I am not ashamed to be complementarian. It has never been a dirty word for me, because I’ve grown up seeing godly expressions of it in my family, and hearing compelling arguments for it from my ministry heroes. More than anything, C. S. Lewis books like Perelandra have shaped my thinking about gender. (For anyone curious, I’ve summed up why I’m complementarian here.)

Though I don’t particularly emphasize this point in my theology, it often generates a strong reaction when it comes up. In my setting in Southern California, actually, it is often regarded as antiquated and inherently sexist. And throughout our culture, it seems to be getting only more and more controversial to affirm, with the TGC Confessional Statement, that “men and women are not simply interchangeable, but rather they complement each other in mutually enriching ways.” We might expect even stronger backlash in the years and decades ahead.

But as I’ve grown in my friendships with people on different sides of this issue, I’ve observed many who are less hostile to the idea of complementarianism but nevertheless avoid the term. People in this demographic fall somewhere between complementarianism and egalitarianism; they often have a high view of Scripture; they often oppose aggressive feminism; they often like some complementarian ministers (say, Francis Chan or Tim Keller); they may even line up pretty closely to complementarianism on paper.

Why, then, do they reject the term? Sometimes they are simply confused or conflicted on the issue, but most often, they had a bad experience with a particular person or group that goes under the “complementarian” label.

I think we need to engage with people in this middle demographic differently than we do with more aggressive egalitarians and feminists. And I don’t think it’s a sign of compromise to listen to some of their critiques. After all, some of the problems they are reacting against are real. At times complementarians have used provocative and unhelpful language; at times we have been ungentle in our tone; at times we have overstated what complementarianism entails; and tragically, in some complementarian cultures the gifts and contributions of women have been squelched or at least muted.

Of course, many people will disagree with complementarianism—often quite vehemently—no matter what we say or do. But the truth is offensive enough without our help. We don’t need to add to its offense with our own faults and foibles. I therefore list four dangers to which we should be particularly sensitive, even while we stand firm in the face of pressure from our more aggressive critics.

1. Stereotyping gender roles.

In cultures where complementarianism is embraced, it can be all too easy to confuse the essence of masculinity or femininity with one particular expression of it. But marriages and church cultures patterned after complementarian convictions will not always look the same; they take on shape and beauty as expressed through particular personalities, cultural locations, and relationship dynamics. The foundational principles do not change, of course—but the exact feel does. Kathy Keller puts this well in The Meaning of Marriage: “the basic roles—of leader and helper—are binding, but every couple must work out how that will be expressed within their marriage.”

In a recent interview about their helpful book on the topic, Andreas and Margaret Köstenberger put it like this: “Scripture doesn’t give a lot of detail as to how God’s design for man and woman is to be worked out, so a traditional division of labor (women in the kitchen, changing diapers; men at work letting women do all household chores) doesn’t square with the biblical design.”

For people who have grown up in a home in which the wife tends to do the dishes, laundry, and cleaning, and the husband tends to work a job, mow the lawn, and get the oil changed, it can be only too natural to simply assume that this is what complementarianism should always look like. So we should be careful to clarify for people—most of whom have not studied this issue in depth—that embracing complementarianism need not always require embracing these kinds of culturally conditioned roles.

Moreover, household divisions of labor are not the only area where this principle applies. To take just one more example, consider the potential for stereotype with respect to personality or temperament. Among those operating with a more traditional mindset, one often hears claims like these:

  • guys are less sensitive or less emotional than girls
  • guys are less talkative than girls
  • guys like sports more than girls 

And so on and so forth. It is unfortunate when people stumble over complementarianism because they associate it with such assertions; they are stereotypes, not biblical mandates.

2. Failing to clearly distinguish complementarianism from various kinds of patriarchalism and hierarchicalism.

Many people in our culture think only in two categories on the meaning of gender: conservative vs. progressive. But in truth, biblical complementarianism—like the gospel it pictures—will subvert both progressive, egalitarian mindsets as well as traditional, hierarchical/patriarchal mindsets that tend to assign men a more basic role in society than women. It will stand out as different, as beautiful, as an alternative, not merely in 21st century Manhattan, but also in ancient India, medieval Europe, and 1950s America.

Because we may err in multiple directions, it is not enough simply to affirm complementarianism over and against egalitarianism. We must also affirm complementarianism over and against any other alternative to the beauty of Ephesians 5. If people only hear us pushing in one direction, we make it easier for people to lump us together with others pushing in the opposite direction. We say, “egalitarianism is wrong”; they hear, “patriarchalism is right.” If we distinguish the biblical view of gender from both its progressive and conservative alternatives, we position people better to perceive its nuance and beauty and depth.

3. Defending complementarianism zealously, but failing to live it out beautifully.

There is a real danger at hand when the (difficult) goal of defending complementarianism becomes so prominent in our vision that it sidelines the (even more difficult) goal of living it out in a beautiful, life-giving way. Theological integrity is hard and important; godliness and love equally important, and probably harder. But to affirm the truth without also applying it to ourselves is not just incomplete: it is actually a step backward.

We should labor to show that complementarianism is not merely biblical, but beautiful. Our target is not merely “faithful” or “right”; it is also “wise” and “winsome.” Insofar as depends on us, our church cultures should be places where people genuinely feel welcomed, valued, safe. Doubtless some will see any expression of complementarianism as a threat. But others may say, upon experiencing church cultures following the example of Christ (including his respect for women), “This is beautiful. This makes sense. I see how this can work.”

4. Failing to celebrate the contribution of women.

We should be enthusiastic about the myriad ways that God calls and uses women. Too often this comes across as a concession from complementarians, rather than something to rejoice in. And too many complementarian churches are not just “male led,” but “male heavy” in their various ministry spheres.

In the Bible, women are involved in ministry in many different ways. Just to pick out one example: many women throughout the Old Testament were prophets (Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, and so on), and in the New Testament the gift of prophecy is clearly given to both men and women (Acts 2:17-18, 21:9, 1 Corinthians 11:5). In our complementarian settings, do we seek to accommodate anything like this example? Even if we are cessationist, do we seek to implement the principle? Do we make equal room for both genders to exercise their spiritual gifts toward the body?

May we not be more afraid of affirming what is forbidden than we are of forbidding what is affirmed. And whichever error we are tempted toward on this issue, may the Lord give us grace to find the narrow path marked by both courage and humility, the path that leads to both truth and beauty.