Complementarianism: The Church Body’s Cycle of Self-Harm

 

Recently one of the fathers of Complementarianism, John Piper, stated that women ought not teach in seminaries. This is not a surprising stance for him to take, clearly, but it is a new level of gender exclusion that is troubling, especially in light of recent cultural events. There have been many eloquent responses to his stance that have outlined the lack of logic in this position and the exegetical gymnastics it takes to hold the position. Google Kaitlin Curtice @desiringgod. Really, do it. 

The thinking behind Piper’s response is not new. In fact, it has long been the given in many churches, particularly since the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood released the Danvers Statement in 1987 to push back on feminism and feminist readings of the Bible. (This is the same group that gave us the Nashville Statement last year.) That it is a quiet given is perhaps why Piper’s re-articulation of it is jolting, and I would argue, also why it’s useful. While the rest of the country is coping with the realities of #metoo and #churchtoo and understanding that consolidating power in the male has led to abuse and misuse, Piper takes this opportunity to reconsolidate that power. His move clarifies what is still true in so many churches, drawing our attention to it again so that we can look again at its real impact. 

While the Complementarian position—that men are to lead in the church and the home and women are to submit to that leadership and serve as helpmeets—is not articulated in quite these stark terms often, it is still a core teaching of many churches, if not explicitly, certainly implicitly. While men walk solemnly to the front carrying the elements of communion, mimicking service, women serve coffee in the back. There is a clear hierarchy in many Christian churches, which places men at the top of the order. 

Perhaps worse yet, this same structure is encouraged in the home. Husbands at the top of the hierarchical order, and wives submitting to their decision making and leadership. 

Lip service is given to the idea that this hierarchy is not about competency (note Piper’s brief caveat) or the image of God (a modern correction from early-modern church doctrine that said otherwise). Women, so it’s said, are as competent as men. They are made in the image of God just as men are. (It is interesting to me that the doctrine so implies the opposite of these that it must restate them again and again.) Some Complementarians may even say that it’s not a hierarchy at all—that the difference in roles is not that either is higher than the other but simply that they are different. But, let’s be clear that as it plays out practically, Complementarianism results in women being excluded from leadership and decision making—even decisions that impact them directly.

While there is list of Bible verses Complementarians use to support this doctrine, counter-doctrines have been developed to give alternative readings to every one of those. At this point, the choice to maintain the Complementarian position is just that, a choice. There are well articulated and valid arguments to the contrary that take the Bible quite seriously, and yet, Piper and others choose to remain committed to consolidating power in the male. 

Growing up in a home and church that believed in male headship, I developed an unconscious bias for the male voice. I listened for the male to guide me. After all, the church didn’t trust the female voice, why should I? Problematic because, well, my voice is female. 

I learned that my voice was not to be trusted, especially not where it was opposed by a man. A man’s voice always carried more weight. A man’s need mattered more than my need. I’ve spent my adult life working through that self-annihilating enmeshment to be able to hear my own voice and trust it enough to act on it. Turns out hearing one’s own voice and finding alignment with it is the only way to live with any level of authenticity and aliveness, which are key components to well-being and relational health. 

Though I personally moved to an egalitarian understanding of gender and scripture some years ago, I’ve continued to hold space for Complementarian ideology, calling it another relational structure that works for some people. But I’m beginning to wonder if that’s the case. 

Hear me out as I tell a story that illustrates my doubt. Lately, I’ve been in conversation with a Complementarian couple I know. The husband is considering a risky job change. The wife, who values security and predictability, is struggling with this decision. She processes her struggle with honesty and vulnerability and always, at a certain point, says, “But he’s the head of our household, and it’s my job to support him,” which to her means overriding her concerns and submitting to his will.

He, meanwhile, dreams but not with a lack of concern for her and their family. He holds the weight of her opinion and wellbeing. And as he chooses to go toward his goal, he does so from a place of power and as an imposition on someone who would not choose this path herself. He actually can’t go forward any other way in this structure. His has to be a move of power-over (imposing his will) because that is the assumption of their Complementarian contract.

This particular situation is complicated by the fact that this home has been built on the Complementarian assumption that income is the responsibility of the husband, so a highly competent woman has not gained job training or experience that would ease her anxiety about finances and give her agency or autonomy in financial choices. 

I’ve thought about this again and again and can reach no other conclusion than that these two are stuck in a victim/perpetrator relationship based on their Complementarian understanding of marriage. Every time she comes to the point that she has to say, “Despite all I feel and all my instincts, I yield to his leadership” (and I think you can read leadership there as power), I am convinced that her body undergoes the trauma of abuse. Not that he is abusing her—he is a generous and kind man—but that the system itself is one of abuse. It’s a power structure in which one person is dominant. Yielding one’s power to someone else simply because they are dominant is ever and always abusive and will settle in the body as such. 

And think about this from his perspective. He becomes the perpetrator just by virtue of his gender and position in the power structure. He didn’t ask to hold the entire weight of her wellbeing. He didn’t ask to be dominant. He is trying to live his life as authentically as he can, living toward his passions, and those passions are becoming pain for another via the structure of their relationship.

While there is absolutely a time in a partnership of peers for a partner to choose to prioritize a goal or need of the other, in a relationship of peers—two equally autonomous and responsible parties—this prioritizing is not imposed; it is chosen. Points of impasse are as likely to go one way as the other. No one has the final word for any one but him/herself. Neither is dominant. Each partner is fully responsible for their his/her own wellbeing. This is power-with—two fully empowered people making choices together. 

If the couple in this story were to structure this decision in an egalitarian way, the wife would perhaps be empowered to prioritize her husband’s job choice with a sense of agency. She could say, “Go for it! And since I’m in charge of my well-being, here are the agreements I’d like to make so that I can do this with you while also caring for myself.” Those agreements might be about the amount of time she’s willing to live in a risky financial state. They might be about securing health insurance during the transition. They might be about the amount of money she’s willing to risk. Whatever they are, they would be negotiated by peers, each able and responsible to make the decision for him/herself. 

Complementarian culture makes this kind of peer relationship impossible precisely because it creates a culture of dominance. While some Complementarian couples would say their decision making process is one of peer input and egalitarian discussion, the final choice and responsibility lies with the man according the the doctrine. So the woman, while she may have input will eventually reach the end of her agency and have to pass it to the man. The man will eventually be saddled with the weight of the responsibility of deciding for both. 

I believe this is a difficult road to relational well-being. It puts the woman at odds with her own voice, which she is asked to quiet again and again, causing an experience of victimhood and abuse. It invites her to abdicate responsibility for her own well-being and self-knowing. 

It puts the man in an almost impossible position in which he becomes responsible to know and carry the weight of her well-being as well as his own. It makes him the perpetrator all the while calling him the protector. It’s painful double-bind for both.

The Complementarian doctrine masks male dominance. It pretends heavenly equality while maintaining earthly hierarchy. It is a spiritual screening of abusive ideologies that trap the church body in a cycle of self-harm.

 

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Carla Ewert 

Carla is a Minneapolis-based writer and speaker

and co-creator of the national conversation for women

in leadership, She Is Called. She hosts the and is a regular

panelist on the Christian Feminist Podcast

Carla Ewert