Esther and Complementarity

We’re more or less at the end of the book of Esther now. It closes with a postscript that describes how both Esther and Mordecai worked together to write letters and create legislation (e.g. Esth 9:29). Esther has of course grown up from being a girl to a woman during the course of the story. Her relationship to Mordecai is no longer primarily as a submissive daughter, but she now works side by side with him as an equal. It’s hard to deduce exactly which of the two had the most clout in terms of authority – Esther was “royalty”, but it was Mordecai who had the signet ring, and so he probably gave the rubber stamp to new laws. Nevertheless, we don’t see them competing with each other but working as a team.

Now it would be rather dodgy hermeneutics to attempt to extrapolate from this story some kind of Biblical principle for women in church leadership. For one thing, Esther’s role was not ecclesiastical but civil. But we do see here an example of how the genders can work together harmoniously, rather than being at odds with each other.

I believe that Scripture teaches both equality and complementarity. This should not surprise us, since “complementarians” and “egalitarians” are eager to affirm both. The differences between the two camps lie in exactly where the emphasis should be placed. Both concepts can sometimes be pushed to mean more than they ought to.


To start with, the Bible clearly teaches “equality” between men and women. But to say two people are “equal” is meaningless unless you define in which way they are equal. Common sense tells us that people are not equal in every conceivable way – we have different heights and weights, different skin colours, different aptitudes. Men and women even have some different body parts. Women get to bear and nurse children, while men get to, um, pee standing up.

Equality also should not be made to mean that everything must be a perfect “50-50” split. Some feminists have criticised Jesus for picking 12 male disciples. Shouldn’t he have picked at least 6 women if he believed in “equality”? A husband and wife whose idea of equality dictated that they each do no more than exactly 50% of the housework would probably end up fighting all the time because they would always think that other’s contribution was less than half. This approach to equality is actually self-centred, since it is all about me getting “my fair share”.

So how are men and women equal? We are equal in worth and dignity. We are equally bearers of God’s image (Gen 1:27). We are equal in our capacity to be loved and used by God. There is also equality in how we are to be saved (Gal 3:28) and our capacity to be Spirit-filled (Joel 2:29) and recipients of his power. There is no excuse for feelings of superiority then, over the opposite gender.


Complementarity can be misunderstood too. It doesn’t mean that there is a list of strengths that characterise all women which correspond exactly to a list of weaknesses that characterise all men. Women are a diverse group and men are a diverse group. You can make generalisations (e.g. “men like buying gadgets, women like buying clothes”), but they are only generally true. Those who don’t fit the stereotype are not necessarily any less feminine or masculine as a result.

We should also note that just because women complement men, doesn’t mean that harmony is automatic. In fact, the opposite can be true. People with different personalities, strengths, and perspectives can often clash horribly.

So it is not enough to merely say that men and women complement each other. We must actively seek to promote harmony within that diversity. It means male leaders being willing to empower and include women in the life and ministry of the church, recognising that they can contribute something that is lacking in an exclusively male dominated environment. (The reverse is also true, given that in many churches, the women outnumber the men).

An example of this might be the benefit it brings to a small group or youth group to have a mixture of male and female leaders. Not only might they bring different styles of leading or giftings to the group, but one-on-one discipleship or counselling is more effective and appropriate in same-sex pairings (this may be one reason behind Jesus’ choosing 12 male disciples). Aquila and Priscila seem to be a good example of a husband-wife team who worked so effectively together that they are always mentioned as a pair.

A right understanding of the Biblical principles of equality and complementarity should eliminate jealousy and competitiveness between the genders, as we learn to appreciate the unique and valuable contributions that those who are not like us can offer.

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