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Christians make a lot of claims. Not all of them are supernatural in nature, either! Indeed, one of their favorite non-supernatural claims involves the supposed benefits of complementarianism. Christians who buy in to complementarianism make a lot of claims about this doctrine. Today, I’ll show you what that first claim is, and why it’s wrong. I’ll also show you how this doctrine fits into Christians’ various culture wars.

little did she realize that this was a complementarian umbrella
(Boston Public Library, CC.)

A Brief Definition.

Boy, Wearing They Live Style Glasses: What is this?
Girl Who Gave Him The Glasses: It’s what we’re living in. It tells us that boys are better than girls and men rule over women.

Sinfest, “The Boy Who Would Be King

Officially, complementarianism is a doctrinal belief among fundagelical Christians. It means roughly that men and women have separate-but-equal roles in society. Nobody in one gender’s sphere may cross into the other sphere in any way: by appearance, grooming, dress, behavior, vocation, avocation, worship styles, or anything else. Men are always this, while women are always that, and nobody’s allowed to do anything differently.

An old complementarian diagram.

Complementarians believe that their god totally dictated this whole idea, and that he demands it of all humanity. And any fundagelicals who want to stay in good standing with their tribe must abide by its ideas. It is as required a doctrinal belief as, say, Biblical literalism and inerrancy itself.

As you might guess, complementarians have a slew of Bible verses to back up their position. This page is as good as any other explanation of those verses, if you’re interested in diving into them.

But as usual for these supposedly-divine notions, this one’s very new. I remember encountering this doctrine when I was Christian, but we didn’t call it complementarianism, as far as I can remember. Women were always subservient to men, but it was more because we subscribed to Bill Gothard’s theology. Nobody cared if the genders were equal in spirit or whatever. Women were lesser, and I don’t remember anybody trying to pretend they weren’t.

Well, women are still lesser in complementarianism. The only difference between the new-school inferiority and the old-school kind is that their male leaders are trying to convince them that inferiority is somehow equality. Somehow. In some weird way that nobody can quantify or qualify. Ever.

Selling Sexism.

We can best sum up complementarianism as sexism as the bonus plan.

The phrase comes from a terrible joke told by 1980s stand-up comedian Andrew Dice Clay. His comedy often focused on his ultra-misogynistic stage persona (which I hope was just a persona). One of those bits has always stuck in my memory. In it, a woman complains to him about his demands for sex when she only wanted to cuddle. His reply: “Well, you got the BONUS PLAN, baby!”

Even years later, I couldn’t ever forget that level of narcissism. Nor could I overlook that kind of egotism. Apparently, neither could fundagelicals. They created a whole movement based upon convincing women that Jesus-flavored inferiority was actually a BONUS PLAN.

To accomplish that goal, they had to create a marketing system for that bonus plan. Boy howdy, did they ever.

As with the original terrible joke, complementarianism does not benefit women in the very least. In fact, it costs women a great deal to exist in this system. Instead, it exists purely to benefit the men who buy in to it. And it confers a huge number of benefits to those men.

Yes, it does cost its male adherents a great deal as well. But male adherents are taught that these costs are easily managed, even negligible. They understand quite well that if they move away from this new style of misogyny, they will lose quite a lot of the power and dominance they now enjoy over women.

The Claim: People Are Designed For These Roles. (LOLWUT?)

That Got Questions link speaks to a number of the claims regarding complementarianism, starting with the notion that people simply function best in their respective divinely-mandated roles. It’s the most common explanation I’ve ever heard myself, as well:

God assigns different roles to men and women in the church and the home because that is how He designed us to function.

Got Questions’ writer goes on to tie the idea of complementarianism to the way the Trinity is imagined to function. Beyond the hilarious fact that Christians who try to compare the Trinity to anything are likely committing the most grievous of heresies according to their own theology, the doctrine is contradicted by reality in so many different ways that I could write a month’s worth of posts on those contradictions alone.

We’ll start with the obvious. The roles themselves are simply retreads of fundagelicals’ favorite eras in American history: the white, straight, Christian parts of the Victorian Age and the 1950s. These eras idolized the nuclear family of sitcom and serial lore: working Dad, stay at home Mom (SAHM), at least two children–a boy and a girl, typically born in that order, plus well-behaved pets. The family must also live in a single-family home. They must have no serious drama. (No molesting the siblings or starting huge drunken brawls!)

This fantasy works only if everyone involved is able to handle the weird, restrictive rules of fundagelicalism, and if the father/husband makes enough money to support the brood. But complementarians think that their social structure works best for everyone, not just for fundagelicals. They tie it to biology itself.

The Failure of the Design Argument.

Fundagelicals’ conceptualization of family starts and ends with sitcomes like Leave It To Beaver, a TV show from years ago. But the world of these sitcoms never existed. Alas, the problems with their “design” argument go well past that simple truth.

We can start with the idea that men and women are always this-and-such. We should look askance at any attempt to shoehorn human beings into simple categories, and this one is the worst of the assumptions that complementarians make.

Intersex births happen all the time–this Wikipedia page lists estimates depending upon the condition in question. We’re looking at 1 in 1,000 births for Klinefelter syndrome all the way to 1 in 100,000+ births for conditions like partial androgen insensitivity syndrome or epispadias. For people who have these conditions, classifications can be difficult to assign.

Transgender people exist as well. Some of them have one of these intersex conditions. Many do not, however, and so they cannot be lumped together with intersex people. About .6% of Americans identify as transgender.

Obviously, gay and bi people exist as well, throwing yet another wrench into the complementarian doctrine. About 1.7% of Americans identify as gay, while another 1.8% identify as bisexual.

Nor will complementarianism work for people who are asexual. They might want to get into long-term relationships, but the sex life complementarian teachers prescribe for adherents will be far out of their reach. Some experts think that about 1% of people are asexual.

More Failure.

Among straight people, as well, huge variations exist in individuals. Many men are not the big rough-and-tough burly dudebros that Mark Driscoll likes best. Many women could never be the soft, submissive, ultra-feminine paragons of modesty and deference that those big rough-and-tough burly dudebro Christians prefer.

Lots of people don’t actually want to have children–or want them but have great difficulty in having their own. And a great many families would love to follow the complementarian lifestyle, but cannot afford it at all. Thanks to Republican efforts to completely destroy the working class in America, fewer Americans than ever can actually achieve the kind of family life that fundagelicals want to force upon us all.

Even in the 1950s and more so in the Victorian age, that kind of family life was only an option for a very, very narrow subset of Americans. People of color, like poor people generally, have rarely even had the chance to reject such a lifestyle. Women in poor families have always worked outside the home, often in the homes of the white people who could pursue that lifestyle.

Complementarianism simply isn’t within reach even for people who’d like to pursue it.

Fundagelical Gothic.

Then we get into all the abuses that sprout out of these kinds of families: the secrets, the lies, and the grabs for power. Dive even a short while under the surface of that serene-looking lake. You will find horrors beyond imagining. (Southern Gothic, the literary style, is tightly rooted in fundagelical culture.)

In my time as a Christian, I only knew a few married couples who seemed even content together. Nor is it hard at all to remember the many families ripped apart by people who needed control more than love.

(We’ll cover this fallout next time. For now, I want to focus on the first claim.)

In summary, the Christian god did not design men and women to function in complementarian relationships. And we can tell this in a number of ways.

First, because there’s more to the world than “hypermasculine men” and “hyperfeminine women.” Second, because so many people simply can’t fit themselves to the doctrine’s demands. Third, because parenthood–a requirement for the lifestyle–is out of reach for so many people for one reason or another. Fourth, because the lifestyle demands a certain earning power that isn’t even possible for most men–and never was.

Mayberry Christianity.

Instead of being a viable set of rules for marriage, then, complementarianism is simply a love-letter to a bygone age that never even existed. It is a sign that Christians are still idolizing Mayberry Christianity.

Mayberry, North Carolina was a fictional town in the old TV series The Andy Griffith Show. In Mayberry, everything was always wonderful and easy. Everyone was straight and Christian, black people barely even existed, and the town was largely peaceful and free of crime. Children played outside. Men and women followed their proper complementarian roles. Nobody challenged Christian overreach. Hell, nobody even recognized it.

And I think toxic Christians ache for Mayberry in real life. So many of their rules and demands only work in a fictional setting. Complementarianism definitely fits into that paradigm. It’s a set of rules created for fictional characters living in a fictional world.

Russell Moore, a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) bigwig, referred to Mayberry in a 2015 blog post in the same pejorative way that I do. As close as he gets to the reality of the SBC’s position, though, he can’t fully engage with the truth any more than his peers can. When pushed between reality and his indoctrination, he chooses his indoctrination every time without fail. He wouldn’t be an SBC leader if he could do anything else.

The Culture Wars: Feminism.

No wonder so many of the culture wars–and the SBC’s entire Conservative Resurgence–focus where they do!

The fight against feminism speaks to the complementarian “design” claim. Empowered women who can earn their own living and who refuse to put up with men being idiots can’t possibly ever be forced into complementarian marriages. They will reject such a relationship out of hand. They cannot be abused and forced into subservient roles. What good is it to have unilateral power over women if no women are willing to enter into such one-sided relationships? It’s no good at all. These boys who would be king will be king over a kingdom of ONE–themselves.

It gets worse for fundagelicals, though. Egalitarian marriages work as well or better than complementarian ones. People prefer an egalitarian model for their relationships. And a lot of Christians understand this truth. If a woman can find an egalitarian husband, both will likely benefit.

This bizarre attachment to an untenable model for relationships might well be the reason why fundagelical couples divorce way more often than people in most other religions. Atheists, by stark contrast, don’t divorce nearly so often. The fundagelical effect even hits secular couples in Christian states!

Little wonder fundagelicals fight no-fault divorce like they do. Nor should we wonder why they oppose reproductive rights. They need women to have no choice at all but to marry–and then obey, always–fundagelical men. They know women won’t do it voluntarily.

The Culture Wars: Equal Marriage.

The fight against equal marriage–and gay rights generally–speaks to the complementarian “design” claim as well. Bigoted Christians have no idea how to engage with same-sex couples. They’ll ask “But who’s the man?” to two women. In their world, someone must be “the man,” which equates to “the leader.” And someone must always be “the woman,” which is to say the inferior servant.

This idea of set-in-stone rules for each person in the relationship isn’t new; ancient writers often focused on that same question, especially regarding sex. Someone always gives with a penis. The partner always receives that penis. Whether the receiver is male or female, that person is going to be the inferior person in the relationship in that worldview. (Ficino wrote about this topic for us a while ago.)

Egalitarian opposite-sex couples also don’t earmark anybody as “the man” or “the woman.” Both partners handle household tasks, childrearing, and emotional work. The egalitarian difference simply becomes more obvious when both partners are the same gender.

Fundagelical culture warriors need people to think that someone always has to be “the man” or “the woman.” Couples that can’t do that by virtue of their composition highlight how irrelevant and superfluous that demand really is.

The Culture Wars: Transgender Rights.

Fundagelicals’ newest culture war, against transgender rights, speaks the most to their complementarian “design” claim. It might seem downright nonsensical that fundagelicals are fighting this hard against transgender rights, especially considering how few of them there are.

But fundagelicals have torn into this new culture war with shocking alacrity. In 2014, the SBC passed a resolution to specifically oppose all rights and human dignity for transgender people. Since then, we’ve seen fundagelicals constant lobbying against laws to protect trans kids and adults. Republican politicians are only all too happy to pander to their bigotry.

We see the same objections raised all the time by these bigots. Mostly they’re alarmed that someone can just totally, like, decide to be the other gender. Bigots view the decision to present as a different gender as an arbitrary one. They even paint this decision as a malevolent one. In fact, it is neither.

With that viewpoint, fundagelicals can’t be kind and considerate to trans people! They view this notion as “compromising,” as Focus on the Family puts it.

Now that fundagelicals have noticed that trans people exist, don’t expect this culture war to go away. This struggle speaks to the very heart of fundagelicals’ conceptualization of what it means to be male or female.

The Real Question.

The damage wreaked by this pernicious doctrine can last a lifetime, even past deconversion. It can be difficult to untangle. And it can play merry hell with a person’s search for a life partner.

More and more often, Christians are awakening to the damage done to them by this doctrine. They’re starting to question why a supposedly-divine prescription for life only works for a tiny percentage of people. And they’re asking the most dangerous question of all: why following this supposedly-divine ruleset so often results in drama, heartbreak, abuse, and even a body count.

To me, the real question is simply this: What’s going to happen when a tipping point of fundagelicals reject complementarianism?

NEXT UP: Reality simply doesn’t look like complementarianism insists it does. Next time, we’ll be looking at what happens when two people decide to follow a set of rules designed for a fictional universe. I hope you’ll join me!


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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...