Psychological Arguments for Complementarianism

Women on Colonization

Sadly some extreme complementarians talk in terms of men conquering and women being colonized

Most often heard in defense of complementarian gender roles in the church are the biblical arguments, but occasionally I’ll hear an argument based from psychology as well.  Generally speaking, I hear this argument boiled down to a few statements:

  • Somebody has to lead; we can’t all follow.  Following is not lower, rather just another necessary role.  So why are us crazy egalitarians complaining about women being “reduced” to following?
  • We evolved – or were created – with certain gender differences. Denying those differences goes against your design. Therefore some would phrase it as actually sinning because you’re not doing what God made you to do it, while others would just say you’re making life unnecessarily hard on yourself by not being the “you” that God made you to be as either a man or a woman.

Obviously while I might agree with some of the premises, I’m not exactly convinced by either set of arguments.

To the first, I do agree that following is no lower value than leading. As somebody who has been in the leadership role of a few groups, I know that my leadership would mean nothing if nobody was there to learn from me, or to help carry out what I was encouraging, etc. But this argument is framed in the wrong way: the problem isn’t that women are allowed to follow; the problem is that they aren’t allowed to lead. And any time you start dictating what isn’t allowed based on something not related to the skill set required for the job, then there’s an obvious problem with the claim that both are being treated as being of equal worth. Men have the freedom to choose either way (well, sometimes men end up getting forced to lead, but not too often) and women must follow.

The slightly-more-sensible argument would claim that because of some gender differences, men inherently make better leaders. For example, “men are better preachers because we are less afraid of pushing somebody out of their comfort zone.” As a generality, it is true that we as men are less afraid of that. Men are in general more willing to hurt somebody’s feelings a bit now in order for the good of all later – like say cutting funds to an unproductive program or challenging an engrained theology that is hurting the congregation. Obviously evolution/God has designed us this way if it is so hard-wired into our brains, so why would we go against it? To do so is at worst sinful and at best making things hard on ourselves for no reason.

The first big problem with that thinking is that it must speak in generalities. In general, men are better at this, and in general men are more willing to do that. It allows for no diversity within each gender, and that is simply inaccurate as about 20% of men have feminized brains and about 10% of women have masculinized brains. The male/female divide is a false dichotomy, so to base rules of who can do what jobs is ignoring all of these people. The second big problem is that this argument inherently only can focus on the parts of the leadership roles of the church that men are in general better at doing. Are those generally-male traits really better for every person in the church in every situation? For example, there are lots of times when people need comfort instead of confrontation, and in general women will do that better. No wonder the church has historically been so confrontational when it has been men leading for most of history without any women (basically all-male leadership from about 400 to about 1900). As both genders are made in the image of God, I would argue that the church is the best reflection of God when it has a balance between the two genders in its leadership. Arguing that men are inherently better leaders by design and so we should only let men be leaders is a very simplified and flawed argument.

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.