I am a former gender complementarian. I described more of my journey out of complementarianism in other posts on this blog.
This is the third post on this blog in my series about Christian gender complementarianism and codependency. The last post explained, in a basic overview, what codependency is and how some Christians misunderstand it, or who actually believe that Christians should be kept in bondage to codependency, because these believers unfortunately think that codependency behavior is “biblical.”
In this post, I want to spell out a little more clearly how gender complementarianism is largely nothing but codependency for women with Bible verses sprinkled on top of it to make it appear as though being codependent is God’s design for women.
There is a table towards the bottom of this post with a side-by-side comparison of some of the major similarities between complementarianism and codependency, if you are in a hurry and don’t want to read this entire post.
REGARDING SIMILARITIES BETWEEN CHRISTIAN GENDER COMPLEMENTARIANISM AND CODEPENDENCY
Under Christian gender complementarian teachings, which I heard or saw role modeled by my parents (my mother especially), I also heard or saw codependent behavior for women advocated in Christian sermons, books, television shows, and printed magazine articles, and now, years later, I see it in a lot of Christian blogs.
As I noted earlier, the Bible shows that God condemns or frowns upon codependent behavior in followers of his, yet gender complementarianism (and its adherents) encourage women to practice these very behaviors that God dislikes.
This really bears repeating: Christian gender complementarians take a long list of traits found in codependency, traits which God discourages people from having in the first place, and they insist these traits are God’s intent or design for women, are biblical, or are appropriate, timeless roles for women.
SIMILARITIES OF COMPLEMENTARIANISM TO CODEPENDENCY: SOME EXAMPLES (AND THE POSSIBLE MOTIVES)
Complementarians encourage women to have or practice some behaviors that God actually frowns upon.
One reason complementarians do this: in addition to marriage and motherhood, gender complementarians associate certain behaviors or activities with being “feminine.”
Complementarians often engage in eisegesis. That is, complementarians read their personal assumptions and prejudices about gender and-or their culture’s norms of gender role expectations into the biblical text (see, for instance this blog page: Biblical Womanhood or Cultural Womanhood? on CBE’s site).
Complementarians also ignore, or try to explain away, or water down, examples of godly women in the Bible (such as, but not limited to, Deborah, Jael, and Junia) who do not meet gender complementarian parameters, but who serve as counter-examples.
See for example:
- Deborah and the “no available men” argument on New Life blog
- Who was the judge of Israel, Deborah or Barak? on Strive to Enter blog
- Searching for Deborah: Why Did Barak Replace Deborah In Hebrews 11:32? on CBE
Complementarians also assume specific Pauline commentary in the Bible meant only for a certain culture, situation, or church of 2,000 years ago should apply to all women in every culture through the ages.
Complementarians sometimes fail to take cultural backdrop of contested passages into account, so they end up applying thoughts intended only for a certain group of people from very long ago to every last person today, including women living in 21st century nations in different situations.
Complementarians can be selective when doing this, for some rules Paul cites, many complementarians do not regard as being timeless and-or not for all women (such as Paul forbidding Christian women to wear jewelry to church services) but insist other directives of Paul are timeless in other situations.
Specific formulas and procedures by Paul meant for persons living in other cultures 2,000 years ago, undergoing problems particular to their church, are very moot for believers today.
For further reading on that topic, or related, please see:
- 1 Timothy 2: Paul’s Original Language, Timothy’s Original Context on Junia Project
- Paul Subverts Male Authoritarianism on Jesus Creed blog
- Rethinking One of Paul’s Passages about Women on Jesus Creed blog
- What does “headship” mean in Paul? By Lucy Peppiatt on Jesus Creed blog
- Understanding Submission in the Context of the Pauline Epistles on CBE
- Kephalē and “Male Headship” in Paul’s Letters / The Metaphorical Meanings of“Head” in Paul’s Letters: Part One on New Life blog
- Jesus and Paul on Women: Incomparable or Compatible? on CBE
- What About Submission and Headship? Chapter 6 from her book – by Joanne Krupp
- Why 1 Timothy 2:12 and 1 Corinthians 14:34 are not timeless regulations
Gender complementarians believe in something called “male headship,” in which the husband is a boss-like figure over the wife. The husband is thought to be the one who gets the final say-so in disagreements.
This male headship and rule is not meant to be an indication of the wife’s worth but is only limited to her “role,” or so say gender complementarians.
Complementarians will argue that this headship – male rule, male hierarchy – should be done in a loving, kind manner.
Many Christian gender complementarian (or patriarchal Christian) instructions for married women will consist of notions such as telling wives never to confront their husbands (or any man) directly.
Complementarian John Piper in particular is very keen on admonishing Christian women not to “directly” confront or communicate to or with men.
You can read other author’s assessments of Piper’s view on direct vs. indirect commentary here, if you so choose:
- Hey John Piper, Is My Femininity Showing? on Christianity Today
- The Absurd Legalism of Gender Roles: Exhibit C on Rachel Held Evans’ blog
- John Piper: Women Not Suited For Most Jobs in the World on Patheos blog by Benjamin L. Corey
- Five reasons I don’t want John Piper giving my daughter career advice on Christian Today
I should note here that complementarians blur the distinctions: some will teach that a woman is only under a man’s (her husband’s authority) if she is married, while other complementarians seem to believe all women everywhere must defer to all men, while others feel that all women should defer to only all men within the church.
(No, complementarians are not consistent about their views and rules in most aspects.)
If you remember back to what I said earlier about codependents, this is a natural habit of codependents – what complementarian John Piper is telling women how they ought to communicate with men: codependents will not confront people directly, but will act in passive aggressive, or indirect ways.
Secular society already heavily coaches girls and women to communicate indirectly. Women who are out-spoken and direct are portrayed as being bossy or unfeminine and are therefore discouraged from being up front in their communicative style, so it’s beyond me why Christian complementarians such as John Piper find it necessary to re-enforce a secular culture gender norm on to church women in their sermons, books, and blogs, when women are already exposed to it in large measure outside of the church.
At any rate. John Piper once stated in some material that should a lost man pull up in a car and ask a woman for directions, the woman should communicate directions to the lost man in such a way as not to wound his masculinity.
The woman, should, according to Piper, be coy or indirect about how she goes about giving directions to a lost male driver. This is an example of a complementarian encouraging Christian women to engage in codependent behavior.
The correct, non-codependent way for a woman to give directions to a lost man would or could go something like this:
If a man in a car is lost and pulls up and asks a woman pedestrian for directions, the healthy, proper thing for the woman to do is simply tell the guy how to get from Point A to Point B, as straight forward as possible.
The woman does not have to be rude or condescending in how she states her directions, nor does she need to mock the man for being lost; however, a woman being direct rather than “beating around the bush” in conveying information to a man is not un-feminine or un-biblical.
A complementarian such as Piper, however, wants this woman pedestrian to go the codependent, “beat around the bush” route, and hint to the guy, or drop suggestions, on how to get where he needs to go, all to avoid bruising -what Piper wants us to assume- is the man’s easily deflated ego.
(That men supposedly have such easily-bruised egos, that women must treat them so delicately, is an indication that, contrary to what complementarians believe and teach, leadership in churches and in marriages should not be confined to men only. I don’t want to be led by a gender that is so easily wounded, put off course, or hurt by something I, or other women, may or may not do towards them. But I digress.)
Being direct and up-front is actually encouraged for both men and women by the Bible. Women in the Bible, such as Deborah, did not mince words when speaking to men (see for example Judges Chapter 4, where Deborah speaks very frankly to a man).
The Gentile woman who debated with Jesus about Jesus healing her daughter was no shrinking violet with Jesus, either, see Matthew 15:21-28.
Gender complementarian Piper is advocating, for women, the opposite of how the Bible encourages Christians to speak and relate to one another.
John Piper’s suggestion to women on how to talk to men consists of a lot of unnecessary dancing around to get to the point. And here I thought the other cultural stereotype is that most men hate long, detailed stories from women and prefer to get to the point, the bottom line.
Gender complementarians, like their secular counterparts, don’t believe it is proper, ladylike, or feminine for women or girls to feel anger, to express anger, to be assertive, or to have boundaries or to speak clearly and plainly (hence this secular effort to push back against referring to assertive girls as “bossy”).
Complementarians re-enforce these tendencies in codependents, or take a non-codependent woman and turn her into someone who practices these codependent actions.
Many Christian women who may otherwise not be prone to being codependent, may never the less act in a codependent fashion after being indoctrinated with complementarian content, because they want to please God and be “biblical,” and complementarians teach that having these codependent behaviors is one way for a woman or girl to accomplish being biblical and godly.
Girls and women having healthy, normal, God-approved habits and traits, such as boundaries and assertiveness, are unfairly and inaccurately presented as being manifestations of secular, or godless, feminism by gender complementarians, or some of the more backward ones may refer to this as a “Jezebel spirit.” (Many complementarians are even distrustful of “Christian feminism,” or think poorly of it.)
Feminism, or anything even remotely thought to be associated with it, is often set up by complementarians as the ultimate boogey-man that Christian women are to avoid at all cost – even if some beliefs of secular feminism intersect with biblical principles (which they sometimes do, by the way).
I myself don’t agree with a lot of secular feminism, but it’s not the enemy complementarians depict it as being. Secular feminism is one of the complementarian’s scape goats upon which they market their views of gender roles. Complementarians are reactionary to social changes they do not agree with or are afraid of.
Christian women are either expected by gender complementarians to keep their true feelings to themselves, or, if they express themselves, to do this delicate, elaborate, drawn out fussy communication dance. This dance is largely in place so as not to wound the ego of an insecure man-child.
It’s not the Bible instructing women to do this odd ritual of indirect communication: it’s gender complementarians laying this yoke upon women and telling them it’s biblical and God’s design.
In secular culture, and in gender complementarianism, only boys or men are permitted to show anger, be assertive, have firm boundaries, and to be clear and direct about their opinions and what they want.
Women and girls, in contrast, are expected by secular and complementarian culture, to repress their anger, and to continually forgive people and give wrong-doers a second, third, etc., chance, way more so than men are.
Tied in with that issue is the notion in Christianity at large, and in gender complementarianism specifically, that it is supposedly selfish for a woman to ever get her own needs met, or to ever put herself first.
Women are expected both in secular and Christian culture (and this is amplified in gender complementarianism) to be the nurturing, self-giving, self-sacrificing maternal figures in all their relationships, so they are not permitted to ever get their own needs met. They are to put the needs of any of their children, their spouse, or co-workers and anyone else before their own.
Because women are taught by secular and complementarian culture it is selfish for them to have needs or ask to get them met by others, Christian women then feel guilty speaking up and telling a husband, children, parents, co-workers, friends, or church goers about what they want and need, or refusing to do whatever favor is asked of them.
This can result in Christian women doing things such as telling “white lies” to get out of commitments they’d rather not be in in the first place.
If the Christian woman continually caves in to demands she’d rather turn down, she will be filled with resentment, and this constant caving in can also lead to depression and physical health problems.
All of this is also true of codependency: codependents would rather tell white lies than be blunt, to be totally honest, and tell someone else exactly what they think; codependents feel guilty to ever put themselves or their own needs first.
All of this sort of thinking – the idea that it is unbecoming, unladylike, or unbiblical for a female to be direct, that women must always be nurturing and continually absorbing abuse without complaint – makes girls and women vulnerable to being taken advantage of by con artists and manipulative people (or to being constantly taken advantage of by the same “dirt ball” boyfriend, friend, boss, family member, or co-worker, over and over and over and over).
Really, it’s fine to forgive someone, but forgiveness does not entail reconciliation: you don’t have to spend time with the scuzz ball ex husband or ex boyfriend who ripped you off or who cheated on you every month with another woman. You don’t have to keep inviting your catty, nasty sister-in-law over every Sunday for pot roast. You don’t have to sit with the rude, condescending co-worker at lunch everyday.
You can forgive these people who have used and abused you but you don’t have to let them back into your life and permit them to hurt you and use you over and over again. You can even tell them, if you wish, how their behavior hurt you and that you don’t like it.
I would encourage you to read these books, if you recognize yourself in any of my descriptions of women who repeatedly find themselves being taken advantage of:
What Christian girls and women need to be taught by churches and parents is that it is not selfish, mean, or un-feminine, (contrary to what gender complementarians imply or teach), for women to express anger or to be assertive or to say out-right what they want or need, even if some man out there finds this behavior in women a turn-off or intimidating.
Under complementarianism, Christian women and girls are taught that outward appearances matter more than being real.
Girls and women are taught or pressured in complementarianistic culture that it’s more important to keep up a facade of pleasantry and faux harmony than to bring any nastiness to light of day (and maybe arrive at a resolution) by plainly confronting someone about their behavior that angered, hurt, or bothered them. This means never being blunt, direct or honest about things.
All this is in opposition to Jeremiah 6:14; God is clearly not happy with people who say one thing when they really feel the opposite, or when they act as though reality is fine when it is not. God doesn’t appear to be into pretense and false harmony.
In a post at her blog, Rachel Held Evans (whom I don’t always agree with, but I do agree with her on complementarianism), wrote a post about this issue of complementarians pressuring, or encouraging, women to engage in this codependent habit of being indirect communicators, and how it can create more problems in relationships than it solves:
Avoiding conflict if at all possible, or being very indirect, manipulative, or passive aggressive in dealing with disagreements, are again, hallmarks of codependency.
Yet, John Piper and other Christian complementarians are advising women to take on codependent behaviors in their marriages and other areas of life.
When Christian women are little girls they are heavily conditioned by secular and Christian culture to be manipulative, for they are taught that “nice” girls do not act in an assertive fashion, and all it involves: such as speaking directly and plainly to other people; for letting someone know to his or her face he or she has hurt or angered you.
When girls are taught that they may not show anger, raise their voices, act grouchy or crabby, or express anger or hurt to another person, their only way of communicating that hurt or anger is by being sneaky and stealthy about it.
Girls and women do in fact experience anger. Complementarians communicate to them they should not.
But girls and women are human, just as much in God’s image, and they feel the same emotions that men do – including anger. Repressing anger is not going to keep that anger from spilling out or from being expressed in other ways.
This is why so many school-aged girls behave so catty in socializing: they will, for instance, refuse to invite a particular girl to their birthday party, rather than plainly tell that girl why they do not enjoy her company and try to resolve their differences by talking through it.
It’s acceptable in secular, sexist culture and gender complementarian world for one female to snub another female, to hurt her or offend her by leaving her out of a party, than by getting her alone and telling her straight up: “You hurt my feelings, or made me angry, when you did X. I never want you to do X ever again.”
This sort of thing is inherent in codependency: the fear of confrontation, the desire to “sweep disagreements under the rug,” rather than deal with conflict head-on.
I recall as a teen, when I was bullied a lot, and I came home angry about it, my mother could see my anger – my voice was rising and so on – and she, a gender complementarian who felt women showing anger was un-Christ-like and inappropriate, would cut me off by saying, “Now Daisy, be sweet. Be sweet!”
That was my mother’s way of shutting down my anger at the out-set. I was being told, in a manner, to repress the anger, bury it, don’t deal with it, don’t confront the jerk who was bullying me at school. It was not right for me, a girl, to have anger or to show it.
My mother had this picture of Jesus that Jesus was a doormat. A big, sweet, lovable doormat who never expressed anger or raised his voice at anyone, and her version of Jesus did not want anyone – especially not females – showing anger.
Complementarians compartmentalize Jesus in the same way: they take traits they associate with females, such as being quiet and passive, and encourage women to emulate Jesus only in- so- far as Jesus was quiet and passive.
Instances where Jesus was bold, spoke out, and was assertive, qualities that are thought to be masculine, are brushed aside for women and presented as being for men only, though the Biblical text never indicates that women are only supposed to copy certain portions of Jesus’ behavior and men only other portions.
Being femininely Christ-like was associated in my mother’s mind with always being kind, gentle, and repressing anger and being non-confrontational.
PINK AND BLUE CHRISTIANITY
The Bible seems to convey that Jesus Christ is to be a role model for both Christian men and women: there is no “pink,” girly Jesus that a woman is to emulate and a “blue,” boy Jesus that men are to emulate.
The biblical text says Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would reside in all believers: the Bible does not say that one type of Holy Spirit would be given to women and another to men.
Nor does the Bible teach that the Holy Spirit would give only certain skills and gifts to women and completely other sets to men.
There is no “pink,” feminine, girly Holy Spirit for females and a “blue,” masculine, manly Holy Spirit for men.
Complementarian theology or persons, however, tends to suggest or behave as though that there is a blue, boy Holy Spirit / Gospel / and Jesus for men and a pink, girly Holy Spirit / Gospel / Jesus for women.
As a matter of fact, the Bible says:
- There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
- “‘In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.” (Acts 2:17)
Both Christian men and women are to emulate the entirety of Jesus, and Jesus displayed qualities that many of us would consider both feminine (gentleness, humility, compassion) as well as masculine (toughness, assertiveness, outspokenness).
In no part of the Gospels do we have asterisks with Holy-Spirit inspired footnotes reading:
- “Yeah, ladies, see here where it says Jesus ‘strongly rebuked the Pharisees’? That’s not for you. Rebuking, speaking up, disagreeing, and confronting is for the men only.”
Any biblical texts by New Testament authors asking women to be gentle and quiet were intended only for women in particular churches 2,000 years ago who were attempting, due to pagan cultic influences of their cities, to dominate male church members or were else addressing other issues.
Some of the passages cited by complementarians are not applicable to all women in all eras or are not even pertaining to whatever subject they are discussing. I refer you again to the list of links earlier in this post to links which discuss the cultural backdrop of Paul’s letters.
From Kelly Ladd Bishop’s post:
- [Gender complementarian] Strachan then references 1 Peter 3:4-7 to claim that a wife is to cultivate a “gentle and quiet spirit.” However, the context is about women not flaunting their wealth, and realizing that their value is in being worthy to God, not to the world.
Asking all women in all contexts of all eras for all times and occasions to be gentle, meek and mild is to ask them to be codependent – and God is not in favor of codependency.
Obviously, God is not going to contradict himself: he’s not going to demand all women through all of history, in every situation, remain gentle, quiet, and meek (be unilaterally codependent no matter the context), when in other parts of the Bible, God directs individuals to halt codependent tendencies.
Biblical women such as Jael and Deborah certainly didn’t behave in a quiet, gentle, meek fashion, and God approved of them and their actions.
If you are uncomfortable or put off with a woman being outspoken, direct, bold, and confrontational with men or women, whether in public or private, that is your own personal prejudice at work, which is, in turn, probably due to secular ideas of what constitutes appropriate gender roles, rather than what the Bible teaches.
And, you may have some large, deeply held misunderstandings of the biblical text at play as well.
As one book I read says, gender complementarianism (or churches or Christian culture) heavily encourage Christian women to be even more of a “smiley face doormat” than secular culture already does – when churches should be liberating women from this propensity, not holding them in bondage to it and insisting women behaving this way is “biblical womanhood” or “God’s design for women.”
The overlap between gender complementarianism and codependency is amazing and startling. (I also note that the expectations of gender complementarianism is no different from secular societal gender norms.)
For a system that bills itself as God’s will for women, and as being biblical, one can see that Christian gender complementarianism is actually chock full of flawed or sinful relational ways of being, dealing with people, or thinking of one’s self.
Below is a table that summarizes some of the similarities between Christian gender complementarianism and codependency.
There are other hallmarks of codependency which I have not included here. I have only included some of the most glaring attributes that are similar to gender role requirements that most Christian gender complementarians teach that women should possess, that I came up with off the top of my head:
Gender Complementarianism cf. Codependency
Christian Gender Complementarianism For Women
Encourages Women To (or the Results Of)
(Secular Culture Encourages Women to Adhere To These Qualities / or Results in the Following)
|Lack Boundaries||Lack Boundaries|
|Be Passive||Are Passive|
|Don’t Feel Anger / Feeling Anger = “Wrong”||Don’t Feel Anger / Feeling Anger = “Wrong”|
|Women aren’t supposed to show anger / Should repress any anger you may feel||Women aren’t supposed to show anger / Should repress any anger you may feel|
|Selfish to get own needs met||Selfish to get own needs met|
|Do not communicate directly – be indirect||Do not communicate directly – be indirect|
|Be unassertive – don’t stand up for yourself, even if being mistreated||Be unassertive – don’t stand up for yourself, even if being mistreated|
|Your identity is to be found in …
serving others (meeting their needs and wants) and/or in a husband/children
|Your identity is to be found in …
serving others (meeting their needs and wants) and/or in a husband/children
|Never say No to people – always be giving||Too afraid to say No to people|
|Fixing other people’s problems / shouldering other people’s burdens is one of your major responsibilities in life, or one of God’s designations for women||Feel the need to fix other people’s problems|
|Must be passive aggressive or manipulative to get own needs met or to voice disagreement or complaints to others||Must be passive aggressive or manipulative to get own needs met or to voice disagreement or complaints to others|
|Care more about pleasing other people than yourself or God||Care more about pleasing other people than yourself|
|Are told that having self-esteem or self-love (or seeking to have either one) is selfish or worldly||Have low self esteem, dislike themselves|
|Your value is in what you do for your family or church||Feel loved or valued only for functions they perform for others|
The Bible reveals that God does not want anyone, whether man or woman, to behave in a codependent manner (examples are sprinkled all through the Bible), and yet, Christian gender complementarianism asks or demands women to live out and abide by some of the very properties one finds in codependency, and expects Christian women to believe this is biblical and what God wants of and for women.
Complementarians will cherry pick, misapply, misinterpret biblical passages, or engage in eisegesis, to support their contention that the same behaviors that are signatures of codependency are God’s design for all women for all time.
It’s very insidious and twisted for Christians to uphold proclivities God clearly disapproves of and demand that an entire gender carry them out and then accuse them of being out of God’s will, being unbiblical, or being ungodly if they refuse, object, or raise concerns about it.
MEN DETERMINE THE RULES
Notice that it is mostly Christian men who set up the rules and regulations of complementarianism (see this for example or this for example or this for example): Christian men are determining how Christian women may live, work, and love.
Complementarian Christian men are, in effect, asking women to trust their, the men’s, judgement and interpretation of the Bible.
Christian complementarian men are asking women to please them, to please complementarian men – rather than be Bereans and rather than please God; it’s codependency on top of codependency, but it’s sold and marketed to Christian women as godly obedience.
Complementarianism – male hierarchy and female subordination – is sold to both Christian men and women as the only savior or solution against secular feminism or societal decay.
Of course, these complementarian men wrap all this up in pretty looking paper saying their brand of theology for women is God’s will and they’re just following the Scripture’s clear teaching about women, but why would any woman unquestioningly accept their word for it, or their interpretation of it? It becomes a circular argument, in effect.
The Bible does not teach that only men can properly understand or interpret the Bible.
The Bible says that the Holy Spirit is given to all believers, and the Holy Spirit enables believers to understand the Scriptures: the text does not say that the Holy Spirit is only given to male believers, nor does it say that the Holy Spirit does not lead women into an understanding of the Scriptures.
Women followers of Christ can read the Bible for themselves, under the Holy Spirit’s guidance, and arrive at proper conclusions of its meaning – women do not need men to correctly understand the biblical text for them.
For additional reading (on other sites):
Other Posts (this blog) about Complementarianism and-or Codependency:
‘Submit to Your Husbands’: Women Told To Endure Domestic Violence In The Name of God (via ABC Aussie news)