Confusing “Equality” with “Sameness”: A Complementarian Misconception

Bob Edwards


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Complementarian Misconceptions of Equality The Junia Project

Time after time, I read complementarian literature that misunderstands what is meant by biblical equality for women and men.

The heart of the misunderstanding appears to be a misperception of what is meant by the term “equality.” Very often, the complementarian literature assumes that egalitarians are advocating for the “sameness” of men and women in the church, rather than for their equality.

For example, in her book, “The Feminist Mistake”, Mary A. Kassian uses the terms “equality” and “sameness” interchangeably (p. 37). She also wrongly assumes that Christian egalitarians want women to be “just like men” (p. 38).

Equality is not blind to the obvious biological differences between men and women.

Sameness suggests that there are no differences between men and women. Numerous complementarian books, journal articles, and blogs expend vast amounts of time and energy refuting this notion of “sameness.” They believe they are refuting biblical equality, but they are wrong.

Equality acknowledges differences between the sexes, but does not support biological differentiation as a basis for subjection. In other words, it does not believe that authority in human relationships should be designated solely on the basis of a person’s sex at birth.

Theologically, the association of “maleness” with leadership characteristics has a long history.

For example, Clement of Alexandria (150-215 A.D.) declared,

Man is stronger and purer since he is uncastrated and has a beard. Women are weak, passive, castrated and immature… His beard, then is the badge of a man and shows him unmistakably to be a man. It is older than Eve and is a symbol of the stronger nature. By God’s decree, hairiness is one of man’s conspicuous qualities, and, at that, is distributed over his whole body. For what is hairy is by nature drier and warmer than what is bare; therefore, the male is hairier and more warm-blooded than the female; the uncastrated, than the castrated; the mature, than the immature” (Trombley, 2003, Who Said Women Can’t Teach, p. 234).

Clement argues that beards, penises, and body hair are a sign of maturity, strength, and purity. Theologians throughout church history have concluded that these qualities make men—and not women—fit candidates for leadership. Clement’s notion that beards, body hair, and male genitalia relate to maturity demonstrates a profoundly androcentric and erroneous worldview. He wrongly evaluates a woman’s maturity in terms of issues related to male puberty.

Is it really true that men are more intellectually, emotionally, or spiritually mature than women?

If you asked St. Augustine, the influential 4th century Roman Catholic Bishop, he would have answered, “yes”. He believed that women must be subject to men because “the weaker brain must serve the stronger” (Questions on the Heptateuch, Book I, § 153).

After immersing himself in Augustine’s commentaries, prominent Protestant reformer John Calvin came to similar conclusions about a woman’s “nature” and how it rendered her unfit for leadership:

[A woman] is formed to obey; for gunaikokratia (the government of women) has always been regarded by all wise persons as a monstrous thing; and, therefore, so to speak, it will be a mingling of heaven and earth, if women usurp the right to teach” (Commentary on Timothy, Titus, and Philemon).”

In the eyes of Calvin, women were created to “obey”, not to lead. He also viewed obedience and teaching as mutually exclusive activities.  In his commentary on Genesis, he referred to female subordination as “the order of nature.”

Today, complementarians continue to associate masculinity with leadership and femininity with submission.

One of the founders of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, for example, said that women may not exercise authority because of their “characteristic weaknesses” (John Piper,, “affirming the goodness of manhood and womanhood in all of life”).

Another complementarian leader expressed this viewpoint more bluntly, stating that women are more gullible and more easily deceived than men (Mark Driscoll, as cited at the, “danger flee churches which teach that women are easily deceived”).

It is not accurate to equate masculinity with leadership. This is really just a mental association resulting from gender-socialization. I don’t believe this particular association is evidence-based, though it has a long history in church tradition.

Many women want to share decision-making authority in their churches and homes.

Some of these women are also gifted to teach the Bible and/or preach the gospel of salvation. Does this mean that they want to be “just like men?” Only if we assume that maturity, leadership, teaching, and preaching are distinctly “male” characteristics…and they are not.

Women can be distinctly female and–of course–spiritually mature; they can share decision-making authority with men, teach the Bible, and preach the gospel. Beards, body hair, and male genitals are not required.

Equality is not sameness.


Editor’s Note: Long-time readers will recognize Bob Edwards as a regular contributor to The Junia Project blog during our first year. He now curates two blogs of his own God As Love (where this was originally posted) and Equality in Christ. Check out his new book: A God I’d Like to Meet

Read more about complementarian beliefs in these posts:

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Concerns about Complementarian Teaching

Is Complementarianism a Traditional Belief of the Church?

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Power Dynamics Between Jesus and the Canaanite Woman in Matthew 15

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In a reversal of pattern, it’s the Canaanite woman, not Jesus, who delivers the final

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  • So, what are the differences between men and women, aprt from the obvious biological ones? What would you call ‘feminity’ or ‘masculinity’?

    • Gender roles are socially constructed. Some identify strongly with these roles and assume that they are a reflection of “natural order.” The assumption here is that the roles are biological and fixed (i.e. simply a product of nature or biology). Some theologians have gone as far as to conflate “natural order theories” with “created order.”

      Skill-sets related to leadership, decision-making, teaching, speaking etc, really are not related to nature or biology. Reproductive functions, body-hair, facial hair, muscle-bulk (to a certain extent) are impacted by biological factors. For a more thorough investigation of biological versus sociological gender differences, you might enjoy this book:

  • Great topic. I believe in total equality and compatibility of the genders, yet I am happy being who God made me-a woman, not a man. While our physical functions, our callings and gifting are different, I relish the equality my husband and I share. He is no better than I, and I am no better than he. The bible is clear that we are not to compare ourselves to others, because that would lead either to feeling superior or not good enough, whigh would diminish the originality that God put in each person as he designed us equally, beautifully and wonderfully, but separately, for others to benefit from his design.

    • “I believe in total equality and compatibility of the genders, yet I am happy being who God made me-a woman, not a man.” Beautifully and succinctly said Elena, thank you.

  • On Equality and Sameness, now there’s a straw man if I’ve even seen one. No one thinks all men are alike, nor that all women are alike, even complementarians. They teach, as does the rest of the church, that everyone has their own gifts to use in the body of Christ. They would not deny that all men are equal and all women are equal within their complementarian-dictated spheres, so why do they think egalitarians would consider equality and sameness to be identical? It makes no sense, but it keeps coming up.

  • With all due respect, I think the article could go a bit further. I think we mutualists / egalitarians can agree that there may be differences that go beyond plumbing, body hair, and muscle mass. They still don’t disqualify women from leadership roles. They may affect the *ways* in which men and women lead, but they don’t make one sex “better” at leading.

    • The article could indeed go further, but I worked hard to keep it shorter than my usual textbook approach :). Gender differences at birth, apart from reproductive hardware, are quite small. The brain is physically shaped, wired etc. largely by the socialization process it is immersed in. Stereotypical gender-socialization impacts neural development, which impacts functioning with strengths in specific areas. In this way, gender stereotypes can serve to generate a self-fulfilling prophecy. Girls who are not exposed to “boy” activities, will not develop the neural network in those areas of the brain that boys develop and vice versa. At birth, both male and female children have all of the potential to become excellent leaders, teachers etc. Currently, in North American culture, boys and girls also tend to get relatively equal stimulation and reinforcement for developing areas of the brain related to decision-making, problem-solving, analytical thinking etc.. Some studies suggest that girls receive more positive reinforcement around communication, emotional expression and collaborative problem-solving. Boys, on the other hand, receive more positive reinforcement around emotional suppression, independent functioning and unilateral/competitive problem-solving. These differences have nothing whatsoever to do with “God’s design” for men and women, and are a product of gender-socialization and neural plasticity. These differences are fluid, to a certain extent, over the course of a person’s development.

      • This is a helpful response ( so too is the article)! Thank you. As one who grew up playing Lego and Barbies, studied sciences and engineering, and now pastoring, I keep shattering people’s assumptions of womanhood and feminity. It can be difficult convincing some people that “God’s design” is quite diverse or that God could be more creative than we are.

  • Hi Bob,
    Thanks- great post, written in such a clean and easy to understand way.

    Personally at times i struggle when people talk about predetermined “roles” that are based on gender. Instead of using “roles” my wife and I prefer to use “functions”. For example, my wife “functions” as the leader in our counseling ministry because she has an amazing counseling gift. I “function” more in our writing endeavors as this better aligns with how I’m wired and how God has gifted me.

    If we choose to address “roles” … we believe our primary “role” is to walk in our true identity (a beloved son and daughter of an amazing God); be reciprocal servants to each other (and others) Ephesians 5:21; and focus on loving well (Matthew 22:37-40).

    • I think that’s a great way to think Tim, and it fits with what I think we see modeled for us in the New Testament church as well.

    • Tim, thank you. I like the function vs role identifiers much better. There is one definite role I am better at than my husband, and that’s bearing children, other than that everything else is gifting and calling based.

  • I was taught that God was three DISTINCT persons in one…different natures and co-equal…Jesus was of one substance with the Father…The Holy Spirit different from the Father and Jesus also unique yet all Equal…it isn’t that difficult a subject when dealing with the Trinity…why do some insist on making it such an issue when dealing with men and women? Perhaps they are more concerned with the political status and cultural dominance than the Biblical truth? Perhaps they just want the war to continue that Jesus died to end?

    Jesus “broke down the wall of partition between Greek and Jew” and between men and women at the cross…making both one: “Having abolished in his flesh the enmity, even the law of commandments contained in ordinances; for to make in himself of twain one new man (anthropos), so making PEACE;” Ephesians 2:15…this principle applies just as well to all the divisions in Galatians 3:28 and Col. 3:11 as it does to the Jew and Greek.

    But today, there are still those who “will not have this man to rule over them” (Luke 19:9-10) and they insist on raising up the partitions of division again defying the will of Christ…yet the fact remains, “there is neither male nor female in Christ”…again not the same but absolutely equal in status.

  • As a new wave complementarian, you’ve definitely identified a couple of key terminology inaccuracies that NWCs in particular are calling for reexamination. In particular, making submission an essential aspect of femininity is one that some complementariness are calling out as not supportable, biblically.

    To be fair, it could be argued that egalitarians that do the same with the terms leadership and submission as it relates to equality. 🙂

    • RStarke, I’m curious as to who the leaders of the new wave complementarian movement that you mentioned would be. The founders of the complementarian movement and the current leadership have only moved towards the patriarchy side of the scale lately, and Owen Strachan continues to say that egalitarians believe men and women are the same. Would be interested to hear what the differences are in the two positions.

      • “you’ve definitely identified a couple of key terminology inaccuracies that NWCs in particular are calling for reexamination.” I’m glad to hear this RStarke. It’s exactly this type of reexamination that I hope to encourage. Thank you for the feedback.

  • This is a very important distinction. Men and women were certainly created to complement one another, but each individual—man or woman—will compliment the community in his or her own way. My wife and I compliment each other, but not in the same way other couples do. My wife compliments our marriage by making more money than me and by managing our finances. I compliment her by studying, writing, and taking care of the house/yard. We don’t have kids yet, so we will have to work that out eventually!

    What frustrates me is how people, even educated people, cling to notions that are clearly un-biblical. There is no Scriptural support for limiting the roles in which women can serve, and yet it is such a pervasive idea. It is harmful to the gospel and to all of us who do not live up to the generalizations, however accurate they may generally be.

    -Zachary Frazier (

    • As a Bible College professor, I once had the class generate lists of allegedly male and female roles for Christians. They came up with some fairly detailed lists. Men were supposed to be the main wage-earners, main disciplinarians and be responsible for everyone’s spiritual health. They also had the “final say” in the case of marital disagreement. Women were supposed to focus primarily on home-making, child-care and submission to the husband’s leadership. I then gave the class about 20 minutes to search the Bible to find the verses that defined “male” and “female” roles in this manner. They didn’t find any. I was encouraged by what they didn’t find. I was even more encouraged when many began to question the origin of their assumptions :). I think it was a productive exercise. The Bible says a lot about serving one another according to our “gifts,” not according to our gender.

      • Remember when Wayne Grudem came up with his list of ten reasons women are subordinate to men? Sheesh. He tried to support each item with Scripture, but I think he missed the mark by ignoring a number of other passages and Biblical examples of women and men interacting. In fact, if you apply his logic the Bible would actually show that women are spiritual leaders over men. I don’t think Mr. Grudem thought it all the way through. 😉

        • Yup I remember that list, and I couldn’t help thinking of the oral traditions that Jesus confronted in his day. I think there’s always a danger of confusing our own inferences, assumptions and interpretations with the revelation of God. This encourages me seek humility and be open to feedback from others. May God help us all with this challenging task.

  • There are so many very capable single Mothers out there, for example, that are great leaders in their hms and community but they just do it differently than a man would. That is wonderful.

  • Terrific post Bob. I’d say the general mistake complementarians make is thinking that differences between the genders automatically mean there must be hierarchy. There is nothing about the genders complementing each other that involves hierarchy.

    While complementarians often accuse egalitarians of thinking men and women are the same, often times their points reflect a view that people of the same gender are the same. They believe men and women have to fit into these roles, which discount the fact that there are differences between people of the same gender.

    • “I’d say the general mistake complementarians make is thinking that differences between the genders automatically mean there must be hierarchy.”

      Very succinctly put Evan. Good observation I think.

  • Reminds me of a sentiment attributed to Simone de Beauvoir: “There are two kinds of people – human beings and women. When women assert themselves to be human beings, they’re accused of acting like men.”

  • I’m glad to see this addressed. It’s something I’ve noticed repeatedly. Because I believe men and women are equal I must therefore believe they are the “same”. I must not have eyes, lol. It gets frustrating sometimes to have to explain this over and over. I think I’ll be referring people to this article from now on.

    • Glad it’s helpful Anastasia. It’s difficult to have a conversation about “equality” when people associate different meanings with the term. I truly hope this helps to clear away a common misconception that can easily become a barrier to change.

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