Owen Strachan, the president of complementarian organization CBMW, got up in arms the other day because of media reactions to his friend Gavin Peacock’s blog and Twitter posts about gender roles. Strachan claimed that the secular media’s reaction to complementarianism just proves how misunderstood this joyful, God-given marital system really is.
I had obvious problems with a lot of Strachan’s points—his tired claim that scripture is clear about exactly how men and women should differentiate their behavior, his overstated positioning of complementarianism as a “core” Christian teaching, and his implication that women weren’t as abused by men before feminism (someone get this man a history book!) But on the other hand, I’m not exactly shocked that he wrote this. Why should I be shocked that the president of CBMW wrote a post in support of complementarianism? That’s like being shocked that Obama votes democrat, or that a librarian wants you to read. We all write positively about ideologies we believe in.
By the same token, I wish Strachan would quit acting shocked every time the secular media doesn’t like complementarianism’s ideas. The secular media is never going to like it. Acting indignantly surprised about that is either a rhetorical ruse or just plain silly.
The thing that really bothered me about this post was his claim that the secular world (and egalitarian/feminist Christians) just don’t understand complementarianism. He seems to think that we reject the CBMW’s ideas out of some combination of misunderstanding, stereotyping, and blind rebellion against anything that comes from God.
If he could just explain how good it is. If we could just see how perfectly it prioritizes the dignity of women.
All around us are women abused by men, with little sense of how to cope with their pain. The church must help them understand how the world’s promise of liberation is bankrupt.
He tries to explain how complementarianism is always and only about building women up, about constructing a framework in which men promote female flourishing. Isn’t that sweet?
The church offers women called to marriage the hope of a husband who will be a self-sacrificing head, one whose very life is dedicated to blessing his wife, treating her gently, and dying to his own wishes in order that she may flourish.
So women flourish in this system because their husbands engage in self-sacrifice, bless them, treat them gently, and die to their own wishes to benefit them.
You know what? None of that sounds particularly bad. And it seems accurate when held up against Ephesians 5:28, which tells husbands to “love their wives just as they love their own bodies.” Sounds like a prioritization of women’s needs to me.
But if you could pick a word to sum all that up, what would it be? Servanthood? Caring? Sacrifice?
Yet the word complementarians always, always, always return to, is “leadership.” Strachan says that men who don’t understand this system aren’t “virtuous leader[s].” The blog and Twitter posts he referenced from Gavin Peacock define complementarianism as husband “leader”ship in no uncertain terms.
And this is the real point at which Strachan parts ways with Christian egalitarians and secular media. For all this talk about men sacrificing for their wives, that’s not what the culture is reacting against. It’s reacting against the statement that husbands have a certain kind of authority that wives don’t have. Don’t write an article describing only the nice parts of your definition, downplay the part everyone is reacting to, and then pearl-clutch about why they don’t like you.
I mean, let’s revisit those Tweets from Peacock that everyone got mad about.
“Wives: one of the primary ways you are to respect your husband is by gladly submitting to and encouraging his leadership.”
“Husbands: one of your primary duties in loving your wife is to feed her with the Word of God daily.”
Those Tweets don’t say, “Husbands, your primary duty in loving your wife is to sacrifice for her, treat her gently, bless her, and make sure she’s flourishing.” And they don’t say, “Wives, your primary duty is to receive the sacrifices your husband makes for your personal flourishing.” If they did this, essentially following the definition Strachan tried to feed us earlier, I doubt there would have been such an uproar. People uproared (is that a word?) not because Peacock told husbands to help their wives succeed, but because he told husbands to be leaders and wives to step back.
And let’s be honest here. The CBMW itself doesn’t limit its definition of complementarianism to self-sacrifice. It definitely includes an air of authority, the assumption that men are ultimately responsible for decisions and that women should be aware of that.
Let’s look at the definition of headship according to one of the organization’s primary documents, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.
In a world of sin in which both husband and wife are beset by the limitations sin brings to our understanding and to the evaluative and decision-making process, there will be times when a consensus may not be reached. In this situation, it is the husband’s responsibility to exercise his leadership role and make the decision. The wife needs to submit to that decision. (p. 356, emphasis mine)
That goes beyond simply observing your wife’s needs and meeting them. It takes us into the realm of authority, of men having a right to say what is best when push comes to shove.
But wait! I hear you say. What if that means it’s the man’s job to figure out what’s best for the woman? That would technically fulfill the leadership role and the requirement of always putting your wife first.
I had that conversation with a friend once, actually. During a heated debate about this very topic, I asked him how he would treat his future wife if they ever disagreed about something major.
“I wouldn’t be mean or inconsiderate,” he said. “I would think hard, pray hard, and figure out what was truly in her best interest, and then I would do that.”
“But why would you know better than her what was in her best interest?” I said. “If she disagreed with you and thought something wasn’t right for her, on what basis would you claim to know differently?”
He was silent.
“Besides,” I went on, “isn’t that the equivalent of seeing her as a child? How could you claim to see your wife as an equal if you didn’t think she had any more self-awareness than one of your kids?”
He was pretty astounded by that response and didn’t know how to answer. (I like to think that conversation started him down the road to feminism, but maybe that’s just my ego talking!)
Ironically, that same essay from Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood illustrates this pretty beautifully. It goes on to give an example of headship in which a man gets a job offer and wants to move his family, but the wife is pained at the thought of leaving her own career.
Think Strachan’s version of “headship” would dictate that the man lovingly sacrifice to keep his wife happy? Not according to his organization’s rulebook:
From these perspectives, the husband’s work must take precedence (when necessary) over the wife’s, and she must be willing to help her husband fulfill his calling in this realm even if it means that she must give up her position. (p. 357)
If Strachan wants to insist that the technical definition of complementarianism is actually attractive, he needs to make sure his definition accords with other resources within his organization. Check out this gem from an assistant professor at Boyce College, posted on the CBMW web site:
“During the day”we talk and listen to one another. We ask questions, express concerns,and push-back on what the other one is thinking.”During the day” is the time when a husband listens to his wife ( Jas 1:19), seeks to lovingly serve her (1 Cor 13:5), and live understandably with her (1 Pet 3:7).
“The end of the day” is the phrase we use to refer to the actual decision as it is made. At “the end of the day” I am the one responsible before God to make a decision that suits the best interests of our family.
As CBMW resources make clear, complementarianism is not always about the husband being responsive to the wife’s needs. Sometimes it’s about the husband knowing best and having the authority to make it so.
In fact, within the Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood book, you find other essays that move even further away from Strachan’s claims. Raymond C. Ortlund writes,
A man, just by virtue of his manhood, is called to lead for God. A woman, just by virtue of her womanhood, is called to help for God….The man was not created to help the woman, but the reverse. (p. 91)
So much for men helping women to flourish. This guy seems to think it’s the other way around.
My point is, the secular culture Strachan complains about is not stupid. It sees the darker side of the definition, and that’s why it reacts as it does.
In fact, let’s really think about this. If complementarianism truly does what Strachan says it does, then shouldn’t Christian culture appear to put the agenda of wives and women above the agenda of husbands and men? If all this servant-leadership happens in traditional marriages and churches, shouldn’t conservative churches be a bastion of self-actualized women?
Do non-Christians typically walk around saying, “Wow, those Christian families sure do have a habit of relocating for the wife’s career choices. You don’t see that many Christian husbands setting the family’s agenda to revolve around their own jobs and educational advances. I wonder why that is?”
Do women typically look at Christian wives and say, “These Christian women are so much less stressed than I am. How do they get their husbands to help with the children and housework so much more, and give them so much more time to pursue hobbies, put their feet up, and take a bubble bath than my husband does? You never hear Christian women laughing about ‘I just want to pee alone’ memes. How are they so lucky?”
Do feminists walk around saying, “Look at those churches! They do a great job not presenting women’s viewpoints as ‘other.’ They go out of their way to talk about women of the Bible as much as men, and they don’t have ‘women’s groups’ that talk about something different and less meaty than the other Bible studies and church activities. Little girls growing up in that church will surely feel that their perspective is just as foundational as a male perspective.”
Secular culture is not, as Strachan suggests, ignorant of what true care towards women looks like. They would know it if they saw it, and they resist complementarianism because, frankly, they don’t see it there.
Strachan’s message just strikes me as so hollow, especially considering things he’s said before. He once used a laundry commercial about a dad who helps out around the house as an excuse to coin the term “man fail” for husbands who choose to serve their families by being stay-at-home dads. For crying out loud! This guy is going to complain that other people don’t know how to serve women?
You know, as to his “sacrifice, gentle, flourishing, etc.” definition, I’m not against the idea that men should live with a special attentiveness or responsibility toward their wife’s happiness. It’s true that women are disadvantaged in many ways throughout society, and that a Godly husband will not only recognize that but work to see her rise above it. This is exemplified beautifully in I Peter 3:7:
The same goes for you husbands: Be good husbands to your wives. Honor them, delight in them. As women they lack some of your advantages. But in the new life of God’s grace, you’re equals. Treat your wives, then, as equals so your prayers don’t run aground. –The Message
The world’s first-ever “check your privilege” moment!
But you don’t need to introduce notions of authority or leadership to motivate husbands to check their privilege. You just need love.
And with love devoid of authority and leadership, you have…