How Complementarianism is Dehumanizing for Men (Guest Post by J. R. Daniel Kirk)

One of the reasons things start to get tense when we talk about gender is that we are treading ground that lies quite close to the heart of our identity.

We play with this in elementary school. In the constant jockeying for position that is our attempt to locate ourselves in the world we find all sorts of ways to claim that “boys are better than girls” or “girls are better than boys.”

We look around the classroom to try to figure out who does better in school: girls or boys.

We size each other up on the playground to figure out who is more athletically competent: boys or girls.

We look to the adults around us to gather clues, however covert, as to which of us has greater value in the sight of People Who Matter. Is it boys or is it girls?

Here’s another thing about gender: it is a social construct. So when we identify as male or female we find ourselves expressing that gender in ways that society teaches us to be appropriate: how we dress, how we groom, how we walk, how we talk, how we conduct ourselves in the presence of The Other Gender.

(Some people, of course, do not ever feel that they have place in this socially constructed gender binary, which is both a sign to us that it is a social construct, and a warning about how much authority we try to place on our particular society’s manifestations of gender identity.)

Those realities of our gender identity permeate other facets of our self-conception. They become ubiquitous because even when our genders are not the nouns that enumerate elements of our self-conception, they are often the adjectives and adverbs that influence how we think of other elements of our identity.

Take all of that (and it’s a lot) and smash it together with this: God calls us in Christ Jesus to become the best of who we are.

God’s project is not to rescue us from our humanity, but to make us fully and truly human in ways that we barely even dreamed possible before.

This is going to include our gendered identity.

When we start talking about gender and ministry in the church, here’s the piece that people can get their heads around rather quickly: the decisions we make here are going to be of utmost importance for the lives of the women in our congregations.

Women will either hear that they are equal in every way to the men alongside whom they worship—an equality bolstered rather than degraded by general lines of difference—or they will hear that they are “separate but equal,” and navigate their Christian gendered identities within a more circumscribed set of options.

This is why I believe that the “complementarian” position is degrading to women. It contributes to “failure to thrive.” It communicates that to be female is to be limited in a way that is not the case for those who are male. It communicates that women are less, that women can’t be trusted. It makes the wounds of the Fall stronger than the power of God’s ability to heal.

Complementarianism is, I believe, destructive to God’s daughters.

But here’s the flip side: if we live in churches that have restricted roles and powers based on gender the danger to men is equally acute. As men we need to work for the full inclusion of women because complementarianism is as dehumanizing to us as it is to our sisters and mothers and daughters.

It all comes back to this: Jesus showed us what it meant to be human.

Jesus showed us what it meant to be human in myriad ways: the fidelity we should have to God, the love we should have for our neighbor, the confidence we should have in our identity as God’s children.

But if there is one lesson that looms large over the Gospel stories it is that clinging to power is the dehumanizing way of the world, subverted by the cross of Christ and his call for us to follow him bearing our own.

The greatest series of failures that we see Jesus’ followers making all happen after Jesus predicts his death and Peter rebukes him for it (Mark 8).

Jesus predicts his death—and the disciples turn to debate which is greatest (Mark 9). They don’t get it. Greatness and power are not where true humanity is found. It’s found in humble service, in the person of a child.

They see someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name and try to stop him. But Jesus says no! That person isn’t against me, he’s for me (Mark 9)! Our impulse to cordon off power and restrict it to people like ourselves is a denial of the Kingdom of God and the humanity whom God is renewing to live within it.

People bring children to Jesus and the disciples hinder it. They don’t recognize that in the powerless children is the very face of Christ itself—in attempting to protect Jesus from the incursion of the powerless, they have denied Jesus (Mark 10). They miss out on sharing in the new humanity that has eyes to see the face of Jesus in the person of a child because they are trying to keep Jesus and his blessings and power for themselves.

Jesus predicts his death—and James and John ask for positions of greatness at his right hand and left (Mark 10). They don’t realize that the only ones who get to be at Jesus’ right and left hand are those who are crucified alongside him (Mark 15).

The disciples get mad at James and John. And Jesus has to tell them: lording power over people is the way of the Gentiles. It shall not be so among you. To hoard power is a denial of the Kingdom of God that strikes at the heart of Jesus’ calling.

 Jesus goes on to hold up himself as the example of the one who will be great only because he came not to be served but to serve. We can’t claim to be the least and servant of all when we demand that others be held beneath us in the “hierarchy” of the church.

Jesus is showing us how to be human. He is calling us who have power to lay it down so that the people around us might live.

When we hoard power for ourselves, we deny the new-creation humanity that is God’s gift to us in Christ. Claiming power for our group at the expense of someone else’s is one of the most deeply dehumanizing things we could do.

Why is it important for men to support and promote our sisters who are pursuing ministry in all its facets? Because keeping it for ourselves means clinging to a degradation of our gender identity, a degradation that will infect everything about who we are.

To become newly human in Christ is to be renewed completely. For women, who have historically had no access to leadership and power, it is to discover that God gifts it as freely to them as he does to men.

For men, who have historically held the power, it is to discover that the life God has in store for us comes as we lay down our lives for Christ’s sake and the gospel’s. That’s the road to a full rediscovery of our humanity. And it requires of us that we blow open all the doors of ministry to our sisters and mothers and daughters.


Daniel Kirk is a writer, speaker, blogger, and New Testament professor who lives in San Francisco, CA. He holds a Ph.D. in New Testament from Duke University. He has advocated for women’s full inclusion in ministry in his writing and in speaking both in the U.S. and abroad. He is the author of a pair of books, Unlocking Romans: Resurrection and the Justification of God and Jesus Have I Loved, but Paul? His third book A Man Attested by God: the Human Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels, is off to the printers. Daniel blogs regularly at  ( and hosts a weekly podcast discussing the texts from the Revised Common Lectionary ( You can follow him on Twitter @jrdkirk and on Facebook at

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  • Any model for those in the New Covenant that prefers one gender over the other thinks that the flesh of a person is more important than the spirit of a person. How could anyone think this? Unfortunately, there is a history of interpreting Scripture to one’s own advantage, but such is being seen for what it is.

    • CHRIST had to sacrifice all; just to blot our sins. Are you the FATHER’S son? Do you have buy in from HIM for your new model covenant that removes the Curse and the required sacrifice for such? When can we start rewriting the BIBLE?

      Maybe the rest of us will just stick to HIS PLAN.

    • Yes; you’d have to either believe that the flesh is more important than the spirit, or you’d have to believe that the spirits of women are in actuality spiritually inferior to the spirits of men.

  • Thank you, Daniel!

    “And it requires of us that we blow open all the doors of ministry to our sisters and mothers and daughters.”

    Yes! As a mom of three small children, I am heartened to know there are men like you standing with women like Jory–striving to create a better and brighter Church, not just for me but for my children and their generation.

    I would love for my daughter to grow up in a church that will model for her that she can serve God in whatever way He calls her to serve!

      • I will point out that James and John, the sons of Zebedee did not ask to sit on the left and right sides, their mother did (Matthew 20); but they were there.

        CHRIST stated in Peter’s rebuke “Get thee behind me, Satan: for thou savourest not the things that be of God, but the things that be of men.”

        Would it be tooooo much to as that we be about our FATHERS business? If you give a man or woman a little knowledge, can they not self derive and justify anything; outside the bounds of wisdom?

        Does a FEELING that you have make it right? Would this not be like the endorphin high in a group celebrating the execution of a police officer a few months back? Most of them not from the area or even members of the class protesting?

        In alternate: many are in the field and battle daily, are also commanded to watch out for stumbling blocks. Remember the those that you taught were also our children. Should we not consider this just a continuance? If you place yourself in our shoes; when exactly should 2 Timothy 3 and Jude be placed into the picture?

        • Hi Reality – You are beginning to become a pest to my readers and I. I don’t want to have to ban you from this blog, but cool it down a bit. This is a warning.

          • Since you do not wish to learn; let’s put the perspectives in expectations of adults.

            You solicit without State or Federal registration or grant of privilege and do not feed, clothe or educate the living. You do not have religious affiliation; nor promote such. You fail stewardship.

            Now you wish to threaten and discriminate against the Civil Rights to Freedom of Speech and Religion in such solicitations? As others hold commands to address variations in Sound Doctrine; because of your voice?

            I do not see you in provider-ship or protection of anything, even your individual right to freely post; and you now actually fight against the rights of others? I do not see others teaching you in Love, with ultimate tolerance and patience, on your blog.

            In alternate: maybe I should ask what do think you do not own? You claim possession of GOD, the BIBLE, the Holy Spirit, stewardship, Charity, the Body of the Church, members of the Church, Sound Doctrine and the rights to everyone else in such.

            We cannot allow stumbling blocks. We have zeal in protection of the Body of the Church. We have responsibilities to to advise and represent the College and Accreditation Boards that are represented. We now have to put ethics classes in seminary; because of such individual ideologies. We have the right to protect our families and children. We have the responsibility to protect your physical and financial security; along with that of everyone else. You make all of these tasks very difficult, with your FEELINGS; but within HIS Grace and Guidance , in the efforts of many place in Loving authority over you, you are still here. If this isn’t Love; I don’t know what would be.

  • I live in an Asian country and was chatting with another (male) believer today. We talked about power and leadership and whether or not there was a difference. He asked me why I thougt there was such a dichotomy between the “holy” leaders and their “not so holy” followers here (BIG hierarchy between church leaders and lay persons). My comment was that 1) We are ego-driven, proud humans and we generally like to feel like we are particularly special and important, so it is really hard to give that up in order to elevate others. 2) if we truly believed and embraced the implications of the “priesthood of all believers,” we would have to accept that my 8 year old is just as capable of speaking through the Holy Spirit and offering spiritual guidance as the 65 year old pastor. And we would have to accept that women should be given equal status as well. It’s a hard swallow for a patriarchal culture that gives precedent to the older generation. But I think at the end of the day, you nailed it with the association of power. If we are supposed to reject power as followers of Jesus, there is not really another logical end. Great post! I loved it!

  • Daniel, there are so many key points here. I love your term ‘failure to thrive’ for women. We understand that term in other contexts, but of course, it is the same for women who are not given credibility or opportunities to move into the leadership and ministry roles that God has called them to.

    Several other points also, including those about hoarding power, are very powerful. Thanks for your work here.

    I think you were in Sydney Australia this year and I so wanted to hear you speak but distance and circumstances denied; bummer though. I would have loved to have heard what you have to say.

  • Let me play devil’s advocate for a little bit. First by women wanting this “equality” aren’t they succumbing to the struggle for power themselves. Second, aren’t they denying the fact that they were created equally in God’s image and yet different.

    If we look back at the creation, we see woman created “from” man, which is one meaning for the difference. It is not good for man to be alone, so woman was created to be his help (or help-meet). If we look to the root of this word, we find the root word (H5826) meaning help where it is more a focus on girding, support or defense (like an ally would give). Might this not be a difference that makes them all the more important as it appears we need this from them.

    I’m not saying a woman can’t do certain things, as it is clear that women have been used historically (Deborah, Esther, Ruth, Mary, etc..) Paul talks about equality for Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave or free, and yet he also instructs that overseers are husbands of one wife (and not just once). Which of these might be cultural or which are general practices for all time, I don’t know without more study. But why must different but equal be degrading?

    • My wife will always ask those approaching if they can think of a greater calling than teaching our children. She thinks it is jealousy of something they cannot achieve; because they cannot give up themselves to HIM. I usually blame the husband and she will blame the wife; go figure.

      Paul talks about equality as heirs within the promise (next verse). I will also note the difference in “nor” between male and female (#2532) and (#3761) everywhere else in Galatians 3:28. Colossians 3 goes into the definitive and details in v. 18 “Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord.” once again.

      Then as you state: we have and continue with multitudes that have the absolute strength and conviction to do what is right and the wisdom to know why. This removes from their remembrance and those living wish no part of what they are selling. My wife says the men perpetuating their ideologies in such is the most discriminatory thing she has ever seen; like they would need or even want their conviction? We all know what has, is and will be; they have the perfect guide, the BIBLE. My wife asks what does any of this have to do with GOD? (She asks stating I would approach this with more Love than she could muster).

      Jude 1:
      16 These are murmurers, complainers, walking after their own lusts; and their mouth speaketh great swelling words, having men’s persons in admiration because of advantage.
      17 But, beloved, remember ye the words which were spoken before of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ;
      18 How that they told you there should be mockers in the last time, who should walk after their own ungodly lusts.
      19 These be they who separate themselves, sensual, having not the Spirit.

  • Daniel and I differently assess the faithfulness and usefulness of *gender is a (wholly non-biological) social construct.* And just how far any man’s self and life are shaped by even by *masculinity,* never mind some magical male *power,* varies drastically from man to man and class to class. Men in homeless shelters and prisons face dehumanizing threats, but their own power is hardly among them. However, there is a thoroughly complementarian case for women in church leadership: because, ceteris paribus, women rely less on hierarchy to organize work, leadership teams with women are more flexible and open (and less competitive and territorial) than leadership teams without them. In a time of change, this has a consequence: leadership teams without women are more likely to fail.

  • James 3
    3 My friends, not many of you should become teachers. As you know, we teachers will be judged with greater strictness than others. 2 All of us often make mistakes. But if a person never makes a mistake in what he says, he is perfect and is also able to control his whole being. 3 We put a bit into the mouth of a horse to make it obey us, and we are able to make it go where we want. 4 Or think of a ship: big as it is and driven by such strong winds, it can be steered by a very small rudder, and it goes wherever the pilot wants it to go. 5 So it is with the tongue: small as it is, it can boast about great things.

    Just think how large a forest can be set on fire by a tiny flame! 6 And the tongue is like a fire. It is a world of wrong, occupying its place in our bodies and spreading evil through our whole being.

    “To hoard power is a denial of the Kingdom of God that strikes at the heart of Jesus’ calling.”

    Should non-teachers be offended that there are not supposed to be many teachers?
    Are 90% of Christians who are not “teachers” degraded?
    Did I fail to thrive if I am not a teacher?

    “Ministry” is not just teaching. “Ministry” might even be blog commenting!

    In a manner of speaking, the body of Christ does need toe nails.

    Some of us “lesser parts, given more honor” in the body of Christ, have no jealousy of the mouth of the body of Christ.
    Besides, Who’s Word does that mouth of the body of Christ speak anyway?

    (Answer: Christ’s)

    • Thank you for the eloquent and succinct way you expressed exactly what bothered me about this article. Blog commenting may be part of your ministry after all!

      But on a serious note what I am increasingly seeing in the complementarian vs. egalitarian debate is the ideologies of American politics tainting the Church. The complementarian side is clearly influenced by the ideologies of Republicans while the egalitarian is influenced by the ideologies of Democrats.

      Fundamentally the Church in America is losing sight of what it means to be “in the world but not of the world”. And since America still has so much influence, the problem is spreading to the Church throughout the world. In this article, there is a dangerous failure to acknowledge what it means to have power in the Spiritual realm. To whom much is given, much is required in God’s Kingdom.

      So I get concerned when I read articles like these that encourage anyone who wants a more “important” role in the Church to go for it, without also explaining the profound responsibility God gives along with such roles. If anyone wants to be a minister, they shouldn’t look at the position with the covetous eyes that worldly people have when they look at CEOs and members of the 1%. Being minister over God’s precious little children isn’t something you should chase for the perks. As when working out your salvation, you should approach such a role with fear and trembling because God is watching. And He doesn’t take kindly to ministers who mislead His little children. God said as much too.

      When you read about those megachurch pastors who use their congregation’s tithes and offerings to buy themselves private jets, you shouldn’t be envious. You should be scared for them.

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