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How Complementarianism Causes Abuse in Churches and Homes

How Complementarianism Causes Abuse in Churches and Homes

My dad was complaining of stomach pain for several weeks. He went to the doctor several times before they finally realized what was really going on. He had lymphoma. Two years later, he was dead. I keep thinking of those months before he was diagnosed. Those painful months where different doctors kept misdiagnosing him with garden variety issues. All the while, an insidious cancer was growing silently and unseen in his abdomen—every day getting larger and stronger. It was the most critical time for it to be discovered, and yet that time came and went.

And then it was too late.

There is a cancer growing unseen and silent in the Church. It has embedded itself so strongly in the fabric of the church that many Christians believe it is part of the church itself. That without it, the church would be destroyed from the inside out.

But the opposite is true. This cancer is telling a lie about God (blaspheming), destroying the children of God, and creating a huge barrier in the spread of the gospel.

This cancer, like every cancer, is devilish and deadly.

When I was first waking up to the reality of my abusive first marriage, I still had no idea about the deep connection between my experience at home and what was being taught from the pulpit of my church. God would have to take me through some pretty severe fires before I could connect all those crazy dots.

But once I did, there was no going back. Once I could see it, I couldn’t unsee it. I now strongly believe that any theology that teaches and promotes the power of one group of people (men) over another group of people (women) is contrary to the Word of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. And the putrid fruit of power-over theology is the emotional, spiritual, physical, and financial abuse of vulnerable women and children.

How Complementarianism Causes Abuse in Churches and Homes

In the past few decades, the evangelical church has divided into two general camps on this subject: complementarians and egalitarians.

Are you already checking out? Two big words. That’s enough to make most of us glaze over and click away.

But that would be a mistake.

Because understanding those two big words and how they relate to your life is a critical part of your healing. Just like my dad couldn’t get help for a cancer he didn’t know he had, so we can’t get help for something we don’t understand.

I recently heard two sermons by Pastor Bryan Wilkerson of Grace Chapel in Massachusetts over HERE that spell out these two views and explain each view’s biblical arguments for their perspective. It was such a succinct message, and I wanted to share it with everyone, but most folks are not going to take an hour to listen to two sermons online. So I decided to share his main points with you and link you to his sermons if you’d like the filled in version.

I promise to make this super simple. We are going to take an X-ray of the church and find out what’s inside. Ready? Here we go.

Who is the Patient?

I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. Ephesians 4:1-6

This is the church. The church is a unified family with a Father and brothers and sisters. We see here a healthy patient. A healthy church exemplifies humility, patience, love, unity, and hope. And God is our Father “over all.” Do you see any indication that some of the siblings are to “power-over” the others based on gender, race, or socioeconomic status?

There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. Galatians 2:28

Complementarianism Says:

“Men and women are created equal but are called to distinct and complementary roles in the church and the home with women in voluntary submission to the servant leadership of men.

Women are free to teach and lead women and children but are restricted from authoritative teaching and leadership roles over men. In some environments women aren’t allowed to lead in any way. In others they can have limited leadership under the umbrella of men.”

Here’s what complementarians would say about the following subjects. (Please note that there are only 5-6 passages of Scripture that have the potential to support a case for the power of men over women. And these verses are all difficult and historically debated passages.)

What about Creation?

They focus on Genesis 2: 7, 20-21:

  • Adam was created first.
  • Eve was formed from Adam.
  • Eve was called Adam’s “helper.” (Ezer kenegdo is the Hebrew word used – and it doesn’t mean “helper” in the English sense of the word, but we’ll get to that in a minute.)

What about the Fall?

Eve was deceived and took over “leadership” by sinning first, and Adam sinned by relinquishing his leadership role and following her lead. (This “leadership role” idea is read into the text.)

What about the Old Testament and the women who held leadership roles?

These women are the exceptions that prove the rule (no women in leadership positions over men).

What about the women who played roles in the life of Christ?

Jesus didn’t choose any women to be disciples.

What about the women who played leadership roles in the early church?

There are no examples of or instructions for a woman serving as an elder.

Teaching roles were informal and remedial rather than authoritative.

What about Galatians 3:28 (see verse above)?

All believers share fully and equally in the blessings of salvation. But that is where the equality stops.

What about I Corinthians 11:3 “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.”

This is affirmation of a divine order in which men have authority over women.

What about I Timothy 2:12 “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, she must be silent.”?

This is a universal prohibition against women teaching or leading men.

Women are not qualified by virtue of their gender.

What about I Timothy 3:2 “Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife…”

Elders should be men.

Egalitarianism Says:

“Men and women are not only equal in creation, but in calling, and are free to exercise their God-given gifts in the church and the home in any role for which they are called and qualified in an attitude of mutual respect and submission.

Both men and women are free to serve in any capacity for which they are called and qualified, including senior teaching and leadership roles.”

Here’s what egalitarians would say about the following subjects.

What about Creation?

They focus on Genesis 1: 27-28

  • Both men and women reflect the divine image.
  • Both share equally in the divine commission.
  • There is no hierarchy explicit in Genesis one or two.
  • Helper (ezer kenegdo) means warrior and is a Hebrew word mostly used in the Old Testament to describe God and the strong ways He “helps” or “rescues” His people. It’s a battle word. It is not the mamsy pamsy meaning of “helper” we have in the English language. “Go “help” your mommy make breakfast!” No. “She rescued her people using wisdom and strength.” Yes.

What about the Fall?

Both Adam and Eve were equally deceived.

Eve wasn’t qualified to lead in this particular instance NOT because she was a woman, but because she didn’t receive the instructions from God. Adam did. (Egalitarians believe both men and women need to be qualified to lead. Their leadership is based on gifting and qualifications. Not gender.)

What about the Old Testament and the women who held leadership roles?

These women are the exceptions that prove there is no rule – God wouldn’t have raised up gifted and qualified female leaders if it violated His vision for humanity – he could have just as easily only raised up male leaders.

What about the women who played roles in the life of Christ?

Jesus stretched the culture as much as it would bear. To select female disciples would have been morally and culturally unacceptable.

He invited women to follow him, serve in his ministry, and be the first witnesses to his resurrection.

Jesus didn’t choose any Gentiles to be His disciples either, but later on they figured into the growth and spread of the church.

What about the women who played leadership roles in the early church?

The culture would not bear a woman in an elder role at that time in history. Paul doesn’t call for the abolition of slavery either for the exact same reason—the culture could not tolerate that kind of sudden transformation. BUT…Paul lays down principles that would later lead to the abolition of slavery. Likewise, He laid down principles that would later lead to the full inclusion of both male and female in the leadership of the church and the spread of the gospel.

Women filled formative teaching and leadership roles – Lydia, Priscilla, Phoebe.

What about Galatians 3:28 (see verse above)?

This verse abolishes all distinctions in the body of Christ based on race, social status, or gender.

What about I Corinthians 11:3 “But I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ, the head of a wife is her husband, and the head of Christ is God.”

This verse refers to husbands and wives (translation is wrong).

What about I Timothy 2:12 “I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man, she must be silent.”?

This is a situational prohibition (will get to this in a minute).

Unqualified people should not teach and have authority. But their lack of qualification should have nothing to do with their gender.

What about I Timothy 3:2 “Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife…

Elders should be faithful and monogamous regardless of their gender. This is a principle, and it is applied to the church back then which was born into a patriarchal culture. This is not a statement of what gender is qualified to be an elder for all of history.

The Journey from Complementarianism to Egalitarianism

In Pastor Wilkerson’s second sermon, he tells the story of how he went from being a die-hard complementarian to having egalitarian views. It’s a great story, and if you’ve got some time, I encourage you to hear the whole thing from him HERE.

But if you want the short version, here are some things he noticed over the years that bothered him about the inconsistencies of complementarianism and how it played itself out in real life.

  • He noticed women were allowed to lead and teach as missionaries overseas, but not here in the US. So women were allowed to teach Asian, African, and Latin American men—but not white men? That felt racist to him. (Because it is.)
  • A female professor had a huge impact on his life. Why was she allowed to influence his life through her teaching as a professor, but not influence the lives of men and women as a teacher in a church setting?
  • He realized that fellow female students with incredible gifts would never be able to use those gifts in the church of Jesus Christ.
  • He served with women on the boards of several organizations and appreciated their wisdom and perspective. But these same women were not allowed to serve on church boards because they were female.
  • Did it make sense to expect that only men could provide insight and leadership for a church that was half female?
  • When he had a daughter of his own, he realized God could use her gifts in the secular world but never in the church.

As a complementarian he was afraid of what might happen if women were allowed to lead beside men in the Church of Jesus Christ.

Now he is afraid of what might happen if they don’t.

He goes on to explain the THREE BIG FACTORS that changed his mind about all of this.

1. The BIG PICTURE Scripture gives us

I actually write about this exact thing in my new book, Is It Me? Making Sense of Your Confusing Marriage

Complementarianism depends on a certain interpretation of a few isolated texts (see above). But Wilkerson points out that we need to interpret isolated texts in light of the WHOLE counsel of God—and difficult texts in light of clearer ones.

Throughout Scripture we see that God’s vision for men and women is that they are created equally and share equally in His image and purpose for His creation. We are brothers and sisters. Not rivals. We are a partnership of equals. There is no power-over. There is no hierarchy.

Hierarchy is the curse in Genesis three. It’s a curse to be corrected, not a pattern to be followed. He goes into more detail here about how this looks as far as key women playing roles in God’s redemptive plan, how Jesus affirmed, taught, and empowered women, how the Holy Spirit was given to both men and women at Pentecost, and how women helped lead the early church.

The trajectory of God’s purpose in history is toward peace and unity of all people regardless of gender, race, or social status.


The 3-5 texts used by complementarians to promote power over women SEEM to restrict women from teaching and leading. But as Wilkerson says, if we are going to tell HALF the church they can’t use their leadership gifts, we better be reading those texts right.

We need to read them in the context from which they were written.

He takes the most difficult text, 1 Timothy chapter two, and examines it more closely.

Verse one: “I urge then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority…

Is God saying we should have kings? This verse was used in history to say that God ordained monarchy to be the proper form of government. But now we understand why it was written this way (because THEY HAD KINGS when this was written)—and we apply the principles today accordingly.

Verse eight: “I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing.”

Does Paul only want men to pray? Why didn’t he mention women? CONTEXT! Men were doing more arguing and fighting than praying, BUT we know from the whole Bible that God wants women to pray too. Also, this verse is not saying men need to lift up their hands when they pray. That’s just how they did it back then. Get it?

Verse nine: “I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes…”

Do we wear jewelry? Clothes that cost a lot of money? CONTEXT! This verse means we dress in moderation, and it applies to both men and women.

Verse eleven: “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.”

  • But Paul permitted Priscilla to teach and even correct the preacher Apollos.
  • In Corinth Paul taught that women could pray and prophesy in church.
  • Paul told the church in Rome to honor Phoebe, a deacon, and Junia, an apostle.

So this verse contradicts other Scriptures. That means something must be going on in this particular context.

Here’s what it was: there was a feminized, sexualized view of spirituality in Ephesus. They worshiped Diana. In this false teaching, women were superior to men spiritually. Also, in this culture, most women had no formal education or opportunities to lead. The Greek word used here for “authority” is the only time it’s used in the New Testament. Outside the New Testament this word means a domineering kind of authority.

So the instruction here is that as new followers of Christ, women (under the influence of the religion there) should not usurp (grab for) authority over men. They weren’t qualified – not because of their gender, but because they had very few accepted opportunities to be trained.

So the principle we apply to the church today is that qualified teachers(regardless of gender) should not usurp their authority (grab for it) or misuse their masculinity or femininity when they teach.

Again, he goes into more detail in his message, and I encourage you to listen to it.

3. History of the church

Toward the very end he talks about all the women throughout the history of the church of Jesus Christ who have effectively led the church and spread the gospel. He points out that it is a relatively new development in this last century that the church has cut off women at the knees and placed them at disadvantage.

The evangelical community has an exceptionally substantial and sustained history of affirming women in public ministry…When evangelicals have prioritized the gospel and the Bible, this has often led them to affirm women in public ministry.” Timothy Larsen

So there you have it. The differences between two views of how men and women should relate as children of God. One view is power-over and the other view is unity and equality. Seems like a no-brainer to me, but I AM just a woman, after all.

May the church of Jesus Christ wake up to see how they have blasphemed God and stunted the growth of the church in exchange for power over other human beings. It is this very attitude and belief system that perpetuates abuse on women and causes the world to turn away from the Savior who loves them.

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The Comments

  • Avatar
    Susan Perricone
    July 3, 2024

    Thank you for such a good article. It has lots of well researched points that help why unity and equality is the true intent of God’s will for His people. More sermons and sunday school lessons like this are needed.

    But I think there are many Christians who prefer hierarchal order within the church, just like Israel wanted kings to rule over them. And they attack anyone who says different.

    And with all the rules for women to follow shows there are no limits as to how pat/comp applies the “commands” of women submit obey be silent and no limit to how those who believe these to be commands react to those who do not.

    case in point:

    A highly respected woman in the SBC (who teaches women to be godly in all areas of their lives and how to follow God etc) believes that for women to preach/pastor is a major sin.

    On a youtube podcast discussing women attending seminary she allowed women could take seminary courses only if those courses had no direct relation to preparing someone to preach or pastor.

    But here is the outrageous part!!!!

    She then went on to compare women who take seminary courses on how to preach/pastor even though they may never pastor/ preach to those who learn how to do abortions even though they may never perform one. She basically called them accomplices to murder.

    Is this not libel/slander? To call a woman who wants to learn more about God and service to Him an accomplice to murder?!?!?!

    and she called the seminaries that allow women to take those courses sinners who need to to repent !!!!!!!!!!!!

    Why do they have so much hate for those who only want to follow God though it may not look like what they think it should?

  • Avatar
    Rob McBryde
    March 29, 2024

    Hi Natalie,
    Thank you for linking to my blog post so many years ago at I’ve since decommissioned that website, but the post lives on at my blog –


    • Natalie Hoffman
      Natalie Hoffman
      → Rob McBryde
      March 29, 2024

      Thanks for letting us know, Rob!

      -Aimee, Flying Free Community Support

  • Avatar
    Tereasa Gilmore
    August 2, 2023

    Thank you. I came back to this section today after spending time at the local library last night wrestling with all these verses. I knew you had a treasure trove in here for me, and this is it!!

  • Avatar
    Rohan A
    December 29, 2021

    Excellent article. I’m learning so much. Thank you.