Very Christian White Guys: Here’s the Problem with Complementarianism

It was a fun weekend. I had a book signing at my local Barnes and Noble. And then, Relevant Magazine ran an excerpt of my book on their website.

When a large platform like Relevant gives me the occasional glimpse of what it’s like to have a wider audience for five minutes, one thing is for sure: the Very Christian White Guys of the internet are going to show up in full force to mansplain the Bible to me, and remind me of my god-given place in the church.

In this case, the VCWG set came to defend complementarianism, which I critique hard in my book. In the featured excerpt, I draw a line from this teaching — in which God has designed specific church and family roles according to gender—to broader social issues like sexual assault. The VCWGs don’t hear that well. I’ll spare you the long exchange that ensued on social media, but one reader summed up the whole business beautifully: “We have got us some triggered dudes up in here.” That’s pretty much it. (Side note to Jayme, wherever you are—you are my people. Let’s be friends).

“Triggered dudes” seem to be my mission in life at this moment. Triggered VCWGs in particular.

Their main gripe is that, if I connect complementarianism with abuse or discrimination in any way, then I must fail to understand its finer points. In other words: “If you find it troubling, you just don’t understand. Here, let men explain.”

Some of these VCWGs suggested that Relevant should invite some well-known (male) theologians to offer a response to my piece, presenting the “right” understanding of men’s and women’s God-given roles. You know, SO THINGS WILL BE FAIR.

Granted, the blurb appearing with the post oversimplified the lines between problematic theology and the widespread oppression of women. I’ve never said that one directly yields the other, or that “all men” who buy into complementarian theology are abusive towards women. But I hold the line on the indirect correlation between rigid gender roles within the church, and toxic masculinity in the culture at large. These two ills have always had their roots in the same damn tree. However just and equitable you try to make it sound, church leaders that prescribe this model ultimately insist that “headship” roles are for men, while women were created for “support” roles. They will tell you those support roles are just as important and valuable in the eyes of God, and this distinction in no way implies that men enjoy elevated status.

I call BS on that, every time. “Separate but equal” no longer flies at public water fountains because we finally woke up to the fact that “separation” is just used to elevate the privileged. If you teach masculine privilege in the church, that is systemically going to bleed out into other areas of public life.

Case in point: if you buy the line that “women are to be silent in church,” you might also get highly triggered by a woman who is not silent elsewhere. Like on the internet. A man who can’t handle a woman in the pulpit is probably also uncomfortable with a woman in the boardroom, the lab, or the White House. Take your pick. But you cannot extract your theological worldview from the larger world in which you live.

It is not lost on me that mansplainy misogynists are often terrible spellers who lack a grasp of the basic rules of grammar and punctuation. Proving that a second grade reading level will literally yield a second grade theology, every time. Go figure. BUT. Sometimes, VCWGs are refined. Sometimes, they sound scholarly and articulate, and so dang reasonable. Like you would be insane to even question the goodness and rightness of what they are saying.

Because this is how Patriarchy functions. At its finest, patriarchy SOUNDS like good news for everybody. That’s how it comes to be so deeply ingrained in every part of our culture, every system and structure, that we don’t notice or question it much. 

But no matter how biblical you can make it sound by lifting some choice verses out of context, a complementarian apologetic always means the same thing: that women can’t preach or hold any leadership role that would have them teaching the men. Which means the men, however well-intentioned, go away with the certainty of their god-given authority.

You can’t tell me that a man’s “god-given authority” is not a problem for women. Outside of small church circles where this lovely and simple worldview might make sense, we still live in a world in which women are second class citizens. If you can’t see the line from the pulpit to the wage gap to rape culture, then you are reading scripture in a vacuum and not as part of your current context. Which, not for nothing, is the opposite of being a prophetic faith leader.

VCWGs want to say their view is backed by “the simplest reading of scripture.” That may be true. But since when is the simplest (second grade) reading the most faithful? If you can read the Bible and come away with the notion that women are not called to lead and preach, then you aren’t reading the whole book, you are reading a few favorite passages. Through a favorite pair of patriarchy-colored glasses. I invite you to step off of that glacier and join the rest of us in this millennium.

Or don’t. I don’t really care, because I’m not here for the mansplainers. I don’t need them to recognize my authority. I normally don’t even engage that debate, because it’s a waste of my time, and frankly, I’ve got shit to do.

But I am here for the women.

I recognize that some women feel safe and loved and comfortable in that environment. I don’t judge them, nor will I ever insist that they reject a belief system that has is meaningful to them. Part of empowering women means that I support their right to do WHATEVER works for their family and their faith. Even if it makes me cringe.

I’m here for the others. The women who find themselves in that system—who’ve heard the same message all of their lives—and who feel deeply unsettled by some vague something they can’t name. The women who have felt called to preach or lead and have been, however gently, patted on the head and told that the Lord has other plans for them. I’m here for the women who are filled with silent rage every time they’re sent to the church kitchen or the youth room, when they want to be leading Sunday school or preaching the gospel. I’m here for the women who have never felt the urge to preach, but who know in their hearts that “separate but equal” is just some kinda bullshit.

I will step into the fray of “triggered dudes” every time, if it means that EVEN ONE of those women will feel seen and heard and empowered to ask her hard question a little louder.

I suffer no delusions that any one Tweet, blog post, or even book is going to dismantle years of toxic teaching about how women are not “gifted” for certain roles. But I’m not having it—and I hope you’re not either—when men claim the keys to the universe, and then condescend to any woman who challenges their reality.

The ultimate irony? These guys fully believe they are speaking with the authority granted to them by the gospel of Jesus Christ. But it takes a distinctly un-Christlike arrogance to think that their second grade reading of scripture somehow holds more weight than the call of God that a woman might hear on her life. What does it cost them to allow space for that woman’s voice? And how small must their God be, to fit within such tiny confines of faithfulness? What are they so afraid of?

One thing: loss of privilege.

The VCWGs want to reduce the fight for equality to a woman’s shallow desire for power … when clearly, they’re the ones whose power feels threatened. That’s because their authority relies on a certain level of complacency from generally half the population. And no real authority depends on someone else’s submission.

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