Having Cake and Eating It, Too


Mary Kassian puts it this way in a comment on the first post in a series:

I disagree that ‘women have no agency.’ I believe that true complementarity gives a woman greater agency than if she had to fight for her own rights, as it is the responsibility of a man to exercise headship in the same manner as Christ: by sacrificially loving and serving those under His sphere of responsibility. True complementarity protects, nourishes, cherishes, and upholds. It paradoxically expands rather than encroaches upon on one’s personhood, power (influence), and position.

She continues in a post the next day:

The question is definitely NOT about which viewpoint upholds the dignity, honor, full personhood, and mutuality of woman. They both do. We merely disagree on the route the Bible says we must take to reach the destination. The disagreement is no small matter.

She also says (in the second post):

Complemetarians believe that God created male and female to reflect complementary truths about Jesus. Role distinction and mutuality in a redeemed male-female relationship reflect characteristics of the Godhead and of Christ’s relationship to the Church. Yes, practically, this involves males stepping up to the plate to head up both individual and corporate church families. But no, this does not logically necessitate wooden, unilateral relationships in which men boss women around like commandos bossing around minions. On the contrary, complementarity solicits cooperation, togetherness, and mutuality. It calls for a profound reciprocity.

I quote Kassian so I can examine this idea of “woman as persons.” Kassian, like a lot of complementarians, insists that “male headship” and “gender roles” are a way of honoring women, of allowing women the room to flourish in the full personhood of their Biblical role. When women are in a position where they are submitting to male leadership, they don’t, as Kassian says, “have to fight for their rights.” They are honored, prized, allowed to be the women God called them to be.

This sounds beautiful and nice. Who doesn’t want to be honored? Who doesn’t want to be given room to flourish? Who doesn’t want their personhood recognized (a not-so-subtle nod toward the feminist pro-choice movement, if I’m not mistaken)?

You see, Kassian seems to want to have her cake and eat it too. She wants to claim the reciprocity, personhood and respect of egalitarianism while still holding onto the specific gender roles of complementarianism. And it doesn’t necessarily work that way. Instead of defending complementarianism, what we get is a confused mess of semantics. We get personhood without any image of what that means. We get male headship without an explanation of how that honors my personhood as a woman. We get the words - it's honor, mutual sacrifice, and submission - with zero explanation of how deferring to the man in my life honors my agency and choices.

This is a large part of why I take issue with complementarianism. Once you get past the semantics, it’s very, very hard to move away from the hierarchy and still honor the people involved. Hierarchy, by its very nature, is an oppressive institution. When you tell me that a man’s “natural role” is headship, leadership, and authority, and that my “natural role” is submission, passivity, and response to his authority, I don’t see how that honors me as a person, and I don't see how that's not instituting a hierarchy. Making it "natural" and "God-given" doesn't mean it's not a hierarchy, no matter how good, kind and servant-like of a leader the man is.

Kassian seems to find a distinction between what she calls legalistic hierarchalism and complementarianism, but then insists that a true Biblical relationship is that of a man leading.

If a man is “naturally” the leader in a relationship, that, by default, makes the woman the follower. That is hierarchy.

If I must defer to his decisions concerning the family we may have together, then I am his subordinate, no matter how kindly he treats me. That is hierarchy.

This lip service toward honoring and female personhood reads simply as an attempt to soften the blow that is the truth of complementarianism (semantics aside): because I am born a woman, my “natural role” is to follow a man.

It does not honor my personhood to inform me that I am incomplete and out of the natural order by being single and childless.

It does not honor my personhood to inform me that I cannot be a pastor or teach men because I possess a vagina.*

It does not honor my personhood to inform me that my “natural role” is to defer to my husband’s leadership, no matter how much input he may allow me up to the point of decisions.

It does not honor my personhood to inform me that fighting for my right to be recognized as human is somehow outside the natural, Biblical order of things, and that I am somehow "freer" if I hand over the reigns to my husband/boyfriend/father/pastor.

When you say that I am defined - in role, in purpose in life, in destiny - by the fact that I identify as a woman instead of a man, that, fundamentally, does not honor my personhood. You can dress it up and call it “team work” with a “team captain.” You can pull out Bible verses and tell that God gave sex-specific instructions for men to be leaders. You can put forth fancy words and thoughts and ideas about me being honored as a person and the diversity within the genders.

But as long as you are looking at me and saying, “You are a woman. You have x role,” you are not honoring my personhood.

“Honoring my personhood” means that you see me as a human being first, before you see me as a member of this group called ‘women.’

“Honoring my personhood” means giving me space and room to fulfill and use my gifts, duties, and dreams, regardless of male leadership or headship in my life.

Honoring my personhood means that you wait and see who I am as a person before you place me into a role.

I fail to see how “complementarianism honors the personhood of women” and “women have a naturally defined role that requires deference to male headship” are at all consistent statements. You cannot have the second - determining the roles men and women should play based on the fact that they are men or women - without rendering the first almost entirely meaningless.

When you say to me - a natural leader, an outspoken person who doesn't take crap, a person for whom being made to take the follower role would be extremely ill-fitting - that I must be the opposite of everything I am, you do not honor my personhood. Complementarianism says, "you are a woman, and that is a beautiful thing. But it means that you can't do x, y, and z." When you tell someone "can't" when they feel called to a "can," you do not honor their personhood.

I am not asking to be the same as men or that gender lines get erased altogether. Instead, I am asking that I be seen as a person and human being first, before you begin to assume things about who I am or who I should be based on my gender identification.


*NB: Having a vagina does not automatically make a person a woman, though that is what complementarians think.