Being uncomplimentary about complementarians

Readers: in a recent thread on robhu‘s journal, Rob said I had misrepresented complementarians (of which he is one). I’m not sure how many of you click the links in my postings and have noticed that I occasionally have a joke with them, but to be clear, on the occasions where I have linked the word complementarian to Houseplants of Gor, I did not mean to imply that complementarians are the same as Goreans. Unlike Goreans, complementarians do not believe that women are intrinsically inferior to men and should naturally be their slaves. They believe that men and women are equal in status and dignity, but should occupy different roles in relationships like marriage, with women submitting to men’s loving, self-sacrificial leadership. You can find a summary of complementarian beliefs in the Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

Despite the complementarian assertion that men and women are of equal status, I find complementarianism problematic because it seeks to perpetuate a hierarchy with men in a position of power over women, and claims that this sort of hierarchy is normative. While I should probably be cautious about comparing historically oppressed classes for fear of being called problematic myself (this being one of the worst things that can happen to you on LJ, as some of you will know, second only to being accused of “fail”), I’d note that replacing “men” with “white people” and “women” with “black people” in complementarian statements would not result in something many of us were happy to sign up to (with the possible exception of Rudyard Kipling, who was big on loving, self-sacrificial leadership). To be clear, I am not saying the complementarianism is racist (I’m saying it’s sexist), but I believe the analogy is appropriate as members of both classes were and are oppressed as a result of being born into a particular group.

While there are important differences between them, complementarians and Goreans are similar in that both advocate a male-led hierarchy and claim it is the correct and fulfilling state of all male/female relationships. As such, the two philosophies are, shall we say, equal in status and dignity, with complementarianism certainly not deserving more respect merely because it originates in a religion.

Hope that’s cleared things up. Must go, scribb1e‘s just finished cooking my dinner.

Update: Expelled!

Edited to add: So, Rob didn’t like my analogy and banned me from commenting on his blog.

Of course, I didn’t chose the analogy at random. The question at hand was whether complementarianism should be considered sexist. I think it should. If similar statements to those complementarians make about women were made about another historically disadvantaged group, like black people, we would rightly consider them discriminatory against that group. Likewise, there have been times when sentiments we’d now consider discriminatory have been couched in terms of self-sacrifice and serving the disadvantaged group, as Kipling’s poem illustrates.

Is complementarianism as bad as racism or sexism at its most horrible? No. It is patronising rather than hateful, and I’m not sure how much harm it does. There are much worse examples discrimination around today. I suppose what irks me about complementarianism is that it pretends to righteousness (that, and the fact that I was once taken in by it). Were the early Christians ahead of their time in their attitude to women? Quite possibly, but complementarians are behind theirs.

If anyone feels the analogy was taking things too far, I’d be interested to discuss it.

Update again: Censored!

And now the post has gone. I never appreciate people playing the “unpublishing” game: here’s my copy so you can see what I actually said.

10 Comments on "Being uncomplimentary about complementarians"

  1. They believe that men and women are equal in status and dignity, but should occupy different roles in relationships like marriage, with women submitting to men’s loving, self-sacrificial leadership.

    I’ve bottomed to a couple of men, but mostly I find the idea … well, a bit comical, especially when the scene is chock full of single malesubs…

    I’ll get my coat.


    1. I was going to put “(STOP SNIGGERING AT THE BACK, YOU BASTARDS)” in after the word “submitting”, but then I thought I’d try not to be sarcastic, for once 🙂

      I think there is some knowledge among Christians that the whole thing does sound a bit kinky to modern ears (is it only kinkily interesting because it’s something forbidden in egalitarian society, I wonder? There’s a bit in The Cassini Division where one member of a socialist society accuses another of enjoying “employer/employee sex games”). I was at a wedding where the (evangelical Christian) bride promised to love, honour and submit (as a modernisation of the old love, honour, obey, I suppose) and got a lot of ribbing about handcuffs etc. afterwards.

      Of course, some people take it even further…


  2. Subject: Being actually serious
    I read the linked comments and post. This is the first I’ve heard of complementarianism, because I don’t really pay attention to religion (I mostly regard it as, well, a bit silly really), but ISTM that there’s some sort of desire amongst (some of?) its adherents to try and address some of the concerns of feminism, and somehow make feminism and evangelical Christianity “compatible”. If this is the case, then I think they’re on a hiding to nothing, as anything that starts out with prescribed gender roles (even in a somewhat woolly way, as seems to be the case here), is the very antithesis of feminist thought, at least as most feminists are likely to see it.


    1. Subject: Re: Being actually serious
      I think there has been some reaction from evangelicals to the surrounding culture. One of the tedious things about some evangelicals is that they’ll deny this and say they’re believing What The Bible Says and has always said, which is true if you mean that the verses in question have been around a while, but it’s all about interpretation and emphasis.

      I remember a preacher at my old church railing against androgyny, which struck me as a bit odd because there didn’t really seem to be a lot of that about even among the terribly decadent non-Christian people I knew. But I guess that was part of a wider concern that men and women should be differentiable, although I think they were OK with the precise differences between men and women varying between cultures.


  3. Despite the complementarian assertion that men and women are of equal status, I find complementarianism problematic because it seeks to perpetuate a hierarchy with men in a position of power over women

    My own essential discomfort with this position (which may or may not turn out to be the same as yours) is that its talk of “equal status” only works (assuming for the sake of argument that it works at all) in the intended best case, i.e. in the assumption that neither the man nor the woman abuses their role. An important aspect of designing for equality when the system you set up will be implemented by fallible humans is to arrange equality in the failure modes as well, and a look through the Danvers statement does nothing to dispel my sense that this is where complementarianism must surely fall down: if the man abuses his role of leadership-but-doing-it-nicely by not doing it nicely he can cause a lot more general damage and doom than if the woman abuses her role of submission. Moreover, this fact gives the man a greater incentive to abuse his role in the first place, which doesn’t seem like an incentive you want in a system that purports to strive for at least some sort of “equality”.


    1. I agree. I was trying to think how to phrase an argument like that without making it into a slippery slope argument, but I think you’ve put it well.

      I’m not sure it’s exactly the same as what I was arguing, since I see complementarianism as an attenuated form of the sexism you get when men from a long time ago wrote your holy book. Evangelicals have done the best they can to make it palatable, but they’re stuck with the way that the Bible links the hierarchy to the order established in creation or to the nature of God. Because of their view on the inspiration of the Bible, they feel they cannot in good conscience interpret the entire teaching as a cultural artefact of the authors’ time. I think I was present when this sermon (MP3 link) on 1 Corinthians 11 was preached, and the preacher clearly wasn’t comfortable with it, but obviously felt morally obliged to try to take something from it which applied today, rather than writing it all off as part of culture of the time.

      To me, this is an example of religion holding back morality, though I don’t regard it as serious compared to the outright misogyny you get in some parts of popular culture, something which the evangelicals would rightly condemn. The evangelical view is patronising rather than hateful. It is better than misogyny, but the egalitarian view is better still.


      1. It occurs to me to wonder whether there’s a statistically significant difference between the proportion of men and women who believe in complementarianism, although I can’t quite decide what wider population one should best be examining the proportion of. (In particular, whether it should be limited to people who already believe all the surrounding religious premises from which complementarianism naturally arises, or whether you get a more meaningful answer by looking at the number of men and women who were put off even those premises by the thought that they might lead to complementarianism.)


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