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Why I'm Neither an Egalitarian nor a Complementarian

Rebekah Hargraves
Rebekah Hargraves

As you have probably already gathered from my recent series on Biblical womanhood, I claim neither the label of "egalitarian" nor the label of "complementarian" for myself. Because our modern-day church culture is one in which you are expected to be either one or the other (with no third option), this may not seem like a possibility. But I assure you that it is. In fact, I personally believe that when you begin to find issues with either side of a debate, the only alternative is for you to refuse both. Otherwise you will inadvertently be saying things about yourself and your beliefs that are not truly representative of what you actually do believe. With that in mind, here is why I'm neither an egalitarian nor a complementarian.

Boxes, labels, and systems are man-made.

Whether it is the label "egalitarian", "complementarian", "Calvinist", "Arminian", "Baptist" or something else entirely, our boxes, labels, and systems are all man-made. They are not Scriptural. While the beliefs held within each system do have their own set of Scriptures to which they point as being their proof texts, they are still a set of Scriptures which man has taken (oftentimes to the negligence of other passages!) and combined together along with his own viewpoint and wisdom to come up with a system of belief.

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Now, please don't mishear me – this is not being said in a spirit of attack against anyone who adheres to any of these labels (I myself have held to many of them over the years!). Neither am I saying that people who take on labels are terrible Christ-followers or necessarily guilty of manhandling the Word of God. I am also not saying that creeds or catechisms or systematic theologies cannot be helpful or important. What I am saying, however, is that rather than strictly adhering to and following a system of belief, packaged together and labeled by man, why don't we instead just look to the Word of God alone and believe what it says? That brings me to my next point,

When you adhere to a man-made system, you are far more likely to willingly ignore, explain away, or change passages of Scripture that do not fit into your box, rather than simply allowing Scripture to interpret Scripture.

Just ask me how I know this is true! It's because I have been there, done that, and it was not until I was finally willing to simply accept, study, and bring together all 66 books of the Bible that I more fully understood Biblical womanhood as it is actually portrayed in Scripture and not as how one camp or another wishes for it to be portrayed. Only then did I feel freedom and peace when reading the Word. Because up until that point, I had to wrestle with or ignore or explain away whole passages of the Word because they did not fit into the complementarian framework I espoused for years. The same goes for egalitarianism. Their proof texts aside, there are other passages which egalitarians must reckon with that do not easily fit into their belief system. This is always what logically follows when we care more about upholding our systems than we do simply the Word of God itself.

Said systems are always formed in response to something else and therefore are typically fear-based more than they are Bible-based.

Complementarianism as a belief system began in 1987 with the formation of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, founded by John Piper, Wayne Grudem, and others. It began as a response to evangelical feminism (i.e. egalitarianism) and, as such, I believe went too far into an unBiblical extreme in an effort to forcefully reject some of the negative cultural and church issues brought about by feminism. This happens all the time. Problems are uncovered in one construct or another so, in order to fight it, we run as far as we can in the opposite direction. I've spoken about this issue a number of times both in my book and here on my blog, because I've made that same mistake myself.

What we ought to be doing instead, however, is simply resting in the Word of God, believing that His Word and His wisdom far surpass anything man could come up with. Rather than reading into it ideas which aren't there in order to "fight" an issue in our day, we ought to instead simply purpose to be as the Bereans (Acts 17:11) who took everything they heard and then compared it to the Word of God to see if it were true. We need to be diligent and faithful students of the whole canon of Scripture (2 Timothy 2:15) and allow it alone to form the basis of our beliefs – not a belief system of man that we want to uphold if at all possible.

Both complementarianism and egalitarianism are unBiblical.

Let's first begin with egalitarianism. I am not an egalitarian because egalitarians are of the belief that there are no inherent differences between the genders in how they are to operate or in which responsibilities they are to fulfill. An egalitarian believes that men and women are, more or less, interchangeable in regards to roles and functions in the home and church (something that is clearly rendered false via a brief survey of the Word).

Another reason why I am not an egalitarian is because egalitarianism is just another word for evangelical feminism which, if you have studied the history and philosophy of feminism for over a decade as I have, you know is an oxymoron.

Egalitarians do get a lot right (i.e. I agree with them in their interpretation of Genesis 1:26-28 ,which shows that man and woman were both given leadership, dominion, and subduing responsibilities; I also agree with their emphasis on the unBiblical nature of patriarchy as well as their propensity to point out strong, influential, inspiring women of the Word like Deborah and Priscilla). However, they have enough wrong in their system of belief and are linked to the dangerous philosophy of feminism enough to render me unable to label myself an egalitarian.

Let's turn now to some of the problems with complementarianism. There are many, but for the sake of time, I will seek to condense it into but a few main points.

The false belief that women are subordinate to men.

I already addressed this issue last week, so I won't rehash all of it again. Suffice it to say that because the founders of complementarianism continually insist on referring to women as being subordinate, I cannot take on the label of complementarian. To say that an entire half of the human race is lower in rank or position and less important than the other half is no small issue (and yet that is exactly what the founders of complementarianism say: "The order of creation (male created first) indicates God's design of male priority in the male/female relationship."). Make no mistake – this affects everything and is, in part, the reason why so many cases of abuse are running rampant in both complementarian and patriarchal circles. When you begin to believe that women are less-than or inferior (even subconsciously), you begin to justify various forms of abuseagainst them. While I'm not an egalitarian, that belief system does have this going for it: there are very few cases of abuse, objectification, or cat-calling of women in that sphere!

The false, borderline-heretical doctrine of ESS.

The belief that women are subordinate to men stems from complementarianism's foundational belief that God the Son is eternally subordinate to God the Father. Grudem and the other original founders of complementarianism have all concluded that without the doctrine of ESS, there is no complementarianism as a system of belief. That fact alone is more than enough for me to no longer take on the label of complementarian.

I touched on this a bit last week, but I promised to dive into it further this week: the doctrine of ESS (Eternal Subordination of the Son) is the false belief that not only was Christ submissive to the plan and will of the Father while on earth, being willing to take on human form and go to the cross for us (which He clearly was – Luke 22:42, Philippians 2:5-8), but that the Son was, is, and always will be in a position of subordination to the Father. This is completely unBiblical, for, as we saw last week, to use the word "subordinate" to refer to the Son is to say that He is lower in rank and importance in comparison to the Father, and this is simply not true. The Father and the Son are One. Fully equal, on the same page, entertaining the same will and purpose, and ontologically both fully God. We would do well to not simply stop at Philippians 2:8, but continue on through verses 9-11 which clearly refer to the lordship and dominion of Christ.

ESS apologist Wayne Grudem writes,

[...]the idea of headship and submission within a personal relationship did not begin with the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood in 1987[...] No, the idea of headship and submission existed before creation. It began in the relationship between the Father and Son in the Trinity. The Father has eternally had a leadership role, an authority to initiate and direct, that the Son does not have. Similarly, the Holy Spirit is subject to both the Father and Son and plays yet a different role in creation and in the work of salvation.

When did the idea of headship and submission begin then? The idea of headship and submission never began! It has always existed in the eternal nature of God Himself. And in this most basic of all authority relationships, authority is not based on gifts or ability (for the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equal in attributes and perfections). It is just there. [...] Within the being of God, you have both equality and authority.[10]

ESS becomes particularly problematic right here when it does not simply stop at referring to Jesus' time on earth as being the time in which He took on a submissive role but instead crosses over into dealing with matters of ontological nature ("ontological" meaning "the nature of being"). Grudem and others will try to divide the idea of ontological subordination from what they refer to instead as "economic subordination", in the hopes of denying any heretical adherence to the belief of ontological subordination in the Trinity, but their claims fall flat. Consider the insightful words of Wendy Alsup:

Note the parallel language of the joyful agreement and support of the Son eternally to the leadership of the Father and the female's willing, glad-hearted and submissive assistance to the man. If we are reading Grudem, Ware, and The Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood's position correctly, Jesus is eternally subordinate to God the Father and woman will be eternally subordinate to man in the New Creation.

Herein lies the problem. Grudem and Ware argue for submission of the Son on the basis of role. So far, so orthodox. But when they apply ESS to gender, they have tied submission to the essence of femaleness and not simply the role of being a wife.By necessity then, when they talk about the Son's submission to the Father, it is almost impossible not to hear it as an ontological argument. Why? Because Bible-believing Christians know gender (more accurately, biological sex) to be an ontological category. We know that being female is an identity given by God and intrinsically bound up in the imago Dei. This is the fundamental argument against transgender positions: "So God made man[kind] in His image; in the image of God He created him; male and female he created them." '

When these leaders emphasize female submission instead of wifely submission, they are speaking of submission as if it were an ontological characteristic. Consider how John Piper answered a question on whether a woman should be a police officer.

"At the heart of mature manhood is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect women in ways appropriate to a man's differing relationships. ... At the heart of mature womanhood is a freeing disposition to affirm, receive, and nurture strength and leadership from worthy men in ways appropriate to a woman's differing relationships. ... it would be hard for me to see how a woman could be a drill sergeant ... over men without violating their sense of manhood and her sense of womanhood."

These leaders of The Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood believe that this benevolent responsibility of man and joyful receiving from woman is the heart of mature manhood and womanhood – not roles for husbands and wives but the essence of the two genders, and they believe it holds still in the New Creation. So when these same men start talking about submission in the Trinity, it makes sense to import the categories they have already established back into the discussion. And they, not any of their detractors, have set this frame. If a woman is not fully female without submissiveness, how is Jesus fully God's Son without it as well? That, friends, is by definition ontology.

And that is precisely why I will fight against the complementarian doctrine of ESS until the day I die.

"Complementarianism" is just another word for "patriarchy"

I know this claim I'm making here is going to make some people who adhere to complementarianism very angry. I've been told by complementarians that complementarianism and patriarchy are not the same, and I used to believe that myself (in fact, when I adhered to patriarchyyears ago, I thought that complementarianism was actually too liberal!). However, I have said it before, and I will say it again: the founders of a belief system are the only ones who get to define what their system of belief entails. With that in mind consider the words of the President of CBMW's (Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood – the group founded by Grudem which serves as the launching pad of complementarianism) Board of Directors, Owen Strachan,

The President of CBMW's Board of Directors of CBMW, Owen Strachan, supports the term patriarchy on behalf of CBMW. He is also the son in law of Bruce Ware who is arguably the modern day inventor of the Eternal Subordination of the Son doctrine, which states that women shall be subordinate to men in eternity:

"For millennia, followers of God have practiced what used to be called patriarchy and is now called complementarianism." Owen Strachan, writing for CBMW.

If complementarianism and patriarchy are, in essence, the same thing (and the founders themselves say they are), then this is another reason why I want absolutely nothing to do with it and will never again label myself a "complementarian". Patriarchy is actually nothing more than a pagan Greek and Roman belief system which therefore has no place in Biblical Christianity. As I said last week, words have meaning and we have to be so careful what words we use and which labels we take on for ourselves.

Time for a Third Option?

I wholeheartedly agree with Rachel Miller that we need a new name. I can't call myself an egalitarian and I can't call myself a complementarian. Both are unbiblical (and, in the case of complementarianism, has far more false doctrine tied up with it than many people who refer to themselves as complementarians even realize or take the time to study through!). And while I am not a fan of boxes, labels, and systems for the reasons discussed above, it has become increasingly hard in recent years to make it clear what you believe and what you do and do not adhere to in an age in which it is believed in the church that you absolutely must be either an egalitarian or a complementarian.

Perhaps, at least for now, I will simply refer to myself as a Bible-believing Christian and leave it at that. After all, the Word of God is exceedingly abundantly better, truer, wiser and altogether perfect in comparison to all of the manmade systems out there. And I will happily rest in that.

Originally posted at

Rebekah Hargraves is a wife, mama of two littles, home business owner, podcaster, and blogger residing in TN. Her passion is to bless fellow Christian women through her writings on her website, Hargraves Home and Hearth, which exists to "edify, equip, and encourage women in their journey of Biblical womanhood".

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