Reclaiming Complementarianism (A Week of Mutuality)


I know it’s been awhile since I’ve written in this ol’ thing, but since Rachel Held Evans is holding a Week of Mutuality at her blog, writing about women’s equality in the church, I figured now was as good a time as any to dust off all my fears and laziness and be a writer again. In honor of this Week of Mutuality, I’m going to attempt to write a post every day this week concerning the intersections of Christianity and feminism. To join in on Week of Mutuality, use the hash tag #mutuality2012

If  you haven’t spent much time following the debates in the evangelical Christian blogosphere, you may have never heard of complementarianism. In fact, according to the red squiggly lines that show up when I type “complementarianism” on Microsoft Word, it isn’t even a real thing. According to most complementarians, however, it’s the idea that men and women are inherently unequal in their abilities, talents, and roles. For instance, women should be homemakers and caregivers, while men should be leaders and breadwinners. Men should be sexual initiators, while women should be passive receivers of their male partner’s (there’s no room for gay or lesbian relationships in complementarianism) sexual advances.

Though most complementarians try to defend this position by claiming that men and women are unequal in roles, but not in value, there’re not-so-subtle undertones within the complementarian movement which suggest that women’s roles are viewed by complementarians as a “lesser” position.

Complementarianism, as evangelicals know it, is just a less abrasive word for patriarchy.

But it doesn’t have to be.

See, complementarians have some good points. All people are equal in value, but not all people have the same roles, talents, desires, and abilities. To refute patriarchy by simply claiming that “we’re all equal” and leaving it at that is to ignore reality and to ignore the hierarchies that society enforces on certain groups of people. I think egalitarians often fall into the trap of thinking that, because we’re all equal in value, we’re all the same, which simply isn’t true.

If we’re going to truly liberate women in Christ, we need to reclaim complementarianism. 

Egalitarians like to talk about Galatians 3:28, which speaks to the fact that all people are of equal value in Christ, including men and women. This verse states that both men and women are “one in Christ Jesus.” But there’s another verse in 1 Corinthians 12 which states that those who are “one in Christ Jesus” are different members of the same body. Some are the mouths that do the public speaking. Others are the brains that do the studying. Others are the arms that comfort, or the hands that create.

Not all people are the same. Complementarians are right about that, and I think that this is why we need the idea of complementarianism–to remind us that we are all different members of one body. But there are some things that need to change…

–We need complementarianism without a gender binary: The roles that complementarians promote are based almost exclusively on gender. You’re either a man: a leader, a breadwinner, a sexual initiator, a protector, a source of superior physical and emotional strength, etc; or you are a woman: a follower, a homemaker, a controller of male sexuality, a mother and a nurturer, and a being in need of protection and lacking emotional stability.

These roles are not based on how you were raised or what you enjoy. They are not based on what you are good at or what comes naturally to you. They are based solely on whether you have a penis or a vagina (in the world of evangelical complementarianism, ALL women have vaginae and ALL men have penises).

We need to reclaim this. These gender roles are not based on the biblical texts, nor are they based in nature. Some people with vaginae are great leaders, and some people with vaginae have great physical strength that they can use to protect others. Some people with penises are great nurturers, and some people with penises would rather stay at home and raise their children if possible. And, I’m just gonna come right out and say it and if you don’t like it, tough: some people with vaginae are men, and some people with penises are women.

This view that you’re either a man and all the roles that come with “manhood,” or you’re a woman and all the roles that come with “womanhood” is reductive and dehumanizing. It ignores God-given talents. It ignores the hard work that it takes to prepare for some roles. It ignores socialization. It ignores personality. It ignores personal happiness. It ignores the complexity of human beings.

It puts all people, regardless of who they are, into one of two tiny boxes and calls that freedom.

We need a complementarianism that breaks out of those boxes. We need a complementarianism with leaders and nurturers and thinkers and feelers that transcend gender binaries. We need a complementarianism that realizes that each human being has a unique role to fill in this world, and that forcing them into boxes keeps them from fulfilling that role.

–We need a complementarianism without hierarchy: As I mentioned before, in the current state of complementarianism, the idea exists that men’s roles are more valuable than women’s roles. For instance, when a woman fails to “play her position,” she is treated as selfish. When a man fails to “play his position,” he is treated as a “wimp.” The woman who wants to fulfill a “man’s role” is wanting more than she should be allowed, while a man who wants to fulfill a “woman’s role” is derided for being unable to handle all that he should be.

Complementarianism attaches the same stigma to “women’s work” that society attaches to it. It also claims that “men’s work” somehow gives those doing such work a more prominent place in the world. As Christians who are supposed to be turning the world upside-down and creating a world where the weak are strong and the first are last, we should be all, “F*** that s*** (or whatever cleaner version of that phrase you’d like to use)!”

It shouldn’t be degrading for a man to stay at home with his children, because if roles were truly complementary, rather that hierarchical, being a stay-at-home parent is just as important as being a pastor or a CEO.

And a woman who chooses to stay at home while her partner works should get to make as many family decisions as her partner, and should not have to submit to that partner’s leadership. Because her role as a stay-at-home-mom should be just as valuable as any other role.

Complementarianism is important, because, as the internet claims Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

But not all women are fish and not all men are monkeys.

We need complementarianism, but humans can’t truly complement one another when we’re stuck in boxes.

So, let’s reclaim complementarianism as a feminist word that promotes equality in value and freedom of choice.



19 thoughts on “Reclaiming Complementarianism (A Week of Mutuality)

  1. Pingback: Equal but Different Vs Equal means Equal

  2. “I think egalitarians often fall into the trap of thinking that, because we’re all equal in value, we’re all the same, which simply isn’t true.”

    There are stupid people who you’ll find of any opinion on any issue, sure, however, this is mostly just something that regressive elements, especially evangelical ones, flat out pull out of their asses as a lie to create a strawman in order to rail against feminism or taking steps to try to make better the bad situations that historical race relations have left us without seeming overtly to be the misogynistic, racist jackholes that they truly are. I have yet to actually encounter an egalitarian or feminist who believed that we’re all the same, because it’s such a patently ridiculous thing that anyone who has survived past being a toddler should know is not true.

    • Unfortunately, I’ve met many feminists who believe that in order for women to be liberated, they must all be the same–secular, career oriented, etc.

      • That’s why the other feminists call them silly or stupid depending upon how charitable they’re being.

  3. If one rejects egalitarianism in favor of having defined niches to conform to, the result is that the system is pressuring all men to be monkeys and all women to be fish. If you don’t want that, then how is what you’re selling any different from egalitarianism and why is it parading in the name of a sexist system of women’s oppression?

    • uh…I’m going to be honest, I have no idea what you’re talking about and I think you missed my point.

      • What’s the point if you’re not being a force for misogyny like every other person who uses the term?

        Egalitarianism already covers what you appear to want.

  4. Pingback: RHE- “Mutuality 2012 Synchroblog” | Christian Egalitarian Marriage

  5. You always make my day. Thanks for this!

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  11. I like this a lot!!

  12. Great points.

    Note that the major egalitarian text, Discovering Biblical Equality, uses the term “complementary” in its subtitle.

    I should also add, though, that I’m really glad the MS Word spell checker doesn’t determine what is or isn’t real: if it did, I would rarely write about anything real. . . .

    • yes! haha, as a women’s studies major, I’m very glad MS word doesn’t determine what’s real. Heteronormativity, Gendered, etc…

  13. I like it. Let’s out complement the complementarians!

  14. I like your differentiations here. I’ve leant towards egalitarianism simply due to the labelling that complementarianism places on men and women. Proponents claim it doesn’t judge our value but it essentially seems to involve making value statements about us. I agree, there needs to be a middle ground where differing roles are celebrated, as is freedom of choice within those roles.

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