Thursday, July 26, 2012

Complementarianism without Hierarchy?

I got quite a bit of feedback--both on this blog and through other venues--from my responses to Jared Wilson's now infamous (and, apparently, removed) post endorsing Douglas Wilson's essentialization of male authority and female submission. Some of this feedback came from "complementarians" who wanted to make it clear that the Wilsons don't speak for them.

This feedback got me thinking about the prospects of a complementarian view of gender relations that eschews the Wilsons' obnoxious hierarchy. Can there be such a thing as "essentially different and complementary but equal"? The failure of "separate but equal" in the era of segregation makes me skeptical--but I think the question deserves a closer look. 

One complementarian, whom I'll call DR, responded most directly to my second post on this subject--about my relationship with my wife, who at the time was about to compete in an Ironman triathlon (and who has now successfully completed it!). His responses appeared in a Facebook discussion thread, in which he made it clear that, like me, he would cheer on his wife from the sidelines were she competing in such an event. In other words, he didn't think that I grasped the essence of complementarianism if I took this to be something complementarian men would necessarily be uncomfortable doing.

This, of course, raises a crucial question: What is the essence of complementarianism? When Christian men and women claim to be complementarians, what are they claiming if it doesn't involve hierarchy, if it's not about authority and submission?

It seems to me that it has to have something to do with gender roles. The claim has to be that there are essential differences between men and women-a "male nature" and a female one--that suit them to or call them to different roles in a relationship. There's just something about being a man that means that you, as the man, should do X in a relationship; and there's something about being a woman that means that you, as the woman, should do Y.

DR pushed this idea in the Facebook exchange by focusing on the role of defender: the man, as the physically stronger party in a marriage, has the responsibility to take on the role of defender against physical danger. DR broached this idea by commenting on a particular element of my Ironman Wife post, where I say the following:
My wife knows kickboxing. I don't. If we were threatened in the street, I know who I'd count on to defend us. Does this make me less of a man? Am I a failure as a husband because it would be presumptuous of me to "take care of and protect" the delicate flower that my wife is not? No. What it means is that the Wilson's vision of marriage is a really, really bad fit for the marriage that my wife and I have.
DR found this comment laughable, since "kick boxing is a sport, not a self defense skill. His wife would be destroyed if she tried to employ kick boxing to stop a mugging. It's an incredibly stupid statement to make." He went on to ask a series of questions that struck me as having the purpose of shaming the men in the discussion thread: "Which one takes the pain, or risks the life? The woman, the man, or both?"

It was clear what he took the answer to be. It is the role of men, in situations like this one, to defend their wives (and, when children were brought into the equation, to take the lead in fighting off the threat while, presumably, the wife herded the kids to safety). Through most of this, his comments were premised on the assumptions that (a) I was physically stronger and more powerful than my wife despite her stamina and (b) her kickboxing training would be useless in self-defense. I disavowed him of (a). My wife, when she entered the conversation, disavowed him of (b). Here's what she said:
Let's also clarify that the "kickboxing" was taught by a cop and included constant "attack" or "mugging" simulations. I will defend my kids if needed, to the best of my ability. And, frankly, I won't take the time to check on where my husband (or any other male) happens to be until after I'm done or dead.
Now let me say that I wouldn't abandon my wife in a situation in which we were threatened. Both of us would do what we could for each other. And--as I mentioned in the discussion thread--both of us would do whatever we could to keep our children safe, if they were also in danger. I'm just being realistic about the fact that my wife could do more if it came to blows. As the person who is bigger and stronger and who has self-defense oriented kick-boxing training, my wife would be far less likely to be "destroyed."

Here's the thing: There are generalities that can be made about men and women, but individual heterosexual relationships routinely defy these generalities in one way or another. Yes, men are typically bigger and stronger than women. The average height of a woman is lower than the average height of a man. The average muscle mass of women is less than the average muscle mass of men.

But complementarianism cannot rest on such averages when there are loads of individual relationships that deviate from the average. It makes no sense to say, "Husbands should defend their wives, because men are bigger and stronger and more aggressive in a dangerous situation," if in fact some wives are bigger and stronger and more aggressive than their husbands. If the reason for the gender role division rests on an average difference in physical qualities, one that admits of exceptions, then the role division should vary according to the physical qualities of the particular couple--usually the man takes the lead in defense, sometimes the woman. But then one simply doesn't have an essential gender role division at all. Each couple should negotiate their relationship on their own terms, based on the unique characteristics of the individuals involved, as opposed to conforming to some pre-established complementarian standard.

From "The better fighter should take the lead in defense, and the man is usually the better fighter," we cannot deduce "The man should always take the lead in defense."

In the Facebook discussion, DR both recognized this point and resisted it. Here's what he said:

If there's a situation where the choice is between your wife kicking some butt and remaining unscathed, vs. you stepping up and getting worked over, then yeah, have your wife step up. But that's hardly a real world scenario; any time anyone steps up to an aggressor they're putting themselves in some serious risk.

What about the situation in which either you're both going to be in danger of death or serious injury, or only one of you is while the other can make an escape? Or if you want to throw kids into the mix, either you both stay, and risk the kids getting hurt as well, or one of you steps up to at least slow the attackers down so that the other can escape with the kids?

My take would be first of all, practicality rules. If, let's say in your situation, because of your wife's superior athleticism, the possible results are A) she stays and holds them off long enough for you to get the kids to safety, but suffers serious injury herself, or B) you stay, but are unable to hold them off long enough, and your family does not escape and also suffers serious injury. In that case, I'd go with A.

But in a case where the husband and wife both have equal chances of holding off the attackers long enough for the rest of the family to escape, I'd say the husband always has the responsibility to to step up.
Here's where it gets interesting. DR is asking us to envision a situation where there is no factual difference to justify the role division. The husband and wife are equally well equipped to take on the role in question. DR argues that the man should, in that situation, be the one to take on the defender role--because of his maleness, apparently, even though by hypothesis his maleness in this case brings no special ability to adopt the role exceeding the abilities possessed by his spouse.

What becomes clear here is that, for DR, the role of defender is one that men have a moral duty to adopt in a way that women do not, simply because of their biological sex and apart from any greater capacity to fulfill this role. Or perhaps the idea is this: "Husband"--the role in  marriage occupied by a man--is a role that carries with it certain duties, duties that are different from those attaching to the "wife" role. Athough these are merely presumptive duties that can be overridden by pragmatic considerations of greater capacity or skill, the presumption is a strong one.  (I should note here that DR seemed to think that if children weren't involved, and whoever stepped up would risk serious injury while increasing the chances of the other to escape, the husband should step up even if the wife were the better fighter, because of his role-governed duty as defender).

So, perhaps, the wife has a role-governed duty, completely separate from her distinctive individual preferences and capacities, to take the lead as family caretaker--and making dinner falls under that presumptive duty. If the husband happens to be a superlative cook, this fact might override the presumptive duty. But otherwise, the role-governed presumption prevails.

At this point, gender role divisions have become completely unmoored from gender differences. It is no longer true that "male nature" and "female nature" complement one another in some special and essential way. Rather, the roles complement one another--but there is no longer even a pretense of the claim that the presumptive authority of the gender expectations rests in some distinctive, gender-based suitability for the respective roles. People are pressed into the respective roles regardless of their distinctive character traits, talents, and preferences--although, of course, "pragmatics" might override the presumptive authority of this pressure in extreme cases.

What are we to make of such differential gender-role expectations? Here's what I said to DR:
I don't disagree that my relationship dynamic isn't the norm. But one problem with complementarianism as I see it is that it essentializes generalities, thereby transforming exceptions to the usual into "perversions of nature"--and, in the process, discouraging exceptions to the usual even when those exceptions make sense (e.g., a man refuses to consider marrying a woman who is his physical superior in strength and defensive skills because he'd feel as if his "manhood" were being usurped in the relationship).

For me, practicality and character and personality should rule in determining relational patterns and "roles," as opposed to pre-determined gender roles. In a relationship, the one who is better at A takes the lead in A. (DR) ask(s), what if the partners are equals in defensive skills. But even then practicality rules. Two soldiers who are equals who confront a threat will make a decision of how to respond based on the contingencies of the situation, deciding which response has the best chance of generating the best result. Neither would accept an arrangement in which, by some predetermined fiat, one is expected to always let the other lay down his life for him. Both are prepared to lay down their lives for their comrade or the larger cause (e.g. the safety of the children) if that is what the situation demands.

There is an insidious pattern in patriarchy in which the the man, because he is expected to be the one to make the "ultimate" sacrifice (which he likely will never be called to make), expects the woman to make all sorts of "lesser" sacrifices (which she almost certainly WILL be called to make). I'm not saying this is the case with you (DR), but that it is a pattern of thinking which patriarchy encourages.
In other words, this brand of complementarianism pushes people into roles and choices that don't suit them (on pain of facing social stigma)--and, given the specifics of the classical gender role division, it also has a natural tendency to lead to an unequal dynamic between the sexes.

I would die for my family. But so would my wife. And for people who love one another, this is not just some sort of duty. It is a calling we feel within ourselves. There is no greater love than this--that we be willing to lay down our lives for our friends (or our husbands, or our wives). This calling is not felt only by men. Women feel it too. And we aren't doing women a favor by denying them in some general or systematic way the right to risk themselves for those they hold dear. Husbands don't have a monopoly on that sort of love. When they think they do and act accordingly, they condescend.


  1. I appreciate you comment toward the end concerning "an insidious pattern in patriarchy," as it justified placing a conversation about gender roles within the unlikely hypothetical situation of an attack. This idea of the husband as bodyguard got me thinking about the different "separate but equal" gender roles and how one could challenge the idea of equality in terms of the monetary cost of replacing those roles. Prescribed feminine roles, such as cooking, cleaning and childrearing, could all be filled inexpensively and would be considered menial tasks. Masculine roles, such as bodyguard, handyman, and financial consultant would be more expensive to fill and would require some expertise. If we’d be willing to pay significantly more money for someone else to complete the tasks that are prescribed for men than we would for the tasks prescribed for women, can the roles really be said to be equal?

    1. Good point. A different, but related one, is the differential way in which traditional "women's work" (e.g., elementary school teacher) is valued less highly in terms of remuneration than is traditional "men's work" (e.g., manager).

    2. As a female Christian Feminist it is difficult to both face the reality that females are not equal in their work or essence in the eyes of society, and to realize that Jesus calls us not to be the greatest but the least; to choose an entirely different government. To take the most menial, lowest paying of jobs if that's what he calls us to, to be the servant to all, and to not run from "women's work" to the top of the social structure--this is what he asks of us because Jesus' Kingdom in an up-side-down one. Therefore, we should be fighting for the bottom, not the top. From looking at Jesus' life it seems that he fought for everyone that was marginalized to be lifted up, except for Himself. Jesus lifts the humble and humbles the proud; if you are a woman needing to be lifted up, I ask that you trust that Jesus will do it-- fighting for your own elevation will lead to pride.

      Similarly, as an Egalitarian I would like to bring up the point that hierarchical marriages in the end, seem to harm the man, or at least prevent him from the beautiful practice of servitude. I say this mainly as an observation, though in consideration it should hold up under critique. Which spouse will end up looking more like Christ in a marriage where the male is not typically questioned or asked to submit? From my experience, after years in a patriarchal marriage, I have noticed women glisten with Christ's servant's heart while the man...seems "right" a lot of the time. Both are clay, one has been punched and molded daily, while the other is a hard settled pot. This is why I argue for mutual submission. If I were a man, I would choose Egalitarianism for this sole reason: that there is a greater chance I would be asked to serve more, and thus become more like my Lord. Though it is a daily struggle wanting this, deep in my heart, more than being right, more than being valued in society, I want to glisten like Mother Teresa; like one who is willing to both serve and become the least of these.

    3. What does it mean to trust Jesus to lift me up? I tried that. I prayed and prayed. I waited. I gently asked my husband to rescue me. I waited and prayed some more and nothing happened. In reality things got worse. I was drowning and dying. My family was suffering. So, I decided to save myself. And I did. And everything is much better. My own story doesn't fit in Christianity. I don't know what to do with that.

    4. Lara,
      I am sorry to hear about your situation. I should have clarified my audience. I was speaking about the broader and more theoretical oppression of women. I was speaking against the pride that comes from the knowledge of women's oppression. From experience, it starts with knowledge, which leads to passion, which leads to anger and hurt, and finalizes in pride and wanting to get away from servitude. Although the process may be natural and unavoidable, I was simply sharing that in the end, the answer is to give it all to the Lord. When I said that women should not fight to elevate themselves, I meant in the eyes of the world for pride's sake. There are worlds between a woman who is proud and angry at the injustice of society and trying to gain whatever ground she can to be "higher up", and a woman seeking full person-hood, a healthy situation, being active in finding herself, and being strong. Is the distinction clear? I would never advise a woman to stay in a poisonous relationship or situation, as I would not advise for a cancer patient to wait and pray it out. Hope that helps clarify things.

  2. I like the conclusion, but I hate that all these hypothetical scenarios often involve unlikely situations that are related to violence. It seems like this is always the case with pacifism as well. "What happens when the scary men break in to your house and point a gun at you..." and so forth. I think it's more helpful to deal in the everyday, boring situations of life than in a situation that most of us will never be faced with in our lives.

    I think also that the idea of "gender-based suitability for the respective roles" could also likely be demolished by looking at gender roles historically and in other cultures. One would probably find a lot of patriarchy, but also enough variation to explain away any idea of fixed, immutable roles based solely on gender.

  3. A metaphor comes to mind. My young boys have recently mastered the basics of jigsaw puzzles. Initially the problem they faced, when confronting two pieces that appeared to go together, was that they could only think to joining them according to whatever orientation they picked them up in. They would try, and if it failed, go looking for another piece. The breakthrough, of course, came when they discovered they could reorientate pieces, turning one or both around until they matched.

    Stretching the metaphor a bit, might we not ask if the complementarian isn't stuck at an earlier phase of development? Twist it 'til it works, would be my advice to them.