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The Christian Gender Debate: Understanding the Four Perspectives

This post should be read in the context of “Headship and Submission in the Home,” and “Follow Up Post…

There has been MUCH written and said on the topic of gender roles in the Bible. Every time I dip into the “The Great Gender-Roles Debate,” I feel intimidated by the complexity of the issues, and the great learning of others who have gone before. This is my blog, however – the place where I (in the words of Augustine) “write so that I may understand.” Thus, here is the latest post in my continuing attempt to pursue truth on this difficult topic.

In the gender debate – as with so many other debates, everybody seems to present the argument in terms of threes: “People on this side of me, people on that side of me, and us here in the middle, who are right!” In contrast to this, I think it’s helpful to think of four perspectives.

These perspectives can be arranged along a continuum: from left to right they are, “patriarchy,” “complementarianism,” “egalitarianism,” and “feminism.”

Everybody in this debate seems to be “far-sighted.” When egalitarians think they are fighting complementarianism, they are really aiming at patriarchy. Complementarians at times protest to this: however, they are so far-sighted, they are unable to draw clear lines of distinction between themselves and patriarchalists. Complementarians likewise attack egalitarians when they are really aiming at feminism. But here again – few egalitarians have the ability or desire to draw firm lines of division between themselves and feminism, so how are complementarians to know any different?

Ignoring these lines of distinction explains much of the confusion and anger inherent within the Christian “gender-wars.” Compelemtnarians fight hard and (at times) fight dirty because they see in egalitarianism the creeping onset of liberal feminism. Egalitarians likewise fight complementarians with vigour and (at times) venom because they see in every complementarian a woman-supressing, chauvenistic ego-centric (etc.) patriocentricity.

If I could communicate nothing else to the readers of this blog, I hope you will get this point: both complementarians and egalitarians are in the “middle” of this discussion! No, I am not saying that the issues which divide us are inconsequential – but the issues which divide us from those on the far left and right of us are far more significant than the issues which divide us from one another!

Liberal feminism is fully prepared, for example, to simply remove the Pauline epistles from the equation. Paul was a misogynist – what could he possibly contribute to today’s discussions? This sort of approach goes far beyond family stability – it cuts to the core of the gospel message, and the authority of Scriptures. The complementarians are right to reject true feminism.

They are wrong, however, to reject egalitarianism along with feminists. Most of the egalitarians I have dialogued with here and in other places hold a very high view of Scriptures – the difference is in interpretation, not in theology.

Egalitarians are also wrong, however, to reject complementarians along with patriarchalists. It is here that I will spend the bulk of my time.

There are four major headings under which I would like to explore the differences between patriarchy and complementarianism: ontology, primacy, hierarchy and priesthood.

Ontology: Many patriarchalists believe that women are “ontologically” (that is, in their very essence) somehow less than men. Appeals are sometimes made to 1 Peter 3 (the “weaker vessel” passage) and Genesis 2 (woman made from a rib, not dirt) and 1 Corinthians 11:7 (the “glory of a man” vs. “glory of God” passage) to support this. Complementarians, on the other hand, stress that while men and women are different, they are profoundly equal, since they were all made in God’s image (Gen. 1:27) and are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28). For the record: I do not believe that I am in any way “better,” more holy, or made out of “more God-like” stuff than my wife, just because I am a man.

Primacy: I do not believe that my wife’s role as “help-meet” makes her my personal servant, side-kick, or underling. God has specifically called God has gifted and called my wife to glorify Himself, not merely to serve my needs. A major way that she fulfills this calling is by nurturing and caring for our young family and being a “worker at home” (Titus 2:5): however, I challenge and anybody who says that caring for the tender hearts and minds of our children is a lesser calling than paying the bills. She also is my “help-meet” in that she completes me, aids me, and gives me invaluable support towards my life/career goals: however, I support and love her by providing for her needs through my career, and in the very unglamorous role of making money. The point is not that my needs get met, but that God is glorified in our family. We each have distinct roles in this high calling. For the record, then: I do not believe that my wife exists to serve and meet my needs, but to glorify God by rising to the potential which He has gifted her for.

Hierarchy: Many patriarchalists see headship in the home in secular terms: that is, they believe that their role gives them a right to “lord it over” their families, to receive benefits from them, to have a title denoting power and authority, to be served: however, this is not how the kingdom works: rather, Jesus came as the leader who serves (Mat. 20:25-28, Mat. 10:42-45, Luke 22:25-27). Following in His example, husbands are to lay down their lives for their wives (Eph. 5:25). For the record: I do not believe that my role as “head” of my home gives me the right to bark out commands, to issue threats, or to dole out punishments to my wife. Rather, it is a duty, and obligation, a holy commission to lay my life down in loving sacrifice for her, in worship to God according to the pattern laid out by Christ Jesus.

Priesthood: Most importantly, I do not believe that I act as some sort of “priest” over my family, as though my wife and children need to go through me to find God. Every one of my Christian family members is a “priest,” and is able to access God on their own, through Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 2:5). Spiritually, I see my role as head of the home as analagous to that of pastoring a church. In this, I bear the primary (not “sole”) responsibility to “keep watch over the souls” of my family (Heb. 13:7), to pray for then unceasingly (Rom. 1:9), to be burdened (2 Cor. 11:29) or overjoyed (Phil. 4:1, 1 Thess. 2:19) by their spiritual state, to function as the primary steward of God’s revelation (reading into Genesis 2), and to bear the primary responsibility when our family sins communally (cf. Gen. 3). For the record, then, I do not at all, in any way, in the least, see myself as standing between my wife/children and God. However, I do feel that my role places on me a heightened burden of responsibility for their spiritual well-being.

There is a shorthand way to describe Christian headship, or “servant-leadership.”

First, you must think of the pro’s and cons of leadership. On the one hand, there is a burden of responsibility – on the other, there is the ego-boost of prestige. On the one hand, there is increased workload – on the other, there are increased material rewards. On the one hand there is increased pain and sacrifice – on the other, there is the cool joy of power.

Think now of servanthood. On the one hand, there is the humiliation of being “under” another – but on the other hand, there is a freedom from responsibility. On the one hand, there  are fewer material rewards – but then, there is less work involved. There is the frustration of having one’s personal freedom violated – but then there is also a freedom from mental/spiritual drain of worry.

To understand servant-leadership, you must subtract pro’s from both leadership and servanthood, and combine the con’s.

Servant-leadership is responsibility without prestige. It is hard labor without rewards. It is self-death without ego-centricity.

The comment which originally got me into all this trouble was saying that I was finally “stepping up” to the plate: there has been much discussion of my motives, much of my intentions behind this metaphor. In all that has been said, something that I don’t think any of the egalitarians reading my thoughts have yet grasped is that for me, the decision to become a complementarian was a decision of sacrifice. It was moving from a place of coasting, of not really engaging, of being lazy and under-involved to becoming (imperfectly) engaged, purposeful and directional in my role as husband/father in my home.

I believe that understanding where I am coming from may be a significant step towards understanding for some, although of course I am still only imperfectly trying to figure all this out…



On the distinction between patriarchy and complementarianism, there may be no better source than Caren Campbell’s series on “patriocentricity.” The first podcast is especially enlightening.


I need to preface this with a disclaimer: I am a part-time pastor, part-time student, full-time dad/husband/Christian with a full-time job on the side. Free time is a rare commodity in my life! Although I love responding to comments, I feel the need to set expectations low: if this post garners anything like the attention my last post gathered, I simply will not be able to keep up with responding to comments. Thus, I would like people to see the comments section of this post as: a) a place to provide links and resources to content of interest, c) dialogue and debate with others in the comments who disagree or agree with one another. I would request that all posting show some restrain: try to limit yourselves to commenting on the material posted here: do you think this is a good way to divide the topic? Have I left things out? Are there things you could add? This is probably not the best place to try to solve the entire gender-roles debate: as we have found in the past, even the format of wordpress comments section is frustratingly inadequate for prolonged discussions. People are welcome and encouraged to post links to better forums elsewhere if they are so inclined!

I wish you all the best as you pursue truth along with me!

– Josiah


  1. On your specifics:

    1. Ontology – OK that you say women are equal to men in some sense, but why not in more senses?

    2. Primacy – OK that you do not claim primacy, but point to God as primary.

    3. Hierarchy – OK that you agree to serve your wife, nowhere in the Bible is there a statement that a husband is to lead his wife, except for pagans in Esther.

    4. All believers are priests for the family, this includes kids. It is good you do not see yourself as sole priest, as that is not Biblical. Nowhere does the Bible say a husband is head of the home where the wife is not also.

    Since I am egal, I believe that ANY movement in direction of egalism is good and any move away is not. So a kinder and gentler form of male hierarchy is better than a harsher form.

    But it is still male hierarchy and there is the rub.

    What if your wife read some egal books and decided non-egalism was not for her?

    How can you know that when you make a final decision you are not doing it for selfish reasons?

    How do you know that the possibility of making the final decision does not distort the discussion process, as in why argue if you know you are just going to lose?

    As an egal, I do not need to fit into any role doing some task I may not be suited for, I can discuss how to make our family work the best by allocating tasks to each of the parents strengths.

    I do think non-egal marriages can glorify God, but they do so mostly to the extent that a husband does NOT use the power the non-egals claim he has which would seem to depend on the spiritual maturity of the husband. So it is simpler for me to just not claim any unequal power, esp. as I do not see the Bible teaching this for believers.

    • Josiah,

      Given that my post is now a week old, I am assuming you do not wish to discuss further at this time.

      Thanks for the discussion so far.

      Don J.

      • Like I said in my post – you need to have low expectations as far as my response time. I just have a lot of things on the go, and my blog is not very near the top of my list of things to do.
        I wrote a post in response to the core of your argument, but here I would ask you this: where do you see me as viewing women as less equal than men? Is the bow less important than the violin? Or, in Paul’s language, “Is the eye less important than the ear?” It is only in our post-Marxist thinking, where power is everything, that equality is defined exclusively in terms of power. I do not think that the Bible has as much of a problem sees gender differentiation as “inequality” in the same way you do.

      • You view women as less equal to men exactly at the point where you as a husband get to overrule your wife.

        The Bible does teach that parents get to overule their kids (when not adults) as long as it is not illegal or immoral. The Bible does teach that masters get to overrule their servants, today we would say, employers get to say what they want employees to do (at long as it is not illegal or immoral). But it also teaches that ONLY a pagan said this about husband and wives, in Esther.

        Power is A lens thru which to view worldviews, it is not the only lens, but one of them. I do not see power as everyhing, but it is one thing.

        The genders are of course different, as a male only I can impregate a female, and my wife is the only one of us who can bear and nurse kids. And some TENDENCIES may derive from these physical differences, but to say spiritual truth derives from physical gender diffs is to misunderstand spiritual truth.

      • I do not base my views on biology: however, when biology and Scriptures line up, together they make a stronger case.

        Power seems to be the PRIMARY lens which you see the world through. Specifically, you seem to see all authority through a Marxist lens – that is, that of class struggle, where those who hold authority ALWAYS abuse it, and those under their authority ALWAYS suffer, and the only means of progress is for the latter to rebel and over-turn the former. I am not saying that you yourself are deep into Marx, but it is in the air that we breathe. Every time I try to talk about Jesus’ upside-down leadership, all you seem to be able to visualize is a dysfunctional authority-structures with a new coat of paint.

      • I try to use MANY lens to view reality and various worldviews. It is just that the POWER lens cuts to the chase in this case, it removes a lot of what I might call camoflage and gets to the essential differences at the heart of the discussion.

        What you are doing is claiming that physical diffs make a spiritual difference and I claim this is a fundamental misunderstanding of spiritual things in the area of physical diffs. In other words, you put confidence in the flesh (literally in this case) and I do not. That is, my focus on who has the power in your worldview and in mine gets to the heart of our diffs. I AGREE with you on all the aspects of a husband serving his wife as a servant, ALL of this is Biblical, since we agree, it is not a point of further discussion, except to keep agreeing.

      • Yes, we have battled our way to the core of our disagreement. I am saddened that you still don’t understand me, but am heartened that at least now I am pretty sure we are talking about the very important things.
        I am bigger than my wife. I am stronger. I am physically able to win any fight. That is to say, I have “power.” Does this power make our marriage unequal? No! Rather, it points to a difference in roles. I use my strength to cherish, to provide for, to protect her. I don’t have a mean bone in my body – I would never use my strength to harm her! It is the same with positional authority. Being the head of the home, I have more authority than she does. This makes me “bigger, stronger, able to have my way” in a positional sense. However, I do not use this power for my own benefit, or against her (if I did, I would be a patriarchalist.) Rather, I use this power to help her, to cherish her, to serve her needs before mine.
        I know you think that the only way to get rid of the abuse of authority is to be rid of authority: however, my continual assertion is that this is neither necessary nor Biblical.
        If you read my earlier comment, you will see that I do not base my authority on biology. Furthermore “placing confidence in the flesh” is a reference to works-righteousness (E.g. Phil. 3). This has nothing to do with the gender debate: we all know that we get saved by grace. My only point is that when you read Scriptures correctly, you will find that they line up with our experience in the world. Sometimes we read Scriptures wrongly, and studying the world will help us read the Bible better (for example, people used to think that the mustard seed was the smallest grain, or that the world was flat…reading the Bible with more information from the world helped them read it more accurately). This is a weak argument, however, because our experiences are seasoned by our perceptions of the world (yet, this logic is circular!) and thus my experiences will be different than yours.
        We are better off debating Scriptures than our experiences of the world, especially in this context.

      • 1. Php 3:3 For it is we who are the circumcision-we who worship in the Spirit of God and boast in Christ Jesus. We have not placed any confidence in the flesh,
        Php 3:4 although I could have confidence in the flesh. If anyone thinks he can place confidence in the flesh, I have more reason to think so.
        Php 3:5 Having been circumcised on the eighth day, I am of the nation of Israel, from the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews. As far as the law is concerned, I was a Pharisee.

        At least PART of Paul’s argument about not having confidence in the flesh is that some are circumcised and some are not. So my argument is not totally false, Paul says this aspect does not matter in terms of our standing in Christ.

        2. Nowhere does the Bible say that a man is “head of the home” this is another human tradition. This does not make it false, but it needs to be checked. What it does say is a husband is head of his wife, in a head/body metaphor. I read this as a metaphor of unity with the head serving the body and the body serving the head. You read it as a hierarchy (easy to do in 21st century) yet there are no examples given of the head leading the body in the metaphors explicit examples, they are all serving examples of what Jesus does as head.

        3. I am not against authority. In the home I am for joint authority of the spouses (equality) and you are for hierarchical authority of the spouses, with males on top (non-equality). I also do not think the only way to get rid of abuse of authority is to get rid of authority, that is a straw man. In the Western world we realize the wisdom of a balance of powers in civil gov’t and we get this idea from the Bible. I claim the Bible also teaches this idea in the family.

      • Interesting discussion…. just a thought here ….

        I appreciated some of what you said here. It is my belief that God gives physical powers to be used for the benefit of others. Same with parents and young children. It is part of the principal of love.

        However, IMO it is a mistake to assume that physical powers give one privileges of positional power/authority. The two have nothing to do with one another. The fact that some humans are smaller and/or weaker than others does not make them less intelligent or less spiritually able to approach God. Those less strong can benefit from the strength of others, without having to lose privileges in their relationship. A wife can be blessed by her husbands strength. This strength however, does not give him rights to manage her life, make decisions for her, or be her authority. You will not find such a principle in Scripture.

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