Is Complementarian Just Another Word for Patriarchy?

It shouldn't be. Unfortunately, there is often not as much differentiation between complementarian views and patriarchal ones as there should be.

First, I think it’s important to note that there is considerable confusion over the definition of terms. There are many people who claim the term complementarian often with significant differences over what they think that means. Because of that it can be difficult to determine what a “complementarian” believes simply based on the label. I believe it’s worthwhile to consider the various views on gender roles on a continuum with feminism on one extreme and patriarchy on the other. So, some “complementarians” would be closer to patriarchy and others further away.

 

There have been a number of articles going back and forth on whether complementarianism is the same thing as patriarchy. Some feminists say, “Of course it’s the same.” Some complementarians seem to agree at some level. There is certainly debate over the issue. It’s worth noting that some believe that complementarianism is just another name for feminism.

So what do I think? Is complementarian just another word for patriarchy? Well, my answer is: not really and it depends who said it. Helpful isn’t it.

First, I think it’s important to note that there is considerable confusion over the definition of terms. There are many people who claim the term complementarian often with significant differences over what they think that means. Because of that it can be difficult to determine what a “complementarian” believes simply based on the label. I believe it’s worthwhile to consider the various views on gender roles on a continuum with feminism on one extreme and patriarchy on the other. So, some “complementarians” would be closer to patriarchy and others further away.

Also, it doesn’t help matters that some complementarians claim to prefer the term patriarchy or that some in the patriarchy camp claim to be complementarians. There is a real need to define what one believes, and it’s possible that some labels are not as helpful as they were developed to be.

Some complementarians (and also the patriarchy guys) think that the word patriarchy best describes the Christian faith. Since patriarchy means “father rule” and since God is our Father, then we have a patriarchal faith. These complementarians argue that just because some extreme views have assumed the name patriarchy doesn’t mean that the name itself should be avoided.

I would argue that even if the word hasn’t always been associated with those views, it is now. Like it or not, once a word has assumed such as strong association, it is near impossible to call it back, and it’s honestly not worth the effort or the confusion it causes. For example, if someone says, “I’m gay” we all know exactly what they mean, and it has nothing to do with a temporary emotional state of happiness. I don’t think it’s helpful to try to rehabilitate the word patriarchy.

But back to the idea that Christianity is inherently patriarchal. I absolutely believe that God is our Father and that He rules everything. If that’s all that’s meant by patriarchal, then I can agree. However, God is more than our Father. God is Father, Son, and Spirit. Besides being our Father, He is also our Husband, Redeemer, Creator, Savior, Teacher, Comforter. My concern is that we can limit our understanding of God by seeing Him ONLY as Father.

I’m also concerned that if we aren’t careful we will lean towards a hierarchical view of the Trinity that flirts with heresy. Of course, in the economic Trinity, God the Father sends the Son, the Son submits to the will of the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. But when we are dealing with who God is we must remember that the three persons of the Godhead are “the same in substance, equal in power and glory” (WLC Q.9). It is not only God the Father that we worship. We worship the Triune God: one God, three persons. It is not only God the Father that interacts with us.

What about the view that the “patriarchs” of Israel were patriarchal? The New Testament uses the word “patriarch” twice: once to refer to David and the other to refer to Abraham. The use of the word is similar to our use of forefathers. Did the forefathers of Israel live a patriarchal life? Many of them did. Many of them were also living polygamist lives. I believe that this is an example of the descriptive nature of their marriages and their society, not a prescriptive one.

I think it’s worth looking at the evidences of how the Israelites were different than the surrounding cultures as the people of God. We can consider the actions of Deborah, Ruth, Esther to be contrary, in many ways, to a strict patriarchal society and difficult for many modern patriarchy guys to explain. In fact, when Deborah is brought up the most common answer starts with her being “non-normative.”

In the New Testament, the teaching is very much counter to the Roman patriarchy system. Paul tells the church that woman are to learn in silence. We get caught up on the silence part, but it was revolutionary to say that woman were to learn! The New Testament also teaches a much, much more complementary view of men and women in marriage and also equality before God in Christ. This was very different from the society they lived in, and also different from what the modern patriarchy movement teaches.

So, in summary, do I believe that complementarian is just another word for patriarchy? It shouldn’t be. Unfortunately, there is often not as much differentiation between complementarian views and patriarchal ones as there should be.

It can be hard to be in the middle ground between two extremes. People on both ends will disagree with you. But the answer isn’t to deny that the middle ground exists.

My plea for complementarians is to be clear about what you believe. Don’t be afraid to take a stand that pits you against both extremes. Speak out against the twisting of Scripture and the dangers and abuses of both sides. Feminists may always believe that you’re just patriarchy guys by another name. Patriarchy guys may always call you feminists. Just because they see the world that way doesn’t make them right.

Rachel Miller is News Editor for the Aquila Report. She is also a homeschooling mother of 3 boys and member of a PCA church in Spring, Texas. This article first appeared on her blog, A Daughter of the Reformation, and is used with permission.