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Back to Basics: Aristophanes Was The Original Complementarian


I expect you know from your own experience, as do I, that in the workplace you need input from both men and women to achieve the best results. But this is a subjective statement – how can I prove it to you?

Well, if you watch ‘The Apprentice’, I think you will agree that, year after year, the initial single-sex teams are much less successful at the given tasks than when the sexes are mixed up at a later stage.  Stereotypically, women bring a priori  thinking, commonsense, intuition and imagination to the table, whereas men bring a posteriori   thinking, logic, ‘inside the box’ and clear-headedness.


Christian Complementarianism

This commonsense wisdom has been transmuted by some Christian denominations into ‘complementarianism’ (not, please, ‘complimentarianism’ which, if it were a word, would mean paying each other compliments!). I have no problem with the idea that the sexes are complementary (or complete each other) – this is exactly what I believe. I have always found wisdom in the eastern idea of yin and yang, the two opposing but complementary harmonies, each of which carries the germ of the other: none of us is 100% male or 100% female.

But these denominations then make a huge leap (with no logical justification that I can see, other than selective editing of the Bible) to say that women may only serve the Church in subservient roles.  There is a wealth of material on this in cyberspace: James Prescott blogged on 8 November;  Rachel Held Evans makes a lot of sense to me in ‘Complementarians are selective too‘; Krish Kandiah blogged today on ‘Women, Men, Church and Twitter‘ , summing up the debate. He concludes:

I know there are evangelical Christians on both sides of the debate. I know there are good and bad arguments being used by both sides. I know there are actually a range of egalitarian and complimentarian positions. There are “hard” and “soft” proponents. There are those that are lead more by the scripture than by the culture and those that are lead more by the culture than the scripture – on both sides. I know there are people that have been hurt on both sides of this debate, and I recognise that women who have felt their God given calling have been dismissed have been particularly hurt. My hope is that we can build a centre ground coalition that champions the centrality of the gospel, the authority of scripture and a gracious respect and honouring of women and the recognition of the need for a hermeneutic of humility when it comes to the scriptures and a spirit of generosity when it comes to those we disagree with. I want to start a peace process – not just that we agree to disagree but that we find a way through an issue that is splitting the church right down the middle…I’d love to know why you think this is the issue that is dividing the church at the moment?

The Wisdom of the Ancients

But  is there any thing whereof it may be said, See, this is new? it hath been already of old time, which was before us (Ecclesiastes 1.10). In this case, it was in 385 BC that Aristophanes’ spoke on the origins of romantic love at Plato’s Symposium, here described by Dr Edward Spence, in ‘A Tale of Two Loves‘:

Aristophanes offers a story dealing with human nature and the human condition. Human beings were once spherical, with eight limbs like an octopus: four arms and four legs, one head with two faces and four ears and two sets of genitals, male or female, or both, so that they were any one of three kinds: male-male, male-female, and female-female. One day they offended the gods and to punish them Zeus cut them in half, scattering the two severed halves in opposite directions. Since that day, we are always searching for our other half. When a half meets its other half, each is overcome by Eros and each delights in being with the other. The reason for this is not, or at least not merely, a desire for sexual intercourse: on the contrary, the soul of each wishes for something it cannot put into words. Lovers desire to live a common life and die a common death, to become One again, in a complete and lasting union. The reason for this is our ancient nature: we were once a unified Whole. ‘Eros’ Aristophanes tells us, ‘Is the desire and pursuit of Wholeness’.


Aristophanes’ Story is the Story of the Fall

Aristophanes’ story is the story of the Fall; not dissimilar to that of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Heaven. We need healing, precisely because, when whole, we were impious and arrogant, prepared in our wholeness to challenge the gods. We find an analogous story of humanity’s fall from grace in Plato’s dialogue the Phaedrus. In that dialogue, Socrates relates to the character Phaedrus, (who also features in the Symposium) how our souls were once winged and circled the heavens with the gods until – getting too close to earth they became enamored with its sights and sounds and lost their wings, crash-landing to earth like Ikaros. But once in a while,upon encountering the face of the beloved, our souls become amorously and strangely agitated, and growing wings again long to take flight to the heavens from which they came.


If you want to understand ‘complementarian’, I suggest you need to look hard at the yin and yang Taoist symbol again:

Yin and Yang illustrated from the Tao Te Ching

 Being and non-being produce each other.

Difficult and easy complement each other.

Long and short define each other.

High and low oppose each other.

Fore and aft follow each other.


How did the idea of yin being superior to yang, or yang being superior to yin ever come into it?



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This post is based on ‘Why we need both women and men in the church’ first published on 4 November as a guest post on Anna Blanch’s blog, Goannatree.

Complementarianism is part of the much wider topic of Dualism, which you can read a short introduction to here.


Image Credit: ‘Stained glass in the university’ by Nikita Starichenko licensed from Shuttercock.

Image Credit: The Tao image is downloaded from wikimedia under a creative common licence.

16 comments on this post:

UKViewer said...

I’m constantly being surprised and learning new things on this blog. New, bigger words and a mini-classical education thrown in. 🙂

I’m interested in this and a guest post on Vic Van De Berg’s blog today, which seems to complement this post very well. It’s about building a community of the ‘middle ground’,

I can’t agree with some things said, as it seems to me that building a community of the middle ground is about keeping what we have in place, rather than listening for the HS and moving with him.

But worth the comparison all the same.

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you for this, UKViewer. To each his own – you have a weakness for jokes, and I have a weakness for words! Some of the time at least we can appreciate the other’s hobby-horses, which is great, and learn from each other.

I have read the other blog – thank you for referring me. We have different things to say, of course, in that I believe all expressions of sexuality are equally valid (barring of course paedophilia etc), whereas I think Jane (the writer of the other post) just wants us to be nice to each other, while not perhaps approving of each other. But, as you say, worth the comparison.

18 November 2011 20:50
18 November 2011 19:04
@tim_hutchings said...

Thanks for this. A few thoughts:

– The Old Testament is older than Aristophanes. Doesn’t Genesis 2 count as complementarian?

– The idea that we need someone of the opposite gender to “complete” us means that both singleness and homosexuality are “incomplete”. As far as I’m concerned, that’s not OK.

– As far as I know, when the Bible talks about men and women being “complementary” it talks about roles, not ways of thinking. If you really want to understand complementarianism, I don’t think you can ignore that. Complementarianism is the idea that men and women have God-given roles and responsibilities, with men in charge. No thanks!

Lay Anglicana said...

Genesis 2 (I expect you mean particularly the bit about Eve coming out of Adam – 2.23?) is, I would say, not exactly the same as complementarian, as it can be read as justification for regarding women as inferior to men, intended by God only to be in a supportive role.

My contention is that the word ‘complementary’ does not carry with it the idea of two unequal halves – one of the online dictionaries has the following definition:

Definition: 1. completing something or making two things into one whole; 2. being complements of each other
Synonyms: integral, corresponding, parallel, interrelated, interdependent, matched, interconnected

This is why I suggest the yin/yang image as best representing the way in which men and women complement each other.

I may be wrong, but I don’t think the Bible uses the word ‘complementary’ (or Greek/Hebrew equivalent of course), does it? My understanding is that the word is a modern neologism introduced to describe the stance of those who believe, as you say, that “men and women have God-given roles and responsibilities, with men in charge”.

That is certainly not my belief either.

On your other point about homosexuality being incomplete, actually Aristophanes specifically mentions homosexuality and heterosexuality as equally acceptable. (This is also my belief, FWIW).

He does say we are always searching for our other half, which I suppose could be taken as a criticism of the single state, but I think this may be reading too much into what was essentially an after-dinner speech at a party of Plato’s. His main point was that we are, as it were, irregularly shaped halves looking for the other piece of the jigsaw; each half might be 100% of one sex or the other or anything in between.

UKViewer said...


I must admit that I had read your piece as you describe in the comment above. I had taken it that the two halves seeking each other need not necessarily be single gender, but could be same gender or even transgender. For me, the complementary element was a meeting of heart, mind and spirit, with the physical aspect being a secondary effect of the joining of two halves.

Or have I missed something?

Lay Anglicana said...

No, I think you are spot on!

21 November 2011 11:27
19 November 2011 14:07
18 November 2011 23:11
18 November 2011 22:32

Thank you, Laura: insightful as always. There is a sentence in one of the Fathers that I have always found both challenging and reassuring: ‘What Christ has not assumed, he has not redeemed.’ I leave your readers to draw out the implications of that.

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you for this somewhat enigmatic thought- I have consulted a former Canon of Southwark who has teased this out as:
“Christ in his teaching has not made provision for every eventuality and [that] there are still plenty of situations in the world which need redemption. We have to be guided by the Holy Spirit how to deal with these as yet ‘unredeemed’ situations.”
But what is both satisfying and thought-provoking about your remark is that I suspect it does mean what the good Canon suggests, and may also mean more after further meditation.

21 November 2011 11:25
19 November 2011 12:34
Erika Baker said...

I struggle not with the concept of complementarity but with it’s division into male and female. To me, that’s as arbitrary as divisions into gay and straight or any other lines people draw.

There are women with very “male” brains and men with a very feminine way of thinking. There are transsexuals, people of undefined gender… the more we know about human biology the more irrelevant do these traditional categories become.

I would love it if we got to the stage where we could accept that all of us contribute something, that we all complement each other. As individuals, not as representatives of a particular sex.

The challenge is to understand that this implies a radical opening up of all options to everyone, not an “equal but all in their pre-defined roles” – in practice the same outcome you’re striving for.

Lay Anglicana said...

I think Aristophanes was struggling to make the same point?! In other words, humanity is like the pieces in a very expensive jigsaw puzzle, where each piece is different from all the others (and of course he went on to say that there was one perfect match out there somewhere).

I am bound to say that I am astonished at the emergence of ‘Complementarianism’ as a stick to beat uppity Christian women with (this is essentially how it is being used).

Always something new out of America?

Erika Baker said...

It’s not just Christian women, I first came across the term in explanations why same sex relationships are wrong, because the partners are not complementing each other.
They do, of course, just not in that one particular aspect that seems to be of such overwhelming importance.

What is it about sex and gender that scares people so deeply?

Lay Anglicana said...

Fear of sex and gender may, as you say, be at the root of the problem. I also think people are looking for *extremely* simple explanations for the complexities of life. One longs to say ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy’!

Erika Baker said...

Yes, up to a point they do. But they have no problems with complexity in other areas of ethical complexity, such as “You shall not kill”… in a church that has army chaplains, Christian soldiers, pacifists, some supporting the death penalty, some finding reasons to allow abortion at least at under certain conditions… not black and white there but a tolerant living side by side in difference – or even indifference?

But make it about sex and all hell breaks loose.

23 November 2011 14:19
UKViewer said...

I’m just wondering who the ‘uppity’ women are?

My best guess is that Laura might be fitted into the category, quite comfortably. But, we’ve had uppity women throughout history, most of them are Saints.

Laura, Where’s your Halo?

23 November 2011 16:50
21 November 2011 21:15
21 November 2011 18:29
21 November 2011 17:36
21 November 2011 15:35
Lay Anglicana said...

The system won’t allow me to reply any further – I suppose the boxes are getting too small. So:

I suspect on the question of the morality of war, abortion etc it is not so much that people relish the complexity of the issue because they like wrestling with philosophical/moral/ethical questions as that people are afraid of the simple answer because it might not be what they want to hear. So all muddying of the water is to be welcomed! (Perhaps this is too simple?)


Yes, well. I can think of quite a few ‘sisters’ who might qualify as uppity: Lesley? Vicky Beeching? Maggi Dawn? Maybe even Erika? And yes, me too.

I expect the others are in the same boat as me – we would not wish to be regarded as uppity AND presumptuous – that might remove our right to a permanent halo.

Speaking personally, I am hoping to make it to the back row of the Seraphim, whom I see as bosomy contraltos of a certain age. (We keep our distance from those itsy bitsy Cherubim, cute blondes all 36-26-36)

So I dare not start wearing a halo yet on the grounds it might disqualify me – Christ the King was a salutary reminder last Sunday of what happens to the presumptuous…

23 November 2011 17:31
UKViewer said...

There are so many questions and answers in that one comment, that I am left dumbfounded.

I accept the list of those who are thoughtful and sometimes provocative (I prefer that to uppity) as being pretty accurate. And I have to agree with your assessment of Saintliness and the heavenly chorus. I will be the one at the back, trying to sing, but sounding more like a bull frog.

I don’t think that there can be any morality in war! Killing is intrinsically evil, just sometimes the greater evil seems to be to allow unrestrained killing by others.

The evidence from Hitler, through countless dictators tells us that. But, I am a great fan of Chamberlain, who went the extra mile to try to prevent war (while secretly preparing for it). Churchill gets all the plaudits for his leadership in war, but he was a singular failure as a peacetime (and peace making) politician.

War has always been about men and power, they are intrinsically linked. I can’t remember many women starting a war. Perhaps men need more feminine genes?

23 November 2011 20:48

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