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.)

Christian Feminism: Friend or Foe? Part 2



As we saw in yesterday‘s post, a recent article made the argument that feminism is unnecessary for Christians, and I gave my view on why that’s not so. As promised yesterday, I want to spend this post examining the second main objection that Walsh raised against feminism (again, with the understanding that I am picking on his article because it represents a widely-held view among many Christians, not just Walsh himself).

 
His other question is equally legitimate and also deserves a serious answer. Even if feminism is not redundant to the Christian faith, is it worth it, if it comes with so much baggage?
He brings up several different points included in this notion of baggage, and I want to deal with them in order of importance. So, let’s start with abortion.
Walsh, like many other Christians (comp and egal alike), is suspicious of feminism because it has so many ties with the pro-choice movement. Lots of peole feel too uncomfortable with that to identify as feminist. That is their right. I must leave it to every individual to decide where their comfort level is with that, and I’m not trying to gloss over how seriously many people take that issue.
But Walsh goes a little further and claims that no Christian anywhere should be able to hold a different opinion or level of comfort. His claims, plus the amount of time he spends on the abortion issue, make it sound as though abortion is about 95 percent of feminism’s purpose:

The concepts are contradictory, [feminists] argue, and I agree — though I’d say the term ‘pro-life feminist’ could be more aptly compared to ‘abolitionist slave trader’ or ‘free market communist.’

Personally, I have to disagree. I believe, through reading feminist blogs and having conversations with women who identify as modern-day feminists, that feminism’s main focus is to explore the ways in which society has unhealthy beliefs about gender. That can include certain beliefs about the rightness or wrongness of abortion, but abortion certainly is not the only (or even main) focus for most of the feminists that I personally deal with in everyday life. And it is certainly not the only social concern that feminists are working to affect (other social concerns include equal pay, sex trafficking, female representation in government, the portrayal of women in the media, and more).
Most of the feminists that I speak with talk to me about unfair policies toward women in the workforce; about the horrors of rape culture; about expectations for how women should dress and act; about dynamics between husbands and wives, etc. Those are the issues that many of my personal feminist friends seem most concerned about, and they’re the issues I see being written about and broadcasted by feminists in the wider media. In fact, I have gotten into many more abortion discussions with Christians than I ever have with feminists.
Now, I don’t want to be disingenuous here. There are indeed some (many?) feminists who don’t believe you can be a feminist unless you are pro-choice. However, the reality is, there are feminists who agree on every other issue except the abortion one. Those people do exist, and I see no law or Gestapo preventing pro-life Christian women from identifying as feminist. So, why not? To me, saying that the feminist movement is focused on or inextricably tied to abortion just doesn’t ring completely true.
Now, again, if someone else feels differently, s/he has every right to reject the feminist label. But where I think the line is crossed, is where that person tells other people that we are not allowed to see feminism as being about more than abortion, just because s/he doesn’t.
Moving past the abortion issue, the next largest issue that is often brought against feminism is that it doesn’t square with a complementarian view of the sexes. “Complementarianism,” coined in the 70s (see, I can read about the history of gender theory, too), is the belief that God ordained a high degree of difference between the sexes and intends men for one type of “role” within the family and church, and women for another type of “role.” Men are leaders; women are supporters.
I think a belief in complementarianism is why Walsh said the following against feminism:

To be equal is to be the same. Women are not equal to men because they are not the same as men. Therefore, a woman’s freedom is really slavery if it forces her to abandon all of the unique feminine abilities and characteristics that make her a woman. The same could be said for men, if his freedom requires him to shirk that which sets him apart from women and makes him a man.

The problem with using complementarianism to prove that feminism is un-Christian is, of course, that not all Christians are complementarian! Many egalitarian Christians (in organizations like God’s Word to Women and Christians for Biblical Equality) believe that complementarianism is an incorrect interpretation of a handful of Biblical passages. They believe in mutual submission between husband and wife, in the leadership capabilities of women, and in the rights of husbands and wives to divide traditionally feminine and masculine “roles” within the home however they want. And as for not being the same, egalitarians believe that Adam’s delight with Even was because of her sameness to him, not because of her difference. “Then the man said, ‘At last, here is one of my own kind—bone taken from my bone, and flesh, from my flesh.” (Genesis 2:23, Today’s English Version).
Thus, I’m not sure that feminism is incompatible with “being a Christian.” It may be incompatible with “being a complementarian Christian.” To prove that Christians shouldn’t be feminists, Walsh would first have to prove that they shouldn’t be egalitarians. Until he and other anti-feminists can do that, they can’t really use the complementarian line as an example of feminism’s evils.
And while we’re on the subject…why does Walsh get to define what Christian feminists mean when they say the word “equal”? He seems to think that word means “having no difference in their essence.” Actually, many Christian feminists do accept a difference in gender makeup to some degree (and others don’t), but that has nothingto do with what they mean when they say “equal.” The word “equal” in Christian feminist discussions is often employed to mean equality of opportunity (such as ministering alongside men, being able to get a job after motherhood, and not viewing your husband as your authority). It’s bad rhetoric for a writer to claim that the term must mean interchangeability of essence or being, when the people he’s arguing with don’t use the term that way. To truly engage someone, you have to address what they’re actually saying, not some cliché you pretend they’re saying (that’s something we cover in my freshman-level writing class each year).
Perhaps I could say that every time Walsh uses the word “women” he actually means “tyrannosaurus.” I could then claim that his argument makes no sense, since tyrannosauruses don’t exist anymore, and aren’t, in any case, human. But that wouldn’t make me right.
And speaking of bad rhetoric…
To Walsh’s other points about the baggage of feminism, I simply have to disagree with most of them. They read like the outdated caricature of second-wave feminism that preachers crafted to scare parishioners during the 70s and 80s.

From the very beginning, at its earliest stages, feminism was a movement designed to find equality with men — and then dominance over them. Christianity has always taught harmony and love between the sexes, while feminism preaches competition and exclusion.

Oh, okay, so we’re just going to start saying things now and sayingthem will make them true just because? Well I’m going to say that the highway is made of snakes, and my husband is actually a unicorn, and the square root of cheese equals a Tiffany lamp.
Sorry to lose my cool, but this was the point at which my patience with this article evaporated. The Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz was less a straw man than this argument. I don’t personally know any feminists who want dominance over men or treat men that way. Feminist culture is actually against such things, believing men and women to be equal in value and capability, with neither deserving to dominate. It is dangerous to equate the pursuit of equality with grasping for dominance. By that reasoning, you’d have to say that the Civil Rights movement was about black people wanting to dominate white people. Today, all of us recognize that for the unfair, bigoted scare tactic that it was, so why is it okay to make the same argument about feminism?
And as far as competition and the destruction of harmony…do you know where I learned to roll my eyes at men, bash husbands behind their backs, and believe that “Men are from Mars; women are from Venus?” From pop culture and, ironically, watching other Christian women. In fact, the women I’ve known who were the most prone to hold bitterness against men, and to struggle with feelings of competition toward their boyfriend or husband, were women who were farther along the spectrum of anti-feminism.
It was feminism that helped me see the destructiveness of such behavior. Feminism helped me see the harmony that can exist between the sexes, and has trained me out of the eye-rolling and husband-bashing that women are expected to engage in. Other feminists are often the first to join me in complaining about commercials and shows that make dads look stupid and inadequate; they’re often the first to insist that rape culture degrades the character of men, too. And let’s not forget that plenty of happy, confident, well-adjusted men are feminists and don’t feel threatened by it.
Again, I came to realize that these harmonious attitudes between the genders were God’s intention, and soon saw how it lined up with Biblical truth (Galatians 3:28, anyone? Ephesians 5:21? Or how about Eve being an “ezer kenegdo”?) But the rhetoric of feminism assisted me in seeing the truth that was already there, and gives me language to explain myself when pop culture (and yes, church and complementarian culture) wants to re-introduce elements of competition.
There are also a lot of hot-button phrases mentioned in the article, such as wedges being driven between husband and wife, and chasms being opened between women and their children. Actually, I’ve seen feminist living arrangements close the chasm between moms and babes, as child-rearing duties are shared equally by the dad, allowing the mom to be less overwhelmed and frustrated and more able to enjoy her kids. Most of the feminists I know have close, happy relationships with their spouse. In my experience, marital troubles come just as easily to people who don’t identify as feminist as those who do.
I’m getting a little exhausted, so I think I have to stop. I hope I’ve made my point by now. This hung so heavy on my mind last night that I started working on it first thing this morning. Then my computer installed automatic updates, shutting Word down suddenly and losing everything, but my husband found the lost file for me over his lunch. Go team! Just another example of the bitter, competitive, selfish marriage partners that feminism produces, I tell ya.
The bottom line, though, is that no one must identify as a feminist. I really, truly respect people who are uncomfortable with the term, including other egalitarians. But if you’re going to attempt to convince everyone else that they should be uncomfortable too, you need to fight fair and have good reasoning behind you.
Consider these two feminist posts part of my 40 Days of Easter Project. Because really, I can’t think of a better way to have spent these hours of the last two days than writing about a topic that makes me so passionate. I am truly a lucky person!

Christian Feminism: Friend or Foe? Part I


A recent article warned Christian women (and men, in parentheses) that Feminism Is Not Your Friend. It asked whether feminism and Christianity are incompatible.

This is a question many Christians on both sides of the aisle are asking. (For those who don’t know, “the aisle” means the divide between Christian complementarians and egalitarians. Complementarians believe the Bible teaches a spiritual hierarchy with men in leadership in society, church, and home, and women in supportive roles. Egalitarians believe this is a misreading of Scripture, and that men and women are equally gifted to lead in society, church, and home.) In any case, I’ve heard many discussions about this within Christendom over the last few years, so I was interested to see it come up again.
I wasn’t thrilled with the tone of the article. It came off as belligerent and flame-ish, possibly to get page views—or, says the more charitable part of me, maybe because the author really is passionate about the subject. Either way, I decided to talk about it because the article echoed some basic questions being asked by many: what is the proper relationship between Christianity and feminism? Should Christians call themselves feminists? Are those two terms antithetical? Even Christian egalitarians are divided over these questions. I should know; I identify as one, and spend time hashing it out with fellow believers.
This article addresses a twofold question: Do Christians need to identify as feminist, and should they, given feminists supposedly anti-Christian baggage? I want to address these two questions separately, starting with the first and most important.
At the most basic level, I think the author, Matt Walsh, is asking what many people want to know. Is feminism is necessary for one who is a Christian? Here’s a quote that seems to sum up a lot of his thoughts:

 But why argue over this? If you believe that women should have equal protection under the law — good. I agree with you. Almost everybody agrees with you. That belief just makes you a constitutionalist. If you believe that women possess an equal inherent worth and dignity — great. I agree with you. That belief either makes you Christian, or brings you closer to becoming one. All of the ground is covered, there is no need for feminism.

In other words, he’s saying, isn’t Christianity enough? If Christianity teaches the basic dignity of all human beings, then is feminism just a redundant title that comes with some baggage?
After all, he says, feminism wasn’t the first to reveal the worth and dignity of women:

No, feminism did not reveal this. Christianity revealed it. Christ revealed it.

I totally agree! Jesus treated women, even outcast women, like equals (John 4:7-27). He instructed Mary and Martha to learn theology alongside men instead of doing housework (Luke 10:38-42). He made sure the first evangelists were women (John 20:11-18). And he never breathed a word against women leading or ministering. So yes, I have to agree that Christ beat feminism to the punch by almost 2,000 years.
But it’s a shaky logical to leap to assume that we should therefore see feminism as a redundant thing.
I mean, the Bible reveals a lot about the human heart, but I don’t therefore see modern-day psychology as a redundant thing. The Bible talks about marriage, but I don’t therefore see marital counseling as a redundant thing. The Bible talks about living in an orderly way, but I don’t therefore see our country’s law as a redundant thing. Human ideas, concepts, and institutions can explore timeless truths in new ways—albeit imperfectly.
Even though feminism isn’t perfect, it fulfills a couple of important roles that I think are needed. First, it helps reveal the aspects of sexism that we have become desensitized to.It brings attention to the subtle ways in which women are conditioned to step back, to shrink down, to obsess over body image, to acquiesce to men, to take blame, to accept second-rate treatment. The Bible is a great tool for observing that we are all “one in Christ” without gender hierarchy (Galatians 3:28), but patriarchy runs deep in our psyche, and the Bible doesn’t give us a blueprint of exactly how to root it out in every situation.
Second, feminism is an access point to the timeless truth of women’s dignity for those who aren’t religious. That alone should give pause to someone who believes that gender harmony is God’s plan for the world; feminism is taking that message even to people who can’t get it directly through belief in Christ.
Third, Christian feminists and Christian egalitarians believe that large swaths of the church have got it wrong about gender roles. Many believe that the church doesn’trecognize or address sexism as it should. They believe the message still needs to be discussed, and since they are a subset and not the whole of the population, they will adopt that extra label and try to draw attention to what they believe—much the same way that a Calvinist will identify as such to show her beliefs about predestination and God’s sovereignty, or the way a Christian environmentalist would adopt the “environmentalist” label to show that he thinks Christians should consider the environment more.
I hope the above examples show that all the ground is most certainly not covered just by the existence of Christianity as a dominant religion, and that feminists might legitimately see a niche for the movement still to fill. If anything, you must have your head in the sand to not realize that women are still unequal in today’s world. In many countries they have virtually no rights and can be sold like chattel. Even in developed countries, it’s common for women to be underpaid, undervalued, stressed out, and told by their churches and their spouses and TV commercials that they’re not enough (and then bloggers get after them for finding a movement that makes them feel halfway decent sometimes).
I find the claim that feminism has already reached its goal to be spectacularly unaware. And I’m not just picking on Walsh here; I’ve heard this from people inside and outside the church, all over the place.
And I want to pause on that word “aware” for a moment, because it sums up what I’m really trying to say. The reason feminism is not redundant is because it is an awareness movement.
Kate Wallace over at The Junia Project wrote a beautiful piece on this, and I definitely must give her credit for expressing it so well. She explains that, while gender equality is God’s timeless truth, feminism is the vessel that’s being used as a messenger to get that truth out.
In other words, feminism is to God’s truth what a Breast Cancer Awareness rally is to the scientists who are working to find a cure. They are two different things. One is truth. The other is the messenger that allows you to see the truth. But they certainly aren’t in competition.
Therefore, feminism is important—even though the truth is coming from Christ, and even though, as Walsh points out, feminism is not the first time that any woman anywhere has been treated nicely. If the world still has this many problems, and feminism is helping to call them out, I think it’s reasonable to see it as useful.
The feminist movement, like any other human endeavor, is not perfect. And yes, it is capable of being at odds with Christianity in certain facets. But it can still hold a great deal of truth, and many things about it can still be in harmony with my faith. That’s all I’m trying to say, really. Maybe a day will come where I feel like the movement has become all about things I disagree with, but, as Aragorn says, “It is not this day.” If someone else feels that it is “this day” for them, then they absolutely don’t have to take the feminist label. But they do need to understand the point of view of those of us who do, and be respectful of that. 
Tune in tomorrow for Part 2: should Christians feel okay identifying as “feminist,” or are there too many moral compromises?