How Men Preserve Their Privilege: Complementarianism
When mankind needs to invent a word like “complementarianism” to provide cover for his belief in the inequality of the sexes, every thinking person of any gender should pay attention.
Complementarianism is a self-serving religious and tribal belief that, although men and women may be equal in the eyes of God, they’re created for different purposes and that men must retain leadership in church and home. It is how many religions deny religious leadership to women and sustain male dominance within the family and the economy.
In extremis, it’s also the furtive rationale behind denial of education, male-favored compensation and leadership opportunities, property rights, denial of family planning tools, enforced hiding of women’s bodies, sexual and physical abuse, and domestic subservience.
Here in Vermont, only 8% of Vermont’s highest grossing companies and two of its 15 hospitals are led by women. Just one of Vermont’s six statewide officials is a woman, trailing the national average by 7 percentage points. Indeed, of the 296 individuals ever elected to statewide office, only 11 have been women. Of its 82 governors, only one has been a woman.
But there are recent signs of change. Female leadership is well represented in our legislative leadership and three of our Vermont Supreme Court justices are women.
But as progressive as we like to imagine ourselves, we still have considerable catching up to do to reflect our professed belief in equality of the sexes. Men and women are either equal or they aren’t.
The recent scandal involving St. Joseph’s orphanage run by the Catholic diocese of Burlington brought into view in our own backyard the sexual predation and physical abuse of children to a horrifying degree. And the recent discovery of hundreds of unmarked children’s graves in Canada adjacent to the “Indian schools” run by the Catholic Church has led to the burning of several Catholic churches in the area.
The Catholic Church has captured most of the headlines as it relates to child abuse but predation on children occurs in all religions and headlines can be found in most major religions. The Southern Baptist Convention was recently stunned by secret recordings of how women complaining of sexual predation were branded as Potiphar’s wife and blamed. Orthodox Jews, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses… every orthodox religion has its own dismal history of child abuse, in part justified by complementarianism.
Why must Muslim and Orthodox Jewish women cover their faces and ankles and walk behind their husbands? Why are so many women in the world denied any control of their own bodies as it relates to family planning, sexuality, or childbirth?
Although there is no reference to Mary Magdalene being a prostitute in any of the New Testament gospels, the first reference to Mary Magdalene being a reformed harlot was in 591 in a homily by Pope Gregory the Great. In the Middle Ages, Magdalene became the patron saint of repentant prostitutes, and reformation houses for women who had been prostitutes, which by the 18th century became ‘Magdalen Houses’. But in 2012, an ancient Coptic fragment was found in which Jesus refers to Mary Magdalene as his wife.
Nor does Jesus’s mother Mary play much of a role in the gospels beyond the nativity until she was later transformed by the Church into a perpetual virgin and the Mother of God.
Why did the Church feel such a need to attenuate the roles of women in its orthodoxy? In a time when the Church is desperate for priests, why are women denied that leadership role? Why does complementarianism still mandate male hegemony in the Church when no such principle appears in the life of its founder?
We humans are a diverse lot and our capacity and desire to achieve will naturally vary among us, but the option to achieve should not be limited by how we differ anatomically, or for that matter by our gender choice.
As a civilization, we’re going to either have to embrace the concept of gender and racial equality in everything we do, from civics and governance to economic opportunity, housing, and religious practice or we must acknowledge openly a diminished role for women.
Constitutionally, we are a nation of equals. Religiously, not so much. Throughout history men have interpreted religion to favor their own power and authority. At its most harmful, it means only men can be priests. At its most harmful, it becomes the dismal rational that covers for physical and sexual abuse — requires “obedience” of women.
Many religions have purged themselves of the sin of complementarianism. Still others have strengthened their embrace of it. Still others would destroy the constitutional separation of church and state and would declare the United States a “Christian nation.”
We must preserve the principle of free exercise of religion. We must maintain the clear legal separation of church and state. We most reaffirm the equality of sexes, whether natal or chosen. And we must hold religion accountable for our civic principles. Complementarianism is not equality.