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Tuesday, March 29, 2016

are compatibility and complementarity at odds?

Owen Strachan has penned an interesting piece in which he states that perhaps nothing has been more damaging to male-female relationships than the notion of compatibility. He opens with this thought: “Compatibility. Has any concept done more to hinder the development of love?” Such a statement must surely have in mind a narrow working definition of compatibility, something along the lines of a Match.com profile and the self-serving search for the perfect soulmate. And I get how that's not healthy. But in complementarian marriage, is the desire for compatibility out of place? In the minds of most, the two terms Strachan juxtaposes would be defined briefly like this:

Compatibility: what is shared between a man and a woman
Complementarity: what is different between a man and a woman

So, do these two ideas live in opposition to one another? We find a carefully constructed story in Genesis 2 that I believe addresses this question directly. It is a story in which God creates man, notes he needs a suitable helper, then commands him to give names to every living creature. The animals parade by: ostrich, camel, alligator. Adam obediently names each one. It must have been a very long line of creatures great and small, as Adam “gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field”. Yet none of them is a suitable partner for him. Though half of them share his maleness, none of them share his humanness. They are beautifully formed, but they are not formed in the image of God.

Imagine Adam’s state of mind as the animals parade past him: “Ostrich: not like me. Camel: not like me. Alligator: not like me.” He becomes increasingly aware that, though surrounded by God’s good gifts, he is in a very fundamental sense, alone. You and I know what the solution to his aloneness will be, but the text takes its time establishing that his state is “not good” before pulling back the curtain. Before Eve can be prepared for Adam, Adam must be prepared for Eve.

And then, after a brief nap, Adam awakes. And there she is, at last.

Adam bursts into poetry:

“Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh. She shall be called ishah (woman) because she came from ish (man).”

Don’t miss what Adam is saying. After the animal parade of one not-like-him after another, at last he sees Eve and rejoices that she is wonderfully, uniquely like-him.

Same of my same, same of my same. She shall be called like me because she came from me.”

The Bible’s first word on man and woman is not what separates them, but what unites them. It is a celebration of compatibility, of shared humanness. Ours is not a faith that teaches “men are from Mars and women are from Venus”. Rather, it teaches that both man and woman are from the same garden, created by and in the image of the same God, sharing a physical, mental and spiritual sameness that unites the two of them in a way they cannot be united to anything else in creation. Before the Bible celebrates the complementarity of the sexes, it celebrates their compatibility. And so should we.

To make how-we-are-different our starting point is to reinforce the tired idea that men and women are wholly “other”, an idea that lends itself neatly to devaluing and objectifying, rather than defending and treasuring. It is the very idea that fuels the cultural stereotypes of the incompetent husband and the nagging wife. I push away and discredit what is not-like-me. I cling to and elevate what is like-me. Compatibility is what binds us together, like two Cowboys fans finding each other in a sea of Eagles jerseys.

No one goes on a first date and remarks, “Wow, we had nothing in common. I can’t wait to go out again.” Same-of-my-same is what keeps man and woman in relationship when differences make them want to run for the exit. Same-of-my-same is what transforms gender differences from inexplicable oddities to indispensable gifts. Because my husband is fundamentally like-me in his humanness, the ways he is not-like-me in his maleness elicit my admiration or my forbearance, instead of my disdain or my frustration.

Compatibility. Has any concept done more to nurture the development of love?

So, no, complementarity and compatibility are not at odds. And it is precarious to pit them against one another. Compatibility is the medium in which complementarity takes root and grows to full blossom. Until we acknowledge our glorious, God-ordained sameness, we cannot begin to celebrate or even properly understand our God-given differences as men and women. This is the clear message of Genesis 2, so often rushed past in our desire to shore up our understanding of what it means to be created distinctly male and female. But we cannot rush past it, any more than Adam could rush past the parade of animals that were not-like-him. As Genesis 2 carefully reflects, a world which lacks the beauty of shared human sameness between the sexes is a world that is distinctly “not good”. But a world in which compatibility undergirds complementarity is very good indeed.


  1. Thank you! I completely agree and had similar thoughts when I recently read that article by Strachan. Love how well you worded this post.

  2. Thank you so much Jen! God has gifted you to see the big picture of His creation not be hyper-focused on roles but really on our identity as image bearers.

  3. This is GREAT. As with many articles on TGC, I liked the summary (it's more important that you learn to complement one another than that you be compatible in a "checked all the same boxes on eHarmony" kind of way) but not the exposition, and you really nailed why. Thanks as ever.

  4. Reading both articles I have noticed that both Jen and Owen are correct in application for a specfic timetable within a relationship. When the silver years do develop there will be incompatibility. Those differences may have been there in the sweet dawn moments of the marriage, but they are out there strong now after many years of living together. That is where Owen stresses the biblical standard of being complementary to one another. The specfics that attracted us to each other have changed in the last 33 years, but the gospel has been that glue beyond compatibility. My savior is the head of His glorious bride, the church. We are NOT compatible until we submit to His leading, we then are in harmony. Same as in a marriage. We are NOT compatible with our OWN way, but when we strive to work on being complementary to the other in the same biblical picture of the church, it sheds light on the gospel to many who are watching, specially those who have lost that compatibility within their marriage. Both views are compatible:)

  5. Same of my same. Well said.

    Honestly...that you would even have to defend this concept makes me cast my eyes heavenword.

  6. Your article made me cry. It's beautiful and correct, and obviously anointed with a specific insight.

    But it's also utterly damning of Complementarianism.

    That clearly wasn't your intent in writing it, as you self-identify as a Complementarian woman, but that is the fruit of it, nonetheless.

    Here's how:

    You see, you've written a *beautiful* article about something true that *needs* to be addressed in the church and how it approaches marriage. And no self-respecting Complementarian man will ever read it, let alone admit he's been *taught* or edified by it.

    There aren't any words on the page for them. You have nothing to say to a man about *any* aspect of theology, and it is a USURPATION of male authority for you to dare to try. Women are to be silent in church, and yet you are using this blog as a "church study" to discuss theological concepts. If you could be certain your posts were restricted to women readers, this might be OK, but what if you corrupt adult men who don't notice you are a female author and thus *completely* forbidden from instructing them? If you want to better understand the place of compatibility in your marriage ASK your husband. Whatever he says about it, even if he says it has no place in your marriage at all, is correct.

    I *desperately* wish I could show my husband this article. But I can't. It was written by a woman and therefore under the "Laws" of BCMW, it must be *for* women (exclusively) or else it is heresy. We must keep our places. Maybe, just maybe, I can at least read it to my grandson before it's too late and his high holy masculine adulthood takes him *FOREVER* out of the reach of any wisdom God puts in my path to share with others. THAT's Complementarianism.

    And by the fully exercised rules of Complementarianism, 50% of the adult human race CANNOT benefit from your writing at all because you are, by virtue of your vagina and NOTHING else, "beneath" them in your walk with Christ and unqualified to impart to them ANY insight. Period.

    And yet you self-identify as Complementarian. WHY? You *clearly* want to teach about Scripture's application to life and you *are* (if this article is any indication) GOOD at it. Do YOU think the church is better off if men don't read your articles because you "can't" teach them?

    1. Hi Vashra, thank you for your thoughts. I do identify as a comp, but not the kind you have satirized. Many men read my writing and listen to my podcasts, and I'm glad. Complementarians do not actually have a governing body that sets "the rules", so please don't feel anxiety that this is the case. I can see you want to help with this discussion, and I'm thankful for that. I would note that satire and gracious, respectful dialogue rarely go hand in hand. I'm willing to assume you hold your convictions thoughtfully and soberly, based on your reading of scripture. I'm willing to refrain from painting you with broad brush strokes. Without these two starting points, the best we can hope for is a shouting match. I'm not interested in that. Warm regards, Jen

    2. I did not detect any satire in what she wrote. In fact, I would echo it, quite seriously, and I know many other women who would as well. There are many shades of complementarianism but it has always seemed to me that, if the principles are evenly applied, they lead precisely to the situation she describes. Most complementarians don't apply their principles evenly, which is one of the reasons why the whole worldview stopped making sense to me. Their own lives undermine what they teach (fortunately).

  7. nailed it. (as usual.) so grateful for your work, Jen.

  8. Well put... thanks for challenging the embrace of "women from venus, men from mars" theology.