Is Complementarity Merely Functional?
Andrea, a podcast listener in Jackson, Mississippi, writes in. “Hello, Pastor John! Thank you for your books and particularly your new book on providence. It has proven to be life-altering for me. Thank you! I was wondering if you could take a moment to address an entirely different topic — a marriage question. I have started to notice an emerging view of ‘complementarity’ online, and in my own circles, which seems a little off to me. It’s called complementarity and holds to the idea that the husband and wife take on different roles in the home, roles that mostly do not overlap. But to me it often sounds like simply a functional idea. So if the wife is a better teacher, she teaches the children the Bible and the husband doesn’t. Or if the wife makes more money, the husband takes the primary role in caring for the daily needs of the kids.
“It’s called complementarity in the sense that each spouse is not duplicating the role of the other. Each complements what the other is doing. But I don’t know what else to call it except to say it feels like a genderless complementarity. The husband and wife do not overlap duties out of efficiency, not from deeper convictions. In fact, gender, rarely, if ever, is brought in to define which roles the man has that the woman does not, and vice versa. Do you see this functional ‘complementarity’? If so, how do you respond? And what roles in the home are most gendered? I would love your thoughts on this.”
I suppose it’s inevitable that the longer a label is used — like complementarianism or complementarity — the easier it is for the label to replace the reality. The label complementarian, as a designation for how men and women relate to each other, has been around for about 35 years. I would want to stress that labels are only valuable if they capture and communicate reality. It’s the biblical reality that we really care about, not so much the label.
Distinct by Deep Design
Now, I think Andrea is right that the label today is less clear and less precise in the reality it refers to than it used to be. She’s pointing to a particular use of the label where the reality behind it seems to have more or less vanished. People are calling themselves complementarian without any serious reference to what the essence of manhood and womanhood really are and what that essence calls for in life.
“Underneath these distinctions in roles are profound differences in the very nature of manhood and womanhood.”
From the beginning, in the late 1980s, the term complementarianism included, not just the biblical conviction that men should be the elders or pastors of churches and that men should be the heads of their marriages or homes, but also the conviction that underneath these distinctions in roles there are profound differences in the very nature of manhood and womanhood. Those differences in the unique essence of manhood and the unique essence of womanhood were designed by God in creation and were the foundation for why God assigned the differing roles that he did. What we are by God’s original design in making us male and female has always been the foundation for God’s design for how men and women relate to each other and what roles we take.
So, I would say it’s a fundamental mistake for husbands and wives, or men and women in the church, or men and women in general, to define our roles and how we function in them without any reference to the deeper design of God and who we are as male and female.
Male and Female in the Beginning
Let me try to show what I mean by referring to a couple of Bible passages. For example, 1 Timothy 2:12–14: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”
Then he gives a foundation, an argument, a ground, that goes all the way back to creation and the ruin of that creation in the fall. He says in verses 13–14, “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”
I take Paul to be arguing something like this: the authoritative teaching role in the church — that is, the role of governance and teaching, the role of an elder — is to be filled by spiritually mature and gifted men because God established, in the first two chapters of Genesis, a peculiar responsibility and leadership for Adam as part of God’s design for manhood and what it means to be male in his family and in the world.
Now, we can see this design for man’s peculiar responsibility in leadership confirmed by the way it falls apart in the moment of Satan’s temptation and the way God follows up with Adam and Eve after the fall. Genesis 3:6 says that Adam was with Eve at the temptation; he didn’t show up later. But Satan, being subtle and deceptive, totally ignores the person that God had made responsible for the life of the garden — the man. Thus, Satan attacks at this very crucial moment. He attacks and undermines God’s design and turns the woman into the spokesman and the leader and the decision-maker for humanity.
Now both Adam and Eve fall for this. Adam remained totally silent when he should have stepped in and taken responsibility for this horrifically dangerous moment. Eve willingly assumes the role of responsible leader, and the result is a catastrophic failure to be obedient to God for both of them.
Now when Paul says in 1 Timothy 2:13, “Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor,” I don’t think he intends to say Adam is guiltless. We know that from Romans 5, where Adam’s disobedience in fact is the decisive disobedience that brings down the curse on humanity. The point, rather, of saying “Adam was not deceived” is that Satan undermined Adam’s leadership role by not targeting Adam for deception, but rather the woman. He made her the leader at the moment of deception. The point, in the context of 1 Timothy, is this: when the roles of men and women are reversed, at the very point where leadership matters most, things go very badly for families and churches and societies.
Where Is Adam?
Now God confirms that understanding of what happened by the way he calls the couple to account. A few verses later, God comes to find them in the garden. Genesis 3:9–11 says,
The Lord God called to the man and said to him, “Where are you?” And he said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten of the tree which I commanded you not to eat?”
Now, why didn’t God seek out the woman first since she ate the forbidden fruit first? Because God made man first and built into him a God-given sense of sacrificial responsibility for leadership and protection and provision. He is responsible for what just happened. That’s the price of leadership.
Male and Female in Marriage
This kind of built-in, creation-based leadership for man is confirmed in Ephesians 5. This is the second text I’m looking at: Ephesians 5:23–25, 28–29.
The husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. . . . He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church.
“How the husband and wife relate is to show the covenant love between Christ and the church.”
Paul describes the relationship as irreversible. The roles are not interchangeable. Christ and the church don’t get interchanged. They are the meaning of this relationship. How the husband and wife relate is to show the covenant love between Christ and the church, and Christ as the leader, savior, protector, nourisher, provider.
Paul roots those roles in the original pre-fall creation account in Genesis 2:24, which he quotes now in verse 31: “A man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” Then he applies it like this: “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it [that is, the meaning of manhood and womanhood in marriage] refers to Christ and the church.”
That’s the meaning of male and female in marriage: male and female modeling Christ and the church in roles of headship and submission that cannot be reversed any more than Christ and the church can be.
Restoring the Foundation
I conclude from these two texts — 1 Timothy 2 and Ephesians 5 and others that I’m not mentioning — that the very nature of God-designed manhood and womanhood is the foundation of the roles we are given by God. A complementarianism stripped of its foundation in the God-given essence of manhood and womanhood is a label that has lost its reality.
When it comes to the hundreds of activities in the home and who does them, that will be sorted out best where husband and wife agree biblically that the man bears a special God-given burden of responsibility for leadership, for protection, for provision in the family — all carried out in the pursuit of the amazing model of Christ’s love for the church and the church’s glad submission to Christ.