There is an ongoing debate in evangelical circles between two views of the proper relationship between husbands and wives as prescribed by the Bible.
The first is complementarianism, which asserts that the husband is the head of the household and holds ultimate authority over the family.
The wife plays a complementary role in managing the household. She willingly and graciously submits to her husband’s leadership, coming alongside him in parenting the children and making other decisions regarding family life.
Complementarians emphasize that a wife is equal in personhood but is not in an equal role in the marriage and family. An assistant is a full person, but the role they fill is different and subject to that of an executive.
The other view is egalitarianism, in which husbands and wives are equal both in person and in role.
They are co-leaders both in marriage and in the household. Roles are not prescribed by gender but are either shared equally or divided according to interest and ability.
Both views claim Scriptural support, and that’s because both views are in the Bible.
“Complementarian” is just a way to say “patriarchal” without saying “patriarchal,” which sounds archaic, repressive and oppressive. Because it is.
And patriarchy is found throughout the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament. Israelite society was patriarchal, not so much because that’s how God wants it but because that’s the way it worked (and still does) in the ancient Near East.
But I want to emphasize that I said it’s found particularly in the Old Testament because in the New Testament we see movement away from patriarchy and toward egalitarianism, culminating in Paul’s very subversive statement in Ephesians 5:21, “Be subject to one another out of reverence to Christ.”
The movement in the Bible isn’t from patriarchy to matriarchy, which is just replacing one system of repression with another, but toward mutual submission.
What’s interesting is that we see this same movement within the complementarian view itself.
If you go back 100 years and read the literature of complementarians, it is very patriarchal. Husbands worked, wives raised the kids and knew their place.
Of course, if you go back 100 years in the U.S., women are still two years from having the right to vote.
The language of complementarianism didn’t even exist. It was only adopted as more and more people became uncomfortable with being associated with patriarchialism.
The Southern Baptist Convention has been in the news lately for its views on women in the home and church.
What’s called the SBC’s “Me Too” moment is not only calling attention to the validity of women in leadership positions, but also is actually leading to a shift among young evangelical complementarians.
The current crop of young evangelical complementarians is actually quite progressive.
Their version is barely patriarchal, and for the most part it isn’t at all oppressive or even repressive. (Maybe just a little.)
I recently read a post from a young SBC pastor in which he took the SBC leadership to task for its repressive views on abuse and divorce.
He prefaced his remarks by saying that Scripture clearly supports the complementarian position, which amused me, since given how divided evangelicals are on the issue, it’s perhaps not so clear. And he knows that.
But he then went on to speak about the value of strong women and strong wives in marriages, including his own, and what he wrote was actually a pretty good description of an egalitarian marriage.
It seems the only thing keeping him from abandoning the complementarian label completely was a static view of the Bible, which misses the movement from patriarchialism to egalitarianism of which his marriage was a near-perfect example.
He’s this close! Maybe one day he’ll get there, and the rest of evangelicalism with him.
Pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland.