Ideal Complementarianism

Have you ever had an ideal concept of something that turned out very differently when it was actually put into practice? I remember the time my friend asked me to join the Robotics Club at school; she was sure we would both get in and that as members of the team we would create and build a robot that would win at challenges and competitions. But when it came time for the very first meeting – I learned that she wasn’t chosen and I was stuck in a club that I had no real interest in joining in the first place.

So it is with the ethereal, ideal concept of complementarianism: Men are servant-leaders who follow Christ’s example, women are to serve their husbands as the help who joyfully, intelligently submits to his leadership over her and their children also following Christ’s other example. Men who do it right will never make their wives feel as if they’re inferiors and never make them miserable. Women who do it right will never feel degraded, disrespected, or as if they’re anything but equal partners.

But in the last two thousand or so years of matrimony, of men traditionally being in charge and women playing a supporting role – marriage has never matched up to that ideal concept. In every which way, it’s gone wrong.

Statistics tell us that domestic violence is a nationwide problem and there’s no group that immune to it’s effects. Even in Christian circles there’s overlap between the number of Christians and the percent of domestic violence that occurs nationwide – it’s impossible for non-Christians to account for all incidents of domestic violence. So somehow, households that affirm this ideal concept of complementarianism harbor the dark secret of domestic violence – which in itself is a violation of what those beliefs would seem to indicate. And yet, in a round-about way, it’s not.

In just about every relationship between an authority and a subordinate, there’s an implied contract of behavior – breaching that requires some form of punishment. When a parent disciplines a child, or a superior officer reprimands a junior officer for disregarding protocol, why should it be any different for a husband who is displeased with his wife? After all, there is a movement out there in Christianity that affirms a husband’s duty to discipline his wife not unlike McClintock’s resolution of his marital issues in the old John Wayne western and remake of Shakesphere’s ‘The Taming of the Shrew’. Does this not suggest that a wife’s status is similar to that of her children when her husband doles out the same punishment to them both?

But what about how male headship lets down capable women whose husbands are outright inconsiderate and wasteful? Let’s say a husband decides he’s going to buy something costly that will put a significant dent in the wife’s ability to feed, clothe, and educate the children with what little money remains – is it still her duty to unquestioningly support her husband as he chases down his dreams and fulfills his desires at her own expense? The Christian movie Fireproof entertained this question – a husband’s dream to own his own boat so entirely consumed him, that his wife felt it necessary to secure her own job so that she could use her money to pay for her parent’s medical expenses because she knew that he had no intention of giving up what he wanted in order to get her what she wanted. Perhaps the movie didn’t suggest that’s why the wife had a job at all, but I’ve seen such arrangements occur in Christian circles for that reason because when theology says: “the man makes the decisions” of course a husband is going to prioritize his wants and needs as surely as our politicians always pass bills that authorize their own pay raises. So women are often left with two choices – make do with less or make money themselves so that they can do right by their children.

And you can always bring in the ‘No True Scotsman’ to account for anyone who fails this ideal concept of complementarianism. Because only true Christian servant-leaders get it right, any man who abuses his wife, or selfishly puts his desires above her needs, or forces her to obey him when she isn’t willing is obviously not a true servant-leader and probably not a believer. It becomes the woman’s fault for marrying such a low-life and lying excuse for a guy, but she’s obligated to submit to him as surely as male headship means that wives submit even to unbelieving husbands; which, conveniently, the Bible even says. With any luck, the more a believing wife submits, the more an unbelieving husband will be won over by her sincere devotion to her faith and purity of her life, he will repent of his boorishness and becoming the loving, gentle servant-leader she had always deserved but never had. But I don’t always see that happening, why would a guy want to ruin a good thing he’s got going on when whatever he wants he gets and what he says goes just because he’s the husband? Why would he even need Christ messing up such a sweet deal?

So it’s a win-win-win for the guys no matter what, they win as being in charge just because they’re men, they win as always being the decision maker who always gets what he wants, how he wants it, when he wants it, and when they aren’t believers, they win because their wives still have to submit to them no matter how badly they might behave. Which is to be expected in a first-century society in a patriarchal world where women are under-educated and have little to no ability to respectably support themselves.

For the record, we are not that kind of society. We’re an increasingly egalitarian society where women can support themselves, women can out-earn men and men can be stay-at-home dads. I wonder – was male headship assumed as the norm in ancient societies as the man alone was the economic anchor for the household? Would that mean that “headship” would transfer to women who are the economic anchors for their households today?

Perhaps – take a look at Lydia – she was a seller of purple cloth and managed to have a business back in the day. The Bible doesn’t tell us a thing about whether or not she had a husband, but it seems that she was the head of her household, servants and all. It makes me wonder if the only reason why Male headship was a thing was because only males were permitted to engage in business for the most part and because Lydia and other women like her had business, perhaps they had Female headship in much the same way? I guess it would mean that working moms and dads have co-headship, Male Headship and Female Headship working together to strengthen the economic standing of their household.

Because a household back in the day was also something of a self-sufficient economic unit; it wasn’t just a mom, a dad, and their kids; but extended relatives and a whole staff of servants. Some were servants that raised their food and tended their animals, some were house servants who didn’t just keep the house clean, but also were workers who made the crafts that would be sold at market. In this way, a household was easily dozens of people. It made sense that the leader of that household was the one who could represent them all in public, do business on behalf of them all in public, and bring in as much money as possible to give them all the best chance of a comfortable life. In ancient societies, that role was generally limited to men. In modern societies, men and women have an equal shot of doing that – and a better shot of working together. But that means that they’d have to share leadership and have equal say over what to do with the money that they both bring in. Yet because the Bible mainly speaks to men, it’s assumed that only men have this public role and women should not; but that’s only because they could not back then and today women can, which doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t.

So that’s probably why people speak of this ethereal ideal concept of Complementarianism in generalities and avoiding specifics, because when it comes down to earth, it doesn’t do very well at all; it’s almost as if it doesn’t even belong in our time and culture, but people hesitate to throw it out thinking: “If one part of the Bible isn’t true, then the rest mustn’t be true either!” So people do their best to believe in the parts that don’t fit our culture and society thinking that every part of the Bible is a timeless truth; avoiding the reality that some parts of the Bible is culturally bound and it doesn’t have to be understood in that light if you don’t want it to – but given that these parts give so much power to some over others – it’s too tempting to give it up and ultimately, nobody can make you do anything you don’t want to do. If you don’t want to give up what you think is your God-given authority to make decisions for other people, then you aren’t going to let anybody take that away from you – not unless they’re God and they prove it beyond the shadow of a doubt.


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