On sexists. Sorry, “complementarians.”

by K.W. Leslie, 10 August 2018
COMPLEMENTARIAN kɑmp.lə.mən'tɛ.rɪ.ən adjective. Sexist: Believes men and women are inherently unequal in authority (to lead, teach, or parent) and rights.
2. Believes men and women should adhere to [culturally defined] gender roles, and complement one another by fulfilling the unique duties of those roles.
EGALITARIAN ɪ.ɡæl.ə'tɛ.ri.ən adjective. Believes all people are equal and deserve equal rights and opportunity.

I really dislike the term “complementarian.” It’s what logicians call a weasel word: It’s one of those words people use instead of the proper word, ’cause they don’t care to tell you what they really mean. Or they’re in serious self-denial about what they really mean.

Bluntly, “complementarian” is Christianese for “sexist.” Because that’s exactly what they mean: Women and men aren’t equal; there are things men can do which women mustn’t; if women dare do them, they’re violating the social order which has kept men in power all this time God’s will. Because God supposedly wants his daughters to perpetually have a second-class status. That’s why he didn’t give ’em penises.

The foundation of this misbegotten belief largely comes from the story where God curses Eve, and women in general, for her sin. Because she violated his command, childbirth is gonna hurt, and her man is gonna boss her around. Ge 3.16 As for Adam, he was cursed with having to fight the ground to get food from it, and of course death. Ge 3.17-19 But Jesus came to undo these curses!

Whereas modern technology has made it a lot less wearisome to grow crops, and childbirth doesn’t have to hurt (or kill the mother) as often as it used to, and we usually fight off death for as long as possible, complementarians are still pretty darned insistent that men get to boss their women around. It’s one of the few curses in the bible which people demand be carried out.

What about Jesus’s stated intention that women are co-heirs of his kingdom? Oh, complementarians will accept the idea women can be saved; and how kind of them. But as far as ministry and responsibility in the kingdom is concerned, they get all the plum spots, cushy jobs, and positions of authority. ’Cause conveniently for them, that’s their place. And women have to joyfully submit to this truth.

Y’know, any belief which puts people down instead of raises them up, promotes dominance instead of humility, destroys instead of heals, is graceless instead of gracious, is entirely antithetical to what Jesus teaches. Doesn’t matter how fond dark Christians are of it; they don’t know Jesus as well as they imagine.

But sexism is everywhere in Christendom. And to be fair, it’s not necessarily because sexists hate women, or are anti-women, or wanna exclude them from ministry and leadership roles. Roman Catholics are kind of an obvious example of this: Most of ’em, including the pope, cardinals, and bishops, try to put women in leadership and ministry roles wherever they can. But according to their official church teachings, women can’t be priests, and that’s that. It’s not a glass ceiling; it’s made of solid stone. With Michelangelo’s pretty frescoes all over it, but still. And Evangelical sexists believe much the same thing: They’d love to include women, and do so wherever they can get away with it, but the bible only lets them go so far, and no further.

In my article on sexism I point out the bible does so let ’em go further, and accept women as equals in ministry, the church, and God’s kingdom. And if sexists honestly aren’t anti-women, they don’t take much convincing at all: They look at the scriptures, look at the historical context, realize they were wrong, repent of their sexism, and frequently do what they can to correct others.

The rest of them? They don’t wanna be wrong. They don’t really want women to be their equals. And frequently they double down on their sexism, just to make it clear they’re following their interpretation of the bible, zealously. Which has the unfortunate, but telling, side effect of being fruitless and graceless. And worse on their women.

The debate clubs.

I’m involved in various internet discussion groups. Some on Facebook, some not. We call them discussion groups, but quite often they turn into debate clubs. ’Cause certain Christians are dead set on their points of view, and wanna fight anyone who says otherwise.

And I admit I get that way myself sometimes. Y’notice certain topics are peeves of mine, like Christianism, civic idolatry, racism, sexism, simony, cessationism, and anything which impugns God’s character because people covet power.

The reason Christians embrace these viewpoints, and are so willing to fight to the teeth over ’em, is because we get raised to think these things are true and right and biblical. I know from experience; I was raised to think these ways. We had bible verses ’n everything. Problem is, these views aren’t based on bible; they’re rooted in our fleshly self-interest, and any bible verses we use are wholly taken out of context. We get too blinded by our own self-righteousness to bother to double-check ourselves. ’Cause why? We’re right!

One of the benefits of growing up with a false mindset (assuming you learned from your mistakes) is I realized how easy it is to go completely wrong, and from now on I go out of my way to double-check myself. And I realize whenever I get into a debate with any closed-minded Christian who embraces a dark Christian view: They’re never gonna yield. They might lose the debate, ’cause my arguments are more biblical, logical, and clever, but they’re still never gonna yield. Because in their hard heart of hearts, they know they’re right.

At best I can help the Holy Spirit sow doubts. That’s assuming they even listen to him anymore. One of the things about knowing you’re right is you never expect the Spirit to correct you, and if he does, you reject him as a devilish voice. Yeah it’s blasphemy, and closed-minded Christians blaspheme the Spirit all the time. Good thing it’s not as irredeemable as most of us imagine.

Anyway back to the fight club discussion group. Based on the two words I defined at the beginning of this piece, you can kinda tell the debate had to do with sexism. The discussion group doesn’t take a stance one way or the other on the issue—some of us are egalitarian, and some of us are sexist—and whenever sexism comes up, it can get pretty contentious. The egalitarians are outraged at the sexism, and the sexists are outraged at how we egalitarians dare insist the bible’s patriarchalism is descriptive, not proscriptive.

Their two usual objections:

  • Our interpretation of the scriptures is “theological liberalism.”
  • And it’s the start of a slippery slope. Once you do away with gender discrimination, we’ll next wind up with the worst-case scenario: No genders at all. Everybody will become androgynous, and everybody will have sex with everybody else.

“Theological liberalism” is what every Christian calls it when your interpretation of the bible is less conservative than theirs. If they think the bible permits racism, saying it absolutely does not is “liberalism.” If they think it permits polygamy, insisting upon monogamy is “liberalism.” Yes I’m absolutely saying “liberalism” is a relative term. So’s “fundamentalism,” when by it you mean “more conservative than I am.” If you insist your view is the baseline, of course it’s a relative term: You are not an objective standard.

I belong to an egalitarian denomination, the Assemblies of God. We’ve always had women pastors. And we’ve been heavily influenced by the Fundamentalist movement in the 1910s, so theologically we’re pretty darned conservative. But because we have women pastors, sexist churches insist we’re liberal… that is, until they find out we don’t let divorcés become pastors, and don’t allow our leaders to drink alcohol; then suddenly we’re too conservative. Like I said, they’ve made their view the baseline, so their labels are relative terms.

Liberalism usually means we’ve decided popular culture is gonna define how we interpret the bible, and not the other way round. I point out popular Christian culture regularly practices this: They interpret bible the way they do, because they’ve always interpreted bible that way; they’re not gonna question their interpretation because they’re not gonna seriously challenge popular Christian culture. Even though every culture needs to be regularly challenged: Are we staying true to Jesus’s teachings, or have we compromised them and gone hypocrite? Do the scriptures truly support “complementarianism,” or are we perpetuating an evil which keeps women from expressing their God-given voices?

As for the slippery-slope fallacy: It’s every fool’s favorite way to try to shut down a discussion. You notice it doesn’t work though. Everybody immediately recognizes it as stupid. Everybody, that is, but the people who seriously do think the worst-case scenario is the inevitable result. Because they claim they know of people who are doing that—and it freaks ’em out to no end. Of course they’re too busy freaking out to do any actual thinking, which is the point.

Since our discussion group, as I said, doesn’t take a stance one way or the other on the issue, I figured it’d be relevant to say so—but make my own stance obvious.

ME. “This is one of those areas where we’re free to disagree. I may vehemently disagree with complementarianism, but complementarians are still my brothers in Christ. As for my sisters in Christ on the complementarian side… well, y’all won’t let them speak up anyway.”

The problem with concluding your comment with a snide remark, is some folks refuse to let that stand.

HE. “And many of our sisters in Christ are not egalitarians or feminists either. I’m sure they can speak for themselves.”
ME. “Not to teach they can’t.”
HE. “I wasn’t aware Facebook was a church.”
ME. “The body of Christ is the church. I wasn’t aware Facebook is a loophole.”
HE. “And who exactly is stopping women from contributing here?”
ME. “I’m certainly not; I’m egalitarian. But if you’re gonna remain true to complementarianism, your women can’t contribute, correct, or otherwise deign to teach men. They have to remain silent—even if they wish to, and know enough to, defend that worldview. Priscilla may not take Apollos aside and explain the gospel more fully to him; she must submit to any blathering neophyte who takes the pulpit, and can only talk to Aquila about it privily at home.”
OTHER GUY. “You completely, and purposely, misunderstand. That's ok though, you do you.”
ME. “No, I’m staying consistent. I grew up strictly complementarian. We used to call such concessions “compromise”—and rightly so, because that’s what they are. But the dirty little fact is complementarians HAVE to compromise, because the bible doesn’t wholly support the view: God empowered far too many women within its pages to preach, teach, and lead.”

I’m sure he had plenty more to say, but the moderators shut down the discussion before he could.

Complementarian compromise.

As I said in the discussion group, I grew up strictly complementarian. Women weren’t allowed to teach in our churches.

Except they were.

Women taught my Sunday school classes. We boys were children, and therefore not yet men, so there was a handy loophole. Although there are plenty of sexists who insist women shouldn’t even teach boys. John Eldredge, author of Wild at Heart, comes to mind. But I grew up around plenty of knowledgeable women, and knew better than to dismiss them.

Women of course taught other women; there were women’s bible studies. And these women were pretty darned knowledgeable about the bible. In fact they were more knowledgeable than some of the men in the church, which at the time struck me as infinitely stupid. If a woman knows more than a man, shouldn’t she be able to correct the man? Isn’t that exactly what we see in the scriptures, in that Priscilla and Apollos story I mentioned earlier?

Acts 18.24-26 KWL
24 A certain Judean named Apollos of Alexandria (his place of birth) arrived in Ephesus.
He was an educated man, being mighty in the scriptures.
25 Apollos was taught the Master’s way, and burned in his spirit:
He spoke and taught accurately about Jesus—while only knowing about John’s baptism.
26 Apollos began to speak boldly in synagogue, and Priscilla and Aquila heard him.
They took him aside and explained God’s way more accurately to him.

They corrected Apollos. The both of them. It wasn’t just Aquila, with Priscilla standing beside him and silently affirming everything her husband said. She could confirm everything Aquila said, and he could confirm her in return. I should add it was customary in Greek literature for the man’s name to come first when a couple was mentioned… unless of course the woman took the lead, and more than likely that’s exactly what dynamic this biblical couple had.

In these complementarian churches, we’d hear stories all the time—from the men!—about how they were gonna do some boneheaded thing, but their wives had second thoughts about the idea, warned their husbands, and the husbands heeded their advice. And not just about practical matters; spiritual ones too. Even though these women supposedly weren’t supposed to be teaching their men anything about spiritual matters. But in this particular church, it was considered an acceptable part of a woman’s role to use her intuition to warn her husband and sons about stuff they’d be too dense to notice on their own. Me, I call this iron sharpening iron. Pr 27.17 But sexists prefer translations of that verse where one man sharpens another, so they don’t imagine their wives sharpening them—even though they absolutely do And can. And should.

In one of the churches, women could become voting members of the church. Which means they could stand up during board meetings and speak their minds. As they should—especially when the board was about to do something dumb, ’cause sometimes it would. Again, this wasn’t just about practical matters, because the women would frequently have a biblical reason for their concerns. True, not everyone in the church was all that solid about interpreting the bible (hence complementarianism) but still.

Now if you’re gonna be true to complementarianism, none of these women should’ve been able to do such things. But they did. Because in many ways the United States is an egalitarian culture. A lot of this egalitarian behavior, in both the workplace and government, has got into the popular Christian culture. Including the way even complementarians run their churches. The pure unadulterated sexism of the past (“you girls needn’t worry your pretty little minds about such things; let the men handle it”) looks even more wrong by way of comparison. So the sexists have been gradually compromising their sexism. So much so, they really don’t realize they’re still sexist.

They really are letting the women in their churches speak up way more than their ancestors ever did. And if they’re gonna be true to the way they claim they interpret the bible, their women shouldn’t have any voice at all. They should be silent. Actually silent.

As it’s practiced, “complementarianism” is likewise a relative term. Don’t get me wrong; it’s still sexism. It just comes in many different degrees of sexism. Sometimes it restricts women in every way, and they really can’t speak in church at all. Sometimes it lets women be absolutely equal to men in every way but title: There are women in church leadership, and they’re functioning as full-on pastors, but because the church is complementarian, they can’t call the women “pastors.” They’ll call them directors, leaders, principals, supervisors, anything but “pastor.” Because that title’s only for men. Yes it’s ridiculous, but that’s how compromise works.

But there’s no reason for compromise. God’s kingdom has room for shepherdesses. For women bishops, women priests, women elders and deacons, women prophets and apostles and missionaries, women to fulfill every role under Jesus that he empowers them to do. And he does empower ’em to do it.