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Complementarianism—What’s in a Name?

By Rebecca Merrill Groothuis

The meaning of “complementarian”—a term invented fairly recently by some


who oppose biblical equality—is not exactly self-evident. To illustrate: After my
husband, Doug, had expressed concern to one of his students that the new pastor of a
local church might restrict women’s ministry, the student returned to Doug with what he
thought would be received as good news: the pastor was a complementarian. Doug then
had to explain that although it sounds quite moderate, this term actually designates a
position that is quite restrictive of women. Later, I mentioned to a friend that this pastor
referred to himself as a complementarian. “What’s that?” was his similarly bemused
response.
Although people certainly have the right to call themselves by whatever term
they wish, we need to reflect on the implications of this choice of terminology. A
complement is something that completes, matches, balances out, supplements, or
parallels something else. To say that maleness and femaleness are complementary
qualities is not to say anything controversial. Nor is there anything in the concept of
gender complementarity that entails a permanent power inequity between men and
women. Before the concept was appropriated for other purposes, it was most often used
to describe an egalitarian view of gender relations. Indeed, the observation that men and
women complement one another as they work and relate together offers an important
reason why no area of ministry should be dominated by only one gender: the
complementarity is then lost, and the church’s effectiveness in that area of ministry is
compromised.
Why, then, should the complementarity of the sexes be identified as most
accurately describing a view that requires men to exercise final authority in the church
and the home and women to obey the men who are in authority? “To complement” does
not mean “to be in power over” or “to be under the authority of.” On the other hand, the
terms “hierarchalist” and “traditionalist” do entail the traditional idea of a gender-based
hierarchy of authority. No label represents a position perfectly, but these terms at least
point to the central belief at issue.
Complementarians, however, object that “traditionalist” does not indicate that
tradition is subject to Scripture, and “hierarchalist” omits reference to equality and mutual
interdependence. So they “prefer the term complementarian, since it suggests both
equality and beneficial differences between men and women” (Recovering Biblical
Manhood and Womanhood, xiv).
Since a primary purpose of designating a label for one’s position is to
differentiate it from an alternative or rival view, it seems that complementarians must
believe that biblical egalitarians do not affirm this happy combination of equality and
beneficial differences, but, presumably, affirm only equality. In other words, those of us
who do not equate sexual difference with status difference deny the God-ordained

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differences between men and women; hence, we reject the complementarity of the sexes
in favor of the sameness of the sexes.
At the same time that it implicitly impugns the egalitarian view (even if
unintentionally), the “complementarian” label presents the nonegalitarian position as
simply an affirmation of the ways that beneficial differences function within a context of
equality and mutual interdependence. Against such who could object? But this portrayal
of the position sidesteps the question at issue, which is not whether there are beneficial
differences between men and women, but whether these differences warrant the
inequitable roles, rights, and opportunities prescribed by advocates of gender hierarchy.
Contemporary philosopher Richard Rorty’s maxim that “anything can be made
to look good or bad by being redescribed” has proved all too true—and quite useful. If
ideological conflicts can be described in terms that discredit one’s opponents from the
outset, many people will believe there is no need to grapple with facts, evidence, and
rational argumentation.
(For a critique of the traditionalist view of male/female equality, see chapters
two and three of Good News for Women.)

Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, a freelance writer and speaker, is the author of Good News
for Women and Women Caught in the Conflict, and an editor and contributor of
Discovering Biblical Equality.
Copyright ©2005 Rebecca Merrill Groothuis. All rights reserved. This article may be reproduced and
circulated only as “freeware,” without charge. For all other uses, please contact Rebecca Merrill Groothuis
to request permission.

This article can be read online at: http://www.ivpress.com/groothuis/rebecca/archives/000034.php

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