The Three Best Arguments For Complementarianism

I recently did some teaching at the Manchester School of Theology looking at how we engage with Scripture as men and as women, and on how women and men relate to one another in the church. If you are interested, the recordings of these sessions are available here and here.

In the second session, we dove into the egalitarian/complementarian debate. These terms articulate different views on the role men and women play in the home and/or church. Both would agree that women and men are equal in value, dignity and worth, and both recognise biological differences. The point of disagreement is whether or not the Bible teachers there are different roles open to men and women in church life and in marriage. Complementarian views range from ‘soft’ complementarian positions that affirm and encourage women and men into almost all roles, including preaching and teaching, with a distinction being made for a small and tightly defined number of roles such as elder or senior pastor, through to ‘full’ complementarian positions which would see a much more widely applicable complementarity that would apply to things like preaching and in some cases even to meeting hosting, community group leading and more.

This is the second of two follow-up posts to that session, where I share what seem to me to be the best arguments for each position. In this post, I will focus on the best three arguments for complementarianism.

1. The complementary shape of creation

Within the story of creation in Genesis 1, there is a pattern. By speaking his Word, God creates and distnguishes things from one another, and much of the structure of creation is built on these pairs that belong together but fulfil different functions. Examples of this include the light and the darkness, the waters above and the waters below, the sea and the land, the sun and the moon. Not only do we see these pairs distinguished, but in many cases it is life-giving when the pairs come together. When heaven meets earth, or when the water above comes down to the land below, it brings about life, and the distinguishing of humans as male and female fits this pattern. Men and women are different, and as they come together it is a life giving thing. Andrew Wilson expresses it this way:

Think for a moment about Genesis 1: the entire structure of creation is made up of complementary pairs, which are distinguished from one another as part of God’s creative design. In the beginning, the earth is ‘formless and empty’, and God’s creative work consists of making distinctions between things, or separating things, to bring about order and life. We get light and dark, day and night, heaven and earth, land and sea, sun and moon, male and female. Sex – which until very recently just meant ‘male’ or ‘female’… – mirrors the one-to-one harmony… that exists throughout creation.’

Similarly in Genesis 2, even though it is the similarity of Eve to Adam that is celebrated, she is also clearly distinguished from him. God did not create one who is exactly the same as Adam as his helper, but one who is distinct from him. In fact, the word used for ‘suitable’ or ‘fit’ is ‘kenegdo’, which is a compound word literally meaning ‘like-opposite-him’. The appropriate helper for Adam is not one who is identical to him, nor one who is totally different from him, but rather one who is both like him and not like him; in other words, one who is complementary.

2. Ephesians 5

Ephesians 5 is one of a number of New Testament passages that describe the husband as ‘head’ of the wife (similar sentiments are found in 1 Cor. 11:3, Col. 3:18 and 1 Pet. 3:1). The word translated as ‘head’ is the Greek kephale, and there is debate over what it means. Some argue that it carries a sense of authority as in ‘head of state’, whereas others suggest it means source as in ‘head of a stream’. There is support for kephale being used in both of these senses in the ancient sources, so it comes down to the context to determine what is in mind as Paul uses the word here.

Because the statement is found in a passage that is about submission within different relationships, it seems that the ‘authority’ sense of the word matches more closely with the context than ‘source’. Michelle Lee-Barnewell makes a very helpful contribution at this point in her book ‘Neither Complementarian nor Egalitarian’, agreeing that authority is in mind, but holding this in light of the New Testament teaching on power reversals to see an emphasis on service rather than rule.

These verses are the first of three examples of a general principle to ‘be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.’ Though this may seem to suggest that the same instructions are given to both husband and wife, the applications are asymmetric and the actual outworking of the principle looks different for each of the parties because of the different roles they have in the relationship. Whilst it could be argued that this shape of the relationship is not mandated but simply a reflection of how things were in the cultural context of the day (as in the case of the instructions to masters and slaves), the reason given is that the shape of a human marriage points to the shape of the relationship between Christ and the church. The basis for the instruction is theological rather than cultural.

3. 1 Timothy 2

1 Timothy 2:8-15 is the passage that much of the conversation hangs around, and the plain reading seems clearly complementarian.

The context is a letter from Paul to Timothy, who had been sent by Paul to Ephesus to deal with issues of false teaching spreading in the church there, particularly amongst widows. Much of life in Ephesus revolved around the worship of Artemis, who was seen as a goddess of fertility and maternity, and was served by an entirely female priestly class. This context can help explain why this topic was being addressed, but simply knowing what might have prompted the instructions to be given does not give us liberty to dismiss them as things that were only true for that time and place.

In the verse there is an encouragement for women to learn, and to do so quietly (literally peaceably), an image that brings to mind Mary learning at the feet of Jesus and Martha being instructed to leave her be.

In the beginning of verse 12, Paul says ‘I permit no woman’, and some have observed the present tense framing of this sentence and suggested that it could be meant as ‘I am not currently permitting’, with only a temporary restriction in mind. This is unconvincing for several reasons. Firstly, we do not treat other present tense verbs in the same way, and if we did there would be big chunks of the New Testament that we consigned to the past. Secondly, the passage starts in verse 8 by saying ‘I desire then, that in every place…’ and goes on to speak about how men should pray, how women should dress and how men and women should relate to each other. Thirdly, he grounds his argument not in Ephesian culture or circumstances of the time but in the creation narrative of Adam and Eve.

The key issues in the passage revolve around two words found in verse 12 – ‘teach’ (didaskein) and ‘have authority’ (authentein). It is easy to leap to conclusions about what didaskein involves, but John Dickson does an excellent job in ‘Hearing Her Voice’ of distinguishing it from other forms of speaking such as prophesying or exhorting (with exhortation corresponding closely with the preaching that happens in many of our churches each Sunday). Teaching is more about preserving and passing on the oral tradition given to the churches by the apostles.

Authentein is a rare word that is only used once in Scripture, with a handful of uses in other ancient texts. It has been noted that some of these uses speak of using authority negatively, but because many of these are from centuries later and/or are looking at different forms of the same root word (e.g. the noun rather than the verb) the impact of this argument is lessened. In the context of 1 Timothy, it does not seem like a negative authority is in mind, because it is paired with the positive term ‘teach’ and flows into a discussion of the role of elders in the church, so it seem like eldership is the authority that is in mind.

It may be debated exactly which contemporary roles match most closely with the didaskein and authentein roles mentioned here, but it does seem like this passage is advocating for some kind of distinction in roles between men and women in the church.


My purpose in this post and the previous one (and also in the School of Theology session) is not to convince you of one position or the other. My hopes instead are:

(1) to be of help as you wrestle with the Scriptures for yourself and reason it through for yourself

(2) to encourage a spirit of kindness that recognises that the issue is not clear cut, and that people who reach a different conclusion to you are not ‘selling out to culture’ or trying to do harm to anybody, but sincerely trying to understand what Scripture is saying and apply it in ways that will see people flourish.


Read the accompanying post: ‘The Best Three Arguments For Egalitarianism’