A primer on patriarchalism versus complementarianism

Complementarians are primarily concerned with male and female roles in marriage and church; the patriarchal-household view is concerned with how male and female natures interact in all spheres of life.

Patriarchalism in the broadest sense is simply the traditional view of men, women, and family life, grounded in Scripture and nature. It is reflected with varying degrees of faithfulness across Western civilization, and indeed every civilization, since it is built into creation.

The term patriarchy comes from the Greek, and simply means father rule. However, this can refer to two different things, which as Christians we should be careful to distinguish between:

  1. The basic creational design that God built into the world in the beginning, in which men are generally ordered towards leadership. Patriarchy in this sense is “very good” (Gen 1:31) because it is part of the original creation. It also cannot be smashed, because it is just the way things are; male and female natures do not change, being constructed by God, not society.
  2. Any man-made system of cultural and legal principles or customs that arises from the patriarchal creational order. Patriarchy in this sense can be good or bad, righteous or wicked, depending on how faithful it is to the Father who men are supposed to represent. The patriarchy of Pharaoh in Moses’ day was monstrous, inasmuch as it tried to destroy its competition by drowning Hebrew boys. Some “Christian” patriarchy in our day is tyrannical, inasmuch as it twists the Scripture in doctrine and practice, teaching men to oppress women rather than rule them. Any patriarchy that is a man-made manifestation of God’s design, whether good or bad, can be “smashed.” The patriarchy of Western civilization has been largely destroyed in our day, by our adoption of anti-biblical, anti-creational ideologies. However, we have done this largely to our own hurt: it means we end up living contrary to the way we were designed.

Complementarianism was an attempt on the part of conservative/traditionalist Christians to adapt the patriarchal creation order to the modern world. As we touch on But Who Does The Dishes? this world has been vastly changed by the Industrial and Technological Revolutions, the democratization of society, the feminist movement, etc.

Complementarianism has not proven to be very useful as a label, because some who use it want to maintain more of the old patriarchal order, while others want to go as far as they can in accommodating the modern order, while still not contradicting explicit commands of Scripture (e.g., no women pastors, per 1 Timothy 2). Thus, we now have to talk about thick and thin complementarians:

In our observation, complementarianism as a concept is largely heading down the thin comp path. This makes sense, because from its inception it was a “mere sexuality” position that tacitly presupposed—or at least permitted—androgyny, as we document in Complementarianism Presupposes Androgynism. Yet some thick comps continue to prefer the complementarian label, for several reasons:

  1. A hope that, as a newer term, complementarianism may bypass preconceived notions and be filled with more accurate biblical content;
  2. The negative connotations and associations of heavy-handed authoritarianism that are connected with patriarchalism;
  3. The ambiguity in patriarchalism—does it mean the basic fact of nature, or the social structures built on that nature?
  4. A preference for accentuating the way that men and women complement each other, as opposed to accentuating the rule or headship of the father only.

Some of these reasons have merit, but in our view are entirely eclipsed by the fact that complementarianism has come to essentially mean thin complementarianism. Item #1 has backfired beyond hope of recovery. We are also concerned about the way that even thick complementarians tend to think in terms of roles rather than duties, and be much fuzzier on nature; we believe it is important to think in terms of nature first, and then infer duties from there.

Because patriarchalists focus on the distinct natures of men and women, they can actually end up being significantly more rigid about roles than complementarians—certainly than thin comps. Patriarchalists believe that the roles we are assigned are not arbitrary, but fitting given our natures. Indeed, as Mark Olivero explains in “Roles” – When the Church Uses Fluid Concepts to Define Duties, the use of the term role is itself a mistaken hangover from secular culture. Patriarchalists would argue that nature and role/duty go together in all of life; our natures give rise to imperatives. Because men have a certain nature, they therefore ought to act, speak, dress, etc. in distinctively masculine ways, and carry out masculine roles in all of life. And the same is true of women, who should act out their feminine nature.

Thin comps, by contrast, have a hard time explaining why men and women have different roles in any area—and this is is why they tend to slide into some form of egalitarianism or feminism over time. It is not a stable or coherent position. By denying the underlying nature that God created, which grounds the roles themselves, they make God’s commands arbitrary when it comes to headship in marriage and the church (and, though they deny it, in all of society). Many will outright say that God could just as well have chosen to make wives the head of the household, and some, like Jacob Denhollander, will even say that there is no ontological reason—i.e., no reason having to do with the nature of men and women—that Jesus had to be a man.

Patriarchalism’s focus on nature, and the duties which arise from it, is exactly right. However, the thick complementarians are not wrong to desire a more all-encompassing term than patriarchalism—since there is far more to the nature of the sexes and their duties than mere father rule. Patriarchy may be the crux of man’s design, but it does not exhaust man’s design—nor woman’s. We should not be ashamed of it as a term, and indeed we should actively work to recover it. The generations-long smear campaign of feminism, along with the excesses of the hyper-patriarchal movement within the church, have sullied it. But unlike the term complementarian, the term patriarch is important in Christianity—ours is a religion of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But we should also recognize that what is often meant by this kind of patriarchalism—biblical patriarchalism—is better summed up in a term like gendered piety, which speaks of our God-given duties that arise from our nature as male and female.