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The Varying Faces of Complimentarianism (Week One)

The Gospel Coalition has made Complimentarianism part of its core because of the belief that our view of men and women and how God has called us to work together in marriage and in the church is an issue that matters to every believer, married or single, male or female — for it affects the whole body.

Let me begin with a very basic definition of complimentarianism upon which I think most complimentarians would agree.

Men and women are of equal value in God’s sight and co-heirs together in the grace of God. Men and women are created differently to compliment one another.

In marriage,  God has called man to be the loving and sacrificial leader, as Christ was for the Church, and God has called woman to respect and submit to him, as the Church submits to Christ.

In the mystery of the Trinity, in which three are one, and yet there is an order, so it is with men and women in marriage and in the church.

This is a very basic definition and complimentarians have a great range in how they actually live this out in the home and in the church. For example, in some churches women are allowed to teach only women and children and are not in any other leadership positions. This would be true of Bethlehem Baptist (where Piper once was Senior Pastor). Other complimentarian churches would  give much more freedom to women, but would still reserve ordination for men. At Redeemer Presbyterian, where Tim Keller is the Senior Pastor, non-ordained women can do anything non-ordained men can do — including teaching men, heading committees, and leading in worship.

I had to smile to see Tim and Kathy Keller and John Piper seated next to each other on the panel at the Women’s Gospel Coalition conference, for they live out complimentarianism very differently in their respective marriages and churches, yet they showed one another respect. How that glorified God!  We will listen to this panel this week and comment. I think they did a beautiful job of expressing complimentarianism and agreeing on the basics, even though their actual life practices in their marriages and churches are as wide as the Grand Canyon.

Let me begin with a metaphor that I have heard used by both, for example, John Piper and also, Tim and Kathy Keller. Just as the Trinity has been in a dance from all of eternity, so it is with men and women.


There is a beauty in the complimentarian dance that is lacking in marriages and in churches where each is listening only to his own music and each is vying to lead.

As believers, we have the music of His Spirit and His Word, and, if both are listening and responding, great beauty is possible. I liken this to a scene in The Scent of a Woman.

  • tango-al-pacino-scent-of-the-woman


Al Pacino plays a blind gentleman who leads the lovely Gabrielle Anwar in a tango of breathtaking beauty. It reminds me of:

There are three things which are too wonderful for me,
         Four which I do not understand:

The way of an eagle in the sky,
         The way of a serpent on a rock,
         The way of a ship in the middle of the sea,
         And the way of a man with a maid.

                                            Proverbs 30:18-19


Let’s see this scene:


Here is the symbolism I love — you may see more.

  • He is gentle, not forcing her into the dance, in the manner of servant leadership. He cares about her feelings, listens to her, and they dialogue. They come to one mind and he leads her to the dance floor.
  • He is blind, as we all are in truth, without the help of God’s Spirit and the body of Christ. He consults his friend for the “perimeters” of the dance floor.


They both listen to the music, he leads, she responds — and together, make magic.


Complimentarians agree that there is an order in creation that should be reflected in the home and in the church. The three passages that address this are extremely challenging. As Kathleen Nielson put it, and no one on the panel spoke up to disagree: “Nobody knows what covering our heads because of the angels means!” (1 Corin 11:10) These are such challenging passages, and one contributing factor for a variety of interpretations is that some (and I am one) believe that God gives cultural examples to illustrate eternal principles. Therefore, as in the case of head coverings, the eternal principle is submission to authority, which must always be obeyed, but the cultural example is head coverings, which does not need to be obeyed today. Others believe that these are not cultural examples, but must also always be obeyed. So what do we do?

 Romans 14:10-12 makes it very clear that each of us should not judge the other, but judge ourselves, for we will each stand before God. I saw that there were women at that conference wearing hats, and I absolutely know that they do so to glorify God and I respect them for it. So though we may interpret these challenging passages differently, it is important to give each other freedom and respect, for each of us will stand before God alone, and will give an account to Him.

 There is something as Tim Keller said, that must be different about the roles of men and women from the three passages which are often quoted to support not having women in leadership positions. Not only are these three passages challenging to interpret, but we must resolve the “apparent” conflict. How can it be that God blessed women like Deborah, Priscilla, and prophetesses who were teaching men, yet 1 Timothy says, I do not permit women to teach or have authority over men? And why does Paul give instructions to women who are prophesying to the body (which is a form of teaching) if they are not supposed to be teaching the body?

The most helpful commentary I have read on this  is Inter-Varsity’s commentary on 1 Timothy by John Stott. John Stott has the respect of the evangelical world. Tim Keller says he is the one who gave us a choice between fundamentalism and liberalism, between legalism and anti-nominism. Truly, Stott’s commentary made the pieces of this very hard puzzle fall together for me. I am truly excited to share that with you. You may disagree, and I encourage you to share your views, if you express them in love and support them with Scripture. For me, it resolved the apparent conflict, and gave me the freedom, when invited to teach groups of men and women, to do so unless I sense a check from the Spirit or sense I will not be well received. In reality, I rarely teach men, and am very thankful for my ministry to women. But when I am invited by the authority of a church, and I feel a peace, and that I will be well received, I accept. Just this week I taught to a mixed audience at the end of this dock, where we have what someone has cleverly called the summer “docks-ology” services. The sunset and the music woo the tourists to come and sit down and listen to a message from Scripture that they might never have heard before. I was invited by the community to speak, I felt a peace before God, and I sensed I would be received by the tourists and believers who opted to come — and I seemed to be. One woman who came is a woman with whom I play “pickleball.” This was all new to her, but her heart was stirred that night, and she is now signed up to try Bible study! But I would not have spoken had I not been convinced, scripturally, through the help of John Stott, that I am, at times, free to teach both men and women.

The Setting for our summer “Docks-ology” Services

Sunday Icebreaker

1. Is this an important topic to you? Why or why not? Is it challenging to you? Why or why not?

2. What stands out to you from the above?

Monday-Wednesday Bible Study

3. Read 1 Timothy 2:8-15.

John Stott said there are three eternal principles and three cultural examples. The first eternal principle is that men ought always to pray. The cultural example is that they are to lift up their hands while praying. Must they always lift up their hands? Stott said no, for that was a cultural example.


In verse 10, Stott said the eternal priniciple is that women should adorn themselves modestly and with self control. The cultural example is that they were not to braid their hair or wear pearls or gold. (The hairstyles of that time were very elaborate, and wealthy women often employed a maid just to do their hair). Must women today never braid their hair and never wear gold or pearls? Stott said no, for that was a cultural example.

hair styles of wealthy women in Peter’s day

The third eternal principle in verses 11-12 is that women are to be submissive to authority. The cultural example, Stott said, is that they are not to teach men. May a woman teach men today? Yes, Stott said.

Having said that, we also have to realize this is a “gray issue” that falls within the exhortations of Romans 14. If it is going to be an offense, causing discord, then it might be best to refuse. Sometimes our manner can help to smooth the way. This last Mother’s Day I gave the sermon in a large church in Milwaukee. I began by explaining that I was under the authority of the Senior Pastor who had read what I was going to say. I saw some men visibly relax. I understand — and I believe I would feel the same way if I were in the congregation.

The unifying element in these three challenging passages are that women in the church should be under the authority of the male leadership of the church. It is sensitive for women to teach men, and I want to approach such opportunities with humility and gentleness. I have also felt led to opt more for a testimonial kind of speaking than straight didactic when I speak to mixed audiences for it seems to be more easily received. I do believe women are free to teach men, but that does not always mean it is always what we should do.

4. What are your comments on the above? (Please be thoughtful, loving, and type responses in Word and then cut and paste your comments.)

5. Read 1 Timothy 2:13-15.

A. Again, these are challenging verses. In the panel, both Kathy Keller and Kathleen Nielson respond to them. In either my comments or ensuing weeks, I will share what I believe them to mean, but first I’d love your comments and your interpretation of this passage. What do you believe is being taught here? (Study it yourself — don’t quote your study Bible!)

B. Comments?

    6. Read 1 Corinthians 11:2-16. Do you see an eternal principle and a cultural example in this? If so, what?


    7. Read 1 Corinthians 14:26-35.

        A. What is the subject matter in verses 26-33?

        B.  What else does Paul say about this in verses 34-35? Do you think this includes an eternal and a 

             cultural principle? If so, what are they? If not, what is your interpretation and why?

     8. Do you see any unifying eternal principle concerning women in all of the above passages? If so, what?


Thursday-Friday: Listen to the panel and share your notes and comments here.

Link – Listen Here

9. Comments and notes


10. What is your take-a-way and why?

Leave a Comment

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  1. Another thought: I found out that I am a complimentarian-but not legalistically complimentarian for I have experienced that before. :))  I have to say I didn’t disagree with anyone on the panel. 

  2. My take-away from this week is that I didn’t realize how fruitful revisiting this topic could be!  Several years ago when it tore apart the church I had long been a part of, I really was too emotional to look objectively at the egalitarian viewpoint.  The church that I’ve been happily a member of for three years now is solidly complementarian.  That’s where I fall in my thinking as well…..BUT, I’ve found it ever so interesting to look a bit more at the “other side” of this hot botton topic!  I WILL be going back to a couple of the egalitarian blogs and websites that I found profitable and continue to read the material there.  Miraculously, I’ve come to a MUCH deeper level of peace with the issue over just the past week….and I would have to echo Rebecca in that the tone of the conversation here has been critical to that process!  Dee, I want to thank you for setting that tone right from the top!  You set the table with a loving heart and invited us to feast together in PEACE and mutual respect.  I’m becoming more and more convicted that I need to be more diligent to follow the pattern of this week’s conversation in ALL of my life’s conversations!  Yet another take-away!! 

  3. My take-a-way: 
    Elizabeth said: “…that we each must go before the Lord and hear His conviction to us personally.”
    Sherryl Eldred said:  “… the most critical is being obedient so I can see.  Um!! Think God might have this same principle?”
    Kerryn  said: ” Mostly, I’ll get along with anyone as long as they’re not so certain they’re right that I have to be wrong…”
    I value the challenge to look closely (uncomfortably?) at an issue that I considered “decided.” I see now the benefit in revisiting and studying closely and listening in order to continue growing. To open my heart to have Him teach me and show me even in the harder things is good. I also think discussing these topics in a group that doesn’t automatically agree on every point is very good not only to hear other input but also to hold myself accountable to continue to search scripture and study instead of just repeating buzz phrases that I have become comfortable with. I am still learning to discuss without feeling personally rejected so this was good practice. Also good models on how to disagree with compassion and not judgement. 

  4. Renee – Yes! ‘close’ to D.C.! I would love to come visit you if it works out! =)

    1. Jill, LIKE!!  😀

  5. I haven’t had the time I would have liked to formulate a cohesive take away—but here are some of my thoughts. From the panel discussion, I appreciated that Keller pointed out this is not a salvation issue, it is not an essential of the Gospel—but “the implications are moving away from what seems to be clear teaching of Scripture…when you make that move it it it has a ripple effect into how are you read the Scripture in other ways and we didn’t think therefore it was a matter indifferent.”
    Piper: “headship should be spoken of more in terms of the burden of responsibility not the right of power because that’s the accent of Eph 5:25, love as Christ loved the Church.”
    (TK) -“Egalitarians don’t believe there’s a difference between patriarchy and complemenatrianism. They believe that you cannot believe that there’s any differentiation of role unless you believe there’s a differentiation in incompetence. I happen to know it’s possible to really believe there’s no difference in dignity, in value or competence and yet be a difference in role. Of course, I don’t want to get into this but there’s this thing called the Trinity in which you have the Father and the Son being equal and yet the father sending the Son.”
    This may have been my favorite part, from Kathy: “the thing that that took the sting of all of the word submission and headship away from me was Philippians 2, where Jesus was equal with the Father and laid that aside and took on the role of the Servant to accomplish our salvation. And therefore my submission is modeled on Jesus, and if it’s not damaging to the second Person of the Trinity to be in submission to accomplish a role, it’s not going to hurt me any. ”
    My take away–for me the key is that this isn’t an essential issue, but it’s important. It’s less about men and women and more about all of us in submission to Christ. When Paul talks about women being silent, I think he is not condemning the public ministry of women, but putting some necessary regulations on it. I said in the beginning I agreed  with women doing anything non ordained men can do, and I agree with that for my church, but in general I would amend that a bit. I know some churches have non ordained men step in to preach and counsel and do various things that I still do not agree a woman is given the role to do. Again, none of this topic offends me or leads me to feel small or threatened as a woman. I love God’s design. And I found this week I feel more strongly about that than I realized. 

  6. Oh. I forgot to comment on the pannel. The pannel was definitely a take-a-way for me. Really, really enjoyed the whole thing (though, like Rebecca, I struggled a bit with what Kathleen said in regards to childbirth. I would be curious to hear her unpack that a little more.)
    I was struck by what Kathy Keller said, as was Elizabeth, about the Father and the Son being equal and yet the Father sent the Son. I had heard that before but this time it registered.  I especially loved the distinction of responsibility v power v competence. I really liked John Piper’s story of his mother as I have lived the same through deployment/trainings where my husband is gone and I have to “be everything.”
    I also realized this is week one of this topic. I am anxious to see what is posted tomorrow. 

  7. One more thing to share–I thought this was beautiful, from  Piper sermon on 1 Timothy:
    “Headship is the divine calling of a husband to take primary responsibility for Christ-like servant leadership, protection, and provision in the home.  Submission is the divine calling of a wife to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership and help carry it through according to her gifts.  When a husband leads like Christ and a wife responds like the bride of Christ, there is a harmony and mutuality that is more beautiful and more satisfying and more fruitful than any pattern of marriage created by man. God loves his people and he loves his glory. And therefore when we follow his idea of marriage, we are most satisfied and he is most glorified.”

    1. Here’s the Piper sermon I referred to above (they both have part of  the same quote–but here is the one with the full quote I gave): 

      1. Elizabeth….both of those look like very good reading….thank for sharing !

  8. My take-away:   The resources and study were excellent.  The range of complementarian positions blows me away.  I’ve had some stereotypes of both complementarians and egalitarians, and I’ve begun to challenge my assumptions.  The Kellers definitely don’t fit stereotypes.  Some of the info I read promoted some stereotypes of egalitarians, 🙂 and that made me curious to dig deeper.  I was encouraged to realize that many egalitarians also express a belief in complementary roles.  Jacki (I think?) used the phrase “comfortably complementarian.”  Prior to this week, I would have labeled myself comfortably complementarian.  Now the jury is still out, for a few reasons:  1) I haven’t explored very deeply how egalitarians state their own views, and 2) there are some inconsistencies within complementarianism that I still don’t understand (e.g., if this is God’s design, why not apply it in society, the workplace, and the Church at large rather than in congregations, denominations, marriages?  I wouldn’t want to live in a society like this, but certainly some societies only allow men to be in charge).  Finally, to be fair to both “sides” (and I do think there are more differences within than between groups, but key differences are very important, too), I’d like to dig much more deeply into Scripture.

    My most important take-away is that I’ve developed enough of a habit reading the Psalms that I am seeking him through the Psalms when life is overwhelming 🙂 .  My head is spinning this week from other responsibilities, and I’d like to give more attention to this topic when my brain isn’t swirling in the first place.  I still have a bunch of questions (and a lot of curiosity), but I am not ready to hang out a shingle claiming a specific position.  Possibly because most of my experience has been within more conservative wings of complementarianism, what has troubled me most is disrespect I’ve heard toward egalitarians; these comments are almost identical to those I heard when I was much younger toward women who were physicians.  In that sense, I am getting the cultural vibe.

     However, I suspect that at some point, I will once again lean toward a comfortably complementarian perspective (who knows where on the continuum??), but will feel much less awkward in egalitarian settings and will squirm when I hear comments indicating that egalitarians do not respect the authority of Scripture.  I’d probably be more comfortable in an egalitarian church than in a church that frequently “demonizes” those with whom they disagree.

    My biggest concern is that I’m not ready to move ahead if it involves building on the assumption of order/male headship, because I’m not yet ready to fully embrace it (or embrace it again).  Typically, I could approach it from the perspective of “if I assume ___, then my response would be ____.”  But for at least a few more weeks, my brain is overloaded to the point that what I’m posting may not make sense.  In a few weeks or months, I may look back and be horrified by all my questions — and because I have more questions than answers.  

    1. Another take-away is related to the integration of meetings at work, upcoming classes, etc…   It is challenging for me to get students help students understand that good “research” is not going out to find evidence to support your beliefs; it involves examining all available evidence/assumptions and then drawing conclusions.  In the past, although I haven’t dug very deep, I’ve only gone out to look for evidence to support complementarianism and/or dispute egalitarianism.  This gives me an “aha” moment with my job, too.  I think it will help my teaching (and gives me more “job hope!”)

      1. Hope so Renee!!

  9. Ladies, thank you so much for the wealth of sharing on this particular topic. I am so blessed by what I have read and very much so with the gracious ways you all have imparted your thoughts. I would need to go back to this study periodically. 🙂
    The panel is wonderful; I am making time right now to listen and enjoying the men and the women in it.

  10. I really have not had the brain and physical energy to participate in the discussion this week, but I too am very impressed by the grace-filled discussion on this hot button issue.
    I have one thought on the discussion of why we are called to be complementarian at church and marriage, but are not in the wider world. It has been explained to me that as Christians we are not to be legalistic and impose our views on the non-Christian world, no matter what we believe may be correct. We are meant to model submission, not impose it. We live in a fallen world. Of course, it probably goes without saying, that this is just my opinion. 

    1. Diane, you’ve sorta restated my question or helped me restate it.  If we are to model submission, not impose it in the non-Christian world, why/how could Christian women be in supervisory or professional positions either supervising men, having them as colleagues, or serving in professions which require decision-making that impacts men?  Endnote in Kathy Keller’s book quoted C.S. Lewis: “Legal and economic equality are absolutely necessary remedies for the Fall, and protection against cruelty… Let us wear equality: but let us undress every night.”  WHY should we (believers) wear equality when Jesus gave up his equality? Why is legal equality/protection even necessary against cruelty necessary for believers (even in society, the workplace, etc because we have God protecting us)?  I can understand why it would be necessary for society in general, but I am to be in the world, but not of the world.  It seems that the same attitude/principles that I (or other believers) have in the church should carry through to the rest of my life.  Jesus humbled himself and became a servant … not just for religious people.  I know that Phil 2 isn’t just written to women, but I still don’t understand why God would want the split personality thing.
      By even wanting the right to vote (in church OR in the country or state, etc.), are we allowing society to impose demands for equality on believers?  In particular, I don’t understand why complementarianism applies to congregations & denominations, but not to “The Church” in the form of para-church organizations, Christians in business, etc.   UNLESS the key is that women CAN have authority over men in the church and workplace if the authority isn’t related to doctrinal decisions?? (the one area that Kathy Keller indicated that women couldn’t be in positions of authority.)   In that case, Christian women could be consistent from church to the workplace.  Otherwise, it seems just as legalistic to impose any structure at church as at work.  But my question isn’t about imposing male headship on society; it is about how/where (who) to submit to specific men — and if I am supposed to turn it off/on like a light switch (which doesn’t make sense to me).  I think Keller’s description of complementarianism might be the only one that is consistent, other than religious groups (the ones where women dress as if it is about 1900) that don’t allow women to vote, etc.    I guess I can see why some groups don’t allow society to impose “equality” on them, but I believe that Jesus taught a higher view of women.  It’s easy to miss the whole point in churches that take a “men over women” stance, if the real issue is that the pastor (or elders) have final doctrinal authority.  I think my brain has been muddied with “all women must submit to all men in church,” but not elsewhere.

  11. Question:  Is it okay to not really have a passion for taking a position either way?  I said at the beginning of this week, that this was an important subject to me….but the further into the week I got, I kept feeling like it really doesn’t press on my heart that much.  There is SO many other pressing issues that I wrestle with nearly daily.  This one hasn’t compelled me so much.   True, I didn’t dig in like most of you did.  I had a week that was not conducive to that…..but I did read nearly every post.  There are so many issues that have a much, much greater tug on my heart.  But now I’m wondering if I’m just choosing the ‘easy way out’ by not taking a position or if it’s just okay to let this one be a mystery. Maybe week 2 will help me as I hope to be able to engage more in the study.  

    1. That’s what I would have said if you asked me a month ago about the issue!  But after digging to a certain point, I crossed a threshold of intellectual curiosity (hints of injustice get me going:) ).  In terms of application in day-to-day life, I doubt that much will change.  But understanding both perspectives better will help me ditch false assumptions when interacting with others, including people from either egalitarian or complementarian churches.  Bottom line: assume nothing.  I do believe I will come out of this believing that there is a bigger gray area/mystery than I originally thought, but I’d prefer an educated mystery 😉   Also, some of my favorite churches are now part of a larger church body that embraces both positions.  When I first realized that, I raised my eyebrows; now I have a much better understanding.  I certainly don’t reject complementarianism but I am not happy with the legalism that accompanies it in many places.  It’s really about relationships for me — and maybe future denominational choice (which includes understanding the positions enough to make an informed decision).  However, I’m still reading/praying Psalms 🙂  because focus on any “issue” distorts my perspective.  When I worship Him, the rest makes more sense.

      1. Good points, Renee.  I am drained in every possible way tonight …  emotionally very sad, spiritually  very tired and that in itself, wipes me out physically.  So….I’m heading back to a psalm right now.   I long for a church where there is  reverence, gospel and growth… to worship corporately…..but I must begin again,  and worship individually too.

  12. Jackie, just saw your post about fb group. You won’t find it through a search because it is invisible 🙂 . Email me at reneeo at Brookings dot net and I will send you an invitation.

  13. My take-away… the need to grow in my submissive attitude. Not necessarily from a complementarian position, but based on Ephesians 5:21  Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
    I’m not sure which side of the comp/egal line I stand at this point, but I now know that there are some complementarian churches that would find my paid ministry acceptable. I already knew there are those who don’t.
    A sadness from this week too. Cyndi’s testimony about giving her husband her heart impacted me greatly. My husband did have my heart, but there was part of me that I held back. As I read about Paul’s response when she told him she was sorry, I just knew what it was that John wanted most that I never gave him. The sadness is that now, I never can. There are reasons I couldn’t do what he wanted, but I also know that God would have healed the damage from past abuse, if only I had been willing to face the past and submit to his healing. Fear kept me from that.

    1. Kerryn, praying for you for courage in continued healing. 

  14. My take away…
    I see that our God is a God of order; His order is good.  I see the beauty of complimentarianism in the Trinity and understand the beauty that could be if complimentarianism was practiced as such in the church.  I believe that men and women are equal, but with differing strengths.  My resistance lies in misuse of authority…I was raised in what would be considered an complimentarian denomination (Catholic) and participated in what would be considered an egalitarian denomination (ELCA Lutheran).  In both I have seen and/or experienced authority misused, scripture used as a weapon, legalistic hierarchy to make another feel “less than”, etc.  The beauty of the Lord’s order was not displayed, but used in a manner causing hurt and destruction.  I carry wounds from these church experiences that I thought were largely healed…this week has revealed that some are still fairly tender, and likely my issue in finding a “church home.” 

    1. Nanci, praying for you,too, in continued healing and to find a church family! 

    2. So sorry you have been so hurt by the misuse of authority in churches. It is good for you to explore before the Lord this tender issue. I pray you will have the courage to once again look for a good church. There are good churches out there (not perfect, but growing in godliness).

  15. I have enjoyed the reading.