How the Accidental Complementarian confused the bejeebers out of me today!

I think this will be my last egalitarian post for awhile, unless some unforeseen blogosphere emergency arises. Starting tomorrow I’d like to switch back to pleasanter topics. But I discovered an article about an accidental complementarian over at Her.Meneutics and was so baffled by it that I had to write a post just to put my thoughts in order. This blog is becoming like therapy for me.
It tells the story of Jen Pollock-Michel and her journey from egalitarianism to complementarianism. She opens with an anecdote about all the times that her husband has moved for a job, leaving her to pack the kids and the house and deal with the responsibilities of relocating. She (and the article’s subtitle) makes reference to complementarianism being a misunderstood lifestyle, and goes on to explain how she came to believe that comp theology is more Biblical, because of her understanding of “head” as meaning “authority.”
I read this article. Then I read it again. I still didn’t fully understand what it was getting at, so I read it a third time. Each time, I gained a new appreciation for the author’s bravery in telling what’s sure to be an unpopular story. Unfortunately, I also gained layers of frustration each time as I tried to parse what exactly she was getting at.
Well, that’s not completely true. I know what she was “getting at.” I think Pollock-Michel wants to remind readers that complementarians aren’t all thoughtless drones who inherited their theology and don’t know better. I think she feels marginalized and wants to express that. She’s asking not to be judged, because she’s dealt with her own share of frustration in embracing something she used to reject.
It’s a venting piece. I get that. Venting pieces aren’t bad. The problem is, this one was a bait-and-switch, and it baited us with something very important: the notion that complementarianism is misunderstood, and the implied promise that she was going to more accurately define it for the skeptics.
Early in the article, she says that comp stereotypes are not “the full truth” and that “misunderstandings about complementarianism abound.” I think it’s true that some people misunderstand complementarianism. And yes, stereotypes probably don’t fully describe the experience of people who live it. Stereotypes seldom do.
The problem is, she never expands on this. What is the “full truth”? What are the “misconceptions”?
She offers us an anecdote about her own life that seems to fit the stereotypes, then tells us the stereotypes don’t show the whole picture, but then doesn’t paint that picture for us.
Let’s back up for a moment, though. The first thing that really struck me about this article was the contrast between what the article states vs. what its tone is.
The article states that negative views of complementarianism are misinformed. But here’s how the tone reads:
It opens with an anecdote about a put-upon wife. It actually draws attention to the fact that the negative stereotypes can feel true. It uses words like “reprieve” to describe the desire for egalitarianism. The best the article can muster in terms of positivity is to vaguely describe submission as “holy beauty”—but even that comes off as being a belief mostly acquired through guilt (guilt for having a “deaf ear” and guilt for being unwilling to match Christ’s attitude about sacrifice). Loudly absent is any concrete description of how day-to-day comp life actually feels beautiful; the beauty is attributed to the theory, not the practice.
And it’s not just the feel of the article that bothered me, but the impossibility of putting together exactly what she’s trying to say. There’s just enough contradiction of language, and just enough missing pieces, to leave readers with lots of questions, all of them unsettling.
First, what message were we to gather from the opening anecdote? Was the prioritization of her husband’s career, and her automatic assumption of solo childcare, a conscious decision they made because of complementarianism? Or was this simply a rhetorical strategy to showcase people’s hasty assumptions about female oppression? The start of the second paragraph makes it seem like just a rhetorical strategy, an example that the author plans to flip around and show a different side of, when she says, “Our arrangement could illustrate the burden…” (emphasis mine). Readers expect a hasty “But you’d be wrong!” followed by an explanation of why complementarianism isn’t actually the killjoy it appears to be.
Yet she never does circle back to refute this “illustrat[ion]” of burdens, and actually ends the paragraph with, “I sometimes can’t help wondering if the stereotypes are true.” Then, she says the phenomenon of overburdened women is not “the full truth” of complementarianism—which, to me, implies that this unpleasant stereotype is the truth and is a reality, just not the whole of it. So, does that mean that she has indeed discovered complementarianism to be a system that causes wives to be more burdened than their husbands? That seems like a strange thing to highlight in an article whose subtitle calls the movement “misunderstood.”
I also wanted more about her thoughts on authority. The concept of “head” meaning “authority” played a critical role in her switch from egal to comp, but what does “authority” mean to her and her husband? What does a man’s authority suddenly look like in a marriage that has always functioned with complete equality? What did her husband have to do differently? Was the prioritization of his career the way they interpret him holding “authority”? It’s the only concrete example they give. Who got to decide what authority meant—him or her? Both?
Part of the reason I ask this (and obsess over that opening anecdote) is that equating authority with bread-winning, and submission with childcare, is one of the most stereotypical and least scripturally defensible beliefs the comp movement endorses. I had thought that perhaps this couple, having started out egalitarian, would define “headship” differently than how many comps automatically do. That’s part of the reason I was interested to read the article, and I felt the subtitle implied it. The article, however, actually gave no evidence that she had discovered complementarianism to be different than she thought it would be as an egal.
Now, perhaps she and her husband do define headship and authority in unique ways. Maybe this anecdote does not reveal their definition of authority. But we’ll never know, because no real definition is provided, forcing us to read between the lines.
Yeesh. I feel like I’m getting really crabby about this. The thing is, I admire this author’s bravery. At least she’s being honest about where she is, and she has every right to keep the more intimate details of her marriage to herself. I just felt that the title and opening of the article were a big bait-and-switch, and I wish things had been clearer.
Truth be told, I want this article to make more sense because it touches on a subject that’s close to home.
The picture of a marriage that starts egal and moves into comp is, in some ways, a frightening thing for me to look at. Jaron and I also married as committed egalitarians. We, too, didn’t use “submission” in our vows. Like the author and her husband (at least at the start of their marriage), we believe that male dominance is part of the curse (I won’t say that male “headship” is, as everyone seems to have a different view of what “headship” means and I’d rather not tangle with that). When someone describes a marriage with a similar premise to mine that traveled to such a different place, I’m invested in hearing how that shook out.
I tried to imagine today what would happen in our household if I told my husband I believed he was my authority. He’d look at me, laugh, say, “Then as your authority, I order you to act like an egalitarian for the rest of our lives,” and we’d probably never mention it again. It’s sort of like when my parents got engaged. Mom told Dad that she was okay with deferring to him on big decisions. “No,” he said, “we should make all decisions together.” To which she replied, “No, really, I honestly don’t mind deferring to you,” at which point he put down his foot and said, “No—we will make all decisions together, and that’s final.”

: )

So I guess we all engage in a little double-speak now and then. I’ll have to forgive this author. It must be hard to write about something so complex in one page, and I don’t have to know her full story to know what my story should be.
But darn if those missing puzzle pieces don’t set my OCD going!
(By the way…if anyone is curious how the egalitarian position can be Biblically defensible, please visit CBE or God’s Word to Women. I don’t want this comment section to begin reinventing the wheel on theology that’s already been exhaustively hammered out in other places.)

5 Replies to “How the Accidental Complementarian confused the bejeebers out of me today!”

  1. ok so I’m going to be really honest here…. I need to do some research on this comp/egal discussion because surprisingly even though I attended a ridiculous amount of different churches/denominations growing up your discussion on the subject is the first time I’ve heard EITHER word 🙂 while technically my current situation LOOKS a lot like what I guess is complimentarian I do plan to go back to work someday, my husband washes dishes and mows the lawn (and even cooks) and definitely does his share with the kids, and we go to great lengths discussing major decisions…but he does hold veto power over me…but I also hold veto power over him to… so does that make us egalitarians? Honesty it’s not something I’ve thought much about because our synergy seems to work. ok but HERE’s my question for you, dear intelligent friend whom I respect and know has done her homework on the subject, the scenario where the husband moves several months before the wife and kids for a job… would true Egals avoid this at all costs? I mean yes I agree that single parenting whatever the circumstances is challenging/burdening (so the other authors argument seems unsupported like you said!)… but I have friends who have done something similar, and as a military wife I see moms staying back with the kids while dad deploys or goes on the next base early all the time (and know that it will be a reality for us someday- AND I function solo MUCH of the time because Will’s work schedule mandates such) I guess I’m just curious what a true egalitarian response to this would be (i.e. can I be an egalitarian and a military spouse at the same time?) Thanks for your input!!

  2. “Would true egals avoid this at all costs” No, not at all! The egalitarian belief basically states that partners are free to choose how they divide up their labor, based on what works best for their families.

    Egalitarians tend to stress more 50/50 labor divides only because historically, the church has leaned way too heavily towards saying “Dads should be outside the home; moms, you’re bad if you want to work!” Of course that attitude is changing…but the history of it still affects some people, and so egalitarians often tend to “err” the other direction. Plus, a lot of us feel like society makes it difficult to do equal load-sharing and parenting, and so the more people who actively TRY to do it–the more society will have to adjust, and the easier it will be for the next generation.

    The only reason I kept wondering about that anecdote was that I could not figure out: was this a decision that they made because it was best for their family, or was she bringing this up as an example of a decision they made BECAUSE of their theology?

    We will have to have a long chat about this sometime. It’s definitely not an area of study and reflection that all Christians feel called to…it just happens to be mine :O) Largely, that’s because of some unhappy people I’ve observed in my past, that got me thinking about these issues more, when otherwise I would not have.

    As for whether you are an egalitarian, I fear to answer that question based on one blog post convo 😀 But what you’ve described (that you try to make decisions together, with the understanding that either person can “veto” on matters of importance) sounds like it to me.

  3. Um, but back to your original question, which I’m not sure I answered very well, I absolutely think it’s possible for egalitarian couples to decide on a “traditional” division of labor.

    Egalitarianism is about HOW you make your decisions. An egalitarian couple will try to figure out their giftings and the needs of their family–they may try to go against the grain for the purpose of changing society, but it’s not mandatory.

    Complementarians, on the other hand, might be more likely to feel that they don’t have options about what they choose. They might say “well, regardless of gifting, we know from scripture/church that we’re ‘supposed’ to divide things up like A and B and C, so we’ll have to.” Often these conversations don’t happen just like that–it’s just that both partners kind of assume that’s what a Godly family looks like.

    Often, complementarian couples who became egal might still choose the same arrangement because it’s what works. So, like I said, it’s more about motivation. Which is a really basic, crude way of saying it, but I can explain in better detail some other time!

  4. I would love to as well!

    Yeah, definitely not meaning to make you feel bad about ANYTHING. Complementarianism, at its heart, is a theology and an attitude. Certain lifestyles by themselves are not enough to qualify one as “complementarian” or “egalitarian” and nobody should ever feel bad about the lifestyle they’ve chosen, or feel paranoid that perhaps it doesn’t “fit” the theology they believe themselves to be. That can be an exhausting, inaccurate, and unhelpful road to go down, for anyone!

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