Complementarians and the Rise of Second-Wave Evangelical Feminism

By Bryan Laughlin, Doug Ponder    |    February 26, 2024


Back in the hoary days of 2019, I (Doug) wrote an article on “The Coming Collapse of Complementarianism.” The title was never finalized, but when the draft was complete, I pitched it to two evangelical organizations known for their strong stances on the issue. The first, a church planting network, decided to pass. They said it was “well-written” and “excellently argued” but “just not something we are looking to publish at this time.” I took no offense at this rejection, but I did find it odd, given the network’s conspicuous lack of articles on complementarianism, which was one of their “five doctrinal distinctives.”

That editor suggested I pitch it to another evangelical organization known for an even stronger stance on all matters complementarian. I did, but they passed, too. “Your contribution was certainly strong enough (and courageous enough) to be seriously considered,” I was told. “But we’re even more careful than normal on issues of manhood and womanhood.” Fair enough. They have a reputation to protect, and though there are “no little people” in Christ’s kingdom,1 I was (and still am) a relative nobody compared to their staff writers and regular contributors.

Fast forward to the present, when my coauthor (Bryan) suggested that we write an article on how many complementarians today are complementarian in name only (CINOs).2 So, we did what we always do: we developed a thesis, structured the argument, discussed illustrations, and toyed around with different titles. Then, I put digits to keys, turning our thoughts into words for the denizens of the World Wide Web. I was nearly finished when I remembered—with a jolt—that unpublished article from five years ago.3

So I revisited the piece to see what, if anything, had changed. Now, I’m neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet, but the hour I had warned was coming is now here. Among the signs of the impending complementarian collapse, I had pointed to pastors whose voices trembled as they mentioned male headship before hastening to highlight the many things that women can do in the church. I mentioned the subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways that many were prone to downplay, redefine, or otherwise qualify the complementarian position to death until nothing but the label remains.

I critiqued the misguided efforts (however well-intentioned) of complementarian churches that were taking pains to platform women’s ministries and staff positions as if reaching women were the biggest or most pressing problem facing the church. In reality, the gender gap is precisely the opposite of what evangelicals think it is: women earn 50% more college degrees than men, women are nearly 20% more likely to be hired than men, and women outnumber men in every Christian denomination (which means the church wasn’t failing to reach women, despite the lack of “platforms” and professional ministry roles in the past). Even secular sources were running pieces on how males were suffering disproportionately today. But many complementarians had gotten so busy showing the world that they value women that they failed to reach men.

I also spotlighted the relentless propaganda in TV shows, movies, and music, which continually bombarded the minds and hearts of Christians to great effect. Traditional Christian views of the sexes were “bigoted,” “regressive,” and “misogynistic” (not to mention “homophobic,” “exclusive,” “unloving,” etc.), and they were always held by the most unlikeable characters. Rebels against traditional views were “courageous” women, true heroines who dared to destroy the kind of life their grandmothers greatly enjoyed. Those who encouraged and affirmed them were “allies,” the good guys you’re supposed to be more like. Against this onslaught, to practice the Scriptural vision for male and female meant to open yourself to mockery and ostracism.

We were being steered, in other words. And the very people who should have been helping—pastors, professors, parachurch organizations, etc.—were falling all over themselves to preach sermons, write books, and publish articles that almost invariably softened the traditional Christian view of the sexes, if not in substance, at least in tone. In a kind of quasi-Pelagian move, many Christians were acting as if the world could be won by nice-sounding doctrines stripped down to the barest kernel of anything distinctly Christian. And so, perhaps without even intending to, many ended up moving with the cultural currents instead of resisting the rising tide of gender confusion. I said then what I see even more clearly now: “It won’t be long before complementarian churches begin to look and feel virtually identical to the egalitarian ways of the secular West.” The collapse of complementarianism hasn’t happened yet, but the cracks can no longer be ignored.

The Cracks in Complementarianism

Several years ago, a family in our church nearly lost their home when heavy rains washed away a significant portion of their house’s foundation. Though the nightmarish scenario came as a sudden shock to them, the crew who handled the repairs pointed out significant cracks in their walls, the telltale sign of underlying issues in a foundation on its way to faltering. The trajectory had long been set; it was only a matter of time.

Similarly, there are cracks in the “walls” of complementarianism, an evangelical movement that—despite the newness of its name—truly reflects the core of the Christian church’s traditional view of the sexes.4 The cracks seem evident in evangelical networks like Acts 29, which once strongly affirmed complementarianism as one of its five distinctives,5 but which has muted its teaching on the subject and softened its stance on various matters. For example, Acts 29 has invited women to preach to mixed audiences in their annual conferences,6 and the network recently released an internal statement clarifying their understanding of complementarianism, saying that individual churches may decide whether to permit the same for Sunday gatherings.7 Furthermore, Sam Storms—who was responsible for revising and expanding the network’s doctrinal distinctives—has written “A Complementarian Case for Women as Pastors,” arguing that women can be “pastors” without being “elders.” This position is virtually unheard of in the history of church, for it stands sharply at odds with the New Testament’s usage of those terms.8

Southern Baptists—the largest Protestant body in America—are facing a similar crisis. This summer, they will decide whether an SBC-affiliated church can appoint a woman as a “pastor” without ordaining her as an elder. In addition to the aforementioned novelty of this unbiblical distinction, the Southern Baptist’s own statement of faith (the Baptist Faith and Message) explicitly identifies the pastor/elder/overseer as three terms for the same office.9 In other words, the question ought to be a settled matter already. However, around 1,000 SBC churches currently have women pastors, in contradiction to the SBC’s statement of faith (not to mention the Bible). This has led many Southern Baptists, including Al Mohler, to lend their support to the Law amendment (named after the man who proposed it). If passed, the amendment would require Southern Baptist churches to act consistently with regard to their doctrinal affirmations about pastors/the pastoral office. In other words, if a church wants to be Southern Baptist (no one forces them to do so), they should not be able to openly violate the organizing beliefs of the body to which they claim to belong.10

The collapse of complementarianism hasn’t happened yet, but the cracks can no longer be ignored.”

—Bryan Laughlin and Doug Ponder

In addition to these scenarios, we have many friends who work for confessionally complementarian Christian organizations—publishers, resourcing sites, seminaries, networks, denominational agencies—virtually all of whom tell us that behind closed doors (and sometimes not behind closed doors) there is a consistent push to hire/recruit more women and to promote “female voices.” Similarly, there are confessionally complementarian churches in our city that routinely host “women-led Sundays.” All these initiatives are little more than a pressure-release valve for folks who are caught between a culture that wants to “smash the patriarchy” and a God who taught us to call him Father (Matt. 6:9) but never mother.11 This is the same Deity who revealed himself as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Ex. 3:6; Matt. 22:32) but not “of Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel,” who sent his Son, not his daughter, to save the world (Mark 1:1; Heb. 1:1–4), who restricted the priesthood to men (Ex. 28:1; Num. 3:10; cf. Lev. 21:1ff) and appointed men as the “heads” of their wives (Eph. 5:22–32; Col. 3:18–19; cf. 1 Cor. 11:3, 8–9), who chose twelve men to serve as his authoritative apostles (Mark 3:13–19), who “do[es] not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man” (1 Tim. 2:12), who prohibited women from judging prophecies in the assembly (1 Cor. 14:34), and who inspired only men to be authors of Scripture (2 Pet. 1:21).

In other words, it would seem that many complementarians (the ship sailed for egalitarians a long time ago) are beginning to act as if the scriptural teachings on the differences between the sexes are little more than a source of deep embarrassment, an inconvenient truth. In this way, a doctrine that not so long ago was seen as an integral part of Christian discipleship12 is now treated as something of an awkward uncle in conservative theology: complementarians are still part of the family, but many would not be sad if they stopped showing up at the family reunion.

The cracks in the walls of complementarianism have grown to such an extent that only wishful thinking adjacent to willful blindness could fail to see what is happening before our eyes: the crumbling of a foundation, the fracturing of a movement, the hastening of many evangelicals’ trajectory toward egalitarianism—a position so novel, so at odds with “the faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), that Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and conservative Protestants have a greater consensus in their views on men and women than they have on a host of other issues (e.g., the sacraments, ecclesiology, even the nature of salvation).13

There are many reasons why the complementarian movement has reached this point, and time won’t permit us to discuss them all at length. Still, a few factors are worth mentioning: First is the West’s increasing departure from Christianity and any ideas connected to it, including its teaching on the body. No longer is a particular human form—whether male or female—something to be received as a meaningful part of our identity; instead, a quasi-gnostic view sees the body as little more than material to be shaped or ignored according to one’s whims. The modern West is also confused about equality, believing that two things cannot be meaningfully equal in any sense unless they are virtually identical in every sense. This feeds a different-but-related confusion about the nature of what are commonly called “rights.” For we now live in a time when, if all persons do not have the same opportunities or responsibilities for any unchosen reason (even a natural or embodied one), our culture concludes that some injustice must be at work.14

Time would also fail us to address the disproportionate warnings about “toxic masculinity” in an era when men are less likely to act in stereotypically masculine ways than ever before.15 Nor do we have the time to explore how the birth control pill severed the God-created connection between sex and children, further distancing men and women from natural outcomes that would highlight and reinforce their gendered particularities.16 And speaking of revolutions, we definitely don’t have time to discuss how the rapid change in cultural attitudes toward homosexuality and other sexual perversions has created tremendous pressure for Christians to soften doctrinal stances in key places, like sexuality and gender, in fruitless attempts to appear less “hateful” to a world that Jesus said would hate us anyway (John 15:18–21). Thus, the softening (or total jettisoning) of the Bible’s teaching on men and women became attractive for Christians who were catechized to think of the church as “neither right nor left” on every issue, hovering over the perfect middle point between “extremes.” What so many failed to realize is that, as the Overton Window sprinted leftward, their midpoint went left along with it.

All these issues (and more) contribute to the cracks in complementarianism. Yet we wish to focus our attention on an issue that has gotten more attention over the last few years but which we think deserves more still. Specifically, we argue that the position known as “narrow” or “thin” complementarianism is historically novel, theologically problematic, and internally incoherent. As such, narrow/thin complementarians—regardless of their intentions—are unwittingly sowing the seeds of second-wave evangelical feminism.

How We Got Here: The Origins of First-Wave Evangelical Feminism

In the late 1980s, John Piper and Wayne Grudem coined the terms “complementarianism” (a system) and “complementarian” (a person who holds to said system) as an attempt to express the core of the traditional view of the sexes without the baggage (in the minds of some) that comes with the term “traditional.”17 (For what it’s worth, we think that distinguishing complementarianism from the traditional view of the sexes unintentionally misconstrues the nature of their position.18) The subtitle of Piper and Grudem’s complementarian manifesto, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, identifies the work as “A Response to Evangelical Feminism” (emphasis ours). The label “evangelical feminism” itself was coined by the trailblazers of the movement that would later come to be known as “egalitarianism” (i.e., equal-ism19). But, significantly, the history of the evangelical feminist movement is related to the “feminism” that lends its name.20

Unfortunately, many are unfamiliar with feminism in general, and, as such, they are disposed to misunderstanding both egalitarianism (i.e., evangelical feminism) and complementarianism (the reactionary response to evangelical feminism). Feminism began as an attempt to address male abuses against women, but from the beginning, many of the movement’s leading figures also espoused a strong disdain for marriage,21 a rejection of male headship in any context,22 and the framing of any “unchosen pregnancy”—even as a God-ordained consequence of sexual activity in marriage—as “forced maternity.”23 The solution to so-called “forced maternity” was “voluntary motherhood,” a concept that led to Margaret Sanger to regard abortion as the key to female freedom.24

Against this backdrop, it can be seen that feminism has never exclusively been about ending male abuse and/or achieving equal legal rights for women. Instead, as many of the movement’s leading figures made clear, feminism has always involved rebellion against sex-specific distinctions and prescriptions. So-called evangelical feminists, therefore, are professing Christians who aim to reconcile the goals of feminism with the truths of Scripture. In essence, this means reinterpreting the sex-based prescriptions in God’s Word and softening, ignoring, or altogether denying the sex-based distinctions in God’s world.

At first, egalitarians focused on the former of those two aims. Indeed, the subtitle of the first two editions Discovering Biblical Equality (the egalitarian rejoinder to Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) was “Complementarity without Hierarchy.” In other words, early egalitarians seemed to accept sexual distinctions so long as those distinctions did not reflect a divine design that came with God-given prescriptions. More recently, however, egalitarians have moved away from speaking of “complementarity without hierarchy.” In fact, the latest edition of Discovering Biblical Equality has dropped that language from its subtitle and concedes in the introduction that “contributors to this volume are varied in their opinions on the degrees of gender-related complementarity.”25

Aaron Renn predicted this shift in 2019. After (correctly) identifying egalitarianism as “an accommodationist theology in tune with the spirit of the age,” he pointed out that egalitarianism will, therefore, continue to change as the culture continues to change. Specifically, Renn argued that as the West jettisons the concept of a gender binary, egalitarianism will be forced to drop the concept of gender complementarity (or else they will find themselves in the crosshairs of secular moderns, just as complementarians are—something accommodationists are loath to do).

That is precisely what is happening, and this development relates directly to the situation on the complementarian side of the aisle. For the same cultural shifts that are moving egalitarianism away from any talk of “complementarity” (even without hierarchy) are likewise widening the gap between the two groups of complementarians, which, despite a common name, do not actually rest on a common foundation.

Slim, Shady Complementarianism (Will the Real Complementarianism Please Stand Up?)

Over the last three decades, cracks in the complementarian movement have grown to the extent that two forms of complementarianism are now distinguishable. Kevin DeYoung first referred to them as “broad” and “narrow” complementarianism.26 Also known as “thick” (= broad) and “thin” (= narrow) complementarianism,27 these designations highlight intra-complementarian disagreements over the breadth of differences between men and women in God’s design.

There are some areas of agreement: both thick/broad and thin/narrow complementarians agree that men and women are equally made in God’s image while being at least biologically different from each other28; both groups agree that God created the husband to be the “head” of his wife; both groups agree that only qualified males can be ordained as elders. Despite these areas of agreement, differences between the two groups establish trajectories that seem to be increasingly divergent, as Andy Naselli’s summary of the views clearly shows:29

Beyond the general differences between men and women, Naselli also highlights the differences in how the two groups speak of men and women in marriage, church, and society:

Finally, Naselli discusses the different “instincts, intuitions, and burdens,” as well as the differing theological methods (or approaches) to understanding the nature of men and women:

Many of the differences outlined above stem from the final category (theological method). That is to say, the key difference between the two versions of complementarianism is a difference of justification (or grounding) for their respective views. As Jonathan Leeman explains, “Narrow complementarians are reluctant to say much about the differences between men and women beyond such texts [e.g., Eph. 5:22; 1 Tim. 2:12]. They are driven. . . by a biblicist (Bible only) impulse.” In the same article, Leeman explains that “the ‘broad’ [complementarian] camp is driven by a theological impulse. They place these Pauline precepts inside of a larger theological ‘vision’ or ‘definition’ of manhood and womanhood that applies to all of life. . . . [They] aim to systematize what we see in Scripture about manhood and womanhood for discipleship purposes and to push back on Western culture’s lurch toward androgyny and the interchangeability of men and women.”30

Note that for broad/thick complementarians, a key part of their “larger theological vision” for manhood and womanhood is the way God made the world. This is why Joe Rigney recently added yet another set of labels for understanding the division, namely, “natural complementarianism” and “ideological complementarianism.”31 By “ideological,” Rigney means that complementarians who refuse to connect God’s design with God’s commands view the latter as an arbitrary imposition on the former. And by “natural,” Rigney means the natural world (i.e., creation) and what nature can teach us (as God’s second book) about a number of important concepts, including what it means to be male and female. He reminds us that there is no conflict between God’s Word and God’s world, for the Lord’s two books speak with one voice. This means there is consonance between the commands of God in Scripture and the design of God in nature, with the latter being the basis for the former. In other words, the “ought” of God’s commands is built on the “is” of God’s creation. For God is not schizophrenic: he does not give rules without reasons, commands unrelated to creation. Yet this is precisely what narrow/thin/ideological complementarianism does, thereby laying (intentionally or not) the foundation for second-wave evangelical feminism.

The Rise of Second-Wave Evangelical Feminism

Whereas first-wave evangelical feminism took aim at gender hierarchy in marriage, the church, and society, second-wave evangelical feminism takes aim at gender complementarity. Indeed, it must do so, not only because the gender binary is increasingly passé but also because the very concept of sexual complementarity entails sexual difference, and sexual difference implies varying levels of sexual fitted-ness for certain roles—the very thing egalitarians are increasingly keen to avoid.

In other words, second-wave evangelical feminists have realized the need to go beyond “complementarity without hierarchy.” For to admit differences between men and women outside the reproductive realm is to leave open the door for arguments that gender differences convey God’s design for gendered duties in various spheres of life. Thus, for feminists of any stripe, gender complementarity will never do; they must have gender interchangeability. But to argue for that, of course, one must continually downplay, overlook, or flatly deny the very real differences between men’s and women’s bodies, brains, communication styles, prosocial orientations, and even sin tendencies (e.g., compare 1 Tim. 2:8 with 1 Tim. 2:9–10).32

That is what egalitarians have long done, but that is also what thin/narrow/ideological complementarians are now doing, too. By ignoring or downplaying the differences between men and women taught in the Scriptures and observed in the natural world, these complementarians act as if men and women were not all that different and, therefore, are interchangeable in principle. The most succinct expression of this is found in Kathy Keller’s statement, “Anything that an unordained man is allowed to do, a woman is allowed to do.”33 Setting aside the fact that such statements overlook male and female differences in marriage, where ordination is of no consequence, the real issue is that such statements attempt to carve out space for narrow sex-based prescriptions while undermining the very reason why God established such prescriptions. This means that Keller (and anyone who follows her on this point) does not affirm any underlying significance or purpose for sexual complementarity.34 That is to say, narrow/thin/ideological complementarians do not recognize that the biblical prescriptions for the sexes are rooted in the consonance between male and female constitutions and the differentiated callings assigned to each.35

In effect, narrow/thin/ideological complementarians are arguing for hierarchy without complementarity, which means random rules without reasons, divine commands divorced from created order, and a complementarianism without any actual complementarity. In other words, they are complementarian in name only. More than that, most of them are future egalitarians. For if there is no sexual complementarity grounding the gender-specific commands in Scripture, that means there is no reason why God says a man must (not) do this or a woman must (not) do that. Instead, God’s commands would be arbitrary, and arbitrary orders aren’t obeyed for long. As Rigney explains, “[Narrow/thin/] ideological complementarians are egalitarian at heart, and maintain their complementarianism only because of a handful of verses in Paul, and only until they are able to rationalize and embrace the egalitarian contortions of those passages.”

Over the last three decades, cracks in the complementarian movement have grown to the extent that two forms of complementarianism are now distinguishable.”

—Bryan Laughlin and Doug Ponder

This sort of thinking is how we get books like Aimee Byrd’s Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood36 and Rachel Green Miller’s Beyond Authority and Submission: Women and Men in Marriage, Church, and Society.37 Both books claim to affirm sexual difference, but both books undermine these differences at almost every turn. For her part, Byrd says, “Christian men and women don’t strive for so–called biblical masculinity or femininity, but Christlikeness. Rather than striving to prove our sexuality, the tone of our sexuality will express itself as we do this. . . . My contributions, my living and moving, are distinctly feminine because I am a female. I do not need to do something a certain way to be feminine. . . I simply am feminine because I am female.”38

Such a conception of sexuality is fraught with problems. To begin with, this conflates “being” and “becoming,” as if to say all women in their being (or all men in theirs) already are feminine (or masculine) in all respects, without any need for striving to become the truer or fuller version of what God has made us to be. Yet, since sin can maim and corrupt our thoughts and actions, so also it can cause us to fall short of fulfilling our gendered callings as male and female. In other words, as Mark Jones says, “Byrd’s contention that she doesn’t need to act like a woman because she is a woman is sort of like a Christian saying, ‘I don’t need to act like a Christian because I am one.’”39

In another place, Byrd writes, “Do men and women have separate aims with a common adjective—biblical manhood and biblical womanhood? In Scripture we don’t find that our ultimate goal is as narrow as biblical manhood or biblical womanhood, but complete, glorified resurrection to live eternally with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. . . . We find that men and women are called together in the same mission: eternal communion with the triune God. Both men and women are to pursue the same virtues as we await our ultimate blessedness, the beatific vision—to behold Christ!”40

Byrd is not wrong about the Christian’s “ultimate” goal. But we know of no scholar holding to the traditional view of the sexes who argues that a man’s ultimate goal is to be a man or that a woman’s ultimate goal is to be a woman. Even so, the writings of Scripture make it plain that the Christian life is no unisex pursuit. By overlooking the ways men and women follow Christ as men and women, Byrd has little to say about what masculinity or femininity are, much less why they matter. Spending so much time saying what men and women are not, Byrd appears incapable of saying what the sexes actually are for. By the time she concludes her book, she cannot meaningfully comment on how a man or a woman would differently carry out the tasks she describes.

Miller’s error is similar. She explicitly argues against anything like an identifiably “masculine” or “feminine” nature, saying, “If God made you a woman, you are feminine.”41 Likewise, she writes, “If God made you a man, you are masculine.”42 In other words, to speak of masculine and feminine natures, for Miller, is tautological. But this is not the way the Bible speaks about the sexes. Indeed, the Scriptures rebuke men who are effeminate: “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor homosexuals . . . will inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9–10 NASB).43 In other contexts, a woman is forbidden from wearing “a man’s garment,” while a man is forbidden from wearing a “women’s cloak,” with both actions being condemned as “an abomination to the Lord your God” (Deut. 22:5).44 Verses like these are unintelligible unless there is a possibility of knowing what is identifiably masculine or feminine.45

To get rid of the concepts of masculinity and femininity—as Byrd and Miller do when they argue that masculinity and femininity mean nothing more than “being” a man or a woman—ultimately reduces the meaning of male and female to a chromosomal variance, one that does not exert itself in any recognizably masculine or feminine capacity. But to do that while still holding to male headship in some sense—as Byrd and Miller claim to do46—is to argue for hierarchy without complementarity.

With complementarians like these, who needs egalitarians? For complementarians like these are emptying complementarity of any positive content, thereby aiding the project of the late modern West, which is warring against the sexual binary and any attempts to identify traits, features, customs, habits, or callings as characteristically—much less, exclusively—masculine or feminine. We don’t even have mothers anymore—only “pregnant people” and “birthing persons.” In such a cultural context, the narrow/thin/ideological complementarians are unwittingly paving the way, not for first-wave evangelical feminism, which denies hierarchy, but for second-wave evangelical feminism, which will deny complementarity—just as the new gender Gnostics are doing.

Back to the Bible and Forward to a Glorious Future

In the unpublished 2019 article, I (Doug) concluded with a modest proposal for how faithful Christians can resist the departure from the traditional view of the sexes that is now well underway. Those steps are still relevant today. First, we must see the biblical teaching on the sexes as good, not just right. The Bible is not bitter medicine. Indeed, for those who know the God of Scripture, they are soul-reviving statutes intended for our good (Ps. 19:7–11). The problem we face at present is that many Christians are embarrassed by unpopular doctrines, doctrines which they increasingly find unhelpful or unnecessary because they have unknowingly accepted certain feminist assumptions. The only antidote is to trust the wisdom and love of God. We must believe that he knows better than us and that he has our best interests in mind. This is the first and most crucial step for embracing God’s design for men and women.

Building on the previous, the second step is that pastors, professors, and authors must teach the Scriptures without cowardice, just as the apostles did. Female priestesses were commonplace in the ancient pagan world. Furthermore, half of the Greco-Roman deities were goddesses. The biblical teaching on male headship in the church was far from some universal norm. As such, the apostles’ teaching on the sexes was highly countercultural. Yet when we read the biblical authors, we don’t see them flinch or wince or fall all over themselves in an effort to soften the blunt edge of truth. This is because they knew what we forget to our own peril: faith embraces what God says and doesn’t expect an unbelieving world to understand and appreciate God’s Word until after they understand and appreciate God’s work for them in Jesus Christ. In view of this, Christians must never think that softening our views on men and women will soften anyone’s heart.

This also means Christians must learn to expect disdain, rejection, and even mockery and persecution, not just for our belief in the supernatural truths of the gospel but for our belief in natural truths about the sexes, too. In other words, speaking faithfully about these matters is only going to get more difficult as the West departs from beliefs that just about everyone affirmed until ten years ago. To make matters worse, there are bad-faith actors in many evangelical organizations who are going to roll over to appease the demands of the world. Many already have. Others will follow suit due to the enormous pressure to conform (from without) as well as to avoid guilt by association (from within).47 All this is why (in another life) Russell Moore once said, “Unless evangelical churches are willing to be counter-cultural against not just the secular culture but also the evangelical establishment itself, the future of complementarian Christianity is bleak.”

Fourth, in 2019, I argued that complementarianism would die if the church continued to act as if discipleship were a unisex pursuit. The truth is that we aren’t individuals who “just happen to be” male or female. Our sex is part of God’s design, not just for the world in general, but for each of us as a man or a woman in particular. This means every man who isn’t called to lifelong celibacy is a current or future husband and father, and every woman likewise is a current or future wife and mother.48 These vocations are facets of our identities, which undergird the Scripture’s gendered prescriptions in a number of places (e.g., 1 Cor. 11:2–16; 14:26–35; Eph. 5:22–33; Col. 3:18–19; 1 Tim. 2:8–15; 5:1–16; 2 Tim. 3:1–9; Titus 2:1–8; 1 Pet. 3:1–7), not to mention all the patterns or paradigms established in the narratives of Scripture.49 In other words, maleness and femaleness matter. And any approach to the sexes that does not root God’s commands in God’s creation will never be able to positively articulate the why (from God’s world) behind the what (in God’s Word).

My co-author and I still believe these steps are needed. But in addition, we would now add this: broad/thick/natural complementarians need to see narrow/thin/ideological complementarians for what they, unfortunately, are: second-wave evangelical feminists who haven’t yet realized the logical implications of the position they already hold. But the trajectory has long been set; it’s only a matter of time.

  1. Here’s lookin’ at you, Francis.
  2. We’ll admit we aren’t sure how CINOs should be pronounced. (Sinos? Kinos? or even Chinos?) At any rate, the category is not in doubt even if the pronunciation is.
  3. This occurrence was not altogether unlike Kevin McCallister’s mother remembering that she’s forgotten something (or someone) after boarding a plane to France. Somewhat amusingly, I (Doug) was also on a plane when I had my own recollection. Unlike Kevin’s mother, however, I was not sipping champagne from crystal while flying first class.
  4. In brief, then, the church’s consensus affirms the asymmetry of the sexes with consonance between their respective callings and constitutions. In other words, the man was created to be the “head” of humanity (Gen. 2:15–17; 3:17, and outfitted with the necessary capacities for this work. The woman likewise was created to be the man’s “helper” (Gen. 2:18; 1 Cor. 11:7–9) and the mother of all living (Gen. 3:20), being outfitted for this work. For example, the Danvers Statement writes, “Distinctions in masculine and feminine roles are ordained by God as part of the created order.” See
    CBMW, “The Danvers Statement,” December 1987, For similar views across the centuries, see John Chrysostom, “Homily XXVI on First Corinthians,” in NPNF 1:12, ed. Philip Schaff (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1995), 153; see Augustine, Confessions XIII.47, trans. Sarah Ruden (New York: Modern Library, 2017), 478; see Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, Q. 92, Articles 1–4; see John Calvin, The First Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, trans. John Pringle, vol. 20 of Calvin’s Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 467; see Herman Bavinck, The Christian Family, trans. Nelson D. Kloosterman (Grand Rapids: Christian’s Library, 2012), 115.
  5. The fourth of Acts 29’s five distinctives says, “We are deeply committed to the spiritual and moral equality of male & female and to men as responsible servant-leaders in both home and church.” See, accessed February 20, 2024.
  6. Jen Wilkin was formerly slated to preach before bowing out. Jen Oshman later took her spot. See<wb>20220829042152/https:/<wb>
  7. The statement reflects the conclusions of a “Complementarianism Task Force” commissioned by Acts 29. It states, “We believe that men giving authoritative exposition of God’s Word should be the standard in Acts 29.” Yet it goes on to say that other practices, such as “women speaking during the primary church gathering in a way that complements the preaching or helps the church grapple with specific issues,” are also “within the scope and spirit of our complementarian distinctive.” Functionally, this permits women to preach in Sunday gatherings where a church deems that a woman’s input is needed. The obvious problem (in addition to violating 1 Tim. 2:11–12 and 1 Cor. 14:34) is that the Lord himself inspired only men to author the Scriptures. Therefore, if we were to communicate that a woman’s perspective is needed on Sundays in order to ‘complement the preaching’ on specific issues, we would be challenging God’s wisdom as well as undermining the sufficiency of God’s Word and his appointed means for preaching it.
  8. The distinction between “pastor” and “elder” is novel and unbiblical, being advanced almost entirely by those who wish to affirm an increasing role for women in church leadership without openly violating their doctrinal statements of faith. The problem is that the New Testament uses the terms “pastor,” “elder,” and “overseer” to refer to the same ecclesial office. First, note that the qualifications given for an “overseer” (ἐπισκοπή) in 1 Tim. 3:1–7 and those given for an “elder” (πρεσβύτερος) in Titus 1:5–10 have significant overlap, even identical phrases. For example, both include the ability to teach (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 1:9). Second, Paul uses the terms “elders” and “overseers” interchangeably in Titus 1:5 and 1:7. Third, when Paul gathers the elders (πρεσβυτέρους) of the church in Miletus together in Acts 20:17, he exhorts them to “pay careful to yourselves and to all the flock [τῷ ποιμνίῳ], in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers [ἐπισκόπους] to shepherd [ποιμαίνειν] the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood” (Acts 20:28, emphasis added). Similarly, Peter exhorts his “fellow elders” (1 Peter 5:1) to “shepherd [ποιμάνατε] the flock [ποίμνιον] of God among you by exercising oversight [ἐπισκοποῦντες]” (1 Peter 5:2, emphasis added). And he concludes with a reference not to the “chief Elder” but to the “chief Shepherd” [ἀρχιποίμενος], further establishing a link between “elder” and “pastor/shepherd.” Fourth, Paul mentions “shepherds and teachers” [τοὺς δὲ ποιμένας καὶ διδασκάλους] in a list that also includes apostles, prophets, and evangelists (Eph 4:11). Note that Paul here refers to persons, not skills, as he does when he speaks of “prophecy” (Rom. 12:6) or “teaching” (Rom. 12:7). Relatedly, Paul clearly distinguishes the office of apostle from ministerial gifts of the Spirit when he says, “God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues” (1 Cor. 12:28, emphasis added). Yet in Eph. 4:11 Paul does not speak of “apostleship” but of “apostles,” not of “prophecy” but of “prophets,” not of “evangelism” but of “evangelists,” and not of “shepherding and teaching” but of “shepherds and teachers [τοὺς δὲ ποιμένας καὶ διδασκάλους],” two nouns sharing a single definite article. What is conspicuous by its absence, however, is any mention of “elders” or “overseers” precisely at the point where one might it expect it. The absence of these terms would make sense, however, if Paul sees “shepherds [i.e., pastors] and teachers” (or perhaps the “shepherd-teacher”) as constituting an office in the church that is identical with that of “elder” and “overseer.” Finally, the verb “to pastor” (ποιμαίνω) is never used to describe the ministry of any person—men or women—who did not hold some ecclesial office (John 21:16; Acts 20:28; 1 Pet. 5:12). In other words, “pastoring/shepherding” is something that elders do, and separating the function from the office is misguided, at best, and deliberately misleading, at worst.
  9. Though officially “non creedal” in nature, the SBC does have a statement of faith, which forms the basis for determining whether a church can meaningfully call itself “Southern Baptist” and partner with other churches of “like faith and practice.”
  10. For a defense of the necessity (and inevitability) of having a doctrinal standard serve as the basis for Southern Baptist identity and cooperation, see Jordan Steffaniak, “Creeds, Confessions, and Carroll: An Essay in Defense of Baptist ‘Creedalism’,” The London Lyceum, February 5, 2024.
  11. For an essay on the difference between God’s self-designation as “Father” versus the occasional use of matronly metaphors in reference to God, see Kyle Claunch, “On the Improper Use of Proper Speech: A Response to Ronald W. Pierce and Erin M. Heim, ‘Biblical Images of God as Mother and Spiritual Formation’,” CBMW, June 22, 2023.
  12. Since grace restores nature (Col. 3:9–10), the gospel is not, nor could ever be, something that liberates men and women from the masculine and feminine callings that correspond with God’s design for male and female. In other words, there is no such thing as a unisex disciple, despite what terrible, horrible, no good, very bad interpreters of Galatians 3:28 may say.
  13. For an excellent defense of complementarianism from an Eastern Orthodox perspective, see Thomas Hopko, ed., Women and the Priesthood (Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1999).
  14. For a scriptural critique of this misguided viewpoint, see Tim Challies, “Inequality of Possessions,” Challies (blog), November 1, 2008,
  15. See Nancy R. Pearcey, The Toxic War on Masculinity (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2023).
  16. For a Protestant critique of birth control, see Evan Lenow, “Protestants and Contraception,” First Things, January 2018,
  17. See the 1991 Preface to John Piper and Wayne Grudem, eds. Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, 3rd. ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2021), 13–16.
  18. Contrary to Piper and Grudem, we think the term “traditional” is suitable for two reasons. First, it highlights the fact that, when it comes to the Bible’s teaching on men and women, there is indeed an identifiable consensus within the church across its major branches or denominations over vast swaths of history (i.e., from the early church until the twentieth century. Succinctly expressed, the traditional consensus insists that though men and women are equally made in the image of God, they are not interchangeable in their roles within the home, the church, and the broader society. (See footnote 4 for a fuller description of the traditional view.) Second, while Protestants do not recognize tradition as having a magisterial role in the church (i.e., having the same level of authority as the Scriptures), the heirs of the Reformation have always recognized that tradition has a ministerial role in helping us rightly interpret the Scriptures. To say the same thing another way: the more that all Christians in all times and all places have agreed about a given biblical teaching, the more confidence we can have our interpretations are correct. Such a view does not commit us to a simple “majority rule,” as if orthodoxy were a democratic matter. However, since the church has had more agreement on men’s and women’s roles than it has had on many other doctrines, anyone who opposes the traditional view of the sexes should do so with extreme humility regarding the novelty of their claims, profound sobriety about the potential implications of getting this wrong, and careful self-examination concerning possible motives of the heart.
  19. Egalitarians do not simply mean “equal” in the sense of worthy or dignity, however, as complementarians affirm. By “equal” they mean interchangeable. CS Lewis identified this sexual interchangeability as the core of egalitarianism long before its own adherents recognized the implicit logic of their own position, and he exposed the weakness of such a view in his 1948 essay, “Notes on the Way” (August 14, 1948). It was later re-titled, “Priestesses in the Church?” and published in CS Lewis, in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 256–62. It can also be accessed here:
  20. Pamela Cochran, the associate director of the Center on Religion and Democracy at the University of Virginia, argues that a distinctly evangelical appropriation of feminist ideals began between 1973 and 1975 with the founding of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus and the publication of Nancy Hardesty and Letha Scanzoni, All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992). See Pamela Cochran, Evangelical Feminism: A History (New York: NYU, 2005), 11–31. Unfortunately, the various “waves” of feminism are not well understood by moderns, and often they are glossed in ways that obscure its troubling start. For example, it is common to hear that first-wave feminism was about equal rights for women. The passing of the 19th Amendment certainly was accomplished at that time, but the movement also contained strong critics of marriage and men in general. Stanton was not alone in denigrating God’s design for marriage.
  21. For example, Elizabeth Cady Stanton told Susan B. Anthony, “It is in vain to look for the elevation of woman so long as she is degraded in marriage,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “Letter to Miss Susan B. Anthony,” Seneca Falls, March 1, 1852. Elsewhere Stanton wrote, “I frankly admit that to be a ‘mistress’ is less dishonorable than to be a ‘wife;’ for while the mistress may leave her degradation if she will, public sentiment and the law hold the ‘wife’ in hers. . . . The legal position [of a wife] is more dependent and more degrading than any other condition of womanhood can possibly be,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton, “Marriage and Mistresses” in Revolution, Oct. 15, 1868.
  22. First wave feminist Katherine Bushnell argued that Genesis 3:16 was problematic, that God’s design for the sexes was actually arbitrary “fate,” and that marriage turned women into a “prostitute class.” See Katherine Bushnell, Dr. Katherine C. Bushnell: A Brief Sketch of Her Life Work (Hertford, UK: Rose and Sons, 1930), 14.
  23. Treva B. Lindsey, “What Did the Suffragists Really Think about Abortion?” Smithsonian, May 26, 2022.,of%20women%E2%80%99s%20rights.
  24. See Margaret Sanger, Woman and the New Race (New York: Brentano’s, 1920). Sanger’s demonic dreams began to come true in 1961, when the birth control pill was approved for public use, and in 1973, when abortion was publicly enshrined as a “constitutional right.” Together these technologies provided women with the means for achieving “voluntary motherhood” and the “right to marriage without maternity.”
  25. Ronald W. Pierce, Cynthia Long Westfall, and Christa L. McKirland, “Introduction,” Discovering Biblical Equality: Biblical, Theological, Cultural, and Practical Perspectives, 3rd ed. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2021), 6.
  26. Andy Naselli relates that Kevin DeYoung coined the “broad” and “narrow” terminology at a meeting of Together for the Gospel speakers in January 2018. See Naselli, “Does Anyone Need to Recover from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood? A Review Article of Aimee Byrd’s Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood,” CBMW, May 4, 2020, n10.
  27. See Kevin DeYoung, “Four Clarifying (I Hope) Thoughts on the Complementarian Conversation,” TGC, May 7, 2020.
  28. The traditional term is that of complementarity, which entails being different from and different for each other. The language of “different from and different for” is borrowed from Alastair Roberts, “The Music of Male and Female,” Primer 3 (October 2016): 1–18. Roberts writes, “Men and women are different, yet those differences are not differences designed to polarise [sic] us or pit us against each other. Rather, these differences are to be expressed in unified yet differentiated activity within the world and the closest of bonds with each other. It is not about difference from each other so much as difference for each other.” Note, however, that Roberts prefers to speak of “difference for” instead of “different from,” whereas we are arguing that “difference for” implies and relies upon “difference from.” In Aristotelean terms, “different from” entails the formal and material causes, while “different for” is the final cause.
  29. The following images are taken from Andy Naselli, “Does Anyone Need to Recover from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood? A Review Article of Aimee Byrd’s Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood,” CBMW, May 4, 2020. Click here to see the chart as a single image.
  30. Broad/thick complementarians are at a slight disadvantage here, for the language of “Bible only” may sound positive to readers raised in certain faith traditions. The reality is that a Bible only impulse is same interpretive schema that led the Arians to reject the doctrine of the Trinity. For the Trinity is not explicitly taught in the Scriptures (there is no single “chapter and verse” that gets you the Trinity). Yet the doctrine of Trinity is implicitly taught in the Scriptures by what is sometimes called “good and necessary consequence” (i.e., logical implication). In other words, there is a narrow way interpreting the Bible that tends to miss the forest for the trees, relying on isolated prooftexts divorced not only from the totality of Scripture but also from logical inference, from historical theology, and from almost any consideration of natural revelation (i.e., creation).
  31. We think the growing collection of terms for the two complementarian groups reflects increasing levels of clarity concerning their differing starting points and divergent trajectories. In other words, the development of these terms, at this moment in time, reflects the fact that members in a movement that began under a single banner (complementarianism simpliciter) have since come to recognize the presence of significant disagreements between them concerning the extent of male-female differences in God’s design and the breadth of application in God’s world.
  32. The key word here is “tendencies.” We are not speaking about sin possibilities, for it is possible for any given person (male or female) to sin in any particular way. Yet the Scriptures highlight a male propensity to lust (Matt. 5:28) and a female propensity to gossip (1 Tim. 5:13) and nagging (Prov. 21:9). These tendencies do not destroy the need for all Christians to avoid such sins, but they do highlight the general tendency of male and female Christians toward certain sins.
  33. Kathy Keller, Jesus, Justice, & Gender Roles: A Case for Gender Roles in Ministry, Fresh Perspectives on Women in Ministry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 21.
  34. There is a profound irony here in that broad/thick/natural complementarians are routinely accused of thinking that women are fit only for being barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. In reality, it is the narrow/thin/ideological complementarians who erode the significance of male and female in God’s design, thereby reducing the meaning of sexual difference to reproduction!
  35. For example, men tend to excel in activities that require aggression, competition, dominance, physicality, tenacity, and/or indifference to the subjective feelings of others, while women tend to excel in relational arenas closely connected with the life-communion of various social groups (families, friends, churches, etc.). As Alastair Roberts explains, “Every woman, by virtue of her sex—irrespective of whether she is married or has children—is the bearer of a maternal form of identity. The very form and basic processes of her body declares this meaning and everything that she does and is . . . inflected and elevated by the fact that she represents this reality.” That is to say, “It is within her body that the marriage bond is consummated. It is within her body that the bond between parents and children are forged. It is within her body that the child grows and upon her body that it feeds.” See Alastair Roberts, “Why a Masculine Priesthood Is Essential,” Alastair’s Adversaria (blog), August 30, 2014.
  36. Aimee Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2020).
  37. Rachel Green Miller, Beyond Authority and Submission: Women and Men in Marriage, Church, and Society (Phillipsburg: P & R, 2019).
  38. Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 114.
  39. Obviously, such an assessment of God’s created order overlooks the classic Christian teaching on sanctification, which argues that Christians must become, in practice, what they already are by status. The same is true of men and women.
  40. Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 109.
  41. Miller, Beyond Submission and Authority, 148.
  42. Miller, Beyond Submission and Authority, 149.
  43. Even so, the idea of effeminacy is not entirely lost. For in the homosexual act, the ἀρσενοκοίτης still penetrates, as a man would in heterosexual intercourse, whereas the μαλακός—the “soft” man—is the one who is penetrated, taking up the woman’s part in heterosexual intercourse. For more on the historical usage of the term, see Steven Wedgeworth, “What Is Effeminacy?” Desiring God (blog), October 17, 2023.
  44. For an extended discussion on this text, including its assumption of the gender binary as well as identifiable categories of masculine and feminine, see Jason DeRouchie, “Confronting the Transgender Storm: A Sermon on Deuteronomy 22:5,” Jason DeRouchie (blog), November 5, 2015.
  45. To be sure, what one culture considers masculine or feminine may change from time to place. Kilts may be masculine in Scotland, but donning a plaid skirt in America was a great way to get yourself beat up in the 1990s. Only a fool would argue that something intrinsic to the shape of the cloth was essentially masculine or feminine. But also, only a fool would deny the connection between Bruce Jenner’s “cleavage-boosting corset, sultry poses, thick mascara, and the prospect of regular ‘girls’ nights’ of banter about hair and makeup” and some identifiably feminine customs in this culture. Indeed, the entire transgender project rests entirely on the existence of identifiably masculine or feminine customs. Otherwise, Jenner could have declared himself a woman and changed nothing about his appearance, dress, mannerisms, habits, preferences, etc. Stating these facts does not commit one to the view that, say, makeup or dresses are intrinsically feminine. Rather, this is an argument that maleness and femaleness are such important facets of what it means to be human that every culture has found ways of expressing these realities in various identifiable ways. This is similar to the argument Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 11:14, where, after grounding sexual differentiation in the creation account (1 Cor. 11:7–9), he asks, “Does not nature itself teach that you if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory?” (1 Cor. 11:14–15).
  46. “Claim” is the operative word here. For Miller says that men, as the head, are called to lead in their families, but instead of describing what this means, she immediately says what it does not entail: “He doesn’t lord it over his wife or attempt to enforce her submission” (Miller, Beyond Authority and Submission, 177). Every adherent of the traditional view of the sexes that we have ever read would agree with this claim. Unlike Miller, however, they offer a positive definition of what headship does mean. Byrd does the same, acknowledging the priestly headship of the man in Genesis 2:15 without giving any description of what this means (Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 105n17). Despite these vague nods to male headship, Miller prefers to speak of “unity, interdependence” and the “call to mutual service” (Miller, Beyond Authority and Submission, 36). Similarly, Byrd prefers to speak of “mutual submission” and “reciprocity” (Byrd, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 231–34).
  47. Cf. Peter Berger’s The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Garden City: Anchor, 1967). Berger offers a highly regarded analysis of the effect of the social milieu on phenomenological interpretation and belief formation. Specifically, he notes that people unconsciously find beliefs most plausible when held by persons they admire and by whom they want to be accepted. See also, Berger, “The Perspective of Sociology: Relativizing the Relativizers” in A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural (Anchor Books edition, 1970).
  48. Men are also sons and brothers, even as women are daughters and sisters. For more on how these facets of our identity find expression, see Patrick Schreiner, “Man and Woman: Toward an Ontology,” CBMW, November 20, 2020.
  49. See Doug Ponder, “Male and Female He Created Them: The Implications of a Paradigmatic Reading of Genesis 1–3 for the Complementarian-Egalitarian Debate” (Doctoral thesis, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, May 2024).
Bryan Laughlin, Doug Ponder

Bryan Laughlin is CEO and professor of theology and missiology at Grimké Seminary. He is also lead pastor of Remnant Church in Richmond, Va.

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