Tuesday, May 15, 2012

why i'm not complementarian

I grew up in what I would characterize as a conservative evangelical home although by no measure were/are my parents ultra conservative.  Though my parents espoused, and still would something more akin to complementarian theology I think they embody a relationship that looks much more egalitarian.   

I hadn’t put much thought into the gender role theology my parents provided me with until I got to Bethel where evangelical trust fund babies would sit around a circle and debate all the important questions of the universe like “do you think women can be pastors?”  Evangelicals construct theology based on one thing, the paper pope.  For most of us this came in the form of the New International Version though some wild ones would use the New Living Translation.  Regardless of your translation, your gender role theology came from a few texts, chief among them—Ephesians 5.  Here the author is writing about household codes and says this:

22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. 24Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, 27so as to present the church to himself in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. 28In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.

I have a confession to make about myself.  I think my strong inclination towards complementarian theology was informed as much if not more by what I will call the meta-fairytale, as it was scripture.  The meta-fairytale can come in all kinds of forms, but finds its chief expression in movies like Disney’s Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and perhaps most explicitly in Tom Cruise’s movie Legend.  In all of these meta-fairytales you have three essential elements: a damsel in distress, an evil foe to overcome and a hero who does the rescuing.  The damsel remains captive to the evil foe who is eventually overcome by the male hero who then rescues the damsel.

The meta-fairytale should not be discounted as archaic.  It’s a good story and to be sure, its explanatory power is so pervasive that scripture utilizes it to characterize Christ’s relationship with the church.  To boot, I like the meta-fairytale.  I stand on an island in a church of mostly moderates in my appreciation for John Eldredge.

Still, I think a problem arises when we construct a theology of gender based on scripture without being aware of latent meta-fairytale hermeneutic at work within us. 

Here’s what I mean.  Undoubtedly Ephesians says:

“22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord 23For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. 24Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands.”

But it also says  

“25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,”

I’ve grown suspicious of complementarians who are eager to point to Ephesians 5 in support of their case.  Jesus loved the church so much that He submitted to death by Roman execution.  40 lashes on the back, nails in the wrists and feet, beard ripped out, spear in the side etc.  You’ve seen Mel Gibson’s Jesus slaughtered.  You know the story.  It’s not that I don’t think complementarian males would endure this for their spouses.  Indeed they would.  This is at the heart of the meta-fairytale.  The hero faces the most atrocious forms of the death to rescue the damsel.  But as my friend Randy once pointed out in youth group, “people often talk about dying for Christ, but perhaps the much more difficult thing to do is live for Christ.”

I concur.  I just got done reading some of the martyrdom accounts in Rodney Stark’s new book, and I was unnerved.  But truthfully it often feels to me like being faithful in the mundane tasks of everyday life can take as much courage.  I’m constantly confronted by the question of death.  Will I follow Jesus in the death of not getting my way?  Will I follow Jesus in the death of putting my wife's needs before mine?  Will I follow Jesus in prioritizing my desires last in my family?  Will I follow Jesus in the death of living unselfishly with my finances and not be corrupted by greed? Death questions confront the way we live all the time. 

I’m thankful that I had the privilege of listening to Greg Boyd as my pastor in college.  One of the truths that he instilled in me is that power is quintessentially defined by Jesus hanging on a cross.  This is the way God expresses power in the world.  Jesus subverts our definition of power.  At the end of the day, power is not best expressed by Batman, Superman, Prince Charming or William Wallace.  Power, by Biblical standards, comes from below.  Power picks up a towel and serves.  Power chooses the less glamorous choice.  Power is not so insecure that it needs the final word.  Power does not need control. 

This definition of power exposes the difference between a Christological read of Ephesians 5 and a meta-fairytale one.  In my conversation with my college friends about gender roles it seemed that one way the truthfulness of the complementarain marriage would express itself would be that in major decisions where the couple disagreed the male would make the decision.  I think that notion is rooted in the meta-fairytale understanding of power and the not the Christological one. 

This last year my wife and I consumed all five seasons of NBC’s Friday Night Lights.  Never has a show so successfully depicted a realistic, healthy and dare I say Christian marriage as FNL did with Eric and Tami Taylor.  This article from Relevant gets it exactly right when of the Taylors it says, “It’s something of a miracle that a contemporary network television show could so vividly remind us of what is wonderful about families who stay together, struggle together and grow together.”

In the shows finale Eric and Tami’s marriage struggles reach an apex when they are simultaneously offered dream jobs.  Eric is offered a job as the head coach of Dillon’s all star team and Tami a job as the director of recruitment for a university in Philadelphia.  The impasse created by the circumstances is precisely the sort of thing that evangelicals debate about in their marriage discussions.  As is typical of a patriarchal culture we are led to believe that the Taylor’s will order their lives around Eric’s vocational opportunity. 

Here is a short compilation revealing how that situation resolves itself: 

The most biting critique I have of complementarianism is that it is fundamentally opposed to the notion of power that is defined by the cross.  At the juncture when leading in the way of Jesus might be most painful, evidence that complementariasm is subdued by the meta-fairytale emerges positing males as a specific kind of hero.  Complementarian theology finds its limits in self-sacrificial love when that love might entail sacrificing the traditional role that the hero gets to play in the meta-fairytale story. 

 Jesus would not just have died for his wife on a cross.  He would have died a vocational death for her as well.  Jesus would have taken the sucky job so that she could have the good one.  Jesus would use His power to lead her by elevating her to greatness at his own expense.  I wonder how many complementarians have considered that perhaps the most self-sacrificial thing they could do is embrace a lifetime at home with the kids so their wives could pursue what they wanted.  I wonder how many complementarians have considered that the cost of the cross might mean giving up vocational ambitions so their spouses could pursue theirs.  I wonder how many complementarians have considered that being the hero of their story might not mean being the hero in the traditional meta-fairytale sense at all.  Perhaps being the hero in this story means no one ever knows your name.  That being Christ means being the spouse who gets thanked in a lifetime achievement award speech by the other, not the one on stage accepting the award. 

Husbands if you do embrace this awesome responsibility of loving your wives do so “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her,” … I dare you. 


  1. this is excellent and well written josh

  2. Yes!

    I find it odd how, as a Christian culture, we set up so many rules regarding how spouses in a marriage should handle their issues. It all comes back to Love. If the two spouses are truly loving each other, and seeking each other's best interest above their own, such discussions as "who gets to make the ultimate decision" simply seem silly.

    Thank you for saying it. I have long chaffed under pastors, teachers, professors, and other male authority figures in this Christian culture who cannot seem to grasp, as you have, what these verses truly entail. Coming from a mere girl, such thoughts were confronted with insinuations that I was rebellious against God and his order.

    Yet, seeing the love of your parents kept my hope that such a love was possible.

  3. Firstly, I am not sure complementarianism is at odds with what you are describing (I'm not necessarily convinced that you find it at odds either, although I think your position is a bit tenuous). I view complementarians as defined by centering their views around an honest reading of Ephesians 5 and Genesis 1&2. However, as you aptly state, this is contingent upon a proper christology, since christology is at the heart of Ephesians 5.
    Christ initiated the Cross. It was not a response to the Church's wants nor was it an action borne out of a conversation with the Church about which action was best. Furthermore, it was an option the 'Church' seemed to reject.

    I agree with most of what you have said, but I think that in discussions of what it means to love our wives like Christ loved the Church, we cannot miss that men are called to be the initiators, just as Christ unilaterally initiated salvation on the cross.

    Now, the author of Ephesians makes it really clear how we are to initiate, although it is interesting to me that you left verse 29 off above, to me it seems tot speak to your point.
    "for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church"
    Exegesis of 'nourishes' aside, the man is called to love not what the woman gives him, that is support in his cultivation of a career, i.e. giving up her own career goals for his, but HER. It means loving her even in spite of herself. It means loving her as much as much as he loves himself, and this should take care of any need of stealing the spotlight from his wife.
    It seems that if the man actually nourishes and cherishes his wife as Christ nourishes and cherishes the church he can initiate (that is lead) without ever being at odds with the christological context that you have presented.

    So, I don't see how this has to be in any way a rebuke of the complimentarian view so much as a clarification of what the properly executed complimentarian view should look like. Every man who accepts the complementarian role of loving his wife as Christ loves the Church should recognize this as an extraordinarily heavy burden with extremely high stakes. It's a cup that bears the pain of self-sacrifice, a cup that even our victorious savior requested pass from him.
    So, whatever you want to say about the complementarian view, it is certainly not men who are getting the easiest or best deal.

  4. I agree with the last commenter. Here's how I would phrase it:

    Why is making a decision equal to power in your framework? Why is making a decision considered a selfish act (which would be the case in the egalitarian argument)?

    The abdication of leadership is actually the more selfish route. Why is it not a cross-exalting thing to pastor your home?

    I also believe it is a lazy caricature to say that being the one who is ultimately responsible for the health and direction of your family means that you always "get your way." Neither abdicated leadership or hyper-masculinity are complementarian styles for the male leadership in the home.

    And, for the hermeneutics of the matter, Paul grounds his arguments about male/female roles in creation. It is society that place the emphasis that being "in charge" is "better." The Bible actually speaks much to the opposite, that if a role of leadership has been bestowed upon someone by God, that comes with much greater accountability before Him.

  5. Might I add that your use of Tami and Eric Taylor took this post from good to great! Well done! Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can't Lose!