Andrew Wilson is Teaching Pastor at King’s Church London. He has written a piece on biblical complementarity. I’m not convinced by everything that he writes. But I do think that it’s one of the best accounts of this hotly-contested topic that I have seen.
Here are some highlights.
1. Creational differentiation
From an undifferentiated chaos (Gen 1:1), God formed a cosmos full of complementary distinctions:
- Light and darkness
- Day and night
- Water above and waters beneath
- Sea and land
- Sun and moon
- Male and female
- Days of work and day of rest
- Cain and Abel
- Holy and profane
‘is written into creation. There is a fit, a mutual enhancement, a beautiful difference, at the heart of what God has made. The cosmos is made up of all kinds of complementary pairs, with male and female serving as a paradigmatic example…The Jewish-Christian vision of sexual complementarity, as such, reflects our vision of cosmological complementarity—and ultimately, behind it, the beautiful difference of Creator and Creation, God and Israel, Christ and Church, Lamb and Bride.’
In biblical thinking, then, male and female are not the same, but nor are they completely different from one another:
‘Men and women bear the image of God together, and our identity is far more fundamentally defined by our humanity than our sex. We are humans first, males or females second, and in Christ, the divisions that do exist within our shared humanity come crashing down: Jews are reconciled with Gentiles, masters serve their slaves, and male and female are united in Christ and made heirs together of the gift of life.’
‘in the Christian vision of complementarity, there is union and distinction, same and other, many and one. In Christianity, male and female bear the image of God together, with neither male nor female able to fully express it without the other, and the clear distinctions that exist within creation are ultimately reconciled within the life of the Triune God (in whom we find identity and alterity, sameness and otherness, one and three) and in the incarnation (in which heaven meets earth and Word becomes flesh).’
Just as there has been eternal unity and otherness within the Trinity, so our hope is one in which heaven and earth are brought together, the glory of one transforming the glory of the other. This is why
‘most of the pairs of Genesis 1 find themselves transcended in Revelation 21: there is no moon, no need for the sun, no sea, no darkness, no sexual intercourse, and heaven and earth are beautifully married.’
‘the final destiny of the cosmos, and the marriage of Christ and the Church, reflect neither conflict nor collapse but complementarity, as the glory of the one permeates and suffuses the other.’
2. Transcultural differences
It is not surprising, then, that we find patterns of difference between men and women that transcend cultural variations.
‘Men are typically more aggressive, competitive, fearless, likely to take risks, promiscuous and prone to violence than women, and testosterone is aligned with higher levels of confidence, sex drive and status assertion. Women are, on average, more prone to neuroticism and agreeableness than men. Consequently, men are generally clustered at the upper and lower extremes of society: men are not just more likely to be very rich or very powerful (which prompts all sorts of public debate), but also far more likely to be criminals, killers, homeless, excluded or imprisoned (which doesn’t).’
‘Male groups are more characterised by sparring, fighting, power structures and banter, while female groups are typically smaller, more indirect in confrontation, egalitarian in structure, verbally dextrous, and oriented around people rather than things. Gendered trends can be noticed before children are particularly aware of which sex they are…, and even in our closest animal relatives (the male preference for trucks over dolls extends to rhesus and vervet monkeys).’
This is not to say that these difference are necessarily virtuous, as though the male propensity to promiscuity and violence were a good thing. But it does prompt a number of reflections:
- ‘Complementarity appears to be hardwired into us as human beings…The vast majority of human societies have known this intuitively, but in a culture like ours, where most of us have never fought for our homeland, died in childbirth, gone down the mines or settled a frontier, it has become forgotten.’
- ‘There is an interesting correspondence between many of these traits and the sorts of things we would expect to find if Genesis 1-4 was true, and the man (adamah = “earth”) had been given the task of guarding the garden against attack, and the woman (havah = “life”) had been identified as the mother of all living.’
- ‘At a pastoral level, it can be reassuring to hear that we are not imagining it when we observe, as we all do, that men and women are generally predisposed to different sorts of sins or weaknesses.’
3. Complementarity and the family
The relationship between men and women is intended as the primary illustration of who and what God is: neither totally transcendent (as Islam teaches) nor completely immanent (as paganism holds).
This is seen, first of all, in the family (see Eph 5:31f):
‘In marriage, husbands and wives play the parts of Christ and the church, demonstrating what love, fidelity, difference, union, sacrificial leadership and mutual service look like in practice.’
The mutual submission referred to in Eph 5:21 neither overrides nor is limited to the submission of wives, children and slaves. Rather, just as Christ and his church serve one another, but in different ways (he in dying and rising for us, we in responding in faith to his leadership, so do we.
But complementarity is not limited to marriage.
‘If it were, then anyone who is single, bereaved, divorced or abandoned would be unable to fully reflect what femaleness or maleness are…In Scripture, however, male and female go all the way down: mothers are different from fathers, brothers are different from sisters, grandmothers are different from grandfathers, and so on.’
Similarly, Paul assumes sexual differentiation within the family of God:
‘Do not address an older man harshly but appeal to him as a father. Speak to younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters—with complete purity.’ (1 Tim 5:1f)
4. Complementarity and the church
The meanings of individual words (such as hupotassō and authenteō) are, of course important. But we should not be distracted from discerning the broader sweep of biblical teaching about eldership.
Elders (and shepherds and overseers – the terms are largely interchangeable in the NT) are essentially guardians of the church. Their role is basically a protective one. The shepherd guards the flock against injury, wild animals, and dispersal. The overseer is a sentry who watches over and takes care of the people, protecting them from false teaching. The elder, too, is charged with guarding the church during its time of eschatological tribulation (see, for example, Acts 14:22f).
In every period of biblical history, those charged with defending the people of God have been men rather than women, fathers rather than mothers.
- Adam is put in the garden “to serve it and guard it” (Gen 2:15; the same pair of verbs is used of the Levites in Num 3:7-8; 18:7).
- When the fall happens, it is his responsibility, and it is Adam rather than Eve in whom we all die.
- The patriarchs, obviously, are all men.
- The Levitical priests, charged with the protection of the sanctuary and by extension the entire nation of Israel, are all men
- Jesus calls twelve apostles who are all men, and gives them the responsibility of binding and loosing, teaching and governing the worldwide church.
- The qualifications for overseers in the New Testament church, the elder-shepherd-watchmen commissioned with protecting the church from wolves and false shepherds, are directed to men.
- The Bible ends with a female city—which includes the entire people of God, whichever sex we are—being rescued by and finally married to a male Saviour, with the walls of the city and their foundations being named for male apostles and male patriarchs.
Given this larger biblical pattern, we should not be surprised to find that overseers are assumed to be men. Indeed, they are assumed to be married (1 Tim 3:2), because the church, like the family, needs mothers as well as fathers.
Significant too is the fact that, after Paul has discussed the requirements for overseers and deacons, he turns to the qualifications and qualities of women (3:11).
It is sometimes argued that it was for local reasons that the eldership was limited to men in the church at Ephesus: it was influential women who were introducing heresy into the church there. But this argument does not stand up. For one thing, the only false teachers who are named are men (1 Tim 1:20; 2 Tim 2:17). For another thing, Paul says the same sorts of things to elders of a church several hundred miles away (Crete, Tit 1:6).
‘Elders—like Adam, the Levitical priests, Israel’s kings, the Twelve, and everyone charged with protecting the people of God from harm in Scripture—are men.’
But, far from demeaning woman, the Bible to her great dignity and importance:
- Christ is described as the seed of the woman long before he is described as the seed of a man (Gen 3:15).
- Eve is described as Adam’s ‘helper’ – a term which, far from suggesting inferiority, is frequently used to describe God’s relationship to human beings.
- Women such as Sarai, Hagar, Rebekah, Leah, and Rachel talked with God, and frequently outmanoeuvred their foolish menfolk.
- Numerous stories of redemption in the Bible begin with women—Eve, Hagar, Leah, Shiphrah and Puah, Miriam, Samson’s mother, Ruth, Hannah, Esther, Elizabeth, Mary—while Israel is being oppressed by foolish or evil men.
- Women judge Israel (Deborah) and win military victories (Jael).
- Women save their husbands (Abigail), their children (Jochebed), their city (the Tekoite woman) and their nation (Esther).
- Women prophesy (Huldah, Philip’s daughters), compose psalms and songs which appear in Scripture (Hannah, Mary), explain the word of God to men (Priscilla), host churches (Chloe), run businesses (Lydia), serve as deacons and patrons (Phoebe), co-labour with Paul in the gospel (Euodia, Syntyche), and are identified as apostles (Junia).
‘if there is a greater responsibility in human history than carrying the Messiah in your womb, I would like to hear about it.’
In each of the above cases, the women serve God and his people as women. There is no blurring of the differences between the two sexes, no mere interchangeability.
Gal 3:28 is, of course, often cited as proof that sexual distinctions are obliterated. But this is not Paul’s point at all (which is that all are equally children of God, regardless of sex, ethnicity, or social status). Indeed, it is interesting that
‘the very next chapter is among the most sexed passages in all of Paul (sons, father, Son, born of woman, Abba Father, in the anguish of childbirth, slave woman, free woman, the Jerusalem above is our mother, etc), revealing the extent to which biological sex still matters, even as it doesn’t in any way impinge on our status as justified, baptised, adopted children of God.’
So we conclude from Scripture not that a woman can do anything a man can do (and vice versa), but rather that a woman can do many things that a man can not do (and vice versa). For
‘The church is a family, and we will only flourish to the extent that we value, honour and esteem both mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters.’
True complementarity is a doctrine which does not inhibit, but rather releases, women for their God-given ministries. Consider Romans 16:
‘It is hard to imagine a young woman in the church in Rome lamenting the lack of female role models in Christian service. She could look at Phoebe, a deacon who is a patron of many; Prisca, who risked her neck for Paul’s life, and co-host of a house church; Mary, “who has worked hard for you”; Junia, a fellow prisoner of Paul’s and noteworthy among the apostles; Tryphaena and Tryphosa, workers in the Lord; Rufus’s mother, “who has been a mother to me as well”; and several others.’
Among the things that have made the task more difficult for us:
The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and Council for Biblical Equality are both deeply rooted in American evangelical culture. (The conclusions of one, and the exegesis of the other, are equally dubious).
Plus, there has been a tendency in the West to understand and organise the church in corporate rather than familial terms:
‘In a family, everyone knows that both mothers and fathers have vital roles to play in leading together, and at the same time that there are some things which Mum does and some things which Dad does. In many cultures it is common for a family to be headed by a husband/father who is ultimately responsible for the protection of the home, yet for the vast majority of decisions to be made by a wife/mother. In a business or corporate environment, however, esteem and honour are not attributed that way: they come through position, line management, public profile, financial oversight, formal authority and salary. So if, despite our theology, the church actually functions more like a corporation than a family—and there are all sorts of reasons why that may creep in—it is easy to see how our practice of complementarity could be reduced to who is called what, sits where, speaks when, manages whom and is paid how much.’
The difference is important:
‘To deny that woman can be elders will sound like the equivalent of denying that women can be CEOs, but it is more like the equivalent of denying that women can be fathers, and that men can be mothers.’