The most common understanding of both Complementarianism and Egalitarianism goes something like this:

Complementarians: Do not let women be pastors over men.

Egalitarians: Do let women be pastors over men.


Complementarians: The husband is the leader of the family.

Egalitarians: The husband and wife co-lead the family, with no priority.


Complementarians: Wives submit to your husbands.

Egalitarians: Husbands and wives are to practice mutual submission.

While I think that these are characteristics of both groups, they are not foundational characteristics that define each group. In other words, I don’t think that they are helpful in defining what it means to be a complementarian or egalitarian and they serve to cause a great deal of misunderstanding that leads to emotional bias that is very difficult to overcome once set.

In fact, I am going to say something very radical here and then explain. Here it goes:

It is possible to be a complementarian and believe that a women can serve in the position of head pastor over men.

Did you get that? Reread it. Reread it again…

Complementarianism is not first defined by it view of the roles of men and women in the church, family, or society.

Here is what Complementarianism is:

Complementarianism is the belief that men and women have God given differences that are essential to their person. Men and women are ontologically (in their essential nature) equal, but often, functionally, take subordinate roles (like the Trinity). These differences complete or “complement” each other. Due to these differences, there will be some things that women are predisposed and purposed to do more than men. As well, there will be some things that men are predisposed and purposed to do more than women. Therefore, there are ideal roles for both men and women that should be celebrated, exemplified, typified, and promoted in the church, family, and society. To deny these differences is to deny the design of God and thwart his purpose.

Here is what Egalitarianism is:

The belief that God has created men and women equal in all things. Men and women are ontologically and functionally equal. The way the sexes function in the church, society, and the family is determined by individual giftedness, not role distinctions according to the sexes. Therefore, each person should be judged individually when being placed in a particular position. We should exemplify this reality by overcoming the stereotypical placement that has traditionally been a part of societies in human history, thereby giving freedom to individuals to follow the path that God has uniquely created them for, whatever that may be. In doing so, we should no longer educate or indoctrinate according to any of the former stereotypes, including those of basic masculinity and femininity.

These, in my opinion, are the foundational tenants of each position without giving examples on how this plays out in the family, the church, or society.

The case I am making here is that in order to be a consistent egalitarian, one must deny virtually all differences that typify men as men and women as women. It is not just about getting women behind the pulpit or the concept of mutual submission in the family. It is much more complex and, in my estimation, more difficult to defend with sensibility.

I had a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary who was an Egalitarian (he left because of this—I won’t mention his name). I loved this guy. Still do. Great teacher, thinker, and Christian. In fact, I had him come speak to our pastoral staff at Stonebriar to challenge us on why he became egalitarian and to defend his position. I wanted the staff to understand the “other side” from a very able defender. During his presentation, he painted himself into this very typical corner that I find most all egalitarians end up. 

He was advocating a foundational principle of egalitarianism: there are no essential differences between men and women other than reproductive stuff. We were all quite taken aback. Every example we brought up, he shot down by giving a counter-example in the form of an exception. His basic argument turned on finding exceptions to everything. Whether it was that men were less emotional, more aggressive, more one tracked in their thinking, less tender, more competitive, unable to nurture as well as women, or even liked the color blue more, he brought up exceptions that he believed neutralized the “pattern”. Finally, I thought I had him. I said “What about physicality? Men are stronger than women.” He would have none of that. He then brought up examples of German women who were stronger than men! We could not stump the guy!

The problem is that in order to defend egalitarianism consistently, he had to deny all of the common sense distinctions that people have made about men and women since the dawn of time. I won’t get into the science or psychology of this issue as there are many very good resources that do this. To me, it is rather bizarre that one would actually be inclined to produce evidence to prove that men and women are different!

I am of the opinion that many egalitarians would have been appalled by Peter who said that women are the weaker of the sexes (1 Pet. 3:7) siting every exception to this rule and bemoaning this stereotype until Peter cried “uncle.”

Complementarianism says that men and women are different by design. We are different and God did it. It is that simple.

However, most people would not be willing to go as far as my former professor. They realize that sustaining a proposition that men and women have no essential differences is a battle that cannot really be sustained in real life (only theoretical ideology). Men and women are different. Even most egalitarians that I know would give me this. Hear this again. Most egalitarians that I know would admit, when push comes to shove, that there are some essential differences between men and women. Most would even say that there are essential differences that go beyond reproduction and physicality. But I would argue that these people are not really egalitarians, at least in the way I have defined it. They would be complementarians because they would have given up what I believe to be a central driving tenant of egalitarianism and embraced the central tenant of complementarianism: men and women are different by design and their differences complement each other.

Now, having said this, I believe that it is theoretically possible to be a complementarian and yet not take a traditional complementarian stand on the issue of women in ministry. In other words, someone could believe that men and women are different by design yet not think that these differences have any bearing on women in leadership in the church. They may be convinced that the Bible does not really teach that women should not teach men, and yet be complementarian in other issues and, broadly, in their theology of the sexes.

I am interested and committed to complementarianism for more than just the women in ministry issue. This is just one application. But (and here is where I get in trouble with fellow complementarians), I don’t think that it is the most important issue in this debate. Neither do I think that it is the most “damaging” issue.

You see, when people are truly committed and consistent egalitarians, they have to defend their denial of essential differences. In doing so, they will advocate a education system in the home, church, and society which neutralizes any assumption of differences between the sexes. In doing so, men will not be trained to be “men” since there is really no such thing. Women will not be encouraged to be “women” since there is no such thing. The assumption of differences becomes a way to oppress society and marginalize, in their estimation, one sex for the benefit of the other. Once we neutralize these differences, we will have neutered society and the family due to a denial of God’s design in favor of some misguided attempt to promote a form of equality that is neither possible nor beneficial to either sex.

We will have troubled men and women groping to find their way and feeling pressured to repress their instincts and giftedness. We will no longer be able to train up men and women in the “way” they should go since there is no “way” they should go. Women can act masculine and men can be feminine. Men can retreat in the face of responsibility because, in truth, they don’t have any “responsibility” other than the one that they choose. This is to say nothing of the implications this has on the issues of homosexuality and gay marriage.

But in a complementarian worldview (even one that allows women to teach men in the church), men are taught to be men and women are taught to be women. They both have defining characteristics. Masculinity and femininity find their place and are exemplified and celebrated. Men protect women from physical danger and take their positions of leadership seriously, without trepidation or fear that they will be seen as power mongers. And women support this. Women take up their positions of nurturing and supporting the emotional well-being of the world. And men support it. No role distinction is seen as inferior because in a complementarian worldview both are seen as essential and of equal importance. Only in complementarianism do we not define the rule by the exceptions and bow to the least common denominator. Only in the complementarian worldview, in my opinion, can freedom to be who we are supposed to be find meaning.

The true spirit of complementarianism is that God has intentionally created men and women with differences and we are to celebrate this in every way. The true spirit of complementarianism is never domineering (that is a sinful corruption). The true spirit of complementarianism provides no shame only freedom. The true spirit of complementarianism speaks to God in appreciation.

When we attempt to neuter this design, we have lost much more than authority in the pulpit.

Complementarians, while I believe that the Bible teaches the ideal that women should not have authority over men in the church, let us promote the true spirit of complementarianism then simply defending its particular applications.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Find him everywhere: Find him everywhere

    637 replies to "What Complementarianism is Really all About"

    • Jugulum


      I assume you don’t think that parents have no authority over their children, do you?

      Take a look at 2 Cor 10:8, where Paul refers to his authority, given to him by Jesus. Matt 28:18 doesn’t mean that Christ never delegates authority.

    • EricW


      You know that is not what I did and is not what I wrote.

      You write an “if I say to you” statement, yet that is not what I did, nor what I wrote. Neither cherylu nor I said ANYTHING about the resurrection.

      If you can’t apologize and retract your false and unsubstantiated and unsubstantiatable accusation/smear, then fine. I’ll accept that that’s just the way you are.


    • Jugulum


      Also, suppose you’re right–suppose that no human being can have Jesus’ authority. (And I wouldn’t even dream of suggesting that we could have his authority in full measure.)

      Cheryl asked the question because you said, “Christ is only ever seen in Scripture doing three things for His Church: serving, sacrificing and interceding.” Don’t you see that you had spoken too quickly? Jesus also commands his church.

    • cherylu


      I am wondering what you do with a Scipture like this: “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that [is] unprofitable for you. ” Or the several places in the Bible that we are told to obey or submit to ruling authorities in the government?

      Truly, there is no room for anyone else to have any authority? Isn’t the statement that Jesus has all authority saying that His is the ultimate authority? However, there is authority that has been delegated under Him. To say otherwise seems to me to be making utter nonsense of more then one Scripture passage.

    • Jugulum

      I haven’t followed the interaction between Eric & Hodge, so this comment is just in reply to the last few messages:

      There’s more to “things get lost in translation” than the kind of wordplay of “Isaac” and “he laughs”. That’s like a pun. Another difficulty of translation is that sometimes, the English word we use adds an implication that wasn’t there, or drops an implication that was there.

      It’s not dishonest to say, “there are things in the original languages that are often not picked up by most translations”, if you’re making a well-researched specific argument about proper translation of a key word or phrase. (If you say it in a generic way, to cast doubt without a specific point, then maybe you could call that dishonest–it would certainly be invalid.)

      The English “submit” or “head” aren’t necessarily used in all the same ways that “hupotasso” and “kephale” are used–it’s potentially valid to raise the issue.

    • mbaker

      I also think it is important to note that even though Jesus was clear that He was the son of God, and has all authority as such, His was a life of humble service not of a ruling monarch. While he could have easily done that, He choose to ride a donkey, and eschewed the patriarchal rule of the church by the Pharisees and Sadducees, (which were all men, BTW). That’s why they didn’t recognize Him when He came, because they expected Him to come in power and be like them, not make Himself of no reputation.

      I think some of the church nowadays also gets so hung up on making such a big deal about authority for themselves, they make the same mistake, and miss that point entirely.

      I love what a young pastor friend of mine recently said, because it’s so descriptive of Christ’s own attitude, “Meekness is power under control”.

    • Kay

      “Jesus also commands his church.”

      Yes, Jesus commands His Church. The Church does not command the Church.

    • cherylu

      I like that statement, “Meekness is power under control.”

      Again as I commented on here earlier, I think if the other side of the equation… that men are to “love and serve and give themselves” for their wives and that they are to “live in an understanding way with their wives” was emphasized as much as the authority/submission issues are, we wouldn’t have nearly as much problem as we do now. Maybe we wouldn’t even have to be having this discussion!

    • EricW


      To summarize: cherylu posted a self-described “rant” in which she complained about the frustration generated in her by reading some posts that suggested problems with reading the Bible in English, not reading the scholarly literature, not knowing the culture well enought, etc.

      I responded with some comments re: the difficulty of translating the Scriptures into English and the loss of meaning that is inevitable, more so with Hebrew than with Greek.

      Hodge seems to feel that I was “dishonest” to write what I did for the following reasons (#598):

      I’m stating that it has nothing to do with the issue, and is said for the purpose of seeding doubt in a person’s mind, who does not know the original languages. That to me is dishonest, whether you consciously meant it to be or not.

      Just because HE feels what I wrote “has nothing to do with the issue” doesn’t mean that his claim is true. In fact, part of “the issue,” as this discussion shows, IS the fact that we have some Greek words translated as “submit” and “head” and “assume authority over” that need to be studied and understood better before making quick judgments and drawing quick conclusions about what Paul said and meant.

      Hodge then suggests – in fact says – that I what I wrote was “said for the purpose of seeding doubt in a person’s mind, who does not know the original languages” and that thus what I did was “dishonest.”

      “Said for the purpose of seeding doubt.”

      Good grief! He knows my mind and heart and intentions even better than I do! When such kinds of false or defamatory things or accusations are said in print, it’s called libel.

    • cherylu


      That is not what Hebrews 13:17 says, is it? That is the verse I quoted above. Sorry I forgot the reference. It says we are to “obey them that rule over us”. Obviously Jesus is the ultimate authority and we are to obey Him above all else. However, there IS delegated authority under Him.

    • Jugulum


      I’m going to leave this to Cheryl. She said it very well in #604.

    • Rebecca

      He appointed judges throughout the nation in all the fortified cities, and he gave them these instructions: “Always think carefully before pronouncing judgment. Remember that you do not judge to please people but to please the Lord. He will be with you when you render the verdict in each case that comes before you. Fear the Lord and judge with care, for the Lord our God does not tolerate perverted justice, partiality, or the taking of bribes.
      2 Chronicles 19:5-7 NLT

      Fit for leadership

      When Jehoshaphat appointed leaders for the people of Israel, he told them they would represent God in their decisions—a solemn responsibility.

      Second Timothy 2 describes the kind of person fit for leadership. Those who want to become leaders should ask God to develop these traits in them: honesty, kindness, patience, purity, and integrity. Verses 24-25 explain:

      The Lord’s servants must not quarrel but must be kind to everyone. They must be able to teach effectively and be patient with difficult people. They should gently teach those who oppose the truth.

      Leaders who teach God’s Word have an even greater responsibility to use their authority carefully. Paul urged his friend Titus to model Christian character and to guard his integrity. People watch Christian leaders very carefully—they must be above reproach. Titus 2:7-8 and 15 state:

      And you yourself must be an example to them by doing good deeds of every kind. Let everything you do reflect the integrity and seriousness of your teaching. Let your teaching be so correct that it can’t be criticized.… You have the authority to do this, so don’t let anyone ignore or disregard what you say.

      So God never gave authority to anyone else?

    • BradK

      Jugulum #585, #594, and #598,

      Fwiw, I consider 5:23 to be part of Paul’s injunction to wives regarding submitting. He is obviously just elaborating on the point he just made. Don’t you agree? So I don’t think the question was beside the point and the comparison with slavery is still a valid one. (Although had I known that this comparison had already been made and discussed over on Sue’s blog I probably wouldn’t have brought it up here.)

      Also, I don’t see either this elaboration by Paul in 5:23 of his previous point about submission or the absence of such elaboration regarding slaves following 6:5 as evidence that Paul intended to validate hierarchy in 5:23. After all, Paul is using metaphorical language comparing the relationship of the husband and wife to that of Christ and the Church. He does the same kind of elaboration when he tells the husband to love his wife. And he again makes the comparison to the human body, which is a continuation of a theme he started all the way back in chapter 1. There’s good reason for him not to make this same kind of elaboration regarding the relationship between a master and slave because that relationship doesn’t fit his theme.

    • Kay


      “So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive theunfading crown of glory. Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders.Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

      How can we both read 1 Peter 5 and “see” it so differently? I don’t see the word “authority” in any of those verses.
      I see in verse 2 the word translated as “oversight” has the meanings of “to care for, to look after” but no mention of “authority” in the definition. I do see the shepherds being told “And do not lord it over those entrusted to you, but be examples to the flock” a) Don’t try to be lords to those you care for. b) Do be examples. It is a warning for elders in the faith to be responsible. I don’t see authority mentioned.

    • Truth Unites... and Divides

      Rebecca: “TUAD, you crack me up!”

      Heh, heh. Sometimes, ya just gotta have some fun with these discussions!


    • Jugulum


      He’s more than elaborating v.22, he’s explaining the reason for v.22. And it’s grounded in the nature of the relationship between husband and wife—a relationship that God gave us. The submission in v. 22—whatever that means—is an inherent part of the way God set up marriage. (Wives are supposed to submit to their husband—in the same way that the church submits to Christ—because the husband is the head of the wife just like Jesus is the head of the church.)

      When Paul elaborates on the command to slaves, it’s not based on the nature of a relationship God designed between the slave and the master.

      To put it another way, the complementarian understanding goes like this:
      1.) 5:22 commands wives to submit to their husbands.
      2.) 5:23 validates that command (whatever it means) as part of the marriage relationship (and we know that God set up marriage).

      3.) 6:5 commands slaves to obey their masters.
      4.) 6:6-9 does not suggest that God gave us the slave-master relationship.

      That’s how complementarians can be consistent. (If you argue that the submission in 5:22 isn’t hierarchical, that’s a different issue.)

      One more way of saying it: Ephesians 5-6 tells us that if you’re in a marriage the wife should submit, if you have parents you should obey them, and if you’re a slave you should obey your master. (It also says things to the husband, parents, and master.) It doesn’t say that anyone has the right to take a slave.

    • Truth Unites... and Divides

      Kay, #596: “Nowhere in Scripture is a wife told to obey her husband.

      Now we see what egalitarianism is *really* all about.

    • cherylu


      I wasn’t speaking of I Peter. The specific Scripture I quoted was from Hebrews. And one can rule over, or have authoritiy, and do it in a proper way.

      And remember, you did say that there is no room for any authority other then Jesus for He has it all. I am still trying to figure out if you meant that literally and in all situtations or what. Someone asked you about that statement regarding parent/child relationships. I don’t recall that you answered.

      I don’t see how you can base an argument that a husband has no authority over the wife on your statement that there is no authority among people because, “Jesus has it all and there is not room for any more.” (My paraphrase of what you said.) That simply does not hold up Scripturally.

      Remember too, that in that same book of I Peter that you quoted, in chapter 2, Peter tells wives to be in subjection to their husbands and uses the example of (caps for emphasis) Sarah who OBEYED her husband and called him LORD.

    • Kay

      Sorry – I thought you were referencing 1 Pet. As to Hebrews 13:17, I’d have to say that the word peitho sometimes translated as “obey” there, is also translated as:
      assure, confident, convinced, followed, have confidence, having confidence, listen, persuade, persuaded, persuading, put confidence, put…confidence, put…trust, relied, seeking the favor, sure, took…advice, trust, trusted, trusting, trusts, urging, win…over, won over.

      It’s not as though the elders of the Church are making “rules” that must be “obeyed.” They are to “Feed my sheep.”

    • Kay

      What rules are they enforcing?

    • Truth Unites... and Divides

      Sometimes/Frequently, the sheep have to obey in order to be fed properly.

    • Jugulum

      P.S. Something just occurred to me: My last comment (#616) didn’t say anything uniquely complementarian.

      I explained why 6:5 doesn’t validate slavery. And that’s something egalitarians have to explain, too–and presumably, y’all would say it pretty much the same way.

      To settle egal vs comp, we have to settle what 5:22 means by “submit” (and whether husbands submit in precisely the same way). Either way, we’re both being consistent when we say that 6:5 doesn’t endorse slavery.

    • Don

      Eph 5:22 gets its verb from 5:21, so it has to mean the same thing in both places.

      My translation of Eph 5:21-22 … mutually submitting in the fear of Messiah; wives (mutually submitting) to your husbands as to the Lord.

    • cherylu


      It says in that Hebrews verse that they are “watching out for our souls”, so I reckon we are to obey their teaching, their admonition, their reproof or correction, don’t you?

      And as far as all of those other possible meanings of the word translated “obey”, in an online site I frequent I just checked how that word was translated in 12 versions-100% of them–and it is always translated “obey” or “be obedient to”. It would seem to me that is very significant.

      In all fairness however, I see that the words “rule over” there is more often translated as “your leaders”. One says to obey them and their authority. But the idea of obedience to someone over you is still very much there in all of the translations whether they are called a ruler or a leader.

    • Hodge


      You brought up irrelevant information to trump someone in a false and deceptive manner. If you can’t admit that then I’ll assume that that’s the way you are. Anyone can see what was done. As for me, I’m done rebuking the non-reproachable.

    • Hodge


      “Another difficulty of translation is that sometimes, the English word we use adds an implication that wasn’t there, or drops an implication that was there.”

      Hence, I said there are issues with glosses. My point is that there is nothing that doesn’t transfer over in this debate. Both sides have understood definitions for the words being described. The difference is in what they mean, not that their conceptualizations can’t be transferred over to English. So I disagree. It is dishonest to pretend that the poor layman just doesn’t know how duped they are about this issue because the original language doesn’t always transfer in one-to-one correspondence to a word in the receptor language.

    • Hodge

      “The Church does not command the Church.”

      Somebody ought to inform the apostles since they had the habit of delivering over all of those commands.

    • Truth Unites... and Divides

      Hodge: “As for me, I’m done rebuking the non-reproachable.”

      I hear a loud sigh of relief from Sue and EricW (louder than the other egalitarians anyways).

    • Kay

      “Someone asked you about that statement regarding parent/child relationships. I don’t recall that you answered.”

      “I assume you don’t think that parents have no authority over their children, do you?”

      Actually, I don’t find one Scripture telling me to take authority over my children – my children are adults with children of their own. But, I didn’t find one telling me to do that when they were young either. I also don’t see any Scriptures telling parents to force their children to do obey. (?) Jesus doesn’t force us to follow Him – He leads by example. “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”
      Out of love for my children I sought to teach them by example. They were intrusted to the care of my husband and myself – we didn’t see that as having authority over. We saw it as a blessing and a challenge to walk out our faith.

    • BradK


      I’m still not sure this follows. You argue that 5:23 specifies that the submission in 5:22 is inherent in the marriage relationship because Paul compares the husband-wife relationship to the Christ-Church relationship. Couldn’t it just as easily be argued that Paul is doing the same thing in 6:5 and following when he tells the slaves to obey “as to Christ” and “as slaves to Christ” and “as to the Lord?” Isn’t it possible that the only reason Paul is not more explicit as (it could be argued) he was in 5:23 is that the master-slave relationship doesn’t fit the theme that he has been developing within Ephesians and not because he doesn’t believe that Christ is the master of the Church and that Christians are His slaves? Also, isn’t it clear that Paul is saying in 5:28 that the wife is the body of the man just as the Church is the body of Christ even though he does not say it as explicitly as he does the converse in 5:23?

      If it is the case that he’s doing the same thing in 6:5 and following that he did in 5:23 (and in 5:28) but merely being less explicit, then the two instances (5:23 and 6:5) are parallel and one would have to argue that the slavery is as equally valid and commanded as patriarchy, no?

      All this is indeed aside from the issue of whether the submission in 5:22 is hierarchical or merely the universal attitude of submission that is called for in the Christian life. I would argue the latter. Many, many scriptures could be cited as examples of this kind of submissive attitude. Philippians 2:5-7 comes to mind. “Have this attitude in yourselves that was in Christ Jesus…”

    • Ed Kratz

      Hey all,

      Obviously I have been unable to keep up on comments for the last few days. I am much more discerning when I am involved.

      I don’t really want to close this but I have received some emails about quite a deal of uncharity going on, especially among certian complementarians (and this came from one of the complementarians!).

      Therefore, because of the heat that is involved here, I am going to go ahead and shut it down.

      Thanks for all who were involved.

    • […] boys to be men and girls to be women.  That question stemmed from his assertion in an earlier post that (I am paraphrasing and summarizing the post and his comments): there is an essential […]

    • […] What Complementarianism is Really all About 633 comment(s) | by C Michael Patton […]

    • […] What Complementarianism is Really all About | Parchment and Pen. Share this:TwitterFacebookEmailPrintDiggStumbleUponLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in Bible/Theology, Christian Living by Aaron C Gray. Bookmark the permalink. […]

    • […] but again this is a question of kind rather than degree. The “softest” variety (example) is when it is believed that women are only restricted from the very top positions in either the […]

    • […] out this gem from “reclaiming the mind” (Whose mind, exactly? Can’t have mine; you missed the Friday afternoon special.): You see, […]

Comments are closed.