Old controversies never die; they simply reinvent themselves. So it’s been with the evangelical gender wars, rekindled last fall by Kristin Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne, which traces the rise of militant masculinity in evangelicalism.
The debates were further fueled by Beth Moore’s very public exit from the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). She cited an overemphasis on the “man-made doctrine” of complementarianism. Next came Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood, followed by the announcement that Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church (in the SBC) had ordained three long-serving female staff members as pastors.
While the alliances and battle lines have been predictable, the discussion has taken on new intensity, with neither egalitarians nor complementarians pulling punches. The subtitle of Du Mez’s book goes as far as to suggest that conservative white evangelicals “fractured a nation.” Barr, too, cuts to the chase: “Complementarianism is patriarchy, and patriarchy is about power. Neither have ever been about Jesus.”
One difficulty in evaluating the charge of patriarchy is that complementarianism itself is difficult to pin down. At its most basic, the view makes two claims: first, that men and women are equal image bearers worthy of equal honor and value; second, that men and women hold different roles, with men exercising a “headship” that corresponds to a particular kind of authority in the church and the home. But while the word complementarian has traceable roots (as well as a parachurch organization devoted to its advancement), its beliefs work out differently across church traditions.
Like evangelicalism, complementarianism is a sprawling enterprise. But also like evangelicalism, it is held together as much by a shared culture and network as a set of doctrinal distinctives. That means those who want to distinguish themselves from patriarchy will have to give as much attention to their practices, partnerships, and policies as they give to their principles.
In this respect, the greatest challenge facing complementarianism is not that patriarchal doctrine hides around every corner. The real problem is that paternalism is out in the open, often unnamed and unchecked.
As someone whose entire ministry has taken shape in complementarian spaces, I know this critique will surprise many people who have no intention other than obeying Scripture. I also know that failing to identify and root out paternalism will undermine the ability to do just that.
Strictly defined, paternalism is “policy or practice on the part of people in positions of authority of restricting the freedom and responsibilities of those subordinate to them in the subordinates' supposed best interest.” In the case of complementarian cultures, paternalistic policies and practices are those that restrict both the freedom and the responsibilities of women who do not hold the authority associated with pastors and husbands.
The question of paternalism, then, is not whether men should have some form of authority but rather what they do with the particular authority they hold.
While paternalism has historically followed from patriarchy, it’s still visible in cultures that are decidedly modern and democratic and can be expressed by anyone—male or female—who holds a position of cultural or organizational power. As a writer and speaker without postgraduate credentials, I’ve encountered paternalism from women in academic circles as often as from men. And my experience is nothing compared to the socioeconomic paternalism that the poor deal with or the racial paternalism that people of color face every day.
What does this have to do with evangelical gender debates? Complementarians believe in a particular type of male authority in the church and the home. When that authority is combined with paternalistic practices, it’s hard to counteract the accusations of patriarchy. But complementarians make another claim (one shared with egalitarians): that men and women are of equal worth and value. This second claim, if attended to and cultivated, can distinguish complementarianism from patriarchy by holding broader paternalistic impulses in check.
The challenge for complementarians, then, is to create policies and practices that don’t unnecessarily limit the freedom or the responsibilities of women as coheirs of the gospel of life. It also means recognizing where their policies and practices have become paternalistic. And given the inherent structure of complementarianism, the onus is on male church leaders to ensure this happens.
So what might church leaders look for? What exactly do they need to root out?
First, they need to carefully weigh the restrictions put on women’s giftedness and service, beyond those based in Scripture and applied ecclesiology. When leaders make prohibitions simply in order to “err on the side of caution,” they reduce the credibility of their claim to honor and value women as equal image bearers. Even worse, they risk losing the very gifts the Holy Spirit has given for the growth of the church.
For example, in his blog post “How To Turn Complementarians into Egalitarians,” Denny Burk, president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, argues that women should not teach mixed Sunday school. In his opinion, people would see women perform functions similar to those that male pastors perform, and that in turn would eventually lead to women being ordained as pastors. “The endgame is not teaching Sunday school,” he warns. “It’s the pastorate.”
It’s one thing for a church to understand “teaching in the assembled gathering” as closely tied to pastoral office and limit it to those ordained by the church. It’s another thing, however, to acknowledge that Sunday school classes or guest preaching occur outside the purview of pastoral authority but then still restrict women from participating because it looks too much like what male pastors do. Even if out of good intention, these are hedges. Those who choose these hedges open themselves up to a legitimate challenge: that something other than careful, consistent application of Scripture is driving their practice.
Paternalism also expresses itself in the lengths that women must go to in order to be heard. According to James 3:17, a primary characteristic of Christian maturity is that a person is “easy to be entreated” and can be approached and reasoned with. In some complementarian settings, that easy approach is missing. Sometimes the hurdles are structural, with male leadership operating in a silo, distanced from female congregants. But too often the church of God is failing the same way the culture around it is—by failing to honor and extend credibility to women’s words.
In his Substack newsletter, “The Case for Post-Patriarchal Manhood,” Michael Bird recounts his own formation in unequivocally misogynistic spaces—those where women were “regarded as damsels in distress to be protected and simultaneously objects of sexual conquest to be used and dispensed with.” Bird listened to the experiences of his female friends and students and in time recognized and rejected his malformation.
Neither Bird nor I are suggesting that women be believed simply because they are women. That would be paternalistic. Instead women who’ve lived as true disciples of Christ should not have to produce more evidence or work harder to be heard than their male peers.
By far the most flagrant (and completely unnecessary) example of paternalism is when male leaders make decisions for women without conferring with them. In my work as a writer and conference speaker, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard of a women’s ministry leader making plans to lead in a certain direction, only to have those plans altered or co-opted by a male pastor. Sometimes it happens despite her objections and sometimes without her knowledge. But the unavoidable message is that women cannot be trusted with ministry decisions or even the gospel itself.
Despite these pitfalls, complementarians possess the tools necessary to identify and root out paternalism.
The movement makes several countercultural claims about the way men and women partner in the world. Outsiders tend to assume that views on headship and restrictions on pastoral office are the more radical positions. But perhaps the greater claim is, once again, this idea that women and men are of equal value and worth.
To prove their commitment to this ideal, however, complementarians need to “pay close attention” to their life and teaching (I Timothy 4:16, CSB) in order to demonstrate that they truly see women as partners in the gospel. As the apostle James writes, “Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds” (James 2:18).
Complementarians also need to prove that their vision of differing gender roles doesn’t result in the marginalization of women. Those who are truly, convictionally, exegetically complementarian (and aren't simply using the label as cover) have to make every possible effort to hear women's voices and enable their giftedness for the sake of the kingdom.
To do this, male leaders must learn to see the problems in their midst. After all, the defining feature of paternalism is the misuse of power. Do they use it to restrict freedom and responsibility? Or do they use it to open up pathways of flourishing and partnership?
As complementarian Jen Wilkin writes, “The challenge for any pastor would be to consider whether he is crafting a church culture that permits women to serve or one that pursues women to serve. Because a culture of permission will not ensure complementarity functions as it should.”
But if complementarians are willing to do the work, if they’re willing to hear the voices of women within their homes, churches, and organizations, and if they’re willing to engage women as God-given partners in the gospel, they have everything to gain. Including their own credibility.
Hannah Anderson is the author of Made for More, All That’s Good, and Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul.