Complementarianism as a Confusion

A Recap
Yesterday I began writing about the Kellers’ book, The Meaning of Marriage and some of the aspects of the book that I really appreciate. But my problem upon finishing the book was that the argument veers off in a very strange way towards the end, turning into a narrow discussion of a peculiar trend in American evangelical Christianity that has become prominent in the last generation. Today I try to unpack what that “complementarian” argument entails.

The Complementarian Chapter
Chapter Six is the offending chapter and it is entitled “Embracing the Other”. It advocates for an understanding of gender roles in marriage that is called “complementarian”. American Christians created this term and it has spread. It indicates the belief that men and women complement each other in their roles. They are equal but different. I have a friend in Aberdeen who studies the theology of race and whenever he hears talk like this he quips that it sounds a lot like the talk in the southern states of the US in the middle 20th Century.


Complementarianism revealed

In the Kellers’ instance, such jabs are undeserved, since it is very clear that they are among the best proponents of this position. For example, Kathy writes this chapter alone. But as Wife-unit points out, under the terms of complementarian theology, she can write the chapter in the bestselling book but she can’t preach the same message from a pulpit. That might seem like another jibe, but it actually cracks open the submerged story that evangelicals tell about the sacramental position of preaching in their functional theology. It is somehow special, in ways that probably are never explicated by those who hold this point of view.

I say they are among the best proponents of this position and I mean it. Unlike certain crass preachers [beware, that link is dark and horrible], the Kellers are careful to distinguish their views of gender from the “dominant, swaggering (and sinful) male behaviour” of machismo or the “one of the boys” mentality that women have to often adopt to gain the equality that their society tells them is unproblematically awaiting them now that feminism is finished its work (ahem). I suppose the good in the Kellers’ argument is that they clearly respect feminism and see it as a much needed movement.

How sad is it that simply acknowledging the societal misogyny rampant in our cultures is enough to justify praising prominent Christian teachers?

The Nuance In The Complement
But this positive aspect of their teaching, in contrast to the majority of people who propose complementarianism, also reveals a big hole in the middle of the teaching. I imagine that John Piper and Wayne Grudem and Mark Driscoll and the rest of the angry men in this crowd would be left very unsatisfied by the Kellers in this book because they give the game away. Having advocated for this complementarian position, they then evacuate it of the specifics that allow it to gain such traction in megachurches.

Think about it this way: if a movement springs up in the late 1970s and suddenly gains dominance across the churches of a particular culture while struggling to get a hold in the same sorts of churches in other (similar) cultures (this complementarian stuff is much less prominent in the UK or Ireland, in Sweden or Germany), what would we conclude? Perhaps we would need to investigate whether there is some cultural need in that particular society that requires this response? The late 1970s saw a cultural-political (counter-)revolution in the US with the rise of a peculiar kind of right-wing politics that was very distinct from what had come before. Moralist social positions were bolted on top of a reckless embrace of free market capitalism and the rest is (sad, blood-soaked) history.

Using the methods of reflection that I learned from Tim Keller himself, I would conclude that strong gender roles resonated with the default stories being told by Americans over the last 35 years. The whole point of complementarianism (when looked at from this non-theological genealogy of society lens) is to give religious support to a cultural and political revolution. This is why the Driscolls feel the need to warp the teaching of Paul to teach that women should stay at home and men should be out working or else they are worse than unbelievers! And yet the Kellers admit that their complementarian position simply “means that rigid cultural gender roles have no Biblical warrant. Christians cannot make a scriptural case for masculine and feminine stereotypes.”

All they are left with is a spiritualised account of the different sensibilities man and woman brings to marriage. To their credit, this really is the most defensible form of the position they are advocating. It locates the husband and the wife firmly in relation to Jesus and the end result would probably neither limit the woman, licence the man, or otherwise cause damage. (It damages the church in extensive and unknowable ways of course, by keeping women that the Holy Spirit has gifted to teach and lead out of the pulpit and away from decision-making, but that’s a fight I’ll take up on Friday.) They say “the Bible deliberately does not give answers to you” about what a wife should do and what a husband should do. As far as destructive ideas go, this one seems extensively disarmed.

Conclusion: Why bother?
That’s great. But why keep going with the complementarianism at all? It seems as if the Kellers have been critical and careful enough to tear off all the parts of the structure that are outright destructive or disguised prejudice. What they have left us is a bare skeleton of complentarian argument that is justifiable on its own terms but one is left wondering what it’s purpose is? It cashes out as egalitarian in practice. Why not just call itself what it is?

Tomorrow I will start to examine the risky theological moves in the background that mean even this form of the argument still needs to be resisted.

Your Correspondent, Believes that men are from Earth and also that women are from Earth.

5 Replies to “Complementarianism as a Confusion”

  1. I’m not sure which of the Driscolls terrifies me more.

    Perhaps you will address this in the coming posts, but I was wondering how implicated the Bible is in all of this? Is it all down to erroneous interpretation, or are there some “texts of terror” that need to be read critically, but which CANNOT be read critically given the dominant doctrine of Scripture within (American) evangelicalism?

  2. I will cover that tomorrow and Thursday. It’s an apparently natural theological argument resting on top of a subordinationist account of Trinity. It assumes the contentious Pauline texts are to be understood in a “plain” fashion.

  3. Ugh, this is good. I look forward to the rest of it.

    It’s honestly so helpful to me that you’re translating what you see from the outside (of the American church). It’s embarrassingly difficult to imagine a whole country where the default setting for Christian culture is something other than “men rule, women submit”. Decades of conditioning. Like foot-binding, if I may use such a melodramatic metaphor. My own newly divergent opinions are still wobbly, tripping between reactionary indignation & reflexive caution. I think I tweeted a little while ago about the first & only sermon on 1 Peter 3:1-7 (or any similar passage) I’ve ever heard from a Sunday morning pulpit that wasn’t about putting me (us) in my (our) place. It made my eyes sting.

    Anyway, thank you.

  4. I am really glad you enjoyed this post Laura.

    I should say of course that there are plenty of places in Ireland (and the UK and Germany and Sweden) where “men rule, women submit” is the order of the day. But the denominations have overwhelmingly embraced women in leadership. Only in recent years has there been a pushback, which I attribute to the influence of the American complementarian argument and the fear of a “slippery slope” around, weirdly enough, gay issues.

    Even with my thousands of words expended on this, I am not going to get around to that particular mis-step. But I severely doubt the Kellers would be anywhere near that sort of argument anyway.

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