“Have you made a decision about repairing the dishwasher?”
“Sally, I’m on it. I wish you wouldn’t keep bringing it up.”
“I’m sorry, hon. I’m not trying to nag—but we need to either call a repairman or buy a new dishwasher. I’m getting tired of washing dishes by hand.”
“But I’ve been helping out with the dishes!”
“I know, and I appreciate that. But you’ve had two elder meetings this week, plus men’s group. So you haven’t been around all that often when it’s dish time. And the women’s ministry wants me to bring two cakes for the next bake sale, and that always makes extra dishes, so—“
“We’ll get a new dishwasher, then.”
“Honey, I’d like that, I really would. But are you sure that’s the best financial decision right now?”
“Sally, I’m taking care of the dishwasher thing. Can you support my decision?”
“Oh, honey, of course. I support you.”
This is a hypothetical conversation between an imaginary complementarian husband and wife. It’s not meant to depict how all complementarian couples relate to each other. I am presenting a possible marital conflict and proposing how the couple might have dealt with the issue. A complementarian husband might not object to his wife’s critique of his decision and a complementarian wife might have more input on the couple’s financial decisions.
Not all complementarians. I know. But from what I’ve seen since I became a Christian over thirty years ago, this scenario is still a fairly typical picture of complementarianism.
Complementarians believe that men and women have equal value before God, but are intended for different functions: men as leaders and women as supportive followers.
Complementarians argue that this is good for both men and women, because we are all happiest when we embrace God’s plan (gender role) for our lives. But it’s hard not to notice that this plan is disadvantageous for women and seems like a pretty sweet deal for men.
In most complementarian churches, women are restricted from at least some leadership positions. Further, the tasks that women are allowed to do are generally regarded as less essential than the “men’s work” of teaching, leading, and pastoring the church.
And it’s kind of obvious that the one who makes the decisions in the marriage has certain advantages over the one who is expected to submit to those decisions—Harry and Sally being a case in point.
But is this really such a sweet deal for men?
Jesus said in Matthew 12:33, “A tree is recognized by its fruit.” He was talking about people and their actions—but the same truth applies to doctrines and teachings. If a doctrine is good, it should lead to life practices that are good and healthy for us and our relationships.
In the above scenario, Harry knows that Jesus commands Christians to have servant hearts, and he’s trying. The dishwasher is broken, so he’s helping his wife with the dishes. But he sees the dishes as his wife’s job, and he’s just helping out. Relieving his wife of time-consuming dishwashing by hand hasn’t really been a priority for him.
It’s also harder for him to empathize with his wife because he’s never been in her position, the submissive follower, and will never have to be.
Sally’s supposed to be submissive to his authority, so it’s easy for her to think of herself as “nagging” (a word we’re all used to hearing about women and not men) when she brings up her unmet need several times. Sally doesn’t feel she can take care of the problem herself, even though it’s affecting her life far more than her husband’s.
I’m not arguing that all complementarian women are prohibited from making household decisions, but I think it’s fair to say that a major financial decision like this would fall more on the husband’s side of “the plan” than the wife’s.
Finally, Harry feels a little threatened when she questions his decision. This makes it hard for him to listen to her input—even though she is probably right.
Other couple’s dynamics might be different. But here are some ways that this supposedly biblical doctrine can end up hurting men.
1. It encourages either spiritual pride or self-condemnation.
Some men are natural leaders. According to complementarian theology, a man who leads well is doing God’s will. But if a man doesn’t lead well, he’s giving in to his sinful, fallen nature. So if you’re a guy and you find it natural and comfortable to be the leader at home, it’s easy to think you’re a better Christian than that guy over there who just doesn’t like being the leader and isn’t very good at it. But is this really spirituality—or just personality?
2. It is not good for the man to be alone.
In Genesis 2, God said “It is not good for the man to be alone.” Among all the animals, the man couldn’t find a being that could keep him from being alone. So God made a woman to be his “face-to-face strong rescue” (the meaning implied by the Hebrew words in the passage). God wanted Adam to see that Eve was what he needed.
It’s lonely at the top. Having a true partner keeps you from being alone. But when a man is the sole leader of his household, he has no partner. He only has a sidekick.
I believe that men began to rule over women in Genesis 3 as a result of sin, and one consequence was that men returned to being alone. That wasn’t good then, and it’s not good now.
3. It leads away from “do unto others.”
Jesus said in Matthew 7:12, “Do to others what you would have them do to you.” This one command comprises God’s whole intent for how we should live. But what man truly would want the place of subordination and restriction relegated to women?
Men violate this basic command when they do to women what they would not want done to them. And yet complementarianism teaches that female subordination is somehow not contradictory to the plain meaning of this foundational text.
4. It leads to cookie-cutter thinking rather than empathy.
In order to truly connect, we need to listen, understand, and empathize with one another. But if we think all men were created to be one way and all women were created to be another, how can we hear others with an open heart?
If the person we’re talking to doesn’t fit into the box they’ve been relegated to, can we hear and absorb their story?
5. It causes an imbalance of power—and power corrupts.
In a complementarian relationship, a husband gets the tie-breaking vote in any dispute. Both the husband and wife are generally aware of this “trump card.” And their very knowledge of this fact can influence the decision-making process. For example, a wife might give in too quickly when she has a good idea because her husband doesn’t agree with her.
A complementarian marriage is not a checks-and-balances system designed to protect the couple and family from bad decisions. The husband has all the power. He decides how much power to share with his wife. He decides whether she gets a say in financial decisions. He decides how far she can question him. In short, he can choose to keep all the power for himself, operating unilaterally without anyone to check his decisions.
Not all complementarian marriages suffer from every problem on this list. But the seeds are there, waiting to grow.
This is the fruit complementarian trees too often bear. So maybe we ought to reconsider whether complementarianism can be what God intended at all.