Is complementarianism on the way out?
he Masculinist thinks so.
In an issue largely themed on the state of the Christian discussion on gender, it might be worth finishing by noticing emerging energy for critiques of complementarianism from quarters which are dissatisfied with the character and direction of the cultural take on gender, and dissatisfied with egalitarianism and complementarianism as faithful and viable roads to walk.
Aaron Renn is an evangelical Christian living in New York, au fait with Tim and Kathy Keller's thinking on these issues, as well as the complementarianism of Piper and Grudem and The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. He writes an email newsletter called the Masculinist. His explanation of his project goes thus: 'The Masculinist is motivated by problems facing men and the church in our society, including failure of too many young men to launch, the failure of the church to attract men, the huge recent draw of secular men's self-help figures like Jordan Peterson (and some more unsavory people), and the frequent complaints pastors have today about young people not being abe to find spouses. 1 1
Issue #30 of the Masculinist was devoted to a critique of complementarianism. The basic story of the critique is that complementarianism is a 1970s-80s reaction to feminist inroads into evangelicalism, but that, because the complementarians could not, or did not wish entirely to repudiate the feminist agenda, complementarianism has tried to accept as much of the modern take on women's freedoms, rights and equality as they can, while preserving a male prerogative in church and home. However, this prerogative has become thin and detached from anything in the wider world that helps it make sense, other than as an adherence to what the Bible has been understood for centuries to say. A coming generation with no cultural memory of traditional sex roles will not receive it, and it has no obvious young champions. Essentially, complementarianism is an unstable and increasingly untenable attempt to become as egalitarian as possible without wholly abandoning the traditional Christian conviction that the leadership of churches is the work of men. Complementarianism as a force will die with those who forged it.
Renn is no egalitarian, though. He's concluded 'that both complementarianism and egalitarianism are modern doctrines that are in significant error and should be rejected.' He does predict that, 'egalitarianism, as an accommodationist theology in tune with the spirit of the age, appears to have a bright future.' Egalitarianism will benefit from an influx out of complementarianism and, further, as egalitarianism comes under continuing pressure to accommodate further changes to our culture's vision of gender and justice, the egalitarian space will continue to liberalise. This will leave some of some of today's egalitarians as tomorrow's conservatives—holding out on gender as binary, rather than non-binary, for example. Finally, he says, 'a small but not insignificant group of people will move in a reactionary reaction, embracing a thicker, more substantive sexual complementarity and even a patriarchal vision. […] People attracted to this will be those who are embracing, knowingly or not, a Benedict Option approach and would be the American Protestant equivalents of the energized young French Catholics Rod Dreher likes to talk about. The people attracted to Jordan Peterson or other secular online men's gurus are the most likely candidates to join this group.'
Obviously anyone who starts an email newsletter called 'the Masculinist' is indicating that they believe some kind of counterpoint to feminism, or interpretation of the times for the benefit of men, is needed today. This is not to say he is an outspoken advocate of the patriarchy (he's hard to read on this), but he does lament the lost culture of the household,22 and the 'neoliberalisation of the sexual, dating and3 marriage markets', which he regards as a disaster for both men and women. He feels that American church pastors feel set free by the culture to castigate and denigrate men, but could never do the same to women, that the dating advice American evangelical leaders have promoted is blind to the real dynamics between men and women, and that the churches need to stop and rethink a great deal about gender. He ends his critique of complementarianism with a 1987 quote from James Davison Hunter about complementarian doublespeak. This doublespeak is the expectation that men can indeed exercise authority in marriage and family, but without the social distance that authority usually requires. Social distance between a husband and a wife is collapsed by the expectation of love expressed as emotional support and empowerment given to the wife. This leaves complementarianism 'hierarchical in principle only.'
Jake Meador wrote a response to Renn's piece at Mere Orthodoxy.3 He generally agreed with the critique of complementarianism (although he made no comments on egalitarianism), but wanted to nuance Renn's analysis, distinguishing between a minimalist complementarianism (a la the Kellers) and a maximalist complementarianism (a la Dorothy Patterson's essay in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood). Apart from their pessimistic predictions for the future of complementarianism, both writers believe that we face a liberal cultural context that is in some way at war with nature, with the reality of who we are as men and women, and that that culture invades the churches too. Meador writes: 'the minimalist [complementarian] solution will fail because one cannot preserve Christian practice in the home and family if liberalism is designed, as our iteration of it is, to undermine and destroy both. If the scriptural norms about gender are to be preserved, then we must also preserve the natural order in which those norms are seen to be coherent and lively.'
Obviously this kind of critique is friendly to neither of the established camps; the egalitarians have no reason to welcome this kind of attack on the complementarians (as it essentially comes from the right of complementarianism). But what with the global village and the rapid flows of ideas and attitudes around the Anglosphere, and the evangelical world, new voices may emerge quickly onto our scene, travelling in a rather new trajectory. You read it here first. References: