Social Issues

Complementarianism supports Bigotry

As I’ve become more involved in the LGBT community, especially as I’ve been forming relationships and connections with affirming Christians who want to see the American church live up to Jesus’ principle that they will know us by our love, I keep running across an idea that I think is a problem. We see it in Matthew Vines’ book God and the Gay Christian, and I saw it earlier this week in a blog post by Kathy Burdock, who wrote Walking the Bridgeless Canyon.

It looks like this in Matthew’s book:

I want you to notice the close link between Philo’s views on same-sex relations and his beliefs about women. Philo called the passive male partner in same-sex relations a “man-woman counterfeiting the coin of nature.” He condemned the active partner as well, on grounds that would offend both affirming and non-affirming Christians today. Philo said the active partner was “a guide and teacher of the greatest evils, unmanliness and effeminacy.”  …

Yes, the clear denigration of women is offensive. (90-91)

And like this in Kathy’s post:

The perception and cultural response to same-sex behavior between males has intractable roots in the social and sexual status of women throughout history. Because same-sex acts placed one male in the submissive, penetrated role of a woman, one male was invariably looked upon as if he were a woman …

As women rose in status, as cities formed, and as men began to explore sexual attractions, the interaction, which had always been associated with excess, lust and the reduction of one partner to the role of a woman, came to be seen differently.

I agree with the essentials of these arguments, and I think it’s extremely important to draw attention to the reasons why ancient writers condemned sex between two men. People like Philo and Plutarch and Clement wrote against gay sex because they were deeply misogynistic and femmephobic.

However, I think Matthew and Kathy made a mistake in presenting the argument this way, because their opposition– in this context, those who argue against marriage equality based on “gender complementarity”– does not agree with this premise. They argue these things from the viewpoint that ‘we can basically all agree’ that these horrifically misogynistic attitudes are “clearly offensive” or that women’s roles are “seen differently now.”

They’re not. Not in complementarianism.

For ease of discussion, I am not referring to a style of complementarianism practiced by many Christians, what I and John Piper call “functional egalitarianism”: those who live out equality in their marriages, but with a dash of gender essentialism thrown in. I am instead working with the definition laid out in the Danvers Statement— that men and women are relegated to specific roles, and that the man’s role is defined by leadership and decision-making, while the woman’s role is defined by submission.

When it comes to sex, Douglas Wilson lays these roles out in stark terms:

In other words, however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts. This is of course offensive to all egalitarians, and so our culture has rebelled against the concept of authority and submission in marriage. This means that we have sought to suppress the concepts of authority and submission as they relate to the marriage bed …

True authority and true submission are therefore an erotic necessity.

This position was hailed and supported on The Gospel Coalition website, and I believe is fully supported by complementarian theology. To those who support complementarianism, a woman’s role even in sex has not budged an inch from the time of Paul and Clement. The woman is to be “conquered,” and she is required to accept this as her only biblically-supported role.

This is why I believe Christian feminism is of central necessity to the LGBT community and to the dialog with non-affirming Christians and churches. Without feminist theology, without people arguing against misogynistic interpretations of Scripture, affirming allies and queer Christians are going to be left spinning their wheels in the mud. The argument that biblical writers condemned gay sex not because of anything inherent to gay sex but because of misogyny isn’t going to get anywhere as long as so many conservatives are running around believing that misogynistic views of women and marriage are biblical.

We can’t afford to assume that anti-LGBT theologians agree with us on this. The second they encounter people like Matthew or Kathy saying that the submissive role for women is “clearly offensive” they’re going to roll their eyes and stop listening, because complementarianism is the only construct they have for understanding male-female relationships. Not only that, but they’ll be comfortable dismissing affirming arguments as unbiblical. In order to persuade anti-LGBT Christians, we have to address their assumptions (like heteronormativity), not just the arguments surrounding a mere six passages of Scripture.

Photo by Simon Powell.
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  • There’s a great example of this in a recent NPR Intelligence Squared US debate. The motion was something along the lines of, “The Equal Protection Clause does not extend to same sex marriage.” The side arguing for the motion kept coming back to two points: complementarianism and the state’s interest in procreation, both of which were both poor arguments (in my opinion) and also terrifying in their implications.

    If anyone’s interested, I think this link should take you on through:

  • It makes sense then why it’s always man-on-man sex that’s condemned (well, more than woman-on-woman sex, which only gets one mention in Romans). Two women can’t procreate, and women hate sex anyway, so obviously two women wouldn’t engage in sex for pleasure…

    • Yeah, I’ve noticed that, too. Even in modern-day articles, I rarely see woman-on-women sex mentioned.

      • Cythraul

        I suspect the other main factor is that they just don’t consider women at all, one way or the other.

  • Cythraul

    (I know a lot of people hate Disqus, but I’m so happy to finally see it here.)

    How much of this is specifically about the role in sex, and how much of it is the role in the larger marriage?

    When I’ve seen people link complementarianism to anti-LGBT bigotry before (a link that makes sense to me), I’ve gotten the impression it was more about roles in the larger marriage. Sometimes it was as facile as “Without a woman, who will cook and clean? Without a man, who will earn money and protect the family?” Sometimes it was more abstract – people would make the “both paddles on the same side of the canoe” analogy.

    • I think it’s both. Complementarianism as a system focuses on the bigger picture, but when they do start talking specifically about sex, is gets really ugly. There’s this one blog written by a conservative complementarian that uses comp. theology to argue that there’s no such thing as marital rape, for example. Or anything of the things Mark Driscoll has said on the subject. (Incidentally, a bunch of other Christians got super pissed at Mark for arguing that anal penetration is permissible in marriage, even for men).

  • Yes. And the Wartburg Watch had something interesting on how this basic misogyny is now shaping all of conservative theology, to the point that they’re advocating a hierarchical view of the Trinity that is heretical according the historic creeds. I found it interesting; I hadn’t known any of this:

    • Kathleen Margaret Schwab

      The Wartburg Watch piece was very eye opening. Complementarians are willing to reshape Christianity around male dominance – that is how important it is to them. More important than anything else in the religion. You have to wonder about people who need to dominate that badly.

  • Sheila Warner

    I had not considered this POV before. I think you nailed it.

  • Timothy Swanson

    It’s a bit of a side observation, but I note that #6 in the “rationale” section of the Danvers statement is a patently false statement of fact. “the upsurge of physical and emotional abuse in the family.” If anything, the research is pretty clear that even in the last 20 years, physical and emotional abuse has dropped. If you go back further, it is historically ludicrous to suggest that feminism(TM) has increased abuse in marriage and families. Rather, the evidence is strong that since the beginning of first wave feminism there has been a profound and continuing drop in domestic violence. Hmm. Maybe the fact that it was legal to beat one’s wife 250 years ago, and that a woman couldn’t divorce for abuse meant encouraged abuse, and that once women could leave – and earn a living – and men who abused were prosecuted led to a reduction in abuse…. Just a thought.

    For what it’s worth, I’m in an egalitarian hetero marriage, and I am proud to call myself a feminist.

    As to the main point of this post, yes, one of the main arguments against same sex marriage is “who is the boss?” A combination of the belief that hierarchy is the “godly” state of human relationships and an exaggerated gender essentialism, and it is pretty clear that there is no possible place for any coupling other than a “man=boss / woman=subordinate” relationship.

  • Trans people really throw a wrench into complementarianism. Trans women in particular are very harshly penalized because people have the horrifying erroneous view of them being “men that become women.” (that phrase is so horrible and causes so much harm). To complementarianism, that is incredibly evil as they often view it as someone giving up their manhood, but the irony is that there really isn’t anything in the bible that directly discusses it. All they can do is trot out bible verse that are related to having sex, which has nothing whatsoever to do with being transgender. Then they will try to claim it denies the body God gave us, but that completely ignores the fact that our brains are most definitely part of our body, and our brains are making it abundantly clear that we’re trans. (So that argument fails as well since God made my brain too, so thus, God made me trans.) Yet their transphobic views perpetuate terrible ideas that lead to the death of trans people (especially women of color, who are often attacked and murdered the most of any other demographic in the LGBTQ movement).

    Thanks for speaking up about how problematic that version of Christianity can be. That version of Christianity is what drove me out of the church. (Made it so going to a Christian church is now pretty triggering. Being trans and queer means I’m super likely to be attacked for just existing in their space. And it’s hard to know if a church is safe or not until you try to visit it.)

  • Excellent argument. If we can’t see men and women as equal we can’t allow for any blurring of the lines, so to speak. Far too many social structures seem to exist to make people not be who they really are.

  • Stacey Johnson Donovan

    What the actual hell, Douglas Wilson.