Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Complementary Equality

Written by: on March 17, 2020

Within theology, “egalitarianism” is defined as “a movement based on the theological view that not only are all people equal before God in their personhood, but there are no gender-based limitations of what functions or roles each can fulfill in the home, the church, and society.”[1]  It’s counterpart, “complementarianism” is defined as “the theological view that although men and women are created equal in their being and personhood, they are created to complement each other via different roles and responsibilities as manifested in marriage, family life, religious leadership, and elsewhere.”[2]  These two theological concepts have been used (and abused) to create hierarchies within the church as well as to cause division within churches over who should be allowed to lead.  However, in looking deeper into the concepts of both egalitarianism and complementarianism, I have found that I do not think it is an either/or, but rather a both/and.

The terms themselves carry various connotations behind them that are filled with baggage that draw battle lines.  Egalitarianism brings with it the idea of a too liberal theology where those who hold to it do not truly believe in the Bible and want to see the institution of the church taken down, while complementarianism brings forth the idea of fundamentalist, sexist, misogynists that are bent on keeping women in their place.  This has created a dichotomy that has brought forth an “us vs. them” mentality.  This is where I find Lucy Peppiatt’s redefinitions of the two positions helpful.

In particular, I agree with her assessment of complementarianism.  She writes, “The term complementarianism should describe a view where two different entities enhance one another in a reciprocal, harmonious, and interdependent fashion.”[3]  The issue with the traditional definition of complementarianism is that it has been used to subjugate or bar women from entering into positions of leadership or to create a false dichotomy of inferiority.  However, if one were to look through Scripture, one can see that the Body of Christ as described in 1 Corinthians 12 is to be a complement to one another:

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. – 1 Corinthians 12:12-20

The passage goes on to read that the various parts of the body cannot say to the others, “I don’t need you!”  What is so unique about this is that it shows not only the diversity that is supposed to be found within the church, but also that each member has a unique, God-given role that is to be used for building up and edifying the church.  We are all equal within the body of Christ, but our gifts are not the same; our gifts are used to complement other members of the body, regardless of gender.

This is where complementarianism should be: Not a dichotomy of men vs. women, but rather a unique lens into the beauty of the how God created the world.  In my experience of leading teams with my previous organization, the thing I was always astounded by was how each of my teams carried with them strengths and weaknesses that the others complemented.  Their unique gifts were used in ways that not only brought our team closer together, but allowed each to contribute to the mission.

This is a lesson I had to learn the hard way.  The first time I led a team, I tried to do everything myself and realized very quickly what my shortcomings were.  I did not take my team’s gifts into account when we were planning teaching activities and I tried to lean into an identity that wasn’t mine, but rather my previous leaders’ identities.  When I finally realized how my team complemented one another and shifted my paradigm, each person felt empowered and our team was able to accomplish great things that summer with our students.

We cannot continue to assume that others do not bring value to the body of Christ because they break with the traditional molds of leadership and positions found within the church.  When are bar people – whether men or women – from using these gifts as God has empowered them, we dishonor the imago dei and Body of Christ.

Although Peppiatt refers to complementarians as “hierarchicalists” and egalitarians as “mutualists,” the term mutualist also infers a complementary nature to it.  There is a mutual building up of the church through complementary gifts.  However, in order for this to happen there needs to be a reclamation of what it means to be both man and woman as created by God.  Katia Adams writes, “Once we align ourselves with His understanding around our identity and authority on the earth, then we will be ready to start taking up the full mantle of what we were created for.”[4]



[1] https://www.theopedia.com/egalitarianism

[2] https://www.theopedia.com/complementarianism

[3] Lucy Peppiatt, Rediscovering Scripture’s Vision for Women, Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press (2019), 6.

[4] Katia Adams, Equal: What the Bible Says about Women, Men, and Authority, Colorado Springs: David C Cook (2019), loc. 192-214.

About the Author

Dylan Branson

Small town Kentuckian living and learning in the big city of Hong Kong.

11 responses to “Complementary Equality”

  1. Shawn Cramer says:

    How do you see the genders complement the other specifically? I find (as I put in my post) that most mutualists have a challenging time talking about specific ways women and men complement each other, and am also personally trying to discern apart from stereotypes and socially constructed views of gender.

    • Dylan Branson says:

      The Creation narrative itself shows the complementary nature of male and female; that one cannot be without the other. I would argue the mere existence of male and female show that we’re supposed to work together. Other than the biological differences, I don’t think there are any characteristics or gifts that necessarily mutually exclusive to one gender or the other (even if those attributes are normally assigned to one or the other). Psychology and sociology may show that there are tendencies for one gender or the other to show certain traits more often than the other, or at least that they’re more dominant as a general rule. So in one sense, we can’t downplay the differences, as those differences show us different parts of God. At the same time, we should aim for an equal ground where both can voice their thoughts and opinions and utilize the gifts that God has given all of us in a way that it mutually beneficial for the Kingdom.

      In short, we need to aim for mutual submission in love to one another out of our love for Christ (Eph. 5:21) just as Christ was submissive to the father (Phil. 2:1-11).

      • Shawn Cramer says:

        I’m currently using the metaphor of a play – where there are different parts to play with no inherent value difference still within the mutualistic framework.

  2. Jer Swigart says:

    It’s a nice take, D. I appreciate the ideas of diversity and distinct giftedness and how we complement one another in our collaboration.

    I wonder how you would interact with this idea: a collaboration that is truly complimentary requires equity, mutuality, and reciprocity.

    • Dylan Branson says:

      I would agree with that. Before you can complement someone, you have to be on equal footing and knowing where you fit in the grand scheme of things. Collaboration is a learning environment where there is give and take from all sides; when it becomes one-sided where only one side is making a sacrifice, that isn’t collaboration. I think what Peppiatt points out about complementarianism traditionally creating a hierarchy is a warning we need to take seriously. There needs to be an acknowledgment of the value that all gifts bring to the table; where one may be a better fit for a certain scenario, that won’t always be the case. Taking on a mindset like this requires genuine humility.

  3. Greg Reich says:

    I am glad you brought up giftedness. I find it amazing that giftedness is gender neutral not gender specific. Why is it we tend to feminize some gifts and make others masculine?

    • Dylan Branson says:

      I wonder how much of it is influenced by popular culture. When we see certain traits in the media emphasized over and over again, it becomes engrained in us to an extent. We end up looking at what society deems to be “masculine” or “feminine”, though those ideas had to come from SOMEWHERE. It would be interesting to trace those ideas through history (especially within the context of fairy tales and mythologies, though if I had to speculate I would think a lot of our ideas of manhood and womanhood stem from Greece in some way, shape, or form).

  4. Steve Wingate says:

    “I have found that I do not think it is an either/or, but rather a both/and.” I agree! Great point Dylan. I wrote about a series of experiences I had when working towards ordination. A few male candidates questioned the validaty of women being ordained. I did too. BUT I also question many males being ordained! Ordination is a call and a goal with a sense that one is working WITH God and not apart from.

    • Dylan Branson says:

      Definitely, Steve. I was reading a book recently called Pagan Christianity that was touching on the notion of ordination (specifically how we go about in the church today) as a means of keeping a power structure in check. We take into our own hands the power of giving others authority over others. It isn’t surprising that we tend to ordain others like us or those who fit within the established power structure.

  5. John McLarty says:

    I had never thought of myself as privileged. (That’s an ugly by-product of privilege.) At the time I left my previous appointment, I was the senior pastor and there were 4 associate pastors on staff- all of them women. They were all awesome and we functioned well as a team- bringing out the best in each other and working from a mindset of gifts and strengths. I made the decision very early in that assignment that I would always introduce myself as “one of the pastors,” rather than “senior pastor” and that really helped the congregation to see all of us in the same light, just with different responsibilities. I’m proud of what we did there, but sad to know how that’s still an exception in the larger Christian landscape.

    • Dylan Branson says:

      John, it’s awesome that you were stepping aside to share the platform of power. Do you know how your previous appointment has continued with this? I wonder how it has affected the congregation in the present, now that you’re not there.

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