Complementarianism: A Quick Introduction

Simone de Beauvoir famously states in The Second Sex that “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” That recognition of gender as a social construction would underlie much of second-wave feminism’s push for gender equality in both social and legal spheres.

Victoria Reynolds Farmer talks about Beauvoir and gender as a construction in a discussion of second-wave feminism with Lisa Korthals and Shelah Woodruff in episode 2.2 of the Christian Feminist Podcast, “Second Wave Feminism and Liberation Theologies.” (You can find the shownotes here and the episode here or on iTunes.)

That episode centers on womanism and liberation theology in connection with second-wave feminism, and you should all go check it out, especially for the panelists’ conversation about Alice Walker. But here I’m focusing on a less welcome theological movement that emerged partly as a backlash to second-wave feminism: complementarianism.

If gender is a social construction, there is nothing essential (immutable and innate) to “manhood” and “womanhood” beyond a shared personhood.

This idea challenged the age-old patriarchal structure of society, of course, and it also challenged the ways in which that structure had been worked out in the Christian church and the church-approved home. If men and women are imagined to be equal, it would then be possible to imagine them occupying equal positions of authority in the church and in a marriage.

There were already women calling for this sort of theological equality within first-wave feminism—witness Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the Woman’s Bible. But first-wave feminism, and the American suffrage movement in particular, still tended to rely on gender essentialism, whether it was in arguing that women are by nature morally superior to men (so giving votes to women would aid the country in making ethical decisions), or in arguing that giving women the right to vote would not disrupt the divinely approved hierarchy of the home (so giving votes to women wouldn’t upset the order of nature).

With second-wave feminism, though, with its expanded concerns and its underlying recognition of gender as a construction, feminist theologies became more prevalent. By the 1980s, Christian egalitarianism, which argues that men and women can be equal in the church and the home, was a force to be reckoned with.

The emergence of complementarianism in the late 1980s was an attempt to counter the rise of egalitarianism. Complementarianism presented an argument for gender hierarchy based on a view that there are essential gender differences, instilled by God, that determine the roles for which men and women are fit. Ultimately, complementarian theology is founded on a concept of essential gender inequality, as the gender differences in question lead to unequal roles. However, the founding works of complementarianism—and most complimentarians today—scrupulously disavow both “hierarchy” and “inequality” as components of complementarian theology.

The Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood formed in 1987, and that same year, it released the Danvers Statement, which provides the basic definitions of the essence of manhood and womanhood under complementarianism. (The Danvers Statement can be found as an appendix to Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism (1991), an anthology of foundational complementarian essays available on the website of the CBMW). The CBMW was formed, the statement says, in response to concerns about feminism contaminating the church’s approach to gender—or rather, it was formed due in part to evangelical leaders’ and scholars’ concern over “the increasing promotion given to feminist egalitarianism with accompanying distortions or neglect of the glad harmony portrayed in Scripture between the loving, humble leadership of redeemed husbands and the intelligent, willing support of that leadership by redeemed wives.”

The Danvers Statement goes on to say that the Fall has distorted human relationships, so that men and women are tempted to leave their roles in the home of, for men, “loving, humble headship” and, for women, “intelligent, willing submission.” In the church, men are tempted to “an abdication of spiritual responsibility” and women are tempted “to resist limitations on their roles.”

The statement claims that men and women are “equal before God as persons,” and in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, the writers are careful to state that they do not view the division of roles within complementarianism as a hierarchy. That disavowal of an overt view of gender inequality and of an explicit imposition of a gendered hierarchy is to the credit of complementarians—it’s good that we all agree that thinking of women as inferior to men is something to be avoided.

However, the problem is that complementarianism is still built on gender inequality, no matter how much its proponents argue that the roles of men and women are separate but equal.

When man is to lead and woman is to follow—and that’s not just a set of instructions, but the essential definition of “man” and “woman”—that is not equality. (And it is a hierarchy.)

When the roles of men and women are divided in the church, with some positions of authority withheld from women while no equivalent positions are withheld from men, that is not equality. (And it is a hierarchy.)

And even while complementarians teach that men and women are equal in personhood before God, the inequality of the roles accorded to men and women under complementarianism begs the question of “why?” Why, if men and women are equal as persons, can they not be equal in the home or the church?

Growing up, I sometimes wondered why I would need to promise to obey and submit to my husband (if I had one). Would it be because he was certain to be more intelligent than I was? Or was it perhaps because he was certain to be closer to God than I was?

I wondered why women were not supposed to be pastors, why it was frowned on for women to preach. Was it because there was something within all women—within me—that made it impossible to understand the Bible as well as men could? Or perhaps, again, men are just by nature closer to God than I ever could be.

Thinking about that question of “why,” I sometimes wondered whether it might be true that I belonged to a lower order of Creation, that I was by nature inferior to half the world.

Of course, again, it’s not a stated aim of complementarianism to encourage the belief that women are inferior to half the world. (But that belief, no matter how buried, is a lurking effect of complementarian teaching for many people.)
Rather, complementarians argue that the essential gender differences that demand gender hierarchies and debar women from positions of authority in the church are beautiful illustrations of the diversity of Creation, and do not constitute inequality. (No matter how much the immutable, unequal roles that are to be filled by men and women suggest that the categories of persons who were designed to fill those roles must be immutably unequal.)

That the Bible is thought to demand unequal gender roles is enough, for many complementarians, without asking for further reasons “why?” Why this division and enforcement of inequality, if men and women are actually equal before God? To ask this is to doubt the Bible.

But, as the egalitarian theologians emerging from second-wave feminism show, as many egalitarian thinkers are showing today, complementarian theology is not the only faithful interpretation of the Bible.

Some of you reading this probably wonder why complementarianism even needs to be described or argued against, since it is so obviously just one more cultural manifestation of patriarchy (albeit a soft patriarchy that denies gender inequality while gently reinforcing it). Others of you reading this probably see your own complementarian theology as inextricable from your faith. You might dismiss my concerns about the inequalities that complementarianism promotes as either not actually founded on real inequalities or as evidence that my own faith isn’t strong enough to accept a reading of the Bible that seems to demand injustice.

But some of you reading this, both women and men, may recognize some of my childhood questions as your own. You might remember wondering if women are in fact lesser than men, since women are meant to submit and since women aren’t suited for leading a church. You may still wonder that sometimes, and wish that you didn’t have to wonder it. To you I say that you are not alone in feeling that effect of complementarian teaching.

And to you I would point out that complementarian theology is not the only way of interpreting the Bible. In its current soft-patriarchy form, it’s not even a particularly old system of interpretation. You are not required to believe that the Bible demands injustice in order to be a Christian. In fact, to my mind, questioning interpretations of the Bible that appear to demand injustice seems like a Christian thing to do.

On a side note, I don’t mean to imply here that everyone who is in a relationship that follows a complementarian pattern is somehow doing their own relationship wrong. There are as many relationship dynamics as there are relationships, and sometimes both partners might choose a dynamic in which one person tends to lead and one tends to follow. But what I’m objecting to is enforcing that dynamic as a universal standard (as well as, of course, assuming that all people are heterosexual, cisgender, and desirous of being in a romantic relationship), and to defining manhood and womanhood as the occupation of differing roles in a hierarchy. Update: Also, though I suggested that complementarianism is fairly new in its current form, actually it is more the widespread use of the word “complementarian” that is new; there were already people–in many time periods–who considered gendered divisions and limitations in much the same way that current complementarians do.

Further note: I apologize that I’ve skipped a few posts. I had intended to keep to a steady posting schedule, but the hectic end-of-semester times are upon me and may make my posting more erratic than I wish it to be for a little while!

[Photo credit: Vincent_AF via photopin cc (cropped and resized)]

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