A dialog between a complementarian, a feminist, and a patriarch...

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What does the word 'complementarian' mean?

Complementarian is a new word invented to point to the fact that the sexes, male and female, were created by God to complement each other. Dictionaries define ‘complement’ as “something that fills up, completes, or makes perfect.”

Back in the eighties, a group of scholars began to refer to themselves as “complementarians” in order to give a positive statement to the church that, in the matter of sexuality, tended towards conservatism. They talked and wrote about the mutual benefit of man and woman living together in such a way as to show God’s beautiful design of each sex. ‘Complete’ is the root of ‘complement,’ and thus Man complements woman as woman complements man. Their neologism, then, was "complementarianism."

Of course, the man who identifies himself as a “complementarian” has two problems...

no one can spell the word; and its meaning is ambiguous precisely at the point at issue, which is "did God create the world a patriarchy, matriarchy, or an anarchy?" That’s the battle and the man who responds by saying he’s a complementarian leaves everyone completely befuddled about which side of the conflict he’s on.

The first problem is well-known: the word ‘complementarianism’ is almost always misspelled because people confuse ‘complement’ meaning “complete” with ‘compliment’ meaning “to say nice things about something or someone.” Thus somewhere above fifty percent of the uses of the term are misspelled and those misspellings are indicative of a lack of understanding of the meaning of the word. Even as I type in the latest version of Microsoft Word, each time I type the word ‘complementarian,’ it is underlined by MS Word indicating I have made an error in my spelling. Humorously, when I control-click the word, MS Word suggests I change the spelling to “complement Arian.” But Arianism is a heresy, so why would I want to compliment Arian? Or Arius, for that matter?

So why do men push this blockbuster of a word when no one can spell it?

Asking this question leads us to the second problem with the word ‘complementarianism.’ It was invented in order to cloud the matter. It’s an equivocation meant to blur distinctions rather than clarify them.

My Dad used to say he wanted to be known as “anti-abortion” rather than “pro-life.” And explaining his choice of words, he'd say, "Why do Evangelicals always have to say everything positively? I'm not pro-baby. I'm anti-abortion. And if I'd been alive at the time of the Civil War, I wouldn't have been pro-blacks, but anti-slavery."

This cultural failure typical of Evangelicals is the reason these scholars invented this word. ‘Complementarianism’ is a circumlocution intended to grease up Evangelicals so they can slide past the hatred of our age for that very old and very dignified word ‘patriarchy.’ There is nothing more hated by the world today than patriarchy—literally “father-rule." This is why scholars abandoned the word. It was too clear and too hated.

Now in principle there is nothing wrong with choosing a word that doesn’t get people’s hackles up, immediately. And ‘patriarchy’ certainly does that! But if we choose another word, whatever word we choose should have a meaning that’s close to the word it’s replacing. If ‘patriarchy’ means “father-rule,” we would want to move on to another word that carries the two concepts ‘patriarchy’ carries: namely fatherhood and authority.

Sadly, the word ‘complementarianism’ carries neither. 

Further, most feminists would have no problem being called “complementarian.” And when it comes to polemics, it used to be an accepted fact that ambiguity is not an asset, but a liability.

Unless, of course, the goal of our ambiguity is to cloud the issue, muddy the water, throw feathers in the air, and take your opponent’s eye off the ball.

If that's your goal, ‘complementarianism’ does it perfectly.

* * *

Complementarian: I’m a complementarian!

Feminist: A complementarian? What is that?

Complementarian: A complementarian spelled with an ‘e.’ It means I believe the genders complete each other. That God made Adam and Eve to be mutually beneficial as husband and wife. Each of them were given gifts the other needs and together they are more than the sum of their parts.

Feminist: Well of course different genders are different! Who says they’re not? But your new word gives me no indication what the difference is!

Complementarian: Well, we can talk about that. But I want to make clear that I’m thankful for feminists’ work calling the church to repent of the oppression of women that has been characteristic of Christians and the Christian church for too, too long. I'm deeply sorry and I apologize.

Feminist: That sounds good, but beyond that, what do you stand for? I can’t figure it out.

Complementarian: Well, I believe that both man and woman equally bear the Image of God, and therefore both man and woman are equal. I love my wife and mother and daughters and I treat them with respect.

Feminist: Again, that’s good. But I thought we disagreed with each other?

Complementarian: Maybe, maybe not. Sounds like we both agree that women and men are equal, right?

Feminist: Right.

Complementarian: So we agree there! Isn’t that neat?

Feminist: Maybe, but would you please get to the point!

Complementarian: Well, I think maybe what you’re getting at is the fact that I believe that one part of the complementarian world God has created is that the husband and wife are each made to submit to each other in loving unity. That the wife is made by God to complete her husband and the husband is made by God to be a servant leader of his wife. Doesn’t that sound good? There’s no privileging there, is there? Do you like me now?

Feminist: Ah, come on! Stop talking around the issue. Do you take me for a fool? You hold to patriarchy and I know it. You believe the husband is the head of the wife, don’t you? Come on, admit it!

Complementarian: Well, you might put it that way but I take strong exception to that word ‘patriarchy.’ Across the centuries I believe the church has been wrong to hold to a patriarchal view of marriage and the home. It’s time for us to be the loving servants of our wives God made us to be. It’s about time for us to love our wives and treat them with respect as the equals God made them to be. Yes, I think the husband has a kind of headship in the home, but it’s not the way you think of it. It doesn’t mean the husband sits in his Lazy-Boy watching the football game and yells at his wife to go get him a beer smacking her on the bottom as she walks by. I’m quite sensitive and gentle and you can ask my children—I cry a lot. Do you see how different I am from my father and father’s father and father’s father’s father—those mean Christian men of past generations and centuries who hated and took advantage of their wives? I'm evolved! Progressive! Deeply integrated as a human being! Sensitive—very, very sensitive and engaging.

Feminist: (pulling hair out) Look! Do you or do you not believe that the man is the head of the home—that he is the final authority in the home? Do you believe in father-rule?

Complementarian: Wellll… Let me be very careful here because it’s so easy to be misunderstood in matters which are so very controversial. In one sense I suppose I could agree that the husband has some sort of tie-breaking authority…

* * * 

So now, do you see it? This is the complementarian. I know him well because I used to be one. He floats like a butterfly and stings like a butterfly, which is to say he dances around the issue and never says anything negative. 

Turning our backs on equivocation and misdirection and mollycoddling, let’s try another tack and see how it goes.

* * *

Patriarch: I hold to patriarchy.

Feminist: Patriarchy? You’ve gotta be kidding me! What cave did you just crawl out of?

Patriarch: No, seriously; I believe in patriarchy, just like thousands of generations before me, and I’m alive today, right now standing here in front of you. Do you know what patriarchy means?

Feminist: Of course I know what it means! It means the husband sits on his behind in the Lazy-Boy watching football, yelling at the kids to stop blocking the television, yelling at his wife to go get him a beer. And while she’s at it, to make him some guacamole. And smacking her on the bottom every time she walks by.

Patriarch: Well, if we’re simply going to trade insults, you know how many feminists it takes to change a light bulb?

Feminist: (silence)

Patriarch: Hey! Did you hear me—how many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?

Feminist: Alright, how many?

Patriarch: THAT'S NOT FUNNY! (he chuckles)

Feminist: (confused) What’s not funny?

Patriarch: (cheerful) That’s the punch line—“that’s not funny!”

Feminist: (silence)

Patriarch: See, I told you and you didn’t laugh.

Feminist: What’s there to laugh about?

Patriarch: Nothing. Nothing at all. It’s not funny.

Feminist: So why are you a patriarch?

Patriarch: Because when God made Adam first, then Eve, He was decreeing that across all time man would reflect His Own Fatherhood, his loving rule and authority. You see, that’s what ‘patriarchy’ means. Literally, it’s the combining of the two Greek words ‘father’ and ‘rule.’ In the relations between the sexes, there are only three options: patriarchy, matriarchy, or anarchy. You hold to matriarchy and I hold to patriarchy.

Feminist: How can you say those are the only three options? What’s wrong with mutuality?

Patriarch: Are you going to tell me that you know couples where neither partner makes the decisions—everything is mutually agreed upon?

Feminist: Sure, I know all kinds of couples where neither partner dominates the other.

Patriarch: Ah, now we’re off and running. First, patriarchy never means the father dominates his wife or family. Patriarchy means the father serves his family by taking responsibility for them and leading them to understand and worship God the Father Almighty from Whom all fatherhood comes.

Feminist: You mean to tell me you actually believe that every husband is the head of his wife? What about government—are you saying it’s wrong to have a woman president? If Hillary Clinton ran, are you saying you wouldn’t vote for her because she’s a woman and it’s wrong for a woman to hold authority over men?

Patriarch: Good questions. The particular application of God's Order of Creation, or patriarchy, to different spheres of authority needs to be talked about carefully. Sex isn’t the only thing to take into consideration when voting for a president, as in “She’s a woman so that’s that—I won’t vote for her.”

That’s not my position. If Hillary Clinton were pro-life and her opponent were male and pro-abortion, I might very well vote for Hillary Clinton. But back to the underlying principle: yes, since God made Adam (the man) first, and Eve (the woman) second, all sexual intimacy is to be heterosexual and all relations between the sexes are to start with that truth of patriarchy God wrote into mankind’s DNA flowing from the Father Almighty. As in “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of Heaven and Earth.”

He placed his father-authority in the male of the species—not the female of the species, nor equally in the male and female of the species…

* * *

See how clear and level-headed and direct and respectful and honest and temperate and irenic it is when we decide to live by faith?

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

Want to get in touch? Send Tim an email!