Who Says What’s a Complementarian?

Apart from the issue that both (what many today call) egalitarians and complementarians at one time saw themselves as complementarian, one without hierarchy and one with hierarchy, today the term “complementarian” is used by those most commonly associated with the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. So they get to define the term, and one very notable representative of this view is Wayne Grudem, who summarizes Complementarian in “The Chart” in his book Evangelical Feminism and Biblical Truth.

How do you define “complementation”? Do you think it is more accurate to call this view “hierarchicalist”?

He sketches various views on a spectrum from The Effeminate Left (those who see No Difference and those who ascribe to Egalitarianism), The Complementarian Middle (those who believe in Equality and Difference and Unity and those who ascribe to Male Dominance), and The Violent Right (where there is No Equality). Here’s how Grudem sketches his view, Equality and Differences and Unity (three positive terms, and he does not use positive terms for any other view).

Defined: emphasizing both equality and different between men and women.

God as Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Spirit are of equal value with different roles. [This could sound like modalism but it is not.]

Man, Woman: Husband and wife have equal value but different roles.

Marriage: Husband is noted by loving humble headship; Wife is noted by intelligent, joyful submission to husband.

Children: are loved, cared for, valued, raised with discipline and love.

Family Responsibilities: husband’s responsibility is to lead, provide for, protect; the wife is responsible to help husband by managing household and nurturing children. [This is very close to the Victorian ideal of a wife at home and the man in the public sector.]

Sex: monogamous, equally fulfilling intercourse as the deepest expression of a great ‘mystery’: equality, differences, and unity!

Natural desires are fulfilled; men and women have a deep sense of acting as God made them to act.

Religion: some governing and teaching roles in the church restricted to men. [Notice how this is framed by restriction rather than gifts. Now what happened to equality?]

Authority: exercised within boundaries.

Sports: competition with fairness and rules: winners honored, losers respected.

Crime: punishment is speedy, fair; aims at justice plus restoration of criminal.

Property: laws protect private property and care for poor; more work and skill earns more wealth; equal opportunity for all.

Education: boys and girls both educated, but different preferences, abilities, and sense of calling respected.

The chart, as Grudem observes, contains generalizations on a spectrum.

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  • Something can’t affirm ‘equality’ while simultaneously affirming ‘male dominance’. If one sex has exclusive dominion / domination over the other, then they are not equals. This is a blatant self-contradiction in the definition for the ‘Complementarian Middle’.

    Also, calling egalitarians the ‘Effeminate Left’ is also just plain slanderous and unhelpful to a conducive dialogue. People disagree with me, and I’m right, therefore it’s okay to mudsling!

  • Also, just saw the previous post on egalitarianism; the majority of things Grudem passes on as ‘general’ true statements is mindbogglingly mistaken or outright deceptive. It’s complete and utter nonsense to such a degree it genuinely sounds like he’s making stuff up just as a scare tactic. (You don’t want to be an ‘effeminate’ egalitarian, what with their undisciplined children and no-holds-barred gay sex, do you?)

  • Amanda B.

    I find it very, very strange that Grudem considers “Male Dominance” to be in the “middle” of the spectrum. I guess anything short of all-out spousal abuse doesn’t count as “extreme” on the right end of the spectrum?

    The implications of this are troubling to me.

  • Dan

    “Dominance” is just as inflammatory to complementarians as “effeminate” is to egalitgarians. No reason to equate “different roles” with “dominance”.

    I probably differ with Grudem in that Grudem apparently fails to mention “be submissive one to another” as the context of Ephesians 5. There are times when a loving husband should submit to his wife, in my view.

    But the real issue here is that egalitarians cannot conceive of “equality” and “different roles” being consistent with each other. As long as there are different roles, there cannot be equality. Complementarians point to the Trinity and say “Equal but different roles”. There is a possibility.

    So the mudslinging goes on. Different roles? You believe in patriarchal dominance! You cave men!

  • Levi

    You make it sound as if egalitarians lack imagination. Of course it is possible to be equal and have different roles. But it is not possible to do so when the difference in role is defined in terms of authority. When one party has authority over the other then equality does not exist by definition, no matter how lovingly the authority is exercised or how willingly the other party submits.

  • Amanda B.

    For my part, I’m not insulted by the term “effeminate” because of any sort of fear of being perceived as such. I take issue with the term because I perceive it as being inherently misogynist (it ignores the presence of women and disdains their influence), and I don’t believe it has a place in respectful, mature dialog.

    I used to be a complementarian, and I can well believe that complementarians don’t want men to dominate women. I am more than happy to take anyone’s word for it when they say that’s the case.

    But part of the problem is that major complementarian teaching and language is not always consistent with this desire. A prime example of this is Raymond Ortlund Jr.’s chapter in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: “In doing so [naming the animals], Adam brought the earthly creation under his dominion. This royal prerogative extended to Adam’s naming of his helper” (eBook version, p. 94).

    This seems to imply directly that Adam exercised dominion over Eve, and that it was his God-given prerogative to do so. Do you feel like Ortlund has accurately represented complementarian beliefs? If so, how would you quantify this as being different than “Male domination” that is used as a smear against complementarianism? If not, is there a better wording that could be used?

    Thank you for your time.

  • Phil Miller

    The term “role” implies something that is a temporary position. When an actor takes on a role, it’s not his lifelong calling. It’s a temporary job. The way Grudem and others in his camp define roles, it sounds more like an unchanging caste system – “this is your lot in life, and you need to accept it”.

    As far as subordination in the Trinity, Kevin Giles’ book

    Jesus and the Father: Modern Evangelicals Reinvent the Doctrine of the Trinity does a good job of explaining why Grudem is wrong about this. Actually, it is hard to see what the difference is between what Grudem says and the historic heresy of Sabellianism (I’m not charging Grudem with being a heretic, btw, I just think that the way he describes the Trinity can sound very modalistic at times).

  • Ouch. What disturbs me about that specific teaching is that Ortlund not only claims that Adam put Eve “under his dominion” but in so doing put women with the animals and the rest of creation as a thing to “subdue” by order of God. Wow. Over-reach much?

    Also, where is it taught that the male is supposed to do the providing? I hear folks teach that (even in books) and they frequently point to the passage that says that if someone won’t provide for their own family, they are worse than an unbeliever and have denied the faith. Well and good. But if you read on in that passage you get to this: ” If any woman who is a believer has dependent widows, she must assist them and the church must not be burdened, so that it may assist those who are widows indeed.” So . . . this passage isn’t about men providing and women not providing. This passage is about family providing for family, and women are specifically mentioned as providers, not to mention Proverbs 31. I see no teaching in scripture that providing is supposed to be a male role. I see plenty of evidence that women are perfectly capable.

  • I have to confess, when I read these definitions, I had Inigo Montoya in my head, re: “Equality.”

    “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

  • Phil Miller

    Another thing I’d say is that these definitions make no room for single-parent households. There are plenty of women and men who find themselves having to do all these things simply out of necessity. My wife didn’t grow up in the church, and she has always said that as an outsider it was apparent to her that if she didn’t fit a certain mold, there was no place for her. To me, that’s what stupid lists like this tell people. “Oh, you’re not like this? Sorry, God doesn’t approve of you as much as He approves of us.”

  • kenny Johnson

    So one role is to have authority and the other role is to submit to authority?

  • Scott Eaton


    Like you I hear this and scratch my head, wondering where people think the Bible says men must do all the providing. It is a fundamentalist/conservative evangelical urban myth. But I think most would point to Titus 2:3-5:

    3 Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. 4 Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.

    I personally don’t think this precludes a woman from working outside the home, but many do, especially with the emphasis “to be busy at home.”

  • scotmcknight

    Yes, women are capable in Proverbs 31, for instance. But part of divorce laws were permissions to divorce for lack of male provision: Exod 21:10-11.

  • I hear a modified version of the slogan from Animal Farm. All humans are equal, but men are more equal than women. Or perhaps “separate but equal” as in Brown v. Board of Education.

  • Phyllis Palmer

    I agree with you. I have always felt that this could only appeal to a subset of people who economically could live like they are defining these roles. Ironically, ministry families and many biblical professors cannot afford to live this out just like this. Seriously, there are families that will never live up to this in the N. American culture, let alone around the world.

  • nick stavlund

    Given that Evangelicals hold varying views on this issue, I’ve always found it intriguing that the so-called conservative position is in the complementarian ballpark while the so-called liberal position is in the egalitarian ballpark. At least that’s how it’s been portrayed in my journey.

    Well, I’ve come to think that it’s actually a more conservative reading of the bible and a more conservative reading of Jesus’ life to be an egalitarian. In other words, if both positions have their own “biblical support” and all things being equal, I’d rather err on the side of being more inclusive than exclusive. That said – and back to reality – I simply don’t see that Grudem’s position is exegetically superior to the egalitarian position outlined by Scot, and others. Thanks for the article, Scot!

  • Not that you disagree, but I see that as the law taking typical realities into account (which the law should do) rather than being restrictive about women can/should do.

  • Aaron

    The above chart is ridiculous in it’s generalizations. Everything said above regarding Children, Sports, Crime, Education, authority, property, Natural desires and sex could easily be touted as egalitarian. This just shows that Grudem is either ignorant of the lives and beliefs of actual egalitarians or he is deceitfully trying to make Complementarianism look better by giving it the best possible generalizations. Good Grief

  • Grudem himself is the one who chose to use the word ‘dominance’ to define his own position. A recognize authoritative teacher on the issue who holds to the complementarian view specifically defines it as ‘male dominance’. It isn’t mudslinging, then, to use the word he agrees is an accurate description of his own view.

  • Dan

    I guess that depends on whether one takes Jesus’ statements that only the Father knows the day or the hour of the end or that He himself only spoke what the Father commanded and that he did only His Father’s will. Does Jesus’ respect for and submission to the Father’s will indicated a less than equal value in the Trinity? Does the Father’s “authority” over Jesus mean there can be no equality?

    This is important because part of Paul’s basis for the “roles” in marriage is the picture marriage gives of Christ and the church. But the picture is that “he who wants to be greatest must become a servant”. So if husbands are the “head”, that rules out “domination” and demands service.

  • Dan

    Whether Grudem used it or not, it is still offensive to most complementarians I know. Because it does not in any way describe the image of “headship” in Ephesians 5.

  • Dan

    One role is to represent God in his role as “Father”. The other is to represent both Israel and the church as the “beloved” for whom a plan of sacrificial love would lead to a wedding feast followed by much joy in “many mansions”.

  • Dan

    The role of Husband and wife seem also to be temporary, for this life only. Even Christ “doing only the will of my Father” while on earth need not imply an eternal distinction but I’m not sure it would be anything close to modalism if it did.

    I don’t get the blanket equation of complementarianism with “subordination”, at least in the connotation of that word. The only thing that a complimentarian needs to insist on is that men are men, women are women, they are not the same and there are some very limited roles that one can inhabit that the other cannot. I can never be a mother because I am a man. My children primarily understand the Fatherhood of God through what they hopefully see in me.

    And because in the God-to-man relationship God is described as Father, the masculine/feminine distinction has implications in the church. Not that men are better, but because men “image” Fatherhood. I don’t see anything required in Scripture beyond that. Certainly nothing that suggests God wants men to dominate and women to be subservient.

  • Levi

    “…there are some very limited roles that one can inhabit that the other cannot.” As in, any situation in which a woman (or women) are in a position of authority over and leadership of a man (or men).

    One class of person is deemed a priori to be in authority over another class of person without regard to ability or giftedness, but only by the flip of the genetic coin. Even if the authority is exercised quite skillfully, that sounds like subordination to me.

  • Phil Miller

    If temporary equals “this life only”, that actually sounds very much like karma. Certainly it’s not hard to understand that when you say the role given to one person means they must lead and the role given to another says they must submit, that logically implies subordination. You can’t on one hand say, “we consider men an women equals”, and on the other hand say that there are some positions that women are restricted from.

    As far as biological differences, of course, those exist. No one can deny that. But there isn’t one group of traits that define fatherhood and another that defines motherhood. Ideally, there would be a great deal of overlap between these two. What we call masculine and feminine traits are largely social constructs (see the phenomena of 80’s hair metal for exhibit A).

  • Levi

    So who speaks for complementarians, if not someone like Grudem who quite literally wrote the book on it?

    It’s become a pattern where a leading complementarian is criticized for offensive language, and then it is claimed they don’t represent most complementarians. Are there any true Scotsmen in the camp?

  • Dan

    I can’t imagine Jim Dobson, Dennis Rainey, Gary Smalley, or any of the complementarian pastors or laymen I have known for 40 years using the word “dominance” in the context of “husband”.

  • Dan

    Quite frankly, this is dishonest. In Grudem’s Biblical foundations treatise, he goes to great lengths to state that male dominance is an error and an aberration. To say he defines his position as male dominance is a total misrepresentation.

  • Dan, I’m glad for that. But where is the strong critique in the complementarian camp for Grudem’s characterization? Perhaps it is out there and in good numbers and strong words; I hope it is.

    I am becoming convinced that the issue is hierarchy, specifically whether, in marriage and in the church by God’s design and/or edict, there is a hierarchy in which men are in authority over women. The issue is not whether one thinks that males and females “complement” each other. Everyone thinks that. Do you see hierarchy as the issue b/n so-called egalitarians and complementarians, descriptively speaking?

  • Dan

    Grudem’s view has been a bit misrepresented here. Dominance is a result of sin. Egalitarians seem to see any difference in roles as inequality. So to them any difference in role is often depicted as patriarchal or misogynistic. Hierarchy is to them, it seems, always abusive. Impasse. The ideal of servant/leader is to egalitarians an impossible concept, it seems.