Christianity,  Theology/Bible

Complementarianism or Patriarchy? What’s in a name?

Rachel Held Evans recently made a splash with a blog post suggesting that complementarianism is merely patriarchy masquerading under a less offensive name. Her post generated a good bit of discussion not only on her blog but on Scot McKnight’s as well.

Evans is riffing on remarks that Russell Moore recently made about complementarians who are big on gender orthodoxy but not so much on orthopraxy. Here’s how Moore expressed his concern, “What I fear is that we have many people in evangelicalism who can check off ‘complementarian’ on a box but who really aren’t living out complementarian lives.” Evans agrees with this statement and then offers three reasons why she thinks complementarian practice is losing ground among those who profess complementarian principles.

1. Because more and more evangelical theologians, scholars, professors, and pastors are thoughtfully debunking a complementarian interpretation of Scripture…

2. Because their rhetoric consistently reflects a commitment to an idealized glorification of the pre-feminist nuclear family of 1950s America rather than a commitment to “biblical manhood” and “biblical womanhood”…

3. Because, at the practical level, evangelicals are realizing that complementarianism doesn’t actually promote complementary relationships, but rather hierarchal ones… Complementarianism isn’t working—in marriages and in church leadership— because it’s not actually complementarianism; it’s patriarchy. And patriarchy doesn’t work because God created both men and women to reflect God’s character and God’s sovereignty over creation, as equal partners with equal value.

I had been planning over the last few weeks to write a response to Evans, but I eventually thought better of it. Instead, I want to point readers to an important article that Russell Moore wrote several years ago that gives all the response that is needed: “After Patriarchy, What? Why Egalitarians Are Winning the Gender Debate” JETS 49.3 (2006): 569-76.

In contrast to Evans, Moore shows that egalitarians are “winning” the debate not because they have better biblical arguments but because complementarians “have not addressed the root causes behind egalitarianism in the first place” (p. 572). Among those causes is the consumerist and therapeutic orientation of modern evangelicalism which undermines any notion of authority or hierarchy. Moore argues that complementarians must not shrink-back from the counter-cultural claim that, “Christianity is undergirded by a vision of patriarchy.” He writes:

Even to use the word “patriarchy” in an evangelical context is uncomfortable since the word is deemed “negative” even by most complementarians. But evangelicals should ask why patriarchy seems negative to those of us who serve the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God and Father of Jesus Christ. As liberationist scholar R. W. Connell explains, “The term ‘patriarchy’ came into widespread use around 1970 to describe this system of gender domination.” But it came into widespread use then only as a negative term. We must remember that “evangelical” is also a negative term in many contexts. We must allow the patriarchs and apostles themselves, not the editors of Playboy or Ms. Magazine, to define the grammar of our faith (pp. 573-74).

Since Moore’s article appeared, complementarians have had an in-house dialogue about the best terminology to use in describing our position. Andreas Köstenberger suggests that “patriarchy” has too much baggage owing to years of feminist propaganda. Dan Block has suggested that “patricentrism” may be the best term to describe the biblical position.

At the end of the day, however, this really isn’t an argument about words. Whatever we call it (complementarianism, patriarchy, hierarchy), Moore’s point still rings true. Evangelicals who are unwilling to be counter-cultural are going to find themselves one way or the other accommodating themselves to the feminist spirit of the age and falling short of the biblical ideal. Egalitarians accommodate themselves one way, and complementarians-in-name-only do it in another. But the result is the same when Christians refuse to be counter-cultural. Moore concludes:

Egalitarians are winning the evangelical gender debate, not because their arguments are stronger, but because, in some sense, we are all egalitarians now. The complementarian response must be more than reaction. It must instead present an alternative vision—a vision that sums up the burden of male headship under the cosmic rubric of the gospel of Christ and the restoration of all things in him. It must produce churches that are not embarrassed to tell us that when we say the “Our Father,” we are patriarchs of the oldest kind.

I encourage you to read Moore’s entire essay. I think you’ll find there a much more compelling and prophetic account of the gender debate than what Evans has to offer. If Moore is correct, then perhaps biblical patriarchy isn’t such a bad designation after all. It’s simply what the Scriptures teach about manhood and womanhood.

UPDATE (9/21/19): When Moore first made the case for the term “biblical patriarchy,” he seems to have been heavily influenced by Bradford Wilcox’s Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands (University of Chicago Press, 2004). When I first read Moore’s article, I thought his argument in favor of the term was a compelling one. Subsequently, I became convinced that the term “patriarchy” is beyond retrieval. It is true that the word’s etymology simply indicates “fatherly leadership.” Nevertheless, a word’s meaning is established by usage, not by etymology alone. And it is clear that the term has been saddled with so many negative connotations that it would undermine and distract from the actual biblical teaching that complementarianism was coined to summarize. For that reason, I still prefer the term complementarianism. I’ve written more about terminology here.


  • dr. james willingham

    Well, at least Kostenberger realizes that there is something wrong with patriarchy. Truth be told, patriarchy, radical feminism, and complementarianism are all wanting in a rigorous intellectual analysis of the biblical presentation of male/female relationships and standings in the Divine estimation.

  • David Hoos

    Have you read Doug Wilson’s Father Hunger yet? I suspect much of this issue could be traced back to the issue of fatherhood.

  • Kamilla Ludwig

    I’m just not sure how Complementarians hope to win the battle for the soul of Evangelicalism (which looks to be heading the same direction as the old mainline) with a made-up term that too many people STILL can’t spell.

    Go ahead, be daring. Use the biblical term proudly. Embrace Patriarchy.

  • Eric Withers

    Dr. Burke, when you say “biblical patriarchy” are you speaking of the same system promoted by those in the FIC movement, or something else?

    • Denny Burk

      No, I don’t mean to identify with the FIC movement. “Biblical Patriarchy” would be a shorthand for the complementarian position–a moniker that emphasizes the hierarchy/headship inherent within that view.

    • Denny Burk

      No, I don’t mean to identify with the FIC movement. “Biblical Patriarchy” would simply be a shorthand for the complementarian position–a moniker that emphasizes the hierarchy/headship inherent within that view.

  • Suzanne Mccarthy

    One thing has always puzzled me. You say that complementarians should be “counter-cultural.” This really baffles me.

    The first women to attend university and get medical degrees were Christian women who wanted to be Baptist missionaries. They were in fact, by attending university, being counter cultural. The seeds of the feminist movement in the 1800’s was definitely counter cutural and took a lot of courage.

    On the other hand, Paul was not counter cultural in the epistles, by encorporating slaves into the household passages, Paul was explicitly not being counter cultural.

    So, I am not sure that being counter cultural is either a good or a bad thing. I think egalitarians are counter cultural by saying that women are not subordinate. But I am not sure that Paul was counter cultural. I don’t know how one moves forward with this “counter cultural” argument – one way or the other.

    • Jessalyn Hutto

      The term “counter cultural” is simply a way of saying “Biblical.” It doesn’t necessitate that all of culture will be sinful, but refers more to the idea of not giving in to any part of culture that is unbiblical. In this way it is very important to be counter cultural and not give in to cultural norms that deviate from the Word of God.

      • Suzanne Mccarthy

        Okay, I got it. When I see an advertisement for junk food that says “man up” this doesn’t mean that since “man up” is part of secular culture, that Christians are not to “man up.” In fact, “cultural” is all good and fine as long as culture is going along with one’s interpretation of the Bibe.

  • Kamilla Ludwig

    David Hoos,

    Not a doubt in my mind that is the case. Having studied religious feminism from inside and out for 15 years now, the one stark consistency among them is a shared narrative of abuse/neglect/maltreatment. If not by their father, then by other men in their life. Even CBEs President, Mimi Haddad wears it as something of a badge of honor (see her recent interview with Campolo and Claiborne at Red Letter Christians).

  • Nathan Cesal

    Evans: “Because their rhetoric consistently reflects a commitment to an idealized glorification of the pre-feminist nuclear family of 1950s America rather than a commitment to ‘biblical manhood’ and ‘biblical womanhood’…”

    Particular gender roles are certainly idolized (not merely idealized) within the Christian community. It’s far too easy to project one’s ideas about manhood and womanhood onto the the few scraps of Scripture that tangentially mention something about gender.

    Has anyone else noticed a prominent teacher saying, “Jesus was a dude” therefore I’m into MMA and all men and boys ought to be also?

  • dr. james willingham

    “Counter-cultural!” Clearly, someone has failed to read the NT and particularly Paul more closely and to note the gutting of the issue of slavery by terms like, “my son,” “above a servant/slave,” “a brother beloved, specially to me, but how much more unto thee, both in the flesh, and in the Lord?”(Philem. 10,16)

  • Suzanne Mccarthy

    Dr, Willingham

    I would suggest that the household passages appear to support slavery and hierarchy of some kind in marriage. But Eph 5:21 challenges that – really opens it up for movement. Passages that you mention also challenge slavery.

    Likewise, Phoebe my “prostatis”, and Lydia who hosted a church, these women, friends of Paul, as well as Junia, challenge the household passages. Prostatis especially is the feminine form of the word prostates, used for Christ and typically translated into English as “defender” or “champion.” In Paul’s view, a slave should take freedom where possible and a woman should remain single where possible.

  • kevin sawyer

    Part of the problem is that feminists bind themselves in jargon, and then exploit the ambiguities their jargon conveniently creates. Patriarchs believe in a strong father figure. Well, strong fathers are often also abusive. Thus, patriarchy is about the abuse of power.

    Christians pine for the 1950s nuclear family. Well, the 1950s were rife with racism. They were a time when spousal abuse and sexual abuse were swept under the rug. So Christians patriarchs are pining for that.

    It’s basically a manifestation of the progressive fallacy, that because progress has cured certain social ills, progress is inherently validated. Yes the 1950s were racist, and we progressed beyond that mode as a nation, but that does not mean the nuclear family was responsible for racism.

    But in the echo chamber that is contemporary feminism, such arguments are never encountered. And so patriarchy (like social justice) is an inherently burdened term.

  • CJ Hemmelman

    Dr Burk,

    Question for you (and any other commenter),

    What of the argument that complimentarianism is a theological/philosophical revision of patriarchy, specifically within the understanding of women being ontologically inferior? So while patriarchy holds that women are ontologically inferior, complimentarianism rejects that claim.

    I’ve heard egalitarian apologists make this claim in order to suggest that complimentarianism is “newer” and therefore not the traditional position of the church.

    Could anyone with knowledge of historical theology in this area comment? Did the church fathers or the Reformers believe that women were ontologically inferior?

    • Kamilla


      NO ONE, but no one says women are ontologically inferior. Part of the problem with religious feminists claiming the philosophical high ground on this is their utter inability to grasp the paradox at the heart of this problem – namely that women and men are ontologically equal yet teleologically distinct. This is the fatal flaw in their argument, such as the version presented by Rebecca Groothuis in Chapter 18 of “Discovering Biblical Equality”.

      As for the Church Fathers, etc. Not a Father of the Church, but a Doctor – may I refer you to the articles in First Things, “What Aquinas Never Said About Women” and “What Aquinas Really Said About Women”. I apologize for not posting he links, they always seem to get hung up in the spam filter.


  • dr. james willingham

    Ms. Mccarthy:????Vss might appear to support slavery and hierarchy, but the setting will not, and I buy Eph.5:21. If we want to see complementarianism carried out to its logical conclusion without any counter balances, all we have to do is to look to German. Some smart cookies took advantage of the complementarian views that obtained there, and led the Germans into the disasters of World War I and Ii, especially the latter. Americans and their churches had a quasi complementarianism, but it is more authoritative than authoritarian. By authoritative I mean the authority can be question; there are checks and balances. Authoritarianism in the Germanic complementarianism did not allow for the questioning of authority. They had no checks and balances, and it cost them dearly. Most American believers have little knowledge of the checks and balances issue that sets a reality bit on the tender mouth of authority that realizes there are limitations. Our present day conservatives are rushing head long in to complementarianism without an ounce of caution or an awareness of what happened in history.

    • Suzanne Mccarthy

      Dr, Willingham,

      I think we agree on this. Let me cite a paper by Tim Keller, (Role of Women in the Church, 1989)

      It has recently been relabeled and edited to remove Keller’s name, but the google search still shows that this is the paper written by Tim and Kathy Keller. They write,

      Christians are for democracy because we believe in sin. Many folk believe in it for the opposite reason. Rousseau believed in democracy because he thought that people were so wise and good that no one is fit to be a slave. Of course, Christians wish for no one to be a slave, but we believe democracy is good because no one is fit to be a master!

      Because of sin, people misuse absolute authority. Thus it is clear that monarchy, wise and good kings, would be a form of government that very much fits the Trinitarian pattern. God is a King, not a President, and our spiritual lives are based on monarchy. So why don’t we have Kings? The answer is that we have to abolish monarchy due to sin. We have to treat all people as equal. …

      In summary, the pattern of rule-and-submission is greatly muted in society because of sin. People abuse authority, so politically, all authority must be elected authority—and all individuals must have access to places of authority.”

      What I need to know is why authority is not muted in marriage – because of sin. Why is the position of the citizen in society so protected, so important and the position of women in marriage not protected by access to power? Why do men claim one thing for themselves in society and deny it to women?

      I have been in what I considered to be two honourable complementarian congregations. One with J. Packer. And in both these congregations women were raped and beaten in the home and there was no appropriate response from the church. It was up to doctors and police.

      Christian men in the home are no less sinful than Christian monarchs in the governent. When will men treat women as they themselves ask to be treated? When will the law of Christ – do unto others – be recognized as the badge of Chrstianity?

  • Alastair Roberts

    While firmly opposing egalitarianism, I find the language of patriarchy unhelpful (at the very least) on several counts. The language is loaded for most people today. People react against the language, instead of engaging with what is actually being claimed. Also, ‘patriarchy’, much like the language of ‘hierarchy’, is incredibly vague and can take forms that are extremely abusive. I wonder just how helpful a designation that fails to differentiate one’s position from such abusive forms, and can even appear to justify or defend them, actually is. In fact, I am still not certain why we need such a name at all.

    Patriarchy also tends to characterize the male-female relationship in a unilateral manner, one which at the very least risks diminishing or at worst negating the agency of women. In practice the focus of a patriarchy framed in such a manner can be on what men should do and women shouldn’t do. It elevates the role of men, but doesn’t speak so clearly and positively to the role of women. Far more needs to be said about the distinct dignity and significance of the functions of women.

  • Retha Faurie

    Far more needs to be said about the distinct dignity and significance of the functions of women.

    To Alistair: what functions of women are there in complementarianism/ patriarchy? Is there anything men are forbidden from doing, so it is a woman’s function? For example, some may claim that nurturing children is a women’s function. But in truth, nobody would complain that a man (for example a widowed man or divorced man) who does so is usurping a female task. As such, it is not really a female function in the sense that preaching to both genders is called male.

    Is there really any tasks that are forbidden to men, so it could be called female functions? Tasks that you could clothe with dignity in order to dignify women, even single ones without children?

    To Kamilla: Suppose you are right and egal women all have stories of abuse. What useful advice can you give them that fits in with your world view? Or could you only tell them to submit, however they are treated?

    • Alastair Roberts


      Explaining my position on this subject would take some time. To summarize very briefly, I believe that the difference between male and female resides in symbolic vocations. Man’s symbolic calling primarily relates to order, law, authority, the foundation, and the institutional. Woman’s symbolic calling primarily relates to glory, life, communion, and the future. There are certain roles that are inescapably gendered, as they have a particular symbolic value. For instance, only a woman can be a mother (even an adoptive mother), and only a man can be a father.

      There is no reason why a mother can’t be a leader, a strong personality, or a wise and powerful teacher. Likewise, there is no reason why a father cannot be a nurturer, a supporter, or someone who produces communion within the household. However, he symbolizes and relates to a particular pole of activity against which his actions and relations will be read. Although he can perform functions that may more naturally correspond to the woman’s pole of activity, and she can perform functions that may more naturally correspond to his, they cannot truly symbolize the pole that belongs to the other. For this reason, it must be claimed that women (married, single, with or without children) perform symbolic vocations within the world and Church within which men cannot take their place.

      Are there any ‘offices’ (ordained or otherwise), as distinct from mere symbolic functions, which only women can fill? Yes, I believe that there are. Apart from the natural ones of mother, daughter, wife, and sister, I believe that the Church has had some offices in the past, offices which were often formally recognized in a form distinct from ordained ministries. I strongly believe that the Church should recover such offices.

      I believe that these symbolic functions are in a dynamic relation. The male vocation especially relates to the laying of the foundation and establishing the order and form. The female vocation especially relates to the filling of the form, glorification of the order, transforming the institution into and communion, and realization of the full telos. Men can’t fulfil this symbolic vocation properly. While the male symbolic vocation is especially operative at the outset, at the foundation, and at the boundaries, once this function has been performed, the symbolic vocation of women must come into foreground and greater prominence. This does not occur by women conforming themselves to the symbolic offices corresponding to the male symbolic vocation (such as the priesthood or fatherhood), but by women exercising the full measure of their gifts in their symbolic vocation. The symbolic vocation of men, exercised appropriately, should serve to empower women in this, and not compete with them.

      • Don Johnson

        Funny that the Holy Spirit gives gifts as God wishes and there is no indication in those 3 places in the NT where gifts are mentioned that the gifts are gendered.

        The church leadership ministries are not offices, that is crucial to see in the NT. The 12 can be seen as offices as there needed to be 12 to map to the 12 tribes, but there are no offices for church leaders.

  • Kamilla Ludwig

    My advice is to follow the the direction we are given in Scripture, especially in the Sermon on the Mount – forgive.

    What makes you think I would tell someone to “submit, however they are treated”?

    • Retha Faurie

      The “submit, however treated” was an example of what I heard other patriarchy supporters said. But I quoted it not to say you will teach that, but to show we are speaking of abuse that is not escaped from yet. In that case, will you speak of getting away? Help her get away? Or convince her to stay? Or would you avoid the real problem and only tell her to forgive while not giving advice with the situation?

      • Kamilla Ludwig

        Can you provide a sourced quote? Not something a misguided pastor said in a sermon somewhere – but a published source from someone generally recognized as mainstream Complementarian.

        And an example of what you consider abusive?

        I ask because there has been a great deal of twaddle, not to mention rank lies, peddled over where you hang out sometimes.

        In return, what would you tell a husband whose wife is abusing him? And let’s make it simple – She slaps him or throws things at him when she gets angry. It is ongoing and escalating. What would you tell the husband to do in that situation?

      • Kamilla Ludwig

        Can you provide a sourced quote? Not something a misguided pastor said in a sermon somewhere, but a published source from someone generally recognized as mainstream complementarian.

        And an example of what you consider abusive?

        I ask because there has been a great deal of twaddle and outright lies peddled about some of these complementarian men and the chief source I’ve seen for these lies is you hangout, ECA.

        In return, what would you tell a husband whose wife is abusing him? Let’s make it simple – she slaps him and throws things at him when she gets angry. This behaviour is ongoing and it is escalating.

        How would you counsel the husband in that situation?

        • Retha Faurie

          I am very unhappy that I used my first and last name on your blog, as you deleted one of my comments. Shortly after Kamilla asked a quote of a complementarian source that recommends women to submit to abuse, I quoted some comp/ patriarchy quotes about it. (After all, my claim was about patriarchy.)

          I thus showed that I had a reason for saying what I did. The post, I see now, was deleted. Now, my name on your blog gives me a reputation as someone who makes wild allegations without backing them up.

          If you have a reputation for deleting comments, people may not want to use their full names here.

  • Rachel Stone (@rachel_m_stone)

    “It’s simply what the Scriptures teach about manhood and womanhood.”

    I shouldn’t be surprised by this, but why is there always the insistence on a hermeneutically-naive “clear Biblical teaching” when no one “simply” follows “what the Scriptures teach” regarding many, many things–like beating people with a rod until it leaves marks and stoning adulterers?

    • Kamilla Ludwig


      It’s called hermeneutics. Everybody uses it and nobody takes everything they read or hear in a directly, woodenly literal sense. That’s not naivete, that’s just good sense.

      Simply because you and your name sake want to deny the possibility of an orthodox hermeneutic doesn’t make one impossible. The drumbeat of picking and choosing coming from Mrs. Evans is simply silly – of course everyone “picks and chooses”. The question is *how* and whether or not they are consistently applying an orthodox hermeneutic.

  • EstaAnn Ammerman


    I recently found the link to Evan’s blog and surfed my way here. I must tell you that the words you use to define and communicate such things as who we are in Messiah and the way you all relate them to scripture in my mind is barely coloring within the lines. This discussion is completely limited to American Evangelical Culture. I’m not even sure what “Evangelical” is today in America. If you want to talk about “Biblical” view of manhood and womanhood, you will have to submerse yourself in the Hebraic Culture of 2000 years ago and really take a hard look at how Jesus treated both men and women. The Complementarian view to me is so completely ‘Alien’ because I was raised Roman Catholic. Yes, women are so much more equal to men even though only men at this time can be priest. That’s just about the difference. Otherwise among Catholics, there is complete and total equality. I’m telling you that you are circling around with the words and doctrine in with you were immersed. I departed Roman Catholicism and got a very “RUDE” awaking in the Evangelical Community. And by the way, can you define “Evangelical in the year 2012” Thank you. Peace, EstaAnn

  • dr. james willingham

    Dear Ms. Mccarthy: I have been off the net for a week, due to computer breakdown so much for dilatory response. You might be interested in my “Genius of Orthodoxy: Eldresses.” An address on how Sandy Creek Baptist Assn. could have eldresses in the 1700s. I tried to reconstruct the case for that effort. The libs. ignored it, as it was based in rad. feminism yuck and the conservatives did too, cause they never read outside the box. They know so little of their heady intellectual origins or how the Bible is so deep intellectually that we are hard pressed to understand even the clearest of statements. Sort of like a friend of mine who thought a moutain stream was only 2-3 feet deep, because he could see the sand rolling along the bottom. It was 18-20 feet deep and he almsot drowned. When was a student working on my Master’s in American Social & Intellectual History, I remembered thinking: The Bible claims to be inspired by Omniscience. It ought therefore to reflect a depth of wisdom commensurate with that fact. I started looking at it from that angle, and found such to be the case. Now I look for a Great Awakening, hopefully, beginning in this generation, reaching ever soul with persuasion, and continuing for 1000 generations. Also God can crack a joke for the comfort of His persecuted followers in Rev.7:9.

  • Riley Lindner

    I am still trying to decide what I think about complementarianism vs egalitarianism. I think that it would clarify things a lot if someone gave me an example of how this works in real life.

    For example:

    How does this work in day to day decision making (what to eat for dinner tonight, who is going to get the car fixed)?

    How does this work in more difficult decision making (whether to have another child)?

    Does the husband always get the final say when there is an argument, or are some things in the male domain and some things in the female domain?

    Also, is there a similar relationship that I can take example from? Is the relationship between husband and wife akin to me and my boss (I give this example because my boss has clear authority over me, and at the same time I respect my boss a great deal and value her opinions and expertise)? Or is there a better example out there?

  • Don Johnson

    It is true that a believer should not capitulate to the spirit in any age, whether it is patriarchy in the time of the 1st century or egalitarianism in the 21st century. What they should do is seek the guidance of the Spirit as illuminated and consistent with the Bible. And this is exactly where comps and egals differ, we both look to the Bible as authoritative for our faith, but come to radically different ideas about what that means for the church and family.

    It is not really a good response to claim that believers that accept the Bible’s authority are simply “giving into the spirit of the age”. One must investigate the arguments of both sides in each side’s own words.

  • Jonathan A. Aigner

    Hey Denny, I understand you’re a patriarchalist. That’s your prerogative and I’m probably not going to convince you otherwise.

    But it’s so very arrogant to suggest that “complementarians” are the ones who are simply trying to follow what the Bible says on the issue. All the evangelical egalitarians I’ve ever met have arrived at this position because of the Bible. That’s right – through Scripture, I was convicted that I was wrong about this. I realized that no matter how much I wanted to embrace patriarchy because it was familiar and comfortable, I couldn’t get there from the text.

    I know you and I differ on this, but I also know it’s because you want to be faithful to the Bible. Well, we have that in common.

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