Trevin Wax

Trevin Wax is an editor, author and blogger at "Kingdom People."

The Crazy Culture of Complementarianism

Right beliefs do not always lead to healthy cultures.

I’ve been watching the discussion about complementarianism – “new wave” and “old wave.” It’s interesting to see how new and old waves interact with each other, build on one another, correct each other, and warn each other.

As I read the comments on some of these posts, I wonder if there’s an aspect in this conversation that has been overlooked. It’s not about the specifics of complementarian viewpoints, but the kind of culture that sometimes grows up around complementarianism. It’s a culture that goes beyond the books and pamphlets that affirm godly manhood and womanhood in an age where gender distinctives are often minimized; instead, it is a culture of silent or exaggerated expectations that crush people who color outside the extra-biblical lines.

When I say the culture of complementarianism seems “crazy” at times, I mean two things, one good and one bad.

Good Crazy

First, there is a level of craziness that comes from being outside the mainstream of American life. Just quote Ephesians 5 on television today and you’ll look crazy, but this is a craziness that we should embrace.

The image of men and women, equal before God, embracing their unique roles, where men graciously lead their wives in love, and women willingly lay aside rights and power to graciously submit to their husbands – this is a picture of the gospel. Husbands and wives, in fulfilling their different responsibilities, shine light on different angles of Christ’s work. Christ, though equal to the Father, submitted to His will. In love, He gave His life for His Bride.

Furthermore, complementarianism isn’t the only (or main) aspect of Christianity that seems crazy to a lost world. There’s our belief in absolute truth, in salvation apart from works, our affirmation of Jesus as the only way to God, our belief in eternal hell, and our view of sexuality. We’ll always be tempted to tone down the crazy, but once we shave off the distinctive edges of Christian truth, we trade the power of the gospel for a bowl of postmodern porridge. There’s an element of “crazy” in complementarianism that ought to be embraced and celebrated in the same way we embrace the craziness of the gospel itself.

Bad Crazy

But there’s another kind of crazy that we shouldn’t be so crazy about. It’s the craziness that sometimes grows up in the culture of complementarianism. I’m talking here aboutculture, not the beliefs.

Culture is a lot harder to pin down and define, and yet culture communicates, sometimes more than our statements. In some churches that affirm a complementarian view of manhood and womanhood, a culture develops that goes beyond the complementarian beliefs into a skewed version of manhood and womanhood that we did not discern from the Scriptures, but from previous generations of American culture.

Some examples…

Last year, I wrote a blog post intended to encourage stay-at-home wives (like my own), and I got a lot of emails from puzzled men and women who felt I had overlooked the guilty consciences of working moms. I quickly discovered there are a number of people who are sensitive to this discussion because they’ve endured scorn and judgment for having a dual-income home. Here is a sample:

My wife has been a working mom for the first years of our marriage, and although we expect to bring her home from work upon the arrival of our next child at the end of this year, she’ll probably keep working on a very part-time basis.  You can imagine in our environment that we often face explicit or implied criticism/judgment that she is a working mom.

Notice the reference to the environment of their church. The idea that it is never appropriate for a wife to work outside the home is not something you’ll see in the best scholarship of complementarian thinkers and leaders, but it is an expectation that grows up in the culture among some complementarian churches.

(As a side note, in the Romanian villages I served in, the idea of women seeing their role as either inside or outside the home didn’t make sense. Families did whatever it took to put food on the table, which meant the women were just as active outside in the garden and fields as the men were. The kitchen duties were split, depending on whatever item was going to be cooked. The man was the head of the household, but the roles were not as specific or limiting; neither were these activities extrapolated as timeless specifics for everyone everywhere.)

There are other elements of crazy culture we should be aware of:

  • a reticence or hesitance to affirm and celebrate women’s contributions in local church ministry, particularly contributions that are more up-front and visible.
  • a warped vision of manhood that focuses on calloused hands and physical labor and ignores other kinds of work.
  • the assumption that marriage is always better than singleness, so that singles feel like their identity is wrapped up in not having a spouse.
  • unwillingness to celebrate any evidence of gospel ministry or fruit among those with a more egalitarian viewpoint.
  • an unexpressed expectation that the godliest women have quiet and introverted personality types, and cannot be assertive and outgoing.
  • a competitive tendency that leads to unhealthy individual comparisons and rushed judgments, rather than extending grace to one another.
  • a spectrum of “holy” and “holier” choices with regard to a child’s education (from public school all the way to homeschooling).

I could go on.

The human heart is constantly seeking to justify itself. Too often, we as Christians are trying to one-up each other by grasping for a sense of superiority over our brothers and sisters because of the extrabiblical laws we’ve created and now keep.

It’s the culture of complementarianism that needs to be renewed and restored. Because there’s nothing crazier than taking a beautiful picture of the gospel and making a new law out of it.

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About Trevin Wax

Trevin Wax is the Managing Editor of The Gospel Project, a curriculum developed by LifeWay Christian Resources. He blogs daily at Kingdom People. He is also the author of Holy Subversion (Crossway, 2010) and Counterfeit Gospels (Moody, 2011).

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