The Dance of Gender


At TCPC we host a quarterly event called Foundations Weekend. It is designed for people new to our church who are considering membership. Rarely do we have people in attendance who have a background in our denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). This always makes for interesting dialogue, because the PCA still holds to some beliefs and practices that other traditions abandoned long ago. The most controversial of these beliefs always comes out when I am explaining the role of the elder in the Presbyterian form of church government. The room begins to notice that I am only using masculine pronouns, and some brave soul will raise a hand and ask, “Are you saying that only men can be elders?”

I then explain the most counter-cultural conviction we hold, “Correct. In the PCA we believe in gender and gender roles, and because of this, only men are ordained as elders.” With that, a shock-induced silence falls upon the room, and I feel the full weight of progressive society bearing down upon me. Typically I break the awkward silence with an illustration:

Imagine gender roles as a dance. For a dance to be beautiful, someone has to lead and someone has to follow. Try to imagine a dance with no leader and no follower: either both will attempt to lead, both will attempt to follow, or neither will attempt either role. I think we can all agree that would be a disastrous dance. For a dance to work, roles are needed.

But roles should never be equated with value. Though a good dance relies upon the strength of the leader, this does not make him greater than the one who is following. And though a good dance will highlight the beauty of the follower, this does not make her greater than one who is leading. Instead a dance is the display of co-equals delighting in their own role and celebrating the role of their complement.

This is how God has designed gender.

Theologically it is called complementarianism. Complementarianism teaches that men and women have different but complementary roles within the contexts of home and church. Though historically this has been the position of every strand of the Church, it is now a deeply controversial position (at least in Western cultures) and very few traditions (at least in Western cultures) still practice it.

(I emphasize Western cultures, because the redefinition and rejection of gender is largely a Western development, and the militant way in which it is presented and imposed comes across as just another example of Western imperialism to more traditional cultures)

But we do. We are that weird denomination that still has the audacity to believe there actually is something beautiful about gender and gender roles. Let me do my best to explain by considering complementarianism from both a theological and practical perspective.

The Theology of Complementarianism

A theology of complementarianism goes back to the beginning:

“So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.“

- Genesis 1:27

Here we have the apex of God’s creative intentions, a creature in the image of God. But God’s image is not manifested in a generic androgynous view of humanity, but in the masculine and feminine of humanity. In other words, the binary of male and female together as complements is the fullest expression of God’s image. Masculine and feminine are unique parts of a greater whole, which means male and female are neither the same nor are they interchangeable. They are partners in a dance, and the dance is God’s image. So what roles do they play in the dance?

For this we turn to Genesis 2. Man is created first, and out of man, woman is created. In this way he bears the role of authority. But whereas the man was created out of dirt, the woman is the only creature made out of the glory of God’s image, and in this way she bears the role of glory. He is the foundation of God’s image, but she is the highpoint of God’s image. When it comes to authority, male transcends female; when it comes to glory, female transcends male.

He is the mightiest creature of all creation, the foundation and strength of God’s handiwork, the fullest expression of the breathtaking power of God’s image. She is the loveliest creature of all creation, the highpoint and apex of God’s handiwork, the fullest expression of the breathtaking beauty of God’s image. Together they are perfect complements in the greatest dance of all creation, the reflection of the glory of the Creator.

Then it all went wrong.

In many ways, the fall of Genesis 3 can be viewed as the failure of gender roles, particularly male headship. Eve succumbs to temptation, and yet throughout Scripture, Adam is to blame. He was there, but he stood in cowardly silence. And so it is Adam’s failure to lead, protect, and defend his wife that literally led to the fall of mankind.

After the fall, gender becomes a broken mess. We see men abusing male authority and women abusing female glory. From rape and seduction to misogyny and misandry to polygamy and homosexuality, the Bible is brutally honest about the devastating chaos of disordered gender.

For complementarianism to be understood and embraced, you need to let God’s Word, not your experiences, become your paradigm of authority.

But the Bible also refuses to give up on gender. God will not abandon His original intentions for male and female; instead He invites—indeed He commands—His people to recapture the dance of Genesis. In a world of broken and confused gender, He calls upon His sons to redeem masculinity and His daughters to redeem femininity. He intends for the homes of His people and the community of His people (the Church) to be a picture of Eden, a vision of gender flourishing, a beautiful dance of complementarianism.

Now it has been my experience that, as lovely as this may seem, the one thing we moderns still can’t wrap our minds around is the idea of male authority and female submission. But the problem is how we imagine authority and submission. 

When western individualists hear authority, we only think superiority. Likewise when we hear submission, we only think oppression. I completely understand. In a fallen and sinful world, authority and submission are rarely, if ever, done well. But for complementarianism to be understood and embraced, you need to let God’s Word, not your experiences, become your paradigm of authority. In fact, look no further than our Triune God’s plan of redemption for a true vision of authority and submission.

In the incarnation, did Jesus become less than the Father? He is not. He is co-equal with the Father. And yet Jesus delights to perfectly submit to the authority of the Father, saying things like “I have come not to do my own will, but the will of Him who sent me.” At one point, Jesus even said, “The Father is greater than I.” And yet at the same time, we see the Father using His authority to exalt the Son, “God has highly exalted Him and given Him the name that is above every name.”

In other words, redemption is a Triune dance. The Father is the authority to whom the Son delights to submit. Yet the Father leads redemption in such a way that the Son is the highest expression of the glory of God. The Father and Son are co-equal, but the Father is the authority and the Son is the glory. 

Ultimately this is what complementarianism is designed to reflect. Not merely Adam and Eve, but the redemption of Adam and Eve through Triune authority and submission. 

The Practice of Complementarianism

But what does this even look like? It is one thing to explain a theology of complementarianism, but it is another thing to actually practice it. This is where the Church has some apologizing to do, because historically we have not done it well. If complementarianism is what I see taking place in the homes and churches of many conservative evangelicals, then I too am not a fan of complementarianism.

But we dare not equate God’s design with man’s abuse of God’s design. Instead we redeem God’s design and show the world its beauty. This is so important for the Church in our culture, perhaps the most important witness of our time. In a world where gender is receiving so much attention and confusion, I believe a bold and robust complementarianism from God’s people might actually become both compelling and beautiful.

So practically what does it look like?

If complementarianism is what I see taking place in the homes and churches of many conservative evangelicals, then I too am not a fan of complementarianism.

Again, we look to Jesus for our answer. One of the most beautiful things about our Lord is his treatment of women. He was born into a patriarchal and deeply misogynistic society where women were marginalized at best and abused at worst. But His life tells a different story, an intentionally opposite story. Within the gospel narratives, it is the men who receive His correction, challenge, and even rebuke, but the women always seem to receive His acclaim. Whereas men are cowards, women are courageous. Whereas men are faithless, women are faithful. Whereas men are selfish, women are selfless. Simply put: within the gospels, just as within complementarianism, the women seem to always shine.

For the past few years I have been preaching through the gospel of Mark, and a consistent theme has been Jesus holding up women as the model of His Kingdom. Whether it is the hemorrhaging women of chapter 5, or the Syrophoenician women of chapter 7, or the poor widow of chapter 12, or the woman from Bethany of chapter 14, Jesus’ highest praise is reserved for women. And then perhaps the most shocking detail of the gospel accounts is that the witness and testimony of the resurrection of Jesus—upon which our faith rises or falls—was entrusted to women.

Yet despite all the honor and commendation toward women in the gospels, something that is glaringly obvious is when it comes to selecting His twelve disciples, the ones to whom He will grant apostolic authority and through whom He will establish His Church, only men are chosen. 

Do you think that is an accident? It cannot be dismissed as merely cultural biases, because clearly Jesus was not bound to cultural norms. If Jesus wanted a woman to be an apostle, He would not have let culture stand in the way. Jesus chose men for the position of authority because that was His design. Unlike women in the gospels, these men come across as weak, cowardly, foolish, faithless, and sinful men, but he chooses men nonetheless.

And this practice continues on into the New Testament Church. In Acts 1, the early followers of Jesus are together for the first time after His ascension: “They went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.” 

The first order of business is to select someone to replace the betrayer Judas, and two are put forward as candidates: Justus and Matthias. Now what is interesting to note is that we know the women (presumably the very women who were the first witnesses to the resurrection) were there, including Jesus’ own mother. Why were they not considered as candidates for Apostle? Why not Mary Magdalene, who is held up as a hero of the faith? Why not Mary, the very mother of Jesus? The obvious answer is that the heavy weight of Apostolic authority was reserved only for men.

And then when the early church begins to take shape, it is clear from the New Testament epistles that the ordained office of elder is exclusive to men as well. This was not because the early Church had adopted the culture’s low view of women. In fact, the opposite is true. Just like their Savior before them, one of the remarkable characteristics of early Christianity is the involvement and prominence of women. Women’s gifts and glory were welcomed, celebrated, and leveraged for the work of the Church. Yet even still, they were never looked to for the position of authority within the Church.

I have to think that God’s design is applicable to every culture throughout all of history.

So what does the practice of complementarianism look like for us? Is the picture of Jesus and the Church He founded even possible to live out in our modern progressive society?

I have to think it is. I have to think that God’s design is applicable to every culture throughout all of history. And this is our goal as a congregation who practices complementarianism. Though we have failures to admit, lessons to learn, and changes to make, I will show you how we do our best to practice this at TCPC.

Once again, TCPC is a member of the Presbyterian Church in American, which is a denomination that does not ordain women as elders. We have 21 elders and 7 pastors, and all of them are men. But at the same time, I can say without a hint of exaggeration that TCPC is flourishing because of the gifts and glory of women in our congregation. I could highlight many, but I will give you three.

The first is my wife: Abby and I are learning that the more we dance the dance of complementarianism, the more our marriage and home flourish. Abby’s voice is significant and strong, but she does look to me as the leader of our marriage and home. That isn’t easy. It requires a lot of grace and patience as she bears with me in my weakness, sins, and failures, but she does indeed expect—dare I say demand—that I rise up as the leader of our home. And yet her gifts and glory have made me into the leader I am. She is the most significant voice of God’s correction and grace in my life, His greatest means of my sanctification. Ask anybody who knew me before I married Abby, and they will tell you that I am literally a different person because of her.

And her formative influence extends to who I am as the pastor. The culture of TCPC in many ways is formed by its leadership, the leadership of TCPC is in many ways formed by the senior pastor, and the senior pastor is in many ways formed by his wife—it is not hard to make the case that Abby is the person God is using most to form our congregation! And yet Abby would never desire the weight and responsibility of ordained leadership at TCPC and gladly submits to the elders of our church.

The second is a woman whose counseling is anointed by the Holy Spirit. I was referred to her during a particularly desperate season of my life, and her counseling not only led me out of my desperation, but has sustained me in life ever since. She regularly counsels Abby and me, and our marriage and home showcase the fruit of her gifts and brilliance. I trust her so much that I made our entire pastoral team along with our wives spend a day of group counseling with her. She was a warrior in that room, courageously confronting us in our sin and shame, and forcing us to own the brokenness of our stories. Every one of us would say that day was simultaneously one of the most painful and glorious moments of sanctification we have ever experienced, and to this day every pastor continues to benefit from her counsel. But at the same time, she is fiercely complementarian in her theology (much of what I am writing here is influenced by her) and would never desire the weight and responsibility of ordained leadership. In fact, one of her unique passions is to help men discover their manhood, so that they can become the leaders God designed them to be.

Beyond the women who influence me personally, the practical operations of TCPC as an institution rely upon female leadership. Our elders formed an Advisory Committee of the session to consider, debate, and makes recommendations concerning the business of the church. Essentially nothing significant gets to the session without first going through this committee, and there are two permanent seats reserved for women on that committee. What this means is that everything done by the elders of TCPC bears the important representation and influence of female perspective. 

Those are three examples of many I could share. I am admittedly biased, but I believe that God has assembled at TCPC the best pastoral team and session in the PCA, and we are unashamedly complementarian in our theology and practice. Yet behind this group of ordained men, you will find the gifts and glory of exceptional women.

So that is my long answer to a very common question. The dance of complementarianism is admittedly a difficult dance. It goes against everything that is natural to our fallen nature and the culture we inhabit. Therefore often we stumble and sometimes we even fall. But in the PCA we are not giving up on the dance. And I have discovered, both in my home and in my church, that to awkwardly dance the dance of gender is better than to never dance at all.

- Robert