Complementary and submissive?
Male headship and female submission — not topics I’d suggest for your next social event.
They were easier to understand in an earlier time when gender roles were more clearly defined: Men generated money while women kept house. Men engaged the public square; women maintained private life.
Then along came the icebox and washing machine. Women had more time to look beyond hearth and home. Gender roles shifted, and with them the understanding of submission and headship.
We are raising children who find even the idea of assumed roles for men and women old-fashioned.
Male headship is undeniably discussed in the New Testament — in several places, actually. So what do you do with a biblically mandated but culturally unpopular, if not offensive, concept?
You repackage it. Give it a new name and hope to wipe away the image of a June Cleaver figure sitting mutely in church because “she must be silent” (1 Tim. 2:12).
Instead of male headship, the new appellation of choice is “complementarianism.” The opposing alternative is “egalitarianism.”
The term was coined around 25 years ago, but in recent years complementarians have stepped more boldly out of the closet to voice a stronger defense of the interpretation.
It’s marketing genius. Essentially, complementarians believe men and women have distinct roles and responsibilities that complement each other. Some statements stress that the roles are of equal value; others don’t.
Is this not obvious? Don’t all healthy relationships consist of people who complement each other? No one truly expects to be exactly like their spouse.
Complementarians also believe these distinctive roles are based on male headship and female submission. But as one male pastor wrote, “I don’t particularly emphasize this point of my theology.” Indeed, complementarians take pains to point out their enlightened understanding of headship.
Complementarianism, they say, is not about hierarchy (male authority is serving, not ruling), or patriarchy (domineering, controlling husbands not allowed), or even prescribed roles (wives can work while husbands do the stay-at-home thing).
So what makes one a complementarian rather than an egalitarian or just an unlabeled person?
Submission. Complementarians describe at length their marriages built on mutual counsel and respect. In blogs and articles, women provide multiple examples of their husbands’ Christ-like sacrifices for their family.
All the same, complementarians accept that should there be a disagreement that cannot be resolved, the man wins.
I’m trying to imagine a scenario where my husband would say to me, “Your opinion and feelings are very important to me, but this conversation is now over. I need you to submit.”
That’s how we speak to our children. It would be painful for both of us.
Both complementarians and egalitarians value Scripture and both use exegetical gymnastics to support their stance. There are all manner of books, articles and guides interpreting Ephesians 5 and 1 Corinthians 11.
While rejection of male headship is more biblically convincing to me, I don’t get to disregard the word of God because it is painful or because society says it is irrelevant. In our study of Scripture we constantly ask, is our understanding culturally influenced or is it Spirit-filled? Like many, I remain on the journey.
Sarah Kehrberg lives in Swannanoa, N.C., and attends Asheville Mennonite Church.
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