For most of my marriage, I have, by default rather than conviction, lived the complementarian lifestyle—as in, I stay home with the children and educate them from home and invest most of my time in housewife activities. Meanwhile, my husband works outside the home. He also makes the major decisions of the family, and I capitulate, even if I disagree with him. Certainly, I use the term “complementarian” loosely. This is a modern word, invented by the SBC about twenty-five years ago, and it’s a word that must be taken lightly, about as lightly as powdered-sugar settling over hardtack because most adherents are unable to separate the truth from the fluff. It has, from my perspective, become a word that entails a changing of the subject, akin to That monkey’s ripping the limbs off a small boy! We should help him! Ooh, look at the colorful bird in that tree over there. This letter—what I’m calling an open letter to complementarian spokespeople—is meant to call out the liars of the movement, and those who would obfuscate the truth by refusing to speak plainly.
Here are my stated motivations in writing this (although you may choose to disbelieve them): as a longtime homeschool mom, I’ve had numerous “complementarian” books foisted on me. I’ve watched as my friends followed the guidelines set forth in these books, and I’ve seen marriages fail over a blatant lack of respect and understanding for females. At the same time, I’ve seen many people confused over the variant tenants of the doctrine because the definition of the term is so vague. As far as the ultimate, underlying motivation that I don’t want to admit to—ah, yes, that one—honestly, I’ve tried to avoid this doctrine and steer clear of its multi-headed hydra, but, as with most multi-headed hydras, it won’t go away. As the “it” doctrine of the church today, it won’t stop invading my territory. In order to avoid it, I would have to stop attending church altogether and discontinue haunting my favorite blogs. My ultimate motivation, then, is to shine light on a doctrine that continues to grow in popularity and intensity.
What is complementarianism? You might believe it’s simply a lifestyle choice, similar to my own that I describe above (homeschool mom, homemaker, submissive). But for proponents such as Mary Kassian, the definition appears to be a whole lot of denials with very little substance. Complementarianism isn’t patriarchy. It doesn’t mean women must be housewives. It doesn’t mean they must stay home and birth babies. According to the True Woman Manifesto project, which Kassian is a part of, the complementarian lifestyle is very much about accepting children from the Lord and accepting proper role designations in church and in the home. What those roles are nobody seems willing or able to express; rather, it seems much easier for complementarian spokespeople to say what they aren’t. Feminine roles don’t, apparently, have anything to do with women staying home and caring for their families (even if women are supposed to accept children gladly from the Lord). Complementarian spokespeople liken the old-timey image of a Betty-Sue housewife to a straw-man argument, along with any substantial claims made by those opposed to their doctrine (see: egalitarians). If egalitarians attempt to label or use language to describe the doctrine, complementarians accuse them of logical fallacies. This leads me to the inevitable, but false, conclusion that complementarianism doesn’t mean anything at all.
Complementarians prefer to rely on poetic, or through-the-glass-darkly language to describe their doctrine, rather than relying on hard definitions. They view men and women as spiritual symbols that describe Christ’s relationship to the church. Men represent self-sacrificing Christ figures, and women represent Christ’s bride, or the fallen nature of mankind that is in need of Christ’s atoning sacrifice. This imagery is painted repeatedly in literature and on blogs and from pulpits. Although poetic language is beautiful and insightful, it lacks an actual set of rules for living. Are men and women in an elaborate play, or a game of charades? Am I to try my best to demonstrate my fallen nature (level of difficulty: facile), while my husband is to be my perfect sacrificial lamb (level of difficulty: impossible)? What does this ultimately mean in my everyday life when I’m busy trying to make dinner in the midst of rambunctious children and all their catastrophes? I love poetry, but I have difficulty living as a symbol, per se. In addition, I have trouble viewing my husband as a Christ figure. I love him. He’s a godly man, and yet it strikes me as heretical to call him my Christ, even if only in a game of charades.
For all the obfuscation, some people are willing to call a spade a spade, rather than an ethereal spadish symbol of God working in the gardenious hearts of humanity. Some people, most of them men, prefer to call complementarianism what it actually is: a hierarchical system of patriarchy. In this case, I’m far from believing that these men are honest because they’re men—and, yes, I’ve heard it said that men are more direct than women. Rather, I see this particular honesty as the directness that comes from people who have nothing to lose. Women are the biological losers, and so they become apt at living in allusive language. By biological losers, I mean women are literally smaller and weaker than their male counterparts. Women are, therefore, the ones standing on the lower rung of the complementarian ladder, looking up and babbling about male-female relationships and the divine imagery that imparts special blessings to them, including the special blessing of men and women dancing together—oh, wait, that’s just another pretty image used by complementarian spokespeople. My husband and I do NOT dance together in reality. And so, I thank you, Douglas Wilson, Denny Burk, Russell Moore, Doug Phillips, and John Piper (et al)* for speaking the truth—that is, the truth imparted by giving actual meaning to the employed symbolism. Make no mistake, I don’t view your honesty as noble, just as I don’t view a slave master as noble when he boldly declares the law of slave-owner rights to his indentured workers.
Please, hear me out and allow me to finish because I’ve yet to complain about the lie I consider to be the most destructive of all, and this letter is growing long. I apologize. My heart is heavy, and here it is: Stop promising women they will flourish under complementarianism! With this lie the complementarians have stepped right out of scripture. Nowhere does the Bible claim women will flourish within their divinely-ordained role. Furthermore, I’ve witnessed firsthand the exact opposite. Because I’ve been in the homeschool movement for so long, I’ve met many women who have attempted to fulfill their role to perfection. After all is said and done, these women are bedraggled, exhausted, and bitter. They wonder what they’re doing wrong—why the promise of “No Greater Joy” and “So Much More” hasn’t filled them. I find myself in that category, except I can honestly claim I’ve never been given to believing lies or filling my head with delusions. Still, though, I’m worn from this lifestyle. If my physical appearance is an indication of my interior spaces, then I’m withering rather than flourishing. I’m like my shoes—I don’t have a decent pair that isn’t full of holes. As an image of the way I feel internally, instead of picturing a flourishing plant, imagine that I’m a rose that’s been clipped from the plant and trampled underfoot.
The doctrine of complementarianism may be right according to Christianity; it’s not my purpose to argue for or against it in this letter. But the lies and obscurities of the complementarian spokespeople are frustrating and unhelpful, and do a disservice to men and women who are desperately trying to lead Godly lives. This doctrine is one of patriarchy, pure and simple, and it doesn’t give women the promised life and growth, the supposed flourishing and nourishment brought by salvific male gardeners. In fact, the times in my life when I experienced abundance were those times when I attended university classes, wrote books, and followed focused research trails–on my own time, far away from household duties. Indeed, yes, I’m fallaciously speaking from my own experiences because I can’t speak from anybody else’s. I can only register my own exhaustion and listen carefully when my female friends speak to me. Some, such as Mary Kassian, would claim that the complementarian doctrine doesn’t compel a woman to give up of her passions or her career. However, I have to cry foul on Kassian, whose entire movement began as a reaction against the feminist movement that bought me (and her) a ticket to the academic world (see: CBMW).
Must I say more on this topic? Have my complaints registered? Would you, if you’re able to, stop obscuring the truth?
*The task of linking to all the patriarchal men out there was too tedious for one blog post. If you want to know more about biblical patriarchy, I would suggest reading these authors’ books or blogs. I’ve already done my research, and, as a disclaimer, I’ve read more of Wilson than the others