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Complementarianism is the traditional theological position which holds, based on Biblical evidence, that God created male and female uniquely compatible and complementary, and which opposite genders alone can be joined in marriage. (Gen. 2:18-24) In addition, they understand that while both genders were made by God in His image and likeness, (Gen. 1:26-27) and their complementary nature manifests interdependence, yet in so doing God has established the man as the head of the women. This hierarchical order is patterned after the relationship between the Father and Son, which is explicitly declared in 1 Corinthians 11:3:

But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.

Throughout the Bible the headship of the man is understood as being clearly upheld as ordained by God, and consistent with this, women are also not allowed to normally possess a position of authority over men, as per 1 Timothy 2:11-12. However, that women can be greatly used in ministry is affirmed, and also that husbands are commanded,

love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it (Eph 5:25)

Modern Complementarianism sometimes emphasizes more the great viability of female ministry than historical expressions of the doctrine of male headship.

In contrast to Complementarianism is the more modern position termed "Christian" Egalitarianism, which, among other things, seeks to use the essential spiritual equality which all believers enjoy (Gal. 3:28) to negate positional/functional distinctions between men and women. While some egalitarians profess to hold the Bible as the wholly inspired word of God, they tend to rely on a much less literal approach in interpreting key verses. Primary arguments typically used by egalitarianism are also used by many prohomosexual polemicists in regards to homosexuality and biblical interpretation,[1] though more conservative egalitarians distance themselves from homosexuality.[2]

Southern Baptist theological Albert Mohler states,

The arguments used in support of the ordination of women require the dismissal or "reinterpretation" of specific biblical texts which disallow women in the teaching office. The same is true of arguments for the ordination of divorced persons--and for homosexuals.[3]

Primary Biblical texts

That man is created first is seen as the first establishment of male headship, which is then further upheld and its application revealed.

  • "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them." (Gen. 1:26-27)
  • "But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God." (1 Cor 11:3)
  • "For the man is not of the woman; but the woman of the man. Neither was the man created for the woman; but the woman for the man. (1 Cor 11:8-9) (The women is then required to have a head covering, symbolizing her submission to the man.)
  • "Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. {23} For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. {24} Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing." (Eph 5:22-24)
  • "For after this manner in the old time the holy women also, who trusted in God, adorned themselves, being in subjection unto their own husbands: Even as Sara obeyed Abraham, calling him lord: whose daughters ye are, as long as ye do well, and are not afraid with any amazement." (1 Pet 3:5-6)

In addition to the order of creation, the effects of the Fall of man has implications regarding the functional role of women :

  • "Unto the woman he said, I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt bring forth children; and thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee." (Gen 3:16)
  • "Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. {14} And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression." (1 Tim 2:11-14)

Complementarian arguments

As part of the practice of sound exegesis, obscure, anecdotal or general statements in Scripture are interpreted in the light of explicit ones. In so doing, the proof texts of Christian Egalitarianism, which are primarily Galatians 3:38 and examples of notable women, are understood as neither negating authority structures nor the creational distinctions between man and women, such as is stated in 1 Cor. 11:3ff, any more than the oneness which the members of the Christian Trinity share negates the hierarchical order within the Godhead. Instead, the positional/functional distinctions between man and women are seen to be patterned after the Divine order, and are part of the complementary nature of the male and female union.

In addition, it is argued that while exceptional conditions may allow female leadership, as in Judges 4, such do not negate that which is manifest to be ordained and established as normative. It is pointed out that no female priests were ordained in the Old Testament, nor it is anywhere established that female apostles or Bishops/Elders were ordained in the New Testament. Examples such as Phebe, Junia (Rom. 16:1,7) or Lydia (Acts 16:14,40) are seen as far from establishing these we either apostles or leaders over men.[4]

In support of male headship being ordained from before the Fall, Protestant theologian and complementarian author Wayne Grudem puts forward ten arguments from Scripture in his book, Evangelical Feminism & Biblical Truth: An Analysis of More Than 100 Disputed Questions:[5]

  • 1. “The order: Adam was created first, then Eve (note the sequence in Genesis 2:7 and Genesis 2:18-23).” (p. 30)
  • 2. “The representation: Adam, not Eve, had a special role in representing the human race.” Eve sinned first, but Scripture says we fell in Adam (1 Corinthians 15:22, 45-49).
  • 3. “The naming of the woman: When God made the first woman and ‘brought her to the man,’” (p. 31) Adam named her- Genesis 2:23. Naming is a function of authority- See God’s naming creation Genesis 1:5-2:20.
  • 4. “The naming of the human race: God named the human race ‘Man,’ not ‘Woman.’ (p. 34)- Genesis 5:1-2 “Does this make any difference? It does give a hint of male leadership, which God suggested in choosing this name. It is significant that God did call the human race ‘Woman.’” (p. 35)
  • 5. “The primary accountability: God spoke to Adam first after the Fall…. It indicated a primary responsibility for Adam in the conduct of his family.” (p. 36) Genesis 3:9
  • 6. “The purpose: Eve was created as a helper for Adam, not Adam as a helper for Eve.” (p. 36) She was Adam’s helper by virtue of creation, not in certain situations, but in a normative sense. Genesis 2:18, 1 Corinthians 11:9
  • 7. “The conflict: The curse brought a distortion of roles, not the new introduction of roles.” (p. 37) Genesis 3:16 is not how the roles ought to be, but is how the created roles were distorted.
  • 8. “The restoration: When we come to the New Testament, salvation in Christ reaffirms the creation order.” (p. 40) In Christ the curse is reversed and the created roles are restored- Colossians 3:18-19.
  • 9. “The mystery: Marriage from the beginning of Creation was a picture of the relationship between Christ and the church.” (p. 41) Paul makes this point in Ephesians 5:31-32, and it is applied in 5:23.
  • 10. “The parallel with the Trinity: The equality, differences, and unity between men and women reflect the quality, differences, and unity in the Trinity.” (p. 42)[6]

In addition to exegesis of relevant passages in support of Complementarianism, arguments by Egalitarians are examined and countered,[7] such as in Gender Passages in the New Testament: Hermeneutical Fallacies Critiqued.[8][9]

Official affirmations

The Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood was issued in December, 1987, in Danvers, Massachusetts. Affirmations 1 through 8 (abridged) state:

  • 1. Both Adam and Eve were created in God's image, equal before God as persons and distinct in their manhood and womanhood (Gen 1:26-27, 2:18).
  • 2. Distinctions in masculine and feminine roles are ordained by God as part of the created order, and should find an echo in every human heart (Gen 2:18, 21-24; 1 Cor 11:7-9; 1 Tim 2:12-14).
  • 3. Adam's headship in marriage was established by God before the Fall, and was not a result of sin (Gen 2:16-18, 21-24, 3:1-13; 1 Cor 11:7-9).
  • 4. The Fall introduced distortions into the relationships between men and women (Gen 3:1-7, 12, 16).
  • 5. The Old Testament, as well as the New Testament, manifests the equally high value and dignity which God attached to the roles of both men and women (Gen 1:26-27, 2:18; Gal 3:28). Both Old and New Testaments also affirm the principle of male headship in the family and in the covenant community (Gen 2:18; Eph 5:21-33; Col 3:18-19; 1 Tim 2:11-15).
  • 6. Redemption in Christ aims at removing the distortions introduced by the curse.
  • 7. In all of life Christ is the supreme authority and guide for men and women, so that no earthly submission-domestic, religious, or civil-ever implies a mandate to follow a human authority into sin (Dan 3:10-18; Acts 4:19-20, 5:27-29; 1 Pet 3:1-2).
  • 8. In both men and women a heartfelt sense of call to ministry should never be used to set aside Biblical criteria for particular ministries (1 Tim 2:11-15, 3:1-13; Tit 1:5-9). Rather, Biblical teaching should remain the authority for testing our subjective discernment of God's will.[10]

Contrasted with liberalism

Complementarians such as Grunden argue that "liberal Protestant denominations were the pioneers of evangelical feminism, and that evangelical feminists today have adopted many of the arguments earlier used by theological liberals to advocate the ordination of women and to reject male headship in marriage." And in addition, "that many prominent evangelical feminist writers today advocate positions that deny or undermine the authority of Scripture, and many other egalitarian leaders promote their books", with recent trends suggesting that egalitarianism is heading toward a denial of anything uniquely masculine, and toward "an endorsement of God as Mother, and ultimately an endorsement of the moral legitimacy of homosexuality."[11]

As is the case with the latter issue, the traditional position may often be minimized or censured by liberals and their institutions and churches. In "Is Evangelical Feminism the New Path to Liberalism?, Grunden recalls a letter received in May 1987 from a New Testament professor at the (formerly conservative) Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. As a result of presenting the traditional position as part of a course on the Pastoral Epistles, the professor reported, "For two and a half weeks I was slandered up and down campus. I was the major subject on the declaration board, etc. It was a real mess. . . . The vast majority of the letters were from students who were not in the class. . . ." The Womenʼs Concerns Committee sent a letter to all his students, arguing against him being allowed to teach on this position, and that they would seek to censor any further teaching along traditional lines of interpretation. The dean never said that anything was mishandled except in regards to professor being allowed to teach what he thought, and accused him of presenting his personal views with more force than the other views.[12]

Historical position

It is well evidenced that the traditional position was that which is now called Complementarianism.[13] In no place in the Scriptures is it established that women were priests in Israel or pastors of a New Testament church. Later, notable ancient authorities upheld the traditional position of male headship in church and home. Protestant churches likewise have historically upheld the traditional position from the time of the Reformation, though later some exceptions would begin to be seen among certain Pentecostal churches. Female pastoral ordination began to be most prevalent within churches in liberal Christianity.

Origen (AD 185-254) stated that,

Even if it is granted to a woman to show the sign of prophecy, she is nevertheless not permitted to speak in an assembly. When Miriam the prophetess spoke, she was leading a choir of women ... For [as Paul declares] "I do not permit a woman to teach," and even less "to tell a man what to do." [14]

Nineteenth-century Christian historian Philip Schaff records the teaching of early church fathers of the third and fourth century, stating in regards to 1 Cor. 14: 34,35,

We do not permit our “women to teach in the Church, but only to pray and hear those that teach; for our Master and Lord, Jesus Himself, when He sent us the twelve to make disciples of the people and of the nations, did nowhere send out women to preach,..[15]

In commenting on the same verses, Baptist theologian Dr. John Gill (1690 - 1771) states,

In Gen_3:16, "thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee". By this the apostle would signify, that the reason why women are not to speak in the church, or to preach and teach publicly, or be concerned in the ministerial function, is, because this is an act of power, and authority; of rule and government, and so contrary to that subjection which God in his law requires of women unto men. The extraordinary instances of Deborah, Huldah, and Anna, must not be drawn into a rule or example in such cases.[16]

Likewise, Presbyterian theologian and Bible commentator Albert Barnes (1798 –1 870) stated,

No rule in the New Testament is more positive than this; and however plausible may be the reasons which may be urged for disregarding it, and for suffering women to take part in conducting public worship, yet the authority of the apostle Paul is positive, and his meaning cannot be mistaken; compare 1Ti_2:11-12...

This evidently and obviously refers to the church assembled for public worship, in the ordinary and regular acts of devotion. There the assembly is made up of males and females, of old and young, and there it is improper for them to take part in conducting the exercises. But this cannot be interpreted as meaning that it is improper for females to speak or to pray in meetings of their own sex, assembled for prayer or for benevolence; nor that it is improper for a female to speak or to pray in a Sunday School.[17]

Matthew Henry (1662 – 1714) in his extensive commentary, entertains allowing “praying, and uttering hymns inspired” by women, as such “were not teaching”.[18]

Nineteenth-century Congregationalist A. Hastings Boss, D.D., writing in 1870 in the Bibliotheca sacra and theological review, found no sanctioned “instance in the Bible of a woman's speaking in public”, in that of Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Anna, and stated that

If these prophetesses had each been called to public speaking, they would have been exceptions to the general rule, in striking contrast with the conduct of all other women under the law. Certainly no rule could have been or can now be founded upon these exceptional cases.

Joel predicts [Joel 2:28-32] and Peter quotes [Acts 2:17-21] that "in the last days" God's Spirit should lead "daughters" and hand-maidens," as well as men, to "prophesy"; but neither prophet nor apostle specifies any particular place, as the church, in which it should be done. Now Paul nowhere forbids women to prophesy, except " in the churches." They could have exercised their gift in private, or in a congregation of women, as did the four virgin daughters of Philip...A prophetess would have had enough to do among her own sex, without speaking in the assemblies.

Boss also concluded that Gal. 3:28 is not applicable to the issue of women speaking in the assemblies, due to it having to do with salvation, not positions in service, “that salvation by faith is the same to all mankind, whatever be their race, condition, or sex, though natural distinctions still exist in full force.” He did not, however, see any restrictions on women singing, and also allowed for women teaching out of necessity, if competent men were not to be had. Boss, The silence of women in the churches —objections considered,[19]

The Presbyterian quarterly, April, 1889, in examining both 1 Cor. 14:34,35 and 1 Tim. 11-15, stated,

As early as the year 1832, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in this country, in a pastoral letter to the churches in reference to dangers to be avoided in revivals, calls attention to a tendency then just beginning to appear, and uses this strong language (Baird, Digest, p. 220), "Meetings of pious women by themselves for conversation and prayer, whenever they can conveniently be held, we entirely approve. But let not the inspired prohibitions of the great apostle of the Gentiles, as found in his Epistles to the Corinthians and to Timothy, be violated. To teach and exhort, or to lead in prayer in public and promiscuous assemblies, is clearly forbidden to women in the holy oracles.".[20]

Evangelical Baptist minister, teacher and author, John F. MacArthur Jr. (1939 —) affirms the basic traditional view, stating in regards to 1 Corinthians 11:5,

The mention of women's praying and prophesying is sometimes used to prove that Paul acknowledged the right of their teaching, preaching, and leading in church worship. But he makes no mention here of the church at worship or in the time of formal teaching. Perhaps he has in view praying and prophesying in public places, rather than in the worship of the congregation. This would certainly fit with the very clear directives in 1 Corinthians (14:34) and in his first letter to Timothy (2:12) ... Women may have the gift of prophecy, as did Philip's four daughters (Acts 21:9), but they are normally not to prophesy in the meetings of the church where men are present.[21]

Post Reformation authorities provide the most extensive account of the majority position regarding the role of female leadership. While they saw injunctions against ordination of women as clear, they found more challenging to what degree silence was enjoined upon women in the formal assembly.[22]

See also


  2. homosexuality. David W. Jones, Egalitarianism and Homosexuality: Connected or Autonomous Ideologies?
  4. Are Women Pastors Biblical?
  5. Wayne Gruden, Evangelical Feminism & Biblical truth
  9. Westminster Theological Journal 56 (1994); pp. 259–83
  12. Grunden, Is Evangelical Feminism the New Path to Liberalism?, p. 37, Personal letters from William D. Mounce May 14, and July 23, 1987.
  14. Origen, Fragmenta ex commentariis in epistulam i ad Corinthios
  15. Schaff, ANF07: ANF07: Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: Lactantius, Venantius, Asterius, Victorinus, Dionysius, Apostolic Teaching and Constitutions, Homily
  16. Gill, 1 Corinthians 14:34
  17. Albert Barnes' Notes on the Bible, 1 Cor. 14:34,35
  19. [1] Article viii; Bibliotheca sacra and theological review, Volume 27, pp. 739-763
  20. “Women in the church,” The Presbyterian quarterly, Volume 3, NO. 8.- April, 1889. pp. 166-179
  21. John MacArthur Jr., 1 Corinthians, MacArthur New Testament Commentary (Chicago: Moody Press, 1984), pp. 256-7.
  22. Commentaries

External links