Hi and welcome back! Lately, we’ve been focusing on a doctrine in authoritarian Christianity called complementarianism. This doctrine informs much of right-wing Christians’ thought processes and behavior. Especially for complementarian men, their doctrine writes them an easy permission slip for so much of the awful stuff they want to do. Today, I want to show you how one guy I knew used this doctrine to try to get his way about something really, really important–and why his attempt failed.
Setting The Wayback Machine!
Please set your Wayback Machines for the very late 1980s/very early 1990s. Back then, I attended college with my then-boyfriend Biff. Also at the time, we both attended a big, gung-ho fundamentalist church. This church and its leadership functioned as a huge part of the power structure of its denomination, the United Pentecostal Church, International (UPCI).
And oh boy, were our church friends enthused about our upcoming wedding. Unlike most young Pentecostal couples, Biff and I had dated for a long time already–about three years. That “joke” we all told back then about “whirlwind Pentecostal courtships” wasn’t really a joke, per se. Instead, it described a simple but painful reality. Very young couples dated, sprang a pregnancy, and then got married quickly to prevent scandalized gossip. (See endnote.)
Biff and I had avoided that endemic difficulty. Thus, we enjoyed a certain amount of leisure in planning our nuptials. That leisure afforded the entire church enough time to get involved in what they clearly saw as a perfect, idealized Disney-style love story.
But I suppose not everyone saw it that way.
A Startling Phone Call.
I wrote about this a while ago, but let me recap briefly.
Right before my wedding day, I was relaxing at Biff’s dorm room with him and another friend–probably his roommate. Biff was drawing something and we were all chatting together amiably. The semester at school had ended; I’d done quite well. My wedding day had finally (almost arrived). You’d think I’d have been on Cloud 9.
I wasn’t, though. Biff and I had had a huge argument about kids. He wanted ’em; I didn’t. I’d offered to back out of the wedding if he really wanted them, because I knew I didn’t and never would. He’d finally overcome my objections by swearing up and down that he totally could live without parenthood. I wouldn’t know until well after the ceremony that he’d lied through his teeth, but for now the storm had passed.
In reality, though, I had cold feet. I really wasn’t feeling good about the idea of marrying Biff anyway, but all the usual methods fundagelicals have for ascertaining the will of their god had failed me. Raising a last-minute objection to motherhood had seemed like a good way to end the whole shebang, but now I felt I had no virtuous reasons at all for backing out. (I didn’t yet know that “because I damned well don’t want to” is plenty virtuous enough.)
So when the phone rang and Biff answered it, then passed it to me with a smile, I was floored by what I heard.
It was our dear friend Big David, and he had a shocking announcement.
Everyone, Meet Big David (Again).
Big David had been an integral part of our local gang of fundagelical youth for years. (If you’re wondering, yes, we also had a Little David in the group. In fact, the two were nearly inseparable.) He was tall, gangly, and handsome with his intense blue eyes and freckles and sharp-edged features. His dad was a cop–retired, I think. David had converted to another fundagelical denomination many years ago, then switched to the UPCI around the time I’d first joined at 16, and for the same reason: a Rapture scare. We’d been friends for years.
What I didn’t know, however, is that Big David had nursed a secret crush on me for most of those years. He’d apparently asked to pray with me many times about various topics, but always he was hoping our god would tell me to dump Biff and start dating him instead. Though I steadfastly didn’t come to the same conclusions he had, he only grew more certain.
Now, he felt he stood at a crossroads. The woman he crushed on was set to marry another the next day. All his prayers had done nothing, as prayers do, and so now it fell to him to take more direct action. So he’d telephoned my dorm room to tell me how he felt.
But I wasn’t there–I was at Biff’s place, remember? So my long-suffering roommate (who knew him) told him where I was. Then he’d had to go find Biff’s number, then call his room. Now he was about to give me a very important message knowing Biff was literally right there next to me.
As setups go, this one’s got a full day’s RDA of cringe.
The Message FROM
HIS BONER GAWD.
Poor David. As miserable as his timing was, he was operating under an extreme feeling of pressure. So he just blurted it out.
I was about to make a cosmically bad mistake.
See, I was all wrong. Our god totally wanted me to marry him, not Biff.
I felt stunned as I listened to his rehearsed speech. Big David claimed to be madly in love with me. He’d prayed and prayed, and the constant conclusion he’d come to was that our god wanted us to wed.
Of course I went over my memories of time spent with him. Had I given him anything, any single gesture, that might make him suspect I was open to this kind of announcement? That’s how purity culture rolls, after all. But no, I really didn’t think I ever had. And I was 100% certain that I’d never heard any divine voice telling me to marry Big David instead of Biff, any more than I myself had heard one advising me to marry anybody at all.
The only reason I still thought I was supposed to marry Biff was that everyone around me insisted they’d heard this voice, and the mass and authority and gaslighting they brought to bear outweighed Big David by quite a lot.
They Couldn’t Both Be Right.Eventually, I broke into David’s speech, told him he was simply wrong, and that our god had already spoken on this matter. Big David had to be wrong. Though he insisted up and down he wasn’t, I knew that there was simply no way that both he and (Biff + our entire denomination) could be right. One of them had to be wrong, or both of them had to be wrong.
In that instant, I made my choice and hoped it was the right one. (It wasn’t entirely, no. You can’t win ’em all.)
Still, the situation had rattled me enormously.
Like look, I’d had to deal before with guys announcing crushes. It’d happened a small number of times–gaming friends or schoolmates who suddenly wanted something different. This time, however, a guy had borrowed authority from our god himself. He’d used that authority to try to strong-arm me into going along with his life-script.
And I bristled at this lack of concern for what I might want or need.
At a primal level, I sensed that both Big David and Biff saw me as a pawn on a chess-board. I represented something to win or lose. But I wasn’t and never would be a player of the game itself. Only men got to play that game.
Big David had tried to pull rank on me, and my refusal to fall into line very obviously shocked him.
From then on, I began to notice the threads of self-interest in the nonsensical demands men placed on women in my culture. Indeed, it seemed like men had identified the voice of the Divine with whatever Pants Feelings they experienced right then. If they wanted something, then obviously their god also wanted them to have it, whatever it was.
Also, now I had incontrovertible proof that someone thought wrongly about our god telling him something. I might not know exactly who, but someone had to be hearing incorrectly. That meant that actually Christians did not automatically “know the Master’s voice,” as the Gospels promise us. We could be wrong about it, even if we felt very certain.
It would take me a while, but I’d puzzle my way through this problem eventually. If one person could be wrong, then anybody could be. In fact, a lot of people could also be wrong about something. The same processes that went into realizing that one person was wrong also applied to all the other people making similar claims.
Add self-interest to human vulnerability to error even about exactly who or what had spoken during prayer, and you end up with a system where human customs and authority structures end up deciding what claims to accept–not reality.
Complementarianism: Full Circle.
And thus, we land on complementarianism.
As we saw lately with that “Bachelorette” show, nothing has changed, nothing whatsoever. Luke Parker felt convinced that his god had totally awarded him Hannah Brown’s hand in marriage. Hannah’s own rejection of his suit didn’t matter because his god had decided things already. She’d just need to find a way to reconcile herself to their mutual god’s decision. Oh, don’t look at him like that. She’ll soon discover what a perfect plan her god has. Stop PERSECUTING him!
But Hannah herself represents a whole other kind of Christian–one that values individual autonomy and consent. She rejected Luke hard, and got progressively more and more upset when he kept coming back to claim his divinely-granted prize: his chess piece, captured and won by his game’s unfair and lopsided rules.
It’s easy to treat women like objects when a culture’s men simply doesn’t see them as people. It seems to me that the rest of us are seeing that awful mindset more clearly now than we ever have before–and even other Christians are disgusted by these displays. As that particular culture loses more and more credibility and members, we can expect them to clamp down all the harder on their regressive ideas–which will in turn only hasten their plunge to irrelevance.
So.. good news, overall!
NEXT UP: Another big Christian defection, maybe, and the tribe’s reacting in its usual way with an onslaught of “Christian love.” See you soon!
About that gossip: See, that “joke” we all tell now about “Christian love” isn’t really a joke, either. It certainly wasn’t atheists doing all that scandalized gossiping! Seriously though, I think maybe one or two couples besides us didn’t welcome their first child to the family about five months after their wedding day. One was my best friend Angela, who welcomed her first child to the world nine months to the day afterward. Everybody I knew just ignored this painful slap to the face of our beliefs and mores. Our ideology did not keep young adults from off-limits sex at all, and nobody really wanted to broach that topic. As a result, I wasn’t even half surprised to learn how popular “courtship culture” became, nor how quickly it became so. (Back to the post!)
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