by Katharine Armbrester
When we go to the riches in his Word, we don’t find a masculine and feminine version, but one Bible to guide us all. We don’t find that our ultimate goal is biblical manhood or womanhood but complete, glorified resurrection… We don’t find a command anywhere in Scripture for all women to submit to all men. We don’t find directions for women to function as masculinity affirmers. We find that men and women are called together on the same mission: eternal communion with the triune God.
Completing our series of wonderful books by self-described “housewife theologian” Aimee Byrd is her newest offering, Recovering from Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. The pressing urgency with which Byrd writes is both engrossing and essential, for a thorough and Biblically-based discussion of the doctrine of complementarianism is indeed urgently needed.
Complementarianism is an idea that many Christians are familiar with, although they may not know its origins, and even fewer may realize just how very new this doctrine is within the Christian church. Complementarianism is the belief that the roles of men and women within their faith are strictly defined by their gender and are thus “separate but equal.” This view is strictly enforced within Judaism and Islam, but has only begun to be enforced with the same militancy within American Christianity since 1987, when theologians John Piper and Wayne Grudem organized the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood [CBMW], followed two years later by the Danvers Statement, which was adopted by several prominent Christian denominations and has since been regarded with almost as much unshakeable reverence as Scripture.
Byrd’s book is a direct response to Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism, which was published in 1991. That subtitle explicitly states the bogeyman that Christian complementarianism was designed to eradicate, but has obviously not yet destroyed. Thirty years have passed, and a generation of Christian men and women have grown up separate from each other, with their gender expectations and responsibilities constantly drilled into them from the pulpit. And equally, they most certainly are not. This has undoubtedly led in part to the mass exodus of twenty and thirty-somethings from the churches within recent years, and as Byrd discusses, the harm that uncompromising complementarianism leads to will only increase if something does not give.
The [CBMW] statement says nothing about friendship. God didn’t design the two sexes only for marriage. What about how we were designed for the new heavens and the new earth? Where’s the brother/sister language? How do men and women relate to one another in general? This is an important part of our sexuality that carries over into our eternal bodies when we will not marry. The church needs to speak more about how we were created for communion with the triune God and with one another in platonic—intimate, but nonerotic—relationships. This too is a faithful witness against the sexual revolution and for promoting one another’s holiness.
With extraordinary grace, perception, and clear-eyed frankness, Byrd analyzes complementarianism, both its origins (with its strange adoption of Victorian gender norms combined with secular terminology) and its impact on Christian living today. Her concerns encompass why there is no need for separate, color-coordinated Bibles for men and women, to how complementarianism has aided and abetted divorces and #churchtoo. Above all, she expresses concern about how relentless enforcing of complementarianism (particularly in smaller churches) renders it nigh on impossible for men and women to interact with each other as friends and siblings, and this highly sexualized separateness leads not to the glory of God, but division.
What messages does your church send about sexuality? Do the men feel reduced to trying to avoid so-called animalistic impulses, always on the brink of having an affair? Do the women feel like threats to the men’s purity or reputation? Or is there healthy sibling interaction in an environment where household members view one another holistically and can grow in discernment and wisdom?
Byrd reminds her audience (with an astounding truth that you will never hear in a dogmatic complementarian church) that “There are no exhortations in Scripture for men to be masculine and women to be feminine.” In its most simplistic form, which has spread like wildfire in the past thirty years, complementarianism reduces men to unmanageable hairy beasts who are redeemed only through marriage, and reduces women to handmaidens who best serve God by serving said man in marriage. Neither are ideas that Christ taught—redemption is accomplished by seeking to be like Christ and a relationship with Him, and God is best served by obeying Him and serving others as Christ did.
We don’t see [Jesus] filling mere roles of what the Jewish or Greco-Roman cultures expected for manhood. We see him exposing many of those roles as inadequate, subverting them beyond expectations, and then revealing a better picture of God’s design. Just think of the way Jesus showcases leadership in the washing of feet and how differently he exercises his own authority as the Son of God, in contrast to the one-dimensional ways taught in biblical manhood…[Jesus] equips and empowers men and women. And he calls them to do his work. He does not call them to different roles or different virtues.
Among the wrongs that complementarianism has wrought, chief among them is the suffocating insularity of the family that rigid adoption of man-made gender obligations leads to, and the widespread adoration of the nuclear family unit. This mentality leads to seeking to preserve the family unit at all costs—even counseling an abused wife to stay with her husband and continue to “submit” to him at the risk of her own and her children’s safety, or advising a young woman to marry the man who has assaulted her.
Another wrong is that complementarianism reinforces a hierarchy in the church which Christ did not ordain, with married couples at the top—held up as the ideal to ceaselessly strive for—and singles (whether by choice or circumstance), the widow, orphan, and foreigner are neglected, despite them being equally precious in God’s sight. This is infallible proof that complementarianism, rather than being as radically counter-cultural as it claims to be—merely apes certain aspects of the wider culture instead of truly seeking to emulate Christ’s example and follow his implicit command to “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.” (1 John 2:15)
Men and women need to invest in fostering mutual knowledge of one another. When we look at each other, when we listen to each other, when we cooperate, promoting holiness, men and women are affirming and participating in our ultimate purpose. Oriented in Christ, this kind of communion is truly meaningful. And we don’t merely have the exclusive sexual relationship of marriage to express this. We are brothers and sister in Christ, placed a dynamic, synergetic, fruit-bearing communion.
One of the most powerful arguments that Byrd makes for why complementarianism is so problematic and has done so much damage in the church is the case she makes for the strong female role models in the Bible, who despite living in a patriarchal society, did not actively strive to serve a man or fulfill their “role,” but rather glorified God by being different from the worldly women around them. Many women served actively in capacities other than teaching Sunday School in the early Christian Church, but they are not held up as role models as often as the mythical “Proverbs 31 Woman.” Complementarianism has propped up crumbling Victorian ideals of what men and women should be, rather than highlighting Biblical men and women in all their flawed complexities.
It is worth saying that if women growing up in complementarian churches reach adulthood and find they are given a stifling lack of opportunities due to their gender, they will leave the church to find more opportunities to be fulfilled as a woman. When discussing the actions of Rahab and the unnamed Canaanite woman, Byrd says that their “bravery, initiative, discernment and resolve are models of faith for us all… If we are to follow some of the hyper-masculinity and femininity teaching taught in some conservative circles, these women would look more rebellious than full of faith. Should we regard them as exceptions to the way faith normally operates?
It is clear that women have just as much to offer the church as men, and women can serve and glorify God exactly as men do, and until complementarianism is relinquished, Christianity will risk fading into old-fashioned ideals and impossibly outdated rules just as the Victorianism from which it sprung has withered. Complementarianism is a cultural ideology that is not serving the Church well. It is not a Biblical truth, and it is the word of our God that will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:8)
Katharine Armbrester is in the MFA creative writing program at the Mississippi University for Women. She is a devotee of Flannery O’Connor and Margaret Atwood and fully intends to be an equally disconcerting playwright—she thinks Alabama needs one.