Menu Close

Women, Men and God – John Stott’s Complementarianism16 min read

Listen to this article

Over the past few decades, Evangelicalism has shifted from being mainly conservative (both politically and doctrinally) to a much broader spectrum of positions. One of the main shifts that has occurred is the shift from a patriarchal domination of women to a spectrum that stretches all the way to an egalitarianism which makes little distinction between male and female roles, especially as they pertain to authority in the home and church. In fact, a clear statement of this position is as follows:

  • Christian Egalitarianism: All people are equal before God and in Christ; have equal responsibility to use their gifts and obey their calling to the glory of God; and are called to roles and ministries without regard to class, gender, or race.

However, between the two poles of patriarchy and egalitarianism is a position named Partial Complementarianism. This position is this:

  • Partial Complementarianism: Men and women are different in both role and related authority in marriage, courtship, and in the polity of churches. We also affirm the paradoxical truths of mutual submission among Christians and of co-leadership of men/women, husbands/wives.

Naturally, there has been a significant debate over which position is correct. One of the most thoughtful and wise theologians that I have come to trust over time is John Stott (1921 – 2011). His 2006 book Issues Facing Christians Today is surprisingly up to date and relevant, and I find his defense of partial complementarianism sensitive, comprehensive, and concise. And so in this post, I want to summarize his points for your consideration.

1. Equality Between Men and Women

Stott first covers the ways in which scripture affirms the equality of the sexes. Both man and woman are made in God’s image and both are given dominion over the earth and its creatures (Genesis 1:26-28). He affirms that the Bible attributes both masculine and feminine qualities to God (Dt. 32:18, Is. 42:14, Is. 49:15, Is. 66:13, Ps. 131:1, Lk. 15:8, Mt. 23:37).

Second, he covers how equality was distorted by the fall into sin. In some real sense, women would be in subjection to men, who would “rule over” them. Stott points out that this was not meant to legitimize patriarchal abuse, and when Israel was godly and healthy, women were loved, cherished, protected, and honored for both their wisdom, industry, and ability to manage business affairs (Prov. 31). In addition, Joel promised that in the new covenant, God would pour out his spirit on all people without regard for gender (Joel 2).

Third, Stott records the many ways in which Jesus lifted and honored women in his ministry. He covers the choosing of Mary the mother of Jesus, the financial support by women of Jesus’ ministry, His acceptance and care for prostitutes, adulteresses, and his engagement with the Samaritan woman. And not least of all, Jesus’ cadre of female disciples.

Fourth, Stott discusses how Paul presented the equality of men and women, but then begins to qualify this equality within the context of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. He mentions the oft-quoted passage used by egalitarians as a sweeping statement of equality, but then uses the context of the passage to limit its application:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:28)

Using this as a segue to his discussion of complementarity, Stott writes:

The context is one of justification by grace alone through faith alone. It affirms that all who by faith are in Christ are equally accepted, equally God’s children, without any distinction, discrimination or favoritism according to race, sex, or class. So whatever may need to be said later about [gender] roles, there can be no question of one sex being superior or inferior to the other….[Gender] equality, then, established by creation but perverted by the fall, was recovered by the redemption in Christ. (p. 332)

2. The Complementarity of Men and Women

Stott now makes the distinction between gender identity and role. He quotes John Yoder:

Equality of worth is not identity of role.

However, before supporting a theology of roles, he again revisits the abuses of patriarchy and social role limitations that go far beyond scripture. He agrees with Betty Friedan’s assessment that women have been tragically and unnecessarily limited by such thinking, quoting from The Feminine Mystique, then adding his own additional thought:

Feminists are understandingly rebelling against the expectation that women must fit into a predetermined role. For who fixed the mold but men? This is what the American author Betty Friedan meant by the “feminine mystique”….it is an image which has been imposed upon them by a male-dominated society. “It is my thesis, ” she wrote, “that the core of the problem for women today is not sexual but a problem of identity – a stunting or evasion of growth that is perpetuated by the feminine mystique…Our culture does not permit women to accept or gratify their basic need to grow and fulfill their potentiality as human beings.”

Motherhood is indeed a divine vocation and calls for great sacrifices. But it is not woman’s only vocation. There are other equally serious and equally unselfish forms of service to society which she may be called to give. There is nothing in scripture to suggest, for example, that women may not pursue their own careers or earn their own living, or that married women must do all of the shopping, cooking, and cleaning…scripture is silent about this kind of division of labor. Does it then say anything about gender roles and relationships? (p. 333)

Naturally, the answer to his question is “yes”.

2.1 Pre-fall Complementarianism

His first approach is to examine the pre-fall relationship of men and women in Genesis 1-2. In this yet untainted condition, were there not only complementary genders, but roles associated with those genders? He makes a useful distinction between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 – that the former entails the relationship between humans and God, while the latter is about the relationship between man and woman.

What is revealed in the second story of creation is that, although god made male and female equal, he also made them different. In Genesis 1 masculinity and femininity are related to God’s image, while in Genesis 2 they are related to each other, Eve being taken out of Adam and brought to him. Genesis 1 declares the equality of the sexes; Genesis 2 clarifies that “equality” means not “identity” but “complementarity”. It is this “equal but different” state which we find hard to preserve. Yet they are not incompatible; they belong to each other as essential aspects of biblical revelation.

Stott is not unaware that, at this point, egalitarians are uneasy, if not objecting. He repeats his claim that arriving at the right calculus for harmonizing equality and complementarity is difficult, but necessary lest we slide down the slope to androgyny and emasculation of men. He asserts that when we do so, even secularists will arise to affirm the value of the differences between the genders, as seen in the popularity of John Gray’s Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, and as seen in the success of Promise Keepers.

2.2 Headship

Second, Stott discusses the thorny issue of the meaning of “headship” in the Bible:

For a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church. He is the Savior of his body, the church. (Ephesians 5:23)

But there is one thing I want you to know: The head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. (1 Corinthians 11:3)

He mentions the three approaches to this – the Authoritarian view, the Denial view, and the Harmonizing view (which roughly correlate to the Full Complementarian, Egalitarian, and partial Complementarian positions). Regarding the Denial view, he mentions five possible approaches to denying the authoritarian application of headship:

  • Paul was mistaken (the bible is errant) – since female subordination is incompatible with gospel equality, these scriptures are erroneous (and therefore neither inerrant nor infallible)
  • Paul was unclear (the bible is not perspicuous) – since the bible is muddled on this issue, we might as well err on the side of equity
  • Paul was culture bound (this passage is not for today) – like Paul’s edict for slaves to “obey your masters,” Paul’s commands for women were only relevant within the regressive, patriarchal and slave society of Rome.
  • Paul’s teaching was situational (temporary fixes for specific problems) – in addressing problems in the Galatian and Corinthian churches, Paul was prescribing temporary corrective measures, not timeless norms
  • Headship means “source” not “authority” – this is the most popular approach among my egalitarian friends, and proposes that headship is not about authority, but the source of life.

Naturally, Stott goes into detail regarding this last point, the meaning of “kephale,” but in addition to exploring authority and source, he proposes a definition that includes both, which he calls responsibility. Since the husband is not only described as the head, but the Savior of the wife (Eph. 5:23), Stott resists defining headship apart from this analogy. Examining Christ’s relationship with the Church, Stott writes of man’s responsibility to love sacrificially, but also of the clearly implied submission to the authority of the husband as leader – but as a servant leader:

“Headship” clearly seems to imply some kind of “authority” to which “submission” is appropriate, as when “God placed all things under his (Christ’s) feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the Church” (Eph. 1:22). But we must be careful not to overpress this. It is true that the same requirement of “submission” is made of wives to husbands, children to parents, slaves to masters, and citizens to state. There must, therefore, be a common denominator between these attitudes. Yet I cannot believe that anyone conceives the wife’s submission to her husband to be identical with obedience expected of children, slaves, or citizens.

….The husband’s headship of his wife, therefore, is a liberating mix of care and responsibility rather than control and authority. (p. 334)

2.3 Comparison of the Obedience of Slaves vs. Wives

With regard to the comparison to slavery, he mentions one stark difference in Paul’s approach, further undermining the idea that like submission in slavery, submission in marriage is now obviated in Christ (though this falls mostly under the cultural relevance argument).

Though Paul sought to regulate the behavior of slaves and masters, he nowhere appealed to Scripture in defence of slavery, whereas he did base his teaching about masculine headship on the biblical doctrine of creation. He drew his readers’ attention to the priority of creation (“Adam was first, then Eve”, 1 Tim 2:13), the mode of creation (“man did not come from woman, but woman from man”, 1 Cor. 11:8), and the purpose of creation (“neither was man created for woman, but woman for man'”, 1 Cor. 11:9). Thus, according to Scripture, although “man is born of woman” and the sexes are interdependent (1 Cor. 11:11f), yet woman was made after man, out of man and for man. One cannot dismiss these three arguments. (p. 339, emphasis mine)

While egalitarians can claim that submission and other male/female relational passages have both one way and two way application, the exclusivity of the one way arguments above, and the absence of direct commands for husbands to submit to wives argues against the egalitarian view, and for a harmonizing position.

Stott then reiterates that, while headship does include authority, it is wielded as Christ demonstrated, and as such, does not oppress the becoming of women:

…The resolute desire of women to know, be and develop themselves, and to use their gifts in the service of the world, is so obviously God’s will for them that to deny or frustrate it is an extremely serious oppression. It is a woman’s basic right and responsibility to discover herself, her identity, and her vocation. The fundamental question is, in what relationship with men will women find and be themselves? Certainly not in a subordination that implies inferiority to men and engenders low self-esteem. Only the biblical ideal of headship, which because it is selflessly loving may justly be called “Christlike”, can convince them that it will facilitate, not destroy, their true identity.

3. The Implications of Headship for Ministry

Assuming the validity of headship, Stott then goes on to describe the biblical principles for the ministry of women, addressing the difficult passages regarding the command of silence to women and usurping of authority (1 Timothy 2:11-15, 1 Corinthians 14:34). The implied limits to women’s ministries required by headship, however, are not based so much on leadership role but the content, context, and style (attitude) of women’s teaching. Briefly summarized (you really should read his entire argument), his arguments, which apply equally to men except for female usurpation of male headship or authority are:

  • Biblical Content – While both men and women are susceptible to deception, scriptures seem to indicate that women, perhaps because they are more relationally and experience-oriented (my suggestion), are more prone to deception (a survey of female led ministries would be helpful here), and should therefore stick exclusively to exegesis. (1 Timothy 2:14)
  • Team Context – Stott argues that all New Testament ministry should be done in the safety of plural pastoral oversight. However, in this context, headship means that the norm to be striven for is a male team leader, even if current circumstances demand or are limted to female leadership. In addition, Stott singles out the case of biblical discipline, which involves the wielding of authority.
  • Humble Style – While a humble approach ought to be the norm for any preacher or teacher, preaching can involve authoritative delivery and moral challenge which, if delivered by a woman to a man, may have the proscribed effect of exercising authority over men.

Again, I am omitting large portions of his arguments, so I am aware that you may not be convinced by my summary alone. However, he sums up his approach to women in ministry this way:

But this is the reality we should be seeking, namely a ministry characterized by humility not authority. For men it will mean expressing their God-appointed headship in self-sacrificial service. For women, it will mean submitting to his headship and not attempting to discard or assert it. Then men will remain men, and women women, and an unbiblical confusion will be avoided….

I conclude with some central simplicities. If God endows women with spiritual gifts (which he does), and thereby calls them to exercise their gifts for the common good (which he does), then the Church must recognize God’s gifts and calling, must make appropriate spheres of service available to women, and should “ordain” (that is, commission and authorize) them to exercise their God-given ministry, at least in team situations. Our Christian doctrines of creation and redemption tell us that God wants his gifted people to be fulfilled not frustrated, and his Church to be enriched by their service. (p. 353)


The most convincing arguments for me on both sides of this issue, which keep me convinced of partial complementarianism include:

  • The many leadership roles women played on both the new and old testaments (egalitarian)
  • The roles that women never played (OT priest, original Apostles – complementarian)
  • The creation-grounded headship teachings (complementarian)
  • The idea that greater authority does not mean greater worth (complementarian)
  • My own experience as a man under female authority (see Our Lady of Perpetual Emasculation)

I know of and am reading more sophisticated and longer works (Payne, Fee) on this subject, but as usual, Stott’s coverage is fairly comprehensive, yet concise, and a great starting point.