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:
- Jesus was in an abusive relationship
- He responded by allowing himself to be killed
- A woman is in an abusive relationship
- 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.