Complementarianism: Equal in Worth but not Opportunity

Man drawing a box around a woman

Complementarians argue that putting women in a box is good for all involved

Before I delve into my reasons for egalitarianism, I’ll try to give as fair of a presentation of complementarianism, the opposite position, as I can. Yes, I do write this series with the hope of people coming to an egalitarian conclusion, but you can still make up your own mind and I will respect you for it. I’d like to make the information available to you to do so, in the same way I would not try to get someone to become a Christian by only giving them my reasons for it and ignore the objections. So I’ll introduce complementarianism here with its core concept as I see it, along with why that concept doesn’t make sense to me, then give a few more posts on why Christians continue to take that stance.

Complementarians do not claim that men are better. Or at least most don’t in our day and age in the West, although there definitely are some scary pockets. In general, though, complementarians fully accept in principle that women and men are completely equal in value. Value to God, value to the church, value to each other as friends, value in romantic relationships, everything. In theory, men and women are completely equal worth.

What separates them from egalitarians is that they say that while each gender is theoretically equal in worth, they are not equal in opportunity. From their viewpoint it is not a degradation of worth to be restricted from some role because of your gender. You still have lots of other opportunities to act in your God-given role, they would argue, so if anything your worth is either the same no matter what (God loves us all equally) or else your worth is actually decreased when you take on a role that is not the one God gave for your gender (because now you are not contributing to the church in the way that God wants you to). Because of that it is actually presented as a way of building up women to keep them in their roles which very strictly does not include leadership of any form, and most complementarians genuinely believe this. It is not a matter of being restricted from the roles that you shouldn’t have based on your gender; it is a matter of guiding you towards the role that you should have which honours God and the church more fully. It is structured to be a positive and loving thing. ;On the surface, when backed up with (I would argue out of context) scripture, it actually sounds somewhat reasonable.

"Equal, But"

Is “Equal, But…” ever possible?

If it was said of any other organization, though, there would be an uproar over that kind of thinking. We value women so much that we won’t let them lead? If a business did that, even implicitly without a strictly defined rule, they would be rightfully taken to the Human Rights Commission with sexism complaints. Imagine a work supervisor saying that to his female employee: “You’re worth just as much as me, but your role can only be this crappy one, even if you’re better suited for a higher position. That’s just your CEO-given roles, so while you’re just as valuable, you need to stick to that role.” I hope nobody thinks that is a normal way for businessmen to speak. But the complementarian proponents in the church, because they (claim to) have God on their side, get away with it. Freedom of religion trumps freedom from persecution based on gender.

Some people will surely read this and say that it is perfectly possible for people to be equal in value but not in opportunity and that my business analogy is flawed in some way. That’s fair. I’m trying to think of any way that “equal in value but not in opportunity” is actually true. Complementarians would claim it, as would most Muslims and many from other religions with defined gender roles, and I would claim that they’re wrong, that instead their stance does indeed lower the worth of women and not just their opportunity. I just don’t get it. Maybe somebody can explain it to me better, what it is that I’m missing with this concept, because I actually am at a bit of a loss for that one.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.