For a long time I have said a number of times that I don’t like either “complementarian” or “egalitarian,” since the former is not really what is meant and the latter is too tied into modernity. I only begrudgingly accept egalitarian and prefer the term “mutuality.” So, what Rachel Held Evans said recently is precisely how I see things: complementarianism, at the bottom, is patriarchy. It is hierarchicalism.
3. And they [complementarians] are losing ground because, at the practical level, evangelicals are realizing that complementarianism doesn’t actually promote complementary relationships, but rather hierarchal ones.
Complementarianism is patriarchy—nothing more, nothing less. (Though it is sometimes called “soft patriarchy.”) This was made crystal clear when John Piper announced months ago that Christianity is inherently masculine. Such a view can hardly be described as “complementary” when it excludes one gender entirely. We experience the same discomfort when we realize that, based on the “complementarian” understanding of gender, Fred Phelps would be more qualified to speak to your church on Sunday morning by virtue of being a man than someone like Lois Tverberg or Carolyn Custis James or Christine Caine. When a man with no biblical training whatsoever is considered more qualified to teach than a woman with a PhD in theology or a woman whose work in New Testament scholarship is renowned the world over, we are not seeing complementariaism at work, but patriarchy. (And, I might add, we are missing the Apostle Paul’s point to Timothy about teaching entirely—but that’s a topic for another day.)
Furthermore, as Russell Moore himself has observed, even married couples who identify as “complementarians” are functioning as equal partners rather than forcing a hierarchal pattern onto their relationship that is highly prescriptive regarding gender. This should come as no surprise seeing as how a truly complementary relationship is one in which differences are celebrated, but not forced. If your marriage is like mine, this means that the complementary differences between you and your spouse often fall into gender-influenced norms (I am more emotional; Dan is more even-keeled), but not always (Dan is better at nurturing relationships than I am; I am more competitive). Rather than trying to force our personalities and our roles into prescribed molds based on gender, it just makes more sense to allow our natural difference to enhance and challenge one another. We lead where we are strong; we defer where we are weak.
Complementarianism isn’t working—in marriages and in church leadership— because it’s not actually complementarianism; it’s patriarchy. And patriarchy doesn’t work because God created both men and women to reflect God’s character and God’s sovereignty over creation, as equal partners with equal value.
UPDATE: For those who think I mean “patriarchy” as an insult rather than a description of reality, consider this: In the current issue of The Journal of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Owen Strachan wrote, “For millennia, followers of God have practiced what used to be called patriarchy and is now called complementarianism.”