Defining Terms in the Gender Conversation

Before we get going much further in this series, I want to define my terms. Maybe you are new to the “gender debate” in the church. Or maybe you are all-too-familiar with it, but don’t know the lingo.

I’ll try to make this less boring than it sounds, but, we’re talking about definitions here, so I can’t promise much. My goal is not to provide every possible definition of a term or every possible exception to the way a term is lived-out!

The point is just to provide general definitions so that we are all on the same page going forward.

There are primarily two words we often hear in the gender conversation that need defining. They are: complementarianism and egalitarianism.

Complementarianism is the theological position that believes God has created men and women equal in their dignity and worth, but that they are different and complementary in their functions and roles. In this paradigm, leadership is limited to men in the home and the church, regardless of gifting and calling.

Throughout the series, I may refer to this as the “male-only leadership” position.

Egalitarianism is the theological position that believes God has created men and women equal in their dignity and worth, and that there should be full partnership between men and women in the home and the church. In this paradigm, functions/roles and leadership should be determined by gifting and calling rather than gender.

I may refer to this as the “co-laborer” or “full partnership” position.

It’s worth noting, as with anything, that there is a spectrum of belief and practice in both of these positions. The extreme positions usually get the most air time in popular culture. Unfortunately, that leads to all sorts of caricatures and misrepresentations.

For example:

  • There are complementarians who say that a woman should never even be allowed to work outside the home or speak in a public worship gathering.
  • There are egalitarians who say that there are no differences at all between male and female.

Because advocates of the extremes tend to have the loudest voices, those extreme positions are what we typically think of when “complementarian” or “egalitarian” come to mind!

Sidebar: As I move through this series, I will do my very best to not set up a theological straw man for the complementarian position–meaning, I won’t attack the extremes. That’s not helpful to anyone. That said, the most passionate proponents of complementarianism have very influential voices in our public spaces (e.g. Twitter, Instagram, podcasts, etc.). They have nearly become synonymous with “complementarianism” itself, and they exercise undue influence over the average pastor, ministry leader, husband, father, and single man who reads, follows, and listens to them.

Finally, one more thing. As with anything, often one’s practice of a particular belief doesn’t actually align with the belief itself. In my definition of complementarianism, I wrote “men and women are equal in dignity and worth.” I have never met a complementarian who holds this position who said otherwise. But that doesn’t mean functionally their behavior is always consistent with that.

Because of all this, especially the spectrum of belief and practice in each position, I find the terms themselves unhelpful. But I can’t change this all by myself.

And the men who wrote theological dictionaries never asked me to begin with.

In spite of this, for the sake of helping people build categories in their mind to understand my approach, I’m fine with being labeled an “egalitarian.”

But if you really press me, I would prefer to use one of Paul’s favorite terms for his teammates–both women and men–in ministry: “coworkers / co-laborers in the gospel.”

So, I hold to the “Gospel Co-Laborer” position.

Rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it?


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