Complementarians—What's in a Name?

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 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).

January 1999