The Insidiousness of Complementarianism

It’s been a long time since I’ve been part of a church culture that does not affirm the equality of Women and Men at every level of church leadership. Granted, there are some subtle and sometimes not so subtle biases and comments about the “lady preacher” – but in the communities that I have served, the comments have always been a reflection of upbringing and discomfort rather than a systematic and intentional way to discourage Women from preaching and/or leading. I’m not suggesting that makes such comments acceptable, but I see an entirely different set of issues at play in careless speech as opposed to systematic devaluing.

I happened upon a tweet conversation recently in which I was once again forced to see the reality of both the kind of simplistic arguments that are made and also the kind of hateful and demeaning rhetoric that bleeds through even when people are trying to calmly argue for a “traditional” view of equal but different gender roles. Ultimately, I followed the rabbit trails until I found this transcript from John Piper that concisely makes one such argument.

I realized two things while meandering through the arguments.

First, As I’ve said before, “separate but equal” doesn’t work any better in the complementarian context than it has elsewhere. The implication nor the truth of that statement didn’t really settle in until now. How do you expect it to sound to say women get to lead the kids, but men have all top level authority? Or women can quote scripture, but only men can preach and interpret?  Or wives have to follow the spiritual direction of their spouses? No matter the intention, it is demeaning and belittling to the roles of women. And that mentality actually puts women in abusive situations in which it seems reasonable to think the man is still right. If you cannot teach complementarianism in such a way that no woman ever wonders if it is OK for her husband to abuse her* AND no church member or leader ever requires a woman in an abusive relationship to be silent or stay put, then something inherently problematic exists within the doctrine.

One further point: perhaps one of the more nebulous, but problematic undercurrents of how the gender role distinction plays out is that no one seems to question that the ‘traditionally’ male is somehow superior or more important or valuable than the ‘traditionally’ female role. There are fewer men clamoring to be a stay at home dad than there are women desiring to be CEOs or full time workers. A value differential may not be written down anywhere, but the statistics about what people actually try to do with their lives makes a clear statement about which roles are seen as more desirable or important in our current context. It is just as misogynistic to devalue the roles women often play as it is to keep them out of roles claimed for men. I can’t help but think the complementarian mentality that bifurcates the world along gender lines is a significant part of the culture that enshrined the respective values of each kind of role, even outside the church walls.

Second, arguing against complementarianism is like arguing against fake news. There is just enough information in the Bible that you can shut off your mind, ignore culture and context, and think only about the static and precise wording of a couple of stories or letters and come up with a bullet point list of complementarian roles for men and women. Once you’ve made the commitment to reading that way and using those filters, there is nothing that could persuade you away from the position; in just the same way that once your favorite deeply slanted fake news site shares just a little nugget of truth or conspiracy theory, there is no persuasion.

How can you prove, for a clear example, that there is no child sex ring in a pizza parlor when the only “evidence” that there is one in the first place is the super narrow fact that it has weird symbols and some powerful people mentioned it in an email? If you’re unwilling to consider the lens through which you evaluate information, nothing could ever persuade you of change. You can’t produce documents that prove the evidence of a story is false when there is nothing to disprove.

What is perhaps most difficult about arguing for a different lens when others have a myopic and literalist view of scripture is that it isn’t the text that we’re arguing about. The Bible says tons of things that are not taken literally – “sell all you have and give it to the poor;” “the meek shall inherit the earth;” “even in laughter the heart is sad, and the end of joy is grief.” – but without an acknowledgment of the tradition of thought and values and choices that lead you to take one thing literally and another not, there is no ground upon which to change viewpoints.

The Christian faith is ALWAYS a dynamic tradition in which the very values and shapes of discipleship and faith are constantly called into question and given new life for the present day. Peter and Cornelius is one of the most fascinating examples of a moment in which, even inside of scripture, we see a very deeply held, key marker of faithful life challenged and changed because of a new direction the Spirit of God is showing. When your assumption about what the bible is and how to read it do 95% of the work toward an interpretation, there is little chance you’ll be convinced of anything significant by reading another verse.


*It happens enough that a Psychology today article actually mentions ‘based on the bible’ as a reason men sexually abuse women.

8 thoughts on “The Insidiousness of Complementarianism

  1. Jeremy, I really appreciate your thoughts in this post. I particularly agree with your thoughts on devaluing work traditionally labelled as feminine, and on your assertion that complementarianism is often used as an excuse for abuse. I would disagree, though, with your statement at the beginning of the first paragraph. Reinforcement of a harmful stereotype or belief is a reinforcement of systemic oppression, intentional or not. Of course, you did state that intention does not excuse the behavior, so it’s really more of a disagreement on semantics. I appreciate your thoughts and for speaking out on this important issue 🙂


    1. Thanks! Your critique is definitely on point and I probably should have worded the first paragraph more strongly – namely, careless comments are often just as problematic/harmful as intentional argument and I agree that they absolutely do reinforce the stereotypes, whether or not that is the intent. I was attempting to say that there are different issues at play between the traditions and arguments that create the world in which harmful bias exists vs the process by which humans reinforce and perpetuate those biases – not that one is better/worse than the other, but that my argument is more directed at the former than the latter. Definitely a point worth clarifying. I appreciate you taking the time to point it out!


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