Complementarian is a strange word. I never heard my parents or my pastor use it as I was growing up. I can’t recall the first time I heard it — though it was likely sometime in the early 2000s, as a young married woman, sitting under the teaching of John Piper.
However, long before I heard the strange word, I had seen the concept. I saw it when my dad’s heart to be generous and hospitable was taken up by my mom and transposed into a welcoming home that operated like a bed-and-breakfast for family, friends, and strangers. I saw it when my dad would take the initiative to warm the car and pull it up to the curb, always hopping out to open the door for my mom — my fearless mom, who wielded chainsaws and rode young green horses, yet gladly welcomed this kindness from her husband. I saw it when my mom helped shoulder my dad’s call to be a physician, making the best of a constantly changing schedule. I saw it in my dad’s hard work and provision for us and in my mom’s labor in the home to turn that provision into something truly wonderful. And I saw it when my dad led us in prayer and gratitude to God for everything, especially God’s Son.
Woven Through All of God’s Word
Yet there was another place I’d seen complementarity: the Scriptures. From the opening pages — the genesis of Adam and Eve — to the final chapters revealing the marriage supper of the Lamb, this concept of part and counterpart; of the distinctiveness of man and woman (in Hebrew, ish and ishah); of the design and order of husband and wife, lord and lady, bridegroom and bride, was everywhere. From Sarah’s willingness to obey Abraham to Boaz’s noble protection of Ruth, the stories of Scripture show us both the beauty of complementarity and the consequences of rejecting God’s design for men and women — as when Adam submitted to Eve rather than to God in the garden.
“The husband is head, and the wife is glory — just as Christ is head, and the church is body.”
Even the gospel itself is intertwined with this foundational reality of creation: the husband is head, and the wife is glory — just as Christ is head, and the church is body (1 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 5:22–33). The husband loves his wife, and the wife respects her husband — just as Christ lovingly sacrifices, and the church gladly submits and receives (Ephesians 5:22–33; Colossians 3:18–19). I had observed, too, how the Epistles reiterate the distinctions between men and women as they give separate and particular instructions for older women, younger women, older men, younger men, wives, husbands, and widows (Titus 2:1–6; 1 Timothy 2:8–15; 1 Peter 3:1–7).
By the time the strange word complementarian became part of my vocabulary, with its accompanying pushback against the idea that men and women are interchangeable, I didn’t need to be convinced it was true or scriptural. I’d seen it — both in print and in life.
Speed Bumps Along the Way
Of course, seeing a reality and living a reality are two different experiences. I could see the reality of complementarity. I could see the beauty of God’s intent for men and women. But stepping into that reality as a young woman and trying it on was more difficult. From the time I was little, the word equality was a good word. Especially as an American, I was proud to consider everyone equal. I’d heard that egalitarianism was simply that: equality between men and women. Who could be opposed to equality?
Thankfully, a complementarian position was able to account for both the equalities and the inequalities of men and women. To embrace the Bible’s teaching on men and women is to acknowledge an equality of value alongside physical and positional differences.
“What a gift to be a woman! What a gift to be endowed with a woman’s body and to have a woman’s mind and instincts!”
I found over time that, rather than bristling at this reality, there was great relief in stating the obvious. I came to acknowledge that treating men and women as the same was actually an affront to God — and at the same time, I became free to acknowledge that how he designed men and women was truly good and beautiful. Many women are indoctrinated by the world to believe that we will lose something essential in ourselves if we admit that we are physically weaker or inherently different than men. When we acknowledge that we don’t choose what we are but are created to be what we are — man or woman — the world teaches us to shudder and rebel, but God teaches us to say thank you for his good gift. What a gift to be a woman! What a gift to be endowed with a woman’s body and to have a woman’s mind and instincts!
Two Precious Tutors
Two books were especially helpful to me as I began to really practice the complementarity I saw in Scripture, both in my marriage and in how I conceived of myself as a Christian woman in the world. The first was Matthew Henry’s The Quest for Meekness and Quietness of Spirit, and the second was Jim Wilson’s How to Be Free from Bitterness. Neither book mentions complementarianism, neither is about the differences between men and women, and neither is written particularly for women. But both books helped me gain a frame of mind and heart and soul that served my submission to God and his ways — and helped me flourish as a result.
The books gave me a window into the inner workings of a heart that truly trusts and obeys God. And it just so happens that the kind of heart that trusts and obeys God is the same kind of heart that does not rebel against God-ordained relationships of authority and submission. Whether submitting to the elders of my church or the authorities who make our traffic laws or my own husband as he leads us on a new adventure, my frame of heart and mind must be wholly trusting God. I need a stability of soul born of meekness and a faith-filled heart that is free from bitterness.
Henry and Wilson fanned the flames of my happiness in day-to-day life as they helped me turn from sins of grasping, bitterness, and inward strife and replace them with simple gratitude, peace, and joy in Christ. I commend them to you. My happiness in complementarity was directly tied to my own sanctification and my willingness to bow my knee in submission to King Jesus, no matter what the world or anyone else thought.
To agree with God’s word that a wife ought to submit to her husband (Ephesians 5:22), or that woman is the glory of man and man is the glory of Christ (1 Corinthians 11:3), or that God himself ordains who is a man and who is a woman — these positions won’t earn you accolades or applause in many circles. But agreeing with God — even more, loving what God has said and done — will bring you peace and hope and joy, both now and in the age to come. Complementarian is a strange word, but that’s alright. Christians have often been strange to the world.
Credit: Abigail Dodds