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Debatable: Is Complementarianism Another Word for Patriarchy?

September 5, 2012

By Joe Carter

[Note: “Debatable” is a new feature on the Gospel Coalition’s website in which the GC seeks to briefly summarize debates within the evangelical community. This post originally ran on the GC website.]

The Issue: Is complementarianism another word for patriarchy? Egalitarians and many complementarians agree: It is indeed. But a recent debate attempts to determine whether this should be acknowledged as a timeless biblical norm or rejected as an outdated cultural standard.

Position #1: Russell Moore, dean of the School of Theology and senior vice president for academic administration at Southern Baptist Seminary, recently said at the Together for the Gospel conference that complementarians should practice what they preach:

What I fear is that we have many people in evangelicalism who can check off “complementarian” on a box but who really aren’t living out complementarian lives. Sometimes I fear we have marriages that are functionally egalitarian, because they are within the structure of the larger society. If all we are doing is saying “male headship” and “wives submit to your husbands,” but we’re not really defining what that looks like . . . in this kind of culture, when those things are being challenged, then it’s simply going to go away.

Position #2: Rachel Held Evans, an author and blogger, agrees but says complementarianism is losing because it is “nothing more, nothing less” than patriarchy:

1. They are losing ground because more and more evangelical theologians, scholars, professors, and pastors are thoughtfully debunking a complementarian interpretation of Scripture and doing it at the popular level through books like The Blue Parakeet (by Scot McKnight), Discovering Biblical Equality (by Ronald Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, Gordon Fee), How I Changed My Mind About Women in Church Leadership (by a who’s who of evangelical leaders), through evangelical colleges and seminaries that celebrate women’s giftedness to lead and are producing record numbers of female graduates, and through organizations like Christians for Biblical Equality.

2. They are losing ground because their rhetoric consistently reflects a commitment to an idealized glorification of the pre-feminist nuclear family of 1950s America rather than a commitment to “biblical manhood” and “biblical womanhood”—terms that many of us recognize as highly selective, reductive, and problematic. This reactionary approach often comes at the expense of sound biblical interpretation. . . .

3. And they are losing ground because, at the practical level, evangelicals are realizing that complementarianism doesn’t actually promote complementary relationships, but rather hierarchal ones.

Preemptive Response to #1: As Denny Burk, associate professor of biblical studies at Boyce College, notes on his blog, Moore addressed the issue of patriarchy in a 2006 article, “After Patriarchy, What? Why Egalitarians Are Winning the Gender Debate“:

If complementarians are to reclaim the debate, we must not fear making a claim that is disturbingly counter-cultural and yet strikingly biblical, a claim that the less-than-evangelical feminists understand increasingly: Christianity is undergirded by a vision of patriarchy. This claim is rendered all the more controversial because it threatens complementarianism as a “movement.” Not all complementarians can agree about the larger themes of Scripture—only broadly on some principles and negatively on what Scripture definitely does not allow (i.e. women as pastors). Even to use the word “patriarchy” in an evangelical context is uncomfortable since the word is deemed “negative” even by most complementarians. But evangelicals should ask why patriarchy seems negative to those of us who serve the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God and Father of Jesus Christ. As liberationist scholar R. W. Connell explains, “The term ‘patriarchy’ came into widespread use around 1970 to describe this system of gender domination.” But it came into widespread use then only as a negative term. We must remember that “evangelical” is also a negative term in many contexts. We must allow the patriarchs and apostles themselves, not the editors of Playboy or Ms. Magazine, to define the grammar of our faith.

Scoring the Debate: Evans wins the debate—but only with the strawman version of complementarianism she created. For example, she asserts that complementarianism is like the “relationship between a boss and a subordinate”—an analogy that would strike most complementarians as offensive and absurd.

Evans also offers several non sequiters—such as that she and her husband share chores together and that she enjoys football more than he does—as evidence that her marriage is “functionally egalitarian.” Many chore-sharing husbands and football-loving wives will be shocked to discover they’ve been engaging in egalitarian activities.

Evans’s understanding of egalitarianism seems to be as confused as her view of complementarianism. In truth, “functionally egalitarian” marriages should more aptly be described as “dysfunctionally complementarian.” A husband who refuses his male headship role is not creating equality in the marriage but transferring the headship role to the wife. Hierarchy is not removed, only replaced by an unbiblical reversal of the creational norm.

Evans claims that complementarianism is patriarchy, and here she stumbles upon the truth. She doesn’t appear to recognize, however, that the patriarchy of marriage models the patriarchy of the Godhead. In contrast, the “functional egalitarianism” that Evans prefers models our culture’s obsession with autonomy and disdain for authority. It is an ideology particularly suited to fulfill the masculine desire—first exhibited by Adam—to shirk our responsibility as servant-leaders and transfer our God-mandated role to our wives.

Of course, this debate is neither new nor likely to end anytime soon. Evangelicals can always find an authority who will provide them with an authoritative justification for shirking authority. Such poor exegesis, however, can become habit-forming—and therein lies the true danger. As John Piper has said, you don’t have to be a complementarian to be saved. But, he adds, when you start resorting to “the kind of gymnastics” needed to find egalitarianism in Scripture then “sooner or later you are going to get the gospel wrong.”

Defining the Terms in the Debate: Complementarian — An example of the complementarian view of marriage can be found in the Southern Baptist Convention’s Baptist Faith and Message (2000):

The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God’s image. The marriage relationship models the way God relates to his people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation.

The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood notes that “Christ is the supreme authority and guide for men and women, so that no earthly submission—domestic, religious, or civil—ever implies a mandate to follow a human authority into sin.”

Egalitarianism — According to Christians for Biblical Equality, egalitarianism holds that “all believers—without regard to gender, ethnicity, or class—must exercise their God-given gifts with equal authority and equal responsibility in church, home and world.”

Rachel Held Evans defines the term as: “Christians who identify as egalitarian usually believe that Christian women enjoy equal status and responsibility with men in the home, church, and society, and that teaching and leading God’s people should be based on giftedness rather than gender.”

(Image Credit: The Rooted Church)

Joe Carter is an editor for The Gospel Coalition and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History’s Greatest Communicator.

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