the myth of complementarianism: my (academic) response

This is in response to a twitter conversation on the “Stuff Christian Culture Likes” feed. It represents the beginning of a conversation – a whole host of questions with a few historical and scientific facts – and should be treated as such. I will not tolerate abusive responses to my thoughts published below.


I have a problem with Paul.

Not McCartney. As if. No, the apostle.

And that’s not even fair. What I really have a problem with is how words Paul wrote for specific people in a specific time in a specific place have been transplanted without any adaptation to people he had no context for and whose world he would barely understand.

Allow me to back up.

It’s not really a secret that the role of women in Christianity is one of the major interests of my life. Professionally, I am pursuing a doctorate in sociology of religion studying women in congregations. I have had jobs where I was called “youth worker” “missionary” “teacher” and “pastor”. Personally, I am a woman who has lived life in congregations since… well, forever. I was baptized in a Presbyterian church in Maryland in 1983 before eventually joining Methodist, Anglican, Christian, Baptist and Non-Denominational congregations. I hold three degrees from Christian-based institutions of higher learning.  I have also sat in numerous rooms where I was told I had no right to speak in them since I was a woman. That the man  in the back of the room with absolutely no theological education was going to be our teacher of the Bible study that evening since he was male and willing and all my knowledge did not matter as my ability to bear children precluded my ability to bear the Gospel.

I digress.

The role of women in Church is an emotional topic for all parties involved. In the course of my academic career, I have sought to separate the emotions I and others have attached to this topic and have instead tried to focus on the logic behind the assertions. I made a comment on Twitter the other day which prompted a few people to ask if I would write a blog post expanding on it. My assertion was that complementarianism (the idea of separate but hypothetical equal roles within Christianity based on ones gender) was not actually a Biblical principle but a cultural construct which we have inherited and have continued to contribute to.

Before I lay out my argument (which will be an abbreviated form of several papers I have given at academic conferences), I want to pause and say this: if you are someone who takes each word printed in the Bible literally, then stop reading here. We are coming from fundamentally different interpretations of Scripture and thus a blog post is not a place for discussion and will probably only serve to frustrate each of us further. I wish you all the best in your journey; God speed.

People who assert this position often point to several verses which can all be found in the Pauline epistles (Eph 5:21-33, Col 3:18-19 to name a few). They use words of “submission” and “silence” and other such which persons who are against this position find problematic at best and damaging at worst. I am not particularly interested in picking at specific verses as there are space constraints with that. What I’d like to note is that Paul was writing approximately 2,000 years ago and the world was different then.

When one takes the Scriptural narrative as a whole – the 66 books of the traditional Protestant canon which were decided upon in 397 – I can find no evidence that any human is supposed to be treated inherently different from any other. What I see is a narrative of a God who deeply loves creation and wishes that creation to be the best they can be. Examples are given as to how to be those best versions – both through positive and negative examples – but ultimately the point of the Bible is to give us historical insights into the start of the faith and a set of ideas as to how we’re best supposed to live life. We are supposed to live in community. We are supposed to be kind to one another. We are supposed to give sacrificially of ourselves and we are supposed to understand that while we all have different gifts and strengths, there is not a hierarchy of worth amongst those gifts. There is consistent language of body (in which no one part is more important than any other) in how to describe the Church. This is what we should pay attention to: roles are not attached to worth or value.

Many complementarians at this point would stop me and say “of course! We totally agree!” But they would hasten to add that while men and women are equal, they are separate but equal. They then begin to talk about how women are created to be mothers and to be submissive to their husbands. That submissiveness, they claim, is a holy thing because it’s actually a mutual submission between husband and wife. This is where I take issue. (As a total aside, policies of “separate but equal” have yet to work in civil society and are largely ignored at within social science and political studies circles.)

Firstly, this assumes that “sex” and “gender” are the same thing. The way men and women are spoken about are actually largely in sex terms and not gender ones, but they two are conflated. “Gender,” as I and other social scientists use it, means the “totality of meanings that are attached to the sexes within a particular social system”.“Sexes,” on the other hand, are the categories usually attached to physicality or biology. While biology certainly plays into gender, gender is socially constructed and is a pervasive system which forces observations about others and us into certain categories. For example, by observing reproductive organs and systems within each sex, we have determined gender roles in the bearing and upbringing of children.

Since women’s bodies are the physical incubators and nurturers of children, and men only contribute briefly to the process, it must mean that women are in charge of childrearing while men are in charge of other things.  “Must mean” is a societal construction based on a mix of assumptions and biological realities. To be viewed as “gender appropriate” within a given culture one must follow the norms accorded to ones sex.

Taking that information on board, I think we must ask what was the social construction of “women” that Paul was working with? Or of “wives”? What did being a man mean in his context? My argument is that this is a much more important question to ask than what his letter says.

This about it like this. When we teach teenagers The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, teachers are forced to explain that the “n-word” was okay to use then. Twain was a man of his time and didn’t realize it was horrible and offensive. This does not invalidate the rest of the work or what he’s trying to say – we just have to overlook this. Twain was using words that made sense in his time and to the audience he was writing to. Paul was the same.

“Women” as a category were problematic to many men during this period (and, you know, since). The understanding of menstruation was that women were carrying a curse from God (tracing back to Eve) which is why they bled. If a woman was unable to bear children it was because she had committed a past sin. This bleeding was the basis their role in society – especially as historical documentation says that many women were not on a consistent cycle so the bleeding was often a surprise. We also see this in the clean/unclean conversation that all ancient tribes (not just the Hebrews) were obsessed with. Additionally, every time a married woman bled, it was possible to see her a failure since they knew that that meant she was not with child. Menstruation was the cited reason why they couldn’t be in government – if the tribe needed her but she was stuck sitting on a pile of hay for a week that was a problem. Women were confined to household chores because they had to care for children and that was a constant task. Their bodies were the only forms of food for their infants and many women spent their lives post-menses in a flux of childbirth states.

So when Paul’s writing to women to be quiet, is it possible it’s because they didn’t have access to education and they weren’t allowed into the main governing conversations? Or here’s an even better question: what if he’s wrong? What if other men didn’t agree with him? We don’t have the responses from the Corinthian or Ephesian churches. What if they got his letter and said “for gracious, Paul. No.” After all, Paul can be wrong and Jesus will still be the Son of God. Those two things are not mutually exclusive. What if the letters rejected from the canon contained texts about how wise and wonderful women were and how they needed to be in church but the canon councils were full of misogynists and we’ve just gotten screwed by that?

And on the role of submission within marriage: as a newlywed, here’s my academic thoughts on it: if it works in your marriage and makes both parties feel whole and valued and that they are living their best lives; then fantastic. Unfortunately, the statistical data from both North American and United Kingdom shows us that among couples claiming Christian faith seeking marital counseling, this idea of “submission” is prominent – largely with men claiming she’s not submitting enough. Combine this with churches who teach it is appropriate to use physical methods to correct a wife who is not “submitting” to her husband’s pleasure, we have problems.

My point is this: there is so much we don’t know. There was also a lot they didn’t know. When we take words written for them with only limited context and a whole lot of assumptions and place them lock, stock and barrel into our world which does not work like theirs in so many ways – we encounter problems.


Author: kristen

msw, mdiv (baylor university): phd (queens university belfast) : researcher, social worker, human resource director: focus on intersection of gender and religion: wife, daughter, friend, banyan tree

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