So there we were, Riley and I talking with one of the Sunday School teachers. He had just spent several weeks teaching about the origin of the Bible. It wasn’t long before Riley managed to bring up our favorite subject, complementarianism. My knee-jerk reaction was to find something else – anything else to talk about. After all, this was an egalitarian denomination and odds were pretty good that this church was different from our last one. But then I remembered something from a sermon – to leave an oppression unchallenged is to perpetuate it and to be silent is to do nothing to stop it. Complementarianism may be a benevolent form of oppression, but it is oppressive all the same and therefore it must be challenged at every turn. I now believe that Riley was right, you have to talk about what complementarianism is and what it does whenever the conversation takes turn in that direction and you must not be afraid to bring it up as often as possible when the conversation is being steered away from the topic. People need to understand what the teaching says and what it does.
In my time in Christianity, I’ve discovered that there’s a great many people who have never heard the word complementarianism, but they believe in it’s tenets – men and women are created equal, but men and women have different roles, men are the heads of the household and hold the positions of authority and leadership in the church of deacon, elder and pastor, women are help-meets who bear and raise children and keep the house in order, men are the servant-leaders who provide for their household, women are to submit to the Christ-like headship of their husbands, women may not teach men, but women may teach other women and children, etc. If you believe these things then you’re a complementarian.
You might be caught on my charge of benevolent oppression and wondered how complementarianism fits the bill – let’s use this quote to break it down:
Researchers Glick and Fiske believe that hostile oppression works side by side with benevolent oppression. What are benevolent oppression’s tools? Benevolent oppression isn’t focused on name-calling and criticism, but on putting marginalized people on pedestals. On exceptionalism and dehumanizing idolization. On gently forcing people into roles “for their own good” or “out of love.” – Sarah over the Moon
If you’re asking how complementarianism puts women on a pedestal, take a good look on the Sunday nearest Mother’s day how women are glorified and praised for being grandmothers, mothers, and wives. Does your church give out gifts and honor the youngest mothers, the oldest mothers, the newest mother, the most recent mother, the ones with the most children (this one is done counting up until there’s one woman left standing and everybody else had to sit down) and the most great-grandchildren? And take a look at the stories in the Bible that are highlighted for women: there’s Esther, Ruth, Mary, and Proverbs 31 – all of which are connected by the themes of marriage and motherhood. Whereas stories of women that do not focus on those two themes are hardly discussed. Women’s bible studies often take it a step further by pointing out how exceptional these women were. It’s often been said that ‘the highest calling for women is to be wives and mothers.‘ That’s a description of their gender role, the things and activities that are appropriate and acceptable for women.
The compliment of benevolent oppression is hostile oppression – it’s those snide remarks about women being incompetent, unintelligent, overly emotional, and even manipulative. Where the other form is positive, this one is negative. It might be a joke at a woman’s expense from the pulpit or a nod to the idea that women spend so much money they’re unable to handle finances. Maybe it’s a comment about make-up that was out of line. It could be criticism about something a woman didn’t do right or something along those lines.
In all this talk, the gender role of women as wives and mothers is idolized so much so that unmarried and childless women are often left wondering where they belong in the picture. Christianity has been sending the message: “You’re not really a woman if you aren’t married and don’t have children” right alongside “You’re selfish if you’re unmarried and don’t have children” for a very long time now. The benevolent oppression idolizes one group at the expense of the hostile oppression the other group deals with in being even more marginalized. And that’s why I have a problem with complementarianism and it’ll be a conversation topic from here on out.