By Dr. Christy Hill and Viki Rife
Editor’s Note: The position statement of the Charis Fellowship on eldership affirms that men and women are created in the image of God, are equal in value and personhood, and are designed to be inter-dependent in life and ministry within the local church. It upholds that the leadership position in local churches that correspond to the biblical role of elder, overseer, or pastor is reserved for men who meet biblical qualifications. (See charisfellowship.us/page/positionstatements.) In evangelical circles, this position has been referred to as complementarian, acknowledging the biblically complementary roles of men and women in the church.
In a society obsessed with women’s rights and equality, why would a woman choose to be complementarian? Some feel it puts women at a disadvantage. Unfortunately, some who carry the label of “complementarian” have used it to dominate and repress, if not abuse, women. Let’s unpack the term and explore its ramifications.
What do we mean when we say we are complementarian?
Mary Kassian, who was part of the team that developed the term “complementarian” and its definition, explains it this way: “Essentially, a complementarian is a person who believes that God created male and female to reflect complementary truths about Jesus….Complementarians believe that males were designed to shine the spotlight on Christ’s relationship to the church (and the LORD God’s relationship to Christ) in a way that females cannot, and that females were designed to shine the spotlight on the church’s relationship to Christ (and Christ’s relationship to the LORD God) in a way that males cannot. Who we are as male and female is ultimately not about us. It’s about testifying to the story of Jesus. We do not get to dictate what manhood and womanhood are all about.”
Why Did God Create Two Genders?
The Bible says that humans, male and female, were created in God’s image. This provides the foundation, not just for gender roles, but for personhood in general. Personhood is not defined by our own search for identity, but by our Creator. Human flourishing results from being rightly related to God, which is described in the New Testament as surrendering our all to Christ. We find our personhood not in rights or roles, as the world does, but in relationship, first to God and then with others.
In the process of creation, God Himself declared everything good, except for one thing: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” From the very beginning, the relational aspect of humankind is an important defining element of personhood, male and female.
Women uniquely reflect the image of God’s heart in the first descriptive words used of Eve. After Adam was formed from the dust of the ground and told to name the animals, he found out the hard way that it truly was not good for man to be alone. Eve was formed to be a helper that corresponds with him, his “ezer kenegdo.”
Unfortunately, in our culture this word translated as “helper” connotes an inferior role—an assistant, or a person who is less capable. In the rest of Scripture, though, we see that “ezer” is used primarily to describe God’s role with a needy humanity. For example, Ex. 18:4 and Deut. 33:7 show God’s heart as a rescuer, Savior, and warrior who fights on behalf of His people.
While both men and women are to be the image of God’s heart, women in particular are called to reflect God’s “ezer-like” qualities—fighting for people’s hearts and helping support others in the battle against the Enemy. “As his vice regent, as his image bearer, Eve’s goal was to align herself with God at every possible level—to share his heart, imitate his ways, love what he loved, and join him in his work.”
How does the Trinity affect our understanding of complementarianism?
The doctrine of the Trinity is more than an abstract mental exercise. I (Christy) remember wrestling with the concept of submission as a young woman, feeling oppressed by the biblical mandate as I understood it. It didn’t seem fair, and I saw many abuses of this call toward submission in the church. I wondered how this could reflect God’s goodness for women. On top of it, I sensed a strong call to surrender my life to God through pursuing training in ministry and felt held back because I didn’t have a spouse to open doors of leadership for me to contribute meaningfully in other people’s lives.
I wanted to be a strong “ezer,” but submission didn’t seem to fit with that image. Submission began to make sense when I realized that Jesus, the second Person of the Trinity, modeled a heart of submission to the Father—and that in no way diminished Him as a member of the Trinity. Society had put a false formula in my worldview that said if you submit, you are less. Scripture and Jesus’ model of submission liberated me from this false assumption. Was it possible that women could lead the way in modeling submission? Could this be our noble contribution to imaging God, specifically following in Jesus’ footsteps by illustrating a trusting and surrendered heart to God and competent male leadership?
One unique way women image God is by leading the way into self-denial through submission. Men complement our view of Christ by leading the way into self-denial as servant leaders. Both genders together image God in this “blessed alliance” which is a delicate dance of trusting submission and selfless leadership.
How does the Bible view submission?
First, we need to remember that all believers are called to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Submission is a mark of spiritual maturity. We must also keep in mind that submission is a voluntary act. Men are not commanded to make their wives submit; that would be called coercion. Instead, God invites women to voluntarily line up under God-given leaders as evidence of trust in Him. Scripture never teaches that women in general are subject to all men in general, but rather to their own husbands. Lest we think that wives are to absolutely submit to a husband’s folly, we have the story of Ananias and Sapphira. Sapphira’s submission to her husband’s deception was not exonerated, but rather condemned and punished. It is implied that she should not have submitted to her husband’s ungodly leadership.
What errors in interpretation could lead to abuses?
It is important to approach this concern with the mind of Christ. How did He view women? A sincere study of His life demonstrates that He consistently treated women with consideration and respect, even when their behavior did not align itself with the moral standards of the religious leaders.
Some common errors have led to abuse, including:
- Isolating certain verses. For example, “Women should keep silent in the churches” is often emphasized without considering the rest of the Scripture, especially verses in that same letter that encourage women to pray and prophesy.
- Equating submission with unquestioning obedience. Biblical submission is based on a clear understanding of God and His commands. Women are not called to check their brains at the door.
- Dismissing the contributions of women. The Holy Spirit is available to women; as they grow in discerning God’s voice and representing God’s heart, their perspectives can reveal blind spots. They contribute to decision-making that benefits the family of God.
- Assuming that leadership doesn’t involve servanthood and self-denial. The Bible makes it very clear that Jesus led sacrificially—it is His sacrifice that pleased God, not His domination. Men are called to lead as good stewards of the gifts and resources of the body.
What are some things God says women should do?
- As Mary sat at Jesus’ feet as a disciple, He made it clear that she had chosen what is better, emphasizing it “will not be taken away from her.” Women have a right and responsibility to dig into the Scriptures.
- Partner with other believers for the gospel. Paul made it clear that he considered women to be co-laborers with him.
- Make disciples. Women should be offered quality training and theological understanding that enables them to live as informed, committed Christ-followers. This makes them effective models and instructors for younger women. In addition, the foundation of faith for the next generation is often shaped from its earliest years by mothers, grandmothers, Sunday School teachers, and other women who invest in them. These factors alone help us see that the world desperately needs women with a deep understanding of God and His ways.
- Pray and prophesy. There was an appropriate context in which women contributed to the spiritual life of the church.
- Submission is a choice that furthers our imitation of Christ.
- Develop a gentle and quiet spirit. This requires great strength of character and trust in God. Although our society sees it as a sign of weakness, God emphasizes that such a spirit is precious in His sight.
- Use their gifts. As fellow heirs, women have been given gifts to build up the body of Christ. As members of that body we need to consider whether we are actively and appropriately using all the gifts God has placed in His body.
In summary, true complementarians will be seeking to encourage and complete (complement) the flourishing of the opposite gender. Women should be seeking to further what is God’s best for their brothers in Christ; the brothers should likewise be seeking what is best for their sisters. The key is to study the life of Jesus and imitate Him in our submission and in our servant leadership.
How do we assure that this happens? For starters, we should be engaging in healthy dialog in our churches to discover how best to work together. We should do so with maturity, and where we disagree, do so respectfully as each searches God’s Word for wisdom. In addition, male leaders can open doors for women to exercise their gifts in an appropriate way. Our godly interactions can show the world a clearer picture of who God is.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Christy Hill is professor of Spiritual Formation and Women’s Ministries at Grace Theological Seminary. Viki Rife is executive director of Women of Grace USA.
 Gen. 1:26-27 (all references are ESV)
 Romans 8:2-11
 Gen. 2:18
 Carolyn Custis James, The Lost Women of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), Kindle edition, 33.
 Matt. 26:39, 1 Cor. 15:28
 1 Peter 2:21-25
 Phil. 2:3-5
 Ephesians 5:21
 Eph. 5:22-24
 Acts 5:1-11
 Michael Wilkins, “Women in the Teaching and Example of Jesus,” in the Women and Men in Ministry, ed. Robert Saucy and Judy TenElshof (Chicago: Moody, 2001), pp. 91-112.
 1 Cor. 14:34
 1 Cor. 11:5
 1 Peter 2:2-10
 Romans 12:1-2
 1 Peter 3:7
 Luke 10:41
 Philippians 4:2, Romans 16:3
 Titus 2:3-5
 2 Tim. 1:5
 1 Cor. 11:5
 1 Peter 3:1
 1 Peter 3:4
 1 Cor. 12:4-31