What is Christian Complementarianism? I remember fondly listening to Mark Driscoll youtube videos (Mark Driscoll the former big name leader of Mars Hill Church and the Acts 29 Network and Christian Complementarianism) and I very much liked what he had to say about what it means to be a Godly woman and a Godly man and how men and women should relate to each other in marriage. Yes, true, I knew that I was more extreme or radical in my view of gender relations than Mark Driscoll was, me being more strongly patriarchal than him, but basically what he had to say seemed good and right to me even if in my opinion he didn’t go “far enough.”
Now I am starting to think that there is something structural about how Christian Complementarianism is set up that is wrong headed, that is indeed feminist in its orientation or way of thinking. That Christian Complementarianism is not simply a weak version of patriarchy but is instead a feminist corrupted version of patriarchy.
There is a strange idea that I have seen advocated for quite a lot by supposedly pro-patriarchal women; that idea being what I will call female controlled patriarchy; that patriarchy is only legitimate if the woman approves of or gives her permission to the man to act in a patriarchal fashion. That the woman is the one who gives patriarchy legitimacy, not God or the natural order of things. Christian Complementarianism I think operating on this premise; Christian Complementarianism being female controlled patriarchy in a Christian context.
I am a traditionalist; I support patriarchy because patriarchy is traditional, it is how things were done in the past. My primary reference point for how gender relations should be is how gender relations operated in the past because the past worked; the past had healthy and good relations between men and women. You can see this statistically; family disorder being literally 20 fold more common today than it was in 1870 when good social statistics started to be collected. Family failure is 20 times more common under current feminism than it was under the patriarchal past; this being mighty strong evidence that patriarchy is better, that traditional gender roles and the traditional way of doing things between men and women is better.
In the past, were men actually really truthfully more powerful than women? Yes, yes they were. Male power was not just a fantasy or a delusion or a mirage, male power, men being more powerful than women, was real. Were women treated well by men in the past, were they taken care of, were women given special treatment in many ways? Yes, absolutely. These privileges that women were given in the past however in no way contradicts the fact that women were less powerful than men while receiving many special privileges from men that men chose to give to women from their position of dominance over women. Indeed, men granted privileges to women in the past precisely because of their secure position of dominance over women. Feminist men today give much less to women than the patriarchal men of the past gave to women precisely because the feminist man sees women as his equal and therefore not deserving of special or favorable treatment from him.
What would happen however to a woman who violated social rules imposed upon her by men or who violated a man’s claim of authority against her? The answer is she would be punished in one way or another through one mechanism or another. Female disobedience was not OK, male authority and male power over women was real.
Is this unfair or unjust? Is it wrong for men to have this kind of power over women? No because men have the right to set the rules for how society works and how relationships between men and women should be. This is because men have the right to protect themselves from women’s potential abusive behaviors as the man places himself in service to women. The man grants himself power over women so that the man can then give to the woman the privileges and the special treatment the woman needs from him and deserves from him.
Also let us not forget the individual man is not acting alone in all of this, the individual man is under the male community and the male community is under God. The individual man who goes against the male community will be punished by the male community and the male community that goes against God will be punished by God. The legitimate rights of women ultimately coming from God and the legitimate authority of men ultimately coming from God.
Is Christian Complementarianism traditional? Is it consistent with what Christianity taught 100 years ago? Is it consistent with how gender relations operated in society overall 100 years ago? I don’t think so. Patriarchy is traditional but so called “complementarianism” seems to be a recent invention whose purpose is not to emulate the past but is instead meant to create a new hybrid of the past and the present combined; of patriarchy and feminism combined. In particular it seems to be female controlled patriarchy; patriarchy based on women’s consent rather than women’s subordination.
So what is the idea behind female controlled patriarchy? The idea is that the man gives to the woman the benefits of patriarchy, the special treatment accorded to women under patriarchy, while at the same time the woman remains in control, the man not being allowed to do something or demand something the woman doesn’t want. This is great for women, right?
Patriarchy makes sense. The man being dominant over the woman and giving to the woman special privileges consistent with his goal and identity and purpose as a man makes sense. Feminism also makes sense. Feminism is not moral but at least it makes logical sense. The man and the woman being equal and the man therefore not giving any special benefits or privileges to the woman at least makes logical sense. Female controlled patriarchy however makes no sense, it clearly being abusive against the man.
Christian Complementarianism got started in 1987 with the Danvers Statement put together by the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). Of particular interest in the Danvers Statement, under Affirmations number 4 part 1:
“In the home, the husband’s loving, humble headship tends to be replaced by domination or passivity; the wife’s intelligent, willing submission tends to be replaced by usurpation or servility.”
Here we have the Christian Complementarian version of the three different relationship models; patriarchy, complementarianism, and feminism. In the complementarian ideal the husband practices “loving, humble headship” while the wife responds with “intelligent, willing submission.” The two kinds of error of the man then is “domination or passivity”; domination indicating patriarchy and passivity indicating feminism. The two kinds of error for the woman in response is then “usurpation or servility”; usurpation indicating feminism and servility indicating patriarchy.
Now, regarding the man practicing “loving, humble headship”; being loving is fine but who exactly or what exactly am I supposed to be “humble” towards? The man is to be humble towards God, humble before the demands God places upon him. Maybe the man should be humble in general, aware of his limitations, aware that he is not always right and not always perfect, mindful and guarding against his temptation towards sin. But not humble towards the woman, the man should not be “humble” with respect to the woman or in regards to the woman. The woman being “humble” before the man, that makes sense, that fits with the woman’s status before the man.
Regarding the woman practicing “intelligent, willing submission”; I’m not so sure about this. Is the woman “intelligently” second guessing everything I say or everything I tell her to do trying to make her own independent judgment as to whether what I am saying or asking is “correct” or not? I would rather the woman give me the benefit of the doubt and go along with what I want her to do unless what I ask is clearly wrong or clearly unreasonable; then me and the woman can fight it out if I continue to think I am right regarding something after being challenged.
The “willing submission” part I suspect is more fundamental and more problematic. What is “willing submission” supposed to mean exactly? Submission if she wants to? Submission if she agrees with me? Submission if she feels like it with no negative consequences for her for disobedience or rebellion? Submission will always be “willing” in the sense that a person has free will and an ability and capacity to chose how they respond to any demand placed on them but there will always be rewards and punishments connected to the decisions one makes in regards to the choices they have.
I am assuming that if a woman submits to me that she is submitting to me because she has a general understanding that it is good to submit to me and that she has a relationship based obligation to submit to me as part of her role and duty as a woman towards me and that she is submitting to me based on fear of punishment and conflict of how I will react to her rebellion and disobedience against me; ethical punishment being based on my withdrawal of a reward or a benefit I would ordinarily give to her in the context of my relationship with her.
As far as this constituting her “willing” submission to me? Maybe so and maybe not. She has a duty to submit to me and I will make sure that she has an incentive to submit to me as well; her sense of duty towards me combined with her rational self-interest in maintaining a good relationship with me hopefully will lead her to being submissive towards me as a general rule.
If a woman is only “submitting” to me because I am pleasing her or because she feels like it or because she agrees with me then she is not in actuality “submitting” to me at all. If the woman is not submitting to me than my relationship with her is broken and not functional as I cannot perform my function and my purpose as a man without her cooperation, without her submission. If the woman is not submitting to me that means my relationship with her is not safe and is not stable and is not secure; that I better find a way to establish my dominance over her again if I want my relationship with her to succeed and be permanent.
Additionally from the Danvers Statement, under Affirmations number 6 part 1 it says:
“In the family, husbands should forsake harsh or selfish leadership and grow in love and care for their wives; wives should forsake resistance to their husbands’ authority and grow in willing, joyful submission to their husbands’ leadership.”
In this statement I am suspicious of this idea that husbands “should forsake harsh” leadership. Sure being “harsh” sounds bad and unnecessary and not the ideal way to try to enforce obedience upon a woman but I am wondering if any effort to punish or be coercive towards a woman will automatically be condemned as being “harsh” since the woman is supposed to be “willing” in her obedience. If I as a man am not allowed to use any dominance tactics whatsoever in order to “impose” obedience upon the woman than on what basis can I claim to have “authority” over the woman at all?
The other part, that wives should “grow in willing, joyful submission to their husbands’ leadership.” That sounds good to me. However, what if my wife is not particularly willing and not particularly joyful regarding how I am trying to lead her? Does that then mean that my leadership is not valid or not legitimate anymore? Do I only have “legitimate” authority as a man on the condition that my wife is willing and joyful about it?
I do think Christian Complementarianism is a good thing in that it is a reaction against feminism and that it is part way on the road to patriarchy and that truthfully Christians in modern day feminist culture are not psychologically prepared to actually stomach the idea that wives should indeed be obedient to their husbands in a real sense. At the same time, the foundational premise of Christian Complementarianism being female controlled patriarchy is not sustainable or intellectually coherent. This being a set up for Christian Complementarianism eventually morphing into traditional Christian Patriarchy over time.
Related Article: A Husband’s Right to Punish his Wife