Complementarianism is on evangelicals’ minds lately, what with their big sex abuse scandals unfolding daily. Some of them are kinda getting why it doesn’t work, but others are still clinging hard to this Jesus-flavored form of misogyny. If I didn’t know the sheer misery and abuse that complementarianism breeds, I’d almost think it was funny to see so many people insisting that such an obviously failed and unworkable relationship pattern actually totally does what it says on the tin. But I do know a lot about what this pattern does to the people practicing it, and today I’ll show you why it keeps evangelicals from the relationships they say they want.
The roots of complementarianism: the culture wars
As usual, the blame for this abuse-enabling doctrine can be laid at the door of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).
Back in the late 1970s, some SBC leaders felt alarmed by the inroads women were making in the denomination. Why, some women were even becoming pastors! The horror! Something had to be done!
And that something was the Conservative Resurgence. Through a series of backroom wheeling and dealing, a few guys realized that the SBC’s power structure suffered from a very big problem. A lot of its higher levels of power depended on lower-level people (which is how I suspect the inexperienced, 33-year-old Al Moher ended up in charge of the SBC’s flagship seminary in 1993). Also, the President of the SBC appointed a whale of a lot of people to all kinds of roles.
These architects of schism planted their own agents into lower levels. At the same time, they set about capturing the higher-level positions. They figured if they could keep the presidency for ten years, meaning for 5 elections as elections happen every two years, that would give them enough time to completely seize control of the entire denomination.
And it worked.
Seriously, the whole reason for the Conservative Resurgence
Throughout this period, the schism faction campaigned hard against female pastors. That was the entire reason for the Conservative Resurgence. Here’s Al Mohler spilling the beans just last year:
The issue of women serving as pastors and preachers in churches roiled the Southern Baptist Convention from the 1970s until the Conservative Resurgence in the Convention clarified the question conclusively in the Baptist Faith & Message revision of 2000. There never was a moment when more than a handful of women served as pastors of SBC churches, but the mainline Protestant denominations were rushing headlong into the ordination of women as pastors and (Episcopal) priests, driven by two major energies — first, the demands of second wave feminism and, second, the impulses unleashed by liberation theology.
And y’all, that made the sexists of the SBC very upset!
Oh sure, they said it was about “biblical authority.” Even Al Mohler tries it in that quoted essay. We see similar euphemisms around the American Civil War and “states’ rights.” And as we do with slavery apologists, we ask complementarians: authority to do what, exactly? The answer was always simply this: to deny women any positions of real power in the denomination; to keep the SBC’s leadership a boys-only club.
To sell their schism, its architects produced books, seminars, and lectures about how idealized, rigid, suspiciously-1950s-style gender roles were actually totally divine mandates.
Buttressing a culture war with Bible verses
That said, this schism wasn’t an easy sell at first. Seven or eight years later, it still hadn’t taken sure root.
By the 1980s, the architects were calling this doctrine complementarianism, since separate but equal was way too on-the-nose and obviously bad. (The word wasn’t in use in print until 1986, according to the Google Ngram Viewer.)
In 1987, as we learn in a great post from The Conversation, a group of the biggest sexists-for-Jesus met together in Danvers, Massachusetts. Wartburg Watch clarifies that this meeting was held in secret. There, this group laid out a bunch of Jesus-y rationalizations and Bible verses to support their war against feminism.
The results of this meeting were the Danvers Statement on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, and also the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW).
Complementarianism took off quickly. The CBMW’s first book, Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, came out in 1992–and the next year, the readers of the evangelical magazine Christianity Today voted it their “Book of the Year.” However, Wartburg Watch thinks the votes weren’t on the level–like how internet trolls skew online polls today and we end up with an official British government ship called “Boaty McBoatface.”
How Southern Baptists adopted complementarianism
SBC leaders particularly loved complementarianism. After all, Paige Patterson had helped write that Danvers statement. He was one of the main architects of the Conservative Resurgence itself! (Incidentally, he also apparently had something to do with how Christianity Today chose their “Book of the Year.” Oh, BTW: after that year, the magazine began choosing these books through a committee.)
In 1998, the SBC adopted complementarianism as a core belief. They put it into their statement of beliefs, the Baptist Faith and Message (BFM). So, all SBC-lings had to agree with this doctrine. Here’s what the BFM says:
The husband and wife are of equal worth before God, since both are created in God’s image. The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family. A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being in the image of God as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his helper in managing the household and nurturing the next generation. [. . .]
Parents are to demonstrate to their children God’s pattern for marriage.
By now, the SBC has fully embraced complementarianism. They push it constantly.
Complementarianism was about winning a denominational slapfight, not about making a relationship or social structure that actually worked
I’m bringing all this up for a reason. I think it’s important to know how complementarianism arose as a doctrine. More importantly, it’s important to know why it arose in the first place.
It wasn’t about figuring out relationship rules that worked and fit better into the Bible.
The reason evangelicals invented complementarianism was to win a denominational slapfight. That’s it. The architects of it just wanted to demolish feminism. They wanted to stop women from seeking and holding pastoral roles in churches.
They simply did not care how complementarianism would play out in the everyday lives of their increasingly-authoritarian flocks. Nor did they care about what it would do to the marriages of those flocks, nor how it’d play out with abusers in sensitive situations. That was not on their radar.
If anything, they assumed that if any doctrine was sufficiently Jesus-y, then nothing bad could possibly come of it. Thus, anything bad that came of complementarianism had to come from the failure of individuals to live it out.
The message is, after all, always perfect in broken systems.
How “Abuse of Faith” wrecked the complementarian party
We’ve talked before about how authoritarians deal with dissenters. They get defensive!
Well, SBC leaders find themselves in quite an interesting position these days. The whole world now knows about their sex abuse mega-scandal. Journalists call it “Abuse of Faith,” and it really is. For decades, SBC ministers have sexually abused women and children in their groups. Once their abuse threatened to reach public awareness, their higher-ups just shuffled them around to other churches and silenced the victims.
And a whole lot of people are now looking at the ways that complementarianism, as a doctrine, enabled that abuse, the cover-ups, and the victim silencing. They’re beginning to see that not even tons of Jesus frosting can make “separate but equal” work fairly for everyone.
To the horror of SBC complementarians, a whole lot of those people are their fellow evangelicals.
Evangelicals are giving side-eye to complementarianism
I ended up clipping a ton of Twitter posts about evangelicals giving side-eye to complementarianism. I apologize in advance if I get their ideological leanings wrong, but as far as I can tell, these are evangelicals.
To those who still believe in male headship and female submission, I understand why you believe it. I believe you are genuine and faithful Christians, my brothers and sisters. But I can no longer pretend that any form of complementarianism is ok. Because it isn’t.
She got a lot of pushback from other evangelicals on that one! But a lot of agreement, too. For example, this one:
Complementarianism is inherently and inescapably sexist. The fact that it’s a commonly held belief doesn’t change that.
And this one, describing herself as “Anabaptist-ish,” who knows the source of the doctrine:
Complementarianism is, factually, a power ideology invented in the 1980s that can be summarised as “equal on paper but segregated by power”.
Another, in criticizing a childish condemnation of ministers with wives who work outside the home, simply declares that such views arise from “poor exegesis, theological rationale and historical understanding.”
The complementarians fight back
Of course, complementarians aren’t taking this criticism lying down. All over Twitter, I saw spluttering sexists trying to rationalize their Jesus-flavored misogyny. Like this guy:
In essence, the head is the LEAD-SACRIFICER for his family. This is my understanding of how complementarianism should work.
Well, yes. Shoulda coulda woulda! But doesn’t, in all too many cases. And if it doesn’t, then it is already beyond fixing. Without accountability, nothing forces complementarian men to prioritize their wives over themselves at all. Force is very much what is required here.
Or consider this fella, insisting that sufficient Jesus-ing makes everything perfect:
Funny enough, men who decree specifics of what women are and aren’t to do, are doing a woman’s work. I think complementarianism is biblical and, therefore, loving and good. And if we operate according to the Bible’s actual prescriptions for it, others will see that too.
But who’s gonna make men operate that way? Not complementarianism. It lacks any mechanisms for that.
Here’s another response to Beth Allison Barr. This guy simply referenced 1 Timothy 2:8-15, then wrote:
Whatever this faith that denies “complementarianism” is, it’s not Christian
The terrible truth about complementarianism
The people who designed complementarianism were not enthused with accountability. Neither were the people who designed the Conservative Resurgence. So none of them put accountability into the systems they created. In fact, they actively worked to prevent it from happening!
(And as we saw lately with the huge kerfuffle over a transparent outside investigation into the SBC’s enabling of sex abusers, they’re still fighting accountability. A bunch of them have quit rather than face that horrific fate.)
Making matters worse, evangelicals are the worst kind of authoritarian. That means they hand out unilateral power based on demographics and cronyism, not qualifications. In the process, they strip power from other demographics. And they lack any way to eject a power-holder once ensconced.
In their minds, power is completely wrecked if it can be checked. They can’t really enjoy being their god’s top dogs if their victims can refuse their demands or seek justice for wrongdoing.
As a result, evangelicalism draws to itself authoritarians who yearn for power but can’t gain it in legitimate ways. And they clearly love the fact that once they gain power over someone, nobody can take that power away from them or force them to follow any rules.
There’s a lot of things complementarians say about how their system should work in marriages. But how it actually works is another matter entirely, and their divorce rate speaks volumes.
And what it actually wreaks in the lives of the women in their churches, how it enables abusers and pressures victims to stay quiet about abuse, is another still.
Come meet the new schism, just like the old schism
There is nothing new under the sun.
I say that because complementarianism did what its creators needed it to do. Everything else is just cleanup on aisle 7. But now, they may need to wage another war with their most beloved weapon of male supremacy.
That Al Mohler essay we just talked about (relink) even says so. That’s why he wrote it. He sees another schism brewing on the horizon, and it is also linked to feminism. His old enemy did not fully die. It only slumbered.
In response, he wants to clamp down harder on complementarianism to stop the encroachment of women into his cozy little boys’ club. He wants to stomp on it so hard that it never arises again as a problem for him.
The only results that matter to the complementarians
In this new culture war, as in all of the earlier ones, all that matters is victory. In this case, victory means utterly steamrolling those ickie mean feminists. It means not having to share power, face accountability, or endure consequences for bad-faith acting.
And whatever happens to women as a result, that’s not any complementarian’s problem. After all, when the SBC’s sex abuse mega-scandal erupted around him, Al Mohler says he didn’t even notice anything amiss. He sure didn’t notice one of his own professors abusing Jennifer Lyell for years.
Cuz they got exactly what they wanted out of all of this sexist posturing. They won their culture war, and they achieved unilateral, undeserved, unassailable power. And they did it with the power of Jesus frosting.
Whatever happens afterward, they’ll just blame it on people’s supposed “sin nature” and ignore any fallout, since they got what they wanted already and don’t want to lose it. Once they declare something’s an expression of sin nature, they aren’t obligated to do anything further about it. Sin nature can’t be cured, you see. So why bother?
But it might not be their call anymore. I’ve never seen this much evangelical arguing about complementarianism before, and I’ve certainly never seen this level or amount of scholarly and informal discourse on the topic. There is a very real possibility that evangelicals teeter on the edge of a very major schism, one bigger than the first, and one that could shape their end of Christianity for decades to come.
I can’t wait.