A final comment (for now) about complementarianism

A final comment (for now) about complementarianism January 12, 2012

Egalitarianism (with regard to marriage) is the view that in a marriage husband and wife should agree before any decisions are made or actions taken that affect the family (whether that be just them as a couple or includes children). Whether one or the other is called “the leader” of the family is irrelevant (although, of course, most contemporary egalitarians do not like that designation especially for the husband!). I judge that a couple has an egalitarian marriage insofar as neither one makes any decision or takes any action that affects both without advice and consent of the other.

If a person thinks he or she is a “complementarian” but agrees with that, I judge that he or she is not truly a complementarian IN THE CONTEMPORARY sense of that label in Evangelicalism–unless one can be BOTH an egalitarian AND a complementarian at the same time (which would seem ridiculous to me).

If a person does NOT agree with that, then I worry that he or she is in a hierarchical, dysfunctional relationship that both subjects truth to power and will lead to abuse (not necessarily physical, but not all abuse is physical). I suspect that MOST conservative evangelicals who think they are complementarians, when push comes to shove, will agree with my stated thesis above and then, at least in that moment, be really more egalitarian than complementarian (if complementarian means anything different from egalitarian).

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  • Kristin

    I’ve come to conclude that the actual difference between C and E is fairly negligible and its all really just lip service to a pet doctrine. A good marriage, regardless of which doctrine they ascribe to, will take care to see that both husband and wife are satisfied with decisions made and appropriate prayer and counsel is used when there are disagreements. And you’re right, any marriage that regularly encounters major disagreements that require one party to ‘submit’ against their wishes probably has other far more serious issues.

  • Kenny Johnson

    I think you’re right — that many who claim to be complementarians are functionally egalitarians at home. In fact, I’m willing to bet ALL my married friends are functionally egalitarian, even if they won’t admit it.

    But it seems to me that the “real” debate seems to be within the church. Even those who may be functionally egalitarians at home (but still call themselves complementarians) are not functionally egalitarians at church. That seems to be the real struggle within Evangelicalism in my neck of the woods (even my own church).

    • rogereolson

      My point exactly!

  • Matt

    I’m paraphrasing, but Stackhouse makes the similar point in Finally Feminist that many so-called complementarians are practical egalitarians. i.e., most things are handled/discussed in an egalitarian manner, but only in very rare/important instances does the male head of the home pull rank. The author’s obvious but true observation is that such instances arise so infrequently that the “complementarian” label seems rather artificial. I would add, given the egalitarian precedent of such relationships (regardless of what they call themselves!), why would/should a couple jettison the mutuality and wisdom of deciding together what the best course of action is – especially when the stakes are highest.

  • John Metz

    As is the case with so many of your discussions, I have thoroughly appreciated these posts on the complementarian versus egalitarian viewpoints, especially the application of these views to hierarchy and its place (or lack thereof) in our church-life. Another word for hierarchy is rank and I have often heard a play on words that relates to this: “Rank (hierarchy) is really rank (odious).” Although you mentioned this briefly in an earlier post, could you post further on the difference between hierarchy and leadership?

    Perhaps also you could address the difference between submission and obedience. Before Paul briefly addresses husbands and wives in Ephesians 5, he tells us, “Being subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (v. 21). It seems that this verse sets the principle of submission and some discussion of submission and obedience might be helpful.

    • rogereolson

      Gladly I will do it. No leadership, especially in large organization, is anarchy. In a family with children the leadership obviously falls on the parents. Hierarchy, as I use the word anyway, is when leadership goes awry. In a family with children hierarchy is when the parent’s attitude is “Do what I say without question.” That’s the way I was raised. For the most part my dad and I got along okay, but I knew who was more than in charge. I remember as a 15 year old boy sitting in the back seat while my dad drove and my stepmother sat in front of me behind him. We were going home after Sunday evening church and there was a local radio station disk jockey sitting in a department store window to raise money. People staked money on how long he could stay there without leaving (except for bathroom breaks). The money was for charity. I wasn’t allowed to listen to that station (but I admit I did sometimes so I knew what this was all about). My parents ranted and raved against the station and disc jockey. (I really don’t know if it’s supposed to be a “c” or a “k” so I’ll use both.) According to them it was “obviously” a stunt to get kids to listen to “devil beat” and fund the evil enterprise of rock-n-roll. I listened and then dared to speak up. I remember being very calm about it as I knew any other approach would reap my dad’s wrath on my head. So I said something in defense of the disk jockey and the fund-raiser. My parents fell silent. Not a word all the way home. When we got home and I was in my room a knock came on my door. My dad stood there red in the face and as angry as I have ever seen him. He shook his finger in my face and told me he would not have a “rebellious teenager” in his home. I knew what he meant because he had warned me before–at times when there was no immediate conflict. He meant he would turn me over to the juvenile authorities. At that time, in that small Midwest town, a parent could do that and the “rebellious teenager” would go to an institution of some kind for a while. I knew that to be the case because I had school acquaintances who had been “sent away” by the juvenile judge for no other reason than their parents wanted him to do it–as a form of punishment. That was not leadership (on my dad’s part); that was hierarchy. Leadership is showing the right way to go by example and gently guiding the followers toward agreement. Of course, there are times, in certain contexts, when a leader has to demand abject obedience–such as on the battlefield of war. But good leadership, in non-combat situations, always listens to subordinates and bows to the truth if it is on their side. Hierarchy has to protect power-over, so it encourages ignoring truth when it is held in the hands of subordinates. Submission, in my opinion, does not require obedience. It requires willingness to follow wisdom which, hopefully, the person over you has.

  • Buks

    “Should agree…” 🙂 I think most of us would agree with that! The problem comes in when they don’t – who gets to decide? If the truth is not as obvious as in the contrived example and both have differing opinions – who takes the decision? I am in agreement with my wife that Biblically I am responsible so if there is no helpful councel and we cannot come to an agreement, then we agree that I will decide. I could also decide to follow her advice…

    • rogereolson

      Sounds like hierarchy to me.

    • I’ve heard this point all my life as some sort of trump card that complemetnariansm has to be true. My wife and I moved to the E side a couple years after being married. We work hard at mutuality and even co-parent.

      We’ve address the “what if there’s an impasse?” question. What we’ve concluded (and it has worked for us over the last six years), is that whomever the decision affects most or whomever is best equipped to make the decision, they are the one to make the final decision. It’s pretty simple. Humility and mutual submission is the key to all of it.

      When I hear many women say they’d rather have the man make the decision, it is usually joined with a some background motivation or either insecurity or not wanting to be responsible if something goes wrong. Neither of those is healthy motivation.

      Then, you do have marriages where the man or woman have a temperament of a follower… they are great at being a support but not at making regular leadership decisions. In that case, the one who has the giftings should be using his/her gift. I don’t consider this hierarchy, per say, though it may appear as such from the outside.

      What is usually missing from these discussions is that The Messiah is the primary Head of the family.

      Thanks, Roger, for this post. This is my first time commenting on your blog.

  • Andy

    I have learned from these posts and comments, I am a egalitarian. I even went and told my wife! (We were both raised as complementarians). I value her and want her to know.

    The comments here often revealed the control behind the complement view. Why would I, as someone who wants to love my wife better and better, why would I do that? Like one commenter said, that is tyranny.

    Another commenter hinted that if there is an impasse, then the husband should simply wait. It might not work in business, but the family is not a business. The joking comment that the husband makes all the big decision and the wife all the small ones, and that so far there had been no big decisions – was fun.

    I remain an complimentatarian (smile face).

    • I was in Jakarta recently and the conversation came up about Islam and multiple wives. One of the women (she was serious too) said the interpretation should be that a man can only have multiple wives if he is smart enough to take care of them all. She told her husband he was too dumb to have more than one so would be disobedient to Allah to marry another one. He listened to her and hasn’t married a second wife – it seems she makes a lot of the decisions because “he just isn’t that smart.” It was an extreme example of paying lip service to the husband being the head, but functionally working much differently.

  • This post reminds my of the “Lexus Red Bow” TV commercial. This ad has been running for a couple of years now, usually around Christmas. One spouse surprises the other one buy purchasing a Lexus with a bow and putting it in the driveway. How unrealistic! What kind of person would go out and buy a car – especially a luxury car – without any input from his (or her) spouse. It more or less implies that it’s acceptable for a spouse to make a $70,000 decision without consultation.

    • rogereolson

      Yes. Most TV commercials drive me nuts. (My poor wife gets the brunt of my complaining about them but takes it with a weary smile.)

  • Roger,
    On Buk’s comment above: I’m egalitarian and agree wholeheartedly with the contradictions and inconsistencies you have pointed out with complementarianism. I understand but fail completely to connect to Buks’ position theologically and relationally. In fact his description highlights the peculiar obsession of complementarism with the theoretical and occasional situation of who makes ‘the decision’ when agreement can’t be found. Given that Christians are to love one another, and a husband and wife especially so, this seems to me to be a nonsense issue to attempt to build theological foundations to support. Which suggests to me there are other agendas in the background – but that’s getting off the point!

    But to be fair to Buks, I think there is a quite a difference between your (moving) account of dominant, intimidating, angry, controlling hierarchy (which no authentically Christian complementarian would argue for I hope) and the sort of respectful, open, mutually agreed discussion he is talking about with his wife.

  • Dinah

    thank you so much for this series …. for the clear and biblical explanation of what is going on. I also found helpful that you pointed out that so many “complementarians” espouse the doctrine of the CBMW and yet live as defacto egalitarians …. yet they can’t see it!
    The other thing that really worries me is that the hard-line “complementarians” are formulating doctrine which teaches the eternal subordination of the Son.!!!
    and they can’t see they are promoting an old, old heresy.
    I would love to hear your thoughts on this topic.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks. We discussed that issue of the Trinity and subordination recently. Maybe you can look at the archives and find those posts and comments.

  • Roger, appreciate this. I have transitioned from a complementarian upbringing to embracing what you have stated, and would also agree with your statements about hierarchy. Add to that the twist that I serve in a complementarian denomination.

    Would you be willing to address if you see significance in gender, or how we are to process that as Christians? And how does this play into the biblical metaphor of Christ as groom and church as bride? I readily affirm egalitarian marriage, but find it difficult to walk away from the belief that gender is in some way part of the created order. Of course complementarians fall back on this, but I am suspicious of the conclusions they draw.

    • rogereolson

      Watch for a coming post about gender. It’s guaranteed to offend the other side! 🙂

  • So much of the complementation model rests on the shaky ground of an ontological subordinationism (or some permutation thereof) within the Trinity, grounding the model a theological construct that gives it a presumed authority rooted in God’s very nature. Millard Erickson, Graham Cole, and many others have sought to expose this grave theological error. While this comment is beyond the scope of your practical comments here, it must be dealt with as a “root cause” of so much misunderstanding.

    • rogereolson

      If you’ll look back in the archives we discussed this issue of the Trinity, subordinationism and complementarianism not very long ago.

  • I hear many complementarians say that they share decisions as a couple, but if an agreement cannot be reached, the final decision falls to the husband. I’m not sure if that is a hybrid of the two or not, but as you said, I doubt seriously that their relationship ever comes to a point where the husband actually exercises this authority. When I ask about specific incidences that serve as an example, I don’t usually get a response.