really not necessary.

            • EMSoliDeoGloria

              Clarice, I’m interested in how you would answer that question… what universals do you think God calls all female believers to in order to be excel at “womanly godliness?” or what universals exist for all Christian males so that they can reflect “manly godliness?”

              Mind, I’m not convinced of those categories, but I’m interested in your thoughts. Blessings!

            • Laura

              It’s hard, Clarice, because if you pick out any attribute that becomes a Godly man or woman, you can apply it to the other sex without making them a bad person. Men sometimes need to nurture. Women sometimes need to show courage. Over on the article about how husbands can love their wives sacrificially, a commenter describes a marriage where a husband took care of his wife through several years of severe mental illness even though it took a toll on him. That is sacrificial love, for sure, and faithfulness and responsibility and all that other stuff, and it would be just exactly as exemplary if it was a woman caring for her ill husband.

  • Tim Woody

    I really liked this article. Though on her last point she points out what the Complementary woman is not; the June Carter homemaker and mother. But fails to provide a practical definition of what it means to be a woman. What is the woman’s role beyond the vagueness of different than man. I would really like to hear her idea in more defined exegesis. I watched her video “Complementarianism without Traditionalism” but she was just as vague in the interview as well.

  • Seth C

    If anything, complementarianism is an umbrella term that houses those who subscribe to this article’s teachings as well as those who support patriarchy.

    Heck, even some of the TGC members have been known to say patriarchal statements.

    How about an article that specifies in terms of application complementarianism as well as denouncing other views that people think are complementarian but are not?

    • scottie

      This is not possible. There’s too much variance and disagreement.

  • Rachael Starke

    Tim and Seth both hit on the one ongoing missing piece in the current rounds of conversation about complementarianism. Everyone is working hard to define what complementarianism does not look like, but not as hard to define what it does.

    The common approach is to kind of camp out in passages like Genesis 3 and default to the usual spheres of home and work, together with the lead/submit dynamic in the marriage relationship. I and others have challenges embracing this approach because it is bound to only particular seasons and circumstances. Not all women marry and bear children. Men go through seasons of unemployment or physical impairment so that they can’t work. A vision of complementarity that does not encompass gender roles or identity in each season of life isn’t complete, IMHO.

    There’s another approach, though, that seems to be gaining traction. It comes from going all the way back to Genesis 1, where God declares both men and women as distinctly made in God’s image. In other words, men and women are created to uniquely, collectively reflect the nature and character of the Trinity. The Fall marred and corrupted our masculinity and femininity, but the Cross redeems it.

    The most helpful study I’ve seen that takes this approach is called The Five Aspects of Woman, by Barbara Mouser. It calls out five particular elements of God-given identity that are unique to women – e.g. women are Lifegivers – not only physically, but spiritually as well. The Holy Spirit gives and nurtures spiritual life, and women reflect Him as we do the same. When, for example, my dear single friend Andrea cares for my girls for the night so I can get away with my husband – feeds them, helps them with homework, admonishes them with God’s Word, takes them out for yogurt, leaves my kitchen cleaner than when I left it – she has imparted true spiritual life to me and my daughters. She’s literally being a spiritual lifegiver to me and my girls. (And yes, I praise God for her!)

    • EMSoliDeoGloria

      Hey Rachael, I really appreciate your comments. I’m just a little concerned by your recommending the Five Aspects material by the Mouser’s. I don’t doubt that there are helpful statements in the women’s material, but in contrast with their men’s material the theology of Five Aspects is absolutely horrific. Bill Mouser directly states in the men’s material that men image God more fully than women can – because God is masculine! He and his wife sorely distort Scripture in order to impose their views of gender roles on it (and the Baily brothers love them for it).

      I’d love to see your thoughts if you have a chance to take a closer look at their materials for men and women side by side, and particularly how they summarize relevant Scripture passages.

      • Rachael Starke


        It’s funny. Right after I posted that comment I thought, “Hey, I should go to their site and see if they’ve been working on a separate guide for men.” And, yes, well, I see your concern and raise you on it. :) If femininity is somehow subordinated to masculinity in the display of the character of the Triune God, that’s not true complementarity. At all. It’s along the same line as the “Christianity has an masculine feel” argument. :)

        I like the approach Barbara uses, again, because it sets up a model that is applicable at every season of life, within, as far as I can see, every cultural context. It doesn’t look at Proverbs 31 or Titus 2 as a prescriptive list of rules, but rather as descriptive guidelines. It’s step in a better direction, but I do agree that their larger conclusions should give pause.

        • EMSoliDeoGloria

          Thanks for those follow up comments, Rachael!

          I agree that it isn’t true complementarity if one sex is superior / inferior to the other in its nature. :-)

    • SM

      Rachel, does the Holy Spirit not nurture and give life through men as well? In other words would a brother-in-law or a male friend who took care of your girls for the night in the same way as Andrea be imparting life? If not, why not? If a husband takes on some extra tasks so his wife can complete a dream, or if a dad speaks encouraging words of life to his son or daughter is he imparting life? If not, why not?

      • Rachael Starke

        It’s a good question. Ironically, my husband is taking on some extra tasks at the moment so I can complete my Master’s degree. He also does almost all household tasks better than I – he’s in the midst of teaching my girls how to iron, because he’s really great with any implement involving metal and heat. :)

        Perhaps the best way to answer is to once again return to the nature of the Trinity. God is one God, in three persons. All three persons share essential qualities, and yet, they have distinct identities. (I’m avoiding the term “roles” intentionally :) ). They express their identities in different ways. Jesus says He is life, but Paul reminds us that it’s the Spirit who gives life. (2 Cor. 3:6)

        It wouldn’t be wrong for my husband or nephew to do the same things for me and my girls. It would just not be central to their identity.

        Ultimately, I believe that this issue of how genders express the character of God has much to do with acting in faith. When I help my husband by fiercely negotiating over a broken water heater, or crafting a PowerPoint presentation because he’s slideware challenged, I’m actively being a helper suitable specifically for him, and modeling the Spirit who helps us in our weakness. That is the kind of work that is expressly defined as related to woman, rather than man. It’s the specifics that are relative to each woman or couple.

        • SM


          Admittedly, I have a difficult time comparing male-female with the Trinity because it’s a moving target with complementarianns. The obvious problem being is that male & female are two and the Trinity is three. This makes the discussion fluid. Kassian says women are like Jesus in that they submit like he did. Kassian says men are like Jesus in that they exercise authority over women like Jesus does the church. Well, Father and Holy Spirit are left out. Men are not reflecting Jesus in full measure as we are called to do but only in part. Same for women. Others, say women are like the Holy Spirit; they help, comfort, give life. Well, how are male and female like the Trinity here, if the Father & Son are left out. There are too many problems, IMO, comparing male and female with the Trinity, and this is not the least of it.

          Now, back to your words: “All three persons share essential qualities, and yet, they have distinct identities…They express their identities in different ways…It wouldn’t be wrong for my husband or nephew to do the same things for me and my girls. It would just not be central to their identity.”

          You know you husband, and it may well be that it is not in his nature or central to his identity to give life, but who gets to say it is not central to every man’s identity to give life. Many men encourage and give and nurture life by word and action. Do male pastors not speak life behind the pulpit? Do male pastors as part of pastoral care not give and nurture life in a variety ways into human tragedy or crisis every week? I just don’t get how a few can make a claim that it is not central to all males identity. There are women who would feel woefully inadequate at giving tender care to little girls, and with all integrity could say that giving life, since we are speaking metaphorically, or nurturing is not central to their identity. Are they less female?

          The issue is not in the expression of identities, but in the labeling of behaviors. It reads to me as if you are doing complementarian doublespeak. Let me explain. If a man is decisive, he is “exercising authority” and “leading”. If a woman is decisive, she is “unsubmissive” and “unfeminine”. If a man babysits his kids, washes dishes for his wife, plans a girls-day-out for his wife, he is “exercising his authority” and “leading” her. If a woman, stays home with the kids so her husband can enjoy a day of leisure she has planned out for him, this is good, so she is not “leading” or “exercising authority”, she is “helping”. You “help” your husband with the water heater and Powerpoint. What is it called, if he were doing the same thing for you with the water heater and Powerpoint because you were slideware challenged?

          Rachel, you write, “Ultimately, I believe that this issue of how genders express the character of God has much to do with acting in faith.” There is much more to the moral and ethical qualities of God than authority and submission. These two behaviors are not the sum total of God’s character, and it seems an inordinate amount of time is given at the expense of all the other splendid character traits of God for which male and female both should be seeking to emulate and grow into the full measure of Christ.

          BTW, does your husband ever model the Holy Spirit by helping you in a way that is suitable specifically for him? Does he help you zip a dress in the back. Is he helping? Is he exercising authority? Does he reach the things on the top shelf or open jars? Is he helping in a manner suitable for his strength? Or, is he leading and exercising authority? Surely, there are ways in which your husband models the helping character of the Holy Spirit by helping you in ways suitable specifically for him?

          BTW, Jesus says He is zoe (n), and Paul reminds us that it’s the Spirit who poopoieo (v). (2 Cor. 3:6)

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  • mel

    I want to know why I keep seeing June Cleaver mentioned. Maybe I’m missing something but I always loved June Cleaver. Has anyone even examined the character, especially against the others of the time and genre? I can think of several other stay at home mothers with pearls that manipulated and maneuvered so that the impression was that the man wasn’t leading the home but just thought he was. And was to dumb to realize it.

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  • Brad

    I attend a complementarian church. And from what I can tell, complementarianism does actually boil down to this:

    “Get married, have…babies, be a stay-at-home housewife, clean toilets, completely forego a career…bury your gifts.”

    Just being honest.


    • BryAna

      Funny how women fight so that they won’t be degraded and end up degrading some of the precious and important things that they do. How very degrading to have a part in your childrens lives, love your husband and keep a clean house…

      • Brad

        Hey BryAna,

        How did you jump to the conclusion that it is degrading “to have a part in your childrens lives, love your husband and keep a clean house”?

        I’m not saying that AT ALL!!


        • BryAna

          Sorry my friend.. but thats the way it came off to me. Women fought to have the freedom to choose to have a career… but when women choose to otherwise, to stay home (or bury her gifts) it seems like people kinda turn thier nose up at it… or act like she is a frightened suppressed weak little woman. I know that this is extreme, but this is many of the reactions that my dear friends that are stay-at-home mom’s face. The value of woman isn’t lowered in complementarinism… it is equal… but still differs from a man.

          • EMSoliDeoGloria


            Let’s say a man chooses to pursue his vocation in the home and care for his children and maintain and improve his home, while he encourages his wife in her pursuit of a vocation that is primarily outside of the home.

            Would you think less of him?

            I admire and respect women who use their gifts inside and outside the domestic sphere. Likewise with men. Both men and women are equally valuable and contra at least some complementarians, I don’t believe that God has the same calling for all women (in the home) or all men (outside the home) but that both are to love God and love others and we can do that in all kinds of places that are consistent or inconsistent with traditional gender roles in our culture.

            • BryAna

              Hi Em,
              I agree that women can use gifts inside and outside the home.(I am single and work outside the home.) My point in all that, I guess was to point out that stay-at-home mom is a BIG and very important job.. and shouldn’t be summed up as JUST one who cares for kids and scrubbing toilets and burying their gifts.
              Would I think less of a man who decided to be a stay-at- home dad and caretaker of the home. I think that if it was REQUIRED for a season… or longer.. then I would understand. But if it was just something that he choose to do, while his wife was breadwinning….I’m don’t that that I, personally, would support that. And to be honest, I don’t think that scripture supports that.

            • Laura

              BryAna, when you say scripture doesn’t support a SAHD, do you mean it forbids that, or that it just doesn’t mention men staying at home?

            • EMSoliDeoGloria

              Good question, Laura.

              BryAna, I guess I would say that being a stay-at-home PARENT is an extremely valuable vocation, whether it is a mom or dad who chooses to invest most of their waking hours in preparing the next generation to assume adult responsibilities.

              Cleaning toilets to the glory of God is just as important as laying bricks or designing corporate graphics (or doing any other honorable job) to the glory of God. But we shouldn’t limit occupations / vocations based on sex unless God does and I don’t see God doing that (unless we are talking about the eldership of the church, perhaps).

            • BryAna

              Hi Laura,
              The word doesn’t forbid it. I certainly would not say that a man choosing to do this is in sin, although, he very well may be. It seems to me though that the way that Timothy and Titus describe womanhood, that the role of provider would be assumed by the husband/ father. Women are helpers, called to help our brothers with whatever task at hand…yet we are clearly called to silence and to the home and to our husbands and children. We could go back and forth on the particulars of defining exactly what that means… but then we will just be getting down to opinions… where every instance is not the same. To be honest, I haven’t spent as much time studying what it means to be a man of God, as I have, what it means to be woman of God.

            • Laura

              BryAna, I think just as we have to be careful to call sin, sin, we also have to be careful not to say something is required by God, or even desired by God, when it’s not.

              The letters to Timothy and Titus were written to people living in a specific place and time. Paul wasn’t anticipating soccer moms, or women having the same educational opportunities as men and possibly higher earning potential, or an economy where most work is not manual labor, and he certainly wasn’t even addressing the agrarian lifestyle that has been lived to varying degrees by humans since the dawn of time. My mother grew up on a small family farm and she’s told me what that was like. Her father didn’t go out every day to work leaving her mother at home to keep house for him. Everyone worked – in the fields, caring for animals, whatever had to be done.

              The positive statement that women need to care for their homes is not the negative statement that they must not do anything else, and it’s not the negative statement that men must not care for their homes. Paul’s concern was that Christians have orderly households so that their non-Christian neighbors would not have a reason to sneer at Christianity. In this day and age his admonition might be “live within your income and pay your bills”. For instance, Jared Wilson’s current blog talks about having to leave his wife behind in Nashville when he went to Vermont. They had trouble selling their house in Nashville and her income was needed to carry that note. Eventually the church he went to picked it up so she could join him. The witness there, to me, is not that when she joined him she became a SAHM, but that they made personal sacrifices to meet their obligations and not walk away from their mortgage, as so many have done. I think Paul would have written approvingly about that, had it been an issue in his day. It wasn’t. He wrote about things that were.

            • BryAna

              I think you are right Laura. Thanks for your question and challenging me to dig into this. While, I do stand by the fact that I believe that the word says that the men are to lead and the women are to follow, I cannot say that it is sin for a man to work inside the home. I will still say that I believe that scripture, as a whole, points towards man being the provider. And I don’t give into Paul not anticipating soccer moms… This is the word of the all knowing God.. Not Paul. But it does Give us a better knowledge of God to study out the scriptures and the times. Bottom line is that our eyes are fixed on Christ, glorifying Him with our whole hearts and willing to die to our own desires no matter the cost. If that means having a woman do hard labor to help out a neighbor or a man cleaning up the whole house and whip up some good meals, then amen.

    • Donna B.

      I’m not sure I can agree with you that being at home = burying gifts. I have friendships with many women, and consider my interaction with them to be part of using my gifts. I am involved in organizations and am active in leading groups my daughter is involved in. I do not have a career outside the home – my career is raising my family. But I do get to use my gifts in many ways.

      • Brad

        Good point, Donna B. I do think complementarians could encourage women to use their gifts more. I guess the hard part is that there will always be limits on how women can use their gifts. On the other hand, men have no restrictions in the complementarian system. I have always thought that the men get more of the encouragement/freedom/flourishing in complementarianism.

        • Donna B.

          I think my husband would say he doesn’t have a lot of time to pursue anything but going to work all day! LOL

  • Brad

    Also, does anyone else find it ironic that a woman is actually teaching men in this article and video?

    • fb

      i averted my eyes (and ears) while playing the video…


    • Clarice

      Perhaps it’s worth clarifying that “teaching”, in this context, doesn’t just mean standing up in front of people and talking about something you know. Sure, women can do that. And that’s what Kassian is doing in this article and video.

      The issue is expository preaching during a Sunday gathering.

      There’s something different about that, which I honestly don’t have energy/time to expound on right now (will someone take on that task?), but I wanted to at least clarify partially, because it’s exhausting seeing this particular kind of snarky comment about “women teaching” continue to go unclarified.

      • ian

        Clarice, let me make it clear that “expository preaching during a Sunday gathering” is exactly what I’m talking about. The complementarian view that women are not allowed to do this is based on some high suspect exegesis that in my view amounts to a misunderstanding of the Bible.

        • Clarice

          Right, and I get that. I was specifically addressing the comment that didn’t seem to understand that, in this argument and context, “teaching” means “expository preaching”, not just ANY kind of teaching. When people say “but isn’t Mary Kassian *teaching* men in her video?” the answer is “sure, and she’s free to do that, but not expository preaching, which is the actual issue”.”

          • AJG

            Hi Clarice. I’m afraid there are a number of hard-core complementarians (hereafter called C) that do believe that the command that a woman should not teach over a man extends into any discipline in life, including a university setting. The problem is that they see this as a distortion of God’s properly created order for men and women. That is why there is so much confusion on what C actually is. Is it an extreme form of patriarchy where women are to never have a position of authority over men? Is it a soft form where it is virtually indistinguishable from egalitarianism?

            Notice that Mary Kassian never explicitly explains what actions a couple should take to live a C lifestyle. Does this just mean the husband leads the family in Bible study? Does he make all the decisions for the family? Does the wife have to stay home and raise the children? What does C really mean in our day to day lives?

            It seems that C’s just want to soft-peddle a view of women being submissive to men and they fluff up the picture with platitudes like “We’re different, but equal!” or “You are free and happy when you live your life in the way the Bible (or rather, a specific Biblical interpretation) tells you to live.” I’d rather they just came out and say what they mean: that women are not equal to men in any way and we believe the Bible says so. That was the justification for slavery for a long time in this country. Eventually, that sinful attitude fell. The sooner that C’s state what they really mean in specific terms, the sooner we can get to work on pulling down that sinful view as well.

          • scottie


            “…in this argument and context, “teaching” means “expository preaching””

            Does it now. Can’t say I’ve ever come across that one in the bible.

            • Clarice

              Me neither. I didn’t say I *agree* with it, I’m just clarifying so that we can actually have a fruitful conversation! :)

            • Clarice

              What I mean to say is that we should be clear on the definition of terms. It seems to me that on the issue of “teaching,” in this debate, there’s some lack of clarity. What kind of teaching? Just any teaching? Preaching? Expository? Prophesy? What about small groups and blogs and videos…etc. It’s just good to be clear so that we don’t have a lot of smoke with no fire. There’s no use in hauling out the buckets if there’s no flame.

              From my perspective and in my sphere of Christianity the definition of “teaching” that is forbidden for a woman is actually expository preaching. (now I feel like I’m just repeating myself) :)

  • thatmom

    So they are sending Mary Kassian out front again to explain this nonsensical word? Maybe it would help if these folks could get together and come up with what they really mean. And if they would stop treating us like dummies it would help, too! Would the real complimentarian please stand up?

  • SM

    Kassian’s #1 “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 [sic] truths about Jesus that aren’t reflected by male alone or female alone.” IOW, female submission distinctly reflects the “truth” that Jesus submitted. Male authority distinctly reflects the authority of Jesus. How do single men and women uniquely reflect these distinct truths about Jesus since these truths are reflected only in relationships between males and females? Do all women then submit to all males? some males? Do all males exercise authority over all females? some females? If not, then do single males and females cease to reflect truths about Jesus?

    Kassian’s #2. “Complementarians believe that the Bible’s principles supersede tradition. They can be applied in every time and culture…Culture has changed. What complementarity looks like now is different than what it looked like sixty or seventy years ago. So throw out the cookie-cutter stereotype. It does not apply.”

    How should complementarianism look now in contrast to June Cleaver? In what ways should complementarian women look different than June Cleaver? In what way or ways is June Cleaver not the ideal? Who is the ideal for our culture today?

    Kassian’s #3. “A proletariat-bourgeois-type hierarchy has no place in complementarity” Kassian, I beleive, is creating her own straw-man here. I have not heard of an argument against complementarianism based the argument that complementaranism sets up a a socio-economic class i.e. proletariat-bourgeois. The argument against complementarianism is that its theology creates a gender hierarchy by vesting in males/husbands a greater “responsibility to serve” aka headship aka authority that women do not have. Complementaranism constitutes a gender hierarchy. That’s the argument.

    Kassian’s #4 “Complementarity does not condone the patriarchal, societal oppression of women.” Good.

    “Technically, “patriarchy” simply means a social organization in which the father is the head of the family.”

    Curiously, Kassian’s definition of patriarchy, which is easily available, is lacking. Patriarchy is a structure in which the pater/male/father/husband rules and holds authority over women, children, and property. Consequently, women are subordinates out ranked in this system by the husband/father.

    “’Patriarchy’ is regarded as a misogynistic system in which women are put down and squelched. That’s why we rejected the term “patriarchalism.”

    Kassian, et al she asserts rejected patriarchy because she claims feminists redefined the word. I am not aware that patriarchy as undergone a change in definition at any time. Moreover, she asserts “patriarchy” was rejected because it was their perception that patriarchy has connotations of being “misogynistic” and oppressive towards women. What is noteworthy is that it was not rejected on the grounds that it means pater/husband/father archy/rule. So, Kassian is not denouncing patriarchy and is not rejecting the idea that complementaranism is patriarchy (male rule). She is denouncing the oppressive rule of women. They expect husbands to play nice.

    Kassian’s #5 “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.”

    IOW,we are back at #1. Males shine the spotlight of Christ by exercising authority over wives. According to Kassian this is not done alone but in relationship to the other sex, so presumably husbands and wives. However, since males distinctly display a different truth about Jesus than females, how do single males exercise their male authority in order to display this truth about Jesus? Over which women? single? married? both? do single men display this truth about Jesus? Or, do they not?

    Complementaritively (it’s a made up noun, so I made up an adverb)females shine a spotlight on a different truth about Jesus–submission to male authority. According to Kassian this is not done alone but in relationship to the other sex, so presumably wives and husbands. However, since females distinctly display a different truth about Jesus than males, how do single females show submission to male authority in order to display this truth about Jesus? To which men? single? married? both? do single women display this truth about Jesus? Or, do they not?

    According to Kassian and TGC, males and females are not to fully reflect the nature of Christ, only role play a part according to their sex. Why can’t males, married and single, reflect Christ’s character in submission to another, even a female? Why can’t females, married and single, reflect Christ’s authority, whether sacrificial service or decisive action for the benefit of another, even males?

  • JohnM

    In the first place I’m inclined to think we’ve come to over-use and under-define “gifted”, generally and not just with regard to this topic. Even if that is not the case, there is always the possibility of misjudging or overrating one’s own supposed giftedness and the possibility of confusing what we want to do with what we are gifted to do. Besides all that, simply declaring that some women are gifted to lead churches or head families and therefore should be allowed to only begs the question. For those reasons I’ve never found the let-women-lead-as-they-are-gifted argument all that compelling.

    Personally I don’t prefer to call myself a “complementarian”. I simply don’t find it necessary. Further, the very term appears to cede ground to gender egalitarian arguments. Finally, and with all due respect to Mary Kassian, complementarians, tend to undermine their point by constantly emphasizing what complementarianism DOESN’T mean.

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  • scottie

    Mary Kassian says,

    “If you hear someone tell you that complementarity means you have to… tolerate abuse,… 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.”


    Ok, so we don’t believe “her” when she says such things. But do we believe a man when he him say such things?

    I would just love to hear Mary respond to the fact that a primary coiner of the term (to whom she was a helper) has said that complementarian does, in fact, mean tolerating abuse that physically injures for a night.

    It is apparent he gets a pass to say such things. He has some kind of (napoleonic) superauthority that enables him to escape public accountability from his peers.

    Or, perhaps too much mess has been created in the attempt to define complementarity, which seems entirely resistant to such a process. And it’s just too messy to “go there”. My read is that the tidiest solution, therefore, has been deemed to appoint a miniSTRESS of propaganda to see if she can smooth it all over.

  • Nell

    I guess I need to point out the obvious here. I have been a Christian for decades, involved in excellent churches. I have been friends with both comps and egals. I have NEVER once heard anyone say “Hey, now I get the Trinity because of the wonderful marriage of Ted and Susan. Yep, she submits like Jesus. Yep he is the authority like Jesus. I am going to follow the faith because of this absolutely wonderful example.”

    Also, I have some concerns about men expressing authority like Christ. Christ does so perfectly. Men do so quite imperfectly. I have no problem in submitting, with wild abandon, to the authority of Christ.

    But many men, who claim the role of “Christlike” authority seem to take on the issues of pride and arrogance. There are also many women who are told to submit and “endure abuse for a season.” This is not the submission demonstrated by Christ (towards the Father) either.

    If the marriage relationship is supposed to be a witness to the Trinity, Jesus, or whatever, in my opinion, we are failing, miserably. It is a model that is talked about, but is not recognizable. Could it be that we are not interpreting this correctly?

  • Laura

    On the “husband’s sacrificial love” article now up there is a comment that states this:

    This difference in how we are wired also impacts the things we think are important or pressing in our world. For instance, she may feel a need for us to connect or for us to connect better with the children, when I feel nothing even close to that. In that case, my sacrifice may be to defer to her intuition or judgment in that situation rather than watch the game, lounge on the sofa, or work on a project that I think is pressing.

    This is fine but in my book it is an illustration of a wife showing leadership in the home. I have absolutely zero problem with a wife showing leadership. In my mind, true complementarity would be the switching back and forth of roles as appropriate at a given time or in a given situation. But I think complementarians say that it is a husband’s God-given, gender-driven role to lead at all times, right, and it’s the wife’s job to be led?

    • BryAna

      Idealy, it should be husband leading wife, leading children. They complement each other… not at odds. In a different article on her website, Mary Kassian described it like dancing… Man leading and woman following and them being in unison together.. I didn’t understand what that meant until I went to a dance lesson with friends. We learned to waltz.. women have to step backwards and trust the man to guide her, while the man steps forward. At times, I was a terrible follower, causing my male partner to trip.. taking steps in the wrong spot… At times he was a terrible leader.. causing me to bump into other couples and stepping on my feet and making me take big steps. But when we both did what we were supposed to was beautiful and like floating on air. He couldn’t take all of the credit and neither could I, but our roles in the dance were different. It’s the same in our roles as woman and men. When both sides do what they are supposed to, its quite beautiful and a great thing to be in unison. The trouble is when a man or woman takes advantage of their roles… for example.. a man being unloving, forceful, and inconsiderate or a woman doing the same; This is NOT what complementarinism supports. We are equals.. but different. Our worth to Christ is the same. God doesn’t say that men are better and therefore are leaders… He has simply set it up this way. And men are also called to submit to Christ… they aren’t left to themselves to do what they want.. they have to submit too. If a Husband is submitting to God.. and the wife submitting to her husband.. and the children submitting to both parents… wouldn’t it be that all are submiting to Christ? It ultimately comes down to us (all) letting go of control and trusting God.

      • Donna B.

        That is a beautiful picture and analogy.

        I think the reason so many here are having trouble with this is they want a checklist of wives do this, husbands do that. And they can check to see if its on the list.

        We also want to always get our own way.

        Real Christian life doesn’t allow for EITHER person to always get their way.

      • SM

        Comment by Angie 7/25 on Kassian’s “Mutuality is the Cha-cha-cha of Complementarity” to which you refer:

        “As far as the dance analogy, those highly stylized dances are choreographed, memorized and well practiced to produce the effect. Also, in social dances, if the dance floor is full, the male partner is at an advantage because the female partner is dancing backwards. However, life is not like that. In life, the husband does not have the advantage of foresight for how the dance of life will pan out. Life is not choreographed and there are not practice runs. The husband does not always have the advantage of seeing what’s ahead to avoid the inevitably “bumps” on life’s dance floor. The dance analogy is beautiful, but it is woefully inadequate. Male led dance is traditional, but female led dance is appropriate, too. A female leads if a male partner is not as passionate about a dance, does not have the steps memorized, doesn’t have a sense of rhythm, can’t follow the music, lacks a repertoire of moves, or is not especially gifted at a certain dance. He may be gifted at or prefer another dance or routine in which he may lead.

        Also, in male led or female led dancing there is NO hierarchy as there is in complementarian/patriarchal marriage. The oft used analogies of boss-employee or higher ranking officer-lower ranking officer seem to better express the hierarchical relationship of complementarian/patriarchal marriage.”

        Kassian, TGC, et al are promoting complementarianism aka patriarchy which is a hierarchical pattern of relationship, so the dance analogy doesn’t fit as there is no hierarchy among dance partners.

        • Donna B.

          Question…you say the husband does not know how the dance of life will turn out.

          Does the wife?

          • SM

            I think you missed the point of the comment. Your question implies an argument that was not made.

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  • Jonathan Aigner

    “We want to see women flourish, and we believe they do so when men and women together live according to God’s Word.”

    I see two problems with this statement.

    1. I see it as pretty patronizing when patriarchalists (I don’t use “complementarian,” since it’s nothing but nuanced patriarchy) give the usual “look at all these wonderful things you can do” argument. No matter how many items are on these lists, the list is never as long as the men’s. So as much as you deny it, you’re still telling women they’re “not quite,” “almost,” “just under” what a man is.

    2. We have really, really got to move past the idea that complementarians are the ones who take the Bible seriously. All the evangelical egalitarians I know hold the Bible in high esteem. We are egalitarians because of the Bible’s witness. And you good folks contextualize just as much as we do.

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  • Chris

    I have just starred to do some research on Christianity and women and would like to ask some questions on what I have come across. These are just my reactions to some of the things that I first, why do you think that the God of the bible women as.the.lowest form of.human life ( God is head of man, man is head of women- women being the.lowest)? I’m not saying that anyone on this blog said that, that is my interpretation of the bible. Do you all think that women need head (masters) to make.all their decisions for them?

    • Mel

      The lowest form of life? It is really hard to take you seriously that you would even word it that way.

      We are made in the image of God. It is not possible to be the lowest form of life. We are the carriers of life. No man will ever have that privilege. We are the way that Jesus came into the world. It was women that stayed near the cross. It was women that saw Him risen and brought the news.

      God is our shield and protector. A man is supposed to do the same. A man that does not see God in the proper way, His holy perfect gentle loving patient character, will never be a good leader.
      Leading does not mean bossiness.
      I know plenty of liberal non-believing men that want to tell me how to live, how to think, what to believe, even how to value myself “for my own good”. It’s kind of hypocritical.

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  • Fred Mok

    This is a good article and I completely agree as a soft complementarian. I can’t see the other comments though.

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  • scottie

    AJG —

    “They are either talking past one another or someone is being deliberately deceitful about what complementarianism actually means.”

    I think it’s both. It’s fairly clear what the logical conclusion is to complementarianism. For those who make the effort (and/or have the guts) to think it through (much reputation, revenue, and control is at stake here). I am assuming the complementarian spokespeople have done so. I think it comes down to the degree to which these people champion principle over their own public image and that of the comp doctrine. Contradictory explanations, from varying levels of honesty and forthrightness.