Complementarians And The Rise Of Second-Wave Evangelical Feminism

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 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 I was nearly finished when I remembered—with a jolt—that unpublished article from five years ago.3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 menwomen 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

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. 6:9but never mother.11 This is the same Deity who revealed himself as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Ex. 3:6Matt. 22:32) but not “of Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel,” who sent his Son, not his daughter, to save the world (Mark 1:1Heb. 1:1–4), who restricted the priesthood to men (Ex. 28:1Num. 3:10; cf. Lev. 21:1ff) and appointed men as the “heads” of their wives (Eph. 5:22–32Col. 3:18–19; cf. 1 Cor. 11:38–9), 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

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  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. 2:15–173:17, and outfitted with the necessary capacities for this work. The woman likewise was created to be the man’s “helper” (Gen. 2:181 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 3:2Titus 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 21:16Acts 20:281 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. 
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