Revisionist History on the Term “Complementarian”

One of the more relentless students of the history of women in ministry among evangelicals, and especially of the history of how egalitarians and complementarians have framed their arguments and used their terms, is Kevin Giles of Australia. Because of the social and ecclesial force among conservative evangelicals on the side of so-called “complementarians,” one would have to say Giles has to go on the defensive often just to clear up the argument. His most recent study is called “The Genesis of Confusion: How ‘Complementarians’ Have Corrupted Communication,” Priscilla Papers 29 (2015) 22-29. [All citations below are from this article.]

One of the more interesting elements of this history is how the term “complementarian” was originally a term used by egalitarians but that became the fixed term by the so-called “complementarians” for their own view! One of Giles’ observations is that what we now have — in the reality of this debate — is hierarchical-complementarians (those who use the term “complementarian” today) and egalitarian-complementarians (those who are called “egalitarians” today).  Both believe in complentarity of the sexes:

Because God made humankind man and woman (Gen 1:27-28), virtually all theologians agree that man and woman complete what it means to be human; the two sexes are complementary. Man alone or woman alone is not humanity in its completeness. Since the earliest descriptions of the evangelical egalitarian position in the mid-1970s, egalitarians have unambiguously affirmed the complementarity of the sexes.

At this point the discussion gets very interesting in the capturing of a term. The capturing of a term for one side results in a revisionist story of what complementarians believe and what they mean by the term.

First, Grudem and Piper gave the term “complementarian” to their team and were unaware (evidently) that it was used by the group they called “egalitarians” or “evangelical feminists.” Perhaps most important, the term “complementarian” for them was about “roles” and the man was to rule or lead and the woman was to submit or follow. Complementarian meant male leadership in the home and church, and for some in society as well. Here’s Giles:

Grudem, in his 2006 book, Countering the Claims of Evangelical Feminism, tells us how his side came to use the words, “complementary” and “complementarian.” He says the first time those arguing for a hierarchal relationship between men and often used the word “complementary” was on November 17,1988, in the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood’s founding document, the Danvers Statement. He says, that as far as he knows, “it had not been previously used in this controversy.” It had indeed, as I will show below. In the Danvers Statement, the stance taken is not called the “complementarian” position. Grudem tells us that he and John Piper, in editing the 1991 symposium, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, “coined” the term “complementarian” as a self-designation of their position. In other words, they invented it. In this book, the editors admit that, in designating their understanding of what the Bible teaches on the sexes the “complementarian” position, they were seeking to establish a new term for what had hitherto been called the “traditional” or “hierarchical” position. From this point on, virtually every book written by an evangelical in support of the creation based subordination of women has designated the stance taken as the “complementarian” position and constantly spoken of the man-woman relationship as “complementary.” [Bold added.]

Second, the facts are that Grudem-Piper did not “coin” a term but used a term used by egalitarians. Here is the evidence Giles trots out.

Paul Jewett, in his seminal 1975 book, Man as Male and Female, argued for “a model of partnership … where man and woman are properly related when they accept each other as equals whose difference is mutually complementary in all spheres of life and human endeavour.” In my 1977 book I argued that the church needs for its well-being both men and women in leadership, for the church is impoverished when more than half of its members are excluded from leadership. I did not explicitly use the term “complementary,” but I did speak of “the distinctive contribution that is made by men and women” in the church and in marriage. What is more, I repeatedly described ministry in the church and marriage as a “partnership” where each sex adds to what the other brings. I was surprised on re-reading the book that I had not explicitly used the word “complementary,” for the idea was presupposed in all that I said. However, in my 1985 book, Created Woman: A Fresh Study of the Biblical Teaching, I explicitly wrote of the “complementarity of the sexes” and constantly described their relationship in this way.

In 1983, the English egalitarian evangelical scholar Mary Evans, in her important study, Women in the Bible, continued this trend, using the term “complementary” to designate what the Bible teaches on the sexes. In 1985, another English evangelical, Elaine Storkey, in What’s Right with Feminism, similarly spoke of the sexes “complementing” each other. From this time on, the word was commonly used by egalitarian evangelicals. Thus CBE’s 1989 ‘Statement on Men, Women, and Biblical Equality,” now available in thirty-four languages, implies the complementarity of the sexes throughout and speaks explicitly of their “complementarity.’ [Bold added]

Moving forward, Ronald Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis named their 2004 scholarly egalitarian symposium, Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy. They well support the claim that,

From the time of the first wave of the modern women’s movement at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many have argued that women should participate equally with men precisely because they bring complementary gender qualities to marriage, ministry and society.

So what is this all about? Giles:

I suggest the debate is actually about power—who rules over whom and who determines doctrine.

Faced with these facts [women are good leaders; subordination harms our culture] and ever-growing opportunities for women to become leaders in the church and society, “complementarians” have desperately sought euphemistic terminology that will help them win the day. The day has come for plain speaking!

That plain speaking means we need to say that the reason they chose “complementarian” was because “hierarchical” and “traditional” were too clear.

Who’s accommodating now?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.