10 Things You Should Know about Complementarianism
I’m a bit hesitant about posting this article, for the simple fact that there are differing versions of what is known as complementarianism. Although there are several foundational truths that all complementarians embrace, differences emerge when it comes to application in the local church and in para-church ministries. So be aware that not all complementarians will necessarily agree with the way I articulate the concept.
(1) I’ll begin with identifying some foundational truths on which both complementarians and egalitarians agree.
Both complementarians and egalitarians agree that men and women are equally created in the image of God, and that neither is more or less the image of God than the other. Both agree that men and women are equal in personal dignity, that neither is more or less worthy or of more or less value as human beings. Both insist that men and women should treat each other with kindness and compassion and love, and that any and all forms of abuse or disrespect or dishonor must be denounced as sin and resisted. Both complementarians and egalitarians believe that women should be actively involved in ministry. Complementarians agree with egalitarians and celebrate the fact that women, for example, served as “co-workers” with Paul and held the office of deacon.
(2) Where complementarians and egalitarians disagree is whether women can serve as the Senior Pastor or as a governing Elder in the local church, what I call senior governmental authority. Egalitarians believe the Bible permits women to hold such positions of leadership, while complementarians do not (1 Timothy 2:12-15; 3:1-7).
(3) I embrace a very flexible form of complementarianism. What this means is that I am extremely reluctant to place restrictions on anyone of either gender or any age in the absence of explicit biblical instruction to that effect. In other words, if I am going to err, it is on the side of freedom. In my opinion, the only restrictions placed on women concern what I call senior governmental authority in the local church. I have in mind, as noted above, (a) the primary authority to expound the Scriptures in the regular, weekly, corporate assembly of a local church, and enforce their doctrinal and ethical truths on the conscience of all God’s people, and (b) the authority to exercise final governmental oversight of the body of Christ.
Therefore, unlike a number of other complementarians, as long as the principle of male headship is honored in the above two respects, I believe women can lead worship, lead small groups, can assist in the celebration of both baptism and the Lord’s Supper, can serve as deacons (or deaconesses), can chair church committees, can lead in evangelistic and church planting outreach, can (and should) be consulted by the local church Eldership when decisions are being made, and can contribute to virtually every other capacity of local church life. Women should be encouraged to pray and prophesy in corporate church meetings (1 Cor. 11) and should be given every opportunity to develop and exercise their spiritual gifts.
One of the things we do at Bridgeway Church here in OKC is to have a group of some ten ladies who rotate each week in the public reading of the Scripture text on which I’m preaching.
(4) That being said, complementarianism asserts that God has created both men and women in his image, of equal value and dignity as human persons, but with a distinction in the roles and responsibilities each is to fulfill in both church and home. All complementarians assert that these two assertions are perfectly and practically compatible with each other. Complementarianism asserts that functional differences between men and women in church and home, as expressed in the biblical terms “headship” and “submission”, do not diminish or jeopardize their ontological equality.
(5) Complementarianism believes that submission to rightful authority, whether wives to husbands or children to parents or Christians to elders in the church or all citizens to the state is a noble and virtuous thing, that it is a privilege, a joy, something good and desirable and consistent with true freedom, and above all honoring and glorifying to God.
(6) My understanding of complementarianism is that male headship in the church and in the home is designed by God to facilitate the spiritual growth of women and wives and to provide the loving and gentle protection and provision that those shaped in God’s image always need.
Male headship does not mean that a wife must sit passively and endure the sin or the abuse of the husband, as if submission means she has no right to stand up for what is true and good or to resist her husband’s evil ways.
There are several things to keep in mind when it comes to male headship in the home and marriage. Husbands are never commanded to rule their wives, but to love them. Headship is never portrayed in Scripture as a means for self-satisfaction or self-exaltation. Headship is always other-oriented. Headship is not the power of a superior over an inferior. Human nature is sinfully inclined to distort the submission of the wife into the superiority of the husband. Headship is never to be identified with the issuing of commands. Headship does not mean that the husband must make every decision in the home. Unfortunately, some men have mistakenly assumed that it undermines their authority for their wives to take the initiative in certain domestic matters. This is more an expression of masculine insecurity and fear than it is godly leadership.
(7) What, then, is male headship? Headship is more a responsibility than a right. Headship is the authority to serve and the opportunity to lead. Headship is always Scripturally circumscribed. Husbands have never been given the authority to lead their families in ways that are contrary to the Bible. On a related note, if a wife is ever asked or told by her husband to do something that violates Scripture, she is not only free to disobey him, she is obligated to do so. Headship does entail the responsibility to make a final decision when agreement cannot be reached. This final decision, however, may on occasion be to let his wife decide. Headship entails gentleness and sensitivity (Col. 3:18-19).
Headship does not give men the right to be wrong. Simply because God has invested in the husband the authority to lead does not give him the freedom to lead in ways that are contrary to God’s Word. Headship means honoring one's wife as a co-heir of the grace of life (1 Peter 3:7). Headship means loving and caring for one's wife as much as we love and care for ourselves (Eph. 5:28-29) and as much as Christ loves and cares for us (Eph. 5:25-27).
(8) My understanding of biblical complementarianism also has implications for the meaning of submission. “Submission” (Gk., hupotasso) carries the implication of voluntary yieldedness to a recognized authority. Biblical submission is appropriate in several relational spheres: (a) the wife to her husband (Eph. 5:22-24); (b) children to their parents (Eph. 6:1); (c) believers to the elders of the church (Heb. 13:17; 1 Thess. 5:12); (d) citizens to the state (Rom. 13); (e) servants (employees) to their masters (employers) (1 Pt. 2:18); and (f) each believer to every other believer in humble service (Eph. 5:21).
Submission is not grounded in any supposed superiority of the husband or inferiority of the wife (see Gal. 3:28; 1 Pt. 3:7). Submission does not mean a wife is obligated to follow should her husband lead her into sin. Submission does not mean the wife must sacrifice her freedom nor does it entail passivity. Husbands who exercise godly leadership can be introverts and wives who submit can be extroverts.
Submission does not entail silence. Many mistakenly think a wife is unsubmissive if she ever: criticizes her husband (constructive criticism that is lovingly motivated and corrective in nature is not inconsistent with godly submission); makes requests of her husband (in particular, that her husband and family act responsibly in private and public; submission of the wife is not an excuse for sin or sloth or sloppiness in the husband); or teaches her husband (cf. Prov. 31:26; Acts 18:26; it is not inconsistent with godly submission that a wife be more intelligent or more articulate than her husband; on a personal note, I’ve probably learned more from my wife than from any other living soul).
(9) Submission is the disposition to honor and affirm a husband's authority and an inclination to yield to his leadership. John Piper puts it this way:
“[Submission] is an attitude that says, 'I delight for you to take the initiative in our family. I am glad when you take responsibility for things and lead with love. I don't flourish when you are passive and I have to make sure the family works.' But the attitude of Christian submission also says, 'It grieves me when you venture into sinful acts and want to take me with you. You know I can't do that. I have no desire to resist you. On the contrary, I flourish most when I can respond creatively and joyfully to your lead; but I can't follow you into sin, as much as I love to honor your leadership in our marriage. Christ is my King.’”
Submission is fundamentally an attitude and act of obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 5:22). Submission is a commitment to support one's husband in such a way that he may reach his full potential as a man of God.
(10) What about submission when the wife is a Christian, but her husband is not?
Several things should be kept in mind (see 1 Peter 3:1-7). Submission does not mean she must agree with everything her husband says. 1 Peter 3:1 indicates that she is a believer and he is not. Thus she disagrees with him on the most important principle of all: God! Her interpretation of ultimate reality may well be utterly different from his. This indicates that submission is perfectly compatible with independent thinking. The woman in this passage has heard the gospel, assessed the claims of Christ, and embraced his atoning work as her only hope. Her husband has likewise heard the gospel and “disobeyed” it. “She thought for herself and she acted. And Peter does not tell her to retreat from that commitment” (John Piper).
Submission does not mean giving up all efforts to change her husband. The point of the passage is to tell a wife how she might “win” her husband to the Lord. Strangely enough, Peter envisions submission as the most effective strategy in changing the husband. Submission does not mean putting the will of one's husband above the will of the Lord Jesus Christ. Peter in no way suggests she should abandon her commitment to Christ simply because her husband is an unbeliever. This wife is a follower of Jesus before and above being a follower of her husband.
Submission to an unbelieving husband does not mean a wife gets her personal, spiritual strength from him. When a husband's spiritual nurturing and leadership is lacking, a Christian wife is not left helpless. She is to be nurtured and strengthened by her hope in God (v. 5). Finally, submission to an unbelieving husband is not to be done in fear but in freedom (see 1 Peter 3:6b).
As I said at the beginning, many complementarians will disagree with some of the ways we apply or implement our views here at Bridgeway. But my response is consistently the same: show me a text that either explicitly or by good and reasonable inference prohibits a woman from doing such things and we’ll put a stop to it. Otherwise, our practice will be to encourage, equip, and release women into those areas of ministry where they can make the best use of their gifts for the glory of God and the good of the church.