In addition to arguing that patriarchy is more faithful to the Bible, modern-day complementarians claim the mantle of historic Christian orthodoxy. “What we believe is what the church has always believed,” they argue.
But it’s not.
There’s a big difference between modern-day complementarianism and traditional patriarchy.
Most complementarian marriages today are more or less egalitarian. That is, most husbands rarely (if ever) exert authority over their wives, except maybe when a “tie-breaker” is needed.
For example, earlier this week I partially quoted Tim Keller, a moderate complementarian, speaking about the husband’s headship. Here’s the rest of his quote:
But there can’t be a misuse [of the husband’s authority], where it’s done so ‘I can get my way.’ The only time a husband can use his authority to overrule is… in order to serve and to take care of his wife and his family.
Or take Russell Moore. Even though he doesn’t like the fact that most complementarian marriages are “functionally egalitarian,” he nevertheless warns men against abusing their authority:
[There are people who] think they are complementarian and what they mean by that is ‘Woman, get me my chips.’ Male headship [asks], ‘What is in the best interest of my bride and my children?’
Yet when you start reading the church fathers, what you find is precisely a “Woman, get me my chips” attitude.
And worse, in some cases.
Tertullian (155-235 AD), for example, would’ve had a fit over modern-day complementarianism, because it teaches that both women and men are made in God’s image. Not only did Tertullian reject this; he laid full blame for the fall at the feet of women everywhere:
You are the devil’s gateway. You are the unsealer of that forbidden tree. You are the first deserter of the divine law. You are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man.
Or how about Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD)? He seemed to think women were only useful for “spinning wool and weaving, and helping with the baking of bread… also fetch[ing] from the pantry the things we need.”
Perhaps things like… chips?
Or how about Augustine, who apparently felt that women were good for little apart from procreation? (And even that was sinful, as far as Augustine was concerned.)
Or Basil the Great (329-379 AD). His advice to women whose husbands beat them was essentially, “Sit there and take it.” In a homily on 1 Corinthians, he wrote:
However hard, however fierce a husband may be, the wife ought to bear with him, and not wish to find any pretext for breaking the union. He strikes you, but he is your husband… he is henceforth one of your members, and the most precious of all.
Complementarianism claims to be in lockstep with the historic church, but the truth is: they, like their egalitarian brothers and sisters, have dramatically softened the patriarchal worldview of the Bible and the church fathers. The main difference between complementarians and egalitarians is one of degree.
We all find it necessary to adapt parts of our faith and practice to the world in which we live. The question is whether we’re honest about it.
The divinely inspired books and letters that we call Scripture were written to people living in a much different world. Their problems and cultural hang-ups were not our problems and hang-ups (and vice versa). That’s why it’s not always a simple matter of just “doing what the Bible says.”
It’s no use claiming one side is faithful to the whole Bible while the other side “picks and chooses.” We ALL pick and choose.
The real question is, what assumptions, values, and presuppositions drive our choices?
How about “love your neighbor as yourself,” which Paul said was the fulfillment of everything else in the Bible? How about a commitment to the fundamental equality and dignity of every human being — which demands (among other things) the full participation of women in the church?
These values are rooted in the creation narrative, where every single person, male and female, is said to bear God’s image. They’re rooted in the cross — the ultimate expression of love, which leveled the playing field for humanity. They are the foundational values of the church, a renewed community of faith where distinctions like “Jew and Greek,” “slave and free,” or “male and female” are rendered irrelevant.
If we’re going to “pick and choose” — as we all do — then let’s choose the path that best reflects these values.