Have you ever heard a woman complain that her husband treats her like a doormat? That he disregards her opinions? That her contributions are unappreciated or unnoticed? Maybe you’ve thought these things yourself. Many people (both men and women) have attempted to fix this problem through the “liberation” of women from their “enslaving” marriages. They propose solutions like 50/50 marriage, “mutual submission,” or even the reversal of power (a.k.a. the oppression of men). These solutions are representative of the philosophy of egalitarianism, which stands in stark contrast to the more traditional philosophy of complementarianism. But which philosophy is correct? Which is going to clear the confusion, diffuse our frustrations, and provide healing for the heartache many have experienced in marriage? Most importantly, which is consistent with the testimony of Scripture?
Complementarianism is the view that men and women are ontologically equal and functionally different while egalitarianism is the view that men and women are ontologically and functionally equal. Complementarians tend to affirm traditional gender roles, particularly that of husbands leading and wives submitting. Egalitarians deride such gender roles as antiquated and oppressive social constructs. I will argue in this article that such gender roles are not arbitrary but rather a manifestation of God’s design in human nature. Moreover, they are not antiquated and oppressive, but relevant and empowering.
The Argument from Nature
First, let’s look at God’s original (perfect) design. Genesis 1:27 says, “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” That both sexes bear God’s image indicates ontological equality. No matter how much the sexes differ in function, we can confidently say that they are equal in personhood, importance, and status before God (Piper & Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 2021, p. 15). And “this is the only sense in which equality is significant for personal worth” (Piper & Grudem, p. 128).
In Genesis 2:18, God says, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” The words “helper” and “suitable” are the Hebrew words “עֵ֖זֶר” (ê-zer) and “כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ׃” (ka-neg-dōw) respectively. Literally translated “helper against him,” these words suggest positive adversity. Just as opposite ends of magnets connect by virtue of their polarity, it is the uniqueness of men and women that make them suitable for each other. Our differences benefit us by enabling companionship. This is the reality God made when He formed us male and female. Adam did not need another Adam. Otherwise, God would have just made a world consisting only of men. The creature He had in mind for Adam was necessarily different.
So how are we different? If the population consisted entirely of either males or females, people would cease to exist very quickly. Our distinct reproductive profiles necessitate the involvement of the other for the propagation of society. But we are distinct along many other dimensions. On average, men are bigger and taller. Men are broader in the shoulders, women in the hips. Men have lower voices than women. Men have more testosterone; women have more estrogen. Men are more interested in things; women are more interested in people. Men are more likely to resolve disputes by force, while women are more likely to throw verbal daggers than real ones.
So, we’re different. But are our differences complementary? Yes! Where one gender lacks, another tends to excel. Any extreme tendency one has is usually balanced out by the other. Pretty nifty! Generally speaking, where one is weak, another is strong. Let’s look at an example.
Consider this psychological truth: Women are higher than men in the personality traits agreeableness and neuroticism. People who are more agreeable tend to put others before themselves. This makes women well-suited to care for infants, those who are completely unable to advocate for themselves and thus require attentive, compassionate, and nurturing care. Without men’s disagreeable influence, however, children might not receive proper discipline. Dads are more likely and usually more willing to enforce rules–a crucial component of child-rearing. People higher in neuroticism are more risk averse. This makes mothers particularly sensitive to potential dangers their fragile babies may encounter. These dangers are more likely to go unseen by fathers. But their being low in neuroticism will also likely cause them to propel their children forward into uncertain situations which will increase their courage and advance them in maturity. So, as you can see, the “marriage” of the average masculine and feminine traits is a good recipe for producing excellent children. This is just one of many examples of how men and women’s differences complement each other.
To adhere to the philosophy of complementarianism is to preserve natural order. To operate outside of it would be to go against the grain, to make war with the universe. This makes complementarianism inescapable. No matter how we manipulate our environment or even our own bodies, we can’t change our natures.
Trying to embody the opposite sex or neutralize our own sexuality to achieve something approximating genderless-ness is seeking ‘freedom’ in a place it will never be found. Widespread gender dysphoria, a steady up tick of mental illness, a collapsing population and more– these are problems we have created by nurturing that which does not fit our nature. Social interventions that ignore or manipulate our biological differences should raise an alarm that we are diverting from the best path forward.
Have you ever considered that such interventions may be motivated by pride? That they are nothing more than a futile attempt at self-sufficiency? Perhaps feminism is not an empowerment campaign with a billboard slogan of “I can do it!” but the more extreme campaign, “I can do it by myself. I don’t need anyone else – particularly men.” But this is in total opposition to God’s design. We were created as partners (Genesis 2:18). Recognizing our need for each other leads to true freedom!
This reality of our complementary natures is not something to run away from, but to press into. John Piper and Wayne Grudem put it this way: “Our vision of manhood and womanhood is a deeply satisfying gift of grace from a loving God who has the best interests of his creatures at heart.” It is much easier to understand and accept complementarianism when we choose to view it as an act of God’s benevolence towards us, one of grace and mercy. Since we know that complementarianism is God’s design, we know that it is for our good (Romans 8:28). God has hardwired men to do exactly those things that God has called them to: to provide for, protect, and lead his family. But complementarianism does not just benefit men; it truly honors and empowers women as well! When husbands fulfill their roles, wives become free to accomplish those things which God has called and equipped them for: to oversee the household, nurture their children, and submit to their husbands. How amazing it is that God calls us to those jobs which He has naturally predisposed us to both desire and do well at!
The complementarity of men and women is not only natural. It’s good. The fact that our natural differences shape our identities is something to be happy about. The limitations imposed on us by our biology are actually for our benefit and God’s glory!
Glory to God
Complementarianism brings glory to God by portraying the Gospel to the world. Earthly marriage is a reflection of the eternal marriage of Christ and the Church.
“Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body… This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church” - Ephesians 5:22-33
Christ submits to the Father. The church submits to Christ. Likewise, wives are to submit to their husbands out of reverence and respect. Husbands are to lay down their lives for their wives as Christ has. When the world sees the unusual love a Christian husband gives his wife and the unusual honor a Christian wife gives her husband, they are seeing a beautiful picture of how God relates to his people. If complementarianism is not observed, this testimony is lost and, with it, the glory it gives to God.
Fellow ladies, submission does not have to be a death sentence, a nuisance, or even a chore, but rather, is a true joy and privilege. Just as love of Christ is synonymous with obedience to Christ (John 14:15) submission can be a natural response to the love and affection of one’s husband (Eph. 5:22-24)! It might not always be fun or easy just as submission to the Lord is not always fun or easy. Though both feel like a burden sometimes, ultimately, we know they are always in our best interest.
Joy and Peace to Us
Complementarianism brings joy and peace to us because it is obedient to God. Of course, there are those who do not believe that complementarianism is commanded by God. However, as the passages that I have cited, as well as many others, indicate, a faithful interpretation of Scripture requires reading through a lens of mature complementarianism. Egalitarianism, on the other hand, requires exegetical gymnastics to reconcile with Scripture.
Joy is obedience. True life is found by walking with God and obeying His commands. Psalm 16:11 says, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” John 8:12 says, “Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Walking in the Spirit does not exempt us from all marriage problems, but it does mean we have a constant Friend to walk the narrow road with us. So, press forward, faithful traveler!
We need men and women in the world, but we don’t need men who are trying to be like women nor women who are trying to be like men. We are “programmed” to fulfill unique and individual purposes that are fitting and suitable for us. When we commend the beauty and truth of this biblical vision of manhood and womanhood and recognize it as “not only valid but also valuable, not only accurate but also admirable,” we will see and feel God’s great pleasure in our lives (Piper & Grudem, pp. 37-38).
We have a solution for the brokenness in the world: the redemption of God’s creation through the restoration of His design. Through Christ, you have the power to effect change in the world. So, begin with yourself. Pray and ask the Lord to search your heart so that you might know if there is any wicked way in you (Psalm 139:23-24). If you find yourself in rebellion against God’s design, respond with repentance. Where sin increases, so does grace (Romans 5:20). As you align with God’s plan for manhood and womanhood, you will find your own nature reconciled, your joy and peace increased, and God’s glory revealed in your life.