Rachel Held Evans recently made a splash with a blog post suggesting that complementarianism is merely patriarchy masquerading under a less offensive name. Her post generated a good bit of discussion not only on her blog but on Scot McKnight’s as well.
Evans is riffing on remarks that Russell Moore recently made about complementarians who are big on gender orthodoxy but not so much on orthopraxy. Here’s how Moore expressed his concern, “What I fear is that we have many people in evangelicalism who can check off ‘complementarian’ on a box but who really aren’t living out complementarian lives.” Evans agrees with this statement and then offers three reasons why she thinks complementarian practice is losing ground among those who profess complementarian principles.
1. Because more and more evangelical theologians, scholars, professors, and pastors are thoughtfully debunking a complementarian interpretation of Scripture…
2. Because their rhetoric consistently reflects a commitment to an idealized glorification of the pre-feminist nuclear family of 1950s America rather than a commitment to “biblical manhood” and “biblical womanhood”…
3. Because, at the practical level, evangelicals are realizing that complementarianism doesn’t actually promote complementary relationships, but rather hierarchal ones… Complementarianism isn’t working—in marriages and in church leadership— because it’s not actually complementarianism; it’s patriarchy. And patriarchy doesn’t work because God created both men and women to reflect God’s character and God’s sovereignty over creation, as equal partners with equal value.
I had been planning over the last few weeks to write a response to Evans, but I eventually thought better of it. Instead, I want to point readers to an important article that Russell Moore wrote several years ago that gives all the response that is needed: “After Patriarchy, What? Why Egalitarians Are Winning the Gender Debate” JETS 49.3 (2006): 569-76.
In contrast to Evans, Moore shows that egalitarians are “winning” the debate not because they have better biblical arguments but because complementarians “have not addressed the root causes behind egalitarianism in the first place” (p. 572). Among those causes is the consumerist and therapeutic orientation of modern evangelicalism which undermines any notion of authority or hierarchy. Moore argues that complementarians must not shrink-back from the counter-cultural claim that, “Christianity is undergirded by a vision of patriarchy.” He writes:
Even to use the word “patriarchy” in an evangelical context is uncomfortable since the word is deemed “negative” even by most complementarians. But evangelicals should ask why patriarchy seems negative to those of us who serve the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—the God and Father of Jesus Christ. As liberationist scholar R. W. Connell explains, “The term ‘patriarchy’ came into widespread use around 1970 to describe this system of gender domination.” But it came into widespread use then only as a negative term. We must remember that “evangelical” is also a negative term in many contexts. We must allow the patriarchs and apostles themselves, not the editors of Playboy or Ms. Magazine, to define the grammar of our faith (pp. 573-74).
Since Moore’s article appeared, complementarians have had an in-house dialogue about the best terminology to use in describing our position. Andreas Köstenberger suggests that “patriarchy” has too much baggage owing to years of feminist propaganda. Dan Block has suggested that “patricentrism” may be the best term to describe the biblical position.
At the end of the day, however, this really isn’t an argument about words. Whatever we call it (complementarianism, patriarchy, hierarchy), Moore’s point still rings true. Evangelicals who are unwilling to be counter-cultural are going to find themselves one way or the other accommodating themselves to the feminist spirit of the age and falling short of the biblical ideal. Egalitarians accommodate themselves one way, and complementarians-in-name-only do it in another. But the result is the same when Christians refuse to be counter-cultural. Moore concludes:
Egalitarians are winning the evangelical gender debate, not because their arguments are stronger, but because, in some sense, we are all egalitarians now. The complementarian response must be more than reaction. It must instead present an alternative vision—a vision that sums up the burden of male headship under the cosmic rubric of the gospel of Christ and the restoration of all things in him. It must produce churches that are not embarrassed to tell us that when we say the “Our Father,” we are patriarchs of the oldest kind.
I encourage you to read Moore’s entire essay. I think you’ll find there a much more compelling and prophetic account of the gender debate than what Evans has to offer. If Moore is correct, then perhaps biblical patriarchy isn’t such a bad designation after all. It’s simply what the Scriptures teach about manhood and womanhood.
UPDATE (9/21/19): When Moore first made the case for the term “biblical patriarchy,” he seems to have been heavily influenced by Bradford Wilcox’s Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands (University of Chicago Press, 2004). When I first read Moore’s article, I thought his argument in favor of the term was a compelling one. Subsequently, I became convinced that the term “patriarchy” is beyond retrieval. It is true that the word’s etymology simply indicates “fatherly leadership.” Nevertheless, a word’s meaning is established by usage, not by etymology alone. And it is clear that the term has been saddled with so many negative connotations that it would undermine and distract from the actual biblical teaching that complementarianism was coined to summarize. For that reason, I still prefer the term complementarianism. I’ve written more about terminology here.