What is a Complementarian Theology?

Complementarian teaching is a theological conviction about the roles of men and women in the church - that both are indispensable, but not simply interchangeable.
Complementarian teaching starts with the Biblical truth that men and women are equal in God’s sight – equal in worth, in sinfulness, and in salvation. This is apparent from the explicit statements in passages such as Genesis 1:27 where both men and women are made in the image of God and Galatians 3:28 where our different identities are subsumed into the identity of Christ.

When we put our trust in the Lord Jesus, we are equally forgiven and adopted into God’s family as his children on an equal footing. All of us rely on God’s grace expressed through the person and work of his Son. As his children, we all receive the gift of the Holy Spirit who encourages us to become more Christ-like and enables us to minister in the church family.

Nevertheless, the Bible also emphasizes that in God’s family, as in the human family, relationships between men and women should be distinguishable and ordered. The Apostle’s teaching about Church order in 1 Timothy derives from his interpretation of the creation ordering of men followed by women, as well as from his description of the church as a family (the ‘household of God’ in 1 Timothy 3:15). It follows therefore that his teaching on the human family has special significance for the church, which is why the description of married relationships between men and women in Ephesians 5 is so significant for church life. There, husbands are to represent Christ’s self-sacrificing headship and wives are to represent self-denying discipleship as both give up their own interests for the sake of the other.

Since relationships between men and women in family life are designed to reflect truths about God, it is noteworthy that within a Trinitarian understanding of God, there is complete equality between the persons of the Trinity, yet the Son is always obedient to his Father (eg Philippians 2:8) and in 1 Corinthians 15:28 ultimately puts himself in subjection to the Father so that ‘God may be all in all.’

The pattern of equality, expressed in mutual self-giving – as men serve in self-sacrificing leadership and women serve in self-sacrificing acceptance of that leadership – is one which ‘complementarians’ (i.e. those believing the gifts of men and women are complementary rather than identical) believe needs to be reflected in the way we order ourselves as a church.

The Apostle Paul, who clearly valued the wide-ranging ministry of women to judge by his message of appreciation in Romans 16, nevertheless speaks of the differing teaching responsibilities of men and women in 1 Timothy 2:12 and Titus 2:4 as well as of the exercise of authority by men in 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 – something that does not appear limited to one context since the Apostle relates his teaching to all churches in 1 Corinthians 11:16. In this he seems to follow the example of Jesus, who counter-culturally affirmed the contribution women were making among his disciples (eg Mark 15:41; Luke 8:3, John 4), yet appointed only male apostles with his authority (Mat.10, Luke 9).

There is no set delineation of particular roles of men and women following this principle, because local circumstances differ. But in general, as the Reform Covenant once stated, this ‘makes the headship of women as priests in charge, incumbents, dignitaries and bishops inappropriate.’

It is important to note, however, that matters of ‘order’, whilst important, are not of such significance that compromise or fellowship between those of differing views is not possible. As a result, most complementarians are fully supportive of the efforts the House of Bishops has made to put in place arrangements that enable us to continue to hold together in ministry in the Church of England.

It is also recognised that there are many who take a high view of scriptural authority who nevertheless reach a different conclusion and application from complementarians, and feel that it is legitimate to conclude that all orders of ministry should be open equally to both men and women.