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Complementarian vs. Egalitarian

Complementarian vs. Egalitarian

Entire books have been written about complementarianism and egalitarianism and their respective claims to being the most “biblical.” I’m not here to get wordy with you. I’m not going to explore the bazillion nuances.

I’m going to tell you how I see it, as a 25-year survivor of what some would call a complementarian marriage and a current explorer in the new (to me) world of marriage with whom some would call an egalitarian man. And when I’m done sharing my personal opinion, you can do whatever you want to with it.

First, I want to get one thing straight. In both complementarian and egalitarian marriages, there is a person with a penis and a person without one. Some call this a gender distinction and want to create all kinds of arguments around it. But isn’t it pretty simple? Think of Dr. Seuss’s Sneetches. Some had stars on their bellies and others had none “upon thars.”


A complementarian marriage, in a nutshell, is when there are clear gender roles based on whether or not you have a star on your belly. If you’ve got a star, you get to be what boss-dependent humans call a boss. If you don’t, you get to be the one who obeys the boss. Because everyone knows a boss can’t be a boss without someone to boss. Get to your places, everyone! This is how the world goes around!

Add to this complementarian narrative specific “boss” type roles for star bellies and specific “unboss type” roles for those without. If you’ve got a star, you can be a doctor or a lawyer or a professor or a pastor or a deacon or whatever you want to be. Your star automatically qualifies you for these “boss” type roles.

If you don’t have a star, you can be a mom, a Sunday School teacher, a nursery worker, a kitchen helper, a midwife, or a pastor’s wife. In complementarian circles, if you let on that you’d like to work full time as a pastor or a CEO of a company, you are reminded that you don’t have a star, and you’re told to submit to the star belly sneetches who are obviously more equipped than you.

Can’t you see that shining star peeking through?

Complementarian vs. Egalitarian


In an egalitarian marriage, it doesn’t matter whether you have a star or not. You can be who you are on the inside. Your star or lack thereof doesn’t define you. God defines you. Who you actually are and how you’re actually wired defines you. The stars are just there (or not there) to teach humans everywhere that we need one another regardless of gender or race or class or any other human distinction that is blown out of proportion so some humans can be bosses over others.

I think these terms, complementarian and egalitarian, are tired and no longer useful. We don’t need to sound like a bunch of pretentious @&&holes throwing around highfalutin words because we like ourselves when we do. I propose throwing out the smug verbiage and adopting simple words that are used in the Bible instead. Is that biblical enough for everyone?

Complementarian vs. Egalitarian

I believe there are Christian marriages and relationships, and there are selfishly controlling marriages and relationships.

I believe two people don’t need to claim faith in Jesus Christ in order to have a Christian marriage. If they are living out their marriage under the Christian principles of relationships, they are living out a Christian marriage, according to the Bible, whether they would call it that or not.

Furthermore, just because two people claim faith in Jesus Christ doesn’t necessarily mean they have a Christian marriage. If one or both partners are not living out their marriage under the Christian principles of relationships, their marriage is selfishly controlling.

Of course, no marriage will perfectly live out Christian principles of relationships 100% of the time, but a marriage is either built on that foundation and always growing more deeply in that direction, or it’s not.

Complementarian vs. Egalitarian

So let’s talk about Christian marriage vs. selfishly controlling marriage.

According to the Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness, Relationship abuse is a pattern of abusive and coercive behaviors used to maintain power and control over a former or current intimate partner. Abuse can be emotional, financial, sexual, or physical and can include threats, isolation, and intimidation.

Let’s make this super simple. Whether we are talking about social class, gender, race, or any other human distinction, wherever you have a boss maintaining control and power over others, you’ve got relationship control to one degree or another.

“But what about my boss at work? He’s GREAT! Everyone needs to have leaders and authority figures.”

First of all, a work relationship is supposed to be transactional. You want money. They want someone to work for them. You exchange your services for money. In an ideal situation, that’s not a selfishly controlling relationship. It becomes controlling and exploitative when there is manipulation, injustice, violation of boundaries, deception, etc.

Think about it, though. If everyone took personal responsibility and nobody wanted power and control over others, we’d have, well, we’d have heaven on earth. That’s not going to happen, but we’re talking about marriage here, and I believe two people can get pretty close to heaven on earth in a Christian marriage relationship.

Marriage is the most intimate human relationship. It is supposed to mirror the intimate relationship between Jesus and His Church. It’s a picture of the beautiful, peaceful co-existence of two humans equally contributing, sharing, and enjoying mutual satisfaction, fulfillment, and pleasure emotionally, physically, and spiritually.

Complementarian vs. Egalitarian

Here’s what you’ve got in a Christian marriage built on the Christian principles of healthy relationships (which, by the way, were all modeled by CHRIST. Hence the term “CHRISTian”:

  1. Two partners side by side
  2. Compassion
  3. Empathy
  4. Kindness
  5. Generosity
  6. Forbearance
  7. Mercy
  8. Serving one another
  9. Submission to one another in love (a concept introduced by Paul to new Christians in Ephesians 5.)
  10. Humility
  11. Deference
  12. Gentleness
  13. Patience
  14. Freedom
  15. Life
  16. Hope
  17. Joy
  18. Peace
  19. Consistency
  20. LOVE

And here’s what you’ve got in a selfishly controlling relationship:

  1. One person in a power-over position
  2. One person in a power-under position
  3. Manipulation
  4. Deception
  5. Gaslighting
  6. Triangulation
  7. Slander
  8. Coercion
  9. Threats
  10. Criticism
  11. Harshness
  12. Jealousy
  13. Silent treatment
  14. Foolish arguments
  15. Pride
  16. Greediness
  17. Impatience
  18. Inconsistency
  19. Chaos
  20. Confusion

Complementarian vs. Egalitarian

I can hear some of you now. “But I’m in a complementarian marriage where my husband is in a position of power and authority over me, and our relationship looks just like the Christian marriage above.”

Then you don’t know what complementarian really means. You say he is in a power position over you, yet you are side by side? Then what you say you are and what you are actually living out are two different things. Doesn’t that get confusing for you? What would happen if your verbal claims actually lined up with reality? Wouldn’t it be a relief to have logical coherence to those claims? It sure would clear up a lot of foggy confusion for the world about what Christians are really all about.

I know women who claim to be in complementarian marriages who know nothing of a one-sided submission. They have no idea what it is to live in a relationship where their voice means diddly squat unless it lines up with the Grand Poo Bah’s opinion. They aren’t in a true complementarian marriage. Their husbands are actually Christ-like. They are, in reality, equal partners, living like real Christians.

You see, the whole idea of complementarianism is based on the presupposition that men are in power over women. In LOVING power, of course. But power over is the opposite of love. It’s fleshly and satanic. So I would argue that complementarianism promotes, at its core, a selfish, controlling type of marriage relationship in which one person (the one with the star, obviously) is in charge while the other one submits.

I recently married an egalitarian man. (I’d call him a Christian man.) He has never once treated me like I’m less than because I don’t have a star. He respects and honors my voice 100% of the time, and I respect and honor his. He serves my kids and me, not because he has to jump through hoops to appear to be a Christian on the outside to anyone looking, and not to impress other men, but because it gives him joy. Because THAT’S WHO HE IS with the Holy Spirit alive and well within him. He really IS a Christian on the inside, and that spills over to the outside. It’s a natural, organic thing.

We defer to one another. We stand side by side in a mutual partnership as equals. Our anatomy has nothing to do with our relationship except when we are in bed. And then it comes in handy just the way God meant it to be.

He supports my work, and I support his work. Together, we work hard to share home responsibilities, and it is a joy for both of us to do so.

Christ never “powered over” anyone. Real followers of Christ don’t do that either.

This is why we need to burn the trendy terms. “Complementarianism” was made up by some ego-centric Bible teachers in the 80’s who think humans without stars are pawns to be moved on their silly little chess board, and they needed a fancy word that sounded good on the outside to pull the wool over their constituents’ eyes.

Time to throw that game in the fire, where it belongs.

Let’s just be straightforward and say it like it is. Regardless of your beliefs, you are in a Christian-principled marriage or a selfishly controlling marriage.

Complementarian vs. Egalitarian

If you believe you may be in a selfishly controlling marriage and you’d like help, you can learn more about the Flying Free Sisterhood program HERE.

Flying Free Sisterhood

An online coaching, education, and support community for women of faith in destructive relationships.

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The Comments

  • Avatar
    July 27, 2021

    It’s interesting to note something you touched on in this article: Examine the marriages around you that the spouses tell you are complementarian. Are they actually complementarian in practice?

    All the marriages in my spouse’s family (parents and grown children alike) will all tell you they’re complementarian. Their marriages run the gamut from full-on total unquestioned male authority on one end to a genuine partnership.

    In the partnership marriage, the husband consistently listens to his wife’s wisdom and values it. If you watch *only the moment a decision is spoken, it looks like he made it. But if you watch beforehand, that husband doesn’t make decisions on his own. He always discusses things with his wife and gives her input EQUAL weight with his own opinion (that is very rare even in so-called egalitarian marriages) and they come to a decision together. His stating the decision out loud at the end is their obligatory nod to complementarianism, which they don’t seem to realize they’re not practicing. She gives way to him in daily life, but he also gives way to her. They both intentionally try to cultivate an unselfish, sacrificial spirit toward each other, even as they both talk up a good game of male headship.

    The same is true in egalitarian marriages–they run the gamut from truly egalitarian to straight-up patriarchal (held in place by the husband being able to out-argue or otherwise bully the wife into agreeing with him so he can say they “agree” and claim equality).

    What matters is the daily practices.

    My spouse once pointed out his relative’s complementarian-but-really-a-partnership marriage to me, saying how good the marriage is and that it’s the complementarian ideal.

    I replied that the marriage was good to the degree that it’s egalitarian in practice. He has stopped arguing that point, especially as his total-male-headship relative’s marriage has resulted in major ongoing health issues for the wife (some continuing to develop, some long-term issues resulting from husband’s past “health” edicts). This husband won’t allow his wife to get proper medical testing, let alone treatment. His rants to the family on various issues have led to my husband and other family members starting to wonder if he’s suffering from mental illness.

    But at no point has this male-headship couple wavered an inch from their stance that marriage should be a “benevolent” rulership. They have gone deeper and deeper into complementarianism, and their marriage is unhealthy and frankly abusive to the degree they practice male headship. It isn’t because men are bad; it’s because men are sinners like everybody else and no human being can handle unchecked power. (In practical reality, in a complementarian church & family, there is no check on the husband’s power. My sister-in-law is the result.)

  • Avatar
    September 10, 2019

    Frankly, I think a large part of the problem is folk fixated on trying to find the right ‘template’ from the Bible. Forget the Bible, at least for period, and just use a bit of common sense. Power and control in any relationship (or church life, for that matter) is wrong.

  • Avatar
    Kriya Herzog
    August 14, 2018

    You are my freaking hero!!! You are changing the world! Thanks so much for bravely telling your story and giving women coming out of abuse (like myself) hope that marriage could be different from the heartbreak I experienced. Here’s to redemption and second chances!

  • Avatar
    April 13, 2018

    Gosh, I’m 68 years old, and when I’ve heard the term “complementary” applied to marriage, it has always meant husband and wife bring different virtues, gifts, approaches to their search for holiness in marriage. It also has meant that a man will be a father and a woman will be a mother, but how each couple fleshes out their mutually supportive and appreciative attitudes will depend upon how receptive each spouse is to the Holy Spirit’s promptings. I’ve always heard the term used as a recognition of richness and fullness in a marriage. I’ve never heard the term applied to who “holds power” in a marriage (repugnant idea!) or who gets to decide duties.
    I wonder whether part of the problem you refer to may be related to insufficient encouragement for many women to be adult: to recognize the gifts of intellect and will and human dignity more than whether one has a complementarian or egalitarian marriage. To me the terms are not the problem; it’s the maturity of both spouses in embracing their human dignity.
    I hope this doesn’t sound critical….I truly have never heard complementary used in a negative way before.

    • Avatar
      → Anne
      April 30, 2018

      “Complementarian” is a descriptive term that started out describing egalitarian relationships in the way that you mean: one person complements the other. One has strengths where the other has weaknesses, and they work together, regardless of which sex has strengths and weaknesses.

      Then the patriarchal believers who can’t conceive of any sort of relationship besides a hierarchical one, even in a marriage, co-opted the term and started using it to apply to their patriarchal beliefs. Now, “complementarian” is used as a euphemism for patriarchal religious beliefs. They claim that men and women are “equal before God” but have “differing roles,” but what they mean is that the man is always the boss. In marriage, in churches, women are never allowed to lead because that’s not their God-ordained “role.”

      So, yes, nowadays it is often used to describe who has the power in a marriage, and I agree that it’s a repugnant idea! So useful and beautiful a word, used to describe what’s nothing more than a greedy power-play! But it is. It has entered common usage as a “spiritual” opposite of “egalitarian,” mainly for people who don’t want to use the bald and politically incorrect (but more accurate) word “patriarchal.”

      Sad, but true.

  • Avatar
    January 16, 2018

    Omg. I’m going to finish reading this, but the star or no star was such a bad comparison. That story was about segregation for crying out loud. You’d have been better off just saying male and female.

  • Avatar
    Prayer partner
    January 5, 2018

    Thank you for being you! direct and to the point… what I find is men hiding patriarchal beliefs behind the c*** word… so, they are deceiving and being deceived in how they are viewed… and how they view themselves… the c*** word puts on a better facade than saying one is “patriarchal” outright… appreciate the clarifying language you use to describe these behaviors…

  • Avatar
    January 3, 2018

    I’m new to your blog and can I say its refreshing to find someone who doesn’t spew the christianese BS? I get tired of the Christian language that no one understands and isn’t even relatable.

    Two years ago we left a church with these selfish type marriages. While there, I grew a backbone and started questioning men and these views and pissed off the church on the process but not before having an emotional breakdown from living in the chains of their rules for 3 years. We even did marriage counseling through them. I can’t say it was all bad but it had some real big holes which I constantly questioned. I left bitter at men and church and refuse to return to church. My marriage is still struggling to survive.

    Anyway just wanted to say I love your blog. I hate all the arguing too. I always say “instead of these arguments how about asking if your marriage portrays the fruits of the spirit.” We both struggle to live that out especially with so much trauma and hurt behind us.

    • Natalie
      → Elle
      January 3, 2018

      I’m sorry you had to go through all that. There are hundreds of thousands of people questioning the modern conservative Christian drivel. It just doesn’t line up with real life – and turns out – it doesn’t line up with Scripture either. Time to go back to the basics of the Gospel. Time to follow Jesus. Not the organized, power-over, institutional church which is just modern day Pharisaism. I recommend the book, The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman. Great book. (((HUGS)))

  • Avatar
    Lori DeHart
    December 19, 2017

    Thank you Natalie, for being you! I needed that article and can bet I will reread it several times and pass it on.
    I truly appreciate your voice out there helping me along as I try to make sense of my circumstances and find my way to freedom. You have been a comfort to me ever since I found your writings about a year ago. (Lori)

  • Avatar
    December 19, 2017

    Natalie!!! You are like a breath of sweet springtime air!!! I honor your boldness, your authenticity and your outrageous humor! Keep it coming, I feel wonderfully and joyfully renewed in my own journey to know there are more like me out there. What you are doing here is no small thing? Much love, Sister ❤️

  • Avatar
    December 19, 2017

    Congratulations on your marriage. Blessings, you are definitely more than a conqueror.

  • Avatar
    December 19, 2017

    I love your new avatar/ photo 🙂

  • Avatar
    Leslie Hatton
    December 19, 2017

    Haha! I love this! Throw out the unbiblical words and their destructive definitions. (Along with the destructive people, I might add.)

  • Avatar
    Cinde James
    December 19, 2017

    Very well written and not quite sure why the comment section won’t let me simply comment “Bravo” when that is truly all I have to say so I’m adding all these extra words in order to just fill up the space that should contain the singular word “Bravo”

  • Avatar
    December 19, 2017

    Love it! You go girl! Yes I’ve been thinking the exact same things about women who are truly happy in their “Complementarian” marriages!