Complementarianism - culture or conviction?

Posted by Karen Soole Karen Soole
There are things christian women are not supposed to voice in their church families which by and large they don't because of their desire to be godly and submissive to their leadership. There are things that christian women don’t think to question because they accept them as normal. But some women look on in at this in horror and conclude that the church is largely a sexist, misogynistic society. A few of these women stay in the church and live with the label that they have been unhelpfully influenced by feminism rather than the Word of God. Others look for a church that  makes no distinction between male and female. Others give up with the gospel  concluding that a patriarchal God is not for them.

I often speak to two different types of young women. The first is gentle, enthusiastic, and committed. She helps with creche / Sunday school / mums and toddlers. She wants to be a mature godly woman. If she is single her ambition is to marry a vicar/pastor, to have lots of babies, to work alongside her husband and open up her home to others. If she is married she wants to submit to her husband more joyfully, be more hospitable, and perhaps adopt/foster several children alongside her own family. Her church family love her, they affirm her ambitions and admire her  enthusiasm. Yet  she tells me she is struggling to keep up her public face and losing her joy in Christ. The other woman is also enthusiastic and committed, but perhaps a little more assertive than her sister, she wants to serve Christ but is stuck about the way forward. She does not want to be married necessarily but she is not sure of her place in the church family as a single woman. She doesn't feel comfortable or easy around small children despite the expectations of those around her. She hates cooking. She has a lot of responsibility at work but at church she gets to do the washing up. She wants to serve more but is restricted to areas she has no natural aptitude for. As she battles with her inner turmoil her church family perceive her as slightly difficult and moody. When she speaks to me she describes her loneliness and frustration and struggling to love Jesus.

Both women are experiencing life in a 'complementarian' church[1]. Both are living with expectations of what it means to be a godly woman. The first woman is well regarded. She is living the culture and it is one that she naturally enjoys although even she finds it hard to maintain. The second woman is not well regarded - actually she is largely ignored. She struggles with the culture and that struggle is making her doubt the goodness of Christ. Despite appearances woman A is not necessarily more 'mature' than the second; woman A just fits more naturally into the complementarian community though often she has never studied the 'hard' passages about women in the bible -  she is not even sure if she knows where or what they are. The second woman grapples with them all the time, they seem so hard she has been tempted to reject the bible altogether. Her natural instinct is to hate the word 'submission' but she is trying to love Jesus and is clinging on to his example. She is 'complementarian' by conviction but this does not help her find her place in her church family.

I want to suggest that the problem both women have is 'cultural complementarianism' that is a church culture that has taken attitudes about men and women from christian culture rather than a worked out theology from God's word. Cultural complementarianism is dangerous. It may look good to those on the inside but to those on the outside it is perceived as an excuse for sexist attitudes towards women. Cultural complementarianism has not not examined itself to see if its understanding of godly masculinity and femininity is biblical or cultural.  Cultural complementarianism often has a limited understanding of 'submission' and a restricted view of women's ministry. Cultural complementarianism frequently decries the feminisation of the church and as a consequence undermines the outreach and teaching of women. Cultural complementarianism can encourage young men to be insensitive and patriarchal and cause its young women to lose their voices . Cultural complementarianism advocates a lifestyle rather than nurtures a love for Christ.

As I write this I feel that I am breaking an unspoken rule speaking in these terms but it comes from a desire to reach out to women and men with the gospel who are alienated by our church culture. I do not want our churches to cause offence other than the challenge that Jesus himself brings. I long to see our church families display the joy of knowing Christ, men and women glorifying Him together, displaying restored relationships, honouring one another as equal but different and working together for the gospel. So in the next few weeks I am going to write some more blogs trying to look at this issue and ask the question what is 'cultural' and what is biblical about our expressions of complementarianism.

[1]Complementarianism  believes God has created men and women equal in their essential dignity and human personhood, but different and complementary in function with male headship in the home and in the Church. It is  based on interpretations of scripture, that men and women are designed by their Creator to complement or complete each other on the basis of their gender.


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Philippa Philippa
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Re: Complementarianism - culture or conviction?

As someone who is quietly but firmly egalitarian, and also a lay minister in the Anglican church, I read this well-written post with great interest.  I feel very much for both types of women you describe, particularly the older singleton.  I’m a lifelong singleton, and it’s not always easy for single women in egalitarian circles either – but at least I’m in a church that welcomes the teaching/preaching gifts of women and where I’m not aware of any impertinent assumptions about the quality of my ‘womanhood’.

“If she is single her ambition is to marry a vicar/pastor, to have lots of babies, to work alongside her husband and open up her home to others.”

Is this rose-coloured vision of marriage and ministry encouraged for single women in complementarian circles?   Why such a yearning to marry a minister?   Why not a good, godly man in another profession?   Are other jobs less noble, less worthy, than being an ordained minister?   I have huge respect for the ordained ministry but it can be extremely difficult and demanding, and being married to a minister can also be difficult and demanding.  

“Others look for a church that makes no distinction between male and female.”

That has never been my definition, or experience, of egalitarianism.  (I have no idea what such a church would look like!)   For me it has never been about denying differences between men and women; I’ve always embraced my femininity.  Just as God has some feminine aspects to His character (I’m fine with His masculine side), so ministry needs the gifts of both men and women.   There are differences between a biblical vision of egalitarianism  and the current gender-neutral controversies.  

I hope the people in your sphere listen to what you are saying.  Unhelpful stereotypes about womanhood (and manhood) need to be challenged.