It’s not complementarianism; it’s patriarchy

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
'Hierarchy' photo (c) 2008, snowmentality - license:

Russell Moore is concerned that too many evangelical marriages are complementarian in name only. 

The dean of the School of Theology and senior vice president for academic administration at Southern Baptist Seminary recently said this at the Together for the Gospel Conference is Louisville, Kentucky

“What I fear is that we have many people in evangelicalism who can check off ‘complementarian’ on a box but who really aren’t living out complementarian lives. Sometimes I fear we have marriages that are functionally egalitarian, because they are within the structure of the larger society. If all we are doing is saying ‘male headship’ and ‘wives submit to your husbands’ but we’re not really defining what that looks this kind of culture, when those things are being challenged, then it’s simply going to go away...” 

He’s right. Whenever I speak or write on this topic, I hear from men and women who say that they went into their marriages expecting to impose upon them the hierarchal structure advocated by the complementarian movement, but who found that, practically speaking, a relationship between two equal partners just worked better than a relationship between a boss and a subordinate.

  “It just didn’t fit,” they often say. “Hierarchy felt awkward and imposed. It made so much more sense to work together as a team, to settle into roles based on giftedness rather than gender.” 

This is exactly what happened to us. Even though Dan and I were both raised in a complementarian culture, our marriage was “functionally egalitarian” long before we began reevaluating our interpretation of those passages of Scripture so often used to support hierarchal-based gender roles. 

We make decisions together. (No one holds a trump card.) 

We share household chores. (No one gets out of doing the laundry or helping with the yard work based on gender.)

We don’t impose gender-based absolutes on one another. (I like football more than Dan, and nobody’s particularly concerned about that. Roll Tide!

We don’t have a single leader.  (Dan likes to say that “leadership” requires context. It’s not something you are; it’s something you do. So depending on the circumstances, sometimes I lead, and sometimes Dan leads. Sometimes I support, and sometimes Dan supports. We see our gifts, particularly our spiritual gifts, as complementary. We function best—as individuals and as a team—when we do what we’re good at and what we love, and when we cheer one another on. We also function best when our leadership looks more like service than authority, just like Jesus said.) 

Moore is right. Complementarians are losing ground. And they’re losing ground for several reasons: 

1. They are losing ground because more and more evangelical theologians, scholars, professors, and pastors are thoughtfully debunking a complementarian interpretation of Scripture and doing it at the popular level through books like The Blue Parakeet (by Scot McKnight),Discovering Biblical Equality (by Ronald Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, Gordon Fee),  How I Changed My Mind About Women in Church Leadership (by a who’s who of evangelical leaders), through evangelical colleges and seminaries that celebrate women’s giftedness to lead and are producing record numbers of female graduates, and  through organizations like Christians for Biblical Equality

2. They are losing ground because their rhetoric consistently reflects a commitment to an idealized glorification of the pre-feminist nuclear family of 1950s America rather than a commitment to “biblical manhood” and “biblical womanhood”—terms that many of us recognize as highly selective, reductive, and problematic. This reactionary approach often comes at the expense of sound biblical interpretation. (I touched on this in a post about Mark Driscoll’s interpretation of Esther and Vashti a few months ago. We’ll be talking about this a lot more in the weeks and months to come.) 

3. And they are losing ground because, at the practical  level, evangelicals are realizing that complementarianism doesn’t actually promote complementary relationships, but rather hierarchal ones

Complemenarianism is patriarchy—nothing more, nothing less. (Though it is sometimes called "soft patriarchy.") This was made crystal clear when John Piper announced months ago that Christianity is inherently masculine. Such a view can hardly be described as “complementary” when it excludes one gender entirely. We experience the same discomfort when we realize that, based on the “complementarian” understanding of gender, Fred Phelps would be more qualified to speak to your church on Sunday morning by virtue of being a man than someone like Lois Tverberg  or Carolyn Custis James or Christine Caine. When a man with no biblical training whatsoever is considered more qualified to teach than a woman with a PhD in theology or a woman whose work in New Testament scholarship is renowned the world over, we are not seeing complementariaism at work, but patriarchy. (And, I might add, we are missing the Apostle Paul’s point to Timothy about teaching entirely—but that’s a topic for another day.)  

Furthermore, as Russell Moore himself has observed, even married couples who identify as “complementarians” are functioning as equal partners rather than forcing a hierarchal pattern onto their relationship that is highly prescriptive regarding gender.  This should come as no surprise seeing as how a truly complementary relationship is one in which differences are celebrated, but not forced. If your marriage is like mine, this means that the complementary differences between you and your spouse often fall into gender-influenced norms (I am more emotional; Dan is more even-keeled), but not always (Dan is better at nurturing relationships than I am; I am more competitive). Rather than trying to force our personalities and our roles into prescribed molds based on gender, it just makes more sense to allow our natural difference to enhance and challenge one another. We lead where we are strong; we defer where we are weak. 

Complementarianism isn’t working—in marriages and in church leadership— because it’s not actually complementarianism; it’s patriarchy.  And patriarchy doesn’t work because God created both men and women to reflect God's character and God's sovereignty over creation, as equal partners with equal value. 

In June I’ll be running a more in-depth series on the Bible and gender in which we will tackle some of those passages of Scripture that are used to promote hierarchy in the home and in church leadership, because I realize and respect the fact that that, particularly among evangelicals, it’s not enough to say that hierarchal-based gender roles don’t work; we must also be able to show that they are not required by Scripture. My goal with that series is to reconstruct much of what I've deconstructed in the past, to celebrate equality rather than debate complementarianism. So stay tuned for that discussion. 


UPDATE: For those who think I mean "patriarchy" as an insult rather than a description of reality, consider this: In the current issue of The Journal of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Owen Strachan wrote, "For millennia, followers of God have practiced what used to be called patriarchy and is now called complementarianism.” 

See also: 
Complementarians are Selective Too
Esther and Vashti: The Real Story

 What do you think? Are complementarians losing ground? Should it be called “complementarianism” when it’s really just patriarchy?

End of article logo.

Shareable Permalink

© 2012 All rights reserved.
Copying and republishing this article on other Web sites without written permission is prohibited.
Browse articles with tag: womanhood