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Man and woman conversation silhouette

Many of us writers struggle to write beautifully about beautiful things. Our words fall lifeless like stones. Our imaginations mist and evaporate. We look drop-jawed at stunning wonders, feeling the ineffable sense of the thing. But when we speak or write, by comparison, we’re crude and clumsy.

That’s how I feel about most evangelical grappling with complementarity. To be clear, I can’t do much better. I’m as clumsy and skill-less as the next guy. And it is usually guys with this problem. We talk about “muscular”-this and “testosterone”-that. We write as if we’re in a musty males-only weight room surrounded by wannabe body builders who grunt, yell, and throw the weight around as if volume and recklessness create muscle. But when complementarian women celebrate gender and roles, they manage the beautiful much more thoroughly.

Perhaps we men should be quiet for a while. I know we’re to lead, and here’s an area to lead in, too. But we shouldn’t lead if we don’t know what we’re talking about or how to talk about an area. Then we should learn and then learn to speak or write in a manner that’s worthy of the calling. We want to learn to talk about complementarity (which is to say, people) in ways that portray the subject as beautifully as it (they) must exist in God’s mind. Seems that should be our goal.

Splashing Too Far Down Stream

Here’s where I think we go wrong: We begin in the wrong place. Often the conversations begin with questions about “what a woman can do” or defenses of “male headship.” Those are appropriate and necessary and beautiful conversations in their place. But getting them in their place seems to be a thorny problem. These subjects are necessary but they’re downstream. And if we broach these subjects downstream with all the tranquility-disrupting water-displacing splash of used tires illegally tossed in, then we can’t be surprised that we find ourselves unsettled and seemingly always embattled.

As I survey recent offerings across the spectrum, it seems to me that much of the discussion turns institutional too quickly. And when the conversation turns institutional–whether home or family–we’re quickly into power-related questions and struggles. There’s nothing beautiful about scrapes over power, even if we use more palatable terms like “authority.” Our favorite and biblical terms can themselves be freighted with worldly and sub-Christian meanings, with ugly images that defy the beautiful ideal we see.

A related problem is that the conversation turns pragmatic too quickly. We’re trying to have “walk it out” conversations before we first enjoy the thing itself. I am a man. It’s an indicative that proceeds the imperative to “act like men.” So it is for our sisters, too. I suspect a deeper embrace of simply being male or female–enjoying the being with less self-consciousness–might change the conversations about doing it. And I suspect there are no shortage of persons in our congregations who are struggling at the level of being long before they come to the doing, for whom narrowly rigid instruction about the doing only adds anxiety about being. This is not an issue where you can “fake it until you make it.”

I know, of course, that a lot of writing is aimed at defining what it is to be male or female. But when we’re done writing and reading those pieces, how often are we left enjoying being male and female? That, I think, is a useful litmus test for how we write and speak about this beautiful reality.

Or, are we left feeling as if we’re trying on pants two sizes too small: hopping, pulling and shimmying our thighs through increasingly narrow pant legs, losing balance, catching ourselves on dressing room walls, taking deep hold-it-in breaths to stuff our mid-sections behind a wall of denim not shaped for us, and wrestling the top button into a little recalcitrant slit with strenuously trembling arms? (Men: stop wearing skinny jeans!) If putting on complementarity feels that way, it may be an indication that we need an understanding of complementarity–at least its practice–that comes in different sizes for different shapes. For there is no one way to be a faithful man or woman, or no one way to faithfully play out the roles of husband and wife, or no one way to involve women in the service of the church. There is in all of this a particularity, a considering of the specific wife or husband, man or woman, local church, that must not be lost.

Swimming Back Up Stream

Perhaps some of our difficulties with writing beautifully stem from an imbalance in emphasis. As we root our understanding of gender and roles in the creation account, perhaps we might be wise to revisit there a missional purpose for gender. First comes the imago Dei–in His image and likeness He made them (Gen. 1:26a). Second comes dominion–to rule over all creation as stewards (Gen. 1:26b). Third comes the explanation–male and female He created them (Gen. 1:27). If there’s any significance to the order here, it must mean something along the lines of:

1. Woman is not an after-thought in the mind of God, but she bears her Creator’s image and likeness from the start and as fully as man.

2. Woman is not warming the bench in God’s mission, but has an appropriate role to play in exercising dominion as a woman who was not an after-thought in the mind of God.

3. Woman is not the same thing or interchangeable with man, but equal and different, complementary yet unique in both displaying God’s image and likeness and in dominion over creation.

If we spend all our time on some version of the third point, we’ll be in danger of not fully embracing and working out the first two. The so-called creation mandate falls on male and female differently, but also together. It works itself out in one way in the home, but another among persons not married. So our view of gender and roles has to adequately conceive of and celebrate being men and women apart from marriage. For there’s something beautiful about each gender that needs plumbing, exploring, discovering and celebrating over and over again in each generation. Perhaps if we begin where the texts begin we’ll find more shining, glimmering, overflowing trunks of treasure through which we can run our fingers as we laugh with delight in the discovery.


Anyway, I’m not so much concerned in this post about finer points of doctrine here. I’m concerned about how we speak of this beautiful reality. And I suspect how we speak has a lot to do with what drives us to the discussion in the first place. If it’s power that drives us, then we’ll be essentially brutal in our discourse. If it’s flourishing, we’ll find elegant and alluring ways of depicting this ineffable and wonderful reality. We might also find ways of looking at other complementarians who differ in practice without speaking of them harshly, roughly or suspiciously.

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21 thoughts on “I’m Still a Complementarian… And There’s Still That “But””

  1. Knox Calvin says:

    As is the case in so many of these delicate gender issues, the American mind set, that is so focused on equality, libertarian freedom and choice, has lost sight of the reality that it is in this great diversity of gender that the unity of the body under the Lordship of Christ, comes into full view. Until we bow the knee to the Lordship of Christ, yield to His headship, and revel in the created order that is revealed in Genesis, we will continue to be like the disciples, who while Jesus was telling them he was going to Calvary, argued about who was most important in the kingdom they were creating in their minds.

  2. Curt Day says:

    What is so often not mentioned with being complementary is whether there are roles that are shared or interchangeable depending on a couple by couple basis. That is because for some people, to show that being complementary is right, we approach the division of roles in an all-or-nothing manner. But is that right? Are there roles we share or roles that are interchangeable on a couple by couple or church member basis. For example, is it wrong that, in my marriage, the wife knows how to make and repair things that I don’t have the aptitude to do. In addition, she is the organizer and takes care of the finances partly because she is more skilled at doing that than I am. I myself am more musician minded in that I play and compose but am not skilled at some things she can do. I am also an activist and more sensitive about certain issues than she is. Does this violate anyone’s conception of what it means to be complementary?

    It seems that with the reformed faith, we have such a compulsion to use deduction to determine what reality should be for everyone that we have developed a self-inflicted inability to use induction. With induction, we judge on a case by case basis after listening and doing some investigation. With deduction, we plug the question into our theological computer and read out the answer. Thus, there is no need to listen or investigate when using deduction or, I should say, when over using deduction.

    Thus, I agree with Thiabiti here in that we often start the discussion on being complementary in the wrong place. Only I would add that, in addition to what he wrote, we all too often, in trying to give a uniform answer, start with a partial answer that has at times already said to much and thus it directs some of us down some wrong paths.

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Hi Curt,

      Thanks for joining the conversation, bro. You raise some good points to further the dialogue.

      With regard to working things out on a couple-by-couple basis, I think you’re absolutely correct. I’m not living with my wife in an understanding way (1 Pet. 3:7) if I treat her like she needs to be some other man’s wife! In fact, I lead my wife into the performance trap that so many wife fight so hard to escape. I would say that there are tasks that can and ought to vary from couple to couple (like, who does the finances or even who does repairs–my wife, the tomboy daughter of a lifelong mechanic–knows much more about cars than I do!). Also, tasks can vary over time with a given a couple. So early on, my wife managed the finances. Today, I do. That’s had a lot to do with the seasons of life we’ve passed through. What’s important is that that variance in tasks doesn’t push or draw us out of our fundamental roles. The tasks and the roles are not strictly synonymous, though there are some tasks the scripture assigns to particular roles (Titus 2; 1 Tim. 5; etc).

      Also, I agree with what you’re saying about deduction and induction. There is a strong tendency in some quarters to deduce some pretty specific and sometimes rigid tasks that, in my opinion, go beyond what the texts requires. So we get a situation where a person can reduce the scripture to one application rather than admit a possible range of applications. We have to guard against that, in my opinion, if we’re going to also contend for a meaningful practice of Christian freedom in this area.

      Hope that helps!

      1. Dave Brown says:

        Thabiti, thanks for your helpful follow-up to Curt. Appreciated, as always, your practical, gospel-grounded blog and particularly the reminder that there’s something deeper, more beautiful in complementarity than often gets expressed and practiced.

        Locking Arms Together for the Sake of the Gospel,

      2. Timothy Joseph says:

        First, I am not sure a meaningful practice of Christian freedom should be our goal in this instance. We have clear commands to love, submit and exercise authority in this area. The issues involved are many and have certainly been approached with unbiblical motives on both sides. Advocating freedom to decide for ourselves what or how these texts will apply to each of us individually seems to me to be also unbiblical.
        Obviously, circumstances and situations differ but this is the power of the scriptures, to remain timely. I fully agree that we can address this issue with greater sensitivity, it is our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who we interacting with! The fundamental disagreement is not with gender roles such as mechanic or musician but with relationship within the Church and home as it relates to authority and teaching.
        Within the home, the answer is as Paul wrote, submit to one another,Husbands love your wife as Christ loves the Church; wives submit to your husbands as to the Lord.
        Even in a complementarian view, obeying these commands results in a marriage where both parties elevate the other realizing they are not two but one!
        Certainly, within the Church if limit ourselves to the commands to not teach or exercise authority within the scope they exist, also remembering that the Spirit gives gifts to both genders we will acknowledge great opportunities for both women and men.


        1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

          Hi Tim,

          Thanks for joining the conversation. I think I agree with everything you said from your second paragraph down. But the texts in question do not require that every husband and wife look like every other husband and wife in their practice. That is where Christian freedom marries immensely. For me, at least, the debate isn’t about the roles and postures–I’m a complementarian (happily!). I’m asking the question: Must the call to lead or help, sacrifice or submit be worked out in precisely the same way in every couple? I think the answer to that is an obvious “no.” And if that’s the case, then we are in some degree speaking about Christian liberty at the level of applying clear commands from scripture.

          Further, I’d argue that if I’m correct about this aspect of freedom then it’s sin to take it away. We are not at liberty to bind people where Christ frees them.

          Does that make sense? Hope that helps.

  3. Mark says:

    “Or, are we left feeling as if we’re trying on pants two sizes too small: hopping, pulling and shimmying our thighs through increasingly narrow pant legs, losing balance, catching ourselves on dressing room walls, taking deep hold-it-in breaths to stuff our mid-sections behind a wall of denim not shaped for us, and wrestling the top button into a little recalcitrant slit with strenuously trembling arms? (Men: stop wearing skinny jeans!)”

    This description is way too accurate to come from anything but personal experience. Thabiti – do you have a confession to make?

    Haha I kid, I kid. In all seriousness, thanks a lot for this article! I agree that words often fail us (and we fail more often in our words) in describing the beauty of God’s design for womanhood and manhood.

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      lol! Hi Mark. Yes, I do have a confession. While I don’t wear skinny jeans, my weight gain has made some of my jeans feel skinny! :-)

      I need to get to work on my beach body :-)

      Much love,

      1. We need to talk about some *kale* reconciliation, brother. ;)

        In seriousness, though, thank you for being a faithful advocate of a more excellent way forward in the ongoing discussions about complementarianism. Many women who have been part of the most recent rounds of discussion have been discouraged at the way our arguments about the very points you make have been ignored. Thank you for speaking up, and may your tribe increase. :)

  4. Jamie Carter says:

    Sometimes I wonder if interpreting everything in terms of authority and gender is half of the problem. The Bible doesn’t say which gender can do what tasks, but culture usually does. Mechanics – why is that masculine? Music – why is that feminine? As a single individual, it is all left up to me to do both. I compliment myself.

    1. Elle says:

      This is such a valid point, and I can identify with where you’re coming from, having lived as a single adult for several years. I earned an income, took out the trash, took my car to the mechanic… all the things that had been left to my father when I was growing up. I may not have been entirely comfortable with all of those things, but that doesn’t mean I was sinning or stepping out of my “role” to do what I did.

      This is where I think many complementarians have gone wrong in the past, by casting judgment on single career women and feminists, as if the need and desire to earn money some kind of subversive act. And that’s one of the problems with reducing gender to “roles.” There will always be women who do “masculine” things and men who do “feminine” things, which all depend greatly on culture anyway. I am female because God made me female, and I complement my husband because God made him male. We do not need to role play to attain this.

  5. Martin says:

    Since we are fast approaching Pentecost, I have been thinking a lot about the Holy Spirit and His work and presence among us. And this is where we fall short regarding issues such as complementarianism. In other words, what is the Spirit revealing to us about gender roles and the Body of Christ?

    Sometimes I feel our hermeneutical approach to this issue diminishes our reliance on the Holy Spirit. It is though we give little thought to spiritual sensitivity (being sensitive to gentle prods of the Spirit). Instead, we become entrenched in positions reflected by terms such as Biblical Manhood and Biblical Womanhood, which are not even biblical terms. They were created to support a specific agenda.

    The greatest gift Jesus granted us was the Holy Spirit. We need to hear His voice. The Spirit of God will not be chained to our systematic doctrines, our very human interpretations of God’s Word or even tradition. He may want to reveal something new to us and flip us upside down like He has done before.

    As I have grown in Christ, drawn nearer to him and searched the mind of God, I have moved away from some of the black/white categorizations our churches preach.

    We need to become not only interpreters of Scripture, but also interpreters of the Holy Spirit.

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Dear Martin,

      Thanks for joining the conversation, bro. But since it is God the Holy Spirit who inspired the Scripture and carried men along to write it, then I’m inclined to believe that “interpreting the Spirit” as you put it cannot mean arriving at positions contrary to the scripture the Spirit inspired. To do so would be to make God contradict himself. I believe in subjective promptings and the like, but they’re never to hold the authority of scripture. That wasn’t even true of the apostles who had tremendous encounters with the Spirit of God but who exhort us to trust “the more sure word of prophecy.”

      Much love, brother.

  6. Kamilla says:

    Of course, Catholic Christians already have this all laid out for us. Most recently, beautifully and fully by John Paul II in his Theology of the Body. But also by gifted and wise women such as St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross (my patron Saint), Dame Alice von Hildbrand and Sr. Prudence Allen. Sr. Prudence’s work is thoroughly comprehensive with the third and final volume expected from Eerdmans next year.

    In all honesty, the evangelical inability to articulate a deep and beautiful theology of the sexes is one of the things which drove me to Catholic sources and, eventually, to enter the Church.

    Evangelicals have got to get over their fear/dislike of philosophy, natural law, anthropology, teleology, etc. If they are ever to approach a deep and satisfying theology of the sexes.

    Of course, I wish you all would just give up the battle to reinvent the wheel and join us over on the other side of the Tiber :-)

    1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

      Hi Kamilla,

      I pray you’re well. As you might expect, we’re not swimming the Tiber around here, as to do so might gain a great deal of philosophy and human wisdom but would be to forsake the gospel itself. We wish you would finish the lap and come back to the Truth :-)

      Every blessing,

      1. Kamilla says:

        it’s profoundly prophetic, godly wisdom as documents like Humanae Vitae show. No mere human wisdom lead Paul VI to correctly predict the effects of embracing contraception. In fact, less than 100 years ago, all Christian bodies agreed on the evils of birth control and 150 years ago, it was Protestants that actually lead the fight against its acceptance in society. How far you have fallen in forgetting that wisdom!

        I understand you don’t believe anyone at TGC is swimming he Tiber. No one does until it actually happens ;-)

        1. Thabiti Anyabwile says:

          lol. Good to interact with you. Though we’ll never agree on the papacy, authority or the gospel until you come to the light of the knowledge of the truth :-), we can most certainly agree on many things for which God in His common grace has given us understanding.

          Until He brings you to Wittenberg :-),

  7. Martin says:


    Thank you for the courtesy of a response. I figured someone would bring up the notion that I might entertain the notion that the Spirit would contradict Scripture. I assure you, I do not. However, He may very well disrupt our interpretations of Scripture and He may very well clarify uncertainties that we hold. He is neither bound by culture, nor by human constructs we adopt.

    Here’s my point. I think many of us (I for too long, I fear) live as though the Holy Spirit is the silent partner of the Trinity. He may be a gentle counselor and He may appear passive, but He is also bold revealer of truth.

    The way many of us deal with the concept of complementarianism, is by arguing about cultural context and the definitions of words. I believe this diminishes the personhood of individuals and the vibrant gifts God has imparted to us as individuals. The debate usually devolves into restrictions the church puts on women (yes, it also includes the responsibilities of men). But, similar debates have occurred in the past on issues such as slavery and opinions regarding biblical forms of civil government.

    What we really need to do is ask “what is the right thing to do?” It can be a very clarifying question. I ask it of myself as a father, a husband and a follower of Jesus. As a father, I would not hold my daughter back from anything good that she aspires to. And, if I love my wife as I love my own body, I would not hold her back from any good thing she seeks to do. I have followed the Lord for over 45 years and I believe the Holy Spirit has clarified the decisions I have made in the light of Scripture.

    I leave you with one conviction I have recently come to. Males can share their authority. Even if authority is imprinted on the male gene, men have it within their authority to extend grace to their sisters in the Body of Christ by sharing that authority (in full) with spiritually mature women. It is not and abdication or relinquishing of that authority, it is grace extended to women and the spiritually mature thing to do. Grace is the fulfillment of the law (in this case, the laws or rules of church polity). Perhaps one reason Jesus gave us the Holy Spirit is so that we would grow into a greater understanding of grace.

    Now, I could be wrong. But, I have come to this position through contemplating the full narrative of Scripture and, I hope, through wisdom given by the Holy Spirit. I am a complementarian – not according to gender, but by gifting.


    P.S. I do like your postings.

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Thabiti Anyabwile

Thabiti Anyabwile is a pastor for Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, DC and a council member of The Gospel Coalition.

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