Understanding Complementarian Women: Against Angry Feminist Rhetoric

always learning

There’s quite the egalitarian outcry against Always Learning‘s Facebook posts, particularly this one. I’m equally appalled by the Facebook posts and the vicious and/or ignorant ad hominem attacks against the author. Even some of the more tempered rebuttals failed to understand the extreme complementarian position the author takes.

This ignorance frustrates me to no end, because angry feminist rhetoric is probably the biggest reason complementarians refuse to consider any alternative interpretations of Scripture or ways of viewing the world. In my days as a stay-at-home daughter blogger, I don’t recall ever getting constructive, reasoned comments rebutting my patriarchal views (with one big exception — and she ended up uprooting my patriarchal views, God bless her). My only experience with non-complementarians was a message board dedicated to tearing apart conservative Christians — me included.

I get the anger. These Facebook posts and these beliefs in general anger me. I get the bizarreness of these beliefs — even though, as an ex-complementarian who once promoted these beliefs, my incredulity is overlaid with horror and grief at my own ignorance and false teaching.

But I’m not angry because somebody’s wrong on the internet. I’m angry because people buy into these oppressive, Biblically illiterate teachings and suffer because of it — and some egalitarians are leaving unhelpful comments, at best, and inflammatory turn-offs at worst.

Consider this interchange:

Our family has recently started this journey, where my husband is our provider & I stay at home. I am also learning to submit to his decisions regarding our family. This is not easy people. Not by a long shot. I have my own battles, I still get angry, just the other night we had a discussion about a family topic, husband flat out said no & for me to be submitting, I had to accept that. Yes I was angry, yes it hurt & yes I had a cry about it. Does it stop me loving him, or doing what I do every single day? No. I think the reason why being a stay-at-home wife isn’t looked upon favourably is because society has taken it’s value away & it isn’t seen as being worthy of our attention. I feel like a champion when my home is beautiful, the washing is done & I have enough time to sit down & do some of my hobbies before the kids get home & I have our afternoon routine to start. Why would I want to change that for an office, wearing someone else’s uniform, answering endless telephones, obnoxious customers and snarky colleagues……….

Crying over big decisions she was not allowed to make, her husband flat out telling her “No” and, “Be submissive to me”? Not okay by any stretch of the imagination. This is a prime example of complementarianism gone very, very wrong — a dangerous position for a woman’s soul and potentially her emotional and physical safety, depending on the husband.

The Christian egalitarian community had a great opportunity to affirm her desire to be a stay-at-home mom and homemaker who submits to her husband while pointing her to a healthier mindset of mutual submission and respect, individual value, and self-worth.

And to be fair, some tried: “What if I told you that you can be a stay at home mom and not be that ridiculously ignored and pushed over?”

But then, some didn’t: “You know what century it is, right? You’re also aware you’re an adult, not a child, correct?” “That’s pathetic.” “I hope he doesn’t get violent or threatening with you. Honestly you described an abusive relationship.”

The OP was not persuaded. She was offended:

ok so everyone who commented on this thinking I didn’t know my worth or was a pushover, or heaven above thought my husband was in anyway abusive. STOP right there. I am more woman then I have ever been. I am the leader when it comes to this home. Most of the rules laid down in this home are mine. 90% of the ‘family discussions’ held in this house, go in my favour, because my husband see’s the wisdom of my council. I make daily decisions that affect our family. My husband would lie down in dirt & let me walk on him if I asked. If my husband ever laid a finger on me or our boys in aggression, I would walk away! I do not even tolerate aggression in my boys. None of you knew what ‘family matter’ we were discussing, I kept it private, because it’s none of your business. So how can you comment on my submission to him regarding it? What’s the best way to keep a husband, by making him want to come home, If I was a nagging harpy, and made him come home & do chores after his work day would he really want to? Don’t get me wrong, there are chores I refuse to do, like the car maintenance, lawns & some house maintenance. That’s not my job in my eyes. But do I have a slaves life? Not by a long shot.

he does make the decisions. I just put my 2 cents in all the time. At the end, he makes the choice on what we are going to do. If it goes in my favour, yahoo, if not, then I have to to accept. The ones I don’t consult him on are what groceries I buy, what we are having for dinner, where I go thought the day. If I decide to go down to a cafe for lunch with my toddler, then I go. Do I ring him and ask permission. Stoke me dead before I do.

Our home wasn’t always like this. I did work full time when I was younger. I was an employee in a resort. I ended up being at work 90% of my waking hours. Barely saw my husband, let alone my kids. How was our home back then? On the brink of divorce, the kids didn’t respect me, or the rules, there was fighting & then some. I was the dictator wife back then. It was my way or there’s the door. No one wanted to be around me.

I think all of you hung up on ‘submission’ have not been taught the biblical understanding of submission & are automatically thinking in terms of it being a negative implication. Lacey Nicole Buchanan we both know the proper answer for that & if your asking me to say that I am wrong after all. Sorry. My role is not limited to housework people. I use my free time to volunteer with elderly, teach in the community garden & just plain be nice. I don’t need to ‘have a paying job’ to contribute to society.

These responses are typical and cover most of the core beliefs of extreme complementarianism. (Note: Many complementarians are horrified by extreme complementarianism, and it isn’t fair to lump them all together. For the purpose of this post, “complementarianism” refers to extreme complementarianism.) From this example, egalitarians can learn the do’s and don’t’s of engaging in constructive conversation with complementarian women.

DON’T assume she has no say or authority. Complementarianism still gives lip service to women’s full equality and value, after all — separate but equal. To egalitarians, “no say” means “no final say” in a decision-making process. To them, “no say” would mean a husband never takes his wife’s opinions into consideration, which violates their Biblical mandate of husbands loving their wives. Because complementarian women stick to their defined roles, they do not consciously desire any more authority, and in fact, may enjoy that their husbands make the hard decisions and do the dirty work for the family. They take great pride and joy in being the queens of their homes and are often given free-reign over homemaking matters.

DON’T assume she did not choose this life. All the complementarian women I know willingly and eagerly chose the complementarian lifestyle for various reasons: it fits their quieter, more submissive personalities; it fits their husbands’ more assertive, leader-like personalities; it seems Biblical; it affirms their desire to be stay-at-home moms, wives, and homemakers; and it seems like a better alternative than secular feminism. In fact, some complementarian women will manipulate or pressure their husbands into fitting the mold of a complementarian “head of the household.”

DO affirm her desire to be a stay-at-home wife, mother, and homemaker. Complementarians are often unaware that Biblical egalitarianism exists, and believe there are only two options: secular feminism or complementarianism. They feel that secular feminism threatens femininity and looks down on their desire to be wives, mothers, and homemakers. Failing to validate and encourage those values is an immediate turnoff and offense. In their mind, it puts you squarely in the secular feminist camp.

DON’T assume there is no value in complementarian teaching. Complementarian women will often point to how complementarian teaching saved their marriages and strengthened their sense of self and their relationship with God. Since so many women embrace the complementarian lifestyle, there must be some strong draw for each woman. Find out what that is.

DON’T assume she’s questioning things deep down. Many complementarian women, even in the most extreme cases, feel content with their lives and see nothing wrong with their beliefs. Even if she is questioning, she might not be conscious of it. Calling out complementarianism as disgusting, wrong, unjust — any moral judgment — will rarely be considered as anything but persecution. Complementarians do not evaluate beliefs based on their goodness; they evaluate them based on their “Biblical correctness.” They do not know how to evaluate their beliefs in light of morality, justice, and sexism, so don’t ask them to.

DON’T assume her husband is abusive. Complementarianism entraps men just as much women. Good, conscientious men follow along with complementarian beliefs because they believe it’s right, true, and Biblical, while still loving and serving their wives.

DON’T suggest her husband is abusive. Complementarian women are charged with upholding their husbands’ name, and will backpedal on any complaints about their husbands’ actions when cornered with an accusation of abuse. Plus, many women in general, regardless of gender equality beliefs, are unaware of what constitutes abuse and will not recognize it. An accusation of abuse is offensive and an immediate shutdown to the conversation.

DO affirm her desire to submit to her husband. I love emphasizing that Biblical egalitarianism involves the wife’s radical submission to her husband…it just involves the husband’s radical submission too! That would have blown my complementarian mind. Secular feminists don’t argue for the wife’s submission, so affirming her desire to submit to her husband introduces her to an alternative theory: Biblical egalitarianism.

DON’T assume she’s uneducated or unintelligent. Complementarian women earn degrees (or rather, have earned degrees before becoming complementarian), love learning, and are often eloquent teachers. They often care deeply about Scripture, culture, and theology.

DO ask questions. They know all the talking points. They are unable to see the injustice of a “separate but equal” stance on gender. They can’t see the limitations and abuses of their own ideology, even when it hurts them. Since they think they’re unequivocally right, they will put you on the offensive, almost always assuming that you just don’t understand them or Scripture, even if you’re a former complementarian. Complementarians are also discouraged from considering any other viewpoint. If you try advancing an egalitarian argument, no matter how solid or convincing, it will most likely fall on deaf ears. Rather than arguing, respectfully poke holes in complementarian inconsistencies. (There are plenty of them.) It feels less threatening and requires more thought to answer specific questions than to rattle off the talking points.

DO affirm her desire to uphold Scripture. Complementarians are 100% convinced Scripture supports complementarianism and nothing else. Anything else is liberal, heretical, and worldly. If they suspect you of any of those three, they will shut down. It’s important to emphasize the Biblical part of Biblical egalitarianism.

DON’T expect anything to change from your conversation. Complementarianism controls everything about a woman — her future, her wardrobe, her relationships, her sex life, her spirituality, her sense of self, and everything else. Even considering egalitarianism requires a massive overhaul of her entire life. It’s a scary, messy process fraught with much heartache and rejection.

Remember: person over ideas. Don’t drag a woman down because you want to take a pot shot at a hurtful ideology. It’s more important that she achieve wholeness than that you make your point. Seek to understand her on her own grounds, with her own terminology, and from her own perspective. While there are many similarities among extreme complementarian women, each woman has her own story and her own explanations, and she deserves a fair hearing before you even consider criticizing.

What are some ways of creating better dialogue with extreme complementarians and complementarians in general? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences!

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12 thoughts on “Understanding Complementarian Women: Against Angry Feminist Rhetoric

  1. Lisa

    Ooo. This was a good read. I’m involved in a FB group that I LOVE but the leader and most of the women follow the complementarian path because “it’s Biblical”. On one hand, I am not a debater and shy away from it, but it gets my goat when issues like this are discussed and only one side is presented – and this is TRUTH. (Except not really.) They talk all the time about how they can talk about anything, etc. etc. and they can, as long as the more influential members agree! If not, you are quickly debated into the ground – which I refuse to do. But it feels wrong just to say nothing all the time. I like the whole poking holes approach to speaking up – can you post about that sometime?

    Also, you refer to secular feminism. Do you consider yourself a feminist, albeit a Christ following one?

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    • Bailey Steger

      Thanks for reading! Yeah, I hate those situations. They’re not reserved for just one group or ideology, unfortunately! I’ll jot down a post idea for “poking holes” and will try to get around to it!

      I definitely consider myself a feminist, period, but use the term “Christian feminist” in reference to feminists who are Christians and draw their feminist leanings from Scripture and the Christian tradition.

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  2. Abigail

    I really like this post. I grew up in a home and church community which theologically affirmed Complementarian theology but mostly lived out Egalitarian practical norms – even among many of the homemakers. Because of my background, I feel like I can understand both sides of the argument well, but I rarely try to get involved in any discussion, because I know I can’t make either group happy.

    When I found your blog in 2011, I went on a kick of reading “Homeschool Extremist” blogs. I appreciated your writing, because even though we differed on many life applications, I agreed with your general theology and appreciated how you tried to make Complementarianism work with your different personality rather than assuming you needed to fit an apron-wearing, rose-growing stereotype of femininity. (No offense to those who do – I was just disturbed by blogs which touted this image as biblical femininity.) In reading many blogs, I was often speechless and appalled by people’s logical fallacies, misuse of Scripture, and assumption that their life norms must be prescriptive for everyone. I’m pretty sure I spent half of my life in 2011 and 2012 flailing around my room ranting about how horrible bloggers’ Scripture application was, but I am overwhelmingly grateful that I read these blogs, because they enable me to understand where this side is coming from and how they respond to attacks (both real and perceived). I see these women as people with their own individual voices, lives, and preferences. Now I’m working on learning to see the real women and lives behind secular feminism.

    Interestingly enough, I have heard that dish-washing example from an influential woman in my life and not found it distasteful at all. Her perspective was that if you set expectations in marriage, you will constantly be frustrated with your spouse for not measuring up, but if you relax demands, you will be delighted and grateful to receive help. Her perspective came from mutuality, however, and because it was implied to be something both the man and woman should do, I did not find it objectionable.

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    • Bailey Steger

      You are a fabulous person — I love your perspective! I too spent many years flailing and ranting about bloggers’ terrible application of Scripture…I’m still doing it, even about my own past posts. And I agree with you about your friend’s advice — expectations are bad; gratefulness is good. :)

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  3. Bethany C

    Oh, loved this post! It has always been so surprising for me when anyone of a complementarian/patriarchal mindset gives any hint that they are re-considering their ideas or even when they listened to my experiences without defensiveness. I think I grew up believing subconsciously that my arguments would never change anyone’s mind on anyone (perhaps a result of only ever arguing with my parents…and you are never likely to change a parent’s mind!). Then I had one or two interactions with some of the big-name patriarchal writers in which they ‘responded’ but in a way that seemed to me totally intellectually dishonest, ignoring my questions or re-framing them to their own liking.

    It was incredible on the couple of occasions when I discussed with someone who was more open to hearing what I had to say. I remember a discussion with a friend and her boyfriend (both quite conservative and relatively complementarian) in which I described the rather dramatic ways that patriarchy had been really hurtful to me, and the guy (who I thought would react very defensively) just listened and basically agreed that it sounded awful, and said he respected the way I had reacted.

    I really have wondered about some of these things for years–how to offer help to women in evangelical patriarchy without putting them off or being condescending. I knew someone at college who took on a lot of patriarchal beliefs when she started dating this guy who went to a church that people said was a cult…pastors would lock people in the church, once waving a gun at them, told youth group girls they *had* to go on a date with the guy that evangelized the most people…and it seemed so sad. We had mutual friends and I didn’t like the things I heard from them about the relationship. She went from seeming ‘quirky’ in dress & appearance to wearing head coverings and long dark skirts, which is a very superficial thing but it alarmed me. I didn’t really know her and so I didn’t want to just waltz up to her and announce ‘I’m concerned about the things I hear about your church, husband [they are now married] and relationship’. It still bugs me and I hope she’s happy and has ways to choose other lifestyles if she wants.

    Definitely agree that critiquing a woman’s husband generally isn’t helpful…I also know from personal experience that even in a non-complementarian relationship, some people feel a great need to hide, explain or ignore any negative or abusive thing that their partner may do. For years I hid or excused the many, many awful things that my ex-boyfriend did and said, and I still wonder why. I think I felt that it would reflect badly on me, or that people would say that we should break up, and THAT to someone who still had some of the purity-culture ideas of ‘we kissed therefore we MUST remain together forever’ would have been devastating. At the same time I think that people have some responsibility to speak up if they really think abuse is occurring. I am sure I have not always done that well, and in some ways one wonders if it ever does any good at all? I realize that’s outside the scope of this article, but it’s something I think about a lot now. It is incredibly hard to escape an unhealthy relationship in the best of circumstances, but when complementarianism and purity culture is mixed in, I believe it’s even harder. Ugh.

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    • Bailey Steger

      I agree with you about the necessity of speaking up about potential abuse and have wrestled with how to appropriately express that. I think we both agree that leaving a potshot comment on a Facebook thread is not a great way to communicate genuine concern. ;) But yeah, I become tongue-tied at how to speak up to women entrenched in the comp/purity culture mindset that’s fueling questionable, if not outright abusive, behavior. By the way, you’re incredibly brave for breaking up with your first boyfriend — you didn’t deserve that! I’m so happy you’re in a better place now!!

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  4. Karen

    Just curious, is the message board you referred to free jinger? Cause my sister was featured on that one and i know members of it read mine too back in the fundie days (my sis had just gotten married at 19 after a pretty textbook courtship and got preggo right away. Perfect fodder for the rabble! I wasnt really snarked on bc at the time even though i was still pretty conservative i wasnt living the juicy sahd lifestyle…fundie girls who have a job, a degree, and live on their own arent as exciting haha!) I like this post and love your points. Because of our experiences being “persecuted” on free jinger in our fundie days, i wish more people could realize that the best change comes through love. Hate cant drive out hate! Its really important to learn how to be friends with and find common ground with ppl that dont share your point of view. Its the best catalyst for change. Just getting enraged alongside ppl that agree with you just creates more divisions and keeps true change from happening. However even as awful as it was to have ppl we didnt know criticizing and making assumptions about us and our lives and happiness, i have to say reading the feminist rhetoric on that message board was one of the things that initially got me rethinking my assumptions about how i was raised…so its proof God can use anything!! Ha.

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    • Bailey Steger

      Yep, it was Free Jinger. I just Googled my name, and they like me now, find my journey fascinating, and consider me kind of liberal. I’m just sitting over here laughing, considering how rude, petty, and wrong their grievances against my fundie self were. Ah, people. ;)

      But like you said, angry feminist rhetoric did crack through my hard skull eventually, so, yay? :)

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      • Karen

        Haha oh free jinger! Interesting they are still interested in you. With the “ousting” of several big names (gothard, phillips, duggars) the board has gotten much less interesting. Glad you can continue to provide them with entertainment. My sister eventually shut her blog down, partly because it feels really wierd to not only have strangers reading your blog (thats a given) but discussing you like you are a tabloid article. Did you just recently discover this or did you know they were following you years ago? (I dont recall coming across a discussion of you in my previous surfing of the site)

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      • Bailey Steger

        Oh, I think the passing mention of me was last year, on the thread, “Unmarried Fundies.” They were just pointing out that I was no longer fundie and engaged. Yay?

        It makes me upset to hear their gossip and slander contributed to your sister shutting down her blog! I definitely wanted to crawl in a hole and never blog again after I discovered they were “discussing” (i.e., belittling and/or pitying me). I wrote an article on higher education (which was heavily biased by my fundie background, of course) and shared my excitement about going to college. I kept getting lots of negative comments from unknown readers, and someone finally said that Free Jinger was talking about me. I made the mistake of clicking over and reading the thread. It destroyed my little seventeen-year-old soul. But to my knowledge, except for the recent mention of me being no longer fundie, I don’t think I provided them any more fodder for gossip. :)

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  5. Mary

    “Since so many women embrace the complementarian lifestyle, there must be some strong draw for each woman. Find out what that is.”

    LOVE this. Every time you write posts like this, I have this mental image of you moderating real-life dialogues about gender and the Bible – which I think you would be very good at. Keep encouraging curiosity + good listening skills!

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