Complementarianism as a Worldview
What, at base, is complementarianism? Is it merely a couple of doctrinal points on contested matters, answering the narrow questions of who is the buck-stopper in the home and who ascends the sacred desk at church?
In truth, complementarianism is much more than this. It is, in a sense, a worldview. In what follows, I pose four questions that show just how helpful, and evangelistically needful, complementarian doctrine is. Complementarianism is not simply explanatory, in other words. It is apologetic. Pastors have the opportunity to lead in this ministry of truth as they ask and address the questions people both in and out of the church are asking.
First, are the sexes equal? The image of God is borne by both men and women. Both sexes are made in God’s likeness and are vice-regents of the creation (Genesis 1:26-27). Both participate equally and necessarily in the most immediate outworking of the dominion mandate, the procreation of children. Both are invested with glory and worth and dignity as a result of this divinely-wrought reality.
Here is the foundation for equality our culture lacks and desperately craves. The imago dei shows us that there is no competition between men and women, as our secularized society suggests. Men are not idiots by nature; women are not divas by nature. This does not mean that men and women are exactly the same. Though sharing much in terms of physiology, human experience, and spiritual life, the sexes are equal but different. Eve is called to be a “helper” for Adam, and Adam clearly has the leadership role in their marriage (Genesis 2:21, 24).
These role distinctions owe to the original design of God and are not evil or problematic. They are good and God-given. They are also reinforced in the New Testament, with women called to be “workers at home” (Titus 2:5) and men pictured as providers and spiritual leaders (1 Tim. 5:14; Eph. 5:22-33). There is an elegant symmetry in the complementarian scheme. As in the Godhead, so in the home: distinction of role and personhood is no threat to love and dignity. As in the Godhead, so in the kingdom: men and women are alike a royal priesthood, performing meaningful service to Christ, advancing the Great Commission together (1 Peter 2:9; Matthew 28:16-20).
Pastors possess the calling to make clear from the pulpit that all the silly stereotypes about sexual competition (which are sometimes perpetuated by the church) have no place in the Christian congregation. No other worldview so renders the sexes equal, and so bestows dignity upon them. In the imago dei, and especially in the cross of Christ, the age-old wounds are healed, and the battle of the sexes ceases.
Second, what is my body for? There is currently an avalanche of confusion over the body in Western culture. Transgenderism teaches that the body is essentially a project of the true self. Your gender identity may or may not correspond with the structure of your body. This thinking is not merely disordered. From a range of psychological experiences, many of them scarring, such perspectives reflect a sinful rejection of God’s gift of manhood or womanhood.
People today have increasingly little understanding of the goodness and purpose of the body. They have been trained to view manhood and womanhood as under suspicion. Our gender-neutral age has encouraged us to blunt the beauty of God’s creative work. But God is not embarrassed by the body. He created it, and his Word celebrates manhood and womanhood. When Yahweh brings Eve to Adam, he exclaims with delight, “This at last is flesh of my flesh, and body of my body!” (Genesis 2:23, emphasis mine). Adam exults in this one who is like him—not an animal of the field—but not like him. She is a woman. Her womanliness is awesome to Adam, a delightful epiphany.
The Lord tells us certain precious truths about the manly form and the womanly form in Genesis 2-3. First, the woman is made from the man. His body gives life to hers; her existence depends on his (Genesis 2:21-22). The Lord is telling Adam, and us, that the man’s strength is to be used for the benefit of his wife. Second, the man is to work hard to bless his family, while the woman is constituted and called to bear children. These pre-fall roles are cursed as a result of the disobedience of Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:1-7, 16-19). Even the curse indicates, however, that these roles persist following the fall. The man finds glory in the work of provision; the woman finds glory in the work of childbearing.
Pastors should make plain that the body is a profound means of God-glorification. The body is not incidental to Christianity; we own no clashing dualism as evangelicals. The body is a core part of our daily lives, of our work, of our roles within the home, and even of the age to come (1 Corinthians 15:53). From the pulpit, and in our daily lives, we should show the church and the world that manhood and womanhood are not burdens to bear with a sigh and a grimace, but bodily gifts to receive with joy.
Third, why do I have a sexual instinct? This may well be the central question of our time. People have been trained to think that their identity is inherently sexual, that the most important part of their being is their carnality and whatever particular orientation(s) it might have. They are curious, tempted, confused, depressed, exhilarated, and, in sum, lost.
The Bible, and complementarian theology, offers the meta-answer we crave. God created sex to be enjoyed between a man and a woman in covenant marriage. Sex is given as a good gift, a bodily gift, that unites us in a “one-flesh union.” There is no fuller expression of intimate unity than this. But sex is not an end unto itself, nor heterosexuality our ultimate goal. One-flesh union points us to an even deeper love, the love of Jesus Christ for his covenant people. Christ is the head of his body, who submits to him in reverence and adoration (Ephesians 5:22-33). Marriage is intended by the divine mind to portray the authority-submission relationship of the church and Christ. It enfleshes the gospel.
Sex is good. God made it. He intended it to be an expression of covenantal union and unbreakable love. But even in the happiest of godly marriages, sex is only a small part of our lives. Sometimes Christian women feel great pressure to be sexual; they hear their husbands publicly grade them on their “hotness,” which is a very bad and even harmful way of articulating an instinctual reality. If we view sex in selfish terms—either over-pursuing it or withholding it—we sin (1 Corinthians 7:1-9). Believers see sex as a good but limited part of life, one that blesses us but does not define us.
This relates to singleness. Single men and women have been told by a sex-obsessed culture that they are deficient for not being sexually active. The culture lies. Sex is a good gift, but the happiest person who walked the earth never partook of it. Singles have no biblical reason to feel sub-standard or incomplete. Pastors must help to heal any wounds that exist in the body over this damaging teaching.
Further, pastors have the chance to preach that the center of the Christian life is not sex or marriage. It is Christ. We will not be married to a husband or wife in the new heavens and the new earth; all the people of God will dwell in a world of love with their head, Christ. We have union with Jesus Christ now. That, and not earthly marriage, will last into eternity, and beyond all the ages of the world.
Fourth, how can I find happiness? We share so much as disciples of Jesus Christ, whatever our sex. We are united by Christ and redeemed by his blood. We are fellow church members. We worship and pray and sing together. This is just a sampling of the fellowship of Christ that we all share.
We will be happiest, though, not when we jettison or ignore our manhood or womanhood, but when we embrace God’s good design. If we are men, we should have our eyes on the biblical characteristics of deacons and elders. We should strive for such theocentric character. Every pastor should be training all of his men to aspire to these biblical offices, whether or not they assume them. If given families to lead as men, we should be understanding with our wives (1 Peter 3:7), gentle with our children (Colossians 3:21), and shepherding our loved ones with pastoral care (1 Timothy 4-5). If given families to serve as women, we should be submissive to our husband (1 Peter 3:4), dedicated to the bearing and raising of any children God gives us (Titus 2:3-5), and strengthening our home in myriad ways (Proverbs 31:10-31).
These biblical marks offer us a roadmap that covers much of our lives. With excitement, it calls us to own life as a man or a woman. Whether married or single, we glorify God by living according to our sex. We do not look the same (1 Corinthians 11:14), we do not dress the same (Deuteronomy 22:5), and we fall prey to, in some cases, different temptations (Genesis 3:16; Titus 1-2). If we should not overplay the differences between the sexes, we should not underplay them, either. In the pulpit, and in all our ministry of Word and gospel, we should leave the mark right where Scripture does, and rest there, enjoying God and the life he has so kindly given us.
To a considerable degree, complementarianism helps us understand who we are and what we have been placed on this earth to do. It does not attempt to answer every question about life. But it does give us a framework for understanding what men and women have been called to be by Almighty God.
Some might wonder if this is a stretch. Isn’t complementarianism minimalistic, a rehashing of the same texts and disputes? I suppose it could be. But the Scripture has a great deal to say about the sexes. In addition, our non-Christian friends are asking and debating these very matters. They are at the forefront, not the background, of our cultural conversation. There is great confusion on all sides over the body, sex, and the callings of the sexes. Divorce, absent fathers, lax parenting, abusive authorities, and other factors have ravaged the home and left people all around us damaged, disordered, and trapped in their sin.
Pastors who preach and live out complementarian teaching will offer those who wander and suffer tremendous wisdom and grace. Complementarianism, we see, has explanatory power on a range of major, life-shaping matters. But more than this, it has apologetic power, both in the living of this doctrine, and the speaking.