A Personal Exploration of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

The young adult group at my church recently began a three-part discussion series on biblical manhood and womanhood. Using John Piper and Wayne Grudem’s book, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, as a kind of framework, we started to explore what the Bible says about the relationships men and women have with each other and what those relationships should look like according to Scripture. There are three traditional views in the Church of male/female relationships and roles. The hierarchical view says men are of more value than women, and men are called to leadership. The complementarian view says men and women are equal in value, but they are different in their roles. The egalitarian view also says men and women are equal in value, but they are identical in calling. Each view uses Bible verses and particular interpretations of Scripture to support their beliefs, and you may see all three views represented in the congregations of some churches.

Prior to the first discussion, I thought about each view and what I believe to be true. As we prepare for our second discussion, I am still attempting to process my thoughts on the issue and haven’t reached any solid conclusions. I feel like time to think about this matter has produced no answers – only more questions. Below are my thoughts and the sense I am trying to make of them. I welcome your opinions on the subject, whether about my perspective or your own beliefs, and any answers you may have for my questions.

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Complementarianism is based on the belief that men and women were created to complete each other. The strengths of men fill the voids left by the weaknesses of women, and vice versa. Because of the strengths generally seen in men, they are suited for some roles better than women. Likewise, women do some things better than men because of the strengths they generally have. One of man’s strengths is that of leadership; in complementary fashion, woman is called to submission in a way that honors and affirms man’s leadership. In Piper and Grudem’s definition of “mature masculinity,” they state that men are called to be the heads of their households as breadwinners, protectors, and the primary disciplinarians of their children, among other responsibilities. They define “mature femininity” as the “freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman’s differing relationships.”

Exegetically (that is, according to the critical interpretation and explanation of the Bible), I think a complementarian view is most accurate. I feel like I am supposed to hold a complementarian view, but I struggle with it in practical application. Piper and Grudem write that when one examines the issue of biblical manhood and womanhood, we ask, “Does the Bible really teach this view?” However, we may also ask, “Is the vision beautiful and satisfying and fulfilling? Can I live with it?” Can I be obedient with delight? It is because of this second question that I do not believe I can call myself 100% complementarian. I do not think I can whole-heartedly – and joyfully – adhere to the beliefs of the complementarian view.

If I marry one day, I would like a household characterized by a complementary relationship in which my husband takes initiative to be a leader of the family. However, I struggle to desire the same submission in other contexts. I have been a leader since childhood. During group assignments, I would step up and take charge of the project. Teachers appointed me to leadership positions. In college, I was hired to lead on campus as a Residential Assistant. Even now, I am helping to lead this discussion series on manhood and womanhood. As someone who is used to leading, I find the expectation to submit and be led a little challenging.

I am also left wondering how complementarian belief views the appropriateness of female leadership in various contexts, especially in the secular workforce. Piper and Grudem say that “a situation in which a female boss has a male secretary […] will put more strain on the humanity of both parties…” So is it wrong for a woman to be in a position of leadership when there are men capable of filling the role? For example, is it wrong – perhaps even sinful? – for a corporation to be run by a female CEO instead of an equally qualified male?

In the Church, many denominations believe that only men should be elders and clergy, and women should not be pastors. Having been raised in the United Methodist Church, where I was taught and led by both male and female pastors and spiritual leaders, I find this particularly difficult to accept, in spite of Paul’s message to both Timothy and the Corinthians about women not teaching but learning in quietness and submission (1 Timothy 2:11-15; 1 Corinthians 14:34-36). I think of Paul’s word in 1 Corinthians 12, verses 4 – 11:

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work.

Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit a message of wisdom, to another a message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he distributes them to each one, just as he determines.

Does the Spirit distinguish between male and female when giving spiritual gifts? If it is possible for a woman to receive the gift of teaching, is that woman limited to teaching in non-pastoral settings with only children or other women? I struggle with this somewhat defining aspect of complementarianism, women in spiritual leadership, having been led by female pastors and knowing women who are currently in or pursuing pastoral positions at their churches. Each of those women feels called by God to such roles. Are they wrong? Does God ever call women to be pastors? I just find it difficult to believe that someone who seems to have been equipped to lead others spiritually is not allowed to do so because she has also been equipped to carry a child. I have been told that having a woman lead a church as pastor threatens and undermines the masculinity of the church’s men, who ought to accept the responsibility and burden of leadership. But I ask this: is it not the same Spirit that reveals Truth to both men and women? Why are men specially called to share that truth with congregations when women are not?

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I used to think I was a complementarian with egalitarian “leanings,” but now I wonder if it is the opposite. I agree with both views that men and women are equal in value. I believe that men and women do complement each other. The strengths of men and women balance the weaknesses of the other. In relationship, the strength of a man is tempered with the gentleness of a woman. I also agree that certain tasks or roles may be fulfilled more successfully by one gender or the other based on qualities they generally have.

However, I hesitate to speak in generalities. As someone who defies multiple stereotypes, and as someone who has lived and worked with social minority groups (e.g. male ballet dancers at a summer dance program, international students in college, etc.), I have learned to be mindful of the individual – the exceptions to the rule. I am reminded that we have also been gifted and designed differently from one another as individuals. Though gentleness is a characteristic generally seen in women, a man can be gentle. Though strength is a characteristic generally seen in men, a woman can be strong. A role may be filled more successfully by women in general, but a capable man can also find success in the same role – and vice versa. Because of individual differences, I don’t think our callings are limited by gender but by the unique qualities and gifts we have each been given by God.

These are the beliefs I have determined I can live with, but it is right? Now I must begin the process of reconciling what is biblically true with I can obey without grudge until I reach something that is both right and good.

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4 thoughts on “A Personal Exploration of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

  1. I love this post, Cindy! It was really interesting to see the three different views explained. I’m torn between the complimentarian and egalitarian views as well, but leaning toward egalitarianism. My major qualm with the complimentarian view is the implication that we are incomplete without our male/female counterpart. It’s dangerous to view a partner as someone we need to make up for our weaknesses. Shouldn’t a partner instead help us overcome our weaknesses and encourage us to be a stronger person? Say I’m a follower by nature. That doesn’t mean I automatically have to marry someone who is a strong leader. What if I married someone who was just as much of a natural follower as I am? One or both of us would have to learn to take a leadership role sooner or later. What if we were both an emotional mess in response to a family tragedy? One or both of us would have to find the strength to carry on and pull the other along with us. It’s more important that we’re both able to grow and flourish in the company of someone who facilitates that process. The egalitarian view seems to account for this — men and women are equal in value AND in calling. I think part of that calling is to love and support their spouse no matter what either of their strengths or weaknesses are. And I think that relates to the part where you said, “Because of individual differences, I don’t think our callings are limited by gender but by the unique qualities and gifts we have each been given by God.”

    • Thanks for your response, Alison. I hadn’t really thought about the implications of “completing” one another according to the complementarian view. That was one issue we talked about with Single Sunday – the frustration of people viewing singleness as a state of incompletion and the need for marriage in order to be whole. I think someone who holds a complementarian view might say that we have relationships with various people of the opposite gender – not just with spouses. As single women, we may have men in our lives to whom we are not married (e.g. fathers, brothers, friends, coworkers, etc.) with strengths that balance our weaknesses. But don’t we have other women whose strengths balance our weaknesses, too? Does a complementarian view account for those relationships (or does that give too much grounds for homosexuality within the context of Christianity)? And I agree – I don’t think we should continuously depend on others (regardless of gender) to provide our strength, but rather we should learn from them to develop strength in ourselves. Granted, we need each other; we need community. The goal of improving ourselves is not so we can detach from others and be autonomous individuals capable of everything. (So what is the goal, then?) Are we expected to look for a spouse with strengths where we are weak? If both partners are weak in the same areas, who is expected to turn that into a strength? One last question to put out there: you offer being a “follower by nature” as an example – if I am not a naturally submissive woman, how much of that is nature and how much is disobedience? So many questions to ask! And I wonder if there are answers…

  2. From Chelsea on Facebook:
    This is an issue I have been wrestling with for years and it hasn’t seemed to become any clearer or easier with time. It is difficult to find the beauty in submission when it is explicitly EXPECTED. The joy and freedom of giving something when it is not asked of you is stripped away and honestly makes me reluctant to submit at all. I was baptized by a female pastor. I have discovered so many truths and grown immeasurably in the company of women – in ways that would be nearly possible with Christian brothers. Does our strength lie solely in our supportive nature? Our willingness to fade into the background? To be QUIET?? I am not a quiet girl. I cannot see myself ever being able to fulfill these expectations, and I don’t know if that is a flaw in the system or a flaw in me. How do I “correct” the very things that make me who I am – the things that I consider spiritual gifts? You’re right: generalizations do not belong in this conversation and are almost inapplicable in this age. Even 2,000 years ago the woman at the well could not help but go back to town and tell anyone who would listen of her encounter with Christ. Her story does not conclude with “And thus God was displeased by her big mouth.” I have led co-ed Bible studies. I have both taught and learned from my male peers. I don’t know. I am glad there are other young women out there as confused as I am, but still seeking answers. You are a strong, admirable lady – I will talk about this ANYTIME with you. The physical evidence of a Christian woman’s worth and leadership abilities are too pronounced in my life to call this issue black and white. Keep searching.

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