Poking Holes in Complementarian Arguments


I said this in Understanding Complementarian Women:

If you try advancing an egalitarian argument, no matter how solid or convincing, it will most likely fall on deaf ears. Rather than arguing, respectfully poke holes in complementarian inconsistencies. (There are plenty of them.) It feels less threatening and requires more thought to answer specific questions than to rattle off the talking points.

I got several requests for a post explaining what “poking holes” looks like.

Like I said above and elsewhere, complementarianism from the outside is an airtight argument, a closed circle, as solid as a fundamentalist’s belief in sola Scriptura. Don’t try arguing against complementarianism. You’ll fail.

Instead, make the complementarian argue against complementarianism, even after you exit the conversation.

Feeling backed into a corner, misunderstood, and attacked triggers walls and distracts from the real issue. It’s so easy for a complementarian to dismiss an emotional, rude egalitarian or the same-old, same-old argument against complementarianism. In fact, these sorts of ineffective tactics increase complementarians’ convictions in their beliefs. Persecution, defending the homefront, going off on pet peeve rabbit trails — all of these encourages talking points rather than genuine conversation.

We’re human. We save face. We defend the homefront at all costs against the enemy, even if we doubt the homefront altogether. In other words: No matter how much a complementarian privately doubts complementarianism, she will publicly defend it. That’s just what humans do.

The key, then, is avoiding those triggers that result only in talking points and defensiveness.

When I wrote a letter to a previously-attended church about allowing women more roles in the Sunday service, I framed it in two contexts: (1) Hi, guys, I’m Bailey, your Bailey, your sweet, smart, talented Bailey with sisters (females) who sing and read aloud better than most of the token male worship leaders. You all know me. You all love me. You’ve all respected me before. Listen up! Forbidding me from using my gifts hurts me, Bailey, your Bailey. (2) Our church has a shortage of qualified members. We have sub-par worship and ministry, and we know it. Let’s actually utilize our female members’ gifts, yeah? If we limit 70% of the members, we’re not only hurting me as a talented, stifled female member, we’re hurting our entire congregation. We’re hurting you.

I could have said, “Good morning, gentlemen of the deacon board. Let’s talk about the history and theology of women’s issues, shall we?”

But that wouldn’t have been at all effective. That would have immediately triggered the walls and the defenses. That would make it an “issue” requiring the regular talking points and put downs. Instead, I framed it in the context of a relationship between me and them and women and the church, and in the context of my life and my spirituality.

Of course, ironically, the man in charge of the meeting failed to mention anyone had written a letter, much less attached my name to it, and just announced at the next deacon board, “Let’s talk about women’s issues.”

Guess what? Anger and talking points ensued. By the time my letter and my name came up, they only saw me and my points through the lens of their personal feelings — and nothing changed.

Poking holes avoids that situation.

Poking holes produces what Peter Enns calls “uh-oh moments” — moments when those tough doubts sucker-punch you in the gut, and your talking points can’t save you now.

Uh-oh moments linger on in our conscious and sub-conscious. They connect to those deep-down, scary heresies we all have caged under our talking points and happy Christian smiles. They cause our spiritual crises.

Poking holes triggers the crises rather than the talking points.

Poking holes avoids using words, arguments, and approaches typical in an egalitarian/complementarian brawl. It demotes complementarianism from “the Biblical worldview” to “an interesting thought you personally have.” It engages the personfeeling, and opinions of the complementarian, rather than the complementarian talking points.

Poking holes is all about planting questions or comments of doubt, leaven that works through the whole lump until the entire ideology feels contaminated. Those questions or comments need to be kind, subtle, and blunt — kind, because nobody likes a know-it-all; subtle, because mounting a full-frontal argument results in walls and talking points; blunt, because they need to be noticeable and unnerving.

Exhibit A: I came across this bright, well-written woman who, in “celebration” of International Women’s Month, listed a depressing “8 Reasons Why Women Are Weaker Than Men.”

I wrote in response,

This breaks my heart, love. I’m heartbroken for you and for all the other women who believe this. All of these are lies that you have been told, and they fly in the face of reality and in the face of who YOU are as a woman. I used to believe many of these lies too, but thankfully, God freed me from the bondage of thinking I am weaker than and unequal to men. If you’d like to hear the alternative arguments to each of these points, I’d love to chat with you! My email address is linked in my profile. May God bless you richly, sister.

She said in reply,

Thank you for the feedback dear but I’m very convinced I’m in the right path. May the Lord bless you too and thank you for reading.

In retrospect, I wish I would have used 99% less pity and nixed the bondage/freedom metaphor to say this:

I can think of so many women, including you, who are exceptions to every single one of these reasons. Don’t you see the irony of an intelligent, well-spoken woman like you claiming to be weaker than all men? Other women may be weaker than some men, certainly, but from what I’ve read, you aren’t. Don’t sell yourself short, friend!

Kind, blunt, and subtle.

Poking holes takes friendliness, a willingness to engage with the individual instead of hurling a one-line zinger, and razor-sharp, uncomfortable comments, like these:

Using your familiarity or relationship with the person

Other Person: Oh, feminists. *eyeroll*

Me: *smiles* I’m a feminist, just so you know.

OP: …

Making a moral appeal

It’s disturbing to me that the words “exclude” and “prohibit” are still used in normal church vocabulary against women only.

If a woman applied to be CEO at a company and the company said, “Your application is not even being considered because you’re a woman,” is that not sexist and discriminatory? How then is it NOT sexist to tell a woman, “Your application for worship leader or head pastor or Sunday school teacher is not even being considered because you’re a woman”?

Pointing out bias

OP: In terms of women speaking, reading, and praying in church, I think that is a grey [sic] area that should be decided by each denomination or church. My conscience is such that I would take issue with a woman as the lead singer and one who prays to lead worship in a service.

Me: This might be a gray area for you, a man, who will never be told you can’t exercise your God-given spiritual gifts just because you’re male. But I can assure you it’s quite a big deal for us with female anatomy. ;)

Questioning the need for complementarianism

If complementarianism essentially boils down to the husband lays down his life for the wife and the wife submits to the husband, both seeking the best interests of the other, why is male authority in marriage even necessary?

What is one, non-biological trait men have that women don’t, without exception?

Why would God use gender, rather than gifting, to determine leadership?

Seriously, what’s the worst that could happen if a qualified, gifted woman stood up and offered a prayer over the offering?

Why did God pick men over women? No, seriously?

Exposing silly contradictions

So, it’s more preferable for a man, any man, to teach adult Sunday school than for a woman with a PhD in the topic on hand?

So, a mom can instruct her teenage boys during homeschool hours, but they magically become “too male” for her to instruct them and their friends at 9:30 AM on Sunday?

So, you’re encouraging men, who already suffer from the temptation of ruling over their wives, to take even more authority over their wives, who suffer from the curse of being ruled over? That sounds like an awful idea.

So, at what point do men stop laying down their lives for their wives, decide their opinion is better than their wives’, and make the ultimate decision? Are men just intuitively capable of knowing when they’re more right?

Why is it that women can be whatever they want to be everywhere except in the church?

Asking self-reflective statements

Are you happy?

Do you think, deep down, that God wants this?

Really? You really believe that about yourself? About me?

What drew you to complementarianism?

Why do you think women get turned off from complementarianism?

Why is this such a big deal to you?

Doesn’t it bother you that [blank]?

If you’re crying over it, doesn’t that mean something’s wrong with that idea?

Following up

I just can’t believe God is like that.

This just doesn’t make sense with the God I know/the gospel/who you are/who I am.

Hmm. That’s interesting, but it doesn’t seem to jive with reality.

That all sounds good, but it seems to be missing the heart of the gospel.

The most compelling hole an egalitarian can poke is being kind, thoughtful, and firm — no hysterics, no Bible verses, no smiling and nodding. That shatters negative egalitarian stereotypes and makes the question or comment more pointed.

Don’t argue, don’t preach, don’t implore, and for heaven’s sake, don’t be rude. Just poke your hole and pray the Spirit works.

Let’s recap: A kind, thoughtful, firm egalitarian asks questions out of curiosity with no ulterior motive; she appreciates the other person for sharing her perspective; and she genuinely, respectfully states her opinion in return:

You seem like a thoughtful person, and I appreciate hearing your opinion. Your argument sounds good, but I must say, it doesn’t seem attractive to anyone except a middle class American woman. Doesn’t it bother you that your “Biblical view” doesn’t include more real life women in different countries, cultures, and historical periods?

As a former hardcore complementarian, I can assure you: I would have thought about that question for years.

// For more help with initiating good conversation with complementarians, read the full article on Understanding Complementarian Women and How to Command Respect.

9 thoughts on “Poking Holes in Complementarian Arguments

  1. Rachel Heston-Davis

    “So, at what point do men stop laying down their lives for their wives, decide their opinion is better than their wives’, and make the ultimate decision? Are men just intuitively capable of knowing when they’re more right?” <—- 0_0 You nailed a thought I have been trying to formulate for YEARS. I have NEVER been able to accurately verbalize the essence of why "laying down your life" and "making the final decision" seems mutually exclusive. I feel like there's a heavenly beam of light shining down on me right now.


  2. Patti

    I like most all of what you wrote. It is a good reminder for me. i was very kind and just doing the “poking holes” type communication for years but gradually I have become frustrated and I definitely have retorted back some unkind barbs at times. I have always remained extremely diplomatic when I am in someone else’s territory, especially their homes. I have a very difficult time being kind in my home when aggressive complementarians are over. I guess I really don’t care if they return to my home again.
    I have to mention though that I am extremely sensitive to patronization. I don’t really care to be spoken to with the precursor that I seem to be a thoughtful person. In know that you do not mean it that way, but I don’t use it because I have trust issues on the sincerity of others and I don’t know who is like me on that.
    Great article though and has given me pause for myself.
    Thank you.


    • Bailey Steger

      Thanks for your thoughts, Patti! It’s difficult to remain respectful and diplomatic, especially toward rude guests, so I applaud you on that. I will keep in mind that saying someone is thoughtful could come across as patronizing — definitely not my intention!


  3. Korie

    This is so helpful! One of the struggles that I’ve had is that there are so many grey area with the theology. When does a boy become a man? If I share something, and you learn from it, did I teach you? If women are so weak, why are they entrusted with raising children, a job that is arguably more important than just about anything else? It just doesn’t make sense.

    My husband grew up with complementarian parents. They took it so seriously that at 12, my husband was no longer homeschooled by his mom and went to work with his dad to do book work and learn the family business. His dad was too busy to teach him, and he barely got an education. Thankfully, he is smart and figured things out later in his own, but it just didn’t seem like a good idea.


  4. michelle

    I came across your blog today when doing some research about egalitarianism. I really have enjoyed reading your articles. honestly, I’m not a blog reader, and this is the very first time I’ve EVER written anything in response on a blog! So…here I go! I’ve always considered myself egalitarian, and am married to a man who does as well. We met at Princeton Seminary (both got our M-Div’s), both recently were pastors in a non-denominational church we helped start 13 years ago and now have moved on to a new position after 13 years. He was the Lead Pastor and I was the children’s pastor. Although, when my husband got this new job a couple months ago as Lead Pastor of the church, I left my position as Children’s Pastor and am currently unemployed. (very weird for me, now that our kids are in school full time) Before that I was an elementary teacher and have done everything you can imagine in the church from youth ministry, singing, administration, and even preaching, leading communion and teaching.) You name it, I’ve done it…except lead pastor, which I never wanted to do because although I love to teach and have lead many things as teacher in the church, I don’t enjoy writing sermons, which my husband absolutely is gifted for and loves to do. (although I have preached)

    The church we left/founded was non-denominational/evangelical and also egalitarian (although never officially labeled as such) and the church we are currently at is also non-denominational/evangelical, but instead-complementarian. (Crazy change, right?) although the elders are clear about my husband’s beliefs and are open to changing on this matter. (it was a miracle they even hired him) Can you believe it?? Well….as you can imagine…I am in a weird place. Unemployed, former pastor, now at a church that doesn’t believe in women elders and pastors. Before my husband took the job everyone put their cards on the table and still, they felt God leading them to hire my husband. My husband promised for one year not to address the gender issue, but after that, to address it. My husband is convinced he can change the minds of everyone in the church that is still Complimentarian to Egalitarian. (but I he also is envisioning people leaving the church over it—scary!) Before my husband accepted the position, I was also very clear with the elders/leadership that it was a deal breaker for me. if they were never to be open to changing in this issue we wouldn’t accept the position. And they assured us that they were open.

    I think they are open because there are differing views on staff and the elder board about gender debate. Even one women staff member (There’s only two) has shared with me their concerns and how they feel things are “unfair.” ( for example: a new youth “guy” was just hired and is being called “pastor” while she’s been leading and working at the church for a long time and is only called “director.” Neither have seminary degrees, but she has been functioning as a pastor for years. The titles seem arbitrary to her, only based on gender.) I have also recently had several conversations with people in the church (non-leaders) about gender issues. When people find out I went to seminary and used to be called pastor, they get confused and ask all sorts of questions about gender. Honestly, it shocks me to even have these conversations. I feel out of sorts a bit. One being unemployed, when lots of people keep asking me “are you going to work at the church too?” (long story there for why we left our old church) And I reply, I’m just waiting and praying for what’s next for me.” (which is true)

    So….I haven’t really studied the gender debate in depth because I’ve tended to work in environments that have encouraged me to use my gifts regardless of my gender. (sans one para-church organization I won’t name) but now I’ve been using my free time to study this issue and help my husband and I both be better equipped to have these conversations. And… maybe make a huge change in our church structure in the months ahead.

    As I read/study, I am coming across ideas and beliefs on the “patriarchal” side I honestly never new existed. It is blowing my mind the idea that women and men are “equal in being, unequal in role.” Subordination in the way complementarians put it, makes no sense to me. Seems to be saved for the few middle class families that can afford to live like that, and has nothing to do with the bible at all. Anyway…. I want to study and understand the gender debate mainly because I want to be better equipped to have intelligent discussions with the staff and elder board and people in the church.

    I really appreciate your approach of love and “poking holes” in the conversation. It’s very helpful. I’ve been reading books on both sides and really studying the bible texts as well. Have you been theologically trained? Are you writing out of your own study and experience? Are you at a church now, one that is egalitarian?

    And…Have you read any of these books?: “Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy” (pierce, groothius, fee) , or any of John Stackhouse Jr. Books “Partners in Christ” or a new book that just came out called “How I Changed My Mind About Women in Leadership: Compelling Stories from Prominent Evangelicals” There is so much out there. I’ve been reading through the complementarian views by Grudem too. (mind boggling!)

    Anyway…I just want to thank you for taking time to write about this, if you, or anyone reading this for that matter, have any advice or thoughts about my situation, I’d love them.

    Peace to you!


    • Bailey Steger

      Wow! It’s exciting that a complementarian church is even *open* to listening to egalitarian thinking. I’ve tried getting a close-minded comp church to consider listening, and that backfired. I will say, though: gaining the support of prominent women will help. It’s important for male leaders to hear about the effects of complementarianism from actual women they know, trust, and even respect. If the women are on board with exploring egalitarianism, that’ll be a huge force for good in your church, I think! Blessings to you and your husband as you work to bring change to your church. I sincerely hope you’re successful!

      Isn’t patriarchal complementarianism mind-blowing?! Yikes! So, to answer your questions: I’m not technically theologically trained. I’ve studied theology for as long as I can remember. I graduated with a B.A. in Christian studies, where I took as many theology courses I could. I’d say I’m well-versed in theology rather than theologically-trained. :) I do write out of my own study and experience, which includes theological courses. I attend an Orthodox church. Eastern Orthodoxy at large is not at all egalitarian, but there are many feminists (including the priest) within this particular parish. Women are encouraged to do everything men traditionally do during liturgy, except for serving at the altar, which is still banned even for young girls by the Orthodox Church of America. (The priest does not personally support that ban.) I haven’t read any books on egalitarianism, actually! I tend to study the scholarly articles from CBE International and The Junia Project and dialogue with other egalitarians.

      Thanks for writing me! You’re in a tough but hopeful situation, and I wish you all the best!!!


  5. Andrew

    The notion of the complementarity of the sexes is very much more clearly developed and much more cohesive in Catholicism. I have to say I’m shocked not to see more of the accountability and service aspect of male ‘headship,’ as I’ve seen it described in Protestantism, because “lay down his life for her” is normally invisible even if present. Weren’t men taught the “he who would be the greatest among you must the be servant”?


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