Darrow Miller and Friends

Male and Female: Complementarianism vs. Egalitarianism

  1. What is “Difference Feminism”?
  2. Male and Female: Complementarianism vs. Egalitarianism

How does the Bible view male and female?

In part one we introduced the various manifestations of feminism in the West. Here’s a table to summarize.

First waveSecond waveThird wave
Difference feminism
(AKA Essential feminism)
Equality feminismGender identity
First manifested19th century1960sLate 20th century
BeliefsPro-marriage, pro-familyDenies transcendent sexualityAbandons binary reality
View of the sexesReal biological differences, equal in moral statusUltimate goal is full interchangeabilityElimination of marriage and male-female sexuality
Current Christian manifestationsComplementarianismEgalitarianism(See footnote)*
Related movementsChristians for Biblical Equality (US 1987)Men, Women and God (England 1984), Christians for Biblical Equality (US 1987)(See footnote)*

[*] While we know professed Christians who subscribe to gender-identity ideology, we have not identified a movement or group.

Complementarians and egalitarians hold some beliefs in common, especially the intrinsic dignity of all women as made Imago Dei. These common assumptions can be built upon. There are also places of disagreement that need to be clarified. More common ground may emerge by some critical clarifications.

What do these views have in common?

Let’s begin with the common agreement. With reference to “ontology,” the nature of being and essence, the author of “Differences between Complementarian and Egalitarian Positions” writes:

  • Complementarian Position: Male and Female – “Equal in being, unequal in function or role”
  • Egalitarian Position: Male and Female – “Equal in being, equal in function”

Ontology refers to God’s design for human beings at creation. It deals with the question “What is the purpose of human beings and their existence?” Both sides are in agreement that human beings are equal in being, dignity and value; this is the unity of our human existence, rooted in the biblical revelation that we are all made in the image of God.

Difference in function does not mean difference in value

Two issues are relevant here. First, note that these two positions disagree with reference to the diversity of function or role. There is a subtle distinction between the two positions.

male and female is God's designEgalitarians use the word “equal” to mean “the same,” that is without distinction, interchangeable. They argue that because human beings are equal in dignity, there can be no distinction between role and function; women can perform the same role and function as men. To say it differently, women and men are interchangeable. The egalitarians would be more accurate to acknowledge that while there are differences in role and function those roles and functions are equally valued.

The complementarian position would better be stated as follows: “women and men are equal in dignity, value and moral significance and at the same time, distinct in role or function, and those differences in role or function are of equal value and significance.” To speak of “unequal (or equal) in function” is to wrongly quantify function. A fire fighter and a police officer have different functions. To say their functions are “equal” or “unequal” is without meaning because these functions cannot be quantified.

In other words, it is profoundly important to clarify the meaning of the word “equal”! The distinction between the nature of the thing and its value is essential.

I would suggest that a principle could be used to help bring these two groups of Christians together, the principle of unity without uniformity, or diversity without superiority. This applies the relationships within the Trinity as well as the relationship between men and women.

The members of the Trinity are clearly distinct in their functions and roles. And they are equally God and glorious. The egalitarian position diminishes this truth and its necessary application to the imago Dei human.

Yes, the cultural commission was given to both male and female

The second issue  is that of role distinctions. The author writes of these two positions:

  • Complementarian: Distinction in masculine and feminine roles are ordained by God as part of the created order (Gen. 2:18, 21-24; 1 Cor 11:7-9; 1 Tim 2:12-14)
  • Egalitarians (make two statements): No role distinction given in the Creation mandate. The commission to be fruitful, fill and subdue the earth was given to man and woman jointly together (Genesis 1:26-28).

I agree with egalitarians that the commission is a joint commission for male and female. This is clearly stated in the Cultural Commission in Genesis 1:26-28. But their first statement is either inaccurate or misleading.

If they mean there is no “chapter and verse,” they are probably correct. But they fail to understand the meaning of the binary nature in the creation narrative and the specific reference in Genesis 1:26-27 to the community of the Godhead.

God has revealed himself as a community of distinct persons. We have the first hint of this in the cultural commission.

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 in his own image,

in the image of God he created him;

male and female he created them.

To be made in the image of God is to be community – unity of diversity. The God who creates is a family of persons. To be in His image is to be a family of persons, with distinctions in name, person, personality, role and function.

God is One and Many

Trinitarianism is fundamentally different from polytheism (a diversity of gods), and from monism (all is one undifferentiated whole). Trinitarianism—like Judaism, Islam and Unitarianism—is monotheistic; all these affirm one infinite Creator God. But Trinitarianism divides with its monotheistic cousins over the nature of “one.” Trinitarianism recognizes that God is community, one God in three persons, a “combined one” or “united one” Lord. The other monotheistic faiths speak of a “single one,” an “undivided” one God.

The first principle in understanding God is that He is the One and Many, one God, three distinct persons, bound together in self-sacrificing love!

male and female is God's designGod created a universe of diversity. He made one human family, with a transcendent design and male and female bodies to fulfill that design and function for a purpose that requires both, requires diversity. The wonder is that these two distinct beings are complementary; they fit together for a larger purpose. That purpose would not be fulfilled if their functions were identical.

The second thing egalitarians have not clearly observed is the binary nature of creation. We see this binary nature throughout the creation narrative in Genesis 1. The very first verse reflects binary reality: “The heavens and the earth.” In the same way, God ends his creative process with binary, humankind, “Male and female,” Gen 1:26-27. He created in binary or complementary patterns.

It takes binary (complementary relationships) to reflect community and to create community. One man cannot fully reflect the image of God. Nor can two men. It takes female and male.

Likewise, it takes male and female to reveal all that it means to be made in the image of God. Together, male and female manifest the integrated, comprehensive, complementary transcendent nature of the Trinitarian God.

How the Trinity is a model for male and female

So while there may be no chapter and verse to undergird the complementarian position, the whole creation narrative speaks of the divine community (the God who is unity and diversity) as the pattern for male and female and the incredible nature of binary creation. I would argue that the egalitarian position is rooted not in reality or the biblical revelation, but in the feminist ideology. In fact, at the end of history, Jesus Christ will return to marry His bride, the church, His perfect “binary” counterpart.

I would argue that the egalitarian position is rooted not in reality or the biblical revelation, but in the feminist ideology.

Complementarians need to speak more clearly of the Cultural Commission as a joint male-female partnership, not simply a male assignment, of the man and the woman as vice-regents of creation. Such language could help achieve common ground.

  • Darrow Miller

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Darrow is co-founder of the Disciple Nations Alliance and a featured author and teacher. For over 30 years, Darrow has been a popular conference speaker on topics that include Christianity and culture, apologetics, worldview, poverty, and the dignity of women. From 1981 to 2007 Darrow served with Food for the Hungry International (now FH association), and from 1994 as Vice President. Before joining FH, Darrow spent three years on staff at L’Abri Fellowship in Switzerland where he was discipled by Francis Schaeffer. He also served as a student pastor at Northern Arizona University and two years as a pastor of Sherman Street Fellowship in urban Denver, CO. In addition to earning his Master’s degree in Adult Education from Arizona State University, Darrow pursued graduate studies in philosophy, theology, Christian apologetics, biblical studies, and missions in the United States, Israel, and Switzerland. Darrow has authored numerous studies, articles, Bible studies and books, including Discipling Nations: The Power of Truth to Transform Culture (YWAM Publishing, 1998), Nurturing the Nations: Reclaiming the Dignity of Women for Building Healthy Cultures (InterVarsity Press, 2008), LifeWork: A Biblical Theology for What You Do Every Day (YWAM, 2009), Rethinking Social Justice: Restoring Biblical Compassion (YWAM, 2015), and more. These resources along with links to free e-books, podcasts, online training programs and more can be found at Disciple Nations Alliance (https://disciplenations.org).

1 Comment

  1. Beth Adams

    October 19, 2019 - 1:27 pm

    How great to see this very relevant, hot topic addressed biblically. Through all our differences, it always comes down to the fact that God has a plan for each of us. As soon as we try to supercede His plan, we have doomed ourselves to never be all that He made us to be. We are just so blessed that He redeems!