When I critique oppressive systems and ideologies, I generally ask two simple questions:
Does the system or ideology give one group unearned power over other groups, and especially over others who already have less social power?
If the answer is “yes,” then I ask a question I already know the answer to:
Is the system safe for the less powerful?
Naturally, social hierarchies are safe for those at the top. They’re designed to preserve the existing social structure, which already prioritizes the needs and perspectives of the group with power. Social hierarchies don’t make less powerful people and groups safer. Rather, they exacerbate any vulnerabilities and pose danger and harm to marginalized people.
If a system relies on the powerful group behaving rightly and not abusing their power, then the system is already unjust and therefore, unsafe, for less powerful groups.
In the 19th century, many white slave owners in the US believed (or claimed to believe) they were caring for and protecting African slaves by imprisoning them. In short, they argued that a social hierarchy—with white people at the top—somehow made slaves safer and enabled their flourishing. Some modern theologians still argue that slavery in the American South was a benevolent system, that masters and the humans they kidnapped were just pleasantly co-dependent.
Let’s cast our minds farther back. White Europeans in the US attempted to destroy native peoples’ history, culture, and traditions, and forcibly assimilate them into European culture. They claimed they were “civilizing” native people for their own good. But the system wasn’t designed to benefit indigenous people or make them safer. It sought (and seeks) to marginalize native people, centralize European values and traditions, and erase native culture.
Historically, many groups in power have tried to reframe social inequality as benevolent, and even empowering.
Men who resisted women gaining the vote in the US sometimes cited concern that women were not intellectually capable of political engagement; they needed men to benevolently take charge. Non-US examples include the British colonization of India (and other countries and regions) and apartheid in South Africa—both reframed as benevolent and paternalistic.
Clearly, hierarchies are not designed for the safety or flourishing of the less powerful. That’s just one way we’ve defended them historically.
Racial hierarchies do not empower people of color, nor do they keep them safe. Class hierarchies do not empower people living in poverty, nor do they keep them safe. And gender hierarchies do not empower women, nor do they keep them safe. They make abuse of power possible and likely.
For all their promises and posturing, social hierarchies are never truly benevolent. Ultimately, they are incapable of ensuring the safety and health of the less powerful because they privilege and empower the already-more-powerful.
Complementarian theology privileges men as “heads” and leaders of women, who already have less social power. So, we have a “yes” to our first question. In this sense, this ideology mirrors the existing social organization of the world.
On to our second inquiry: is the system safe for women?
Historically, men have hoarded power and resources, and women have been less safe as a result. This suggests that male-rule has not made women safer. And broadly, history proves that social inequality does not lead to the safety and long-term flourishing of the less powerful.
So we must either conclude that there is something dramatically different about complementarian theology that makes it truly “benevolent,” or that it fits the historical pattern and makes women (the group with less social power) less safe.
Of course, many people believe that the Bible mandates complementarianism. My analysis of whether or not it makes women unsafe isn’t likely to sway them away from what they believe is God’s design. I don’t agree with their interpretation of Scripture, but I’m not interested in waging a war in exegesis just now.
I think complementarian theology fits the historical pattern of other social hierarchies. More importantly, I think it departs from the new social ethic outlined in the gospel.
Complementarian theology often rises or falls on the morality or right behavior of men. Of course, I’ve heard the argument that men who abuse power just don’t understand “servant leadership.” It’s supposed to bring about women’s good or flourishing too. I’ve even heard a leading proponent call the system “benevolent patriarchy.”
But do systems that give one group power over another group tend to promote the safety and flourishing of the less powerful group? Do they tend to be truly benevolent in practice? And do they tend to match the new social ethic imaged in the gospel?
History supplies pretty clear answers to these questions, in my opinion. Male-rule really hasn’t gone very well for women (or for men, for that matter). Women are less safe when men lead and make decisions alone. Women are less safe when men hoard power and resources. Women are less safe when they aren’t empowered to co-lead in the home, church, government, and world.
God wants women safe and empowered. God wants women to thrive—to brim with health and joy and holy power. God doesn’t ordain a system that makes women less safe. Rather, he is continuously tugging the heart of the church toward gospel justice and reconciliation.
Our Creator is already bending the arc of history toward liberation, patiently correcting us when we mistake old for new. We don’t need to reframe our worldly hierarchies as benevolent. We have the gospel—a beautiful, level-ground social ethic that doesn’t need to be reframed.
The gospel sets free, and empowers indiscriminately. We the church must do the same.