I don’t understand ‘complementarianism’

I am quite busy this week, and I didn’t plan on contributing to Rachel Held evans’ mutuality week. But eventually this rant had to be written somehow. I hope someone can make sense of it. And even if you disagree with me, take me as an example of someone for whom a lot of traditions seem to be just impossible. Even if I go to far in some directions, from a partial outside blind spots can be seen that insiders will never even would think of…

Warning beforehand: I’m probably naïve, I probably grew up on the wrong planet, and even my own Flemish culture can be alien to me sometimes. So don’t expect me to take American sensitivities and unspoken laws for granted. Being a sometimes rootless postmodern does have a lot of disadvantages, but for a follower of Socrates (Who questioned everything, something which parallels Jewish thought) it has the dubious advantage to easily look through some things that others won’t ever question.

‘Complementarianism’ seems to be a loaded word, if I can rely on what I find when I browse the contemporary Anglo-Saxon Christian blogosphere. If I would not be aware what is meant with it, I would probably heartily wear it as a label: I do happen to believe that not just people in a relationship or marriage, but even most people in most situations, do need to complement each other when they’re doing things together. I don’t think it could ever be otherwise if I’m honest…

But that’s apparently not how people use the word. Christians (mostly of an American evangelical variety) seem to use to word to prescribe role models in marriage that to me are quite alien, and I honestly don’t believe they’d be less alien to a first-century Jew as they are to me. Something that to me looks like old-fashioned Flemish farmers mentality with a bit of lower working-class sexism thrown in. (Accuse me of classism, but when I was working within certain circles I was quite shocked about the sexism and homophobia going on there.) Most descriptions of gender roles that I encountered in this school of thought have not that much to do with the bible, regardless of how much bible verses they use, but more with going back to a historical situation somewhere between the industrial revolution and the 1950’s.

I myself might be lucky. I grew up in a secular country with a liberal Catholicism on the brink of disappearing in atheism. Whatever patriarchal traditions there might be in older communities, I’ve never encountered them as something religious, more like something backwards and primitive. My parents were in the leadership of a pentecostal church (later moved on to the vineyard) and they raised me quite egalitarian, even if I never heard that word. Later I heard that some saw my father as the most woman-friendly preacher of Flemish evangelicalism, but I must say I’ve never seen that much of the ‘woman-unfriendliness’ when I was younger. I always was aware that some Christians teach that women should be obedient to men, or that they should not hold any position in a church or preach. But the pentecostals that I met did allow women to preach as far as I can remember. I can remember having women preacher on all youth camps, and also seeing those women preach .

(I seem to be the lucky man here, and that’s not only due to me being naieve and oblivious. Even my wife has encountered things that I would not believe existed in pentecostal circles, and the last years I’ve seen -thanks to the internet- that the discussion about women in church and their position, one I wasn’t aware of that still existed here is still alive, even among young people.)

I never realised it was that special to hear a woman preach. I don’t know much women preachers, but I’ve also haven’t met any women who aspired to preach. I’ve always had women preacher on the pentecostal events that I attended when I was younger, and never thought anything about it. And I must say that right now in our vineyard church in Antwerp, a lot of people (including me) get to preach, regardless of gender and age, in the spirit of John Wimbers ‘everybody gets to play’ philosophy… So my direct environment only makes it more natural to not see that much differences between the sexes in role.

It is quite logical that different people have different gifts. I know women who are good at speaking, and men who are good at cooking (like me), and this has influence on both roles in a church or enterprise, but also in a relationship. Actually the differences between 2 people of the same sex can be much bigger than between a man and a woman. Generalisations about ‘women are X’, or ‘men are Y’ have never worked for me and always made me feel somewhere uncomfortable and abnormal. Neither the Christian ‘wild at heart’ variety nor the secular ‘Venus and Mars’ ever made much sense for me, my wife, or our relationship. Every person is different, every combination of persons will be different too, and as someone who consistently fails to conform to the lowest denominator I always fail too at this kind of prescribed roles. And I could say the same for my wife, and trying to conform our marriage to some Driscollian theory would just completely destroy our relationship, that has always been very good.

Also, Silencing women is making half of the church passive, which sounds more like the work of Satan to me than like the work of God. I’ve been blessed too much by women who were ‘above me’ in church contexts to ever think it ‘wrong’.

In the end, I can only share what I know. If I am honest, I see no way at all in which the idea of ‘hierarchy in a marriage’ would even work. (I don’t see it working in the trinity either, like Roger Olson says here, pt 2 and pt 3, it’s not just heresy, but plain nonsense) I am a natural mutual person. Yes, there always is hierarchy in certain contexts: if I’m at work I have to listen to my boss, and I have to listen to a police man in a uniform. But I don’t have to listen to my boss outside my working hours, or to a policeman outside his time. Likewise there are moments when one person takes the lead in a marriage, depending on what person is closer to the job that needs to be done. So sometimes I will submit to my wife when things need to be done, sometimes it’s the other way around. But even then, most important decisions could never be made by one of us, but only together after some talking.

To conclude: I do not understand at all what hierarchy-obsessed ‘complementarism’ advocates, it goes counter to all I believe and what I see in the bible, and all that works in my life, and everything where I’ve seen the Spirit at work. I’ve seen it hurt women, and pushed unto me it would hurt me to. I’m not a top-leader, I’m a democratic person. I believe in carrying responsibility together in love.

That’s what I know. And that’s how I see it work. That’s how I see the spirit works. And I don’t want to need to defend myself against some backwards and to me utterly arbitrary and incoherent framework that cannot be mine but wants to push itself unto others as being ‘the biblical way’.

I just want to share that I love my marriage, in which we share our responsibilities in love. I want to testify about all the women who taught me in my life as a believer. Just like the first person to ever preach the resurrection was a woman (Mary of Magdala), who is therefor dubbed ‘apostle to the apostles’ by the church fathers and orthodox church, women are needed in the church as half of the imago dei, and I would not be what I am without them.



8 responses to “I don’t understand ‘complementarianism’

  1. Hoewel ik Engels heel makkelijk lees reageer ik toch liever in het Nederlands: ik heb zeker de indruk dat je geboft hebt in je jeugd, en ook daarna, als het gaat om rolverdeling tussen de seksen.
    Mijn ouders dachten wel ongeveer zoals jij, maar dat was zeker niet het geval in de aftakking van de protestantse kerk in Nederland waartoe we behoorden; en ik hoor daar nog steeds bij.
    Ik ben ook thuis in die kerk, maar pas enkele jaren geleden zijn vrouwen ‘toegelaten tot alle ambten’, zoals dat wordt genoemd. Iets waar ik, en velen met mij, decennia op hebben gewacht.
    We hebben nu dan ook één, jawel, één, vrouwelijke gemeentedominee in ons kleine kerkverband, die het heel goed doet.
    Vrouwelijke ouderlingen zijn er inmiddels heel wat meer.

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  4. God is also Godess and Godess is God. It is everything ‘The I Am That I am’, de Al-Ene, de Onnoembare. HIJ/ZIJ/HET (zie je hoe elke taal tekortschiet?) omvat alles en DUS ook alles wat wij “vrouwelijk” noemen. Al de rest zijn puur, cultuurgerelateerde menselijke beschouwingen. God houdt zich hier écht niet mee bezig hoor.

  5. Brambonius,

    I found much of Olson’s critique sensible. Though I think he falls short by saying that the Father is a monarch only in the sense that he is the origin of the Son and the Holy Spirit.

    Oldson claims this of the “immanent Trinity”, which translated means “The Trinity in Eternity”, but Neo-Orthodox evangelicals don’t like to say eternity because their philosophy demands that they ascribe time to God in order to supposedly harmonize Trinitarian Christianity with some of the 20th century philosophers like Heidegger (but this is another discussion entirely).

    It falls short precisely because it can imply that the Father is the first sequential blob-god, who creates two equal and united blob-gods that are blob gods just like him. The Father is not just “player one” in the Trinity. He is God proper, the source of not only the divine persons, but of Divine Essence and Himself. The Son and Spirit do the will of the Father in eternity. The Father is glorified through the Son and in the Holy Spirit from all eternity, not just in the economy of salvation. The Father is shining forth through the Son and the Holy Spirit in a myriad of boundless theophanies, uncreated energies and powers, even from before the creation of creation.

    The Word of God is not the Word of the Divine Essence, but the Word of the Father. And the Holy Spirit is not the Spirit of the Divine Essence, but the Spirit of the Father, who shines forth through the Son.

    2 Corinthians 13:14 still sends and involuntary shiver of dissonance through Olson’s triadology, imo.


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