It’s not often that one is faced with the reality of prejudices, assumptions, and stereotypes while also thinking they are in a “safe place.” But that is precisely what I experienced. A few years ago while speaking at a conference, one of my fellow speakers began to share an experience she, as a white female, had at a predominantly Black pastors conference. She charismatically expressed her disbelief that the women were so “aggressive” and “ran over the men.” She then proceeded to attempt to imitate them by bobbing her head back and forth and snapping her fingers (you know what I’m talking about—the three snaps). I expressed my concerns with her assessments and moved along. But then another incident happened recently. A male friend shared that he felt that most African-American households were matriarchal and, in short, the “women wore the pants.”
I imagine anyone reading these accounts might gasp in disbelief thinking, Do people really say these things out loud? They do. Yes. But what’s perhaps even more disconcerting than the public conversations I had is that these are some of the private thoughts and assumptions of my brothers and sisters. And these stereotypes can be perpetuated by an unhelpful application of scripture, namely the misapplication of complementarianism.
If complementarianism is defined solely by outward behavior and by certain societal standards for “a godly family model,” then many of us would be disqualified—including my mother. I grew up in a two-parent home and, though I wouldn’t say it was a Christian home, it was filled with love and laughter. My father owned a shoe-shine stand and took his role as husband, father, and leader seriously. My mother worked full-time and eventually, as an adult, finished college. We were a typical lower-to-middle class family. But to provide, my father needed the assistance of his wife. So she worked. This is the case for many families of all nationalities and ethnicities.
But some evaluating the African-American community might draw the conclusion that our sub-culture trends toward matriarchy. I’ve heard this stereotype many times in the past. The stereotype comes mainly from the large number of single mothers. In 2011, the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey reported a staggering 68 percent of black women who gave birth at the time of the survey reported as single parents. This is alarming. To put those numbers in perspective, ACS calculated 595,983 total births and 403,820 of them were from single mothers.
In such cases, the burden of providing, leading, and caring for the family often falls singularly on single mothers. The question in the African-American community would be why? Why are so many women raising children alone? Many would argue that it is due simply to sin. Some might argue the men (and women!) in this particular survey, for example, lack self-control and broken families result. For many individual cases and situations, sin and brokenness are surely involved. But the key word is “individual.” This is not true for all single households within the African American community.
We must not assume that because a woman is a single mother she is (1) not able to glorify the Lord with her life or (2) she prefers her circumstance. We must not assume a marital status statistic gives us infallible information about her situation. To assume that the father in all cases is lazy, incompetent, and living in sin would be an error as well. For the single mother, matriarchy is inevitable but glorifying God in her life is not impossible—God makes a way through Jesus just as He does with all people, married or unmarried.
Complementarianism in an African-American Key
But what about the two-parent family? There remains a stereotype that in many African American homes the mom wears the pants—so to speak. As I mentioned, I had a loving mother and father who worked hard to provide for their family. My mother was indeed the helper fit for my father (Gen. 2:20). Where he lacked she was there to provide encouragement and assistance. She was his ally in every way. A specific way that she helped my father was through work. The Bible does not discourage women from working. On the contrary, we are to be working in many aspects, including the home (Titus 2:5). The question is, where does the burden to lead and provide fall? That would be to the man, and it was the case for my father.
If we believe the Bible is useful for teaching and equipping and that the gospel is available to all tribes and tongues and nations, then we must not narrow our application to societal norms but rather look to the Word as our guide. Nor should we presume to know a woman’s heart based on some personality traits. A charismatic and “loud” woman may indeed have a “gentle and quiet spirit”. Simply put: it’s just wrong, judgmental and seeping with prejudice to judge people based on such externals. When I read the Bible, I am assured that complementarianism isn’t and shouldn’t be defined by a 1950s American social construct. Rather it should be defined by the infallible Word of God.
In the Beginning
We don’t have to dive into the deep theological end of the pool in order to affirm complementarianism at its basic level for all people. God did indeed create male and female in his image. As equal image bearers we were created to reflect the Lord, our God, each and every one of us. This is before the fall of man and isn’t exclusive to the regenerate. He gives male and female dominion over the earth—equally. And then God does something beautiful; he introduces marriage. Adam was given a helper fit for him.
If we stop there, we know that every person regardless of culture or ethnicity can apply this basic truth of Scripture. Male and females were created equal yet distinct from the beginning. We know that these differences, as well as many others, are not only good, but God glorifying. God has created us all for a unique purpose for the good of others and for his glory. Specifically, the woman was created as a helper. This is not an unequal role, simply a different one.
There isn’t anything within the text that infers a certain culture or sub-culture, except that this relationship was designed before the fall and was therefore a perfect design. The creation of marriage and gender roles occurs before there was culture and sub-culture. Instead of human civilization shaping and influencing this truth, God does. The problem we see today, which begins one chapter after this creation, is that sin entered the world and distorted the beautiful design. What was once perfect and harmonious would now contend with sinful hearts, intentions, and motives. The problem has never been the roles, but the heart. But God sent his Son to pay for what we could never pay for. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
Why is this important? Because when we strip away our ideals of practical godliness and simply look to the text, we see that God is most after our hearts. He is working to redeem a people for himself. Titus 2 isn’t about a woman being busy at home but a woman who has been transformed so that her heart is filled with self-control and ultimately love for others (her children, her home, her husband; Titus 2:3-5). And what does Peter focus on? His emphasis is not on the external but on the internal—a gentle and quiet spirit and a woman who fears the Lord (1 Pet. 3: 1-6). And, of course, the oft-quoted Proverbs 31 woman and her list of virtues doesn’t end on what she does but who she adores. She was a woman who feared the Lord (31:30).
Complementarity for Our Day
So, what does that mean for us today? When evaluating, for example, a mother who works outside the home, we don’t need to ask, “Is she involved in sinful behavior?” God instructs women to work in the home but he does not limit that work to the home alone. That woman may be operating in the exact manner for which God created her as well as providing the greatest help to her spouse. Her work does not equate to matriarchy. When a woman displays strength, we don’t need to assume that she’s running over men. A strong woman, like my mother, shouldn’t be a threat to our theology. But even more, she should not be judged and stereotyped. So the real question is, “Does she glorify God and is her heart transformed by the gospel?” For we know that whether we eat or drink, whatever we do, ought to be done for the glory of the Lord (1 Cor. 10:31).
The problem for the single mother isn’t that she is working; it’s that she bears a burden never intended for her to bear—and never to bear alone. We know that God is sovereign and we affirm his goodness in all things. But he never says that all circumstances are perfect. The perfection of this world vanished with the fall. For the mom who has been abandoned, for the widow or for any woman who must be the provider, leader, caregiver, and disciplinarian, this is not what God intended. But because God is awesome, gracious, and kind, he has provided a way for the single mother and the working mother and the stay-at-home mother and the African American woman and the white woman to find ultimate peace through Jesus. We all need a Savior, we need to be transformed and we can be assured that he will finish the good work he began (Phil 1:6). If we believe the Word to be true, then we must also believe there is great hope for the African American community and the single-family households and for the divisive, prejudice in all of us, for there is hope for all.