How the Accidental Complementarian confused the bejeebers out of me today!



I think this will be my last egalitarian post for awhile, unless some unforeseen blogosphere emergency arises. Starting tomorrow I’d like to switch back to pleasanter topics. But I discovered an article about an accidental complementarian over at Her.Meneutics and was so baffled by it that I had to write a post just to put my thoughts in order. This blog is becoming like therapy for me.

It tells the story of Jen Pollock-Michel and her journey from egalitarianism to complementarianism. She opens with an anecdote about all the times that her husband has moved for a job, leaving her to pack the kids and the house and deal with the responsibilities of relocating. She (and the article’s subtitle) makes reference to complementarianism being a misunderstood lifestyle, and goes on to explain how she came to believe that comp theology is more Biblical, because of her understanding of “head” as meaning “authority.”

I read this article. Then I read it again. I still didn’t fully understand what it was getting at, so I read it a third time. Each time, I gained a new appreciation for the author’s bravery in telling what’s sure to be an unpopular story. Unfortunately, I also gained layers of frustration each time as I tried to parse what exactly she was getting at.

Well, that’s not completely true. I know what she was “getting at.” I think Pollock-Michel wants to remind readers that complementarians aren’t all thoughtless drones who inherited their theology and don’t know better. I think she feels marginalized and wants to express that. She’s asking not to be judged, because she’s dealt with her own share of frustration in embracing something she used to reject.

It’s a venting piece. I get that. Venting pieces aren’t bad. The problem is, this one was a bait-and-switch, and it baited us with something very important: the notion that complementarianism is misunderstood, and the implied promise that she was going to more accurately define it for the skeptics.

Early in the article, she says that comp stereotypes are not “the full truth” and that “misunderstandings about complementarianism abound.” I think it’s true that some people misunderstand complementarianism. And yes, stereotypes probably don’t fully describe the experience of people who live it. Stereotypes seldom do.

The problem is, she never expands on this. What is the “full truth”? What are the “misconceptions”?

She offers us an anecdote about her own life that seems to fit the stereotypes, then tells us the stereotypes don’t show the whole picture, but then doesn’t paint that picture for us.

Let’s back up for a moment, though. The first thing that really struck me about this article was the contrast between what the article states vs. what its tone is.

The article states that negative views of complementarianism are misinformed. But here’s how the tone reads:

It opens with an anecdote about a put-upon wife. It actually draws attention to the fact that the negative stereotypes can feel true. It uses words like “reprieve” to describe the desire for egalitarianism. The best the article can muster in terms of positivity is to vaguely describe submission as “holy beauty”—but even that comes off as being a belief mostly acquired through guilt (guilt for having a “deaf ear” and guilt for being unwilling to match Christ’s attitude about sacrifice). Loudly absent is any concrete description of how day-to-day comp life actually feels beautiful; the beauty is attributed to the theory, not the practice.

And it’s not just the feel of the article that bothered me, but the impossibility of putting together exactly what she’s trying to say. There’s just enough contradiction of language, and just enough missing pieces, to leave readers with lots of questions, all of them unsettling.

First, what message were we to gather from the opening anecdote? Was the prioritization of her husband’s career, and her automatic assumption of solo childcare, a conscious decision they made because of complementarianism? Or was this simply a rhetorical strategy to showcase people’s hasty assumptions about female oppression? The start of the second paragraph makes it seem like just a rhetorical strategy, an example that the author plans to flip around and show a different side of, when she says, “Our arrangement could illustrate the burden…” (emphasis mine). Readers expect a hasty “But you’d be wrong!” followed by an explanation of why complementarianism isn’t actually the killjoy it appears to be.

Yet she never does circle back to refute this “illustrat[ion]” of burdens, and actually ends the paragraph with, “I sometimes can’t help wondering if the stereotypes are true.” Then, she says the phenomenon of overburdened women is not “the full truth” of complementarianism—which, to me, implies that this unpleasant stereotype is the truth and is a reality, just not the whole of it. So, does that mean that she has indeed discovered complementarianism to be a system that causes wives to be more burdened than their husbands? That seems like a strange thing to highlight in an article whose subtitle calls the movement “misunderstood.”

I also wanted more about her thoughts on authority. The concept of “head” meaning “authority” played a critical role in her switch from egal to comp, but what does “authority” mean to her and her husband? What does a man’s authority suddenly look like in a marriage that has always functioned with complete equality? What did her husband have to do differently? Was the prioritization of his career the way they interpret him holding “authority”? It’s the only concrete example they give. Who got to decide what authority meant—him or her? Both?

Part of the reason I ask this (and obsess over that opening anecdote) is that equating authority with bread-winning, and submission with childcare, is one of the most stereotypical and least scripturally defensible beliefs the comp movement endorses. I had thought that perhaps this couple, having started out egalitarian, would define “headship” differently than how many comps automatically do. That’s part of the reason I was interested to read the article, and I felt the subtitle implied it. The article, however, actually gave no evidence that she had discovered complementarianism to be different than she thought it would be as an egal.

Now, perhaps she and her husband do define headship and authority in unique ways. Maybe this anecdote does not reveal their definition of authority. But we’ll never know, because no real definition is provided, forcing us to read between the lines.

Yeesh. I feel like I’m getting really crabby about this. The thing is, I admire this author’s bravery. At least she’s being honest about where she is, and she has every right to keep the more intimate details of her marriage to herself. I just felt that the title and opening of the article were a big bait-and-switch, and I wish things had been clearer.

Truth be told, I want this article to make more sense because it touches on a subject that’s close to home.

The picture of a marriage that starts egal and moves into comp is, in some ways, a frightening thing for me to look at. Jaron and I also married as committed egalitarians. We, too, didn’t use “submission” in our vows. Like the author and her husband (at least at the start of their marriage), we believe that male dominance is part of the curse (I won’t say that male “headship” is, as everyone seems to have a different view of what “headship” means and I’d rather not tangle with that). When someone describes a marriage with a similar premise to mine that traveled to such a different place, I’m invested in hearing how that shook out.

I tried to imagine today what would happen in our household if I told my husband I believed he was my authority. He’d look at me, laugh, say, “Then as your authority, I order you to act like an egalitarian for the rest of our lives,” and we’d probably never mention it again. It’s sort of like when my parents got engaged. Mom told Dad that she was okay with deferring to him on big decisions. “No,” he said, “we should make all decisions together.” To which she replied, “No, really, I honestly don’t mind deferring to you,” at which point he put down his foot and said, “No—we will make all decisions together, and that’s final.”

: )

So I guess we all engage in a little double-speak now and then. I’ll have to forgive this author. It must be hard to write about something so complex in one page, and I don’t have to know her full story to know what my story should be.

But darn if those missing puzzle pieces don’t set my OCD going!

(By the way…if anyone is curious how the egalitarian position can be Biblically defensible, please visit CBE or God's Word to Women. I don’t want this comment section to begin reinventing the wheel on theology that’s already been exhaustively hammered out in other places.)

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