Why I Can’t Be Complementarian

A couple of years ago, I abandoned complementarian theology. At the time, I abandoned it because it wasn’t working for me. But now that I’ve had a couple of years on the outside, I know I will never return to it. Here’s why:

  1. No one agrees on how to be complementarian.

Granted, there are variances in every theological camp. But for people who claim that complementarianism is God’s plan for humanity and best reflects the gospel, no one can seem to agree on how it should play out.

The premise generally remains the same: God designed men to be leaders and women to submit to their authority. This means that a woman cannot exercise spiritual authority over a man, and the man has the final say in all decisions. Sounds easy, right? Except that it’s not. It raises tons of questions, such as:

  • Can a woman teach an adult coed Sunday School?
  • Can women be deacons?
  • Can men be stay-at-home fathers?
  • When is a person exercising spiritual authority?
  • If a man decides to spend his family into poverty, at what point can his wife rebuke him (if at all), and how?

Many of the big complementarian advocates–such as John Piper, Wayne Grudem and Russell Moore–have attempted to answer these questions, and all of them have come up with different answers. Some say women can be deacons and teach, others forbid it. Some say a woman can confront her husband about sinful behavior, others say she must go through her pastor. Grudem, in fact, once published a list of 83 church ministries, discussing which he thought should be opened or closed to women. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue, except…

2. The goalposts are always moving.

Don’t believe me? Try being a female domestic violence victim looking for help. If the pastor you approach doesn’t chew you out for daring to bring an accusation against your “federal head,” he will first ask if you have submitted enough. Well, of course you haven’t, because if you had, there wouldn’t be a problem. Complementarianism is the magical Jesus plan that makes everything beautiful. Oh, you submitted some more and your husband is still an abusive jerk? He’s not a real complementarian, then. Submit until he becomes one.

Or try being a man who decides for himself how he should best manage his household. Comp leaders say they grant leeway for people to decide how complementarianism will play out in their marriages…until they see a man opting to do something that’s not very manly…like driving a minivan, caring for kids, doing domestic chores or letting his wife make certain decisions. Then all of a sudden, he’s a “man fail.”

Speaking of which…

3. Complementarianism contradicts itself.

It tells men that they are spiritually obligated to lead and exercise authority over their wives. Their wives exist to serve them and tend to whatever needs they have. If the woman disobeys or refuses to submit, the husband has the right to discipline her–by rebuke, withholding affection, spanking, cutting off her credit cards, etc. But…the man must not ever be selfish, controlling or domineering.

What??

You can’t preach that men should always be in control and then chide them for being controlling. The very definition of controlling is putting yourself in control of everything.

Now some would argue here that there’s a distinction between leading and domineering, and that there is a line at which the husband’s leadership would become abusive. Ok, so where’s the line? How does a complementarian pastor determine which request has been made out of selfish intent, and which is reasonable? After all, the woman exists to serve her husband’s needs. If the husband says he needs three pickup trucks, a 5-course dinner and sex twice a day every day, who dares to say that is unreasonable?

Which leads me to…

4. Complementarianism is confusing. 

Comp theology is based on only a handful of scriptures, yet comp advocates say that being complementarian is a “gospel issue.” So as a complementarian, man or woman, you’re always having to check yourself:

  • Is it ok that I made this tiny decision without checking in with my husband first?
  • Should I support my wife leading our home Bible study group?
  • Am I being a real man and a leader if I _____?
  • Can I rebuke my husband if he is _____?

At any time, a pastor or church leader might accuse you of not being comp enough, which means that you’re in danger of falling out of God’s favor, misreading scripture, misrepresenting Christ’s relationship to the Church, and ending up in an unholy marriage. So you’re always having to question if what you are doing is good enough. But you don’t ever know if it is good enough, because the advocates themselves can’t agree on where the lines are. But they know it is the clear teaching of scripture! So just do it!

Meanwhile…

5. Much of comp theology isn’t actually biblical…and leads to idolatry.

See, many complementarians teach that men aren’t just decision makers; they are also spiritual leaders in all spheres. They provide a spiritual covering for their wives and families that keep them in God’s favor. I have searched and searched, and I cannot find a single scripture to support this assertion.

But here’s how it plays out…

A woman is told that she needs this spiritual covering in order to operate within her spiritual gifts. If she wants to do ministry (one that is open to her, anyway), she must have the blessing and spiritual oversight of a man. Another godly woman cannot provide this, nor can a board of people. It must be someone with a penis who says, “I extend my spiritual covering to this woman and take personal responsibility to ensure her ministry remains biblical.” So while a woman may be saved, baptized, filled with the Spirit, gifted, trained and clearly called by God to minister, comp theology says she cannot biblically go forth without a man to speak for her and legitimize her activities. And in nearly all cases, they expect this man to be the woman’s husband. Woman doesn’t have a godly husband? Too bad!

This is idolatry. This is usurping God’s role.

Here are men claiming that the most important thing a woman needs for ministry is their approval. Calling is not enough. The Spirit is not enough. Accountability from other sources is not enough.

This is not biblical. This is an affront to God’s sovereignty.

These leaders also say that if a man fails to lead spiritually or has a less-than-ideal relationship (or no relationship) with God, then his wife won’t be blessed and will struggle in her own relationship with God. What about 1 Corinthians 7:14? What about 1 Timothy 2:5?

What about single women? What about divorced women? What about orphaned women? What about women with bad fathers and/or husbands?

And many of these leaders claim to believe in the “ontological equality” of women to men–meaning that men and women are equally made in the image of God; they simply have different roles. But they clearly do not believe this. When the Holy Spirit isn’t even enough to grant a woman a spiritual covering capable of blessing, empowering and legitimizing her life without the authoritative headship of a man, then the woman is clearly inferior by design. There is no other way to slice it.

* * * * *

I know and love many people who consider themselves to be complementarians. They are good people who will always be welcome at my table. But after experiencing and examining this doctrine, I’ve decided I can’t go back to it. Comp theology has some serious biblical and practical issues that need to be addressed.

 

 

 

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25 responses to “Why I Can’t Be Complementarian

  1. I have a simple, succinct reason for why I am not, nor will ever be a complementarian.

    It’s nonsense.

    How’s that? Besides, it flies in the very nature of the Gospel which is the whole neither slave nor free thing. I think I read that somewhere.

  2. Galatians 3:28, “There is height Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

    This scripture is great scriptural support for egalitarianism.

    With you, brother!

    • This verse was in my head the whole time I read this blog. I like to think Paul wrote Galatians to make up for what he said in the book of Ephesians which has plagued women since the dawn of time.

    • I will second that but give a couple of reasons for it in my role as professional anthropologist:

      1) If comp per se exists in the Bible, I think we have to understands that it is a description of the way things were culturally at that time in the Middle East rather than how things should always be forever in human time. Anthropologist Marvin Harris, who is dead now, postulated that the really important things in all human cultures are adaptation mechanisms to address an actual or perceived perceived problem in that culture in its own time and in its own place. It worked in the ancient Middle East to solve some problem, and it persisted because it was an adequate adaptation. It worked. Where we make a grave spiritual and anthropological error is to lift that adaptation as whole cloth out of that human ancient culture and try to apply it as whole cloth 2,000+ years later in another very different culture on the other side of the planet in a totally different sociocultural/environmental regime. When you do that, you are asking for really big trouble—like choosing a hollowed out carrot to be your permanent kitchen sink faucet. I think both Marvin Harris and I would say that “complementarianism,”as laid out by April above, is maladaptive to the unique problems of our 21st century American culture—and anyone who practices it is just begging for trouble and is probably going to get it.

      2) Also, as a Christian and as an anthropologist, I have a real problem with the notion of “natural law,” that being that everything we see in nature today is exactly the way God designed everything to be. For example, the female gorilla is smaller and weaker than her huge, strong, silver-backed mate. Therefore, God intended for the male gorilla to dominate the female gorilla just as the male human should dominate the human female. The people who make such assumptions forget that we live in what the Bible more or less calls a “fallen world.” As the Biblical writers indicate in various places, something went wrong with the world at some point (only God knows when), and it ceased to be what it was originally supposed to be—and that even includes all of so-called “nature.” Even the human ability to sin appears to be in some measure imprinted in our genes in such a way that we cannot help doing it. So, I do not think anyone can just assume that God created male humans to dominate and push around human females just because their primate evolutionary ancestors were doing it—and that is really where this whole male dominate the female bullshit got started—raw animal behaviors and passions on the plains of East Africa 5 millions years ago in an eat or be eaten regime. In a supposedly fallen world (theologically speaking) where the lion eats the lamb rather than laying down with it to take a friendly cuddle nap (the spiritual Ideal). I would never make the mistake of assuming that nature should point the way to how males and females should relate to each other.

      • Agree with you 100%. My statement that comp is BS is re the modern teaching of it. It does in fact, seem to make for a “might makes right” theology–despite any disclaimer on their part.

      • It’s been a few years since I looked into it but I find anthropology a fascinating field(in fact, I find what Harris says to be intriguing). Anyway, in some of the links there is mention of men being out earned by their wives(something CBMW doesn’t like); and, based on his infrastructure-structure-superstructure theory, I wonder if that trend means the days of comp are numbered.

        • I think the days of comp are numbered because our American culture is changing so rapidly, largely in response to new technology that is not just affecting the technology sector of our lives. It is also profoundly affecting the social sector, and it is invading into the ideological sector. With a few inevitable hermit holdouts, I think the whole Christian fundamentalist and conservative evangelical enterprise has its days numbered like the hairs on the heads of its adherents. En fete, I think the principles that Jesus sets forth in the New Testament (as opposed to the laws and regulations of the Old Testament) were put there because Jesus understood that human culture was evolving inexorably toward a point in time where an Old Testament perspective and outlook (worldview) would be dysfunctional and destructive. God knows human beings are “dense” from dealing with the Hebrews for so many years, so He knew that He needed to begin his revolution early (about 2,000 years early) so people would be ready for the big changes that were coming.

  3. Yes! Complementarianism is a practical and theological mess! The practical side was what first drew my attention, especially your point #1. I’d read one book on how things were supposed to work in the man-woman hierarchy, and then I’d read another one that said something totally different. I realized the practical applications were all over the map because specifics just aren’t in scripture! They were making junk up.
    Great job exposing the mess!

  4. As you point out, comp. ideas are self-repudiating once one thinks about them long enough.

    Here is another, the very name they choose to use is not plain speaking, it is a deliberate obfuscation of the main aspect of their teaching that differs from the alternative, that it, it is gender hierarchy contrasted with gender equality or mutuality. But who could even figure this out from the comp. name without being told what it means?

    Complementarian ideas are a con job. They are a disgrace to the body of Christ.

    Jesus said the workers are few, some men said to divide that by two.

  5. Comp proponents not only want to control women, they want to control the men they use to control women. If a relationship isn’t cop enough for them it’s because the woman isn’t submissive enough and the man isn’t strong enough.

    What a heavy yoke to place on fellow believers.

    • So true. The husbands are the head, but they have to drink the Kool-Aid and part of their job is to make sure their wives also drink the Kool-Aid!

  6. Yes there may be some people who are this extreme who call themselves complementarian but I think I would call them abusive and cruel. I don’t know any complementarians who believe the way you have described it and I am one and know a lot of them. I also noticed that you did not quote a single Bible verse in this article, that seems to be a strange way to argue a “theological” position.

    • I have a few other blog posts on this subject in which I argue from scripture. See “God is not mocked: Exposing the authority heresy,” “Where Complementarians Go Wrong on Headship”, and “Why I’m (Functionally) Egalitarian”. Clicking on the complementarianism tag should take you to them.

      You say you don’t know anyone who believes complementarianism the way I have described it. So I’m guessing you’ve never read anything by Russell Moore, Wayne Grudem, Doug Wilson, Mark Driscoll, Gavin Peacock, or Bill Gothard…or any of the material put out by Desiring God or the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Because that’s where this theology is coming from.

    • However, CBMW is working on Spanish translations to export comp theology.
      Yes, the gender roles they promote are heavily influenced by American culture(particularly from the 1950’s)

  7. Excellent points here! I have a few thoughts to add.

    “Holy Spirit, reveal to us Your will in all matters and forgive me if I am in error. My desire is to serve and seek Your Kingdom, Lord. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

    If the Bible is meant to be taken CULTURALLY literal and immediately applicable concerning women’s roles in the home, church, and society, then BRING BACK THE SLAVES because those same scriptures in Ephesians that discuss the offending submission issue describe how the slaves are to behave (tongue in cheek, people!). Slaves?!

    There may be many women who don’t like being in charge, don’t enjoy public speaking, have no desire to be elders, deacons, or lead in any way. That is fine! And there are many churches where people would be offended in the consciences and it would be a sinful stumbling block for such practices to take place. Paul said he would eat no meat if it offended, and we are wise to do likewise, at least to a point (I am fairly sure Paul ate meat, just not in the presence of those weak brothers and sisters). But there are many women who DO enjoy those things and abusing the scripture to prove otherwise will fail us all. Do you know why the men were the only ones mentioned in the deacon and elder scriptures? Because back then women were PROPERTY. It wasn’t even considered! Let’s be honest, it’s not even been a full 100 years since American women were allowed to vote and own property. In the 1970s a single woman could not rent an apartment without a male co-signor. In other words, we’ve been property–not owned it–MOST of human civilization. But does that mean we are to continue down that path of oppression? Of course not. Read Galatians 3 if you don’t believe me. In God’s eyes we are all free. FREE. Let us not rob one another of the gifts that God Himself has given us. We are not all gifted the same. Do not quench the Spirit!

    • I don’t know if I am right, but I don’t see that the elders and deacons were all men in the scriptures. When I read Timothy I don’t see any line that changes from Paul’s instructions for picking leaders when it starts talking about the women. We are just supposed to believe that when he talked about women, he suddenly just talked about regular pew sitters and not leaders anymore? Paul also said that if any one wants to be an overseer that person picks something worthy. It does not say a male person.

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  10. Maybe a little late in the day, but the passage that I used to use when somebody said that women shouldn’t be leaders was Deborah from Judges. She was shown as a Spiritual authority over all Israel (you can argue about whether she was also under her husband secularly). For an example of a woman taking authority over her idiot husband, you need look no further than Abigail. We also have plenty of examples in the Gospels of the one who wants to be the highest in the Kingdom of God should SERVE the most and not want to lord it over (i.e. be in control) of others.

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