Complementarianism and hierarchy outside the home and church

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

One refrain I continue to hear from some complementarians is that complementarianism only enforces male-dominated hierarchy in the home, that women under this paradigm are only required to submit to their husbands, not to other men.  

My research shows otherwise. The reality is, many complementarian leaders teach that male authority and female submission extend beyond marriage and church into the rest of society. This makes sense, given the recent push among complementarian leaders to embrace patriarchy—which, by definition, refers to a society characterized by male/father (pater) rule (archy). 

In fact, in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood—the manual of sorts for the complementarian movement— John Piper provides a continuum along which Christian women (and the Christian men who might employ them) can plot the appropriateness of various occupations along two scales: 1) how much authority the woman has over men, and 2) the degree to which the relationship is personal between the woman and the men with whom she works. 

The chart in the book looks like this: 

Personal                Non-personal

Directive                Non-directive 

“There are roles that strain the personhood of man and woman too far to be appropriate, productive, and healthy for the overall structure of home and society,” Piper  states. “Some roles would involve kinds of leadership and expectations of authority and forms of strength as to make it unfitting for a woman to fill that role.”  

Similarly, J.I. Packer suggests that “a situation in which a female boss has a male secretary” puts strain on the humanity of both. 

Based on his continuum, Piper concludes that a female city planner, who indirectly leads men by designing traffic patterns, exhibits influence that is non-personal “and therefore not necessarily an offense against God’s order."  However, a female drill sergeant who exhibits both personal and directive leadership over men “violates their sense of masculinity and her sense of femininity.” The same violation applies to women in military leadership, women with male subordinates, and women acting as officials at professional sporting events, he says. 

As far as politics are concerned, Piper notes that “praying women exert far more power in this world than all political leaders put together.” (I think we all know what that means.) 

This explains why Piper and other complementarians struggled to embrace Sarah Palin as a vice-presidential candidate back in 2008. When asked about it, Piper said, “I personally think that it would have been better for [Palin] to stay at home with her disabled child–both for the good of the family and as a model for moms. So that’s a factor for me. I don’t think that biblically a woman should be the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. And so that puts her in a very awkward position for me.”

He later clarified: “A person with my view may very well vote for a woman to be President if the man running against her holds views and espouses policies that may, as far as we can see, do more harm to more people than we think would be done by electing a woman President and thus exalting a flawed pattern of womanhood. In my view, defending abortion is far worse sin for a man than serving as Vice President is for a woman.”

Clearly, for Piper, the pattern of male authority and female submission is not limited to the spheres of home and church, but extends to all of society. 

For my project last year, I decided to plot my own career along Piper’s continuum to see if he would consider my line of work appropriate to "biblical womanhood." My writing career mostly checked out because my influence over men is largely non-personal. However, my speaking career pushed things a bit, for lecturing brings me out of the home and often places me in a position of authority over men. Furthermore, when my speaking calendar is full, I tend to make more money per hour than Dan, which complementarians warn against. I gave myself an A for writing and a C for speaking. 

Then I plotted my friends and family’s careers. My sister Amanda flunked out completely because her job at Samaritan’s Purse headquarters in North Carolina requires that she interview, hire, and supervise hundreds of holiday workers—both men and women—to sort and mail all the Operation Christmas Child shoebox donations that get sent to needy children across the world.  (I gave her a “D,” for these brazen acts of goodwill and charity.) As a director of a hospital pharmacy, my friend Tiffany didn’t fare much better. Mom passed with flying colors because the authority she exerts as a fourth grade teacher is over males who can’t yet spell “authority,” but my college professor friends scored “Cs” because their males students (mostly) count as men.

But things got really interesting when I used Piper’s scale to plot the occupations of women from the Bible. Lydia, a wealthy silk dealer and member of the early church, fared okay, even though her job likely took her out of the home and involved personal interaction with men. Priscilla, a theology teacher to the apostle Apollos, scored much worse because she exhibited leadership that was both personal and authoritative. And poor Deborah! As a military leader, political appointee, prophetess, and judge, she shot right off the charts in both personal and authoritative leadership to become what Piper would call a clear “offense against God’s order”….which is kinda odd seeing as how the writer of Judges says Deborah was appointed by God for her task.

My point is simply that this is one of many examples in which everyday complementarians seem to be somewhat at odds with their leaders. (I’ll be writing about some more examples later this week.) Most of my complementarian friends seem to think that, under complementarianism, female subordination is limited to home life and church life. But according to Piper and Packer, male authority should extend beyond the home and church and into society. 


Am I missing something here? I don’t want to misrepresent the complementarian position.

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