I am a complementarian. I believe the Bible teaches that God created men and women to serve different roles in the church and the home. But I am deeply concerned that some complementarians are missing the mark. In their efforts to restore God's ideal, I fear they may actually distort it.
Instead of focusing on what the Bible says about the relationship between men and women, complementarians too often give the impression that they care only about the place of women. This one-sided perspective is unhealthy and ultimately unbiblical.
When God created humankind in his image, he created them to be male and female (Gen. 1:27). It is often said that men and women bear the image of God equally. But it might be more accurate to say that men and women bear God's image together. Men and women collectively reflect the divine image; one without the other is incomplete. In addition, the Book of Genesis affirms men and women's joint mandate to exercise dominion over creation. Men and women share this responsibility; neither can fulfill God's mandate alone.
Too often, complementarians approach theology only through a male lens. But in order to see the complete picture of what's being taught in Scripture, we need the theological perspective of both sexes. If it is true that men and women see things differently, as we complementarians often assert, then stifling the feminine perspective can only lead to an inadequate theology. Adam's first sin was his silence in the garden when Eve was being tempted. His subsequent sin has been to silence the voice of his God-given partner.
Complementarian discussions about the differences between men and women are complicated by a tendency to let culture shape our definitions. "My children are grown and out of the house," a woman friend told me. "So when I hear people say that a woman's 'highest calling' is to be a wife and mother, I find myself wondering if there isn't anything else for me to do for Christ."
Is the complementarian assumption about a woman's "highest calling" accurate? The Bible speaks highly of the roles of wife and mother. But if they are a woman's highest calling, then why doesn't Paul advise the unmarried in Corinth to seek marriage (1 Cor. 7:25-38)? Why does he admonish the married to "live as if they were not" (1 Cor. 7:29)? Even more striking, why didn't Jesus commend Martha instead of Mary (Luke 10:42)? After all, her work in the kitchen reflected a woman's traditional role.
Complementarians need to be on guard against the temptation to use the Bible as a sanction for social constructs. The Pharisees tried to protect God's commands by putting a fence around the Law. I fear that complementarians, too, have gone beyond the Scriptures in our effort to preserve God's design. Have we added our own traditions to the Bible's teaching in an attempt to preserve biblical manhood and womanhood?
While complementarians assume that men and women both have roles to play in society and in the church, we often give the impression that we are most interested in telling women what they can't do. A colleague of mine, who is a complementarian, recently described her experience to me:
"When people talk about the role of women, I often hear a note of anger over my decision to have a career and be a mother," she said. "Yet I see no such concern about my male colleagues who are fathers of young children while working long hours. I think part of the problem is that complementarians often extend the designated roles of men and women in the church into all areas of male-female contact—that is where it starts to get offensive."
While I am not ashamed of complementarian theology, I am sometimes ashamed of complementarians. Our demeanor toward those who oppose us has been mean-spirited and churlish at times. Throughout history, theological disputes have often been uncivil. John Calvin titled one of his theological treatises, "A Brief Reply in Refutation of the Calumnies of a Certain Worthless Person." But the Bible prescribes a different approach to handling such disputes: 2 Timothy 2:24 says, "The Lord's servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful."
Complementarians accuse egalitarians of not taking the clear teaching of Scripture seriously enough. Let us take a dose of our own medicine and move the discussion to a higher level.
John Koessler is chair of the pastoral studies department at Moody Bible Institute and author of A Stranger in the House of God.
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Sarah Sumner wrote from an egalitarian perspective on how her movement should rely more on careful exegesis and less on political ideologies.
Other articles on gender roles include:
Christian History Corner: Is Christianity Oppressive to Women? | Sometimes our Christian heritage must be overcome, not celebrated. (March 1, 2004)
Adam and Eve in the 21st Century | "When it comes to gender roles, CT readers oscillate between complementarian and egalitarian ideas." (March 11, 2002)
A Different Kind of Women's Lib | A dispatch from the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood conference. (October 10, 2001)
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