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Danger of Labels in Discussing Gender

We believe that most labels are of limited value in describing any given topic or position, including the biblical terminology surrounding manhood and womanhood. Labels typically limit the description of a subject to a certain oversimplified caricature. The debates surrounding gender roles are no exception in that the discussion has been burdened with a simplistic kind of partisan, polemical, and politicized verbiage. As we’ve sought to elaborate in a recent post, the label “patriarchal,” for example, carries with it mostly negative baggage in our culture because of a heavy feminist influence and ideological propaganda.

Though the label “complementarian” seeks to avoid an undue focus on the man’s authority and for the most part explains the scope and emphasis of the category of thinking on the subject very well, it is incomplete (if not potentially misleading) in that it focuses unilaterally on one characteristic trait of the male-female relationship, namely complementarity. Man is created in such a way that he needs the woman and vice versa. They are perfectly and beautifully complementary in their sex, roles, and original purpose.

In truth, however, this is something that the opposing viewpoint holds to be true as well. Evangelical feminists affirm complementarity, albeit sans the belief in male leadership that is integral to the complementarian view (though that is only explicit in the label “complementarian”). This is why evangelical feminists published a book a few years ago, Discovering Biblical Equality, with the subtitle, “Complementarity without Hierarchy.” In other words, egalitarians believe in male-female complementarity, and complementarians believe in male-female equality! Partial labels can be confusing and tell only part of the story.

What is more, evangelical feminists (egalitarians) sometimes call complementarians “hierarchicalists,” which somewhat tendentiously and erroneously portrays them as being fixated with male authority in a top-down hierarchical fashion. Clearly, labels can become rhetorical weapons that are hurled at their opponents in order to cause calculated damage for the sake of winning an argument but that have limited value in delimiting a particular position or category of thought.

Though the issues are fairly complex, a nuanced approach to the use of labels can provide several benefits in clarifying some very important and necessary distinctions. In our study, complementarian relationships differ from egalitarian ones in several distinct ways that we can affirm as we work through the dazzling maze of the ever-increasing options to gender in our world.

Complementarians acknowledge a woman’s main role to be a helper to her husband in managing and subduing the earth together and in partnering with him to raise and nurture a family. Egalitarians affirm male-female partnership but not male leadership and female submission (unless roles are entirely interchangeable along the lines of “mutual submission”) and tend to see men and women on the same plane in every sphere of life, including in leadership roles that complementarians believe God’s Word limits to men. Though complementarians may acknowledge that these are “restrictions” in a certain sense, they prefer to view them as “assignments” and contend that these role distinctions have nothing to do with any difference in worth between men and woman. In fact, all humans are created in God’s image, which is glorious for both men and women! According to complementarians, these unique assignments are fully God-ordained and perfectly designed to suit and satisfy both sexes.

What these examples show, in our opinion, is that while labels have some benefit, there is no satisfactory substitute for exploring the biblical theology of manhood and womanhood as a whole as it naturally unfolds throughout the entire Bible. As a result, we limit the use of labels in our book except to explain some of the necessary and important differences in views. We seek instead to focus on Scripture’s consistent and coherent pattern of male and female identity and roles, a pattern that is present from Genesis to Revelation.

At the root, we want God to be glorified in his church, people to be saved, and men and women to live fully satisfying and holy lives before their God. To this end we dedicate our book as we strive to unveil God’s good design for men and women. Similar to other biblical paradoxes, some would have you believe that Scripture cannot at the same time teach male leadership and male-female partnership. This may be hard for finite human minds to understand, and impossible for those committed at the outset to unfettered male-female equality to accept, but we believe it is nonetheless true, and if Scripture is allowed to speak for itself, best characterizes God’s sovereign, wise, and loving design for man and woman.

For Further Study

To see God’s Design for Man and Woman: A Biblical-Theological Survey for more, click here.

To see the original blog post on Crossway’s website, click here.

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