Complementarianism, for many Christians, amounts to little more than a couple of narrow conclusions about wives submitting to husbands in the home and ordination in the church being reserved for men. If that’s all we have in our vision for men and women, it’s not a vision we will hold on to for long. We need to help church members (especially the younger generations) see that God didn’t create the world with one or two arbitrary commands called “complementarianism” to test our obedience in the home and in the church. God created the world with sexual differentiation at the heart of what it means to be human beings made in his image. We cannot understand the created order as we should until we understand that God made us male and female.
What is the difference between patriarchy and complementarity — and which is the better term for capturing the full vision of Christian manhood and womanhood? Most complementarians steadfastly avoid the word patriarchy, wanting to distance themselves from any associations with oppression and prejudice. On the other hand, critics of complementarianism are eager to saddle their opponents with the charge of defending patriarchy. The terms often function as a way of communicating, “I’m not that kind of conservative Christian” — to which the reply is, “Oh yes, you are!” So what is the most accurate term for those who want to recapture a lost vision of sexual differentiation and order?
Defining, to everyone’s satisfaction, terms like patriarchy and complementarity is nearly impossible. I’ll do some definitional work in a moment, but I don’t want this article to become a tedious, academic inquiry into the usage and history of these terms. I also don’t want to define the terms so that complementarity becomes a convenient gloss for “good male leadership” and patriarchy ends up meaning “bad male leadership.” To be sure, that distinction isn’t totally misguided, but if that’s all I said, my argument would be entirely predictable.
And a bit superficial. As I’ll argue in a moment, there is nothing to be gained by Christians reclaiming the term patriarchy in itself. In fact, reclaim is not even the right word, because I’m not sure Christians have ever argued for something called “patriarchy.” Complementarity is a better, safer term, with fewer negative connotations (though that is quickly changing). I’ve described myself as a complementarian hundreds of times; I’ve never called myself a patriarchalist.
Yet there is something in the broader idea of patriarchy — no matter how sinister the word itself has become — that is worth claiming. If the vision of male-female complementarity is to be more than a seemingly arbitrary commitment to men leading in the home and being pastors in the church, we cannot settle for a proper interpretation of 1 Timothy 2. Of course, careful exegesis is absolutely critical. But we need more than the right conclusions. We need to help people see that our exegetical conclusions do not just fit with the best hermeneutical principles; they fit with the way the world is and the way God made men and women.
Complementarity and Patriarchy
The idea of complementarity — that men and women were designed with a special fittedness, each for the other — is not new. The term complementarianism, however, is relatively recent. In their seminal 1991 work Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, John Piper and Wayne Grudem deliberately termed their recovery mission “a vision of biblical ‘complementarity’” because they wanted to both correct the “selfish and hurtful practices” of the traditionalist view and avoid the opposite mistakes coming from evangelical feminists (14).
No one committed to intellectual honesty and fairness should treat traditionalist, hierarchicalist, or patriarchalist as synonyms for complementarianism. In coining the term complementarian, Piper and Grudem explicitly rejected the first two terms, while the third term (patriarchalist or patriarchy or patriarchal) is never used in a positive sense in the book. “If one word must be used to describe our position,” they wrote, “we prefer the term complementarian, since it suggests both equality and beneficial differences between men and women” (14). Thirty years later, this vision of complementarity is still worth carefully defining and gladly defending.
The term patriarchy is much harder to define. Strictly speaking, patriarchy is simply the Greek word meaning “father rule.” There is nothing in its etymology to make the term an epithet of abuse. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are often called “the patriarchs” (Romans 9:5, for example). The spiritual leader of the Orthodox Church is the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. In a generic sense, every Christian believes in patriarchy because we affirm the rule and authority of God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.
Despite these positive associations, as a sociological and historical category, patriarchy is almost always used in a pejorative sense. Here, for example, is the first sentence of the Wikipedia entry on patriarchy.
Patriarchy is an institutionalized social system in which men dominate over others, but can also refer to dominance over women specifically; it can also extend to a variety of manifestations in which men have social privileges over others to cause exploitation or oppression, such as through male dominance of moral authority and control of property.
In this one (long) sentence, we have a host of pejorative words: dominate, dominance (2x), exploitation, and oppression. No one is expected to read this definition and think of patriarchy as something good, or even something that could possibly be good.
In a recent longform article in The Guardian, Charlotte Higgins argues that at its simplest, patriarchy “conveys the existence of a societal structure of male supremacy that operates at the expense of women.” Higgins admits the patriarchy is virtually dead as an academic idea — too blunt and monolithic a concept to be useful — but in popular usage the term has experienced an unprecedented revival, one Higgins supports. “Only ‘patriarchy’ seems to capture the peculiar elusiveness of gendered power,” she writes. Higgins’s street-level definition is helpful insofar as it reveals that for most people, including most Christians (I suspect), patriarchy is shorthand for all the ways our world promotes male supremacy and encourages female oppression.
If that’s patriarchy, the world can have it. It’s not a term you’ll find in Christian confessional statements from the past. It’s not a term you’ll find employed frequently (or at all) in the tradition of the church as it defends biblical views of the family, the church, and society. As a conservative, Reformed, evangelical Christian, I applaud the vision of “equality with beneficial differences” and stand resolutely opposed to all forms of domination, exploitation, and oppression.
Cost of Dismantling Patriarchy
Why not end the article right here? Complementarianism is good; patriarchy is bad. Case closed. Enough said, right?
Not quite. We should be careful not to banish patriarchy to the ash heap of history too quickly. For starters, we should question the notion that patriarchy equals oppression. In his book Ancestors: The Loving Family in Old Europe, Steven Ozment argues that family life, even in the patriarchal past, is not wholly different from our own age. Parents loved their children, husbands performed household duties, and most women preferred marriage and homemaking to other arrangements.
History is complex and rarely allows for meta-theories and monocausal explanations. If women had fewer opportunities and rights in the past (almost everyone had fewer opportunities and fewer rights), women also lived enmeshed in stronger communities, and their roles as wife and mother were more highly honored. Accounting for differences in economic prosperity, it is entirely debatable (and, perhaps, ultimately unknowable) whether women are happier in the present than they were in the past.