Complementarity and Mutuality—A Way Through the Impasse (Part A)

See Part B of this two-part series here.


IN the beginning … God created man in His own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female He created them. (Genesis 1:1, 27)

But for Adam no suitable helper was found. So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and He brought her to the man…For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. The man and his wife were naked, and they felt no shame.
(Genesis 2:20b-22, 24-25)


So much can be said and has been said about these foundational verses for understanding what it means to be divine image-bearers and vice-regents in God’s world. For the purposes of this discussion at least one observation is vital: man and woman / woman and man, need each other! As the intrinsic worth and equal dignity of male and female are irrefutably clear in Genesis 1:26-30 (and also in the new creation, c.f. e.g. Galatians 3:26-29), so also is it clear from Genesis 2:18-25 (and also from 1Corinthians 11:2-10) that male and female are complementary.

For the purposes of this discussion at least one observation is vital: man and woman / woman and man, need each other! Male and female are complementary.

It also speaks of mutuality. Adam needs Eve—someone equal yet different; like, and opposite him: ‘It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.’ (Genesis 2:18)

As every great love song ever since the first love song recorded in Genesis 2 has ever asserted, ‘she completes him’—not in the ultimate sense that only Christ can, but in a way that is basic to his earthly life.

The man said, ‘This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, for she was taken out of man.’ (Genesis 2:23)

Complementarity and Mutuality in the Gender debate

When we blur the creational differences between male and female, we not only cause confusion for ongoing relationships between men and women, we also foster sexism by declaring that we don’t need the other. If we fail to accept the complementarity of the sexes, it will become increasingly difficult to affirm the Bible’s pattern for sexual love—the life-long union between a man and a woman (despite current Australian legislation).

This of course is the Lord Jesus’ clear teaching on marriage. In conversation with the religious leaders of His day—who were diluting, and thus distorting, God’s original creation purpose—Jesus reaffirms and radicalizes the teaching of Genesis (see Matthew 19:1-12). Then, as now, Jesus recognized that, just because ‘not everyone can accept this (i.e. God’s) word,’ it does not mitigate its continuing validity and authority for the human race (c.f. Matthew 19:4-6, 11-12).

Cultural commentators Marilynne Robinson and Nancy Pearcey, helpfully highlight the crisis of our gendered identity in the West; convincingly arguing, in different ways, that both our personal confusion and interpersonal dysfunction stem from rejecting the ‘givenness of things,’ which may be clearly read-off the created order, and which is explicitly declared by our Creator in His Scriptural word to us.

Say only that the Genesis narrative reflects no more than sad wisdom and long, if primordial, experience. It makes a kind of statement about our divided selves of which we moderns, on principle, are wholly incapable. And it tells us that we are no ordinary participants in nature, that what we do is a matter of the highest order of importance, however minor our transgressions may seem to us.[1]

Biologically, chromosomally, and anatomically, males and females are counterparts to one another. That’s how the human sexual and reproductive system is designed … As Oliver O’Donovan writes, ’To have a male body is to have a body structurally ordered to loving union with a female body and vice versa. The body has a built-in telos, or purpose.’[2]

A biblical worldview, leads to a positive view of the body. It says that the biological correspondence between male and female is part of the original creation. Sexual differentiation is part of what God pronounced ‘very good …’ There is a purpose in the physical structures of our bodies we are called to respect. A teleological morality creates harmony between biological identity and gender identity. The body/person is an integrated psychosexual unity. Matter does matter.[3]

Mutuality in Christ

This mutuality is exemplified in good and (because of sin) bad ways throughout the entire narrative of Scripture. In the new creation it is radicalized and transformed through our union with the true Image, perfect Son and lover—our divine Savior Jesus Christ. Yet, even in Christ, we still need each other. We were made for interdependence, not independence:

In the LORD, however, woman is not independent of man, nor is man Independent of woman. For as woman came from man, so also man is born of woman. But everything comes from God. (1Corinthians 11:11-12)

This mutuality is also expressed in the sexual relationship between husband and wife; and wife and husband (1Corinthians 7:3-6). Against the prevailing misogynist Greco-Roman cultural backdrop which saw wives as part of a husband’s property, Paul says that neither wives nor husbands have authority over their own bodies. As Rodney Stark puts it, “Christianity gave us back our humanity.”[4]

Against the prevailing misogynist Greco-Roman cultural backdrop which saw wives as part of a husband’s property, Paul says that neither wives nor husbands have authority over their own bodies.

For different reasons, such mutuality is also radical for the 21st century. The word of God is always counter-cultural, for it confronts and challenges the culture of sin and selfishness which is so prevalent in every human heart in every age (e.g. Mark 2:17 & 7:20-23).

‘So Who’s in Charge?’—Exactly the Wrong Question 

This was the question the disciples asked of Jesus, and his answer turned their world upside down (or, better, the right way up). To lead is to serve—to minister. And the touch-stone for all ministry, is the self-denial and sacrifice perfectly displayed in the cross of Christ. We are called to a cruciform life; we live to die every day (e.g. Luke 9:18-27; John 13:1-17). Jesus says:

‘You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them…Not so with you! Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10:42a, 43-45)

Jesus perfectly embodies, and enables us to realize, God’s creational purpose as his image bearers in every sphere of life: in the world; in the church; in marriage and family life. God’s call on our lives liberates us from self-centredness, and sets us free to put others before ourselves:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves…your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. (Philippians 2:3, 5)

Another wrong-headed question goes something like this: ‘Who has the casting vote in a marriage—the husband or the wife?’ Christ isn’t interested in this question, but he does tell us plainly what it means for a man to be husband to his wife: to lay down his life so that, by his sacrifice, his wife can become who God wants her to be. For the wife to love her husband is to willingly submit to—willingly receive—that offer of sacrificial love.

Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord…Husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her…Each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. (Ephesians 5:22, 25, 33)

In like ways and in different ways; in the husband’s own way and in the wife’s own way, God calls us to give ourselves up for one other.\


[1] Marilynne Robinson, ‘Givenness’ in, The Givenness of Things, (Great Britain: Virago, 2015), 87.

[2] Nancy R. Pearcey, Love Thy Body, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 2018), 29.

[3] Ibid, 32.

[4] Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity, quoted in Pearcey, op.cit., 74. ‘“The Christian woman enjoyed far greater marital security and equality than did her pagan neighbour. “ He adds, “Christianity was unusually appealing because within the Christian subculture women enjoyed far higher status than did women in the Greco-Roman world at large.”’

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