The Sneaky Side of Complementarianism

It seems like complementarianism is getting a lot of buzz these days. For such an unwieldy word, people have been bandying it about quite a bit. Last week, Rachel Held Evans’ post “It’s Not Complementarianism, It’s Patriarchy” launched a flurry of comments and conversations. Evans suggests, and rightly so, that complementarianism is a form of “soft patriarchy,” which still tries to restrict and rigidly define appropriate roles for both women and  men inside and outside of the home. And while complementarianism seems to be losing ground, there is more work to be done. Evans writes, “…it’s not enough to say that hierarchal-based gender roles don’t work; we must also be able to show that they are not required by Scripture.”

And not too long ago, floating around various social media networks, I ran into a piece by Owen Strachan called, “Of Dad Moms and Man Fails: On Men and Awesomness.” In this article, Strachan explores the confusion that a recent Tide commercial featuring a “dad mom” doing laundry created for him. Although the article includes a lot of discussion, Strachan eventually ends by concluding that complementarianism, which suggests that there are prescribed and preferred roles for males and females within a relationship that are complementary, is in fact a biblical model and can lead to a healthier, happier marriage. Strachan writes, “Men can image Christ the savior-king by folding laundry on occasion, by getting down on the floor to play with their kids, and by doing the dishes when they can. But they must commit themselves primarily to the work of provi­sion, whether of spiritual leadership in the home or financial breadwinning to sustain it. To paraphrase the Tide commercial in ques­tion, that and no other definition is what ‘being awesome’ truly means for a husband and father.”

When reading these articles, it is easy for me to vehemently agree with Evans and to simply write off Strachan as holding to incorrect assumptions about biblical texts and the inerrancy of the Bible. I could go ahead and do exegetical analyses of typical biblical passages that are used to suggest that women’s place is in the home, in order to argue further that this is a flawed reading. And this would certainly be a valuable exercise, since as Anabaptists I believe we are certainly called to take the scriptures seriously and to discern their meanings for today together in community. When my mother became a pastor, I witnessed some members of the church that eventually hired, licensed and ordained her pulling out scriptures to suggest that women were not called to serve in pastoral ministry, and I watched discussions within a community unfold about the meanings of these texts.

However, when I read each of these new takes on complentarianism, what I am most struck by is the ways that these frameworks, like it or not, still hold some sway over my own notions of marriage and partnership. This is surprising and troubling to me. I certainly grew up in a home where my parents modeled an equal partnership. Where both parents were involved in household work (although if I asked my parents, I’m sure they could both point to times when they didn’t feel like the division of labor was quite equal), they both eventually found careers outside the home, and both of them have been willing to move across the country to enable each other to take on new educational and career opportunities.

In my own relationship, we are not super traditional either. Similar to Evans and her husband, I’m probably the bigger sports fan in the Heinzekehr household. We also split household chores, and more often than not, when we cook meals, we do it together.

But the sort of ugly truth that keeps trying to squirm its way into my consciousness is that sometimes I do sort of long to conform to gender stereotypes. When we eat out at a restaurant, I typically assume that Justin will be the one placing a reservation and will also be the one pulling out a credit card to pay the bill. Justin is also the primary budget-maker and accountant in our family, whereas I am our “social coordinator.” I’ve taken over almost completely doing our laundry, because of a sort of ingrained stereotype that we both play off of that when men do laundry, whites come out pink (even though my husband is not colorblind and is obviously perfectly capable of sorting out loads of laundry). I watch my weight carefully just to be sure that I don’t “catch up to Justin,” even though we have completely different body builds and weight structures that shouldn’t even be compared. And I sometimes feel sheepish when I share with people that I am the one who has been the primary traveler and full-time worker for the last few years of our marriage.

Sometimes, Justin has actually had to be the one to point out to me when I am simply reenacting stereotypical gender norms, or when I am avoiding doing something because I am afraid that it will make me look less feminine.

Like it or not, the complementarian framework can quite easily wend its way into our mindsets, and undermine even the best of intentions towards equality. This is the sneaky part about patriarchy (and any other form of systemic oppression): it can so easily weave itself into the daily fabric of our lives that we don’t notice it until we’ve gone so far along sewing that, to remove it, would require ripping out many established seams and patterns.

What are your thoughts on complementarianism? How have you balanced expectations about masculinity and femininity? How have you sought equality in your relationships?

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3 Comments

Filed under Sacred Texts, womanhood

3 responses to “The Sneaky Side of Complementarianism

  1. Grace Yia-Hei Kao

    This is a really honest and wonderful reflection! What struck me is how socially-constructed even those gender stereotypes are. For instance, in many immigrant Taiwanese households of my parents’ generation (and thus the one in which I was raised), the men were the primary/only breadwinners, but the women “controlled the purse,” which is to say that they set the family budget and thus were the ones who actually paid for things. In my own marriage, I like to think that I have both an egalitarian model AND a complementarian one, but the latter is NOT tied to gender expectations per se, but the unique gifts/talents/skills/interests of the two of us (e.g., Nathaniel has been been sorting delicates, towels, jeans, etc. in our laundry for years because of his meticulousness, he is also the preferred storybook reader to our kids because he does voices; I have been the “social coordinator” for most of our marriage because I love throwing parties and most of the folks we socialize with originated as “my” friends first)…

    • Hannah Heinzekehr

      Thanks, Dr. Kao. You are so right. It does just seem to make sense in any marriage/partnership to play to each person’s strengths and to focus on the best ways to utilize “complementary” skill sets. It’s unfortunate that too often these divisions of labor get charged with gendered associations, when sometimes they are really just responses to each partner’s gifts. It makes it hard to sort out what’s being motivated by societal pressures and what’s a natural response. Thanks for reading!

      • Grace Yia-Hei Kao

        Hannah – indeed, although I would agree with you that the sorting out is much more complicated in the ways that you suggested in your response that I may have obscured in my first response, meaning, that what may now be “natural” was itself socially conditioned and encouraged. Yes, I love throwing parties, but I’ve also been watching the women around me in my life and have been reading magazines, etc. and all of these factors have socialized me into developing the art of hospitality (as you once wrote about in your feminist ethics paper). I’m not sure if we could ever discover what is “original,” “natural,” or “authentic” to oneself and what is “merely” the result of social conditioning. So in some cases, it may be the most efficient thing for couples to divide the labor based on skills and talents (however innate or acquired), but in other cases, for the sake of gender justice or feminist ends, it might actually be a good thing for folks to work against their habits…

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