I imagine that most of the regular readers of this blog are convinced complementarians. For that reason I don’t usually reiterate the biblical arguments for male leadership in the church and in the home. But from time to time it’s probably wise to re-visit the issue. First, because the cultural pressure is decidedly against complementarianism. We need our spines stiffened by Scripture more frequently than we realize. And second, because there may be those reading this blog (or those you know) who struggle with this issue and are looking for help. There may even be mild egalitarians open to being persuaded.

Over the next few days I want address complementarianism by examining what John Stott says about the issue in Chapter 12 (“Women, Men and God”) of his book Issues Facing Christians Today (4th Edition, Zondervan, 2006). I choose John Stott because: 1) I have the utmost respect for his ministry and general handling of the Scriptures, and 2) I know solid evangelicals who find his mediating not-quite-egalitarian-not-quite-complementarian view very attractive. As a general rule, when Stott speaks, evangelicals should listen. So if anyone could present a strong case for women elders and pastors, or something less than full blown complementarianism, surely John Stott could.

But in actuality, a close examination of Stott’s exegesis shows just how weak the middle-of-the-road position (not to mention the egalitarian position) really is.

Framing the Debate

Stott frames the gender debate, as he frames most debates, as an opportunity to find the golden mean between two extremes. On the one hand, women have long been oppressed by a male-dominated society so we must try to “understand their hurts, frustration and even rage” (325). In other words, we must listen to women. On the other hand, we must listen to Scripture too. The goal is to avoid denying the teaching of Scripture just to be relevant while also avoiding insensitivity to the people most affected by these issues.

Of course, every Christian should eschew insensitivity. That’s a fine caution. But when Stott goes on to quote approvingly (for two pages) several feminist authors, while also bemoaning the fact that there aren’t enough women in Congress, you get the distinct impression that Stott is going to try hard to make sure Scripture is not too offensive to those with feminist sensibilities. Because Stott sets out to steer a course between Scripture and women’s pain, he commits himself to avoiding any conclusions that might add to that pain. Whether this middle path is the right path remains to be seen.


Stott, with typical clarity and organizational skill, focuses on “four crucial words” (327). The first word is equality. Not surprisingly, Stott starts in Genesis, arguing from 1:26-28 that neither sex is more like God than the other or more responsible for the earth than the other (328). He goes on to show how Jesus honored women and treated them as equals. Later, Stott deals with Galatians 3:28. This passage, he says, does not eradicate all differences between men and women, but rather is a statement about our standing before God. The context is justification. All who by faith are in Christ are equally accepted by God and equally his children. No sex is superior or inferior to the other (332).

So far so good. But under this heading of equality Stott also makes a number of dubious claims.

1) In referencing some of the maternal language about God, Stott concludes that God “was simultaneously Israel’s Father and Mother” (329). I understand that Stott wants to do justice to the passages “which speak of God in feminine—and especially maternal—terms” but he’s not careful in how he does so. To recognize that Scripture sometimes uses maternal metaphors is not the same as saying Yahweh was Israel’s Mother. Naming is different than analogy or metaphor. God is a Father who gave birth to Israel and loves us like a nursing mother. But this does not make God “Mother” any more than Paul would have been called “Mother” after comparing himself to a gentle nursing mother among the Thessalonians (1 Thessalonians 2:7).

2) While Stott rightly points out that “the domination of woman by man is due to the fall, not to the creation” (330) he fails to make explicit that the desire by woman to rule man is also a result of the fall (Gen, 3:16; 4:7).

3) Most critically, Stott understands Pentecost to have caused the undoing of the effects of the fall and a restoration of creation-equality between the sexes. This point will loom large in the rest of his argument. Stott believes that what was perverted by the fall was recovered by redemption in Christ such that the original equality was re-established (332). I have no problem at all affirming the creation-equality of the sexes, but I’m not sure it was eradicated and then re-created. The relationship between men and women faces difficulties, and always will, because the whole creation still labors under the curse. I don’t think Stott’s Pentecost argument can carry the freight he wants it too.


We now come to the second word: complementarity. Stott once again starts off on solid ground. He affirms that “equality of worth is not identity of role” (333). But then he quickly adds the caveat that “we must be careful not to acquiesce uncritically in [the] stereotypes” (333). After two paragraphs of this caveat (including a favorable quote from Betty Friedan) he turns to Genesis 2:18-22 where we see men and women are “equal but different” (334). They are equal in dignity and yet possess distinctives.

Just when you think Stott will explain those distinctives, he quickly retreats again to explain that defining these distincitives is very difficult. He rejects Mars and Venus kinds of stereotypes. He denies that there is a certain masculine personality. Eventually he turns to Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen and her notion that “Christian men must be ready to substitute biblical notions of responsibility and service for the dubious ideals of the male code of honour that keeps reinventing itself, Hydra-like, in every generation” (336). After more criticism of “the honour code of the warrior” Stott finally comes around to his definition of complementarity: men and women both guard shalom. “Here we come back to the complementarity of men and women as well as to their equality, for it is only when we recover the face that the creation and the cultural mandate is given to both, and when men reject the concept of unlimited economic growth, that we will create the space for the gifts of women, the importance of family life and the rightful place of the gifts of God to the world of shalom” (336). In the end, Stott concludes we should not think of “opposite sexes” but neighboring sexes.

What happened here? Stott never talked about the pertinent scriptures in Genesis 1-3, that Adam’s name was given for humanity, that Adam had responsibility for naming the animals, that Adam was created first, that Adam was held responsible for couple’s sin, that Eve was designated a helper for Adam and not the other way around. Instead of finding his definition of complementarity in the text, Stott goes out of his way to make sure we don’t have too rigid of a view of gender distinctions. And he concludes by urging us to guard shalom together as neighboring sexes. He’s done nothing to demonstrate how men and women are different and everything to back away from the implications of the differences he says he affirms. His commitment to a vague, overarching equality has blinded him to the glorious particularities of complementarity.