Complementarianism: The Fight For Their Life

Complementarianism: The Fight For Their Life June 29, 2019

Lately, we’ve been talking a lot about the 2019 Annual Meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The meeting’s organizers sought to quiet a bunch of scandals. To do it, they deployed two main strategies: pretending to care about the abuse scandal that’s engulfed their denomination, and promising their core fanbase that they won’t make any substantial changes to the SBC’s operating ideology to address that abuse. Today, I want to show you why they absolutely must maintain the course on complementarianism, the doctrine that defines their denomination–and their way of life. Here’s why they evolved this doctrine, and why they can’t possibly quit it now.

iceberg under the surface
(Alexander Hafemann. Come, look under the surface with me!

The -Ism Beneath the Label.

To put it plainly, an -ism is a prejudice. Racism, sexism, classism, ageism, ableism, even lookism populate the label.

On one end of the -ism, we find people who more-or-less fit the imagined ideal: white people in racism; men in sexism; upper-class people in classism; beautiful people in lookism, etc. Those people gain perks and benefits from fitting into those ideals. Stuff comes easier to them than it does those who don’t fit into them. They get benefit of the doubt, slack, unwarranted trust, access to positions of power, and a level of authority that others don’t.

We call these perks and benefits privilege.

On the other end, we find those who don’t fit into those ideals. They get, well, whatever’s left over–if they can fight hard enough for it.

The more ideals people fit into, the easier their lives become.

Unfortunately, a lot of people allow themselves to be controlled by -isms. As they move through life, they adopt various labels for themselves. If we look beneath the surface of those labels, we find their prejudices.

That’s why it’s all but pointless to know what religious label someone wears. Beneath it, we could find just about anything.

The -Isms Defining the SBC.

That said, some labels carry more meaningful information than others do.

From the get-go, the Southern Baptist Convention defined itself by -isms. Almost 175 years ago, a group of white Southern slaveholders created the denomination to preserve slavery. Even after slavery got outlawed in the United States, white supremacy still worked great for a while for the SBC as an operating philosophy.

But gradually, it began to wear thin. As growing disapproval mounted around racism, it began to falter as a universally-embraced recruitment tactic. Things got really bad for the SBC around the 1960s and 1970s.

Of course, Southerners still embraced it for the most part. But outside of the Deep South, racism simply didn’t sell that well.

As you can imagine, the SBC’s leaders dreamed big. They didn’t want to be powerful in only the Deep South. Instead, they coveted the whole world.

Something had to be done.

And something was!

Shifting the -Ism.

Now, you’d think that the something would involve ending the emphasis on racism. However, as I’ll show you shortly, the leaders of the SBC couldn’t do that. Instead, they simply shifted focus. See, they knew that -isms animate and provide the core of their teachings. Consequently, all they had to do was move the -ism’s focus elsewhere.

About forty years ago, the SBC’s leaders–along with other evangelical leaders–shifted their focus from racism to sexism. Using the same techniques and strategies, they sold male supremacy to their flocks.

Unsurprisingly, that tactic worked grandly too. Indeed, they had primed the flocks to accept -isms in general. Transferring their allegiance from one -ism to another proved shockingly simple.

Also unsurprisingly, the Southern Baptists embracing racism simply added sexism to their operating ideology. Instead of white supremacy, they now embraced white male supremacy.

Of course, they had always embraced white male supremacy. The maleness part had always constituted part of their core. They simply hadn’t needed to state it plainly.

Now, they simply codified that -ism into law. Now, it explicitly formed part of their governing ideology’s core.

And now, they had an -ism they could sell outside of the Deep South.

Boy Howdy, How It Sold.

The SBC’s leaders called this new -ism complementarianism. (If I were more ornery, I’d note that the word they chose even uses -ism as part of its label! But me? Ornery? Heavens forfend!) By dressing up their vision in Bible words and Jesus flavoring, they sold it as part-and-parcel of their vision of TRUE CHRISTIANITY™.

And wow, y’all, it sold like hotcakes.

But really, how could it not have? 

It turns out that sexism might well be a more universal human -ism than even racism. People who’d never in a million years have supported obviously racist church and political policies bought wholeheartedly into identical policies that simply emphasized a different kind of privilege–one that cut to the core of all races.

The old -ism had bristled and roared and bellowed about Civil Rights: an end to racism. Well, the new one bristled and roared about Equal Rights: an end to sexism. The old -ism had chosen as its main cause the protection of so-called seg academies, which allowed only white students to attend. Accordingly, the new -ism attacked what it correctly saw as the linchpin of human rights: the right to consent over the use of one’s own body, as expressed in reproductive rights, itself expressed as legalized, easily-accessed abortion care. (See endnote about poster-child causes.)

In fact, this new culture war sold so well that nowadays it even ensnares atheists. Good little skeptics join in with fundagelicals in their culture war with apparently no understanding at all that they function as the sneered-at dupes of their most dreaded ideological foes.

icebergs from above
Icebergs, from above. (Annie Spratt.)

The Position Between Strength and Weakness.

All through its history, the Religious Right has chosen its culture wars carefully. They don’t wage these battles from a position of strength. If they had all the strength they desire, they would never need to wage culture wars at all, because culture wars represent power-grabs for themselves.

Rather, they do it from a position of weakness. But they also must act before they have gotten so weak that they can no longer hope to win the fight. If they wait until popular culture has entirely rejected the -ism they’re selling, well, it won’t sell to the greater culture outside of themselves!

Thus, as Glandu astutely pointed out recently, therefore, culture warriors act from a position somewhere between ultimate strength and ultimate irrelevance.

And now we bring up the last thread in this sickly tapestry: the Problem of Wingnuts. People who believe one wingnut idea tend to spiral in only one direction: more extreme wingnuttery. They don’t have reality to pull themselves back from those beliefs. In fact, painting reality as the enemy represents the first tactic to pursue for wingnut group creators. Those creators need the wingnuts in their group to consider their leaders as the only arbiters of correct beliefs–and to maintain those beliefs without any bolstering from reality (and even in the face of reality’s contradictions).

Thus, without reality to check their ideas, wingnuts just get worse and worse.

Now let’s bring all these threads together.

Painting Their Floor With Sexism.

Forty years ago, SBC leaders created a super-sexist vision of humanity. Naming this vision complementarianism, they sold it to the flocks as an absolute requirement handed to TRUE CHRISTIANS™ by Jesus Christ himself.

They coached the flocks in this vision: how to enact it, what to expect from it. Alongside that vision, they taught the flocks that any softening of this doctrine represents the foulest, most demonic kind of compromise. Satan himself sought to destroy the SBC’s idolized doctrine! And TRUE CHRISTIANS™ had to fight against him night and day to ensure that complementarianism survived and became the default for all of Earth.

Whenever reality intruded to show the horrific fallout of complementarianism, SBC leaders attributed those outcomes to Christians doing everything all wrong, especially and namely cozying up to their demonic archnemesis Feminism.

The math: IF they only Jesus-ed hard enough and followed the correct doctrines for the correct reasons and in the correct all-in amounts, AND ALSO firmly rejected all hints of feminism, THEN complementarianism would result in happy marriages, communities, societies, and nations.

So that’s what the SBC sold, and that’s what the flocks purchased and then idolized.

It’s just so sadly hilarious to me that back when I was Pentecostal, we thought Mormons were crazy for having ever believed that plural marriage was something that the Christian god would ever want. We knew it was a completely self-serving doctrine pushed by a horndog who just wanted free license to bang some strange on the regular. We had no idea why Mormons back then hadn’t been able to see this truth.

But we all bought into complementarianism, though we didn’t call it that.

Truly, the Original Sin in Christianity might well be self-awareness.

The Painted-In Corner.

Now, however, the SBC’s leaders find themselves in a position they never expected to occupy: that of a severely-weakened tyrant fighting not just for his throne, but for his very life.

As scandals engulf their denomination from within, reaching all the way to its uppermost levels, their hypocrisy, incompetence, cruelty, and self-serving egotism only become more clear to all outside observers. And the groups they have been subjugating for years, groups that the white men of the organization have always considered their just and due indentured labor, have been abruptly realizing that they’ve got other options besides this disgustingly-corrupt, power-maddened pack of hyenas.

The result of their policies? A decline that’s lasted for years, with no signs of leveling-out soon.

But here’s the glorious part. Focus in. This seriously makes me laugh out loud and has for years:

They can’t walk back any of the doctrines that have led to their decline. They can’t even minimally change those doctrines.

Literally all they’ve got is drilling down harder.

In fact, it’s all they’ve ever had.

Why They Can’t Change.

See, if they change anything, they lose their core membership, who’ve been taught painstakingly that this doctrine MUST be part of their churches’ belief system. They also lose their group’s entire reason for existing and what its focus has been for decades, even centuries.

Even if they could drop complementarianism, if they did they’d 100% for sure lose tons of their current core membership. They might retain some members who are already one foot out the door because of the issue, sure. They might even bring back a few who’ve already left over it. But would they bring enough and retain enough of those folks to make up for the ones leaving? Who knows?

Probably not though. Speaking for myself, even if I were evangelical I sure wouldn’t trust the SBC’s member churches to carry through that change. I wouldn’t even trust the denomination’s leaders enough to trust that they were serious and not just making placating mouth-noises. Remember, I once married the embodiment of fundagelicalism; I’m long-accustomed to promises of change with no follow-through.

Worse, though, much worse really, is this: once one change happens, more tend to follow it. Authoritarians have always been terrified of change. The leaders of these groups fear it particularly, because once someone defies or even questions their power that defiance becomes a habit.

So yes.

Change represents a losing proposition to the SBC and other regressive, authoritarian groups like it. They’ve painted themselves into a corner, eye-to-eye with the writing on their wall.

wall art be reasonable
(Victor Garcia.) Found in Singapore: the SBC’s nightmare.

The Writing on the Wall.

The SBC has always been about preserving privilege for a particular dominant group–and grooming victims for that group to abuse and take advantage of. Thus, their origins are just as skeezy and dirty as those of Christianity itself.

An organization that fails this hard and this completely to honor and uphold its own stated ideology, much less to pursue and achieve its own stated goals, is one that suffers from systemic, endemic, completely structural flaws.

It is anything but divine in nature, and nothing about it merits our obedience, acquiescence, or deference.

The problems here don’t spring from humans just getting some stuff wrong because gawrsh, y’awl, we’re all just soooooo flawed. A proper organization accounts for flawed human nature. That’s why progressive churches follow purely-secular child-safety protocols and–get this–suffer far, far fewer scandals. Sooner or later, someone’s going to start asking the really tough questions of the SBC, like why their supposedly-divine operating structure can’t operate without tons of secular bolsters.

And y’all.

They know that’s what’s going on. Their top leaders know. They know.

They’ve known for a really long time.

Maybe even from the beginning, they knew.

How We Know They Know.

Not long ago, I was reading about #SBC2019 when I found this story from NPR. They’ve been hitting it out of the park lately in their critical examination of right-wing Christianity anyway, but this hit home for me in a way and to a degree that is hard to put into words.

See, J.D. Greear desperately tried to half-ass something, as usual. This time, his half-assing revolved around complementarianism. Dude said he thought it was okay if women preached in SBC churches as long as the situation met a number of asterisked conditions. He all but completely neutralized the women who’d theoretically be preaching.

And he absolutely horrified his fellow misogynists!

In the end, though, his sense of self-preservation dominated him. He said he’d be avoiding anything “divisive” at the Annual Meeting. Divisive is Christianese for stuff that makes waves.

In veering away from this dangerous dissension, Greear all but admitted that he knew quite well that his fellow misogynists would flip out if he got too dangerously close to tweaking complementarianism.

The Fallout.

Greear’s near-brush with heresy led to quite an interesting moment involving a way bigger name than himself.

Al Mohler functions as one of the biggest names in the denomination. He’s the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, but like a lot of these guys he’s had his finger in pretty much all the pies. In the past, he led or had some influential role in groups like Focus on the Bigotry Family, the Georgia State Convention of the SBC, and the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). Accordingly, we’ve seen him show up around this blog a few times. (Nobody will be surprised to learn that he’s apparently a Calvinist.)

Well, NPR found a video he made wherein he said this:

If you look at the denominations where women do the preaching, they’re also the denominations where people do the leaving.

That sounds to me a lot like Mohler just admitted that complementarian has become something the SBC needs to maintain specifically to avoid churn. Sure, he softened it immediately by implying that female preachers violated “the order of creation that means that God intends for the preaching voice to be a male voice.” Christians like him wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if they couldn’t borrow a little authority from their magic invisible wizard friend in the sky. All the same, here he was saying he knew that his fellow culture-warriors wouldn’t stay in churches that allowed women to preach.

I mean, I already knew evangelical leaders knew that that’s where reality had come to roost for them, of course. I figured it out a while ago. But I didn’t know they understood that point yet.


We’re a knowledgeable family.” — The Lion in Winter. (SFW.)

The Fatal Change.

In the end, they’re doomed. Literally no reputable survey-houses or numbers gurus give them any chance of coming back to their former numbers or cultural dominance–though obviously, they still have a way-lots-outsized influence on politics and government in the United States, a fact that only highlights their losses elsewhere.

And the task now is to make those losing faith in the SBC realize what led them to buy into its ideology of -isms–and to start untangling the harm that ideology did to them, so they don’t just plunge into something else that’s just as bad because it’s based on the same damned -isms.

The worst thing that could happen is for Southern Baptists to think, The big problem here wasn’t the message; it was the way people put it into action. We just have to Jesus super-hard and everything will be great! They need to know, to their bones and their marrow and their knitted sinews, that The Big Problem Here was in fact the message itself.

Just as I don’t see how progressive Christians will ever be able to rescue what stands as an intrinsically-broken, dehumanizing ideology, I don’t see how more-progressive Southern Baptists are going to rescue their denomination from its deliberately-broken and deliberately-sabotaged underpinning.

Their leaders will see to that. They know that the moment the SBC gets fixed, they lose everything.

NEXT UP: Another very unfortunate similarity between MLMs and toxic Christianity: how its employers treat their indentured la–er, employees. See you soon!


Endnotes.

About poster-child causes: It seems like most of these fundagelical culture-war crusades choose one cause that they see as encapsulating the great wrong they fight against, or that they see as encapsulating what they want most.

In their later crusade against LGBT rights, they sold bigotry as the new -ism. Just as they’d always had a distinct white and male component to their self-image, they’d always held heterosexual, cisgender privilege as part of their ideals–and now they explicitly added those new -isms to the package they sold to others. The cause they fought against, of course, was same-sex marriage. They rightly saw that one cause as the linchpin of the basic human right they opposed, and rightly realized that if they could defeat same-sex marriage, that would have incredible repercussions throughout the human-rights sphere. They also rightly realized what kind of benefits those repercussions would bring to their hopes of regaining dominance. (Back to the post!)


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About Captain Cassidy
Captain Cassidy grew up fervently Catholic, converted to the SBC in her teens, and became a Pentecostal shortly afterward. She even volunteered in church (choir, Sunday School) and married an aspiring preacher! But then--record scratch!--she brought everything to a screeching halt when she deconverted in her mid-20s. That was 25 years ago. Now a comfortable None, she blogs on Roll to Disbelieve about psychology, pop culture, politics, relationships, cats, gaming, and more--and where they all intersect with religion. And she still can't carry a note in a bucket. You can read more about the author here.
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