Why I Have to Talk About Complementarianism

Solomon's Judgment by Peter Paul Rubens

Solomon’s Judgment by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1615

Edit : I realized that in this post, I’m guilty of doing something I all too often do; letting an extreme group stand in for the whole group.  I’ll post more on this, above, but suffice it to say that I’m talking about the far end of complementarianism, not the centrist end.

You know, there was a time when I thought the complementarian/patriarchy issue didn’t affect me. I wasn’t raised that way, I had (and continue to have) an egalitarian marriage, and, frankly, this “gender roles preset by God, regardless of the individuals’ specific gifts” business sounded like nonsense to me.  This was never something I personally had to grapple with, and so I never really thought it was important for me to turn my attention to it.

But now I see how much it impacts people raised within it.  I see how much it colors discussions on Christianity.  Just because I’ve been sheltered from it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.  And maybe I haven’t been sheltered from it as much as I thought.  Maybe, being male, I heard it and forgot it.

So it is possible that I encountered complementarianism and just didn’t realize it.  I do seem to remember a couple of sermons on Ephesians 5:22, and thinking those sermons might have been different if he’d read the rest of the chapter instead of just that verse.  This was, of course, pre-Danvers Statement, before there was an organized movement to sanctify soft patriarchy and return the church to 1950’s American gender roles.

Maybe I wasn’t hit by it because I wasn’t the target.  Complementarianism in practice is all too often about telling women how to be “biblical” – that is, how to be submissive and dedicate their lives to the support and edification of their husbands. The husband’s role, to love her and guide her as Christ loves and guides the church, may get equal attention, but it may not.  And it’s also harder to define, harder for a church community to agree on what it will look like, and, clearly, harder to enforce.

That never really occurred to me, perhaps because Dad and I studied the Bible together from before I was old enough to remember it up until I was in high school.  We used commentaries and chain references to see how the scriptures interacted, to explore their context, to get clarification for terms that were unclear or might have multiple possible translations.  I asked questions, and if Dad couldn’t answer them, he’d ask around until he found someone who could (our preacher had to call one of his seminary professors to find out what a “Tishbite” was, as in “Elisha the Tishbite.”  I was a little disappointed that it just meant he was from Tishbe).

So I knew about Deborah, Ester, Aquila and Priscilla, Lois and Eunice, and other Biblical women.  I knew that Mary Magdalene was the first to see Jesus, and was chosen to tell the Twelve that He had risen, to be the Apostle to the Apostles.  As far as additional reading went, I grew up on C. S. Lewis, not John Piper.

From my perspective, separate roles for men and women, based on gender and not on individual gifts or callings, seems legalistic, proscriptive and authoritarian, and maddeningly tied to an idealized version of 1950’s American conformity.  It seems so unlike the great freedom granted by Jesus Christ, even deaf to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  I’ve read the verses on wifely submission, but knowing what I know about first century Greco-Roman house codes, I see those verses (in context) as radically upending the existing sexual hierarchy.

Yes, women were to continue in their first-century gender roles [Eph 5:22 ], but wives and husbands were to remember that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” [Gal 3:28]  And the idea of mutual submission, of laying down one’s life for one’s wife, loving her like Christ loved the church?  Radical at a time when (as they were for most of human history) women were, legally speaking, property.

It’s important to remember that one of the big “wives, obey your husbands” verses is Colossians 3:18.  The next seven verses talk about husbands’ responsibility to love their wives, children’s responsibility to obey their parents (along with an admonition to fathers not to “exasperate” their children), and finally, how Christians who are slaves should relate to their masters.  If we really think first century Greco-Roman house codes are some kind of Godly ideal, doesn’t that mean we need to bring back slavery?  And if we’re not willing to hold our fellow man in bondage, why do we want to hold our fellow women in bondage?

I don’t want to write this as if I have all the answers.  I created this blog to live in the questions, to grapple with scripture, God’s will, and my own thoughts, not to preach a certain viewpoint.  Unfortunately, I’m having a hard time doing that here.  Okay, I’m failing utterly to maintain any questions, any objectivity here.  Which of course makes me question whether I should even post this.  But I think I have to, because of this next paragraph:

But now I realize it affects me.  If I have a daughter, it will affect her.  It affects everyone around us.  If my unborn child is a daughter, she will inherit a Christianity very different from the one I grew up in.  She will inherit a Christianity that tells her that her purpose comes not from what God can do through her, but what she can do to support whatever God is doing through her husband.

I don’t want my (possible) daughter to hate her own independence, to abhor her ambitions, to denigrate her dreams.  And I certainly don’t want her to base her sense of self on a man, other than the Son of Man Himself.

Those of us who are male can sit in our safe places and pretend it isn’t happening, just like those of us who are white can ignore racism, and those of us who are heterosexual can ignore homophobia, and those of us who are wealthy and live in post-industrial nations can ignore the suffering of the world’s poor.

But it doesn’t make it right.

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3 comments on “Why I Have to Talk About Complementarianism

  1. […] writing about complementarianism yesterday, I did something that I’m all too often guilty of doing: I talked about the more radical edge […]

  2. […] it under “things I don’t understand” right next to complementarianism, but I just don’t get the idea that Young Earth Creationism is necessary to the Christian story […]

  3. […] it under “things I don’t understand” right next to complementarianism, but I just don’t get the idea that Young Earth Creationism is necessary to the Christian story […]

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