Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Whence "Complementarianism"?

(Warning: The following may be "fightin' words" to some people.)

I've recently waded into the "Complementarian - Egalitarian" battle that's being waged in Evangelical Protestantism. (See, e.g., the Complegalitarian blog site.) Though I am not well read in the area,1 I do not lack thoughts or opinions on the subject! And, per an earlier post, I've been to a church that is on the front lines of this battle.

Anyway, here's a salvo from me:

Note: Had I first read the introduction to Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy (Ronald W. Pierce and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, Editors), I might not have written this post, since in it the editors discuss the subject I address here, though not exactly as I have done. And as the subtitle of the book indicates, egalitarians regard themselves as complementarians, but without the hierarchy that restricts church and home leadership to men.

Why is the "only men can be church leaders and teach other men in church" position called "Complementarianism"?

While there are certain biological roles and functions for which men and women have complementary functions, Christian "Complementarianism" also uses these biological differences to restrict certain church roles and functions to men, even though men are allowed to do in church everything that women can do (including the women-assigned things in Titus 2:4-5 - i..e, men can so instruct these young women as well). Such a "Complementarianism" seems to be saying: "All Christians are equal, but some are more equal than others." (Cf. the commandment in Animal Farm being changed from "All animals are equal" to "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."2) This, despite what Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 12:13 and Galatians 3:26-28 and Colossians 3:10-11 about such former distinctions being done away with in Christ and all believers being one in Christ.

Hence, I would suggest an alternative term for such a position. Here are some candidates:
  • "Subordinationism." But since "lay" men are just as "subordinated" to male pastors, elders, and deacons as "lay" women are, this is probably not a good alternative.
  • "Restrictionism." This might be a valid alternative, since whereas "lay" men can become "clergy" and hold "church offices" and teach others, both male and female, it's not similarly open to women to enter or achieve the same rank or position or place of authority.
  • "Patriarchalism." This formerly-used term most literally means a society headed by a "father." But since it also means a system or organization whereby power is held by and transferred through males, it might be the best and most accurate alternative term for so-called "Complementarianism."
To critique "Complementarianism" directly, and not just the term, if one distinguishes home and married life from church life, I think it shows that "Complementarianism" may be somewhat improperly importing the husband-wife relationship of men and women into the church realm or imposing it on the church. This seems contrary to one of the major Biblical images of the church as being the Bride of Christ, regardless of the genders of its members. It also seems contrary to the image of the church as the body of Christ in which God has placed the members as He decided, and to whom His Spirit gives gifts and giftings as It wills (1 Corinthians 12:11,18) - with no mention made of restrictions or distinctions based on gender, or some positions or giftings being more appropriate for men than for women, or vice-versa.

(Note: When I talk about importing the husband-wife relationship into the church realm, I am not thereby saying or assuming that the husband-wife relationship has to be patriarchal, though there does seem to me to be Scriptural support for that, with the husbands' mutual respect and love and self-giving reciprocating the wives' and children's non-leadership or lesser-leadership roles. What I'm saying is that "Complementarians" seem to be imposing that model onto church roles and offices and tasks when they give men authority over women while denying a woman an equal right to be in authority or a pastor or a teacher of men.)

Maybe "Complementarians" would be offended if "Egalitarians" insisted on using "Patriarchalism" again, a term that more accurately describes the negative aspects of "Complementarianism." Is it the desire to dialogue without offending the other party that causes "Egalitarians" to acquiesce and accept the "Complementarians'" somewhat-euphemistic self-designation?

1 I haven't read many of the latest articles written about this, but I have in the past owned and read several books on the subject, though I've subsequently sold or given away most of them. I have yet to read much of the largish (500+ pages) Discovering Biblical Equality, but have read most of the second edition of Two Views on Women in Ministry, as well as the first edition of Women in the Church: An Analysis and Application of 1 Timothy 2:9-15 (and own the second edition as well). I've also read several responses and rebuttals to and from the opposing sides.

2 George Orwell, Animal Farm, Chapter X


  1. I love your thoughts and completely agree!

    The only thing I would slightly disagree with you on is the Scriptural basis for a husband to be a leader over a wife.

    I would say that Scripture may indicate that a husband is leader over a wife, ONLY if head/kephale means authority, and if her instructions to submit were intended to be recieved across time and culture as opposed to being instructions for a segment of society that literally *had* to be subject (just as slaves did) by law.

    I would posit that Paul's words are for wives to submit, just as slaves were to obey, because the law of the land and the mores of the time demanded such. However, I would add that Paul then quietly subverted those mores when he told masters that they were not "more respected" in God's sight, and that husbands were to love their wives as Christ loved the church---which, in the beginning of Ephesians, involved Him raising her up to His level, not keeping her down "in her place."

    According to Ephesians 1 and 2, her "place," hierarchically, is in Him, which would indicate that the earthly husband, endowed with much greater rights and abilities because of his patriarchal society, was to raise his wife up to his level. Unfortunately, what I see in (most) complementarianism, is a lot of work keeping the women aware of their (lower) place. For this reason, I think hierarchalism is an apt term.

    (Btw, this is nothing against the concept of submission in general: I think submission is a Christian attribute. I just don't think it's a *female* attribute). :)

  2. Excellent thoughts, both of you. :o)

    Because of the man's strengths as well as often more privileged position in society, I think it is proper in the Lord that he stand in front of his wife as head to provide and protect. But not as an authority which most often is used against the woman and for the benefit of the man. Each spouse is to benefit the other. The husband benefits the wife with what he has to provide, nurture and protect. The wife benefits the man to provide different things, to support, to honor and protect him in different ways as his body. The analogy of head of and body of is one of interdependence and mutual support.

  3. The kephale of an army was the forward position that took the most hits, so I think it is a possible valid interpretation for the husband to act in this way. Kind of like a bumper on a car, the first part of a car.

  4. With all this talk about 'submission' in the church,

    look at it this way, soon men too will submit,

    to Islam, which means, SUBMISSION.!

    Just think, when that time arrives, [and men, yes, if you take the whole submit headship, etc., it includes SLAVERY, that little part the modern day church likes to, uh, forget, then yes, if Sharia Law or Islam takes over, and it will, look at the UK, those very same scriptures used against women will then, also, have to be applied to men, of course, I'm SURE the pro-patriarchs, lol, will find some way, to get around that, but alas, anyway]

    it is a tad ironic, don't you think, the worship of 'submission' and all the wars and debates to maintain it, and here we have, Islam, the fastest growing religion in the world,


    Ironic, don't you think?

  5. I appreciate your thoughts on this. It's that crazy doublespeak that can be confusing and disarming, "Oh, we are all equal in value, God just has different roles for men and women...blablabla," when in reality Complimentarianism really seems to operate the way you describe in your post, more like "subordinationism." How did they get their euphemism anyway?

    A "reformed fundy" recently slammed me for my site, . He did this on his blog, rather than confronting me w/ his issues... I'm not sure it's worth my time to do battle with him.

    But what he did make me aware of is this: despite my having made peace both with living and with Scripture in really and truly being "equal" with my wonderful husband of over two decades, I need to brush up on my gender theology to deal with these kinds of onslaughts.

    (e.g., specifically, see reformedfundamentalist blog, "'My Former Church is a Cult' Blogging" Apr 20,2009, if you're interested).

    Do you have one or two of your favorite, easy reads, on this topic to recommend?

  6. I'm not familiar with the literature, but the people and links at the complegalitarian blog would be able to help you: