Harmless Complementarianism?

Gender Authority Hierarchy

Posted to the Evans’ fridge during the Year of Biblical Womanhood project, summarizing the complementarian hierarchy

A discussion has arisen in a couple of different groups for me in the past week. On its surface, complementarianism – the notion that men and women are ontologically of equal worth but restricted to different functions – is not necessarily that harmful. Obviously it restricts people, mostly women, in what they are free to do, but is that harm in and of itself? Maybe not.

Many elements often – but not inherently – tied into complementarianism clearly are harmful. One common one would be encouraging women to continue submitting to men even when it is an unhealthy or even abusive relationship. Even within healthier complementarianism, in theory that is paired with the man doing his job of “loving her like Christ loves the Church.” Some complementarians place the blame on women for men not doing their half of the equation, though, e.g. because a woman expressed her opinion, a man felt he couldn’t and so he never became a leader like he was supposed to. Therefore, the reasoning goes, if he isn’t being a good enough leader, she should just shut up and wait for him to come around. My opinion: if a man gives up trying that easily at the presence of another perspective, he definitely should not be a leader anyway. Not nearly all complementarians would come out and say that, but some would either directly or more subtly.

Another variation on this is pointing out that Jesus continued to submit for the sake of our relationship with him, to the point of us killing him. This gets really scary when applied to abusive relationships. I don’t think it is rushing to an extreme to piece together the logic:

  1. Jesus was in an abusive relationship
  2. He responded by allowing himself to be killed
  3. A woman is in an abusive relationship
  4. She is told to act like Jesus in her abusive relationship at the exact same time she’s hearing the first two points

I can’t say I’m surprised that many abused women conclude that it is their duty to be killed by their abusive husband. I really don’t think that’s what it means to follow Jesus in that scenario and therefore this is a very harmful teaching.

It presupposes that Jesus’ death was a passive act and that dying in and of itself was the goal. Among other things, his death called to attention how problematic the whole system that killed him was. In some cases, it is true, we see a woman killed by her husband resulting in better support for domestic violence victims. Usually, however, it just reinforces that men have the power, including over her life. That’s a significant difference. There’s also the factor that women can – at least theoretically – similarly take a nonviolent stand against their abusers through other means (church discipline, divorce, restraining order, charges laid).

We could also look at other harms done in ideas related to complementarianism, such as purity’s culture premise that women’s worth are defined by how men respond to their bodies (you better not turn anyone on ever except for your husband). Or we could look at forms of macho Christianity where men are told we aren’t real men if we can’t kill a bear with our hands, make less money than our wives, or don’t feel the desire to have sex with half of the women we see.

I’ve talked about a lot of that before, as have many others. My point here is to ask the question: is there such a thing as a form of complementarianism that isn’t directly harmful? Here’s what I would say would qualify:

  • For romantic relationships, it should be willingly chosen by both parties with full knowledge of other options. If you’re starting to date someone, talk to them about how they understand gender roles, in detail. Don’t stumble across irreconcilable differences in expectations of each other later.
  • Gender roles should be presented as their understanding of what God wants, not as the obvious way that must be forced on others. For example, if a woman grows up in a complementarian church, she should know that if she feels called to leadership, other churches give that option and she should not be shamed for exercising that option (just as people should not be shamed for leaving an egalitarian church for a complementarian one).
  • Most importantly, the man must also be living up to his call of loving his wife/congregation as Christ does the Church, which means giving up absolutely everything he has including his life for her, creating a mutual relationship even if he still theoretically has veto power on decisions. Women have to be discerning of this, not blindly obedient just because he has a penis.

A lot of people – probably the majority – who would call themselves complementarians would meet these criteria. They might call the man the head of the house, but then that’s about it for practical implications. I might wonder why that theoretical veto power is even necessary and you don’t just call yourselves egalitarian, but really at the end of the day, I’m completely ok with that. Maybe there’s indirect harm caused by doing lip service to male authority, but I don’t think there’s necessarily direct harm caused in that scenario.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.

  • I’m not sure how you’re defining “direct harm.” I know that for me, as a woman, I found the concept of ontological equality with functional subordination incoherent. Ultimately, if I am to be under male authority because I am a woman, and for that reason only– and if a man is to be in authority over me because he is a man, and for that reason only– then I am not his ontological equal, but am ontologically designed as lesser to the male. That is, I am unable by my very nature to do something (take a certain kind of authority) that he is able by his very nature to assume. That’s not equality.

    And please don’t say that because I can be a mother and a man cannot, that this is the same thing, because it isn’t. There is a corresponding role to motherhood (i.e., fatherhood) that a man can be but I cannot. However, being under authority is not a corresponding role to being in authority. It is a lesser, subordinate role. That’s what the words themselves mean.

    What this did to my psyche and self-image, while I believed it, I would classify as “direct harm.” Not abusive harm, perhaps, but harm nonetheless.

    • I struggled with that phrase “direct harm.” I wanted to show some grace that it does seem to work for some without whitewashing how flawed the premise is. I’m with you on the whole idea of ontologically equal but not equal in opportunity not really making any sense, but somehow it does for many (including many women). Maybe “obvious harm”, or “abusive harm” as you use, would be better?

      • I agree that it seems to work for some. I think the main reasons are: 1) some couples fall naturally and according to temperament into husband leadership, and so they don’t really question the paradigm; and 2) many complementarians only give lip-service to male headship as a theory, while practicing egalitarianism in their real-life marriages. In any event, I agree that “abusive harm” might be a better term. As long as one doesn’t think too much about the contradictions, it’s possible to hold simultaneously the belief that women are ontologically equal and that they are also subordinate to men in the church and home. It’s just that the contradiction remains, and most of the time, in some way, the deeply held belief that women are subordinate will come out in the way women view themselves and men view them. The main way I’ve seen this work out is that complementarian men can hardly help “mansplaining” to women from time to time– no matter how equal they claim they believe women are.

        • Anna

          You are correct again!!

    • Anna

      You are absolutely correct. It is incoherent and illogical. Complementarians absolutely believe that women are inferior to and lesser than men. Then they lie and say the genders are equal with different roles. In fact, they even state that women flourish in these comp relationships.
      Not SO!! This belief is harmful to all women on so many levels.
      Maybe I am overly cynical, but I think the term Complementarian was coined deliberately to manipulate and deceive people (after all, women are easily deceived!).
      This nonsense will not stop until women get up and walk out of these churches.
      If my salvation is dependent upon being a complementarian, I will end up in the lowest part of Hell. 🙂

  • D. Warner

    When I hear complimentarians trying to sell what they see as ‘beautiful’ – I just don’t see it. I find it ironic that they use the moniker ‘Complimentarian’ when it is far from it. It is hierarchical. One could argue that ‘complimentary’ doesn’t necessitate equality – and that’s true, yet Complimentarianism tries to sell women as ‘equal value’, while clearly displaying the man as the dominant portion.

    I don’t subscribe to any ‘lables’ per se in this debate, but I strongly believe marriage is a partnership. One where God designed us to support and bring out the best in each other, for His glory. Quite simple really.

    Complimentarianism may seem noble this from a male perspective, but I don’t believe God created women to be a damsel in distress waiting for a man to save them. God created women and He is the one who empowers them, not the complimentarian husband.

    Why would God empower a single woman to successful in life, work, ministry,etc, just to then decree that once she is married that empowerment is no longer valid.

    Within a marriage partnership, it is about both parties bringing all their skills to the table and working together to move forward. Both with sacrifices, both with submission, both with grace – where the unity is greater than the sum of the parts.

    I am a stay at home dad. I am not emasculated by my wife or her career. Some aspects of our marriage fit neatly into a complimentarian mindset. The difference being that those ‘roles’ are not because we’ve tried to shape our marriage into ‘pre-ordained box’ – it is simply because that’s how God designed us to best compliment each other. All for His glory.