On Complementarity


“The erasure of distinctions between the sexes is not only the most striking issue of our time, it may be the most profound the race has ever confronted.”

World-renowned historian William Manchester made this observation in 1993 in a cover story for US News & World Report. In his article, “A World Lit Only by Change,” Manchester processed the colossal changes the world had undergone over the magazine’s sixty-year history. With 1933–1993 in the rearview mirror, a period that encompassed a world war, the rise and fall of empires, the advent of the internet—let alone the lightning advances in industrialization, transportation, and globalization—this master-student of history landed on this surprising conclusion: no development heretofore experienced in the history of the world had the capacity to challenge life as we know it more than what he termed “the erasure of the distinctions between the sexes.”

What did Manchester have in mind in 1993? At the time, this erasure of the distinctions between the sexes was merely functional: “Women were admitted to bars and to the bar, to the dressing rooms of male athletes, to membership in men’s clubs. Barbershops were vanishing, replaced by unisex hairdressers. Intersexual manners changed; what had been considered flirting could now be condemned as sexual harassment.” Another contributing change not mentioned by Manchester, but one that is certainly part of the landscape, was the advent of women’s ordination in several denominations: 1956 saw the Presbyterian Church USA ordain their first woman to ministry; The US Episcopal Church ordained their first woman to the priesthood in 1974, and a General Synod of the Church of England passed the vote to ordain women in 1992—something C. S. Lewis himself had opposed in his time in writing: “Priestesses in the Church?

Manchester’s observation is striking on many levels. With so much world-historical change before him, what led him to conclude that the most significant challenge humanity has ever faced was the erasure of male-female difference? Could he have known in 1993 how prescient this observation would be? 

Thirty years on, we know how this sex erasure has proceeded and even accelerated: the functional erasure—women should be able to do anything a man can do—paved the way for an ontological erasure—women should be able to be anything a man can be. After all, if a woman can be a pastor or priest, a role traditionally reserved for qualified men, why not a husband, or father? Why can’t a woman be a man?[1]

1. I explore the implications of egalitarianism in several places, including “The Fallacy of Interchangeability” and “Is the Slippery Slope Actually Slippery? Egalitarianism and the Open-and-Affirming Position.”

Such are the questions confronting Christians today. 

What Does the Bible Say? And Why?

To provide biblical answers to these questions, to address this “profound” challenge, we need to reason biblically. What does the Bible say about the distinctions between the sexes? Are they mutable? Or are they innate? Are sex distinctions cultural, or creational? These questions bring us to a more foundational one, especially as we attempt to think the Bible’s thoughts after it in order to reason and believe accordingly—to be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Rom. 12:2). Why does the Bible say what it does about the distinctions between the sexes?

In the rest of this article, I want to unpack a thesis on the Bible’s teaching about what Manchester calls the distinction between the sexes. But first a word about my motivations. I am driven, as I hope we all are, primarily by a pursuit of the truth, which I believe to be found unmixed in the pure Word of God. But I am also particularly motivated to help others become convinced, as I am, that upholding the Bible’s teaching on male-female complementarity not only stands against the erasure Manchester observed, but also that it is the last best hope for humanity in addressing the dire challenge this erasure poses.

Here’s my thesis: The Bible teaches that men and women are equal yet different by divine design, a design that makes a difference in how we ought to live as male and female. More concretely, the Bible teaches male headship in the marriage (1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5:23), a principle that is affirmed and not undermined in the covenant community by restricting some governing and teaching roles to men (1 Cor. 14:33–34; 1 Tim. 2:12). This teaching has been called complementarianism, and it is summed up in the Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. But just as important as what the Bible says is why it says it, which is why my thesis will make the following progression: (1) Scripture clearly teaches male-female complementarity and the principle of male headship, which is (2) grounded in the pre-Fall creation order (3) and in nature. 

(1) Scripture clearly teaches male-female complementarity and the principle of male headship.

Bearing the divine image is a human person’s most significant aspect. Being made in the image of God (imago dei) establishes male-female equality in dignity and worth. In the very first chapter of the Bible, we learn that God created both male and female in his own image:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man [Hebrew: adam] in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Gen. 1:26–27)

In these verses, not only are male and female both created in the image of God, they are also both referred to first by the generic Hebrew term adam. Importantly, this term becomes the particular name of the first man in the very next chapter. But in Genesis 1, this name establishes Adamic headship and, by implication, male headship in the family. This concept is developed in Genesis 2 and referenced in later revelation.

We must also note the binary, dimorphic—dare we say complementary—shape of humanity made in God’s image: “male and female he created them.” The very words used to describe the creation of the adam in Genesis 1:27 as “male and female” point to a social-sexual complementarity that is fleshed out in Genesis 2. The Hebrew term used for “male” in Genesis 1:27 is a word that etymologically hints at outwardness and prominence as a definitional aspect of this creature, and the Hebrew term for “female” is a word that etymologically hints at inwardness and receptivity. Directly after the Bible establishes male-female equality in the imago dei and complementarity in sexual differentiation, we are shown one of the reasons why God established male-female difference in Genesis 1:28:

And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

First, we should note that male-female equality is reinforced in this verse. Both male and female are addressed by this divine command: God said to “them.” But the command cannot be carried out apart from the pair’s complementary, dimorphic difference. The male and female have different obligations in carrying out this creation mandate. In order to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth, procreation is required, which requires male-female difference working together—bodily complementarity. 

Some interpreters have suggested that the command to “be fruitful and multiply and fill” plays more to feminine attributes, and the command to “subdue” and “have dominion” more to masculine attributes.[2] And there seems to be something to this. While each domain of activity is given to both the man and the woman in ways fitting to their bodily uniqueness, how this activity is carried out will necessarily be inflected through the gendered reality of God’s crowning creation.

2. See Alastair Roberts, “The Music and the Meaning of Male & Female” Primer 03 (2018), 2–18.

Male-female similarity and difference are further affirmed and developed in Genesis 2. A careful reader of this chapter will note the detailed differences in how and for what purpose the man and woman are created: they are similar, yet different. Man is made first and from the ground (Gen. 2:7); God puts him in the Garden (2:8) to work and to keep it (2:15) and to name the animals (2:20). Coordinately, woman is made second and from the side of man (2:21). She is a “helper fit for him” (2:18) and is named by the man (2:23).

Why these differences? This is one of the most important questions to ponder. God could have made the man and woman at the same time and in the exact same way. But the different, complementary ways in which God makes the man and woman are intentional. These creational differences are meant to teach us something from the beginning about male and female peculiarity and purpose: something about the principle of male headship and female helper-ship. 

We see something similar in how God created the universe. Instead of creating everything instantaneously, God created in six days and rested on the seventh. He did so for a purpose, in order to establish the pattern of the week (see Exod. 20:11). In a similar vein, the very way in which God created man and woman is meant to teach us about the pattern of male-female equality and difference. Genesis 1–2 are meant, in part, to prepare the people of God to receive special instructions from the Scriptures about what male-female difference means for their lives. Once we are properly catechized in the male-female complementarity of Genesis 1 and 2, we are ready to turn to these instructions.

While we believe all Scripture is profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training all of God’s people in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16), the Bible does give certain commands according to male-female difference, and some of these commands point to particular callings. The principle of male headship, or authority, in the family and the church is not only affirmed, but also commanded or assumed in multiple places in the Bible. Perhaps it is helpful to list in one place the New Testament verses that directly address upholding and honoring this principle:

  • 1 Corinthians 11:2–3: “Now I commend you because you remember me in everything and maintain the traditions even as I delivered them to you. But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.”
  • 1 Corinthians 14:33b–34: “As in all the churches of the saints,the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says. If there is anything they desire to learn, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.”
  • 1 Timothy 2:12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”
  • 1 Peter 3:1–7: “Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening. Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.”
  • Ephesians 5:22–24: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.”[3]
  • Colossians 3:18–19: “Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.”
3. Paul goes on to reinforce his point in Ephesians 5:25–33, as he likens the husband to Christ. Critically, the roles of men and women in marriage mirror that of Christ and the Church, a relationship that cannot be reversed.

We could also bring in other Scriptures that have implicit application to the complementarian position on upholding the principle of male headship—such as the fact that the Levitical priesthood was male (Exod. 29:29–30; Num. 18:1), that Jesus chose twelve male disciples (Matt. 10:1–4 and parallels), and that the elder qualifications in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 are male. But as a plain reading of the texts above conveys, the position of the New Testament writers is that men are called by God to lead their families and to lead in the church, a position we refer to today as complementarianism.

(2) Scripture’s teaching on the principle of male headship is grounded in the pre-fall creation order

Some would argue that the verses on male headship and authority cited above were applicable during a certain era of the church because of the patriarchal first-century culture into which the church was born. Due to this culture, certain concessions were made for the sake of the spread of the gospel that would or should be overturned when the church reached greater maturity. Many egalitarians point to the issue of slavery as an analogue issue: New Testament writers made concessions that allowed for slavery while speaking subtly against it, and thereby they showed that the trajectory of their teaching was for all slavery to be outlawed in the future.[4]

4. William Webb is one of the main proponents of a trajectory hermeneutic in his book Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals: Exploring the Hermeneutics of Cultural Analysis. Webb sees the Bible setting a trajectory that would ultimately today prohibit slavery, allow women to serve as pastors/preachers, and prohibit homosexual practice. Wayne Grudem penned an article length response to Webb’s book in “Should We Move Beyond the New Testament to a Better Ethic? An Analysis of William J. Webb, Slaves, Women & Homosexuals,” and Benjamin Reaoch wrote a book-length response in Women, Slaves, and the Gender Debate: A Complementarian Response to the Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic.

Interestingly, Jesus seems to have had a category for this kind of concession as it relates to male and female roles. When countering the teaching of the Pharisees on divorce in Matthew 19, Jesus appeals to the pre-fall chapters of Genesis. In so doing, he articulates a normative hermeneutical principle, when he states, “from the beginning it was not so” (Matt. 19:3–9). In other words, God’s original creation presents what ought to be “so,” and by implication it also teaches what ought not be “so.”

The problem with egalitarians comparing slavery’s abolishment with the abolishment of male-female roles, though, is that Scripture nowhere grounds slavery in the creation order. But the biblical authors do ground male headship and authority in God’s good, pre-fall creation.

God’s creation in the beginning has a certain divine order that, though marred by sin, is sustained and restored through grace. Grace, then, helps us understand nature. Thus, when the New Testament authors write about male headship and authority, they follow Jesus back to the beginning and appeal to the creation order. They invoke what seems to be minutia in the creation narrative in order to ground their gendered exhortations to the churches on male headship. Note carefully Paul’s reasoning in 1 Timothy 2:12–13 for why he restricts ecclesial teaching and authority to men only: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.For Adam was formed first, then Eve.”

Paul does not “permit a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man” for a creational reason: “for Adam was formed first, then Eve” (1 Tim. 2:13). The creation narrative reflects the creation order, which embeds a divine intention that must be upheld in God’s churches. Because this is a creation order issue, it cannot be said that Paul’s prohibition on women teaching or exercising authority is rooted in any first-century cultural consideration. It is rooted in God’s divine order.

Paul uses similar reasoning in 1 Corinthians 11. After establishing the principle of male headship in 1 Corinthians 11:3, Paul goes on to give one example of how this principle should be affirmed and not undermined in the covenant assembly through a discussion of head coverings. His reasoning is instructive: “For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man” (vv. 8–9).

Regardless of what one may think is normative for the church in Paul’s teaching about head coverings, this practical outworking of male headship is grounded in the pre-fall creation order. Paul here is teaching that God created the world in the way he did in order for creation to fulfill its created purpose. Part of God’s purpose is the principle of male headship, which he established from the beginning through the way he created mankind: woman from man, for man. But Paul is not content to leave it there. He seems to raise the stakes by tagging this strong admonition at the end of his section on male headship: “If anyone is inclined to be contentious, we have no such practice, nor do the churches of God” (1 Cor. 11:16).

Following Jesus, Paul points us back to how things were “in the beginning,” before the fall, in Genesis 1 and 2. In this way, the New Testament writers exhort Christians to live according to our divinely created purpose, which is rooted in God’s design in creation, when he made them male and female in his image.

(3) Scripture’s teaching on the principle of male headship is grounded in nature

Complementarians debate among themselves the full range of implications of the creational differences between men and women. But since Christians confess that God created everything from nothing, all of creation reflects God’s creative purposes. The Scriptures affirm that nature reflects God’s purposes, which can be perceived even by non-believers through their God-given faculties of reason (see Rom. 1:18–23). That is to say, what God’s word says to be true is consistent with what is actually the case in the created world—nature—all around us. 

Think about what it would be like if the opposite were true. If nature consistently taught one thing while the Scriptures affirmed another, we would be left confused by God’s purposes for creating the way he did. If God’s word affirmed the principle of male leadership in the home, for instance, but nature taught us that females are better equipped to lead, protect, and provide, then God’s will would stand over against God’s acts in creation in a dissonant way.

Thankfully, this is not what is reflected in nature when it comes to God’s purposes for male and female. The Scripture affirms a certain fittedness to male headship that accords with nature.

For instance, in 1 Peter 3, after commanding wives to be subject to their husbands and husbands to live with their wives in an understanding way, Peter goes on to argue why it must be so: because the woman is the “weaker vessel” (1 Pet. 3:7). While there are different interpretations as to what Peter means by “weaker vessel,” we can at least recognize that Peter is appealing to something inherent to women as women that is not inherent to men as men.[5] This womanly difference means that a husband must relate to his wife in a way that will be incongruent to the way a wife relates to her husband—the husband has a responsibility to be more tender than his wife!

5. One pronounced illustration of this point comes in the nine months a woman carries a child to term. During that time, the husband can and should provide and protect his wife who may be weakened, sick, or at times bedridden. Modern advances in healthcare and medicine may alleviate many of the pains associated with pregnancy and childbirth, but during these months the instruction of 1 Peter 3:7 becomes undeniable. Alternatively, in our modern world, where increasing numbers of women are refusing marriage and the vocational calling of motherhood, the goodness of this verse may be missed and/or maligned.

The concept of natural fittedness is related to the point above about scriptural teaching being grounded in the created order, but it is also more than that. If we didn’t have the creation narrative, we could still arrive at some approximation of the way men and women are designed to function and relate to one another. Men, on average, are stronger than women and have larger frames that are better suited to physicality. Women, on the other hand, have bodies better suited to caring for and nurturing the next generation, as their very bodies are the site of growth and sustenance for the very young. This is why men across time and space are generally more given to leading, providing, and protecting, while women are more given to nurturing and raising the next generation. This is not to deny that there are exceptions to this admitted generalization, but the fact that they are exceptions proves the rule. The predominant sociological data we have from cultures around the world generally reflect the biblical order of male-female difference and the principle of male headship.[6]

6. See Stephen B. Clark, Man and Woman in Christ.

Thus, when we consider the Scriptural commands in light of nature, and vice versa, there is a certain beautiful harmony to the way God’s world works. We can say that what we see in Scripture is fitting with what we see in nature. To put it another way in line with language from older theologians, the Book of Nature accords with the Book of Scripture. 

We shouldn’t be surprised, then, when efforts rooted in disobedience to Scripture run contrary to nature or even actively attempt to disrupt or reconstruct nature. To take on God’s design, one has to take on creation and Nature itself. This is why sexual revolutionaries want to dismiss the created reality of the gender binary, namely, that people are ineradicably male or female. This is why the many variations of the so-called transgender movement—a movement that traces its origins to radical feminism and a Marxist ideology—is at war with manhood, womanhood, and the family. 

But nature testifies to a humanity created “male and female,” or XY and XX. And no surgeon has a scalpel sharp enough to reshape the genetic binary—X or Y—wired by God from the beginning in creation.[7]

7. For how this truth is affirmed, and not undermined, by chromosomal abnormalities, see chapter 6 in Denny Burk, What Is the Meaning of Sex?

The way of complementarianism is better, because it is true, and it is good, and it affirms the beauty of male and female equality and difference.


If the “erasure of distinctions between the sexes” is the “most profound” issue the human race has ever faced, as William Manchester contended, then we had better have an answer. And there can be no better answer than that supplied by reason shaped and informed by the Word of God and revealed in nature.

Our culture has become dangerously confused on this issue, as biological men dominate women in women’s sporting eventsas women are forced to shower with biological men in the military, and as adolescents who identify outside of their God-given sex attempt suicide at an astonishing rate. The Bible’s clear vision for manhood and womanhood is in fact the last best hope for addressing this chaos. 

The truth is, the Bible shines forth with this glorious truth: men and women are equal yet different by divine design. This difference is testified in God’s Word, and it is testified in God’s world. It is hard to kick against the goads—that is, it is hard to fight against the reality of nature. And when we embrace these differences in our unique status as men and women, we find the flourishing that God intends for all of those who follow him by faith. 

If the direction of Scripture calls men towards headship in the home and leadership in the church, then it goes against God’s revelation for women to take hold of what God has not given them, such as those who would preach the Word of God in the household of God.

Not only do we find Scripture that speaks directly to this point (1 Tim. 2:12–13; 3:1–7), but we also see an entire universe that points against this role reversal. In the last several generations, in step with Manchester’s observation of the erasure of the distinctions between the sexes, women have become preachers, pastors, and clerical priests in the church. Because of this, the authority of the Word of God in the church has suffered, and our apprehension of God’s world has suffered. Women in pulpits have more to do with men in petticoats than you may think.

Why is this the case? Because the same God who upholds the universe with the word of his power, is the same God who declared that men must lead in the home and the church, and thus it is his command and his design, not ours, that says qualified men should teach and exercise authority in the church. Indeed, there is no other way to uphold the Word of God, but to submit to this fundamental feature of creation and canon—that God made men and women differently. We cannot interchange roles without doing damage to the Word and the world.



  • Colin Smothers

    Colin Smothers serves as Executive Director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He holds a Ph.D. in Biblical Theology from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where has also taught adjunctly. He also holds a Master of Divinity from Southern Seminary and a B. S. in Industrial Engineering from Kansas State University. Colin is married and has five children.

Colin Smothers

Colin Smothers

Colin Smothers serves as Executive Director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He holds a Ph.D. in Biblical Theology from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where has also taught adjunctly. He also holds a Master of Divinity from Southern Seminary and a B. S. in Industrial Engineering from Kansas State University. Colin is married and has five children.