Egalitarian or Complementarian?

May 10th, 2018 by posted in Counseling, Marriage and Family

There is a debate, at least in the west, regarding a women’s role in the home and in the church. Some contend that since men and women are equal in Christ, that they are equal in the roles they play in the home and church. This view is known as Egalitarianism. There is a second camp that also agrees that men and women are equal in Christ, but that God has designed them for, and has given them to, different roles and responsibilities. This is known as Complementarianism. Through the rest of this short article, I will attempt to define both views and then determine if one is a more biblical approach to the subject then the other.

There is a difficulty in this discussion because I hold to what most would consider a conservative, evangelical view of Scripture. I view the Bible as a genuinely human product, but one whose creation was superintended by the Holy Spirit, preserving the authors’ works from error without eliminating their writing style. This allowed the author to write to specific people in time, while, at the same time, write to all people who would read the text after that specific time. I hold to the verbal, plenary inspiration of the original manuscripts, by which each word (not just the overarching ideas or concepts) was meaningfully chosen under the superintendence of God. Why is this important for me to clarify? Because my understanding, as well as the understanding of those within the debate, is a linchpin in preventing the theological wheel from sliding off the biblical axle.

Christian Egalitarianism

By definition, Christian egalitarianism holds that all people are equal before God and in Christ; have equal responsibility to use their gifts and obey their calling to the glory of God; and are called to roles and ministries without regard to gender.

According to Christian egalitarianism, gender equality in Christian church leadership (including pastors) and in Christian marriage is biblically sound. Its theological foundations are interpretations of the teachings and example of Jesus Christ and other New Testament principles. It refers to a biblically-based belief that gender, in and of itself, has no role in a believer’s gifting or calling to any ministry in the church or home.[1] The base verse for this view is Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Egalitarians take this to mean that men and women are equally created in God’s image, equally responsible for sin, equally redeemed by Christ, and equally gifted by God’s Spirit for service and held responsible for using their God-given gifts. In fact, a section of the statement of faith for the organization Christians for Biblical Equality International (CBE) states, “We believe that women and men are equally created in God’s image and given equal authority and stewardship of God’s creation. We believe that men and women are equally responsible for and distorted by sin, resulting in shattered relationships with God, self, and others.” The CBE Core Values explain, “Patriarchy (male dominance) is not a biblical idea, but a result of sin.”, and “Patriarchy is an abuse of power, taking from females what God has given them: their dignity, and freedom, their leadership, and often their very lives”, and “Christ’s redemptive work frees all people from patriarchy, calling women and men to share authority equally in service and leadership”.

Many who hold this view express it very emotionally. When they speak of the idea of equal but different roles, as taught in Ephesians 5:22-33, comments such as, “I feel like Twyla just willingly subsumed her whole existence to a boy.” (speaking of a friend who had just married), “I had no intention of becoming that kind of Christian.”, and “When religion is used to justify oppression…”[2]

Christian Complementarianism

So what is the complementarian position? Simply stated, while being absolutely equal in personhood and dignity, man and woman are distinct in their roles in the home and church. The first point in this definition is critical to our understanding. That is, the Bible is clear in its affirmation of the equality of men and women in regards to worth, nature and substance. This means that man and woman are essentially, naturally and substantially equal before God and each other.[3]

Although man and woman are equal in all these ways, it is not true that there are no biblical role distinctions. Rather, the Scriptures teach that we each have proper roles in the home and church. In the home, man is to exercise leadership/headship over his wife. In Ephesians 5:22-25, Paul explains that wives are subject to their husbands and that the husband is the head of his wife. In 1 Corinthians 11:2-3, 8-9 we read that the man is the head of the woman for man was not created for woman, but woman for man. Colossians 3:18-19 explains that wives are to be subject to their husbands. And Titus 2:3-5 commands that the older women teach the younger wives to be subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored. For the purpose of this article, I will not take time to discuss biblical roles of women in the church since it is outside the scope of this work, except to mention that those roles are also clearly distinct.

I am convinced that the complementarian view is the truest to Scripture. That being said, there are cautions that we as counselors must be willing to address. While the Bible is clear on the concept and command, we as people, are not so precise. “The curse brought a distortion of Adam’s humble, considerate leadership and Eve’s intelligent, willing submission to that leadership which existed before the fall.”[4] In his book Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth, Wayne Grudem goes on to explain, “The curse brought a distortion of previous roles, not the introduction of new roles… Eve would now rebel against her husband’s authority and Adam would misuse that authority to rule forcefully and even harshly over Eve.”[5]

In our counseling ministry over the past few years, we have seen an increase in an abusive patriarchal view in the minds of many husbands who come with their wives for marital help. These husbands twist 1 Peter 3 to say that their wives are their slaves because, “Sarah called Abraham Lord.” This perversion of God ordained marital roles is of great concern. The husband is called to serve and sacrifice for his wife as an expression of his love for her. This is his complementary role. It is not one of oppression and manipulation.

The opposing views of egalitarianism and complementarianism are emotionally charged because of the fall of man. Our thoughts and hearts are selfish and arrogant. We want our own way constantly. We must take every thought captive as we look to our perceived personal rights and must fix our eyes on Jesus, the living Word and the revelation of the Holy Spirit through the written Word. To God be the glory!

[1] Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2008), Chapter 4.

[2] Pershey, Katherine Willis, “Very Married: Field Notes on Love and Fidelity” Mutuality, 23, Issue 3, (September 9, 2016), http://www.cbeinternational.org/resources/article/mutuality/ephesians-5

[3] Genesis 1:28 – both created in God’s image, Galatians 3:28 – both are one in Christ, 1 Peter 3:7 – joint heirs with Christ

[4] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 463-464

[5] Wayne A. Grudem, Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth: An Analysis of More Than One Hundred Disputed Questions (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2012), 39-40.


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