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An Open Letter to Complementarian Spokespeople

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

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Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Good coffee, Bitter Patriarchy Part II

Oregon is a libertarian state. As such, conservatives and liberals alike tend either toward a live and let live mentality or, conversely, an allow me to live as I see fit world view. Although both of these perspectives stem from the enlightenment ideal of individual freedom, they don’t mesh, and it doesn’t take a genius to parse one from the other. One is generous, while the other is self-protective. One is settled in itself, the other reactionary. And, for the record, neither is a perfect philosophy, for the good reason that certain situations call for reactionary positions and others call for hunkering down and living at peace with ones’ neighbors.

As for my libertarian ways, I’m a distant observer of the world and hold to both positions simultaneously [which is probably just a description of passive aggression]. Instead of finding myself persuaded by others’ convictions, I’m almost impervious to outside instruction. I believe nothing and everything at the same time. I’m a collector of information. I collate it, I keep it, and I’m hesitant to extrapolate answers from the information stored inside my databases. I thank God for the faith he planted in my heart because if it weren’t for the gospel of Jesus Christ, which came to me outside the information channels, I’d be a skeptic who believes in nothing. And I’m thankful, as well, for the tipping point, that crucial moment when the information overloads me and I must shut down or declare a theoretical premise.

Recently, I’ve reached that tipping point regarding biblical patriarchy. But I need to reach into the past, where the concept first confronted me. The Southern Oregon Libertarian thinkers who held to biblical patriarchy tended toward the allow me to live as I see fit philosophy due to their ideas not fitting with societal ones. Because of the egalitarian nature of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, the racism and patriarchy of the founding fathers became untenable in our society. The civil rights movement lifted its hidden wings, ready to take flight, the air of our country tense with waiting. Women and black people fought for the right to vote and won. They fought for entrance into white male institutions and won.

Don’t spout the obvious and tell me equality is a lie. Of course it’s a lie. People aren’t equal–some are born short, some tall; some are born with great intellect, while others are not–but under the eyes of the law, equality is essential. And God, the author of our differences, agrees: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). I doubt anyone holding to biblical patriarchy would disagree that both men and women should have equal access to justice under the law, and equal access to salvation through Jesus. However, my first flavor of it, in the Medford Coffee Company, served up some unhealthy doses of misogyny and racism as payment for progressive espressos and dark-roasted brews [disclaimer: the cafe owners didn’t hold such beliefs! Some of their customers did].

These customers ripped scriptures from their biblical contexts and used them to create vast doctrines supporting the superiority of white men. Men were created in the image of God–not women. Blacks were relegated to an even further degradation as beasts in the field, not of the same species as whites. If you think I’m making this up–if you believe I’m simply forwarding a negative stereotype of white men, I’ll offer no defense. The evidence is out there. Study the Christian Identity movement, which was a predominant affiliation among these people. And, frankly, many Southern Oregonians in those days stereotyped themselves–no need for me to do that for them. Amid the pine forests and on property along the winding Applegate River, they stored guns, ammo, and foodstuffs in barrels for the coming apocalypse. Before rambling into Medford for their daily coffee, they made deals at surplus stores and shopped for good prices on bags of beans and rice–not for their wives to cook up for them that day, but for their wives to cook up over an open fire once the beast system took over.

The biblical patriarchy movement doesn’t follow one denomination, which means, of course, not all of them cling to Christian Identity. During the years I smelled its bitter odor, I ran across a variety of Christian belief structures. When home-educators traded the Pearls’ books and newsletters around as though they were holy tracts, I found an entirely new doctrine, one that doesn’t espouse original sin. When Douglas Wilson’s and Vision Forum books wormed their way into my life, I discovered a Reformed doctrine that unsettled me with its weird dichotomies of either/or. Either you buy their beliefs, or you’re a raging-feminist-liberal in rebellion against God’s divine order.

As I already stated, all of this stored information has reached its tipping point. In the nineties coffee house, when a burly biker declared that blacks were animals without souls–in front of a black customer–I desired to fade into the muddied linoleum below my feet. After all, I was a young female, and who would listen to my protestations? But I’m ready, after all these years, after the subject of biblical patriarchy perpetually pops up as though it were a hydra with heads in multiple denominations, to declare myself done with it. I never believed in it, due to my impenetrable nature, but I’m ready to be done with it psychologically and intellectually. No longer will I hold onto the reams of information I’ve stored about it. I’m letting it all slip away.

You see, these people have stunted their growth. They desire for men and women alike to remain in an immature state, in which women must be perpetually erotic to men, as well as dependent on them. The men don’t grow because they feed off the service of women. The women don’t grow because they’re dependent on men. And this fixation continues until death do them part, or until the families split apart, or until the men and women come to their senses and confront their distorted biblical doctrines.

What are these people afraid of? Are they afraid of growth? I’m not. I have been in the past, hence the stockpiling of information. But right now, I’m not. However, I’m still stuck with a simultaneous desire to react and hunker down and let the world be. I’m not afraid of growth. I just don’t know how to make it happen.

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Memoirs From a Nineties Coffee Girl: Good Coffee, Bitter Patriarchy

For my lifestyle as a stay-at-home mom of four, I’m a frequent resident in hotels. Sometimes, these stays belong to me—they exist as my personal getaways. And occasionally, they belong to the family as vacations. But most of the time, they’re my husband’s, and I’m simply along for the ride. This following after a man and his career has never appealed to me. So instead of viewing these trips as such, I see them as blessings from God or husband or both, spun along the circuitous gift route, for the production of my own work.

I fall into slumps when I’m not actively producing something of worldly value, and by this, I mean my own academic work that extends beyond the family unit. I don’t define “something of worldly value” as the motherly goods I produce, which include meals and what might spring from my garden by accident because I’ve committed acts of mass herbicide through negligence. Neither do I mean stacks of clean, folded laundry, a tidy house smelling of pine oil, or well-educated children.

On the contrary, all of these parental activities bear intrinsic value and give their own rewards in a karmic give-and-receive effect. Because I believe in a Christian version of karma, I’ll relabel it the golden-rule effect. I’m generous to you, and you’re generous to me. I cook for you; you wash the car for me. I wash the dishes for you; you weed the garden for me. And, in fact, this division of labor among a family unit has a circular shape to it, hence my use of eastern terminologies to describe it. Westerners have their Venn diagrams, but I’m not certain a Venn diagram would fully represent the concept. Perhaps a figure eight, or the symbol of eternity would depict this ideal in a better way. Or maybe a series of connected loops in a circular form would do it justice.

At the moment, I’m considering these shapes and ideas in a Starbucks, which happened to be the first cafe I ran across while wandering away from my latest hotel stay. Coffee is an integral part of my creative life, and, although Starbucks would have been verboten in the decade of the Nineties Coffee Girl, I’ll drink any coffee here in New Mexico as long as it’s strong and black. Currently, the Starbucks’ radio channel is directing my mood by playing Janis Joplin’s Me and Bobby Magee. As you may know, at the apex of this song, Joplin sings, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose. Nothing—and that’s all that Bobby left me.” As you probably don’t know, I used to sing these lyrics all the time. Some ballads connect to my soul in indescribable ways. This is the purpose of poetry, after all—describing the indescribable.

Freedom is an elusive concept. As a housewife, as a Christian woman, as a homeschool mom, and as a longtime citizen of Oregon, I’ve experienced a counterculture you may not have had to confront in your own path to self-development. It’s called Biblical Patriarchy. Although many Christian leaders support this movement, their views on female roles may differ in application. For the sake of this writing, I’ll give you the basic tenets: females aren’t exactly subhuman, but they weren’t created in the image of God as men were. Rather, God created woman to be man’s helpmeet, period. Therefore, she must always be under male authority—either her father’s or her husband’s. Her vision must reflect her male authority’s vision because having her own is selfishness.

By extension of these beliefs, women in the movement are discouraged from voting because their sphere is in the home and not in the world, and voting could also permit women to hold their own opinions apart from their fathers/husbands. Women aren’t worthy of opinions due to being weaker vessels, which isn’t simply interpreted as of smaller stature, but extends to the belief that women have weaker intellects. University is—no surprises here—frowned upon for women. Careers outside the home are strictly forbidden. Many other rules apply: women aren’t allowed to speak in gatherings where men are present; women must be happy child-bearers and forgo birth control. I would add direct quotes from the horses’ mouths and, trust me, I’ve run across some excruciating ones. But I squirm at using others’ words in order to generate controversy (click the links and judge for yourself: Douglas Wilson, Doug Phillips, the Pearls, or the Botkins).*

Here I sit, defying patriarchy, pursuing my own career, while my husband pursues his. As I drink from a liberal coffeepot, I remember serving trays of espresso at Medford Coffee Company–a decidedly more conservative place–and listening to the conversations of the Biblical Patriarchalists who patronized the shop. I don’t wish to dredge up these peoples’ pain, and I won’t do that, except to say that their philosophy didn’t work out for them. The ironies of each particular family has worked its way into the light.

As I see it, the problem with westerners taking on a philosophy of absolute male authority and female subservience is one of using a faulty, non-circular model. In a western patriarchal vision, a pastor might draw a line between the man and his relationship to the world and a line between a woman and her relationship to man. The western model also frequently uses a pyramidal structure to denote levels of leadership, with one authority on top of another, until you drop to the rabble at the base. These models limit truth and create oppression. Leadership and helpfulness should be circular. One begets the other in a cyclical fashion defined by do unto others as you would have them do unto you. If you’re a man in authority over a woman, this means you must consider whether you would desire to have your own authority figure–your employer, perhaps–remove your personhood from you. When you’re done with work for the day, would you desire that your boss insist you continue to view the world through his vision, his needs, his desires?

As for gender roles, you won’t find much information on those in the Bible, only cultural models that don’t rise to the level of commandment. That’s a blessing because rigid gender roles aren’t practical in an imperfect world. And so, I continue to produce my own work. I direct them outside myself and sometimes, due to my western mindset, I wonder if my arrows are hitting the mark. Then I remind myself: this isn’t about finding a target. It’s about the circularity of creating ideas, sending them forth, and being ironically refilled and fulfilled through this giving.

At its heart, the pairing of lines from Bobby Magee captures my fears of being a Christian wife and mother. I’m afraid my freedom will involve having nothing more to lose because I’ve already lost myself. I fear a man’s work will render me empty. I fear this, even though my husband doesn’t oppress me or expect me to give up my dreams. I fear this, even though I know God desires me to continue with my career as academic and writer.

*Doug Phillips founded Vision Forum, a ministry that publishes books from a patriarchal perspective. Although I’ve read books by Vision Forum authors, I haven’t read any of his.

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