Man and woman conversation silhouette

Many of us writers struggle to write beautifully about beautiful things. Our words fall lifeless like stones. Our imaginations mist and evaporate. We look drop-jawed at stunning wonders, feeling the ineffable sense of the thing. But when we speak or write, by comparison, we’re crude and clumsy.

That’s how I feel about most evangelical grappling with complementarity. To be clear, I can’t do much better. I’m as clumsy and skill-less as the next guy. And it is usually guys with this problem. We talk about “muscular”-this and “testosterone”-that. We write as if we’re in a musty males-only weight room surrounded by wannabe body builders who grunt, yell, and throw the weight around as if volume and recklessness create muscle. But when complementarian women celebrate gender and roles, they manage the beautiful much more thoroughly.

Perhaps we men should be quiet for a while. I know we’re to lead, and here’s an area to lead in, too. But we shouldn’t lead if we don’t know what we’re talking about or how to talk about an area. Then we should learn and then learn to speak or write in a manner that’s worthy of the calling. We want to learn to talk about complementarity (which is to say, people) in ways that portray the subject as beautifully as it (they) must exist in God’s mind. Seems that should be our goal.

Splashing Too Far Down Stream

Here’s where I think we go wrong: We begin in the wrong place. Often the conversations begin with questions about “what a woman can do” or defenses of “male headship.” Those are appropriate and necessary and beautiful conversations in their place. But getting them in their place seems to be a thorny problem. These subjects are necessary but they’re downstream. And if we broach these subjects downstream with all the tranquility-disrupting water-displacing splash of used tires illegally tossed in, then we can’t be surprised that we find ourselves unsettled and seemingly always embattled.

As I survey recent offerings across the spectrum, it seems to me that much of the discussion turns institutional too quickly. And when the conversation turns institutional–whether home or family–we’re quickly into power-related questions and struggles. There’s nothing beautiful about scrapes over power, even if we use more palatable terms like “authority.” Our favorite and biblical terms can themselves be freighted with worldly and sub-Christian meanings, with ugly images that defy the beautiful ideal we see.

A related problem is that the conversation turns pragmatic too quickly. We’re trying to have “walk it out” conversations before we first enjoy the thing itself. I am a man. It’s an indicative that proceeds the imperative to “act like men.” So it is for our sisters, too. I suspect a deeper embrace of simply being male or female–enjoying the being with less self-consciousness–might change the conversations about doing it. And I suspect there are no shortage of persons in our congregations who are struggling at the level of being long before they come to the doing, for whom narrowly rigid instruction about the doing only adds anxiety about being. This is not an issue where you can “fake it until you make it.”

I know, of course, that a lot of writing is aimed at defining what it is to be male or female. But when we’re done writing and reading those pieces, how often are we left enjoying being male and female? That, I think, is a useful litmus test for how we write and speak about this beautiful reality.

Or, are we left feeling as if we’re trying on pants two sizes too small: hopping, pulling and shimmying our thighs through increasingly narrow pant legs, losing balance, catching ourselves on dressing room walls, taking deep hold-it-in breaths to stuff our mid-sections behind a wall of denim not shaped for us, and wrestling the top button into a little recalcitrant slit with strenuously trembling arms? (Men: stop wearing skinny jeans!) If putting on complementarity feels that way, it may be an indication that we need an understanding of complementarity–at least its practice–that comes in different sizes for different shapes. For there is no one way to be a faithful man or woman, or no one way to faithfully play out the roles of husband and wife, or no one way to involve women in the service of the church. There is in all of this a particularity, a considering of the specific wife or husband, man or woman, local church, that must not be lost.

Swimming Back Up Stream

Perhaps some of our difficulties with writing beautifully stem from an imbalance in emphasis. As we root our understanding of gender and roles in the creation account, perhaps we might be wise to revisit there a missional purpose for gender. First comes the imago Dei–in His image and likeness He made them (Gen. 1:26a). Second comes dominion–to rule over all creation as stewards (Gen. 1:26b). Third comes the explanation–male and female He created them (Gen. 1:27). If there’s any significance to the order here, it must mean something along the lines of:

1. Woman is not an after-thought in the mind of God, but she bears her Creator’s image and likeness from the start and as fully as man.

2. Woman is not warming the bench in God’s mission, but has an appropriate role to play in exercising dominion as a woman who was not an after-thought in the mind of God.

3. Woman is not the same thing or interchangeable with man, but equal and different, complementary yet unique in both displaying God’s image and likeness and in dominion over creation.

If we spend all our time on some version of the third point, we’ll be in danger of not fully embracing and working out the first two. The so-called creation mandate falls on male and female differently, but also together. It works itself out in one way in the home, but another among persons not married. So our view of gender and roles has to adequately conceive of and celebrate being men and women apart from marriage. For there’s something beautiful about each gender that needs plumbing, exploring, discovering and celebrating over and over again in each generation. Perhaps if we begin where the texts begin we’ll find more shining, glimmering, overflowing trunks of treasure through which we can run our fingers as we laugh with delight in the discovery.


Anyway, I’m not so much concerned in this post about finer points of doctrine here. I’m concerned about how we speak of this beautiful reality. And I suspect how we speak has a lot to do with what drives us to the discussion in the first place. If it’s power that drives us, then we’ll be essentially brutal in our discourse. If it’s flourishing, we’ll find elegant and alluring ways of depicting this ineffable and wonderful reality. We might also find ways of looking at other complementarians who differ in practice without speaking of them harshly, roughly or suspiciously.