Lately we’ve been talking about the fundie bigots-for-Jesus group Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW), which issued a statement not long ago that drilled down on the group’s twin culture wars against women’s rights and LGBTQ people. In this statement–and in the group’s existence itself–I see an illustration of just where modern Christianity went hideously wrong. The CBMW is, itself, an illustration of why the religion is failing as well. Today we’ll examine the CBMW’s central conceit, complementarianism, since it informs all of their culture wars, and we’ll see exactly why it fails so hard. The objections many Christians have to its soundness as a doctrine, while valid in and of themselves, are actually not even its worst problem, as it happens–and I’ll show you why I think that today.
A Culture War Intensifies.
The CBMW began life back in 1987 with the specific goal of attacking those alarming whispers of feminism gaining ground in that end of the religion. Sure, it was only biblical feminism, that really defanged version of it that is the very most that most Christian women can imagine for themselves, but even that was still heretical–and scary–enough to throw the angry, nervous, and frustrated fundagelical men who’d become the CBMW’s founders into full panic mode. They created their very own Ignorant Tight-Ass Club for Men, since the one thing you can definitely safely say about fundagelicals is that there are not nearly enough groups out there devoted to furthering the interests of straight white fundagelical men. The newly-formed group swiftly released their first manifesto, which they called the Danvers Statement.
In this first statement, they used the word complementarianism to describe their new emphasis on hierarchical thinking. Under this doctrine, women serve men their entire lives–first their fathers, then their husbands. Women are not permitted any autonomy or self-direction. Their rights are parceled out at the whim of the men in charge of them. Their lives are spent as combination servants, housemaids, sex dolls, brood mares, and nannies. It’s basically A Handmaid’s Tale with slightly more variety in costume, all based on the assumption that Men Are From Mars but Who the Hell Cares Where Women Are From? This social system is considered divinely-commanded, and is usually presented as literally the only way that any married couple can hope to have a healthy, happy, harmonious, and lifelong relationship.
Every single assertion complementarians make about their doctrine, however, is a self-serving lie–as well as a reaction to the alarming rise of public acceptance of women’s rights.
It’s important to note that complementarianism wasn’t particularly new–only the word itself was. Nor was fundagelical hatred and fear of feminism anything new. As with their so-called Nashville Statement, the Danvers statement wasn’t new; it was just a drilling-down on long-existing fundagelical positions.
I became a fundamentalist in 1986 and was hearing similar talk all through my time in that group, though I don’t think the word complementarian itself had entered our circles yet.
The man who’d become my second pastor, Gene, felt strongly about complementarianism but it manifested slightly differently for him than for the UPCI mother ship. He was a lot more flexible than most of his peers on the topic of women working outside the home and being college-educated. He even (GASP!) thought it was okay for women to wear pants, too, as long as they were very obviously cut for women–and, as he told me once, it would help a lot if they were, like, printed with flowers, because obviously men never wear florals. Quelle horreur!
Gene’s wife Sulane was not the typical Pentecostal wife any more than he was a typical Pentecostal husband. She’d bought her own house with her own money and had enjoyed her life as a single woman thanks to her successful STEM career–all of which was fully approved by our church. She and Gene were set up by my first pastor after she began talking about wanting to get married (and they hit it off immediately).
They had a truly happy marriage–one of only a couple that I can remember in the religion. It’s one reason I was happy to later begin attending Gene’s little church plant.
One of the reasons Gene and Sulane were happy was that they’d constructed their own rules for marriage rather than blindly following the set-in-stone rules of CBMW-style complementarianism. Sulane did not entirely escape the sexism that pervades right-wing Christianity, no, but she’d cultivated enough personal power on her own to withstand the worst of it. Gene had never really wanted the kind of wife that fundagelical men usually slobber over, either. He’d had a very full life traveling the world, so he had a much more nuanced view of people and relationships than most Pentecostals ever manage.
But men who didn’t have that horizon-expanding wealth of experience, or who were innately dishonest or greedy or cruel, oh, those sorts of men loved the strictest form of fundagelical marriage.
It was, after all, a system that guaranteed every man, no matter how lowly or poor or incompetent at life, at least one completely helpless victim.
A Very Obviously One-Sided Command, Defined.
Complementarianism can be best defined as “sexism as the bonus plan.” I’ve used that term now for a while, so I want to define it again for the newer folks.
I’m borrowing the idea of “the bonus plan” from a sexist-acting comedian who was kinda popular in the late 80s and early 90s. He had a bit where he’s responding to a woman who’s upset with him for taking far more from her than the cuddling that she had offered him. He tells her that she’s gotten “the bonus plan,” which is to say cuddling plus sex. She didn’t really want sex, though, so “the bonus plan” isn’t actually a bonus at all. It’s totally self-serving and one-sided for him while giving his coerced and tricked partner nothing that she really wants–not even really the cuddling, which he clearly didn’t care about and accepted as an offer purely to gain the opportunity to assault her.
In the same way, complementarianism is totally one-sided while presenting itself as a “bonus plan” for women. These Christians think that complementarianism makes men into leaders and women into submissive caretakers of the home–as well as those who gratified the otherwise-off-limits sexual desires of their husbands, since under this doctrine women never like having sex.
But in fairness, I don’t think anybody learning about complementarianism could ever blame women in that culture for getting very creative about avoiding sex with partners so totally lacking in empathy and respectfulness.
But Wait, Y’all! Men Had It Just As Hard! Rilly!
In turn, a man’s responsibility, though I use that term very loosely as it’s never ever enforced by anybody and has a subjective definition that shifts on a dime, is to “love his wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” That means that in theory he won’t be abusive or mean to her, or fail to put her first when considering decisions.
And we all know how much fundagelicals love theories!
The men at least pretended that the role they played in marriage was sooooo much harder than the hardships they’d imposed on women. Back when I was Christian, I often heard men complaining about what a tough row to hoe they had in being the Designated Adults of their marriages, what with having to do allllll that heavy lifting of managing wives and children, who in turn were painted as being totally super-relieved about being excused from that excruciating burden of self-determination. I don’t remember any women who bought that malarkey, not that those men noticed or cared that we didn’t.
In retrospect, I can see that the men in my denomination felt it was very essential to their self-image to present men and women as having equal hardships to bear in marriage, albeit different kinds of hardships. But at the time they sounded as daft as a hive of wasps on Ecstasy.
Peace and Quiet. Maybe.
Also in theory, there are never fights in these marriages unless someone is in rebellion to this divine plan. Rebellion is of course Christianese for someone who’s doing something that the Christian using the term doesn’t like. (You might well be in rebellion right now just for reading this post! How’d’ya like them apples?)
Because there is always a person who is the ultimate leader of the family, or so that theory goes, there can’t be any serious conflicts because someone always has the veto in these relationships. Christians who believe in this doctrine believe that when couples lack an ultimate leader with ultimate veto power, they end up fighting all the time because neither partner wants to give in to the other, so everyone is sad and angry all the time.
Yay Team Jesus for inventing sexism as the bonus plan!
(Of course, I’m leaving out the everyday difficulties men face in fundagelicalism now that it’s gone ultra-hyper-masculinized. Men who don’t conform to that dudebro Mark Driscoll-epitomized model for fundagelicals can count on getting bullied over it by their peers in the religion, if not called out directly and shamed by their leaders. Here I’m talking only about the Christians who really get into complementarianism, if I hadn’t already made that clear.)
The World Never Understands TRUE CHRISTIANS™.
Now, the Christians who go in for this idea are well aware that people in the world (that’s Christianese for everything outside their own very insular culture) will never be able to understand “godly” roles for men and women since they are not yet possessed by the Christian god, whose power is the force that makes complementarian relationships not only possible but easy–unless they aren’t. Then marriage is hard and Jesus meant for that to happen. He’s like a clumsy cat that way.
The hardest part, to hear complementarians talking, is for women to totally submit to their husbands, since the world has been busy convincing them of all these terrible newfangled ideas like feminism that just confuse their fluffy pink ladybrainz and make them difficult to deal with.
I personally heard many Christians, including the men at the very top of my denomination, scoff at and mock the idea of egalitarian relationships. They thought that literally demons were leading silly, easily-tricked women to buck against their “god-given” roles as mothers and wives, a sentiment I hear echoed even today by Christian leaders and adherents alike. These are the same people who get very angry when the topic of ending corporal punishment for children comes up for discussion–they can’t even imagine any relationship ruled by mutual respect, kindness, and compatibility. They think those are impossible thanks to the complementarianism teaching about how vastly different men and women are and the miseries that result from either partner trying to assume responsibilities they aren’t uniquely suited by gender to bear.
So when these Christians hear about happy marriages that aren’t anything at all like the lone option that their god allows, they think that the people telling those stories are either lying or being very wishful–though probably they’re just lying. They act like they pity the men in egalitarian relationships for being cheated out of their divinely-ordained rulership over women. Nothing can convince them that these relationships are happy and solid, not even the testimonials of the men they pretend to pity. (Liars always think everyone else lies as much as they do.)
Behind that false pity, it’s easy to see the pure withering scorn fundagelicals feel for egalitarian men who fail to seize every shred of power they can possibly grab. In these Christians’ eyes, such men are opening themselves to inevitable abuse. They can’t imagine a man voluntarily giving up any power and are certain that those men are being abused–because that’s how life works in fundagelicalism. If a man does not rule over his wife, they think, then he gets ruled over by her. Powerful people in their culture abuse and take advantage of those who are not powerful.
A Rosy Picture–But an Inaccurate One.
The reality of complementarianism is very different from the rosy-tinted picture offered up by fundagelicals. I know, I know:
ZOMG say it ain’t so! Christians are lying about something?!?
SHOCKED, yes SHOCKED we are!
In marriage under this doctrine, in a nutshell, women are commanded to perform all of the daily scutwork around the house as well as all the childcare, and they also get a husband who takes them completely for granted, treats them like live-in servants they can fondle, and denigrates them.
But wait, there’s more!
That husband will also behave more like a toddler than an adult in the messes he makes and then expects his wife to clean up without a whisper of complaint! AND if he turns out to be abusive, she’ll be completely stripped of any chance of help!
Act now! Supplies are limited and selling fast!
The Complaints Department (Is Closed).
When a fundagelical engages at all with any criticism of complementarianism, they will chalk any problems in the doctrine up to individual sinfulness and failure to live up to the ideal. One can see this reasoning very quickly in this Christian’s defense of the doctrine. First, of course, he must do what every complementarian must do to establish his street cred with the tribe: he repeatedly slams a strawman he calls “aggressive feminism,” which seems to consist of women criticizing him or his idols in any way at all. Then his responses all boil down to DUH, of course sometimes people mess up individually, but the idea itself is perfect.
But the picture he paints of complementarianism, like the one painted for me 25 years ago by markedly similar men, isn’t how things work in reality.
In reality, there are so many individual failures within complementarianism that even a casual observer would need to conclude that the problems aren’t caused by individuals, but by the system itself. That ain’t something its adherents will ever want to address–not that they ever could adequately do so.
Even back in my youth, I could see that misogyny and brutal domination were very clearly what this doctrine was about, but if our god had commanded it then it didn’t really matter what I thought. It only mattered what was objectively true. But I was far too young and inexperienced to really be able to critically examine the reasoning offered up by the leaders of my denomination. It took some time to reach that place. A lot was at stake for defying the male rulers of my world–maybe even my eternal fate.
That fear is why it took years for me to question how a god of infinite love, mercy, truth, and justice would ever allow his servants to set up a dishonest system that was hateful, cruel, and unjust–much less to watch those servants revel in the undeserved power that they gained by doing so.
In time I discovered that even other Christians have a lot, as in a lot a lot, of problems with complementarianism—first and foremost in even reliably defining the word and what it means in lived reality. But these doctrinal squabbles are really the least of the doctrine’s problems.
The Biggest Problem with Complementarianism.
In complementarianism, men and women are totally equal in their god’s eyes.
They’re just totally unequal in actual reality on Earth.
That really is the biggest problem with complementarianism: It doesn’t work.
The system disconnect is that complementarianism teaches adherents one way to look at women as a group, but the actual instructions their leaders give to their flocks contradict that teaching in every tangible way. There is simply no way that a large group of people can tell themselves one thing and then have its opposite be their lived reality, not without it having a serious negative impact on the people involved. Nor is there any way that personal power can be totally shaved away from a group of people (women) to be handed entirely over to another group (men) without it having inevitable effects on that second group’s thinking and behavior.
Women are told to relinquish all their personal power to men, who then are given complete power over those women’s bodies and lives (sorta like the power over women that anti-abortion people want, and for many of the exact same reasons). As we learned from the infamous brown-eyes/blue-eyes experiment (among others), the people in the group gaining all that power are inevitably going to think of themselves as superior and of the powerless people as inferior.
Indeed, I’ve often written about how the people in broken systems like fundagelicalism focus on power–the gaining of it, the regaining of it, the retaining of it, the denying of it–to the exclusion of everything else. Every person in this system is completely aware of the fact that those who have power are allowed to abuse those who do not–so their goal is to gain as much power as they can, both to avoid the most abuse possible and to gain permission to inflict the most abuse possible.
That exact thinking may well be behind fundagelicals’ well-known spitefulness and downright nastiness toward the poor, nonwhite people, LGBTQ people, women, minimum-wage workers, sex workers, and everyone else they think they can get away with abusing. And it may be behind the downright petulant tone to their pouty whining about how meeeeeean everyone is to them by not tolerating their intolerance toward marginalized groups. About the only joy they get out of life is being cruel to others, and we’re suddenly denying them that pleasure. How dare we?!?
(We’ll be talking later about just how complementarianism influences all of the major culture wars going on in right-wing Christianity.)
Further, when one group is told that they have total decision-making power over another group, and are given limitless control over those in that other group, they are going to conceptualize that group’s members as being inferior to themselves.
People who cannot be trusted to “properly” use their full rack of civil rights, who cannot decide what happens to their own bodies, who must be placed in completely subservient roles for their own good–these are not equals. Complementarian men often treat women with complete contempt if not outright hatred and disgust–and they must think we’re idiots not to notice their idolization of a doctrine that causes damage and pain for most of the people living under it.
A Foolproof Plan.
Abuse is much more likely to sprout and grow where there is contempt and disenfranchisement. When it happens, there’s no real way for a fundagelical woman to stop this abuse unless she can talk other men into helping her.
But that good fortune will happen only if a number of factors collide. The other men must first be persuaded that this abuse is both completely out of bounds and totally undeserved–or else the woman will be blamed for it. The abuser must be someone they feel very socially-superior to, so they feel entitled to make demands of this nature–otherwise they face abuse in turn. And those men must feel that this abuse can be safely swept under the rug as effectively as just ignoring it–since every time abuse is publicly noised about it makes complementarianism look all the weaker as a doctrine, as well as making their own group look way less Jesus-y.
More likely, the men that woman asks for help will criticize her for being rebellious. They will very likely tell her to submit to her husband even harder to encourage him to become a better leader, since this is one of the main tenets of complementarianism: when a woman acts super-submissive to her husband, thus performing her “god-given” role to a tee, her husband will of course want to start conforming to his own “god-given” role–out of shame if not anything better.
This is what happened to me when I complained to my first pastor about Biff, and women get told this bad advice even today. And it’s also why I only found out a few years ago about an active pedophilia scandal in my denomination that was in full swing while I was a member there.
Safety Not Guaranteed.
There’s simply no way at all for any fundagelical group or leader to ensure that only men who really deserve total power over others get it, any more than there’s any way whatsoever to ensure that only competent leaders become pastors.
All a man in fundagelicalism must do to demonstrate the competency needed to become the god of his own home is to possess a penis and identify as male. That’s it. There are no other tests or demands. I’ve never even heard of any pastor who’d refuse to marry a couple on the basis of the man’s inability to adequately lead a family.
Making matters worse, there’s no real mechanism in place in any fundagelical church that I have ever seen to meaningfully protect women and children from abuse, any more than there’s any mechanism in place to meaningfully rebuke and strip power from any man who demonstrates that he isn’t fit to wield it (which makes Mars Hill’s situation very familiar to me, as you can imagine). Christian leaders should know better than to even hint at making a promise that complementarian doctrines produce happier marriages or more meaningful and respectful relationships.
The terrible truth is that they can’t promise this.
They never could.
Oh But Wait! One Day It All Evens Out!
Whatever rhetoric Christian men employ to describe their supernatural equality with women, their actual behavior speaks volumes about how much they care about that ethereal equality.
This supposed equality is only spiritual, of course. Since we are in the physical world it doesn’t really matter what is going on in some nebulous other realm that we cannot see or touch. It matters what is happening now. And what is happening now looks identical to a really unsafe, non-sane, and non-consensual sort of 24/7 TPE bondage.
If any women complain about mistreatment at the hands of men or bring up how patently unfair and one-sided and self-serving complementarian theology is, the complementarian position is that they should just be reminded that “God” decided to make them women–so it’s totally out of everyone’s hands.
Sorry, nothing anybody can do for ya. It’s orders from the top! Now shut up and get back in that kitchen. Are you bitter or something? Lemme see a big toothy Jesus Smile, there!
But hey, Christian women: once everyone’s dead, don’t worry, there won’t be any unfairness in Heaven! Isn’t that much much better than having equality on Earth? As soon as people die, they will instantly be totally divested of all their earthly greed for power and lust for total control over others. Isn’t that much much much better than them learning to be decent human beings now, on Earth?
Of course it is!
It was hard for me then (and still is now) to fathom how “Jesus” would strip that misogyny away from fundagelical men in Heaven and them still end up being anything like themselves in the end. What about people like Mark Driscoll, who appears to be the love-child of a can of Axe body spray and an Ed Hardy shirt? What’s left of this guy when we take out all the misogyny, rage, and greed for power that make up his psyche?
For me, decades ago, it came down to this: If this god had lied to me so extravagantly about the wonderful virtues of complementarianism… what assurance did I have, what assurance did any woman have, that the promise of eternal reward for submission was real either?
Because someone was definitely lying. It was either our god, or our leaders and menfolk. Either way, no god was protecting anybody from all the abusers in this broken system.
Join me next time as I examine how complementarianism fits into the fundagelical culture wars against everything under the sun that they hate. See you then!