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.

Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dotted Burqa (Modesty Part 1)

In my Weekend Wows post,  I mentioned Emily Maynard’s post “Modesty, Lust, and My Responsibility”  I urge you to follow the link and read what she has to say for yourselves.

For those of you who didn’t, she’s saying three basic things: 1) being sexually attracted to someone isn’t a sin, but fantasizing, lusting, dwelling in that is; 2) lust is about control (in the sexual fantasy, the object of lust does whatever the lust-er wants), and 3) men aren’t filthy animals who have no control over their own moral agency.  They can resist lustful fantasies just like women can.

A lot of people have replied saying that it is so important that women dress modestly so as to not tempt men to the sin of lust.  As a man who’s struggled with “the lust of the eye” (though I have thankfully been spared from participating in promiscuity, infidelity, etc.), I have a few thoughts about this myself.

First, the idea that women’s dress and physical self-image should effectively exist for the benefit of men is a profoundly worldly idea.  It’s the Kodachrome negative of the frat boy “she’d be okay if she lost a little weight” and “I’d do her.”  Worse, it veers into blaming the object of the unwanted sexual attention for the actions of the other.  “She was askin’ for it, dressed like that.”  Seriously.  Think about it.  If women are to blame for men’s lustful thoughts, aren’t they to blame for men’s lustful actions?  Do we really want to go back to that age?

Do we really want to dehumanize both men and women, taking away both of their moral agency?  I know men are visual creatures.  I AM ONE.  I know men have a tendency to think lustful thoughts.  ME TOO.  I also know that men are responsible for their own sins, including lust.  It doesn’t matter if I just saw the hottest, sexiest woman I ever saw walking by in a low-cut top and barely-there skirt, looking like something that just stepped out of a Prince song, I am responsible for what I do in my mind just as I am responsible for what I do in my body.

Am I saying that Christian women should wear thigh-high platform boots, micro-skirts, and corset tops to the mall?  Of course not.  Christian women should take responsibility for their mode of dress based upon their own relationships with God.  They have souls and minds, too, and we don’t have the right to play God, telling them what God does and doesn’t want them to wear.  A woman’s salvation and sanctification come from God, through Christ, not through any other person.

Besides, there will always be plenty of non-Christian women who dress provocatively.  We men better learn to control ourselves, or we’ll be sunk in a pit of lustful thoughts all day long.  And let me tell you, as a man who remembers what it was like to be in the grip of hormones, constantly battling a lustful eye, it is absolutely possible to lustfully deconstruct somebody who is modestly dressed. Long sleeves, long pants or dress, not too tight?  It doesn’t matter.  Lust will find a way, unless it is controlled by the person doing the lusting.

There’s another problem with this scenario.   “Dressing modestly” is a moving target, culturally constructed and not even consistent within a single culture.  When asked what “modest dress” was, nobody in the comments section (myself included) could come up with a solid, widely-agreeable definition.  In fact, The Rebelution Modesty Survey spent months, created an interactive website, and surveyed thousands of teens and young adults, to get … a series of questions with answers based on the percentages of their respondents who agreed or disagreed.  In other words, they got a fascinating, and maybe even useful, cultural snapshot of early 21st century, predominantly Christian, youth.  And they started a good conversation.  But they ddn’t get a definitive answer.

So what does it mean to dress modestly?  What does it mean to you?  Tank top?  Jogging shorts?  Cap sleeves?  Skirt to your knees?  Long sleeves?  Skirt to your ankles?  Head covered?  Face veiled?  Burqa?

You think that “Burqa” comment was a smartaleck remark?  Sarcasm?  A joke?  It’s not.  When powerful men decide that women must be controlled, they usually start with modesty.  They start by “protecting” women from the lustful nature of men.  Soon they’re protecting them from going to college and learning difficult, even un-godly things.  They say it’s better for women to stay home and learn to be good homemakers for their husbands.

The woman exists for the man’s benefit, whether to gratify his lusts or support him and his children, depending upon whether you ask a libertine or a hyper-conservative.

The Burqa is where this ends: the symbol of total male domination of women, shrouded from view, her sex, even her humanity, hidden behind thick layers of cloth.  Her life is no longer her own, to give in service to God if she is willing and faithful, but belongs to a man.

If we let men start determining how women dress, women become effectively dress-up dolls, to be remade in either a sexualized or a conservative modesty model.  In other words, we take away their agency and dehumanize them … just like we do when we entertain sexual fantasies about them.