Christian Patriarchy and Complementarianism: “Separate But Equal” Puts on Lipstick

Complementarianism is a lie.

Yeah. It’s fake. It doesn’t exist. What does exist is patriarchy in drag. Patriarchy slips into a pretty little number and tells you it’s helping you fulfill your God-given potential. It twirls around and smiles at you, showing you how beautiful you can be if you’ll only stop fighting and being so angry and just accept the glorious calling of Biblical Womanhood.

Then you’re sent off to the Hunger Games, where whether or not you live depends on how much the rich dudes who sponsor your imprisonment like the way you look.

Spare me the flowery language. Complementarianism is not only a sin against the English language, it’s an affront to women’s souls.

Complementarianism was struck down 58 years ago via Brown v. Board of Education. Was it a triumphant, decisive end to centuries of American racism? No. Was it a declaration of an essential truth – that segregation is inherently opposed to liberty and equality – that has relevance beyond the Jim Crow era? Yes.

Complementarianism is “separate but equal” with a new face, scrubbed shiny lest it be recognized for the bigotry it was in the 50s.

Check out this gem from “Reclaiming the Mind”:

You see, when people are truly committed and consistent egalitarians, they have to defend their denial of essential differences. In doing so, they will advocate a education system in the home, church, and society which neutralizes any assumption of differences between the sexes. In doing so, men will not be trained to be “men” since there is really no such thing. Women will not be encouraged to be “women” since there is no such thing. The assumption of differences becomes a way to oppress society and marginalize, in their estimation, one sex for the benefit of the other. Once we neutralize these differences, we will have neutered society and the family due to a denial of God’s design in favor of some misguided attempt to promote a form of equality that is neither possible nor beneficial to either sex.

As a truly committed and consistent egalitarian, yes, yes I do deny “essential” differences. You know why? My essential nature is not “woman.” My essential nature is me. Sierra. It’s who I am. If you were somehow to perform some kind of existential surgery on my best friend, her essential nature would not be identical to mine. It might have similar colors and shapes, but so would mine and my fiance’s. Because people are different. “Men” are not more different from women than they are from other men.

This paragraph is especially revealing, as it demonstrates what complementarians are desperately afraid of: that people will stop teaching restrictive gender roles. And this is really where the complementarian argument collapses like a Jenga tower built by a two-year-old who found Uncle Jim’s stash of catnip. If gender roles are essential, YOU DON’T NEED TO TEACH THEM. They will emerge naturally. So go ahead, complementarians, experiment with me: raise an egalitarian generation. Teach them all the things you’re so afraid of. After all, wouldn’t God’s design trump your indoctrination and reveal the “Truth”?

Finally, the fearmongering about a “neutered society” and family is an especially telling slip. A family should be gender neutral, especially by evangelical Christian standards that forbid same-sex marriage. A society should be gender neutral, because that’s what “liberty and justice for all” means. Arguing that egalitarianism “neuters” society means you think society should be male. It means you want to erase women.

Some complementarians are even more explicit about the fact that they are patriarchalists:

If complementarians are to reclaim the debate, we must not fear making a claim that is disturbingly counter-cultural and yet strikingly biblical, a claim that the less-than-evangelical feminists understand increasingly: Christianity is undergirded by a vision of patriarchy. This claim is rendered all the more controversial because it threatens complementarianism as a “movement.” Not all complementarians can agree about the larger themes of Scripture—only broadly on some principles and negatively on what Scripture definitely does not allow (i.e. women as pastors). Even to use the word “patriarchy” in an evangelical context is uncomfortable since the word is deemed “negative” even by most complementarians. But evangelicals should ask why patriarchy seems negative to those of us who serve the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God and Father of Jesus Christ.

It’s almost a relief when somebody just comes out and says “God made me in charge of you, so shut up.” Here’s a tip: the term “patriarchy” is negative because it describes a system that is inherently unjust. You are advocating a system that is unjust. You are idolizing an unjust society and its leading men, under the guise of following its God. Tell me, if patriarchy was so important to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, why does it not appear in the Ten Commandments?

Rachel Held Evans has done an admirable job piercing through the cloud of lies that tries to make patriarchy palatable:

Complemenarianism 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.

Once again, the idea of a “masculine” Christianity is precisely the underlying structure of such outlandish claims as the one above, that equality “neuters” society. The same complementarian has attempted a critique, hastily trying to paint the roses red:

In truth, “functionally egalitarian” marriages should more aptly be described as “dysfunctionally complementarian.” A husband who refuses his male headship role is not creating equality in the marriage but transferring the headship role to the wife. Hierarchy is not removed, only replaced by an unbiblical reversal of the creational norm. Evans claims that complementarianism is patriarchy, and here she stumbles upon the truth. She doesn’t appear to recognize, however, that the patriarchy of marriage models the patriarchy of the Godhead. In contrast, the “functional egalitarianism” that Evans prefers models our culture’s obsession with autonomy and disdain for authority. It is an ideology particularly suited to fulfill the masculine desire—first exhibited by Adam—to shirk our responsibility as servant-leaders and transfer our God-mandated role to our wives.

(I struck out the obfuscating Christianese for clarity of reading.)

First of all, let me summarize: (1) There is no such thing as partnership; somebody always has to be in charge. (2) Patriarchy was instated at Creation, not after the Fall (theologically false – even the shrieking misogynist William Branham admitted that Adam and Eve had equal dominion over the garden of Eden). (3) Men like not being in charge all the time – this simply won’t do!

Now, let me laugh out loud for five minutes straight.

Now, let me respond. (1) No. (2) No. (3) Why do you hate men?

By the way, Evans reminds us, all this “biblical” talk is empty noise because complementarians are selective too.

Blogger Alise, discontent with abstractions, has made a brilliant point about complementarianism: it’s not the universal principle patriarchal Christians want it to be, even in their own doctrine!:

Sex. An act where we were told over and over that women are supposed to be givers and men are supposed to be takers, thiswas where mutuality was supposed to occur. An act where we are at our most vulnerable and exposed, we were to treat one another as equals. Eventually the questions overwhelmed me. Why would God make me equal to my husband when we were getting it on, but not when we were getting a new car? Why would we submit to one another when we were making a baby, but not when we were making parenting decisions?

Lest this all be cast as selfishness on the part of us rebellious loudmouth women, here’s a man who agrees that complementarianism makes no sense:

The distinctive of complementary roles is to me a paradoxical concept. If one is the head and the leader and the other is the helper who is submissive, where does equality fall into that equation? You always hear pastors say that men and women are “equal but different” in regard to gender roles however they proceed to say that women are more easily deceived, the weaker vessel, the helper, a good one is submissive, respectful of her husband etc…. What is said about men? That they are priests and kings of their household, and that they are the “head” of their family. So submissive, naïve, weaker helper is equal to Strong, King Priest, and Leader? 

Mars Hill, the above man’s former church, offers this explanation for its complementarian doctrine:

Mars Hill is committed to complementarianism in the home and church. We also believe that men and women are partners in every area of life and ministry together. Though equal, men and women have biblically defined complementary and distinct roles, so that husbands are to lovingly lead their homes like Jesus and only men should serve as pastors in the church.

Once again, it’s not as pretty when you strip out the Christianese. Here’s a bunch of patriarchal worship leaders, including a representative of Mars Hill, who for some reason imagine that they are authorities on the matter:

Each band has a male in the shepherding role charge. We never want to put a woman in a position where they’re forced to be in spiritual authority over men in a band context. … We have a woman worship leader and it opens a whole new element that’s so important to the church. She leads and it’s in submission to the elders men.

I bet these guys have black friends, too!

At the Village they can lead on stage, but we’ll have a male leader co-leading with supervising them. The exceptions would be women’s Bible studies or women’s conferences. … Women don’t preach at The Journey, but we have women do scripture readings, lead songs, and play instruments in worship services. They really bring a lot to the gathering.

I’m sure the pastor “brings a lot,” too. Do you also make sure to tell him that?

Right out of the gate in our membership class they’re learning about where we stand on gender roles. I mean, almost every weekend you can hear Matt Chandler say something about it. … We need to do a better job at valuing the masculine and feminine attributes of God.  Both males and females are made in His image. At Soma (Please, please, please read A Brave New World before you name another church!), we want to have elders men who are overseeing and leading, but also create space for women to exercise their gifts.

Like in the nursery, or reading from a script.

Also, this constant use of “elders” is interesting. Apparently, when complementarian men age, they become “elders” with special supervisory powers, whereas when women age, they become old.

Over-masculinizing the corporate gathering isn’t a huge problem because most dudes have trouble engaging in the effeminate, “Jesus is my boyfriend” pop worship tunes played in a lot of Christian stereos and churches today. … With evangelical Christianity being 60% female, many men are turned off by what is generally a very feminized, gospel-less, cross-less Christianity. The western church has feminized worship along with the person of Jesus. 

This must be what “valuing the masculine and feminine attributes of God” looks like. I’ll go pray until I can understand how these guys are using “feminized” as a positive contribution to worship.

Finally, “Girls Gone Wise” wants you to know that complementarian women can’t be oppressed because they’re smart, have cars, and their pastors let them teach boys until they start to miss the high notes in choir.

  • Pingback: Rachel Held Evans: Is Patriarchy Really God’s Dream for the World? « The Phoenix and Olive Branch

  • http://americannaussie.katyannewilson.com Katy-Anne

    You nailed it!

  • Liberated Liberal

    My favorite quote:

    “If gender roles are essential, YOU DON’T NEED TO TEACH THEM. They will emerge naturally.”

    Brilliant observation.

  • Michelle

    Wow. Wow. Wow.

    THANK YOU.

    I have not, for so long, known the words to express what you have here, so thank you for sharing your words.

    Of course, “complementarians” claim that we take issue with, really, is poorly practiced complementarianism. Bollocks!

  • Juniper

    Thank you for your article. I initially read it after following your link from the Gospel Coalition blog although the trackback seems to have been deleted. My comment about patriarchy and power was also deleted. As a side note, the case that established “separate but equal” before the doctrine was struck down by Brown (sorry can’t get the italics) is Plessy v. Ferguson. It makes for interesting reading.

  • http://twitter.com/MrPSentiment MrPopularSentiment (@MrPSentiment)

    It’s that inability to even conceive of an interaction between two or more people in which one person is not the chief. How sad… I can’t even begin to imagine how awful it must be to go through life seeing every social interaction not as an opportunity to share and bond, but rather as a constant power struggle.

  • Pingback: Worthwhile Reads: On New Expriences, Gender, and Religion

  • Contrarian

    “Men” are not more different from women than they are from other men.

    Is this actually true? (One can conceive of a world in which all women and all men are unique, distinct personalities, yet has individuals’ preferences and decisions are much more similar within genders than between genders, so that we may define of “womanhood” and “manhood.” Of course here “womanhood” and “manhood” are not essential forms after which men and women are patterned, but statistical averages near which most men and women respectively fall.)

  • isomorphismes

    That’s a very lucid viewpoint. I would say it mathematically like Ivy Compton-Bennett: “There is more difference within the sexes than between them.” http://isomorphismes.tumblr.com/post/2435041606/gender-wars

  • isomorphismes

    “obfuscating Christianese” … haha

  • Pingback: Gender Studies & Mathematics, #2 • see things differently


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