Practical Complementarity


Editor’s Note: As a primer on the issues surrounding men and women in the church, the home, and beyond, we direct our readers to download for free 50 Crucial Questions: An Overview of Central Concerns about Manhood and Womanhood.

God has composed a melody for the Christian home—a sweet, pleasant, and satisfying tune, composed in such a way as to draw attention to its harmonies. God wrote the parts to this melody when he created humanity male and female, and through his Word he conducts his music in Christian homes today. God has graciously designed each household member with the desires, capacities, and opportunities needed to contribute to the choir. To join in the singing is fitting, right, and beautiful.

God’s melody for how the Christian home is to operate has in recent decades been called complementarianism. At the heart of complementarian theology has been the claim that men and women have equal and value dignity, but distinct roles in the church and home. Rooted in creation, however, the complementary vision of men and women also includes the claim that God has designed each gender with innate physical, psychological, and spiritual constitutions that are different from and yet complementary to one another. Like the various vocal parts in an acapella choir (bass, tenor, alto, etc.) coming together in one harmonious note, men and women have complementary parts to play in the melody of God’s design for the home. If one tries to imitate the sounds of the other, the harmony is ruined, and the song becomes discordant and jarring.

The complementary contributions of both men and women of the home are practically beneficial for everyone. And they create a harmony that non-complementary singing cannot replicate. Specifically, when men take godly initiative and when women are joyfully home-focused, the Christian home experiences practical benefits in ways that egalitarian home structures will never fully experience. Or, leaning again into the analogy, are men suited to sing soprano, or women bass? The musical discord resulting from egalitarianism role-swapping simply cannot practically compete with the beautifully sounding harmony of God’s complementary design.

The Deep Notes of Masculine Initiative

In the dissonant cultural imagination of modern Western society, masculine initiative-taking has seemingly hit an all-time low. From fewer men being the primary breadwinner than ever in American history to a successful dating platform where women make “the first move” to an outright rejection of men entirely by a growing movement in South Korea, today male initiative is neither widely celebrated nor expected. But God’s complementarian melody woos men to exercise masculine leadership for the benefit of the whole family. In this section, I want to highlight how the New Testament expects men to be the leaders of their families and show how this leadership may be expressed in two practical ways.

The New Testament expects men to lead their families. This is assumed when wives are called to follow their husbands’ leadership (Eph. 5:22–24, Col. 3:18; Titus 2:4–5; 1 Pet. 3:1–6), and it is also shown by the position of authority that husbands and fathers have in the household codes of Ephesians 5:22–6:9 and Colossians 3:18–4:1.[1] In Ephesians 5:22–33 particularly, the wife is called to submit to her husband’s leadership just as the church submits to Christ’s leadership. Those who would deny that men have a leadership role in their family must also deny that Christ exercises a leadership role in his relationship to the church.

1. In these two passages, the entity called to follow is mentioned first, and then the entity called to lead is mentioned second (wives to husbands, then children to parents/fathers, then servants to masters). In both passages, the husbands and fathers are the entities that exercise the role of leadership.

But beyond the husband and wife relationship, men also have a unique responsibility in parenting. In Ephesians 6:1 children are to “obey their parents,” but just three verses later fathers specifically are commanded to discipline and instruct their children. Colossians 3:21 has the same interplay: children are commanded “obey your parents in everything,” and then in the next verse Paul particularly hones in and commands, “Fathers, do not provoke your children” (Col. 3:22). This is not to say that women will never discipline or instruct their children, but rather that fathers have a primary responsibility to do so, as Hebrews 12:7–10 also assumes (“For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?”). Now that we’ve established the biblical basis for male leadership in the home, let’s address the specifics of how this leadership is expressed in in taking initiative in the family’s spiritual life and in disciplinary matters.

First, a Christian man benefits his family by initiating in their spiritual lives in a variety of prudential ways. he considers how to be of greatest spiritual good to each of them. As leader, the husband keeps his pulse on each individual family member’s spiritual condition and needs. He initiates regular conversations about God’s Word and how it intersects with life (Deut. 6:4–8). He ensures that his family worships their God together regularly (Eph. 6:4; Psa. 78:5–7), and especially in the gathered congregation (Heb. 10:25). He guards his home from evil influences that would seek to turn his family away from Christ (Gen. 2:15). When there is no clear leader responsible for gathering the family, curating content, and leading conversation, a version of the Bystander Effect[2] occurs and family worship does not happen. Christian men see the tendency towards this reality and take action to preserve this important family rhythm.

2. According to Psychology Today, the Bystander Effect states that in a situation where initiative and action is needed, “the more onlookers there are, the less personal responsibility individuals will feel to take action.” Some research has been conducted about how this phenomenon plays out in the home, and in its worse manifestations it can lead to increased levels of parental alienation, distrust, and abuse among household members. Godly men refuse to contribute to these trends and train themselves to take initiative, and especially in spiritual leadership.

Male initiative in the things of God makes a remarkable difference for the whole family, and passive men bring suffering to the whole family. Statistics show this: One remarkable study on the role of fathers in church attendance concluded, “In short, if a father does not go to church, no matter how faithful his wife’s devotions, only one child in 50 will become a regular worshipper. If a father does go regularly, regardless of the practice of the mother, between two-thirds and three-quarters of their children will become churchgoers (regular and irregular).” I can speak anecdotally to the burden of passive spiritual leadership: my wife and I both grew up in families where our mothers took more spiritual initiative than our fathers. If we went to church, it was because mom put forth the singular effort to make it happen. We are very thankful for their efforts but also recognize the burden this was for them and have seen the insecurities awoken within them of always going to church alone. Initiative-taking godly men—whose wives do not have to routinely nag them to care about the Lord—breathe life into the whole family, and especially for the wife.

Second, Christian men will practically benefit their families by taking initiative in disciplining the children. Of course, correction, rebuke, exhortation, and punishment does not only happen when dad is at home. In fact, if mom is home with the children all day, she will likely be the one administering the bulk of the discipline. Nevertheless, we already saw how fitting it is for the father take the lead in discipline (Eph. 6:4; Col. 3:21). Through a father’s discipline, God’s authority is likewise recognized and affirmed (Heb. 12:7–10).

John Piper wisely recommends the practice of the father initiating in discipline and helpfully describes how it played out over years in his own home: “in general, the parent whose word is most immediately disobeyed does the discipline, whether verbal or physical, except when both parents are present, then the father steps in and does it. That was our rule.” Notice that in this scenario the dad isn’t the big, bad man whose punishment is threatened as a sort of last straw. No, he sees the children in need of correction and takes the initiative to resolve the situation. He sees his wife’s word being ignored and cherishes her by stepping in. When a father leads in discipline and is not a passive spectator to his wife’s parenting, the whole family benefits.

The Sweet Sound of Feminine Accompaniment

The home of secular Western society has become a place nearly devoid of mission—a place used primarily for leisure, entertainment, and sleep. In the popular imagination, meaningful work may happen in a home office, but not in a kitchen, a laundry room, or a living room. The modern egalitarian zeitgeist deems the workplace as the sole locale of meaningful, challenging, and impactful labor. The labors associated with domestic life (lawn care, garbage, dishes, laundry, meal preparing, cleaning, etc.) are often viewed as unimportant, boring, and even demeaning tasks. Therefore, when the subject of staying home full-time is brought up amongst working moms in Corporate America, a common refrain is that most women would inevitably get bored staying at home full-time with the kids. Perhaps a week or two would be nice, they say, but no more—they would go crazy! Needless to say, this is far from the vision of domestic living given to us in creation patterns and in the Scriptures.

Against this tragic view, Christian women who take seriously Scripture’s call to be “working at home” (Titus 2:5) and “ruling” over its affairs (1 Tim. 5:14, RSV) are uniquely positioned to reclaim the home as a place of purpose and industry.[3] Like the excellent wife of Proverbs 31, this woman “works with willing hands” (Prov. 31:13), “rises while it is yet night and provides food for her household” (Prov. 31:15), “makes her arms strong” (Prov. 31:17), “looks well to the ways of her household and does not eat the bread of idleness” (Prov. 31:27). Under her management, the home is transformed from a place of idleness to a place of industry—namely, her industry! Her husband experiences gain (Prov. 31:11), those around her receive wisdom (Prov. 31:26), the poor receive provisions (Prov. 31:20), and the local economy is enriched (Prov. 31:16, 18, 24). When the home is reclaimed as a place of purpose and industry, both the family and the wider community benefit.

3. These texts present the home as having a place of primacy in at least a married woman’s life. While these passages do not prohibit a woman from working outside the home, the more a woman’s energies and time are spent outside the home the less she is able to devote to fulfilling her biblical calling to be “working at home” (Titus 2:5) and “ruling” over its affairs (1 Tim. 5:14). There comes a certain point where a wife’s regular casting aside of these homeward duties due to an outside job constraint crosses the line into disobedience to God’s word (although this very sin may be partially the result of a husband who does not work hard or a materialistic lifestyle that forces both spouse to work).

We see this benefit prominently in the ministry of hospitality, to name just one area. Christian women who labor in the home have significant advantages over nearly everyone else in society (except perhaps retirees) for being able to practically meet the needs of others. Without the rigid demands on her time imposed by an employer, she is able (children permitting!) to do things for her church community like preparing food for the congregant who recently underwent surgery, taking to the grocery store the sister whose husband has to take their only car to work, or watching someone else’s children because of a last-minute crisis situation. Knowing the importance of mentorship for younger believers, she is able to disciple younger women by inviting them into the busyness of her home, by talking with them over the Word, and by helping them to navigate life’s challenges. Additionally, regular weeknight dinners with believers or non-believers is a ministry of hospitality possible because of Christian women who labor in the home to plan, prepare, and execute a meal. This large undertaking is much more difficult when two spouses are arriving home at 5:30pm after they’ve both had long days in the office.

This list merely scratches the surface of the many intensely practical ways Christian women benefit the community around them (to say nothing of the innumerable ways her family directly benefits from her activity). In an age of increasing relational isolation, tension, and estrangement, the hospitality ministry enabled by Christian women is a precious resource and enormously profitable for the Great Commission. Can a ministry like this with eternal implications truly be unimportant, boring, and demeaning?

Training Others to Sing Along

Egalitarianism (and the slippery slope which naturally follows it) has become the default worldview of Western society and is increasingly becoming a dominant view of evangelical Christians across the globe. Our neighbors, coworkers, and church members are more likely than ever to have functionally egalitarian family structures and explicitly egalitarian worldviews. In other words, they are singing a different tune. As society and the global church reaps in the coming decades the egalitarian fruit it has sown, the reality of its shortcomings will prove painful for many. Therefore, it is important that Christian parents teach their children, through godly instruction and through godly example, what Christian marriage is and what the ethos of the Christian home is to be. We must teach them God’s melody—not the world’s—knowing that this this bring honor to him and eternal benefit to them. As we strive to sing our part in the God-composed melodies of the home, may Stephen Charnock’s prayer to God be ours: “I would be made happy to glorify you by becoming what I was created to be.”[4]

4. Robert Elmer, ed., Piercing Heaven: Prayers of the Puritans (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press), 31.



  • Chad Lawrence

    Chad Lawrence is a Master of Divinity student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He holds an undergraduate degree in Industrial Engineering from Purdue University and is employed in the manufacturing industry. He is a member, teacher, and community group co-leader at Oak Park Baptist Church in Jeffersonville, Indiana. Chad is married and has two daughters.

Chad Lawrence

Chad Lawrence

Chad Lawrence is a Master of Divinity student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He holds an undergraduate degree in Industrial Engineering from Purdue University and is employed in the manufacturing industry. He is a member, teacher, and community group co-leader at Oak Park Baptist Church in Jeffersonville, Indiana. Chad is married and has two daughters.