Egalitarianism Swallowed Up By Complimentarianism

Derek Ouellette —  December 16, 2011

We compliment each other...

Recently I updated my Facebook status to admit that I’m better with abstract theology than with social issues. Today’s post may just bear that out, and in the process, upset a few people and lose a few readers. Though I hope not.

A few years ago I was interested in this girl. Sometimes we’d hang out and go on what could only be described as “dates” (unofficially). Nothing ever came of it and I think everybody is happy about that. She was a feminist and her parents were Pentecostal pastors. I was a newbie to the subject of egalitarianism, but was certainly not a feminist. When she told me that the Bible was written by a bunch of chauvinistic, patristic men I was greatly indignant. Since I have a high view of the scriptures, her statement amounted to claiming that God himself was a chauvinistic anti-egalitarian.

On one of those early outings we went on I tried to be my normal chivalrous self by opening the car door for her. Such an act, it seems, proved to be too chauvinistic and politically incorrect. To put the world back to the way it should be, and probably to make an egalitarian point, she stretched across on the inside of the car to pull the handle and push open the drivers-side door before I could walk around and let myself in. She did this so that all things would be “equal” and all things would be “egalitarian” and all things would be “balanced”.

I am thankful to the nth degree that my wife makes no attempt to emasculate me with some egalitarian social agenda to strip me of my manhood in order to make all things equal (oops, that’s not a very politically correct thing to say). And I am thankful (and I’m sure she is thankful) that I make no attempt to dominate, control, suppress or silence her in some social agenda for worldly hierarchical authority.

So because of my relationship, I simply don’t understand the complimentarian/egalitarian debate. It seems to me that it is riddled with reactions to abuses on both sides. I lock arms with egalitarians who get enraged when men abuse women, control women, “lord” an authority over women or anything else of the sort. I get enraged too. But then I get annoyed when egalitarians take those situations and apply them wholesale to complimentarianism and accuse godly complimentarians of having a social agenda when, rather, biblical fidelity is their only agenda.

The girl I was interested in may have been too harsh in her depiction of the biblical form, but she was right about one thing: the bible is not a text for feminists. We may say that it was more egalitarian than any other text of its kind in the ancient world. But it is far from egalitarian in a truly feminist sense. I know this is going to offend people and I’m going to be accused of having a social agenda (which is hogwash), but irregardless of peoples’ reactions, it is true. The only group I think who might buck against this are evangelical feminists. But feminists of other sorts will readily admit my point, which is one of the reasons why they reject the scriptures.

In Margaret Kostenberger’s book, Jesus and the Feminists, she identifies three types of feminists: Radical Feminists, Reformed Feminists and Evangelical Feminists (egalitarians).

Radical Feminists are, we might say, consistent egalitarians. They imagine and construct an “omnigendered society in which gender distinctions are transcended, lesbianism is celebrated and cross-dressing is practiced.” (p.48) Radical Feminists out rightly reject the bible and Jesus because neither is egalitarian in the feminist sense.

Reformed Feminists reject the bible as an authority (like the Radical Feminists), but not Christianity (unlike the Radical Feminists). They believe that Jesus was egalitarian and they want to Reform Christianity from within. But they know that the bible does not depict Jesus as egalitarian (which is why they reject it’s authority). They treat the biblical text much the same way as the Jesus Seminar does, by removing all offensive, non-egalitarian material from the life of Christ.

The point of this is to say that when I claim that the bible is not a text for feminists the claim is not coming just from complimentarians, but from feminists themselves!

Evangelical Feminism (otherwise known as egalitarianism) was birthed in the 1970’s. While Radical and Reformed Feminists rally around the idea of “liberation from oppression”, Evangelical Feminists adopt equality as their central tenet (Galatians 3:28). (p.129) The former groups reject biblical authority, the latter seeks to develop a new hermeneutic with which to accommodate a feminist reading of the text.

Margaret summarizes the difficulty faced by Evangelical Feminists in contrasts to their more liberal counterparts:

“Unlike radical feminists, who reject Scripture entirely, and reformist feminists, who adopt a hermeneutics of suspicion based on a perceived patriarchal bias in Scripture, evangelical feminists on the whole claim to consider Scripture as authoritative, inspired and inerrant. For this reason they cannot simply dismiss scriptural passages that do not conform to their egalitarian commitment, nor can they expand the Christian canon or say Paul or other writers of Scripture were in error. Their major interpretive option is therefore to find ways to interpret biblical passages along egalitarian lines, and, where this proves difficult, to postulate a “center of Scripture” with regard to gender roles that allows them to set aside as culturally relative or otherwise inapplicable passages that do not support evangelical feminism.

The result is at times strained exegesis, and at other times unlikely interpretations that seem to be driven more by egalitarian presuppositions than by an inductive study of the text.” (p.177)

In other words, in order to accommodate a feminist reading of the text, evangelical feminists commit the über eisgesis fallacy.

Google defines egalitarian as “believing in the principle that all people are equal and deserve equal rights”. Well, then, it turns out that the phrase “egalitarian” may very well be swallowed up in the term “complimentarian”. To put it another way, all biblical and godly complimentarians are egalitarians.

“Complimentarians, then, understand Scripture to teach genuine gender equality in terms of personal worth and dignity before God in Christ and desire to see male-female partnership and mutuality in marriage and the church.” (p.181) What complimentarianism does not seek to do (unlike egalitarianism as it stands alone) is to collapse all gender distinctions.

If this way of talking about complimentarianism sounds strange to some people, than now you know why this whole debate sounds strange to me. Because that definition of complimentarianism is how my wife and I intuitively understand our relationship. We are egalitarian because we are complimentarian instinctively. And there is no need for me to sacrifice my male-hood, nor for her to sacrifice her femininity by collapsing all gender distinctions in order to attain the equality in Christ expressed by Paul in Galatians 3:28.

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.
  • George

    Thoroughly loved reading this.

  • Aaron

    I don’t think egalitarians want to erase gender differences – At least egalitarians that I know want to celebrate the differences. The problem is when your gender gets tied to a specific role in church or family life. Most complementarians want to say they stand for equality and yet deny women leadership roles in our churches. It is unequal when Men are the only ones allowed to lead.

    • Derek Ouellette

      Aaron, in my next post I hope to bring “egalitarian” and “complimentarian” closer together. I started this way because like Wright, I think “complimentarian” is a great word and, unfortunately, I have not read much of any egalitarian works that celebrate male-female gender differences. As a “complimentarian” I still have no problem sitting under a woman teaching me. I have female friends who are ordained in the ministry. I read books by women authors and see nothing wrong with women in leadership.

      I think the polarized views of complimentarian and egalitarian positions is not helpful. At least, not for me. Thanks for the comment.

      • Aaron

        Indeed – I agree!

  • James

    My wife and I are egalitarians, but complementarians on an individualistic, practical level. In other words, we don’t try to split every task, role, responsibility and privilege equally, but we also don’t prescribe what roles we take based on predefined “gender roles”. We just divide things up in whatever way is practical. I’m better at numbers, so I do the finances – she can do laundry without shrinking all our clothes, so she does the laundry. It’s not that gender doesn’t come into it – I’m sure our gender influences our abilities and interests (both biologically and through social constructs). But we don’t prescribe our roles within our relationship based on what society tells us gender roles should be, and assume that because I’m a man, I should do this, or because she’s a woman, she should do that. In the end, we’re just far too practical for that kind of thing.

    • Derek Ouellette

      James, I like the way you put that. I especially appreciate that you acknowledge that “our gender influences our abilities and interests”. I think what you said illustrates most godly homes, even those of complimentarians. I know many complimentarians, but I don’t know any who “assign” roles to each other in the home based purely on gender and society dictations.

      I much appreciate the comment.

  • James

    Yes, gender does influence us in many ways. But of course, there are always exceptions, where there are people who seem to go against just about every norm for their gender.

    And then you even get into the problem of defining gender. “Gender” and “sex” don’t mean the same things these days, and it’s generally recognized that gender can be tough to pin down. What if someone has the physical body parts of one sex, but the chemical/hormonal make up of the other sex – what gender are they? There’s a pretty big can of worms that can be opened when you start talking about gender, especially if one starts proclaiming that we should assign roles based purely on what gender someone is seen to be.

  • Don Johnson

    You fail to spell the comp term correctly.

    I am egalitarian because I see Jesus and Paul, etc. as egalitarians in their culture.

    If you want to see what egals say, read some egal papers or books, it is not a good idea to read what a comp like Kostenberger thinks of egal ideas, that is getting it filtered.

    • James

      No, he spelled the word correctly. He’s talking about couples always remembering to say nice things about each other! :-)

      • Derek Ouellette


  • Holly

    Right. “Complementarian.”

    You wouldn’t lose me as a reader because you offend me, you would lose me because you don’t know it well enough. Egalitarian doesn’t mean erasing gender differences. It’s also not about forcing Jesus into a comp role. He goes there just fine all by himself.

    You’re still seeing this from only one side. And within your denomination, there is no need to do that.

  • Holly

    Hey. I was in a hurry when I typed the last comment – and so I wanted to take a moment further to explain myself better.

    1) Nazerene theology (Wesleyan) to the best of my knowledge does not hold to eternal submission of the Son to the Father. That’s usually where theology bases authoritarian structure. Nazarenes were some of the earliest protestants to encourage female pastors/speakers/ministers. Would you call your denomination feminist?

    2) I think you mischaracterize what you call evangelical feminism – and yes, it seems that you based your understanding upon one book. I mean this charitably and kindly – not meanly – but you imply that an “evangelical feminist” has to twist scripture to see Jesus as an egalitarian. This too is inconsistent with a Wesleyan hermeneutic. Through the overall view of scripture, we see God as engaging in a covenant of love with humankind. (Ah, but you knew that!) What does love do? How does love act? Love always seeks to build up, to want the best for the other, to set the captive free, to pick up the fallen, to loose the grave wrappings of those once dead, to lift oppression, to comfort the downtrodden….

    Once you see Jesus thru those eyes – how he trusted women, how he allowed them into his circle, how he even dared to talk with them as a Rabbi – the woman at the well, the woman at his feet, friends with Mary and Martha, the woman caught in adultery – how so against his times he was – when you couple that with the above characteristics of God (overall) – I don’t know how you could ever see him as a complementarian.

    3) I do not believe that egalitarianism seeks to erase all gender differences. It may seek to erase gender restrictions (such as, she can’t do this job because she’s a woman, or such as she does not receive the same pay because she’s a woman) but evangelical feminism (as you call it) does not try to make a woman – not a woman.

    4) I think you make the same mistake I do. Because I’m married to a wonderful person, because he is easy going and loving and supportive, because we naturally blend beautifully and fill the traditional roles very well (he provides, I stay home and take care of our nine kids and homeschool them) I assume my view is correct. I say, “It works! It’s intuitive!)

    Truth is – it works because I married a great guy 23 years ago. It works because we are easy going people.

    Try shifting your view to a hard marriage, one where people did not naturally get along – would it work as well? It took me a long time to see how difficult it would be, and I understood that it wasn’t my firmly held views of gender roles that made things work so well. It was my “guy” and his loving sevanthood (based upon Jesus’ example) that made it a joy.

    Thanks for the conversation – grace and peace to you and yours. :)

    • Derek Ouellette

      Hi Holly, thanks for the comment. I’m always impressed when someone can seek to correct me without attacking me or using rhetoric. Much appreciated.

      1. The first thing I’d like you to observe is my comment to Aaron above.
      2. Wesleyan’s were among the first to encourage women in the ministry. To answer your question, see my comment to Aaron. :)
      3. I didn’t mean to imply that egalitarians “twist” scripture, at least not any more than the rest of us. I do suggest, however, that the bible itself has an imbalance narrative emphasis on men. But from reading egalitarian works we just wouldn’t know that.
      4. Your comments about love are right on. I don’t think complimentarian’s put people into captivity or trodden them down. I think that is where egalitarians misunderstand and misapproapriate complimentarians.
      5. Jesus did raise the status of women (and poor people, and tax collectors and gentiles and …) It was a part of his Kingdom Message and we ought to carry that on today. I know of no complimentarians who would disagree with that.
      6. I think egalitarianism unqualified leads to a break down in all gender distinctions.I don’t know if I’ve read anything by egalitarians that celebrate the differences of men and women and what those differences look like and how they play out practically in society and in God’s Kingdom. Though, admittedly, the situation only gets more complicated when we acknowledge the gender dilemma that James (above) draws our attention to.
      7. You might be right about my mistake (your number 4). But I don’t want to allow abuses frame the discussion. I don’t want to poo on complimentarians just because of authoritarian abuses. I want to talk about it in the ideal of the Kingdom.

      P.S. don’t leave just yet (regarding your opening comment)… until you’ve read my next article on this subject. This is a difficult subject, I just want to find a way past the impasse. In reality, when I pitch my tent, I’ll probably be too “complimentarian” for my egalitarian friends, and too “egalitarian” for my complimentarian friends.

      Thanks Holly!

      • Holly

        Thanks Derek – I was just teasing about leaving over spelling. :) Goodness knows I make plenty of typos. I’m truly not that petty.

        I think we can work thru most anything in Christendom *if* we are willing to do the hard work of talking and listening. You do a really great job at putting your thoughts “out there,” but still being respectful.

        I guess the only thing I would want to ask about now would be the concept of masculine narrative (and overtone) in the totality of scripture. (And I’m pretty sure you’ve thought this thru, regardless,) but – does your view leave room for the thought that *everything* had masculine overtones then? Women were property, women had no rights, women could not inherit, etc.? God doesn’t endorse that – you have to look over the long haul and ask, “Where was God moving things?” I think He was moving us toward loving equality – toward servanthood extended in all directions.

        Must run – but, thanks. :)

        • Derek Ouellette

          Absolutely the Bible has huge masculine overtones as a simple result of the culture in which it was written. No question. I’m simply acknowledging the fact and that by reading egalitarians we just wouldn’t know it.

          Egalitarians often say, “look, no body knows who Hilda is? The church has suppressed women in the bible!” (Scot McKnight’s book, Junia is not alone, suggests this.) Well, no, the bible itself doesn’t draw a lot of attention to Hilda. In fact, the same people who don’t know who Hilda is, probably have never heard of Shamgar either. (Shamgar was a man.)

          And by the way, I totally missed your comment about my spelling of complementarian. Hahaha… I spelled it wrong in my whole first response to you. Oops. 😛

  • Dave Leigh

    Derek, I always enjoy your perspective and the humility with which you present it, even where we disagree. That would be the case here on many points, as you and I have interacted elsewhere. So I’m going to take your advice and wait for part 2. However, I do have to say you are grossly mistaken in regards to the egalitarian treatment of gender. You are also greatly misled by the Kostenbergers. If you want to present what egalitarians believe, please try to draw from egalitarians and not those who are rabidly out to discredit them.

    I also want to say that if all complementarians were as balanced in spirit and temperament as you are, the path to harmony and agreement would certainly be less challenged. Thanks for your compassionate approach to all things potentially divisive.

    • Derek Ouellette

      The reason I chose Margaret’s book is primarily because she shows why radical and reformed feminists reject biblical authority and, secondly, because she’s a female complimentarian. To that end I think Margaret’s book is helpful and accurate. But notice please that this post does not talk about the heated question of women in the ministry, to the end I ignored Kostenberger’s book. You may be right that I am “grossly mistaken” about an egalitarian treatment of gender, but for that assessment I need to rely on experience and what I have read by them because, as I said to Holly, “I don’t know if I’ve read anything by egalitarians that celebrate the differences of men and women and what those differences look like and how they play out practically in society and in God’s Kingdom.” When we define equality in an unqualified manner, how can we celebrate gender distinctions? And if we qualify equality, how and where do we stop?

  • Dave Leigh

    To use a Kostenberger to understand egalitarians is like consulting a Sadducee to understand Jesus. Don’t make it your primary reference. Likewise, to suggest that egalitarians view equality as the same as uniformity is to show you’ve done no real research in legitimate source material. Sorry to be so blunt. But with all your cordiality, such generalizations are still patently offensive.

  • Derek Ouellette

    Dave, what I mean to suggest is that unqualified egalitarianism leads to uniformity. But from your perspective (if I’m right) you do not see it that way. What you are suggesting on your blog (it seems to me) is that complimentarianism leads to oppression. But I do not see it that way. So you think that mine is a great danger that needs to be squelched. I see yours as a great danger that needs to be squelched. I have “patently” offended you. I find your generalization equally as offensive.

    What I’m going to suggest is that we make an effort to begin where the views are, not where we think they lead. I see your point. I’m operating out of the dangers of egalitarianism (from experience and from this rusty old mind). That’s a mistake.

    As a matter of full disclosure I do see a spiritual hierarchy in the home (though, not necessarily in the church in terms of ministry), but you see the word “hierarchy” as being loaded with a whole bunch of other stuff I don’t intend to communicate. From that point on the conversation is doomed. Can you try and see what a complimentarian such as my self or my wife might mean when she speaks of a “spiritual head”? If not, I’m not sure the conversation is worth pursuing. I’m open to changing my views in many ways (as the next post will illustrate if I ever get around to writing it). But I can’t do it if the person I am speaking too translates what I am saying into categories that I am not saying.

  • LCK

    Derek, I usually avoid conversations about egalitarian/complimentarianism, but since I’ve always found you to be an honest, humble (and brilliant) thinker, thought I’d weigh in on this discussion.

    I agree with you that most complimentarians are not trying to subjugate women and only trying to be faithful to what they think the Bible teaches. I do not agree, however that a “consistent egalitarianism” will inevitably collapse all gender distinctions. While I have not read much on this subject (and avoid it when I can), I AM an egalitarian and I KNOW a lot of egalitarians. None of these people would claim that women have as much upper-body strength as men or that teenage girls are as prone to risky behavior as boys. They look at the world and they call it as they see it. They are both egalitarians and realists.

    What I seem to be hearing (and assume will be clarified in the next post) is that your definition of complimentarianism is not the same as that of the Biblical Council on Manhood and Womanhood. If you say you have no problem sitting under a female teacher, then you are not a BCMW complimentarian. If you say that “all biblical and godly complimentarians are egalitarians” then you are not a BCMW complimentarian. Since BCMW basically “owns” the definitions of these words, I assume that you are going to redefine them in following posts.

    I know this is a long response, but I have to add this one last thing. While I am an egalitarian, I agree with those people who think that many egalitarians have had to do some awkward exegetical gymnastics to get around 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2. Normally, I don’t link to my blog from other blogs, but in the interest of brevity, I’ll link to a blog in which I explain my understanding of these passages: and

    • Derek Ouellette


      Thanks for the comment Leslie. I really enjoyed those articles. In fact, in terms of what I’m thinking about the key passages in question, I think I pretty much agree with you on the subject of women in the ministry.

      Considering your point about consistent egalitarians collapsing gender distinctions, I think that such is the potential danger of egalitarianism. BUT, I add quickly, the hierarchical abuse and oppression is the potential danger of complimentarianism. But none of my complimentarian friends are abusive or oppressive. And none of my egalitarian friends collapse gender distinctions. In short, I agree with you completely and *soften* my main critique.


  • geneinne

    I don’t know all the terms correctly, all I do know is that in my relationship with my husband, I do what I do best with the gifts and talents God gave me and my husband does what he does best with the talents that God gave him. We do not try to place genders on anything we do… even if I like to cut the grass lol,. We also respect each others differences and try to encourage each other in those differences as this makes us both the best we can be for Jesus. If a woman is called to preach, teach or anything else, let her….and let the man do what he is called to do… it is a great system.

  • Kristen

    I find your terms a little odd. What you are describing as “complementarianism” is what I understand as extremely soft complementarianism. Complementarianism includes a wide spectrum, all the way from hard patriarchy on down to the sort of mutuality-but-with-male-leadership that you are purporting. Christian egalitarianism, on the other hand, is fairly uniform, but is (as others have pointed out) not actually as you have defined it here; I have also heard it called “complementarity without heirarchy.” As far as eisegesis is concerned, I hardly think it is eisegesis to go back to original, historical/cultural understandings in order to decipher what a text of scripture would have meant to its original audience first, before determining what it means for us today. Kenneth Bailey, in his book Jesus Through Middle-Eastern Eyes, makes an extremely good, scholarly case for Jesus being an egalitarian– the patriarchy shown in the gospels being an aspect of the culture that He was actually moving against.
    The main reason egalitarians don’t often, as you put it, “celebrate gender differences” is that we are loath to make blanket statements that all male human beings are “supposed to” be and act one way, and all females are “supposed to” be and act another. We celebrate the basic differences as generalities, but also allow for the wide variation within each sex.
    I have often found that complementarians do just as much of what you have described as “textual gymnastics” as egalitarians do; it’s just on different verses. Most complementarians will go into detailed word-studies, for instance, in order to refute the verse that says Junia was a woman apostle. The real issue is not who does the in-depth studies, but how persuasive they are in determining what a particular verse would have meant to its original audience.
    I hope you agree that it is the original message that is inspired by God, and not what it might seem to mean to our modern eyes 2000 years later and half the globe and several languages removed.

    The real difference between complementarianism and egalitarianism, as I understand it, is simply this: How do you answer the question, “Should women be restricted from leadership or holding authority– in the home, in church or in society– in any way as a result of being female?” Complementarians will answer “yes,” and then try to determine how many restrictions to place on women, and how far to restrict them. Egalitarians will simply answer, “no.” And that’s all there really is to it.

    • Derek Ouellette

      As a complementarian I answer no. Most complementarians I know who are not as “soft” (to use your word) as I am would also say “no”. The reason is because you characterize complementarianism with the word “restricted”. They don’t see it that way.

      • Kristen


        If a woman says, “I want to be co-leader beside my husband, each of us deferring to one another in our own areas of strength in leadership– and I don’t want him to have the final say; I want us to mutually submit to one another to the point where we always work out something we both can agree on,” what would you say to her?

        If she believes she is called to be the minister of a church, the one who preaches most Sundays and leads the whole congregation, what would you say to her?

        • Derek Ouellette

          Go for it. :)

          • Kristen

            Then, it seems clear to me, you’re an egalitarian. :)

        • Derek Ouellette

          P.S. I checked out your blog and like it very much. Thanks for coming by.

          • Kristen


  • Kristen

    PS. I enjoy having my husband of 23 years hold doors open for me. He brings me flowers– I don’t bring them to him. But we consider ourselves joint leaders of our home and children, and neither of us has a “final decision maker” trump card in the event of a disagreement; we have to find a way (prayerfully, of course) to compromise.