Though the words egalitarian and complementarian never appear in the Bible, the ideals espoused in both theologies have resulted in frequent debate among evangelicals (Giles, 2020). The debate centers around a difference of interpretation of the biblical text regarding gender roles and submission (Roat, 2019). “In many ways, the debate between egalitarians (those who argue for biblical equality between men and women) and complementarians (those who argue for a biblical gender hierarchy that subordinates women to men) is in gridlock” (Barr, 2021, p.32). Though not all complementarians agree on all foundational principles, some of the core complementarian beliefs are that only men should hold leadership positions in the church. Women may hold other positions, but not those of authority over men. In complementarian theology, a woman must practice submission to her husband, as the husband is the final authority and head of the family (Roat, 2019). One of the early complementarian beginnings in evangelicalism can be found in The Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood with The Danvers Statement (1988), in which they stated “…there is a clear distinction between men and women where the man has ultimate headship, authority, and responsibility in marriage” (Colaner, 2009, p. 100). Most egalitarians, however, agree that men and women have an equal right to leadership positions in the church (Roat, 2019). In egalitarianism, spouses are equal partners in the family and in leadership roles, asserting mutual submission towards each other; roles in the family are based on skillset, not gender (Roat, 2019).
I am struck by how many women work so hard to “submit” to their husbands, or to male church leaders who are merely adolescent boys in men’s bodies. These are men who demand to be “respected” yet do not live “respectably.” I am reminded of one woman’s story from my questionnaire “The Elephant in the Church” of 2,800 women who have served in Protestant ministries. She remembered hearing members of the church staff start “joking” that they could get higher church attendance if they “required women to wear white t-shirts to get baptized.” Does she “submit” to their authority and compromise her integrity? Does she remain silent in the face of such blatant misogyny and violence against women? This is a perfect example of the “adolescence” showing in male leaders that must be exposed and engaged head-on. Sadly, women have been experiencing and confronting this type of sexism in the church for generations. As men with privilege, and who hold leadership positions, it is solely on us to address this evil and bear the burden of our sin.
Another problem with the complementarianism stance is when “submission” by the man is required even when they are just terrible at a certain skill set. That is not how healthy relationships work. Mutual submission needs to be based on each other’s giftedness. If your husband is really good at cooking and/or construction you will “submit” to his leadership for his better skill set in those areas. In a healthy egalitarian marriage, no one makes decisions in isolation. We are a team of equals who are different people with distinct weaknesses and varying strengths. If your wife is better at finances and/or interior design then you will “submit” to her, and she will be the team “captain” and you will learn from her and follow her guidance.
Mutual submission is always within the partnership and rooted in kindness. No one has a trump card due to their gender. I remember hearing one of my female friends say, “Well, I want the navy blue drapes, but it really is whatever my husband decides, as he has the final say.” I heard my friend say this about 10 years ago and I have never forgotten it. This type of complementarian/patriarchal/hierarchy thinking can be very dangerous and if the man you are in a relationship with struggles with issues of power and control then you may quickly find yourself in an abusive relationship that no longer values your voice.
Humility and mutual submission go a long way in growing a strong and lasting marriage. We must reclaim a male-defined theology that enables abuse and silences half of God’s image-bearers.