What is Complementarianism?

Beth Moore’s recent exit from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) over issues related to complementarianism has caused quite a few to ask what complementarianism is. I want to thank Mrs. Moore for making complementarianism a matter of interest. Moore’s exit from the SBC was unfortunate and seems to have mostly resulted from her own disdain and self-inflicted wounds. I in no way condone any abuse by sinful men in the SBC, but Moore was on a war path with an inevitable ending. You’ll notice that the SBC has not renounced Moore and still will promote her material. Moore’s disdain is her own and seems self-perpetuating. She was once a hard complementarian and seems to have now used the shifting culture as a marketing strategy by forsaking her own biblical convictions. Perhaps we will address that in an upcoming episode of The Ninety-Five.

Complementarianism has been taken for granted for so long in the church that it now seems a novel idea. People seem generally confused about what it entails and its place in theology. I replied to a Facebook post recently, which asked for input from a complementarian. After I replied, the author quickly revealed that he did not have the time to reason with me but disagreed—which, no matter his motives, helps no one come to any understanding whatsoever. I guess he really didn’t want input other than his own. Even when the big personalities of our time (e.g. Albert Mohler and John MacArthur) respond to the ignorance about complementarianism by referring primarily to the ecclesiastical office, such responses are reactionary rather than a reasoned response because they offer assertions in response to assertions concerning the elder office in the local church. Considering these things, I want to answer this question in three parts: 1) what is doctrinal complementarianism, 2) is complementarianism an ecclesiological issue, and 3) may women preach/teach with the elder authority of the local church?

What is doctrinal complementarianism?

We have experienced a tragic downgrade in the western church such that most westerners don’t seem to know how to do theology. For the most part, we have no idea how to read the Bible, discern its meaning, and apply the revelation to our lives. Instead, we are mostly in the habit of forming our opinions and cherry-picking certain biblical verses that seem to support our positions when plucked from their contexts. Further, we mix theological categories—in this instance by making complementarianism primarily an ecclesiological (the doctrine of the church) issue when the Bible uses complementarian language primarily concerning anthropology (the doctrine of humanity). The mixing of doctrinal categories is a large part of the reason why so many people misappropriate Scripture. They don’t do so purposefully. They simply don’t have the literary skillset or give enough attention to discern what subject biblical authors are talking about. As an example, when some read:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28).

they assume that there are no real ethnic or gender distinctions whatsoever in Christ—which is an anthropological egalitarian position. All people are equal, equal there meaning non-distinct. This is the current popular view, and we see it being applied in the sexual revolution, the new racialization agenda, cancel culture, and identity politics of our time. This biblical idea, non-distinction, is being appropriated for anthropological and ecclesiological purposes. When we read the following verse:

And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise (Galatians 3:29).

we recognize that the biblical statement is soteriological (the doctrine of salvation) rather than anthropological or ecclesiological. According to Scripture, then, there are no distinctions with regard to one’s salvation. All of those in Christ, no matter their distinctions, are uniform concerning their inheritance in Christ—not on all matters. So, in order to get to egalitarianism proper, one must mix doctrinal categories and generalize biblical principles in order to appropriate them to make application inconsistent with Scripture—something we should generally avoid.

Complementarianism also claims that all people are equal, but equality is defined differently. Egalitarian equality is non-distinct, whereas complementarian equality recognizes distinctions and promotes people based on design rather than desire. It is an anthropological doctrine. Doubtless, our anthropology informs our ecclesiology. Human relationships are a basically anthropological issue. So, instead of jumping to vague texts about the office of elder to argue about the role of women in the church, we will examine the basic relationship texts in the Bible.

The apostle, Paul, addressed manhood and womanhood often (Romans 1:18-32, 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, 14:33-36, Galatians 3:28, Ephesians 5:21-23, Colossians 3:18-19, 1 Timothy 2:11-15). Peter considered manhood and womanhood in his letter (1 Peter 3:1-7). Jesus talked about manhood and womanhood (Matthew 19:1-12). The Old Testament devoted space to the consideration of what it means to be a man or a woman (Genesis 1-3, Joel 2:28, Deuteronomy 22:5, Malachi 2:14-17).

Every single passage in Scripture concerning manhood and womanhood quotes or alludes to Genesis Chapters 1 and 2, especially the New Testament references. Scripture’s application concerning what it means to be a man or woman always comes from the proper exposition of Genesis 1 and 2.

Genesis 2:15-25

Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it. The Lord God commanded the man, saying, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely; but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die.” Then the Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.” Out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him. So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place. The Lord God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. The man said, “This is now bone of my bones, And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man.” For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.

Adam was created first and had the explicit responsibilities of being the representative ruler within God’s creation, even before the fall. Adam was the representative authority of God within God’s creation. Adam had the responsibility to steward creation and cultivate God’s garden. Adam was the glory of God in God’s own creation. By God’s command to Adam not to eat from the forbidden tree, we also know that it was Adam’s responsibility to bring the creation to dwell in the glory of God; he was representative head over all creation. Biblical manhood as we see in the creation of Adam, can be defined in this way:

  1. Men are created by God,
  2. to represent His authority in creation,
  3. to steward and cultivate creation,
  4. being the glory of God in creation,
  5. so that all of creation might dwell in God’s glory alone.

Biblical manhood has nothing to do with bravado or muscle mass. It has nothing to do athleticism. Biblical manhood is not about being a warrior or having it all together. Manhood is not about dominating people or oppressing women. We don’t see that model anywhere. Biblical manhood is about self-sacrifice, selflessness, and leading all of creation to know God more and dwell in His glory. If Jesus sacrificed Himself for the redemption of His creation and men are the glory of God in His creation, then we are to give up our preferences, comfort, and very lives for the redemption of the world, especially our wives. The way that a man is built physiologically is meant to enable him to fulfill God’s design in God’s own creation for God’s glory alone.

In Genesis 1:26, we read that people were created in God’s image. There has been some debate as to what exactly that means, but the basic truth is that people are God’s representation of Himself in His creation for His glory. So, humanity is the crown of creation and the glory of God represented in creation. Everything about God’s design for humanity, then, is meant intentionally to reveal something about Him (cf. Ephesians 5:32). When Adam was created as the representative head of creation, a divine truth about God’s sovereignty is communicated in the creation. As men sacrificially assume the role of representative authority on this earth, they testify explicitly to the absolute sovereignty of God alone. God spoke. These are His words, “It is not good for the man to be alone…” This reveals something about God’s very nature. First of all, He is not alone because of His triune nature. Second, God treasures right, healthy companionship. This story reveals the nature of our companionship with God.

God continued to speak, “I will make him a helper suitable for him.” The Hebrew word for helper means one who helps and the word for suitable means as a counterpart or complement (from which the “complementarian” designation is derived). Quite literally, the woman was designed by God to make the man complete and neither sex was complete without the other. Man, by himself, is just an incomplete picture of what God is doing. For God to be represented as He desires to be represented within His creation, there needed to be two genders and sexes as complements—one the representative head and the other a needed and celebrated helper.

Adam underwent the process of naming every creature on the earth. No creature was found to be his equal. There was no complement. There was no helper. Adam was the representative head of creation. He was to rule over creation. He could not have a complement over whom he was ruler. This is how we know that, according to the order of creation, men and women are equal in their worth and stature before God even though women are distinct in their actual femininity as the image of God.

God created the woman from Adam’s rib. Being God’s testimony to Himself in His own creation, we know that this represents a great divine truth. In Romans 11:36, Paul’s broad commentary on the Old Testament, the apostle wrote, “…from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.” Woman, who was the “mother of all the living” (Genesis 3:20), becomes the representation of all creation in this divine prelude. Creation comes from God and through God and to God, so the woman is created from the man and through the man and to the man. The woman is the image of God, representative of all God’s creative work and purpose for the whole of creation. In this way, the woman’s distinct purpose is grander and more wondrous than the sacrificial purpose of the man. That is worth so much more than anything the world can give women, certainly a higher place than egalitarian doctrine can grant women in our day. There is great worth in her being the weaker vessel (cf. 1 Peter 3:7). If the man is to be the sacrificial representative ruler in the likeness of Christ, then the woman is to be the celebrated treasure of redemption. Adam celebrated his complement, “This is now bone of my bones, And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man.” 

The New Testament confirms this truth. In 1 Corinthians 11:7 we read:

For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake.

Such is not a devaluing or misogynous statement in Scripture because women also have authority over their husbands (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:4). Biblical womanhood as we see in the creation of Eve, can be defined in this way:

  1. Created by God from man
  2. to be a companion to man,
  3. to be man’s suitable helper (complement,
  4. as his equal,
  5. to represent the wonder of all creation,
  6. as the object of God’s redemptive and unconditional love.

Women are not described as inferior to men. It is not explicitly the woman’s job to clean the house and cook the food for the man. Women are not barred from having their own careers. A woman is a woman because she is the picture of creation’s relationship to God. The way that a woman is built physiologically is purposefully done in order to enable her to fulfill God’s design in God’s own creation for the Glory of God alone. Biology agrees with Scripture; it is complementary.

Are these definitions of manhood and womanhood normative for all time, or was this the case only for Adam and Eve? When the Scriptures speak of Biblical manhood, they always get back to Genesis 2.

1 Corinthians 11:2-12

Now I praise you because you remember me in everything and hold firmly to the traditions, just as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God.

Ephesians 5:22-33

Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her, so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless. So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. Nevertheless, each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband.

1 Peter 3:3-7

Your adornment must not be merely external—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God. For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands; just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear. You husbands in the same way, live with your wives in an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered.

Do you notice how in each of these New Testament passages, the authors use the created order in Genesis 1 and 2 to make application for contemporary manhood and womanhood? So, God’s design for Adam and Eve is normative in every place and for every generation—though the application might vary. If it were not normative, the New Testament authors would not rely on the exposition of Genesis 1 and 2 as they made application to manhood and womanhood in certain contexts.

So, Scripture presents a basically complementarian anthropology that it perspicuously applies to relationships within the church and even liturgy, but it is still anthropological rather than ecclesiological. We mustn’t jump the gun, so to speak.

Is complementarianism an ecclesiological issue?

To put it bluntly, no. The pastoral office is one ecclesiological issue in view. Whether or not women can lead Bible studies or worship are different ecclesiological issues. Each one must be faced distinctly and biblically—just like whether or not men should be nursery workers or counsel women one-on-one. Though our anthropology necessarily informs our ecclesiology, these questions must be answered according to the ecclesiological instructions we receive from God—that is, if we believe Scripture is wholly authoritative and sufficient.

May women preach/teach with elder authority in the local church?

To answer this question, I will consider two epistles—1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, both of which deal basically with ecclesiology.

But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ. Every man who has something on his head while praying or prophesying disgraces his head. But every woman who has her head uncovered while praying or prophesying disgraces her head, for she is one and the same as the woman whose head is shaved. For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels. However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God. Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? (1 Corinthians 11:3-13).

Paul applied Old Testament complementarian anthropology to local church liturgy. Liturgically, women are to behave in a complementarian way, as are men. Yet, women, here, are allowed to both pray and prophesy in the congregational setting. So, to say that biblical complementarianism applies ecclesiologically such that women are barred from praying or prophesying in a congregational setting is to neglect Scripture. Yet, we do see that men and women present themselves differently when they pray or prophesy in the congregational setting—they present themselves differently based on the authority they represent in the created order. Men and women are equal, can do the same things in a congregational setting, but are instructed to be sure they represent the created order accurately and by God’s complementary design. These revelations do not yet get at the pastoral office or authority of the pulpit. 1 Corinthians is a basic ecclesiology.

1 Timothy is specifically polity oriented in the ecclesiological category.

For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying) as a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension. Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness. A woman must quietly receive instruction with entire submissiveness. But I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet. For it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve. And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint (1 Timothy 2:5-15).

Well-meaning complementarians refer to Paul’s instruction that women should not teach or exercise authority without much explanation. This verse cannot be interpreted correctly as a restriction on women from making any noise in the congregational setting—else it contradicts what we have gleaned form 1 Corinthians 11. Consider the progression of Paul’s instruction in this pastoral epistle:

  1. Paul begins with the place of Christ, who is the only mediator between God and people. From this we know that whatever comes next follows from the identity of Christ as mediator—a ransom for all.
  2. Paul identifies himself a preacher and apostle appointed for the cause of Christ as mediator.
  3. Therefore, he instructs both men and women to be humble in their posture and presentation of themselves.
  4. Part of a woman’s humble presentation is her willingness to learn. Paul instructs women to not teach or exercise authority over a man because Christ alone is mediator and the preaching office (the office of Paul) represents Him as a ransom for all.
  5. Paul refers to the order of creation and fall, anthropological complementarianism, to show that a local church’s polity reflects God’s redemptive work. God created Adam as a picture of His sovereignty and sacrifice; He created Eve as a picture of His creation and object of redemption. Eve sinned first and, therefore, was the object of the redemptive promise. Such was to be reflected in the way that the authoritative teaching of the local church was presented—through the primary preaching office, the pulpit.

The Bible applies its own complementarianism such that women are able to prophesy in the congregational setting but not fill the pulpit. The Bible’s reasoning has nothing to do with the worthiness of one sex or gender and everything to do with the worthiness of God—the grand designer who desires to represent Himself in His design. As Paul intensified the use of his polity language, he even gave the explicit qualifications of the elder office:

It is a trustworthy statement: if any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. An overseer, then, must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, prudent, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle, peaceable, free from the love of money. He must be one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity (but if a man does not know how to manage his own household, how will he take care of the church of God?), and not a new convert, so that he will not become conceited and fall into the condemnation incurred by the devil. And he must have a good reputation with those outside the church, so that he will not fall into reproach and the snare of the devil (1 Timothy 3:1-7).

Elders are to be able to teach, indicating that the elder office is the primary office responsible for the pulpit—the authoritative teaching ministry of the local church. He is to be the husband of one wife, indicating that the office is reserved for men of faithful character—one woman types of men. The office is reserved for those who are heads of their households—which is a responsibility given to men in Scripture (cf. Ephesians 5:22-33). There are no allowances given in the elder qualifications for women like there are in the qualifications for deacons (cf. 1 Timothy 3:11). These have nothing to do with sex, gender, or the rights of people but everything to do with the glory of God. The elder office is not for those who are self-seeking, but are the epitome of living sacrifices according to these qualifications. The office is not glorious like idolatrous pulpits have made it out to be. Elder is the lowest and humblest of all the offices. As Christ died for the church, so a man dies for his wife and the elders die for their congregations. As soon as we are concerned about our rights to be whatever we want to be, we have disqualified ourselves from eldership and the pulpit and are unable to descend to the status of living sacrifice.

I do share the pulpit I have the privilege of stewarding. I am very picky about who I share it with. If any non-elder of the church desires to preach, I feel compelled to be convinced that he meet the character qualifications of the suffering servant described in the pastoral epistles. He must be someone I can recommend as an elder of the church according to the biblical, character standard. My prayer for the church is that we concern ourselves more about what God desires than what we lust after—including the promotion of ourselves in the local church to offices we have created and glorified at Christ’s expense. May we repent of building our own kingdoms on Christ’s back.


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