A Third Way on Gender in the Church

The answer to gender questions in the Church isn't to compromise between egalitarians and complementarians.

Man needs woman to bear God’s image into the world. Woman needs man to bear God’s image into the world. Don’t react against feminism (complementarians). Don’t react against patriarchy (egalitarians). Don’t react at all. Act. Act as image bearers, male and female, jointly tasked with the creation mandate and reaffirmed by Jesus in the Great Commission.


I first wrote on Things that Undermine the Complementarian Position in 2010 and refined the thoughts in 2012. I wrote on a New Wave of Complementarians in 2013. The response I got convinced me that I wasn’t the only person uncomfortable with both the egalitarian and complementarian positions and that the Spirit was moving throughout the Church to refine it and restore His Body to better reflect the early Church in terms of gender. Day after day, week after week, I hear of grassroots movements to reclaim a view of gender in our churches that uses and relies on women in much more robust ways than the conservative American church has done in the last 50 years, but one which also keeps the distinctions in the church and home that have consistently characterized an orthodox, historical understanding of Scripture.

Most public discussions of gender in the evangelical church are debates between complementarians and egalitarians. Those debating provide a spectrum of thought with egalitarian/feminist thinking on one end and patriarchal thinking on the other end (with complementarian thinking a little left of patriarchy). I used to think that the way to handle this in the church was with a new wave of complementarian thinking that pushed toward a Biblical position closer to egalitarian/feminist thinking but that still kept complementarian distinctions. If Patriarchy is a 1, Complementarian is a 2, and Egalitarian is a 9 or 10, I saw myself closer to a 5. I believe in distinctions in the ways the Bible talks of them, but I am thankful for the right to vote and the feminist work to say that women indeed have equal dignity and worth (and subsequent rights) as human beings.

However, I realize through discussions with others and my own ponderings that it doesn’t work to think of this as a linear spectrum between egalitarian and patriarchal views. The answer to gender questions in the Church isn’t to compromise between egalitarians and complementarians. The Biblical answer in my mind is a third data point that isn’t on the line at all. We don’t need to come back to a central balance on a see-saw. We need to get off the see-saw and build on a different platform altogether.

What is the better platform? Well, it helps to understand the foundations of complementarian thought. You and I can say it means this or that for us, but there were a specific group of folks who coined the term and wrote much about it at the time. Many of these leaders have deeply, positively influenced me by the way. The Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood rose out of these beginnings. I love the title they came up with for this movement, complementarian, because I love the emphasis on complementing genders. It emphasizes different genders, not always doing the same things, that bring different gifts to the table. But it also lends itself to genders working together, complementing and enhancing the gifts in the other. For a time, I wanted to embrace the name because I liked the concept of complementing genders, but the folks that chose that name have attached other things to the concept that I don’t fully embrace, and I can’t change that history no matter how much I like the essence of the name. 

The focus on complementing genders that brought about the term complementarian in the late 80’s/early 90’s was based on Genesis 2 and was a reaction to Third Wave Feminism of the previous decades.

Genesis 2:18 Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.”

A better platform for understanding gender in the Church is found by starting with Genesis 1 (though it certainly includes Genesis 2) without reacting to any other teaching. Egalitarians react against patriarchy. Complementarians react against feminism. What if we stop reacting and just start acting? What if our doctrinal debates aren’t zig zagged like the path of a pinball bouncing off of various pop ups and flipper bats? And what if Target can do whatever it wants with its boys’ and girls’ aisles because our children are discipled in their distinct but overlapping image bearing identities?

While Genesis 2 and 3 was the starting point of complementarians reacting to feminism, a better foundation starts as God does with Genesis 1. Genesis 2 expands Genesis 1. It zooms in on the particular creation of woman, but it FOLLOWS something else. Genders were first announced in Genesis 1.

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