Complementarianism and Egalitarianism -the practical overlap and the real difference

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There’s been another flurry of conversation about complementarianism on social media recently. I think this has been prompted a little by this article in Premier Christianity.

As a side note, I think that the article doesn’t do a bad job of trying to reflect the different views and provide balance. However, I am not convinced that those critiquing complementarianism always accurately understand or reflect the positions of those they are challenging (for reasons I will come to) and also, the framing of the debate in terms of “is theological position x abusive” is wearisome and I do wish that Christians wouldn’t get drawn into click bait behaviour. In short, there is a problem not with complementarian theology but rather with the theology and practice of power which runs across church and theological challenges and it is that which causes abuse to arise from all quarters. But that is in effect a discussion for another day.

What I wanted to pick up on here was a question that has come up a few times.  When you look at egalitarian and complementarian families, often the practical day to day decision making looks pretty much the same with husbands and wives seeking to come to a consensus together. It is rare for even complementarian families to have a situation where the husband/dad makes all the big decisions and expects his family to fall in line, even if such decision making is for their benefit.

Does that mean we are all egalitarians secretly and that complementarians are inconsistent between theory and practice?  I think not and here is why.

First of all, because I think there is a continuum between the two positions and these two positions are often confused with two very different approaches that have far less in common.  We might refer to these as

American Cultural Hierarchialism – this is often confused with complementarianism but is actually different -although I think a lot of complemetarians have had their views shaped by it. This arises out of the US culture wars and sees men and women as different, men as superior and therefore having general hierarchical authority over women -all men over all women.  It is not complementarian because it fails to recognise that there are similarities and a real equality of nature.

Interchangeabilism – this is the view that gender doesn’t matter at all. There are not differences and therefore roles can be interchanged. This will include those who coinsider gender itself to be interchangeable but is broader than that. It’s not truly egalitarian because true egalitarianism needs to recognise that there is difference in order to declare the two different things equal.

So, true complementarianism and true egalitarianism both recognise that men and women are equal, sharing a common human nature but both positions also recognise that there are differences or distinctions between male and female, that husbands and wives should bring something different to the party.

Now, within complementarianism, there are a range of views about quite what it means to describe husbands as heads and what it means in practice for a wife to submit to her husband. Some will give a greater emphasis to a spiritual leadership and a level of authority with final decision making. However, traditionally this has always been rooted in an understanding of servant leadership and mutual submission.  So there may be an order suggested by headship but husbands and wives both submit to one another in different ways.

There has been some recent push back against this version of complementarian theology and practice, particularly arising from Peter O’Brien’s commentary on Ephesians which argued that mutual submission was not possible. In my own work on marriage, I’ve argued against O’Brien and in favour of what I believe I’ve shown to be the older position (and the Biblical one!).

Where we have not always been so good as complementarians is that we’ve picked up on the idea of “authority” in headship but we’ve not established what that authority is for.  I argue that it is authority to provide and protect -authority to shepherd if you like which is complemented by an authority for wives/mothers to nurture and nourish.  Authority therefore is not about assuming hierarchical power boss others around for our own benefit. We sometimes talk in terms of “servant leadership” but I wonder if even the word “leadership” is so infused with secular concepts of power that we may do better to avoid it, maybe by sticking with the word the Bible uses “head.”

So, if there is a lot of overlap in practice, what then is the point of complementarianism?  I want to suggest two things. First of all, I think it gives the theological underpinning to how we are meant to live and to love one another which egalitarianism cannot. It does so by giving us the compelling eschatological reason for how we are to relate by pointing us to how Christ relates to his church and how his church relates to him.

Secondly, I would push further and suggest that the Bible asks more of husbands than egalitarianism does because of how their submission is described.  For husbands, it is not simply about looking out for their wives and sharing in equal decision making. Rather, our submission consists in sacrificial love. That is what we are to lead in. Because a husband must both provide and protect, he is called to lay down his life for his wife in a way that his wife is not asked to for him.  Now, there may be come who see that as outdated sexism and are arguing for equal opportunities to be ready to die but this is where we need to recognise that God’s word asks something of couples. Even though we may not agree with it and understand it.

If husbands are to sacrificially love their wives, then wives submit to their husbands by letting them.  So, the challenge is whether when you look at our marriages we see that. Do we see husbands willing to lay down their lives in costly love? Do we see wives willing to let their husbands do this?  If not then we don’t have complementarian marriages in practice. If that does describe your marriage then even if you consider yourself egalitarian, you are in fact living out the complementarian approach in practice.

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