Illustrative of Complementarism: Yes… But Not In The Way He Thinks

by Kristen Rosser cross posted from her blog Wordgazer’s Words

This week John Ensor posted at the Desiring God blog a piece called “An Olympic Lesson for Husbands and Wives.”  Here are a few reasons he thinks pairs ice skating is the perfect metaphor and illustration of Christian complementarian (male-headship) marriage:

He leads her onto the ice and initiates each part of their routine. She receives that leadership and trusts in his strength. His raw physical strength is more on display than hers; he does all the lifting, twirling and catching. She complements his strength with her own; a more diminutive and more attractive strength of beauty, grace, speed and balance. His focus as the head or leader is to magnifying her skills. Her focus is on following his lead and signaling her readiness to receive his next move. He takes responsibility for the two of them and she trusts his leadership and delights in it. . .

They do not fight for equality on the ice; they possess it as a given. They are not jostling about fairness. They are focused on doing their part well. No one yells, “Oppressor!” as he leads her around the arena, lifting her up and catapulting her into a triple spin. No one thinks she is belittled as she takes her lead from him, skating backwards to his forward. No one calls for them to be egalitarian. “She should get to throw him into a triple Lutz half the time!” They complement each other in their complementarian approach to becoming one majestic whole. No one, least of all him, minds that the roses and teddy bears, thrown onto the ice when they have collapsed into each other’s arms at the end, are for her. It is his joy.

This is a visible model of what male leadership and female support are all about. It’s an art form, not a mandate. It’s a disposition, not a set of rules. When it’s done well, it’s a welcome sight in which both partners are fulfilled in themselves and delighted in the other.

Many other bloggers have posted responses to this; I’ll be quoting a few of them.  But what I personally saw was an illustration of something entirely different from what Ensor was trying to convey.   As far as I can see, Ensor’s post didn’t show how perfectly pairs skating illustrates complementarianism.  Ensor’s post was the perfect illustration of the most common problems with complementarianism itself.

Here are six ways that “An Olympic Lesson for Husbands and Wives” is actually a lesson in what’s wrong with complementarian argumentation:

It gives lip service to “equality” while simultaneously denying it.

To give Ensor credit, he does point to ways in which the male “head” is supposed to use his leadership to “magnify” his wife. But while stating unequivocably that “They do not fight for equality on the ice; they possess it as a given,” everything else he says makes it clear that the man is the leader because he is male, while the woman is the follower– always and without exception– because she is female. This is what I have referred to elsewhere as “divine right”:

Most modern Christians have rejected the notion of divine right in all areas but this one. We no longer agree with, “Because I was born royal, I have divine right to rule this country,” or “Because I was born an aristocrat, I have divine right to govern the peasants on my land.” We certainly don’t agree any more with “Because I am white, I have divine right to be served by those of other races. . . “

Most Christians now would agree that there is no such thing as “divine right” – that God has established earthly authorities, but no one can say, “Because of my birth, it’s my divine right to be one of those authorities.” Except in this area. Christians say, “Because I was born male, I have a right to be in authority over my wife in the home. . . .”

The whole reason Ensor is writing this post is to show that female submission to male authority is built into the very nature of what it is to be a man and a woman.  But this is not– cannot be– equality.  It only claims it is.

It sees the surface and doesn’t look deeper.

What Ensor sees when he watches pairs skating is oddly similar to what male-headship proponents see when they read the Bible: a surface meaning based on what it looks like to someone far removed from the original action.  Here are some comments from people who are much closer to the world of pairs skating, because they are very familiar with its non-ice equivalent: performance dancing.

From Naomi Hanvey at A Happy Hanvey Home:


[P]airs figure skating, partnered dancing or gymnastics, contact improvisation, and other similar movement forms, all operate on the same basic principles: physics, timing, and a combination of independence and interdependence. The stunts and shapes are different in each discipline, but the science and preparation behind them are essentially the same for everyone. So while I don’t know the names of all the skating moves and I’ve never studied that particular style of partnered dancing, I think my experience does give me somewhat more of an insider’s point of view than John Ensor has. . .

Throughout the article, Ensor repeatedly uses the word “lead” to describe the male role and “receive” or “support” to describe the female role, but I get the impression that he thinks the couples are improvising. That’s not how a skating routine (or a dance routine, or a gymnastics routine) works. In reality, neither party is actually the “leader” – they have a choreographer or a coach (sometimes both) designing the routine, down to the timing and spacing. Additionally, there is usually music or at least a rhythm that dictates when each movement should occur. On professional stages, that music is controlled by a conductor. It’s not up to the man – or the woman – to decide when the next stunt happens. The couple doesn’t have a leader and a follower; they have to move together as one.

And from Rebecca Erwin at Frog in Paris:

Under the beautiful costumes and graceful movements is a well guarded secret. Women dancers have to be physically strong, capable and know their own center of gravity. Along with their strength, men have be in tune with their partner. In order for him to lift her with a look of ease, she must bend her knees and jump: plie. Her core muscles engage and hold her center of balance. Her arms and shoulders control her direction.

In twirling and catching, her whole body engages as she plies. He lifts. They read each other’s center of gravity and shift to match-equally. The illusion of unity. She jumps into his arms and he adds his strength to her motion. He directs that motion to a mutually agreed spot for her to land. The combination creates incredible lift that defies gravity. The partners work in tandem for a common goal. [Emphasis added.]

Ensor’s focus, then, on male leadership in pairs skating simply isn’t what is actually going on from the perspective of actual participants in such sports.  I have frequently made a similar argument that what complementarians see when they read certain passages of scripture is far removed from how the original audiences, with different historical-cultural assumptions that we don’t share today, would have understood these passages.  Ensor’s article illustrates perfectly how a surface view misses what is really going on, either in a skating routine or in a Bible passage.

It makes one particular type of male-female interaction into the model for all. 

Ensor opens his piece by saying, “Sochi is helping me be a better husband. And the Olympics are freshly making my wife to delight in her role as well.”  From there he paints a picture of marriage looking like a pairs skate.  Not just his marriage– every marriage.  The message to Christians is clear. Unless your marriage looks like this, it’s out of God’s will and thus not a truly Christian marriage.

But pairs skating is just one of hundreds of Olympic events.  Some married people are individual skaters, with a husband or wife working in the background to support the skater’s Olympic bid.  Some are bobsledders.  Some are skiers or snowboarders.  Because no two people are alike, no two marriages can be alike.

I’m sure Ensor would allow for different peoples’  marriages to look different– but within limits.  In his mind every man is to lead and every woman is to follow, at all times and in every circumstance. Those couples where the man is a natural leader and the woman enjoys following will have no trouble fitting the pattern and will probably find themselves content in their roles.  And even though what makes it work for them is simply their innate personalities, they will also find their particular way of relating held up as an example of godly marriage to everyone else.  Couples where the individuals simply weren’t made this way, however, will struggle.  In my own marriage we spent many years trying to be what we were not.

It upholds a vision of reality colored with the traditional patriarchal perspective.

The traditional view of how women are supposed to be one way and men another, in line with western European constructs of masculinity and femininity– as Ensor puts it, “raw physical strength” and “diminutive and attractive strength”– makes no room for men or women who don’t fit the paradigm.  Diana Anderson of Faith and Feminism notes how in pairs skating, traditional gender constructs contribute to what audience members like Ensor are accustomed to seeing:

Image matters in figure skating – femininity in particular. . . [T]he subjective readings of femininity still remain. Female figure skaters, like many female athletes in subjectively judged sports, often must rely on the presentation of a demurely feminine presence to boost the judgment of their art. . . 

What Ensor reads as complementarianism is actually strict gendered roles that frequently confine and box in female athletes who take to this sport – it is not necessarily an example of complementing strengths in the vein of theological gender roles. Rather, pairs figure skating acts as an example of the tired preservation the double burden that women face – the need to be unbelievably feminine while also having enough strength to perform at the same level as men. Ensor’s shallow reading fails to contextualize what we are actually seeing, and therefore missing larger points about the ways in which gender is performed and how these pairs work in mutuality, not complementarity. 

The illusion created by the pairs skaters is that he is effortlessly strong and she is effortlessly graceful. But the fact is that a huge amount of effort, strength and grace is required of both partners.  Pairs do exist that challenge the traditional constructs, such as the brother-sister team of Sinead and John Kerr, whose “inverse lift,” where she lifts him, has been very popular with audiences.  But the complementarian viewpoint, while celebrating the differences between the sexes, often does so at the expense of differences within each sex.  Those who don’t fit very well into the boxes are frequently either shamed or simply ignored.

It caricatures other viewpoints.

No egalitarian or feminist that I know– Christian or secular– would say that a man lifting a woman during pairs skating is “oppressing” her.  Egalitarianism is about each partner (whether in skating or in marriage) contributing his or her strengths and deferring to the giftings of the other.  As Retha Faurie at Biblical Personhood puts it:

As if egalitarianism is about insisting that each should do half of every task! (If there was an Olympic event for misrepresenting egalitarianism, John Ensor may have qualified with that statement.)

Complementarianism often caricatures egalitarianism as claiming that there are no differences between the sexes.  Or they will say egalitarian marriage is about each partner insisting on his or her own rights and refusing to give more than 50%.  Complementarianism also tends to mischaracterize feminism as being about female domination of males.  Ensor’s gratuitious mockery– a picture of an extremist yelling “Oppressor!” at a male pairs skater– highlights this tendency within the complementarian camp.

It turns marriage into a performance. 

I haven’t been able to figure out how to make Blogger embed Tweets, but Rachel Held Evans tweeted this shortly after Ensor’s post went up:

This was so absurd I actually laughed: “An Olympic Lesson for Husbands and Wives” / My marriage is not a performance!

Although Ensor is using pairs skating performances as a metaphor for marriage and not specifically stating that marriage is to be viewed as a performance, the fact is that complementarianism does frequently depict marriage as a performance played to the world to display the truths of the gospel.

As I have explored in depth in a three-part series starting here, complementarian Christianity teaches that human marriage is a picture or illustration of Christ’s relationship with the church.  As the Gospel Coalition declares:

[Marriage is] a picture of the gospel. Your marriage reflects Christ and His church. It was created by God to be a visible picture for everyone to see the love between Christ and His Bride. [Emphasis in original]

What it comes down to is that if God created marriage as a display of the gospel for the world, then marriage is indeed a performance.  And as I stated above, those husbands and wives whose personalities fit naturally into a male-leader/female-follower mold will naturally perform well and be praised for it, while everyone else will either put on an act, or simply fail to meet the performance standard and be shamed for not properly showcasing the gospel.

If your marriage doesn’t fit very well into the box, then, you have two choices– pretense or failure. My husband and I chose pretense and tried to hide from ourselves our sneaking feelings that we were secret failures and outward hypocrites.  Needless to say, this wasn’t exactly a help to us and it didn’t strengthen or build up our marriage.  The fact that we still managed to have a pretty good marriage anyway was in spite of, not because of, this teaching.

Conclusion:

Pairs skaters do actually do some of the same things couples do in healthy Christian marriages: they work together, they listen to their Coach, they adjust to one another, and they each pour all of their individual strengths into making unity work.  What they don’t actually do, however, is function within a male-headship paradigm.  This is something that the article reads into the performance, not something that is intrinsically there.

When examined closely, Ensor’s use of pairs skating as an illustration of Christian male-headship marriage is actually a better illustration of the problems with complementarian thinking.  It would have been better for him to have taken off his blue-tinted glasses and seen that men being in charge of women really isn’t what it’s all about.

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[Editorial Note: This article is intended for those readers who have chosen to accept the Bible as authoritative for faith and practice. If you are not one of those readers, please be understanding of the intended audience and refrain from commenting on the assumptions on which it is based. Please refrain from this pertains to all Christians everywhere and show some respect for the writer please. For more info on the site please visit - Is NLQ an Atheist Website?]

Read everything by Kristen Rosser!

Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network member, Kristen Rosser (aka KR Wordgazer) blogs at Wordgazer’s Words

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Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich

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Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce

 

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