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Complementarianism Exists in Egalitarian Organizations and Churches Because of Patriarchy

by Lori Harding | June 15, 2022

Editor’s note: This is a CBE 2021 Writing Contest Top 15 Winner. Enjoy!

I was ordained in an egalitarian denomination and called as a pastor in an egalitarian church. I assumed this was the best possible outcome as I completed my MDiv and pursued ordination. At least I wouldn’t have to deal with the women in leadership issue, or so I thought.

The senior pastor and the elders at my church held to an egalitarian interpretation of Scripture by virtue of being ordained in that particular denomination of the Presbyterian Church. I’m sure they believed what they professed. However, as I would come to see, pastoring and working in an egalitarian paradigm does not guarantee that women will not experience the harsh reality that regardless of our standing, complementarianism is at work.

Uncovering the Poison of Patriarchy

There’s one overarching reason we continue to bump up against this issue even in the context of egalitarianism. We’re focused on the wrong question. In working toward the complete equality of women and men (as we should be), we’ve forgotten that patriarchy is the standard. It’s deeply embedded within our culture and society. In fact, society as a whole would benefit from understanding how patriarchy damages everyone—inside the church and outside the church. Therefore, understanding how complementarianism persists in egalitarian churches and organizations must begin with an understanding of patriarchy.

The table below illustrates how complementarianism feeds into the larger paradigm of patriarchy. Here we see that misogyny makes complementarianism “run.” Patriarchy is the social system for society. Misogyny enforces patriarchy by governing how patriarchy plays out in relationships and in all corners of societal relationships. Complementarianism is the construct through which patriarchy emerges within religious communities.

Complementarianism                    Misogyny                  Patriarchy
A theological construct that assigns unique roles to men and women. Its teaching is rooted in an interpretation of the Bible that sees women and men as being created equal (Gen. 1) but having different roles. “The ‘law enforcement’ branch of a patriarchal order, which has the overall function of policing and enforcing its governing ideology.”1 A social system in which men are dominant and hold more power than women.


The roots of patriarchy run deep and wide, even in egalitarian organizations and churches where we wouldn't expect to find it. I've had men look me up and down as I walk up to the pulpit. I've had men go to the senior pastor and other staff members to complain about my dress. I had an elder comment on my soft skin as he put his arm around me for a picture. And only women “just happened” to fill the roles of children’s ministry, administration, and bookkeeping. It can be confusing because we believed we were free from patriarchy’s harmful outcomes. The truth is patriarchy is everywhere.

Patriarchy’s Antidote in the Church

Dismantling patriarchy feels impossible. It’s been woven into the fabric of our society for thousands of years. And complementarians are stuffing it into the fabric of our churches today, too. As our society fights for a post-patriarchal culture, our egalitarian churches must also resist the misogyny and complementarianism that many churches are leaning into. What would it begin to look like, and what stereotypes would we need to dismantle, to enable us to all share authority equally in service and leadership in the church?

Discard stereotypes that portray men as the more powerful and positioned gender.

We have come far, but not far enough. The stereotypical pastor in the evangelical world is white and male. And ordained women typically do not serve in lead pastor roles. Even in churches that proclaim the total equality of women and men, men have retained much of their power. Women only make up about 27 percent of ordained people in denominations that do ordain women.2 We need to establish patriarchy-free Bible colleges and seminaries that are accessible and affordable. We need to honestly assess how accessible ordination practices and requirements are for female candidates. And we need to walk away from Bible translations, like the ESV, that subtly but powerfully fuel misogyny and maintain patriarchy.3

Acknowledge the patriarchal narrative as the overarching narrative in our culture and all of society today.

Naming this truth is vital as we navigate ministry relationships both inside and outside the church. All pastors—but especially male pastors—should preach from the pulpit on patriarchy. We should include examples from our culture, but also include examples from our own church as well as ways we have personally perpetuated patriarchy. This could be in a sermon series or—better yet—woven into our messages every time it comes up in Scripture. Pastors, we need to help our congregations understand the extent to which patriarchal influences have resulted in misinterpretations of Scripture over the centuries.

Challenge the patriarchal paradigm everywhere you see it. 

Dismantling stereotypes means getting our hands dirty. We need to learn how to use conciliatory language while moving forward in our efforts to create awareness and educate ourselves and others about the damaging effects of patriarchy. In churches particularly, condemnations of patriarchy could be written into staff policy, with definitions and explanations. Churches could even require agreement with the policy as a condition of employment, with a call to report patriarchal abuses witnessed by other staff members or congregants.

Expect—but don’t accept—gender inequality in our egalitarian churches and organizations.

Patriarchy and the resulting misogyny and complementarianism catch us off guard because we thought we were safe inside our egalitarian settings. At my last ordination meeting, a female pastor spoke up, "Just because this is an egalitarian denomination does not mean that everyone is egalitarian." Her comment startled me, but now I know what she meant. She had also experienced the damaging effects of patriarchy despite being in a denomination that is supposed to be committed to the equality of women and men. Egalitarian environments must be different not only in word but also in deed. We cannot continue to follow the same old rule book that says men dominate while women submit. Speaking up can be dangerous. It could mean our next promotion, an ordination decision, a final paper grade. It could cost us our job. But we must speak against our patriarchal roots if we are to impact our churches, our neighborhoods, and every corner of society.

Final Thoughts on Patriarchy

I was walking back to my office one day as the senior pastor and his wife walked away from our hallway conversation. I happened to glance their way as the pastor slapped his wife on the backside, hard enough that I didn’t just see it, I heard it. Aside from feeling the awkwardness and inappropriateness of the situation, I felt sorrow. Whether or not either of them was aware of the dynamic, patriarchy had reared its ugly head. That slap was a blatant demonstration of power, a strong reminder of inequality in their relationship, and a glaring sign of his perceived right to dominate. Some may argue this was simply a playful routine within a marital relationship. That is how subtle patriarchy is.

Baby boys, toddler boys, elementary-aged boys, adolescent boys, young adult men, and adult men have all been brought up to believe one narrative. They are stronger, smarter, and more courageous than women. They are challenged to protect, defend, and lead. They are trained to take up space with their voices, their ideas, and their physical presence. They are entitled simply because they were born male. Women learn the opposite. This is the harsh truth of patriarchy.

I have worked in two Presbyterian churches, and I attended a reformed theological seminary founded by a Presbyterian church. I experienced the damaging effects of patriarchy at all three institutions. We would be remiss if we thought patriarchy is at work only in conservative, traditional settings. As I've said, patriarchy is in the air we breathe. This has been a difficult reality to come to grips with after working hard for my master of divinity degree and ordination and installation as Associate Pastor. So while I'd love to end in a more hopeful place, I think an honest place is a better spot to land. The truth is patriarchy is not going anywhere, at least not in my lifetime. I believe we're far better off knowing the magnitude of what we're up against and working for change as best we can.

Photo by Lea Fabienne on Unsplash.

Notes

  1.  Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), 63.
  2. Eileen Campbell-Reed, “State of Clergywomen in the U.S.: A Statistical Update” (Nashville, TN: www.stateofclergywomen.org, 2018), https://eileencampbellreed.org/state-of-clergy/.
  3. See, for example, Marg Mowczko, “Manhood and Masculinity in the ESV,” Marg Mowczko (blog), 11 August 2019, https://margmowczko.com/biblical-manhood-masculinity-esv/.

Related Reading

The Unavoidable Link Between Patriarchal Theology and Spiritual Abuse 
How Did We Get Here?: Misogyny in the Church and World 
How the Bible’s View of Power Devastates Theological Patriarchy