Today I want to tackle misconceptions about “complementarianism.”
1. June Cleaver is NOT the definition of complementarianism
In discussions about gender roles, complementarianism has been rightly discussed as “traditionalism” because historically it’s what Christians have believed. But complementarians believe biblical teaching supersedes tradition so “traditionalism” as a term for gender roles has been largely nixed. June Cleaver is a traditional TV stereotype, but she is not a timeless embodiment of complementarianism. Maybe 60-70 years ago, June could have been seen as a cultural manifestation of complementarianism, but complementarity looks different than it did in the 1950’s. Likewise, in 60-70 years, complementarianism will look different than it does now.
2. Modern-day gender stereotypes are not the measure of complementarianism
This is where the 21st century church can and has erred. Complementarianism doesn’t mean men love to watch football and women love to cook. Complementarianism doesn’t mean men love to use power tools and women love to sew. These are modern day stereotypes that have nothing to do with the Bible’s teaching on gender roles.
With the blessing of my wife (yes, complementarian men do this), I’ll offer my marriage as an example. My wife and I live in a complementarian marriage. That is, my wife seeks to demonstrate her love for Jesus by living out Ephesians 5:22-24:
“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”
And I, with all the grace-driven effort I can muster, seek to live out Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…”
Now, just because we have a complementarian marriage doesn’t mean we feel a need to subscribe to modern-day stereotypes. For example, I don’t like to work with my hands. I don’t like power tools. I don’t like to fix stuff around the house. My wife, on the other hand, has more power tools than I can count. She has a saw for this, a drill for that, a thing-a-ma-jig for a some-thing-or-other. When something’s broken, she’ll figure out a way to fix it, and I’ll simply say, “How can I help you?” Or more likely, “is there a way I can help you that won’t make this worse?” And after all of that, we are complementarians.
3. Complementarianism doesn’t mean role differences are comments about skill or ability
Complementarianism teaches male and female have distinct roles in the marriage and in the church (Eph. 5; 1 Tim. 2:11-15 – more on this later). But these role differences are NOT a comment about skill or ability. Sadly, there have been many in the complementarian camp who have taken the Bible’s teaching on role differences and automatically concluded those role differences mean skill or ability differences. That conclusion is sloppy and irresponsible. I have no doubt this unfounded connection between role differences and skill differences has engendered patriarchalism within complementarian circles.
In my first preaching class in seminary, there were 15 students. During the semester we all had to prepare and preach two sermons in front of the class. It was nerve-wracking. After the semester had concluded and the final sermon had been preached, there was no doubt among the students (and professor!) who was the the most skilled preacher in the room: Amber. She smoked the rest of us. It wasn’t even close. The Bible never teaches male and female roles in marriage and the church are comments about skill or ability.
4. Complementarianism doesn’t mean role differences assume differences in dignity or worth
Our society preaches to us daily that our value is directly tied to our performance. You’re “nothing” if you don’t accumulate professional accomplishments. This ideology worms its way into our Christian psyches such that we begin to ascribe our sense of value and worth to what we accomplish as Christians. So when male and female gender roles are distinct, it automatically assumes there will be “accomplishments” unattainable because of gender role differentiation.
This is where we have to remember the Bible’s teaching on what gives a human being his/her value. If our value is directly tied to what we accomplish or achieve, then what value do we ascribe to a baby in utero who has yet to accomplish anything? If our value is directly tied to what we accomplish or achieve, then what value do we ascribe to a special needs person in comparison to a genius CEO?
The Bible insists our dignity and worth are NOT tied to what we do or achieve. Our dignity and worth are tied to the “imago dei” (“the image of God”). Every human being, male and female, has been made in the image and likeness of God. That is the foundational basis for our complete dignity and worth as human beings. It is not connected to what we do or don’t do or the roles we play or don’t play.