The other weekend, I was involved in a discussion about whether complementarianism was based on fundamental characteristics of men and women. The argument I was opposing ran something like this: men in general have personalities and intrinsic qualities better suited to leadership positions, which is why God assigns them as natural leaders (not just in the church and in the home, but in business, politics, and other secular spheres as well.) Now, as is common in a group discussion, nobody really gets to explain their points to the fullest, so I wanted to sit down and write out my point of view in full, for my own sake and for the interest of anyone else who reads it.
Aside from the scientific evidence* and my personal experience (i.e. seeing a pretty even spread of personality characteristics across my circles of acquaintanceship), the main reason I disagree with this argument is because I think it actually undermines the entire position of complementarity (ironically enough, since the people who hold to deep intrinsic differences as the reason for complementarity would intend to uphold it). There are three ways in which I think this argument undermines complementarianism.
First, it borrows a leaf from the egalitarian position that a person’s talents and characteristics would be the strongest influencer to God in determining who should be given which tasks among his people. But in looking at Scripture, I don’t see evidence of this. I see the God who chose stuttering Moses as the spokesperson to a power-mad Pharaoh, insignificant David as the most important king of Israel, the prostitute Rahab and the foreigner Ruth as key players in the line of the promised Messiah, Christ-hating Paul as the great missionary of the early church. We serve a God who delights to use the weak to do what we would humanly assign to the strong. 1 Corinthians 1 leaves us in no doubt of that: “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”Now, this is not to say that God never uses people’s natural talents and inclinations to work His purposes; of course he does. I merely wish to point out that it is a misrepresentation of God to assume that that would be as important to Him as it is to us. God does use people’s talents. He also uses them in spite of their weaknesses.
Second, it demeans the power of Christ and the Holy Spirit within the Trinity. As complementarians, we understand complementing roles to be a reflection of the complementing roles within the Trinity. We affirm that while God the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit are the same in essence and divinity, there is within the Trinity a hierarchy in which Christ submits in everything to the Father and the Spirit is subjected to the Son’s authority. If we are to follow this parallel through logically whilst assuming that male-female roles in the church and home are based on ability, we would then have to assume that the Father is more powerful and better suited to leadership than the Son, who is in turn more powerful and better suited to leadership than the Spirit. But the very beauty of Christ’s submission to the point of death is that he was powerful enough to escape his death at any time. Satan tempted Christ to this very thing in the wilderness, urging him to throw off his self-sacrificing submission to the Father’s will and seize kingship of the Earth by his own strength. In turn, we see that the Spirit is capable of great, awe-inspiring acts of healing, revival, and other miraculous events, but He chooses most often to work quietly away at our hearts, doing the humble and largely unseen work of rooting out sin in God’s people. Thus I would argue that the roles within the Trinity– and by parallel the roles within the church and family– as not primarily based on ability, but on willing submission to God’s redemptive purposes.
Thirdly, and perhaps most practically, if it were true that male-female roles were assigned based on intrinsic suitability, surely that would excuse anyone who deviated from this general norm from submitting to these roles? If we accept that men are generally more aggressive, competitive, authoritative, and logical and thus better suited to leadership, while women are generally more gentle, cooperative, supportive, and emotional and thus better suited to following, then wouldn’t we need to logically allow the women with more leadership ability to use their God-given abilities in a Sunday service, or let more passive, suggestible men let their wives take over in providing direction to their families? After all, if God assigns the roles based on what we’re naturally good at, that would show that He wants us to do the things we’re naturally good at. The logical outcome of an ability-based role distinction seems to me to be functional egalitarianism.
In the past, many arguments for male leadership in the church included false affirmations of women’s emotional hysteria, inferior intelligence, and less discerning minds. Today, let us not be the generation of the church who seeks to root God’s assigned role distinction in women’s inability to lead. It will make us look foolish in the eyes of anyone who has ever seen a woman competent in leadership, and ultimately it will not lend strength to our position.
*Which, for example, tells us that men and women are much more neurologically similar than they are different, and that our hormonal differences grow more or less pronounced in direct relation to how pronounced the difference in our activities are.