Why is the Complementarian Ego So Fragile?

Some complementarian men seem so threatened, even scared to death, that a woman might pastor, shepherd, tend to the people of God. Why? Because their male ego is so fragile that it can be damaged, i.e., metaphysically emasculated, by a woman gifted by the Spirit of God in leading the people of God. Never mind female leaders among the people of God in Scripture: Eve (she maintained equal dominion with Adam, Gen. 1:26-27), Miriam (Ex. 15:1-18; Micah 6:4), Deborah (Judges 4:4), Jael (Judges 4:21, 23), Judith (Judith 13:6-8; 16:1-2), the unnamed female prophet of Luke 2:37, Junia (Rom. 16:7), Priscilla (Acts 18:2, 3, 26), and Phoebe (Rom. 16:1-2), to name a few. This leads us to an all-important question for men.

If the men of the Old Testament, steeped in a patriarchal world, were not threatened when God raised up an Israeli female leader then why are complementarian men today proverbially foaming at the mouth at even the notion of a Christian woman proclaiming the Gospel of Christ to the people of God as their under-shepherd? Since when does exegeting Scripture, or tending to the needs of God's people, require a penis?

Let us take a sneak peek at some biblical contexts. When the prophet Micah refers to Israel's deliverers, he notes three spiritual leaders of the people of God, the Spirit-enabled prophet Miriam, Moses' sister, among them. (Micah 6:4)1 Again, Miriam is noted as one of Israel's spiritual leaders, along with Moses and Aaron: two men and one woman.

Consider prophet Huldah. Dr. Scot McKnight underscores this fact:
When King Josiah is informed of the discovery of the long-lost Torah in the temple, a certain Shaphan reads the text to Josiah. The king, who has "the most responsive royal heart since the hearing heart of Solomon," realizes the nation has failed to live according to God's covenant. He falls apart in godly repentance and needs discernment. What should he do? To which of God's prophets shall he send word to consult? Here are his options: he can consult Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Nahum, Habakkuk, or Huldah. The first four have books in Israel's collection of prophets. But he chooses the female prophet, Huldah, above the rest. Huldah is not chosen because no men were available; she is chosen because she is truly exceptional among the prophets.2 (emphasis added)
Consider Jael, a national hero for her bravery during one of Israel's battles. The commanding officer of Israel's enemy, Sisera, had drifted away quietly from the battle into the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite. She gave him some milk to drink, and agreed to keep watch for anyone searching for him. When he laid down to rest, he fell asleep.

Jael then "took a tent peg, and took a hammer in her hand, and went softly to him and drove the peg into his temple, until it went down into the ground [requiring great physical as well as metaphysical strength] … and he died." (Judges 4:21) Scripture reads: "So on that day God subdued King Jabin of Canaan before the Israelites." (Judges 4:23) Because of the leadership of Deborah, and the brave actions of the brave woman Jael, God subdued Israel's enemies. Notice two unmistakable biblical facts here: 1) this brave military act did not require a penis; and 2) Heber, the husband of Jael, was not emasculated by the heroism of his wife.

Just a glance at these few passages is telling. Men who deny the Spirit-gifted grace of women today (Acts. 2:17, 18; 21:9; 1 Cor. 11:5), in proclaiming the Word of God and tending the people of God, are working against the Holy Spirit. We either confess that the Bible is rife with emphatic and overt contradiction on this topic, cf. 1 Corinthians 11:5 and 1 Corinthians 14:34-35, or complementarians are perpetuating a false hermeneutic and promoting false teaching. I have chosen to believe the latter.

But do not be so easily deceived: the real issue for complementarian male leaders in the evangelical camp is authority. One might even suggest that evangelical male leaders perpetuate an authoritarian problem -- in their hearts and in their churches. No one in Jesus' day perpetuated more authoritarian problems than did the Pharisees. Note that the "spiritual leaders" of Jesus' day demanded a sign of authority for what Jesus did and said. (Matt. 12:38-42; 16:1-4; 21:23) They did not realize that they were demanding an answer of authority from the Author of all life and creation.

That same authoritarian spirit is alive and well in fundamentalist and evangelical male leaders. Men in these camps assume themselves spiritual authorities, anointed by God for such a position; and they and those they appoint shall maintain authority among the people of God. They will also use whatever "biblical" or "exegetical" methods for affirming and propagating that authority. John MacArthur, for example, teaches:
Secondly, it is a limited calling [the "calling" of a bishop or overseer or elder or pastor]. You will notice further, verse 1 [of 1 Timothy 3:1] says, if a man desires the office of overseer, he desires a good work. It is limited to men. The use of the Greek tis, t‑i‑s in English in the masculine form indicates that men are in reference here. It means any man but it is masculine ... if any man desires. (link)
He is wrong, as other Greek scholars, such as Dr. David Alan Black to our New Testament Greek class, have noted, MacArthur is in error of the text. The word τις is an indefinite pronoun, referring to a certain one, anyone (everyone), or a certain thing, anything (everything). (link) But his complementarian presuppositional framework is informing his exegesis here and he is falsely teaching people that "the Bible," and in particular, the Greek New Testament, is insisting that only men are "called" to be a bishop or an elder or a pastor. (The text does not even read that such a one is "called," but that such a one "desires" the position, so I am unclear of his eisegetical notion of having to be "called" to such an office.)

Why must men lead and women submit, according to complementarian theory? Calvinist Doug Wilson has stated very clearly the underpinning worldview of complementarian theory: "A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts." (link) You see, the woman must always play the victim; the man must always play the hero. Men protect; women cower in need of protection. Men provide; women tend the house. Me Tarzan; you Jane. Yet we often find throughout the scriptures the opposite motif, to the horror of the patriarch. (cf. Gen. 1:26-27; Ex. 15:1-18; Judges 4:4, 21, 23; Micah 6:4; Judith 13:6-8; 16:1-2)

There seems to be, at least from my perspective, an inherent fear in complementarian men that their perceived manhood is threatened when a woman assumes a place of authority and prominence. But what this exposes is, truly, a sad truth: the ego and perceived masculinity of some complementarian leaders is so utterly fragile that it can be undermined merely by a woman expounding Scripture or tending to the people of God: women whom the Spirit of God have gifted to such a ministry.

So, the next time you hear or read a pastor spending much effort and time trying his best to disprove the validity of women exegeting Scripture, or shepherding God's people (e.g., as deacon, priest, pastor, elder, bishop), consider that what he may be attempting to protect is not the integrity of God's word, nor the so-called purity of the Church, but his own ego.


1 Scot McKnight, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 167.

2 Ibid., 174.


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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.