Remember the Complementarian Woman

I spent the first eight years of my marriage as a strong Complementarian woman. I have always deeply loved and respected my husband, believed in the infalliblity and inerrancy of scripture, and knew that God’s ways were not my ways. I saw nothing but good intentions in my leaders, and saw nothing but good fruit in my marriage.

Then slowly, over time, that fruit turned sour, then rotten, and then died altogether. I went to the Egalitarian side of theology kicking and screaming, terrified that I was abandoning the Bible, abandoning God’s best plan for my life, and throwing my own will in the face of the One who created me, died for me, and rose from the dead.

Now, as an Egalitarian, I see a sad trend among my fellow bloggers and writers: they assume that Complementarian women are either complicit in their own bondage, completely fine with cognitive dissonance/contradictions in scripture, ignorant, or too lazy to fight for their freedom. NONE of this is true, and believing these lies about these sisters in Christ does nothing but hinder their journey towards freedom.

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As a recovering Complementarian, let me walk you through the thought processes of someone who had to live this theology, day-in and day-out.

1) Egalitarian theology is seen as playing fast-and-loose with Scripture.

Complementarian thought is held up as being the most faithful to Scripture, even when it hurts. We were never promised an easy Christian life, right? A woman who willingly embraces Complementarianism does so from a deep love of the written word of God.

2) Submission is framed as suffering for Christ.

Remember, Jesus endured the cross, scorning its shame, and ran a good race. Is it really so hard to submit to your husband when he asks you to have the dishes done by the time he gets home? In light of what Christ suffered, isn’t our difficulty with our husband’s decisions a minor thing? And think of the reward in heaven that awaits you!

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3) The loss of agency and decision-making power is seen as “dying to self.”

I loved Oswald Chambers all through my teenage years, and even have a tattoo based on one of his devotionals. “Willingly giving up my right to my self” was a strong theme that was preached to our entire youth group, heck, our entire church. Any loss of “self” in our marriage, such as a pregnancy I wasn’t ready for, being unable to work, not being allowed to have childcare (because in his mind, it would ruin our children!) or not having any say in how we spent “his” money, barely even registered as a loss. I wasn’t supposed to have a self—it was supposed to die with Jesus, and be resurrected in the form of a Godly Woman™ .

I don’t blame Oswald Chambers for this, and I truly believe that he’s helped a lot of people become more devoted to Jesus. I’m just showing how a Complementarian woman isn’t seeing a lack of decision making capability as a loss. Christians in general, male and female, are not encouraged to make decisions; they’re encouraged to “seek God’s will.”
If “God’s will” is for me to submit to my husband, then I’ve obeyed God, even if I don’t agree with my husband’s decision.

4) On a daily basis, a Complementarian Christian woman will submit to, agree with, and devote herself to her husband, as an act of worship. 

Submitting, supporting, and subscribing to these ideals is incredibly difficult, and when it becomes too much to bear, she will never think “There’s something wrong with the ideal.” Instead, she’ll console herself with 1 Corinthians 10:13, and remind herself that no temptation (to complain, to whine, to refuse to submit, or to play fast-and-loose w/ scripture) has overtaken her except what is common to all women. God won’t give her more than she can bear! She’ll even find creative ways that “God” provided to help her out with the burden: she’ll work at home, she’ll develop a great blog, she’ll become an expert in thrifty shopping and cooking and saving money. She may do all of this without her husband knowing that it’s a struggle. He may think she wants to do all of this, because she’s been told to do everything without arguing or complaining, and so shine like a star in the universe. Why would she do all of this? Because she loves Jesus, and puts Him and His desires first.

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5) When things go horribly, terribly wrong—as a result of a husband’s bad decisions, or the cumulative effect of stress on the family, or poverty, etc—she will trust in God’s sovereignty.

She will take comfort in the fact that God will work all things together for the good of those who love him. She will remember that she and her family are called according to his purposes. She will weep, but very rarely would she blame the system of Complementarian thought that bound up her family’s choices in a single direction. To do so would be questioning God. To leave the Complementarian system would be sinful. That’s not acceptable. She just needs to try harder, be content with what she has, and trust that God will make a way.

So, to call Complementarian women lazy, or ignorant, or accepting of cognitive dissonance—to call them anything but brave, strong, loving, and innovative—is truly misunderstanding their beliefs at a fundamental level.

They resist Egalitarian thought with the same fervor that alcoholics resist the first drink, because they believe that giving in on even one little point is to throw the Bible, the Atonement, and the Church out the window. They embrace suffering inside the system like a martyr going to the Colosseum—denying Complementarianism is the same as denying Christ, and denying Christ is not an option.

And yet, Egalitarian bloggers truly don’t know about these struggles.

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Let’s all remember this, and show love with our words and actions in all of our discussions with women inside this system.

15 thoughts on “Remember the Complementarian Woman

  1. This is good. I grew up under not just patriarchy, but abusive patriarchy. Yet I went full into complementarianism believing it was right, and by “right” I mean God’s will. I had no other basis to even consider that there was just a thing as egalitarian. Anything not male-led was feminist, and I was not raised to be a feminist because it went against God’s order of creation.

    Then I left the Baptist denomination. I know complementarianism isn’t contained solely within the Baptist belief system, but it reigns strong among conservative Baptists. I digress.

    I got out of my tribe, and started reading things from other tribes, and then took a good hard look at my life and how I was raised practically versus how I was raised theologically. Despite my abusive patriarchal upbringing, my dad still taught me to be self-sufficient. He taught me basic auto maintenance. Neither he nor my mother told me what to study in college. Daddy made it clear he wanted me to be a teacher, but he also supported me choosing a more technical career path. I joined the military after getting married, and was the primary (and often only) person with an income. I have lived as a functional egalitarian even while trying to be complementarian.

    All that said, I am quick to jump onto complementarian women as if to virtually shake them into opening their eyes and seeing the light. I often get reminded by a close friend that everyone matures spiritually at different times and different places. And often I think I am a lot further along than I really am. When I look back at my belief before and my belief now, I still believe God is sovereign, that he loves me immeasurably, that His Word is truth, and I still hold scripture in high regard.

    Sometimes I just have to stop and remember that “For now we see in a mirror dimly,” and if I don’t have love, the doctrine I hold onto tightly means nothing.

    Thank you!

  2. Thanks for this post. I think it is easy in any controversy to see the “other side” as inherently foolish or complicit in whatever we think is best. This post offers a good corrective to that. I wonder, though, if we can take it further and offer advice in discussing this issue with complementarian women in a way that doesn’t demean their experience while also working towards an egalitarian ideal. Any thoughts on that?

  3. You are correct as far as you go, and thank you. When I read egalitarian apologists I wince with embarrassment for them. Unfortunately your assessment, and comments so far, still brim with apparently unconscious paternalism over the poor benighted complementarian woman. Poor thing, we must be kinder while we explain to her how ignorant she is and help her to remove the scales from her eyes.
    I also see the same hyperbole on the assessment of the “complementarian” experience. But this is necessary if one believes he/she is creating a new kind of marriage never before conceived in all of human history. The straw man is the best friend then.
    Thanks for promoting kindness though. That is never wrong.

    1. Who do you think “believes he/she is creating a new kind of marriage never before conceived in all of human history”?

      Relationships where one person does not lord it over the other, where Christians make decisions together in kindness and love, that is hardly something nobody has ever tried before. It is just that before a label like “complementarian”, there was no label like “egalitarian” either.

      1. Exactly. Why the need for TWO labels if you believe comp marriages have been doing this all along? It is egalitarians who have set themselves apart as experiencing another kind of marriage requiring a new name.

        1. You misunderstand – I do not say comps have been doing it all along – People who have not done it (a majority – lording it over another human is sadly common in this sinful world) have started to call themselves complementarian. But there have always been people who have not done what complementarians did.

    2. Pretty much everything in this article has been said to me at one time or another, it’s not hyperbole or a straw man argument. Our marriages are to be based on Genesis 1 and 2 (and New testament passages), but too often, the Church bases marriage on Genesis 3.

      1. As Christians, we should accept the totality of Scripture as uniformly relevant. Gen 1,2, 3 and all other passages on marriage teach that marriage is a unity, a unique joining of two into one, creating a union greater than its parts. We need to frequently remind ourselves what that means in daily practice. It means we do not choose to separate ourselves from the other and assert our power and rights, our entitlements as men or women. It means a constant will to serve the other for his and her good.

        The perceived parts of complementarianism which to which egals object are embedded in Gens 1 and 2! The different yet mutual, complementary, and equal roles are created there.

        1. Well, that’s a good principle. Here’s what egalitarians object to:

          One party in the marriage says “I want X”.
          The other party says, “I want Y.”

          If Party 1 is the husband, they ALWAYS get X, because Party 2 is ALWAYS supposed to submit. When the husband is wrong? Comps say submit. When the husband might be sinning? Comps say still submit. When the husband hasn’t “laid down his life for her” like the OTHER part of Ephesians 5 says he should? Comps still say submit, and let God work out the details.

          A husband in a complementarian church may or may not have accountability, may or may not have other men speaking good things into his life, and may or may not actually serve, love, and lay down his life for his wife. The comp church still says submit.

          I have a problem with this. My problem is not with the Bible, and never has been.

          Now, if your husband is actually laying down his life for you, listening to you, and “letting” you make decisions together, then THAT’S WONDERFUL, and this discussion really doesn’t apply to the wonderful thing the two of you have going. The problem is when **things go wrong** and comp churches make no allowances for having to deal with things going wrong. The wife still has to submit.

        2. As an egalitarian, I pretty much agree with your first paragraph. Nobody – this includes men – should assert power (rule), while comps say men should rule (assert power).

          But where do you see complementarianism in Genesis 1 and 2? https://biblicalpersonhood.wordpress.com/2012/08/15/gender-roles-in-genesis-2-where/

          I see Genesis 1-3 as the foundation of egalitarianism: https://biblicalpersonhood.wordpress.com/2015/06/12/egalitarianism-from-the-beginning-of-genesis-to-the-end-of-revelation/

  4. Thanks for your thoughtful post. You’re spot on about the lack of understanding of and respect for those who hold a complementarian view. Sadly such disrespect and misunderstanding isn’t limited to this one subject. In the name of “tolerance”, it seems like everyone now feels entitled to demonize anyone who doesn’t share ones every opinion.

    As one who takes Ephesians 5:22-24 at face value, I have to also take verses 25 through 33 seriously. And the first thing I must acknowledge is: Paul addressed v22-24 to my beloved bride (not to me), and v25-33 to me (not to her). So rather than faulting my beloved for my self-serving perception that she’s not “living up to her end of the bargain”, I too often have to confess my failure to lay down my life for her sake (just as Christ did for mine). Why, after all, should my beloved bride follow me if I’m not following Christ? (Happily, my Treasure has somehow borne her impossible burden of respecting me for nigh 38 years now, come a week from now — that’s right April Fools’ Day.)

    One last thought: The complementarian ladies such as my precious bride do have an advantage that you egalitarian women have surrendered. When I mount my high horse, my bride (were she as crude as I) could say, “Well, if you think that’s honoring to the Lord, it’s not my place correct you — go for it, asshole.” Nothing is quite so humbling as finding yourself eyeball to eyeball with the Lord.

    1. Your bride has an advantage, you say, of letting God deal with you when you sin.

      In that case, why do complementarians say that it is good if men correct women? Will it not be an advantage – for both husbands who lose the responsibility, and them who get to deal with their loving Father, to let God deal directly with them? Why would God dealing directly with men be good, but God dealing directly with women not?

  5. I think I would need to write a whole book, and there are many other points to be discussed, but let me try to answer as briefly as I can.

    I think if I’m not mistaken, that some egals suggest that Gen 1-2 is the “true” relationship that God intended, but that Gen3 (with God handing down the curses) is the true relationship distorted and, well, cursed. This is true. But they move on to declare that we ought to choose the first relationship and reject the second. The second is the one with the patriarchy and inequality, right?

    But here are my points: We do not get to reject the curse. Whether we like it or not, we are living in a world which is changed for the worse by human sin. We honor and obey God by choosing His way in contrast to the world’s way, but we don’t have the power to erase what is real.

    What was the essence of the curse in the marriage relationship? Wasn’t it that the man and the woman would be in conflict, that we would tend to choose our natural propensity to seek to “lord it over” the other one? That women would want the power, and men would want to power? That both would find it irresistible to assert his/her power to be on top.
    …But that he would rule over her?

    Egals want to accept the power struggle, one against the other, but reject the part where he will be the final authority.

    In other words, by promoting egalitarianism, you are actually promoting the negative part, the curse, the power struggle. The egalitarian view is that we are both suited for the power jobs. We have exactly equivalent roles. That assures that there will be struggle because as human beings, we want what we want and we will slight the other person to get it.
    This is exactly the curse that God named as the result of sin in the garden. It wasn’t an edict that men rule women; it was a prediction that men and women would selfishly struggle for the same power.

    Equality for you is the equal struggle for power, rather than the humility of submission to one another.

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