Complementarianism does not demand total agreement & still lets you read what you want

The stuff of a particularly wild, very un-British, form of American complementarianism (that isn’t where all American complementarians are at by any stretch) continues to do the rounds.

There’s that Duggar documentary which, to be frank, is nutso mental. I mean, I’ve known some hardliners in my time, but that is something else and no mistake. I’m not talking about the overt abuse. That is sadly more prevalent than anyone cares to admit and is not unique to any given side. I am just talking about the approach to women in general in that setup. It is beyond insane. But apart from that, there seems to be a repeated rolling round of an American-style hardline complementarianism that – though not quite in the Duggar ball park (despite what some are desperate to insinuate) – doesn’t seem firmly rooted in the scriptures. Or, perhaps more accurately, starts in the scriptures legitimately enough and then runs off, maniacally laughing and screaming, quite some way from anything in the text as it attempts to move to its cack-handed application.

In response to some of that, there are quite a lot of egalitarians who want to insist complementarians who do not share those characteristics are complementarian in name only (CINO). They say that those who see complementarianism differently are really functional egalitarians and should drop the label if they don’t want to be tarred (and feathered?) the same way. That is unfortunate given that those labelled CINO insist they really are complementarian in more than just name. They do practice complementarian principles at church and in their home. They just equally insist they don’t agree with the application of those principles emanating from certain quarters.

Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be any recognition that the majority of world complementarians outside the US simply don’t accept the peculiar American form of complementarianism, amongst a particular sub-culture at that, to be the definitive biblical version. I am prepared to recognise those who think women can’t be postmen or who won’t allow their wives to read books unless specifically approved by their husband are practising a form of complementarianism. I think it is a damaging and not entirely biblical form, but it is a form nonetheless that rests on the same substance. I view it much like how I can’t write my mad uncle out of my family just because I find him embarrassing; he’s still family even if I wish he would be less like that (apologies to any real-life uncles reading, I definitely don’t mean you!) I can’t deny that someone is complementarian just because I don’t like the way they apply it. Just because I don’t accept the form doesn’t mean I can legitimately deny the substance.

At the same time, I wish those on the other side of this would recognise some of what they rail against is but a form of complementarianism that is a) not essential to the doctrine, b) rejected by the overwhelming majority of complementarians the world over and c) America (only a little subsection of American complementarianism at that) does not speak for the whole world. Why should the rest of us give up a term because a handful of Americans apply it in ways we eschew and don’t recognise? How can it be right to dismiss people who insist they understand the application of a doctrine differently, and say so in significant numbers, as necessarily having misunderstood the teaching when you do not even belong to the camp? If I insist my Muslim friends must believe X, because some Muslims I know believe X, I can’t go on to argue they aren’t really Muslims at all because they insist, along with large swathes of the Islamic world, that they do not accept X. That, it seems to me, is a touch arrogant coming from a Christian non-Muslim.

But let me drill into two things I have come across lately that are worthy of a response. First, there was some nonsense about not letting your wife read books you, as her husband, had not pre-approved and read already. That, unsurprisingly, came from American hardliners again. Second, there was a suggestion that the best way to counteract toxic complementarianism (as some understand it) was to simply let your wife and children disagree with you, as if that never happens in complementarian homes. That, unsurprisingly, came from American egalitarian quarters. I wanted to just say a little about both because I think they suffer from the same misunderstanding of complementarianism in the end.

Let’s start with the second one of those first. Most complementarian brothers I know have no problem with either their wives or daughters disagreeing with them. I mean, obviously nobody loves it when anyone disagrees with them when they are convinced they are right. But that hardly seems to be the special preserve of complementarians, or men, or anyone who thinks anything. Nor is it directed only at wives and daughters, but literally anyone who disagrees. That is not a complementarian issue, it is a thoroughly human disposition.

But even as a complementarian, I read nothing in scripture – not once, anywhere – that says wives and children cannot disagree with their husbands. I equally – if we are really talking about complementarianism – do not read anywhere that church members cannot disagree with their elders. So, speaking strictly biblically now, what in any text of scripture – even those ones specifically about headship at home and in the church – has anything to say about disagreeing? I put it to you that none of them do. Which tells me forcing uniformity and agreement has nothing to do with complementarianism and disagreeing with somebody does not undercut it. The relevant words I read – and there’s some significant context that temper even these – are things like head, submit and love. Now we can have a chat about what they mean, but at this point let us just note that the words and phrases disagree, totally agree with and forced uniformity of thought are not in the text. So it is a stretch to insist complementarianism would or should have anything to do with them.

Nor does disagreement in any way undercut headship. Imagine, if you will, a husband wants to sin. Consider his wife disagrees, somewhat strongly, with this heinous desire to sin. Does the wife simply agree with her husband and submit to his sinful leadership – because that is what headship means – or does she disagree with him and highlight, as best she is able, that he is in danger of departing from God’s good purposes? I should hope the answer is evident. Of course she should disagree with him. Not only that, but call him to repent. She has a higher allegiance to God than to her husband. The Lord – just as with Eve – has called every wife to be a helper suitable for her husband. That means helping him to do as God commands, which necessarily includes calling him out on his sin and pointing him to Christ. Disagreement not only doesn’t undercut headship, but in this way exemplifies it. She is specifically doing what God has called her to do – helping her husband obey God!

But let’s just imagine a scenario that is not sin. Perhaps a husband is not planning on sinning, but he is being stupid. By stupid, perhaps I mean more just taking a course of action that is unwise. It may be because he is ignorant and uneducated in the area concerned, it may be because he has it in his head this is good sense when it patently isn’t. What is a godly wife to do here? Submit to her husband’s stupidity because he is God-ordained head? Once again, in what way is that consistent with her God-given call to be a help meet for him? I should hope if one thought it a good idea to lay down for a nap on some train tracks, a wife that is intent on helping her husband would reprimand his stupidity. If my wife doesn’t disagree with me in these scenarios, it is a dereliction of her own duties before God!

But perhaps the issue isn’t so starkly stupid. Maybe just that a husband thinks one thing makes good financial sense while his accountancy trained wife sincerely disagrees. His view might not even be stupid, and certainly not sinful. What then? Two things bear saying.

First, being a help to her husband seeking the good of her family, it seems perfectly reasonable not only for her to disagree, but to cite her better qualification as the grounds for doing so. This is literally what being a help is and, in this scenario, it involves disagreeing with her husband. Since when is good and godly disagreement, offered with a desire to actively help a person, in any way undermining of anybody?

Second, a godly husband is called – especially if he is an elder but nevertheless even if not – to manage his household well. It is obtuse – dare I say out and out thick – to ignore your chartered accountant wife’s educated, reasonable, sensible professional advice on your finances in favour of your untrained “I reckon” on the ground of dubious understandings of headship. That is just bad household management which would disqualify a man from eldership, and with good reason! Who wants an elder who won’t let anyone disagree with him ever, even when the person disagreeing is clearly better trained than him and more likely to know a matter? In what world is it good management of anyone to ask them to be more stupid – setting aside their better judgement for your untrained layman’s best-guess – and to not use their gifts, talents and training for the benefit of the group you are managing? To do that is not complementarianism. Nor is it egalitarian as it happens. It is just stupid. It is certainly bad household management, and would be terrible church management, and such an approach should rightly disqualify you from any leadership position.

I hope there is enough meat on those bones from this complementarian to see that refusal to allow people to disagree has nothing in esse to do with complementarianism. Indeed, good household management demands good disagreement. Being a good helper demands the ability to disagree well. If we don’t think church members cannot disagree with their elders ever (and, for the avoidance of doubt, of course they can!) we have no grounds for assuming a wife or a daughter (or a son) cannot disagree with their father. That doesn’t mean all disagreement is godly, of course. But any disagreement aiming and intending to be genuinely helpful to the family and/or the church is of course godly, right and legitimate. It is the very essence of helping when it is necessary. There is nothing in complementarianism as derived from scripture that would disagree.

Let me turn now to the other hard line complementarian suggestion that wives shouldn’t read books her husband hasn’t pre-screened. There’s a lot to unpack there. I mean, my first question is, what are you doing marrying somebody you can’t trust to read their own books? I want a wife who is genuinely going to be a help to me, not another child I have to monitor. If you think you have to monitor your wife’s reading, I suspect you need to ask yourself some hard questions about why you thought this was a good person to marry in the first place because you evidently don’t trust them. Or perhaps you think they are too stupid to parse what they read? Which doesn’t bode well when it comes to asking what it was that drew them towards marrying you, does it? And, more to the point, why you wanted to marry somebody you thought was so stupid. The very idea beggars belief. I just cannot imagine wanting a marriage that operated that way, let alone entering a marriage with somebody I thought of like this. Specifically, as far as complementarian principles are concerned, how is such a person going to be any sort of help to you in your marriage if you are right about them? If you are wrong, how are you in any way going to be a help to them thinking of them this way?

Coming back to the point at hand though, I can’t see what in complementarian theology would lead you to this practice. Where in the scripture does it even come close to suggesting you better screen the books your wife reads? If you fear she will run after theology that you don’t hold, ask yourself these things: what does it say about your leadership (if this is your particular understanding of complementarianism) that makes you so concerned? If your concern is she is too stupid to understand it, I refer you to the previous paragraph. If your concern is that she won’t come to you with any concerns she has, maybe you might question why not? May it be you have infantilised your wife, or even worse terrorised her, that she wouldn’t dare speak to you about any of it? There are a few other possibilities, but none of them seem all that good.

But let’s say your wife does, somewhere, draw conclusion that you don’t. Your call as a husband, if you are complementarian, is to love your wife as Christ loved the church. It is not to impose strictures and bans on her and revoke her agency. You are to love her. To show that you love her. Which, as far as I can see, minimally means giving her the benefit of intelligent agency and reasoning with her. Maybe loving her means discussing with her why you disagree and showing that you value her thoughts and opinions enough not just to dismiss them, or tell her she can’t read stuff anymore, but to engage with her and try to win her with persuasion like a reasonable person.

Now, someone will shoot back, isn’t a wife supposed to love her husband by submitting to him? And, here’s the truth egalitarians don’t like, but yes. Though it pays to remember that is in the context of their prior and higher allegiance to God and in response to a husband loving his wife like Christ loved the church. But the key question here is what submitting means. I’m not entirely sure agreeing with everything a husband says is the definition of submitting.

Let’s just consider, for example, Paul’s call in Romans 13 to submit to the authorities. Which of us believes our submission means to agree with everything the government does? Nobody to my knowledge. We do not submit, just like wives do not submit, to those who will cause them to disobey God (as the Apostles did in Acts 5). But similarly, where they are not asking us to disobey God but we wish they would do something else, even where we willingly submit to it, does not demand that we agree with the line. Submission does not equate to agreement. Jesus submitted himself to Roman death on a cross, it doesn’t mean he agreed with what they were doing to him! I just don’t see anything in the concept of submission that equates to agreeing on every jot and tittle at any rate. So, if your wife does read something and is persuaded by it and you aren’t, so what? Complementarianism doesn’t demand you do anything specific other than love your wife well, which I imagine means giving her the respect of free agency and reasoning with her why and how you disagree if you think it is a matter of any great importance.

But I’d venture loving your wife well more generally means giving her the free agency to read whatever she pleases. It means trusting her enough not to run headlong into spurious nonsense but having the wherewithal to parse what is good from the bad. Yes, loving your wife well might mean challenging her sometimes if you think she is listening to what is damaging (just as it means her challenging you sometimes too for the same reason). But you do this in a spirit of love, that wants her best and treats her with dignity – as a person of intelligence to be reasoned with and persuaded, not cajoled and instructed like a child without agency. This, as I understand it, is exactly what we would do in the church amongst the people of God whom we love too. We challenge each other if we think we’re going astray and we do so in love giving each the benefit of assuming intelligence and free agency.

But, and let’s not underplay this last point, I am amazed by how little credit some of these discussions give to the Holy Spirit. If your wife is a believer, do you not think the Spirit might work in her to help her understand scripture rightly, just as he does in you? Might he not work in her to help her submit to the Word, as he does with you? Might he not have a power to keep her walking rightly with Jesus in a way that you screening out books and demanding her total agreement with every passing thought you have can’t achieve? I mean, what sort of terrifying world must you live in that the Spirit isn’t capable of these things and it relies totally on you? This isn’t complementarianism; it is rank Arminianism for the home! I cannot think of a practice more at odds with the theology of those of us who subscribe to a theologically reformed congregationalism than this sort of heavy-shepherding in the home (or the church). It is like we are sure the Spirit works in congregational votes in a way he definitely won’t in our marriages. The Spirit will keep everyone faithful, except our wives where it relies totally on their husband. I mean, give me a break. It has nothing to do with complementarianism and everything, as far as I can see, to do with Arminian theological practice overtaking our professed Calvinistic theology. It is theologically incongruous at best.

Complementarianism, at heart, ask husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church and wives to submit to their husbands as to Christ. Husbands are called to manage their households well and wives are called to be a help meet for her husband. That is, leaving off the old terminology, a help suitable for him. There is a level of mutual submission to one another, both bringing their unique and respective gifts and abilities to a marriage, so that their household can flourish to its fullest. As we know, there are lots of different ways to manage. Whilst we must admit, belligerently barking instructions and demanding total allegiance – stripping everyone of agency along the way – is a form of management, it is neither a good nor effective one. And it pays to point out this form of household management is not what is demanded in scripture. The management Jesus demands is the form that he exhibits. That is one whereby we submit to the good of our families, submit to the good of our wives, like Jesus submitted to the good of the church, even giving himself on the cross to that end. Wives are to submit to the one who is loving them like Christ has loved his church. That submission is neither servile nor does it necessitate agreement. Indeed, being a God-ordained helper and co-regent might necessarily involve serious and legitimate disagreement. I am glad my wife is willing to help me enough to disagree with me when I am being stupid – this, I think, is how it ought to be.

Complementarianism is not the doctrine of male omnicompetence and female subjection. It is specifically the doctrine that men are not omnicompetent and therefore need abundantly competent helpers to make up for their deficiencies. There are necessarily things that men cannot do and, to quote the Bible directly, it is not good that man should be alone for this reason. Male headship, just like Jesus’ headship, is to be borne out in service and manifest in a love that puts the needs of wife and family far above their own. Female submission is the willing submission of one who loves, respects and trusts her husband because of his evident love for her and desire to serve her good even at great cost to himself. She is to serve the good of the family with him, which may well mean disagreeing with him where his lack of competence is evident. He is to lead and manage his household well by allowing his wife to utilise her God-given gifts to the fullest for the good of the family, knowing that he is not omnicompetent. He is to submit to the needs of his wife whilst she is to submit to the servant-leadership of her husband. He is to lead in such a way that his wife would gladly want to follow and she is to submit in such a way that her respect is evident, even when her calling to be a suitable helper means she must disagree. Both are called to submit and both are called to work for the flourishing of the family. None of it rules out disagreement and it doesn’t stop anyone from reading whatever they want.