Is Complementarian Just Another Word for Patriarchy?

There have been a number of articles going back and forth on whether complementarianism is the same thing as patriarchy. Some feminists say, “Of course it’s the same.” Some complementarians seem to agree at some level. There is certainly debate over the issue. It’s worth noting that the boys at the blog that shall not be named believe that complementarianism is just another name for feminism.

So what do I think? Is complementarian just another word for patriarchy? Well, my answer is: not really and it depends who said it. Helpful isn’t it.

First, I think it’s important to note that there is considerable confusion over the definition of terms. There are many people who claim the term complementarian often with significant differences over what they think that means. Because of that it can be difficult to determine what a “complementarian” believes simply based on the label. I believe it’s worthwhile to consider the various views on gender roles on a continuum with feminism on one extreme and patriarchy on the other. So, some “complementarians” would be closer to patriarchy and others further away.

Also, it doesn’t help matters that some complementarians claim to prefer the term patriarchy or that some in the patriarchy camp claim to be complementarians. There is a real need to define what one believes, and it’s possible that some labels are not as helpful as they were developed to be.

Some complementarians (and also the patriarchy guys) think that the word patriarchy best describes the Christian faith. Since patriarchy means “father rule” and since God is our Father, then we have a patriarchal faith. These complementarians argue that just because some extreme views have assumed the name patriarchy doesn’t mean that the name itself should be avoided.

I would argue that even if the word hasn’t always been associated with those views, it is now. Like it or not, once a word has assumed such as strong association, it is near impossible to call it back, and it’s honestly not worth the effort or the confusion it causes. For example, if someone says, “I’m gay” we all know exactly what they mean, and it has nothing to do with a temporary emotional state of happiness. I don’t think it’s helpful to try to rehabilitate the word patriarchy.

But back to the idea that Christianity is inherently patriarchal. I absolutely believe that God is our Father and that He rules everything. If that’s all that’s meant by patriarchal, then I can agree. However, God is more than our Father. God is Father, Son, and Spirit. Besides being our Father, He is also our Husband, Redeemer, Creator, Savior, Teacher, Comforter. My concern is that we can limit our understanding of God by seeing Him ONLY as Father.

I’m also concerned that if we aren’t careful we will lean towards a hierarchical view of the Trinity that flirts with heresy. Of course, in the economic Trinity, God the Father sends the Son, the Son submits to the will of the Father, and the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. But when we are dealing with who God is we must remember that the three persons of the Godhead are “the same in substance, equal in power and glory” (WLC Q.9). It is not only God the Father that we worship. We worship the Triune God: one God, three persons. It is not only God the Father that interacts with us.

What about the view that the “patriarchs” of Israel were patriarchal? The New Testament uses the word “patriarch” twice: once to refer to David and the other to refer to Abraham. The use of the word is similar to our use of forefathers. Did the forefathers of Israel live a patriarchal life? Many of them did. Many of them were also living polygamist lives. I believe that this is an example of the descriptive nature of their marriages and their society, not a prescriptive one.

I think it’s worth looking at the evidences of how the Israelites were different than the surrounding cultures as the people of God. We can consider the actions of Deborah, Ruth, Esther to be contrary, in many ways, to a strict patriarchal society and difficult for many modern patriarchy guys to explain. In fact, when Deborah is brought up the most common answer starts with her being “non-normative.”

In the New Testament, the teaching is very much counter to the Roman patriarchy system. Paul tells the church that woman are to learn in silence. We get caught up on the silence part, but it was revolutionary to say that woman were to learn! The New Testament also teaches a much, much more complementary view of men and women in marriage and also equality before God in Christ. This was very different from the society they lived in, and also different from what the modern patriarchy movement teaches.

So, in summary, do I believe that complementarian is just another word for patriarchy? It shouldn’t be. Unfortunately, there is often not as much differentiation between complementarian views and patriarchal ones as there should be.

It can be hard to be in the middle ground between two extremes. People on both ends will disagree with you. But the answer isn’t to deny that the middle ground exists.

My plea for complementarians is to be clear about what you believe. Don’t be afraid to take a stand that pits you against both extremes. Speak out against the twisting of Scripture and the dangers and abuses of both sides. Feminists may always believe that you’re just patriarchy guys by another name. Patriarchy guys may always call you feminists. Just because they see the world that way doesn’t make them right.

12 thoughts on “Is Complementarian Just Another Word for Patriarchy?

  1. jilldomschot says:

    I appreciate this post because it is intelligent rather than dogmatic. I sometimes think men and women have forgotten how to live with each other in a natural way. Maybe it’s always been like this, and maybe our post-post-modern world has created an artificial reality. If we were all doing what we ought, which is to care for our families and submit our wills/sacrifice ourselves, then I can’t imagine why anybody would have to argue over arbitrary details like whether or not a woman should work outside the home. It’s getting a bit thick.


  2. ellieeugenia says:

    Thank you for this, I was just talking about this yesterday. There seem to be a lot of misconceptions about complimentarianism. I consider myself a complimentarian in the biblical approach, because I believe it is a picture of Christ and the church. It’s always hard to talk about feminism as it relates because I think it’s like comparing bees and pigeons. The range of feminist thought is really wide and early feminists were mostly believers. If I’m truthful I could fairly say that I fall in the range as a Susan B. Anthony version of feminist (equal rights for women, anti abortion) but also being completely complimentarian but this is not what people refer to when they talk about feminism, we (Christians) are usually referring to the extreme. I do not claim to be a feminist though, I don’t want misunderstandings, I’m a believer first and my worldview is Christian, but I think we can better educate ourselves on the spectrum of feminism. I also think it is a very dangerous route to try and fit the bible into a feminism box. I take issue with books like Jesus Feminist and others because it’s much easier to believe Gods views are our views and try to explain them that way then it is to understand that Gods ways are not our ways, and when people write books about theology and claim not to be theologians, I wonder what is the point then really? When I think complimentarian I think this applies for the church and for the life of the believer, so it’s hard to compare it to secular social views. I agree that the Patriarichal people or some of them are on the other extreme of extreme feminism, so maybe complimentarianism is outside of that spectrum altogether? And you can have a Patriachal society devoid of the bible, in a lot of cases they are. I think because we are all talking about gender roles it’s easy to lump them altogether. I’m reading and learning a lot about this and trying to find clarity because I think it’s a little messier than clear cut, well I mean the Gospel is clear, my understating of complimentarianism is clear, trying to understand it in the secular world is messy. Write more about this, I’m very intrigued.


  3. Eileen says:

    Rachel, thanks again for writing on this topic.

    It is very important to be clear about the meanings of terms. But the lack of clarity has come from those who invented the term “complementarianism” in the 1980’s (I’m referring to the founders of CBMW.) They have re-defined the concept of “complementary” into a strictly vertical hierarchy. The dictionary definition of complementary does not imply or require that the complementarity be vertical rather than horizontal and mutual. I don’t believe it should be acceptable to equivocate on terms that are this important.

    I agree with your concerns regarding the Trinity. But they would say that the economic Trinity is the only Trinity we know, so the economic Trinity is a true representation of the immanent Trinity. There is a huge logical leap there and other logical problems in that view. They argue as if the only way in which a son can be related to a father is by authority while totally ignoring the other ways that fathers and sons are related. They ignore that the eternal Son is also the Word/Logos of John 1. It is reductionistic and contrived.

    The accusations that egalitarians are feminists is simply poisoning the well by conflating secular feminists and even radical secular feminists with Christian women and men who believe that women and men are essentially related to one another and to God as described in Genesis 1:26-28. This is yet more deficient reasoning, and I question why they do not simply make their case with the Biblical data unless it is because they cannot.

    Ultimately, the lines can be clearly drawn at the question of the status of men and women before the Fall, both with respect to their Creator and with respect to one another. Was there a hierarchy of any kind indicated by the actual details of the text or not? Genesis 1:26-28 has no hint of hierarchy. When the arguments of complementarians or patriarchalists from Genesis 2 are examined, they simply cannot be found in the actual words of the Bible but are read into it with healthy doses of speculation.

    This used to be a secondary issue, but it has been elevated to a gospel issue, and if you deny their view of the relationship between men and women, then you are accused of denying the gospel or even the Trinity!

    I believe we should all stop and think about what it is that we are actually protecting, regardless of our individual positions.

    You should be proud in the best sense of the word to be a target of the Baylys.


  4. William says:

    Not to dodge your question regarding complementarian and patriarchy similarities, but it seems that when the focus is on trying to define roles, a very important facet of Scripture is overlooked regarding male and female.

    The Reformation was noteworthy in that it recognized pathological tendencies unique to each sex. Male and female have differing sin natures according to the Reformers. As a result of these differing sin natures our Great Physician instituted certain remedies applicable to each sex. We see them in Genesis 3. Peter Martyr wrote:

    “The punishments inflicted by God are the remedies and the restraints of our vitiated nature.”

    Thus to many of the Reformers God’s actions that followed Adam’s sin were not punishments in a judgmental sense, but unique, loving helps for us in our weakened male and female states. Calvin said:

    “For God does not consider, in chastising the faithful, what they deserve; but what will be useful to them in the future; and fulfills the office of a physician rather than a judge.”

    It is in this same vein that the apostle Paul could say “women shall be preserved through the bearing of children”. Paul himself had his God-instituted “thorn in the flesh”.

    Modern technology has wrought massive changes in regards to removing male and female restraints. I think we fail to recognize the full implications.


  5. William says:

    To clarify my above comment:

    God has given woman a form of kryptonite when it comes to man. Woman has the power to subdue a man and bring him to his knees. Woman is tasked with converting latent savages into family men. This power is squandered when sex is meted out apart from receiving a corresponding commitment from the man to faithfulness and right behavior. Woman can thus save a man or let him be destroyed. Man has been created dependent on woman. His preservation is inextricably wrapped up in hers. If woman is not saved, neither will man. Thus the famed and violent “Wild West” was notable for its predominance of single men and lack of family-oriented, virtuous women. Similarly, a patriarchy man is what results when a wife allows herself to be diverted from her mission and subdued.


  6. NJ says:

    I think we have a troll from the manosphere…

    Rachel, thankyou for tackling this issue. I have to say though–

    “My plea for complementarians is to be clear about what you believe.”

    Unless every last one can agree on a definition, individual comps being clear about what they believe will still not solve the problem. I suppose one could envision a big conference held to answer the question, “What Is Complementarianism?”, even getting into the nitty gritty details. My guess is there would still be too much disagreement by the end of it.


  7. Bill says:

    Well written and reasoned. But I think it’s important to remember that God isn’t really our father, of course, just as God isn’t our lord or our shepherd for example. Those are just metaphors trying to capture something too big for our limited language. God isn’t male so use of male metaphors shouldn’t be the basis of a defense of patriarchy.


  8. Kassandra says:

    We poor complementarians are stuck in the middle. Astride that horse Martin Luther (and more recently my mother-in-law) told us we could fall off both sides of.


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