Complementarianism: A Conversation with Peter and Sea

I have invited Peter to join me in discussing a fiery article we both read this week by Oregon State University Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, Susan M. Shaw, PhD. In her article, “How Complementarianism Became Part of the Evangelical Doctrine,” Dr. Shaw offers us a historical perspective on how evangelical believers began to subscribe to traditional gender roles in response to the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s. You can read the article here: https://religionnews.com/2021/04/13/how-complementarianism-became-part-of-evangelical-doctrine/

Sea: I don’t know about you, Peter, but so much of this article resonated with my younger years in evangelical circles between the late 70s and the early 90s. [I wish to clarify here that my mother was an ardent feminist and was dismayed by my theological beliefs. However, due to her firm stance on creating one’s own belief system, she allowed me to attend the church of my choice. It wasn’t until later years that my framework about human rights mirrored hers more closely.] I remember John Piper’s writings. I remember The Council on Biblical Manhood. I remember many, many sermons about godly gender roles in the home. But what struck me about this article the most was that this movement was in response to the women’s liberation movement. I had never put that together, nor had I ever read that idea before. I’m curious what struck you most as you read the article, Peter?

Peter: Erg. I feel like I have to start my end of the conversation here the way I feel compelled to begin many: with a confession. I was raised with a shiny, squeaky clean fantasy about “chivalry,” and while I never thought of myself as a macho man or an alpha male, I certainly absorbed all of the complementary and patriarchal messages my church threw at me.

I distinctly remember sitting at a cafeteria table in college (this is before Jen and I met), explaining to a close female friend (a progressive Christian) why women shouldn’t be pastors. “It’s not because men are superior. It’s just that God’s order has different roles and strengths for men and women.”

We were close enough that she was able to say, “Peter, you’re an idiot,” which I received with good humor, and it didn’t go much beyond that. But I reflect on that conversation from time to time as I watch my wife preach. I wonder how to get through to the people like me who believe the Bible is telling a very specific truth about gender roles.

Sea: I can so relate! And I love that your friend was able to say exactly how she felt about your perspective – and that you’re humble enough in this space to share your historical growth process. Thank you.

Peter: Sea, something foundational for me was my Church History professor in seminary, when he talked about New Testament “household codes.” A former ELCA Lutheran Minister, he made a bold pronouncement to our largely-Evangelical class: “You have to choose. You have to make a choice. You cannot hold all of the disparate verses and scriptures on gender side by side and pretend that a consistent message emerges. You can find texts to support your complementarianism. You can find texts to support full egalitarianism. So what choice do you want to make?”

The notion of picking and choosing was antithetical to my upbringing in biblical literalism, but suddenly getting permission to choose seemed an incredible, freeing invitation.

Sea, how would you have responded to this, in your Evangelical days? How did you reconcile those beliefs with the feminist foundation your mother laid?

Sea: Oooooo…dang, those are good questions. In my evangelical days, I would have unflinchingly resisted the idea of egalitarianism. I would have definitely seen your professor as one of the “liberal-pick-your-truth” types. The other day, an evangelical friend of mine said, “God’s word [truth] doesn’t change, and neither will I,” and this is the camp in which I would have landed. In my mind, God set about a plan for masculinity and femininity – and it was from the foundation of creation (in the Garden of Eden) that this precept was laid.

One of the ways in which I have especially come to appreciate my spiritual journey lately is the way I can grow, change, question, wonder, and find myself someplace new – or even in a similar place with a different perspective. Turns out, my feminist mom did lay a foundation. A foundation of empowerment and a steely right to question the patriarchy. Add to that a graduate program in counseling that taught me to sit with the very dissonance about which you spoke, and I have arrived in new territory. In this particular territory, I have a voice about what I want my role as a human in this world to look like, feminine or not. And then I get to walk that out. Its quite liberating.

Peter, I’m curious how you have navigated that dissonance internally for yourself?

Peter: For me, once I had the terrifyingly ambiguous permission to pick and choose, I felt like I could do one of two things: either throw it all out and leave faith behind (I know a lot of wonderful people who have done this) or do my best to listen to the Spirit (not politics or ego or my own cultural microcosm), look for a deeper truth, and follow it.

I can get my blood boiling really quickly, reading the angry opinions in the comment section of Dr. Shaw’s article. Both “sides” are either proof-texting each other to death, or simply saying it’s all ridiculous. “To hell with you,” or “To hell with it.”

But when I read Jesus, and many of the minor prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures, I see a God who – again and again – sides with the poor, the oppressed, and the least. The God I believe in, and frankly the God I want to believe in, aligns with those on the outside and on the underbelly. That’s the lens I choose for my spiritual path. Rather than try to justify the problematic texts, I accept their historical and cultural context, and measure them against the lens of the “least.”

Which brings me back to the seminary classroom, and so many American churches: what does it say about you, if you choose a faith that aligns with repression, oppression, comfort and power?

When I look back as far as I can remember, I and my family and the churches we attended were always always making choices about what we believed. We just didn’t want to admit it. That made it very difficult to have an honest conversation.

Sea: Peter, your words hit me between the eyes (as I find they often do of late). This question is compelling: what does it say about you, if you choose a faith that aligns with repression, oppression, comfort and power? I know exactly what it says about me. It says the Christ I serve is a white, cisgender, heteronormative, patriarchal, patriot-Christ-man. I believe this is the opposite of the Christ we see in Scriptures: a brown man who also embodies the feminine of Creation and is a rabble-rousing, justice-seeking, power-crushing figure in history.

Peter, does anything else come to mind before we wrap up this conversation?

Peter: Well first, I have so enjoyed this, and think we should do more of this format! Second, your comment earlier about “God’s plan…” for masculinity and femininity just struck me again as you mentioned the “feminine” in Jesus. There is something visceral (and I would argue, natural) in using concepts like masculine and feminine. But what I have seen so concretely in my own therapy work, and sitting in men’s circles and exploring my own identity as a man, is how all of us have masculine and feminine qualities. The problem isn’t the identifiers. The problem is the binary-thinking that glues them to one of two gender-identities. A lot of fear (and then anger, violence and/or self-destruction) comes from the idea that one’s masculine or feminine qualities don’t “fit” with one’s identity. What a relief to our society, if we could collectively establish that we aren’t limited by those qualities, and their presence (or absence) doesn’t indicate a deficit or shortcoming.

Sea: Oh my goodness, I have enjoyed conversing with you, too. I want to have an entire conversation with you around the topic of toxic masculinity. Maybe another time. In the meantime, thank you for pointing out the problematic binary thinking (and even the verbiage I have used above) that constrains and refrains us from having a fuller experience of God. Thank you. I will end with a very comforting article I read this week, called, “Why Didn’t Jesus Come as a Woman, Asked my Daughter?” You can read it here if you wish: https://www.christiancentury.org/article/faith-matters/why-didn-t-jesus-come-woman-asked-my-daughter?fbclid=IwAR3ID8mNAR6g_WX8x374RcDJ9YFomZ_7fOITZl5kz5cFjc3DeKFCNHLqjUg

Peace and love to all.

  1. I think the rise of “complementarianism” in evangelical roots is more complex than the article states. For example, at the same time (late 70s), evangelical organizations also strongly pivoted to a “right to life” rallying cry – not out of some deep-seated belief in the sanctity of life, but essentially as a more palliative alternative to segregation – at least this is argued in https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/05/religious-right-real-origins-107133

    Either way, the rise of evangelical ties to political movements in the late 70s, and the impact to men’s/women’s roles and right to life go hand-in-hand. And, it is undoubtedly in part due to the women’s/civil rights movements. The structures of power react in ways to protect their power, and traditionally that’s been a white-male power structure. We’re still fighting that entrenchment today.

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