Critiquing Complementarianism: Are Men and Women Different?

by John Ellis

Critiquing complementarianism is risky business. Doing so carries the substantial prospect that you will be accused of being ideologically located somewhere on the proverbial slippery slope that terminates with you being voted Grand Marshall of Key West’s Pride Parade. And I get it. Really, I do. Considering the wild and wacky times in which we currently live, suspicion is baked into discussions about gender and sexuality – on both sides. Battle lines operate best when drawn hard and fast and are lacking nuance. You gotta know who the enemy is, after all. And within the community called white evangelicalism, criticizing complementarianism is often seen as evidence of a shifting, if not already shifted, allegiance.

To be clear, I haven’t received any explicit pushback, nor I have heard any calls for my excommunication from the folds of white evangelicalism because of my recent article titled “Complementarian’s Existentialism Feeds Gender Confusion.” At least, none that I saw.[1]

So, this current article is not a response to any one person or article. I did read the “The Science of Male and Female: What God Teaches Through Nature” that was published on Desiring God, but only after I had begun writing this article. In the main, I’m responding to conversations I’ve had in the past with the motivated understanding that this topic is as close to the front of the conversation within broader conservative evangelicalism as it ever has been. And as the title of the Desiring God article points, one of the initial questions asked of people who hold a similar position/belief as I do is, and a question I’ve been asked multiple times in the past: Do you believe that there are differences between men and women?


Of course, there are differences between men and women. What makes that question difficult to answer, though, and frankly, often unhelpful/unanswerable, is that the question doesn’t differentiate between ontological differences and differences of degree (and even this wording is an oversimplification). In my experience, and illustrated by the Desiring God article mentioned above, many complementarians conflate the two, answering the question as if difference of degrees are ontological. And that’s, really, what I was getting at in my previous article (which you can read by clicking here). That conflation feeds gender confusion.

This still leaves the question and my answer dangling in the dialectic wind. What does my “yes” mean?

Well, while I’m more than happy to be persuaded that ontological differences exist, I’ve never heard a good argument laying out those arguments. Furthermore, I’ve yet been unable to parse that argument out for myself in a way that provides any concrete conclusions. And possibly raising some eyebrows and dropping jaws even further, I’ll add this: Conversations about ontological differences give me pause for theological reasons. As Gregory of Nazianzus declared, “What has not been assumed has not been healed.” Or, to use Athanasius of Alexandria’s word in place of healed, “redeemed.”

In his full humanity, Jesus is a man. If there are ontological differences between men and women, then there are aspects of the humanity of women that Christ did not assume. The soteriological implications give me pause.

This, of course, raises the question: what do I mean by ontological differences versus differences of degree.

In a nutshell, ontology is the philosophy of being. What things exist? And, drilling down even further, what makes something the thing that it is and not another thing?[2] Questions about ontology are not as simple as most discourses pretend – as this discussion reveals, I think. The word ontology is thrown around a lot by lovers of philosophy, seminary students, and Thomists, often in ways that betray a hubristic overvaluation of the speakers grasp of the topic. I’ve been guilty of that hubris, and, no doubt, I’ll be guilty of it again in the future. Not here, though. At the risk of coming across as more Parmenidean than I actually am, I know a woman when I see a woman and I know a man when I see a man. Like how I know a dog is a dog and not a cat even though both “species” generally have fur, a tail, and whiskers, not to mention four legs, two eyes, two ears, etc.

As is apparent, that brief discussion about ontology circles the conversation back to the biological differences between men and women. At least, the conversation circles back for me. Leaving the question unanswered: Are the biological differences between men and women ontological?

Briefly, to help illustrate the difficulty in answering that question, and not to be crass, if we define man-ness as, in part, having a penis, what happens if a man loses his penis in an accident? Is he less of a man? Many, especially of the frat-boy and/or “biblical masculinity” variety, will, undoubtedly, have a knee-jerk response that is not only uncharitable but also theologically (and ontologically – see what I did there?) problematic. Can man-ness be reduced to biology (pure materialism a la an Epicurean atomism)? It’s hard to see an affirmative answer to that question. Likewise, is it the ability to bear fruit in her womb part of what gives a woman her woman-ness? If so, what about a woman who is barren? Is she less-than as a woman? No, she’s not less-than! God forbid we even remotely communicate that devilish lie.

Going down the path of biological reductionism causes problems when looking at the larger set called Image Bearers – humans. Even though I’m not willing to outright reject biology’s role in ontology, it’s a dialectic pathway upon which much graciousness, thoughtfulness, and nuance must be taken before even treading on that path (see footnote 2 if you’re interested in diving further into this difficulty).

How we got here – complementarianism – is a long, complex story involving, among other things, Aristotle, an (often deliberate) misinterpretation of an admonition concerning the “vilica” by Cato, Constantine, the Enlightenment, Charles Darwin, Victorian ideals, John Wayne, second-wave feminism, and the religion of God and country (Christian nationalism). A full-throated deconstruction of complementarianism’s historical and theological development would require a book, if not books. There are several excellent books that I’m aware of tackling this complicated task, and I’m assuming that many more books are coming down the pike as the generation that invented complementarianism gives way to generations who feel the existential weight of second-wave feminism much less, if at all, and those generations find their voice. For me, I’m going to attempt to remain narrowly focused on broader exegetical malfeasance, starting with gender ethics being developed via an exegesis based on nature (within the natural law idolatry that privileges an epistemology of autonomous human reasoning above all else, including a Biblical ontology) instead of the narrative guide provided by the order of creation.

In 1 Timothy 2:13-14, and to be clear, speaking specifically into an ecclesiastical setting and not in reference to women being police officers, CEOs, or other positions of authority over men, Paul tells Timothy the reason why women are not to serve as elders. “For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived.”

As an important aside that may alienate me from both sides of the debate, while I’ve interacted with some robust arguments challenging the belief that Paul forbids women from holding the office of elder/pastor, I remain unconvinced. Women preaching and teaching in the local church, though, is a whole other ball of wax for which I find myself at odds with complementarianism. With that dangling out there, back to the task at hand, though.

Paul’s reasoning does not point to ontology or nature. It literally points to the through-line-of-action of God’s Story. Adam was created first. Eve was the first one to outwardly succumb to Serpent-Satan’s temptation. Adam was standing right beside her, though; the Bible’s narrative implications take interpretative precedence over the literal events. To that end, while I believe that the Fall of Adam and Eve (and, hence, the Fall of all humanity) literally happened, I also believe that there are narrative implications for the overall Story of how God redeems His people back to Himself. To be clear, there are narrative implications not only in the event but also how the event is framed within the telling of that Story. Jesus is the Final Adam, the Final Man. Within the Story, husbands/fathers are functional (not ontological) metaphors for the final Adam. Wives/mothers are functional (not ontological) metaphors for Christ’s people – his bride. To pull sharp cultural expectations and gender norms out of those metaphors is highly problematic.

For a while now, I’ve believed that for all the love shown biblical theology, the reformed branch of conservative evangelicalism (the big drivers behind complementarianism) is woefully lacking in its (their) ability to understand the mechanics of storytelling and, specifically, how the art of storytelling informs proper biblical exegesis. In other words, much of what’s called biblical theology is little more than repackaged systematic or historical theology. I frequently joke that one of the largest problems with theology is that it’s most often done by theologians and not storytellers.

Tracking along those same lines, the vast majority of complementarians that I know love inductive Bible study. And while the Charles Simeon Trust does good-ish work that I appreciate-ish, and it’s not necessarily (maybe) their fault that many of their “students” do unintentional damage to the intention of their overall program, word studies are the word of the day for many, if not most, Bible studies done in the service to the inductive method.[3] Those engaged in Bible studies where word studies are the primary heuristic are not only unable to see the forest for the trees, they’re unable to see the tree for the bark. D.A. Carson didn’t reserve a large section in his book Exegetical Fallacies for word studies without cause. But I digress. Well, not really.

All that to say, complementarians have a tendency of replacing the word “literal” with “synonym” in their interpretative methodologies. In doing so, they conclude: Looking at my concordance, I see that this word means this and, hence, this synonym is the main driver of interpretation. That, of course, as any literature professor can attest, is a sophomoric, at best, approach to literary analysis. Take for example how many complementarians interpret the Curse in ways that support their a priori and culturally constructed gender expectations.

I’ve read (and been told to my face multiple times) that the Curse recorded in Genesis 3 is one of the primary places where we find nature’s God-given role in defining the differences between men and women. In short, according to this argument, Genesis 3:16 proves that a woman’s place is in the home engaged in nurturing activities centered on childbearing and child-raising. The next verses, 3:17-19, is evidence that a man’s place is outside the home providing for the family. Recognizing that I’m skipping some things and providing complementarians ammunition to accuse me of straw-manning their position, they combine that overly-literalistic/synonymous interpretation of the Curse with Paul’s instruction in Titus 2 to claim that the Bible’s revelation as well as natural revelation demonstrate that the differences in men and women support their contentions, for example, that men are wired to lead, women are wired to nurture, and that the wife’s role is primarily in the home and the husband’s role is primarily as a provider that takes him outside of the home.

Starting with the Curse recorded in Genesis 3, and tying my short, ill-articulated diatribe against inductive Bible studies, word studies, and the overall lack of understanding of the mechanics of storytelling back into the discussion about the differences between men and women, complementarians who use the Curse in this manner are guilty of a reductionist interpretation of a poem that, contradicting the complementarian interpretation, is a poem that is actually intended to push the reader to see universal applications. The Fall changes humanity’s relationship with their God, with each other, and with creation. Things are no longer “good” as God repeatedly declared throughout Genesis 1. The problems (the curses) have universal implications. Familial relationships are now tainted by sin and under the Curse. Of course, the painful aspect of the physical act of childbearing (biology) applies only to women (we all know that), but the overall fracturing of relationships extends to fathers and children, too. Likewise, when women plant a garden, the fracturing of the relationship with the soil/creation applies to them, too. It’s interpretive malfeasance to take a reductionist perspective and absolutize it into gender norms.

Moving ahead to Titus 2, especially verse 5, many complementarians either don’t know the cultural context Paul was writing into or they choose to willfully ignore that context in order to protect their own a priori and culturally (Victorian and Aristotelian) based gender cues/expectations.

Crete was a wealthy community. It was common practice for the wealthy women in Crete to move from house to house, often engaging in orgies. Since the work of the family was being handled by servants and slaves, there was little reason for them to stick around the house or villa. Their food and comfort was assured apart from their labors. The text doesn’t say if the Christian women were also engaging in orgies (I tend to think that Paul would’ve mentioned it if that were true), but we do know that they were spending their days going from house to house accomplishing nothing of value. His command was for Titus to tell them to stay home and engage in the family business even though they technically weren’t required to do so in order for the family to eat and be cared for. In fact, I believe that an argument can be made that the stay-at-home-mom culture in contemporary conservative evangelicalism is often a violation of Paul’s admonition in Titus 2:5. But that’s an argument that deserves its own article.

An important point that is often glossed over is that many men worked from home throughout much of humanity’s history. Really, until the Industrial Revolution, the family business was just that – a family business that was most often conducted out of the house and a business in which all members of the household took part. The division of labor was often a product of biology – more on this in a bit. Complementarians, however, push against this notion, denying historical situations in the process. One of the more egregious examples of a dishonest use of historical data to support their contention that women are, by nature, homemakers in ways that men are not is the misuse of a passage written by Cato.

In the passage, from his work titled On Agriculture, Cato encourages the vilicus to make sure that the vilica is diligent in her work within the household, going so far as to say, “She must not go out for dinner or circulate socially.”[4] In other words, “she needs to stay home where she belongs.”

A few things about that quote, and the instructions I haven’t mentioned: Cato isn’t writing to husbands and wives, necessarily. The vilicus is our equivalent of the manager of the household, not the husband/owner of the villa. The vilica was the female servant who was in charge of overseeing the other women servants and slaves. Not to mention, as Bonnie MacLachlan points out, Cato, in the same passage, tells the vilicus to also, “not socialize away from the farm.”[5] In other words, the male silicus was to stay home where he belongs, too. Now, the vilicus and vilica may very well be married, and Cato speaks to that possibility, but my point is that every time I’ve heard Cato’s On Agriculture used by complementarians (which, to be clear, has been many times via face-to-face conversations, social media posts, articles, and books), they do so in a manner that explicitly moves Cato’s intended audience away from servants employed in the overseeing of the house and to men and women (husbands and wives), in general. They use On Agriculture to demonstrate that even heathens recognize the God-ordained gender roles and norms that are “revealed in nature” and that they, themselves, love so dearly. Never minding that Cato wasn’t speaking to that.

The thing is, as I pointed out in the previous article, those gender roles and norms are a product of Victorian ideals and are culturally constructed. Setting aside the historical argument (an argument that I will flesh out if I ever write that article on Titus 2 that I’ve promised), whatever differences they pull out of the discussion are differences of degree. Assuming those differences even exist, to begin with. Take courage, for starters.

Speaking also to how biology helps determine roles within community, including family, since I am physically bigger and stronger than my wife, it’s incumbent on me – based on the command to love/serve my wife and children – that if an intruder breaks into our house, I step up to defend my family. Failing to do so would be a sinful failure to love, serve, and lead. I am commanded to act courageously. But that doesn’t mean that courage is a masculine trait, at all.

If, during a home invasion I am overcome by the invaders, I promise you that my wife will step up and courageously defend our children. In fact, I promise you that in the heat of the battle, my wife will be beside me helping me defend our children. And her courage is no less courageous than mine, which is a comparison that is impossible to measure, anyway. Parsing it out as masculine courage and feminine courage is nonsensical, at best. Willfully obscurantism, at worst.

As I wrote in the previous article, feelings are not transferable/communicable. After the fact, looking again at my hypothetical home invasion, let’s say that my wife and I are victorious. As we wait for the police to arrive to collect the now incapacitated and restrained home invaders, not only would we not compare our courage, it would be nonsensical to attempt to do so. As a man, I was courageous. As a woman, she was courageous. And who’s to say that whatever we were “feeling” was any different?[6] Same with nurturing/loving children.

I know of churches that don’t allow men to serve in the nursery because men “are not nurturers like women.” That’s utter nonsense, and incredibly disrespectful to the single father who is faithfully raising young children. Again, biology, the ability to breastfeed, for example, determines some of the division of labor when it comes to raising children. Prior to the Industrial Revolution, when the vast majority of humanity suffered under a subsistence living, it wouldn’t have made sense for the wife to go into the fields and engage in the plowing, sowing, and reaping, and for the husband to have cared for the young children who were not yet physically able to engage in the physically demanding work of pulling food out of a cursed ground. That would have been an inefficient use of human resources to the point of most likely pushing the family unit to starvation. That doesn’t mean that plowing the field is, by definition, “man’s work” and homemaking, by definition is “woman’s work.” Biological differences do not mean that fathers love their children less or even differently than mothers do. Nor does it mean that fathers are less nurturing than mothers. I defy anyone to demonstrate that there is a difference. It’s not possible to measure nor quantify it. Although, I have recently read research that reveals that fathers can (and should) bond with their children like moms do. Cultural expectations get in the way, though. We should always keep in mind that Paul commands fathers to nurture their children in Ephesians 6.

Take any list of “masculine” traits and “feminine “traits” touted by complementarians and, at best, you’ll find a difference of degree. For example, are women more sensitive than men? I don’t know, and I don’t really care. If a wife cries easier than her husband at sappy movies that doesn’t mean that there’s not a point where the husband cries at sappy movies, too. And if a man cries easier at sappy movies than his wife, that doesn’t mean that he’s more feminine than her. Those are personality traits that reflect universal aspects of being part of the set called human – Image Bearers. Whatever differences exist, if they do exist, are differences of degree. Reiterating my point from my previous article, absolutizing personality traits as gender norms opens the door for gender confusion.

Not only do these discussions frequently fail to differentiate between ontological differences and differences of degree; these discussions often fail to account for the reality that our interpretation of differences of degree are informed far more by cultural contexts than by objective reality (if not totally). And that objective reality is what’s hard to get at; in fact, I’m not sure that we, as in fallen, finite humans, have access to it, if it does, indeed, exist. Thankfully, I don’t believe that digging out and articulating that objective reality is necessary. Attempting to coral it may very well be an example of worrying about things above our pay grade; it’s another demonstration of our collective epistemic hubris.

Circling back to the opening of my previous article, we are all (a type of) existentialists now. Instead of spending so much time agonizing over how men and women are different, we should simply accept the fact that men and women are different, even if we can’t define the differences apart from differences of degrees, and then go about the task of loving Jesus, serving each other, and, by the power of the Holy Spirit, grow in grace and the knowledge of our Lord and Savior. Gender differences and roles are really not that complicated. It’s a product of our wealth, including the wealth of time, that we’ve managed to complicate a topic that the majority of humanity throughout history didn’t have time to worry about. Love Jesus, love others, and stop the self-centered navel-gazing.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] I think a main reason for this is, in large part, because the audience my article found was already predisposed to agreeing with my overall thesis. When I first published this, I wasn’t on Facebook, meaning that I missed the audience of those I know who would be concerned and even angry over my thesis.

[2] In a previous article (click here to read), I discuss set theory which bears on this discussion. To be clear, the previous article did not have ontology, much less the differences between men and women, in view, but my thoughts on set theory could be helpful, I think. The part about set theory can be found about a quarter of the way in, for those who aren’t interested in reading the long article in its entirety. Scroll through until you see the name Lotfi Zadeh.

[3] Never mind that the word “inductive” grates against my understanding that literary analysis is a different beast than observing a frog in a pond and drawing conclusions about frogs from that observation. And don’t get me started on Kay Arthur’s precepts. While I appreciate and have benefited from Simeon Trust, as the head of my house (irony alert), I will forbid my wife from ever participating in a Bible study using K. Arthur’s precepts.

[4] Cato, On Agriculture, 143, quoted in Bonnie MacLachlan, Women in Ancient Rome (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), 69.

[5] MacLachlan, Women in Ancient Rome, 69.

[6] Courage is more about actions than feelings, anyway. To the point where I’m not sure that “feelings” are even relevant when discussing courage.

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