A Clarification about Complementarianism

In writing about complementarianism yesterday, I did something that I’m all too often guilty of doing: I talked about the more radical edge of it as if it were the whole.

In other words, I talked about complementarianism in a way that makes all those who identify as complementarian sound utterly sexist.  That was not my intent, clearly.

Complementarianism as it exists in America, is a broad and difficult to define concept … so slippery, that the From Two to One marriage blog spent four posts just defining terms!

At the most minimal core, complementarianism is the belief that men and women are different in some way, and have some kind of difference in their God-given roles.  I think most of us believe that to some degree.

But that definition is too broad to be useful.  It’s like a man who was taking a hot-air balloon ride, and, looking down, didn’t recognize the landscape.  “Engineer,” he asked, panicked that they might be lost, “where are we?”  The engineer looked over the edge, looked back at the man, and said, “We’re in a balloon.”

Well, thanks.

An actual useful definition of complementarianism would need to be narrow enough that it actually excludes more than a handful of people.  So what I’m talking about is the idea of God-ordained different roles, to the extent of:

  1. Male headship in the home (wifely submission, as opposed to egalitarianism’s mutual submission and equal leadership)
  2. Male headship in the church (women may be excluded from all leadership roles, or possibly just the priestly/preaching role)
  3. The preparation of the next generation of girls to be good wives, first and foremost.

#3 is the one that troubles me the most.  I have no problem with women choosing to live in complementarian marriages, choosing to subordinate themselves to their husbands.  But I do have a problem with girls being told that that’s their role, and that’s where their worth and righteousness comes from.  I have a problem with girls being pushed to not get an education, to marry young, and to stay married even if the husband abuses them.

And while not everyone who calls themselves complementarian takes this approach, it is not a rare or unique thing.  Heaven Ministries, Buried Treasure,  and Ladies Against Feminism have all published articles questioning the need for higher education or outright advising against it for women.  A simple Google Search turns up even more.

So, I guess what I’m saying is that there is a significant group within the wide tent of complementarianism that I have a serious problem with.  While I don’t want to paint everyone who takes that title with the same brush, I feel like I have to stand up and speak out.  Because this affects our daughters, our sisters, our female friends, and that means it affects us all.

9 comments on “A Clarification about Complementarianism

  1. Hey, Tim! I have been enjoying your blog. It’s been really interesting. I think what all of this comes down to for me personally is choice and thinking. I mostly have no problem with the choices other people make as long as they think about them and really consider them. This goes for education, sex, marriage, job…anything. I don’t care what you want to do for a job as long as your choice is considered and you have made a conscious choice to do what you are doing. If you don’t want to go to college all right, as long as you have considered all the options and really seen that not going is best for you. I pretty much apply this to any decision like that. If you have really thought about all your options and really realized a certain best choice for you then do it! No matter what other people say. Ideally that’s what I would teach my child. I would show them all their options and help them to figure out what is best for them and support them in that. The important thing is to be happy.

    • Tim Dedeaux says:

      Yeah, I think we’re on the same page here. My big concern comes for the next generation. It bothers me to think of daughters being raised to think their worth and role is all about their man, and sons being raised to think that women exist to build them up.

      I know that this is a problem within non-religious circles as well (though boys raised in those circles tend to be less complementarian and more sexually selfish/objectifying). But it just hurts me to see something like this given a “sanctified” gloss.

      • I see what you mean. What I would say to you is do NOT underestimate your role in that. You have a powerful influence over your child. Show by your example and words what you believe and they will get it. It is sad that so much of what is seen outside is based this way, but start with one child, your child, and it will grow from there. Your child will show other children and so on. Ripples in a pond.

  2. Patrice says:

    Tim, this is a very important thing to be thinking about as you raise kids. Good job spotting it and trying to lay it out for observation and thought. I’d like to emphasize that what you mentioned about the idea of Complimentarianism promoting or sanctioning abuse is actually very true in some places (I get the point that it’s not every corner of the umbrella, but this happens *way too much* and is more than a random occurrence). Growing up as a female in a conservative East Texas Christian denomination, these were messages that I received, over and over, that were part and parcel with the idea that “women and men are different, and have different strengths, and therefore different purposes”:

    1) “You’re a smart, beautiful girl. What you say in class makes us all think deeply about our faith. You should be a preacher’s wife!” Also, “Wait to talk when we get home.”

    2) Men serve communion, give announcements, lead prayers, lead singing, give the message of the day, mow the grass and clean the building, and serve as spiritual counselors. Women may teach class to young children, cook food, file library books and answer phones. They may not speak from the podium – or generally aloud in assembly. Ever.

    [This organization type led to an interesting phenomenon in young people: the boys were invited – desperately – to participate in classes where they learned to lead singing and give talks, etc. Girls – even ones interested in music, as I was – were excluded from even attending those classes. It was advertised as “Young men, would you like to…?” Often the boys felt forced into it – but they also came out of years of this treatment with a type of superior attitude molded onto them. (I couldn’t find a single male in my denomination in college that I could date without fear of a dance of superiority and posturing.)

    Girls who were seeking to discover their own self-worth instead were encouraged to emphasize being ornamental, or shallow, or – in the more practical families – competent and domestic. But NOBODY QUESTIONED the idea that a female could never lead singing or teach in a mixed-gender Bible class without her husband’s accompaniment and oversight.]

    3) I also remember this in the discussion of spousal abuse: If your husband abuses you, your faithful example of prayer and perseverance may show him the light of salvation, so it is your DUTY to stay. (They base this on the scripture about Christian spouses being an example to their non-Christian spouses.) Counselors were completely serious about this.

    Repeated, un-repented, continuing physical abuse *might* be a reason to at least leave your husband (if you had proof, of course. And had never fought back or been unpleasant yourself.). It might or might not be a reason to divorce him. But God help you (literally – He was really your only recourse) if the abuse you suffered was “only” mental or emotional. If your husband systematically controlled your life and your finances, and constantly degraded you and worked to keep you ignorant, incompetent and limit your education or employment, or worked to turn your family and the world against you, you’d better *hope* that he also cheated on you, so that you could tell your church family that you had grounds for divorce. Otherwise, that same church “family” would feel sadly obligated to never speak to you again.

    This system of male authority and protection definitely draws men who are attracted to power and who like control. Not that there weren’t normal, nice men there, too, but they were often actually criticized for their lack of dominance and “leadership”. Organizations where men are looked down on for outspoken spouses or disorganized families are perfect for men who seek attention and want to be in control, because exercising control over one’s family is looked on as an admired trait. Men in our church very much admired my narcissistic, controlling stepfather, and other fathers like him. He seemed to have everything figured out! (And I’m sure he only called me names when I *deserved* it. To make me a better person, right???)

    In conclusion, you are right to be concerned and watchful about what your children are taught. And I don’t think it’s just the daughters. It’s also what attitudes your sons may pick up, because those beliefs and some of the subtle social attitudes that go with them sometimes permeate the atmosphere. Most of my really nice guy friends spent a lot of their adolescence confused and bewildered as to how to properly “be a man” without bossing the womenfolk around. It wore on them.

    Best of luck in your endeavors!

    • Tim Dedeaux says:

      The fact that this is still going on really stuns me, and it’s why I had to write these two posts. I just – wow. I can’t imagine growing up like that. I can’t really not respond.

      What really gets me is that I can’t figure out how this is still an issue, in 2012. I was so naive until recently. I thought stuff like this was all in the past. But clearly it’s not.

      And that realization is hard for me to accept as real, and impossible for me to accept as okay. It’s like finding out that two or three counties in Mississippi still had segregation and Jim Crow laws.

      I’m not being very eloquent here. I’m not sure I’m even making sense. But this just gets to me in a way relatively few issues do.

      • Patrice says:

        Tim, what Dani said in the strand above mine should also be taken into account in this discussion. My mother, who came from a nuclear family whose basic dynamic involved guilt, domination, and control – as well as faith – worked really hard to separate the truth of God’s love from the power plays going on around her. And even though she didn’t create a perfect family for us growing up (not that that was really her job, but it’s every parent’s hope, right?), she did teach us to analyze the logic behind what was going on around us, and to reject falsehoods – even in her own behavior. It was, and is, one of the bravest and most difficult things I’ve ever seen someone do.

        So I have to say, firstly: you’re going to be one of the most important influences on your kid(s), so even while you have to watch what they’re exposed to, your presence and involvement can counterract a lot. Secondly, a word of comfort – people are finding ways out of these dark corners all the time. There is always hope. Keep shining your light where you can.

        Also, I have to say that I often feel that *this* kernel – these groups/ subcultures of thought where some individuals can claim power and others give over to them – is what we are witnessing die in a lot of new geographical areas. And it’s at the heart of why those losing power – or who can be led to think that they are – are so angry, scared, and venomous about change. It’s also at the heart of why people will lie about changes, to spread fear and doubt amongst trusting people. (We are personally watching this happen right now in the Catholic church, to our grave sorrow and disappointment.)

        Also, in all fairness, a lot of what I described happened in the ’90s. Some may have changed, and probably already was after I left. I don’t go back much anymore because of distance/time limits/toddlers, etc., but there was love in the place I described, as well as oppressiveness. I can at least hope.

  3. Tim Dedeaux says:

    Hope is everything, isn’t it?

    I think it’s so important to do what your Mom did, and teach you to question things, to logic through things, because there’s just no way for a parent to completely shield children from unhealthy, damaging influences.

    And I think you’re right about people feeling their power slip away, and holding onto it more furiously, being willing to lie or cheat or align themselves with whoever they think can hold things off for just a little while longer.

    I think that part of the reason this minority of people, these extreme complementarians, have remained so extreme and have gotten so vocal in the past few years is because they see Christianity’s cultural hold slipping away.

    As Christians, we’re losing our hegemonic hold on the culture. A lot of Christians are terrified of this, and mistake losing their privilege for persecution. But I think it gives us a chance to break free of some of the cultural “churchianity” that’s been holding us back, ever since we became the American “civil religion.”

    That said, whether Katherine and I have a son or a daughter, we won’t be staying more than one Sunday in any church that teaches these things.

  4. […] to ‘build a fence so they’ll die out‘ to the ongoing abuses of complementarian fundamentalists.  But much of the time the problem isn’t the theology so much as the certainty itself. […]

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