When Unequal = Equal: How Complementarianism changes the Meaning of Words

by | Mar 8, 2024 | Theology of Marriage and Sex | 32 comments

Orgasm Course

Separate but equal has been tried and failed.

So why is the church still using the same arguments about gender?

It’s International Women’s Day, and I thought I’d sum up some of what we said in a podcast yesterday, combined with some great input you all gave me on Facebook a few weeks ago!

Yesterday, Keith and I were responded to critics on our podcast who say that we’re attacking a strawman when we attack complementarianism. Complementarianism is the belief in male hierarchy in marriage and/or church, where men are in authority over women.

On the podcast, Keith and I were talking about how this just doesn’t work, and today I want to put up a quick post about the problem with language, and how it’s often twisted. For instance, I recently had a commenter argue that they don’t view women as inferior; they just have different roles. But they are actually equal. Here’s what I wrote on Facebook about it:

Let’s think about this in any terms other than gender. If we were to say, “Brown-eyed people can’t teach blue-eyed people, but blue-eyed people can teach everybody,” then would we believe that brown-eyed people and blue-eyed people were equal? We certainly wouldn’t be treating them equally.

If we were to say that brown-eyed people have to follow and submit to blue-eyed people, and blue-eyed people get to make final decisions that brown-eyed people have to go along with, would we be saying that brown-eyed people and blue-eyed people are equal?

The “separate but equal” argument has been tried and failed. You cannot call people equal if you fundamentally treat one group of people differently and deny them opportunities.

But what has happened is that, because people believe that God says this, then they think, “even though we’re treating people unequally, it must still be equal, because God says it.”

So unequal becomes equal. Prejudice becomes fairness. Discrimination becomes equality.

It’s one of the reasons that it’s so hard to talk to people about these issues; we have fundamental disagreements on what words mean.

So let’s make it clear: Someone is not equal to you if they are not allowed to teach you while you are allowed to teach them, and if they must follow what you decide while you don’t have to follow them. That is, at heart, an unequal relationship. By definition. End of story. And you can’t pretend otherwise.

Sheila Wray Gregoire

on Facebook

Of course, people don’t always say it’s the end of the story, and the response that is often given is similar to this one, that Keith and I talked about yesterday, from the Center for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood:

Would you feel the same way about a parent/child relationship? Or of the relationship between an employee and his/her supervisor? Do you believe we should eliminate all manifestations of relational hierarchy, as demeaning to those under the authority of another? Relationships within authority structures surround us. We live and work in them every day. We would have utter chaos without them. But such authority structures do not entail the greater human value or essential superiority of those in charge, or minimize the human value or imply the essential inferiority of those under their charge.

Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

Summaries of the Egalitarian and Complementarian Positions

These analogies about gender don’t work.

I find this perspective so strange, because women are not children. And children eventually grow up and will no longer be under a parent’s authority; a wife will never grow out of it because she is a woman and can’t change that. An employee could one day become a supervisor–or could just quit and leave. A wife can’t.

A child and an employee are under authority for a specific, limited time. And, in the case of an employee, only for a specific set of tasks.

A wife, by nature of being a woman, is under authority for all times, about everything, and will never emerge from that authority, which is not by choice. These are not analogous.

Rebecca Groothuis, in an amazing article she wrote over 40 years ago, that we also quoted yesterday, deals with this so well:

In female subordination, the criterion for who is subordinate to whom has nothing to do with expediency or the abilities of individuals to perform particular functions. Rather, it is determined entirely on the basis of an innate, unchangeable aspect of a woman`s being, namely, her female sexuality. Her inferior status follows solely from her essential nature as a woman. Regardless of how traditionalists try to explain the situation, the idea that women are equal in their being, yet unequal by virtue of their being, simply makes no sense. If you cannot help but be what you are, and if inferiority in function follows necessarily and exclusively from what you are, then you are inferior in your essential being.

Rebecca Groothuis

Christian Ethics Today, Equal in Being–Unequal in Function: The Gender Hierarchy Argument

(seriously, I can’t believe we’re still debating this forty years later).

Some of my commenters also chimed in about equal but unequal on Facebook.

Several pushed back, saying things like this, when I made the point that those in mutual marriages do better:

Happiness, sex life and kids who turn out well is immaterial. God does not call us to be happy; He calls us to be faithful.

Faithfulness is a Fruit of the Spirit, and it seems to be brought out in hardship. Abraham and Isaac on the mountain, for instance.

That seems such a pessimistic view, but it was repeated so often!

Many, though, agreed, saying things like:

Brown eyed and blue eyed people are both “fundamentally” different in the precise same ways as male & female are “fundamentally” different. We have a chromosomal differences that lead to some anatomical differences that have little to no bearing on how we think, lead, or function in the world– except when people choose to make them an issue in leadership.

Comps…no, patriarchalists SAY the equality mantra, partly because it is so blatantly obvious from historical and contemporary evidence that women are perfectly capable of leadership and all its attendant duties. If they tried to deny it at this point, they know they would be laughed out of the room. So if you ask one, “Are women CAPABLE of leadership and protection and intellectual excellence, etc.,” they would (most of them) assent.

So if you push on further, and ask if women are capable of fulfilling these roles, then why would God decree that men lead; women follow? Would we really lose anything if we switched roles? Wouldn’t we more fully express the Godhead if we switched as the situation needed? That is where they will not follow you. That is where they believe, and some will say, that we lose SOMETHING about the expression of the Godhead if women lead and men follow. Because they really DO believe, no matter what they say, that women, SIMPLY BY THEIR NATURE AND REGARDLESS OF THEIR GIFTINGS, cannot lead and still express the image of God. That our very presence in the role perverts the picture. And there you have the kernel of truth that they can’t even face themselves very often.

You can’t claim “different roles, but equal” when one side has all the restrictions while the other side holds all the authority. That is, by definition, not equal.

But we HAVE allowed women to teach children. Because kids are hard work and the work would never get done otherwise. We HAVE allowed women to teach men over seas in arguably more “dangerous” places.

We HAVE allowed women to lead whenever there aren’t any men able and willing to do the job. We have allowed women to do almost anything else they are gifted for, when no one else is there to do it and when we refuse all titles of authority and take no pay. We have often allowed women to be able to do all the same work as long as they do this UNDER a man and his “covering” or authority. Proving that this is not about a woman’s lack of ability. This is not even really about obedience to Scripture. This is purely about cultural domination. Of men over women and husbands over wives and white people over brown people.

However, I will also say, that in God’s upsidedown kingdom where the first are last and the last are first, women have been given the better part that will not be taken away from us.

We have been given the lowest positions and we have been expected to serve continually and teach only children or teach unofficially, or quietly. But the meek inherit the earth. We have taught them and loved them and they are the leaders of tomorrow.

It is very confusing to be told that a certain belief is good and from God and that God is good, but you see that teaching play out and it is harmful.. you say, how can this be God’s design if God is good but this is harmful?– they say, well, it must not be harmful, you must be mistaken, because this teaching for sure is from God therefore it is good, so keep doing this because this is good. Makes you feel crazy! And you believe it is good and you keep doing it and you even think the harm you see isn’t harm at all. Until the harm is so obvious that you have to decide. Either this is from God and because it is harmful than he is harmful too OR God is good and this is actually NOT his original design. What is the fruit? A good tree cannot bear bad fruit–

They argue (interestingly) about the inequality by saying that actually, women are on pedestals — protected and cared for more than men are. Even if that were true, it is also unhealthy and unequal. Being treated equally is simply golden rule stuff! Do unto others as you would have them do to you. Treating women as an equal doesn’t mean treating her “like a guy” and being a jerk.. unless you want that treatment towards yourself? When I have heard them describe this argument it is as if the only choice is either the pedestal or under the shoe. Equal, and loving ones neighbor well, and do unto others as you would want done to you is NOT easy in this falling world! Yet they strive for this *slight* imbalance between men and women. Why is their goal this tiny “perfect” hierarchy rather than what God actually designed, which was completely mutual (they were both told to rule over the earth)

If your roles are determined by gender and not giftings, that is bigotry. And when one gender can do any role, but the other is forbidden from doing certain roles (the ones granting authority, prestige and power, coincidentally), you can not say that all are valued equally. Women are not valued as much as men in a system that does not allow them to teach men, have authority over men, lead men… women are not as valued as men in a system that silences their voices in the church, that does not view their wisdom as having as much weight, that constantly tells them they need to be led.

And I love this gracious response to women who were arguing back:

I feel led to hold some space for these women coming in and arguing, because as much as they are propping up patriarchy and bad theology…they must also feel very much a NEED to do so. If you have been taught by loving parents and what you perceive as wise elders that this is the way. Then marry, raise children and spend 40-50 years of your life in it..train your daughters to live it out.. how terrifying it must be to contemplate it’s all a misunderstanding at best, or even a lie. Because all of those moments when it didn’t feel right, or caused pain, and you told yourself that was the refiners fire and ignore those thoughts, prayed through them read another harmful book…what if those were really alarm bells from the Holy Spirit letting you know you were incorrect? How do you live now? What can you do? What if your daughter is married to [an idiot] who does it all wrong and you’ve been telling her you will pray for her as she submits “better”? How do you face that? This is something we can do better at in many areas. Holding the flashlight with a gentle beckon, but yet demanding an honest facing of things. And to those folks. It WILL be ok. It will. Living truth and grace is always the better way.

That’s a great place to end. And I hope against hope that in 40 years, someone won’t be reading my words to try to convince the church to change. I hope that we will have made some progress towards putting Jesus back on the throne, and running after Him together.

Happy International Women’s Day, everyone!

And if you want to spread the word about how God sees women, consider buying yourself an international women’s day gift in our Be a Biblical Woman merch or our Prayer & Tent Pegs merch. Let’s change this conversation, once and for all, so that instead of arguing about how women should be restricted, we can get on with the work of bringing God’s kingdom to earth. 

Great Sex Rescue is on for $3.99 on Kindle–Sunday Only!

Great Sex Rescue

Watch for the one-day sale this Sunday!

And spread the word! If you haven’t read The Great Sex Rescue yet, or if you have a friend who is interested but hasn’t gotten it yet, now’s the chance! The more people read it, the more will recommend it to others. And this is how we change the church and make marriages better!

Written by

Sheila Wray Gregoire


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. JG

    I think that it’s all about control. If the complementarians admitted to being wrong, I believe that they fear losing their control over their wives and daughters. Many men love the control that they think that they must have over others. Unfortunately, I have seen this played out in how my dad has treated my mom, and even my sister and me.

    They use Scripture to back up their beliefs so that if it’s protested, they can claim that the protesters are “rebelling” against God’s Word. That keeps everyone in bondage to a teaching that has proven to be very toxic.

  2. Nathan

    > > Happiness, sex life and kids who turn out well is immaterial. God does not call us to be happy; He calls us to be faithful.

    Yes, God calls us to be faithful, but I don’t see that we have to be miserable in our faith. I believe that God wants us to be faithful, to live our faith, but He also wants us to be happy in pursuing our lives within that faith.

    And I can’t believe that God doesn’t care if our children grow up to be responsible adults or not.

    If people grow up to be sad, miserable, irresponsible, lazy, etc., it’s easier for them to be controlled, and that’s likely what some of these leaders want. This seems to be about THEIR glory, not God’s.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      This is really true, Nathan! Sad and miserable people often lose confidence, and then you can control them.

      • Lisa Johns

        Pharisees were EXTREMELY faithful people. Jesus told them He didn’t think much of their faith.

    • Viva

      Joy and Peace are also manifestations of the Holy Spirit.
      Taken all together, they sure seem to add up to happiness and flourishing.

    • Jo R

      I wonder if that commenter is giving her husband orgasms on demand.

      Shouldn’t her husband be foregoing things that make him happy? Because he’d of course want to avoid anything that might take his eyes off his faithfulness to God, right? He might be tempted to look at those things with more interest than he should, so shouldn’t he be avoiding even the appearance of evil by forsaking things like orgasms on demand?

      Can’t be too careful, you know!

    • NM

      Joy is also a fruit of the spirit! And I don’t buy the garbage definition of “joy” I was raised with, that it was something difficult to define but separate from happiness. Joy is laughter, delight, a deep feeling of happiness. Of course there will still be pain in life too, but I don’t buy for a second that God doesn’t want us to experience real joy in following Him.

  3. Jo R

    As a blue-eyed woman, can I just say to the brown-eyed men, “Get on your knees, *****!”? 🤔

    🤣 🤣 🤣

    Ok, but seriously, would my blue eyes outweigh my sex now? Oh, yes, as I scroll back, it says “blue-eyed PEOPLE,” not “blue-eyed MEN,” so yes, that does give me unfettered, unlimited authority over brown-eyed people, even if those people are men.

    But rest assured, brown-eyed men, I’ll only use “muh authuriteh and power” for your good! Really! Trust me! 😉

    • shoshana

      Jo R I am a green eyed woman, where do I fit in….? No where just like unmarried or single people feel in church at times I guess…so no authority for them….lol.

      • Jo R

        Of course you get ignored! You don’t fit the very small boxes we’ve built, so we just pretend that we don’t need to explain why our system doesn’t work for everyone! And stop drawing attention to our inadequate system too! You’re clearly sinful and in rebellion! Are you even a Christian?!


  4. Lisa Johns

    The same people who are constantly on about how a woman shouldn’t be leading and teaching when men are in the room are the same ones who will probably tell you not to bury your talent in the ground. How does this compute when a woman’s talent obviously is in the area of finances, or teaching, or administration? I’m seriously wondering why they think God gives a woman a brain at all, if not to use it.

    Oh wait, it was to make us humble, right?

    • Nethwen

      Oh, but women aren’t *actually* gifted in those things. They just think they are. It’s the men who are gifted in discernment and can see where the women’s gifts actually are. *eyeroll*

      • Lisa Johns

        Oh yeah, I forgot about that. (eye-roll)

  5. Angharad

    Sadly, some people are moving away from the ‘equal but different roles’ argument to something even worse. Direct quote from a Facebook post seen today.

    “But the two genders are not equal… God created us differently, and different is not equal. ”

    Sigh. Can someone please explain, in words of one syllable, that ‘different’ does not mean ‘unequal’.

    • Nathan

      Part of this is compounded by the fact that “equal” can mean “identical” or “worth”. Yes, there are gender differences (although not as much as some people think), but the genders are of equal worth and value

  6. Katrina

    What scares me about the “different roles, but equal value” argument is how it’s more or less the same argument that was used to defend racism before/during the Civil Rights movement. Like how people argued that African Americans couldn’t attend a white church and that was “fine” because they could attend their black church. In the same way people argue that women can’t lead men and that’s “fine” because they can use their leadership gifting to lead women. It’s the same argument. And it’s just as wrong. We’ve been over this argument as a culture and a country. But here we are using the same arguments.

    • Lisa Johns

      Why is it that the church seems to be the last segment of society to improve outdated mindsets that were observably horrible?

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      It really does surprise me that people are still making these same arguments unironically. How they can not see what they’re doing is beyond me.

      • Kay

        Likely because of our sinful nature, we’re doing it (hierarchy) wrong. 😑 if we just did it “right” all these problems of what comps say are “extremes” would go away.

        And also because we are called to be “set apart from the world”, so if the world is doing one thing…. Gods way must be the opposite.

        • Sheila Wray Gregoire

          I think this last part has a lot to do with it. So many Christians are so intent on doing things exactly opposite of the world. But what if the world is getting some things right? Like human rights? Like valuing children’s emotional development? Like empowering women? It’s crazy.

          (Also, the world is still predominantly patriarchal if you look at the vast majority of measures. So it’s not doing things “differently” by clinging to patriarchy).

    • Nethwen

      Studying the Civil Rights movement was one of the first things that led me to start questioning the comp teachings I was raised with. If separate, but equal was bunk for races, why was it true for genders?

  7. Julie

    Shout out to Jane Elliot for the Blue Eyes Brown Eyes experiment. Please cite/credit her.

  8. Connie

    Even IF Ephesians said for wives to ‘submit’ to husbands, it would still be an instruction to the wife, to do voluntarily. It does NOT say anywhere that I’ve seen, for husbands to ‘make’ their wives submit (whatever that means, anyway), or shame them into it. We all submit to others all the time, letting another car in front of you into traffic, for instance. All the time, but it’s from free will, from basic respect of each other, not compulsion. If women went on and on about husbands loving their wives in the same way that men go on and on about submission, it would be sick, too.

    • Lisa Johns

      It might be sick, but it might also be a wake up call for the husbands! Or it might, as in my case, be shut down because my wasband “obviously” loved me and I was “obviously” just not grateful enough for him.
      The thing that I am realizing is that when men gripe about an issue, it generates conversation, but when women gripe about an equal and opposite issue (as in your proposed discussion where women demand love to the same degree that men demand respect) the conversation tends to be shut down and the most vocal women labeled as ridiculous. Lovely conundrum.

  9. Blair

    Sheila, why do you allow people to be so hateful on your own platform? People are so nasty on here, and it’s not just one sided, before people go jump down my throat for daring to say such a thing. I hope you step up to the plate and lead by example. This is not Christlike stuff on here. You have said nothing on today’s post and it falls back to you as well. Seems like my comments aren’t being approved just for calling out the nastiness.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Actually, Blair, I have had a close family member in the hospital all day. That is why I haven’t been commenting or approving comments. And I am also 10 hours away speaking and it has been agony.

    • Fisher

      Blair, you obviously don’t understand the nature of the comments. Women commenting here aren’t hateful. They are WOUNDED. grievously so in some cases. Oozing pain which comes out as sarcasm is not the same as hate. It can be easy for someone who has never experienced such abuse and servitude in marriage to misunderstand and make a wrong assessment. Don’t be that guy. Put on your best attitude of compassion and do your best to show kindness to the downtrodden.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Blair, I have just learned that you are being deceptive in your commenting. You have created FOUR different accounts and are complaining about me and my commenters in different ways using each of the four accounts to make it look like the displeasure is larger than it is. This is LYING. This is SIN. This is WRONG.

      You have been banned, and you should be ashamed of yourself. All your posturing about how we are all bad, when you are actually the one lying? That’s really rich.

  10. Angela

    So good, and yes I think its terrifying and disorienting to a lot of comp women. I was raised mostly egal and it still took me two decades to fully leave comp ideas. Remember that it’s all backed up by the upspoken threat of hell if you get it wrong. Or maybe something more concrete like conflict or divorce.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      It is so disorienting. I think I’ve been doing this for so long that sometimes I forget how unmoored you can feel at the beginning of the journey. But there’s so much freedom on the other side, knowing that God wants you to follow Him wholeheartedly, without a mediator!

  11. joe me

    friends, I think we all agree on :
    1. value wise and spiritually we are all equal
    2. there are some differences between the sexes
    3. God set up who is the leader in marriage, it doesn’t have be about capability. (perhaps he chose the less capable even!? it doesn’t matter.)

    we must humbly follow God as best as we can honestly see in the New Testament scriptures.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Actually, no. We can agree on #1 and #2 for sure. But the leader in the marriage is Jesus. We both follow Him. The only place where authority in marriage is explicitly talked about in the New Testament is in 1 Corinthians 7, and there it is shared.

      And when marriages function like that–they do very well.


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