Can complementarian feminism truly tackle inequality?

If those who believe in traditional gender roles in the home and Church can say that Christians "should all be feminists", and others say that only complementarianism provides the "glorious freedom" that egalitarianism can never give women, can we come to the conclusion that it doesn't really matter where you stand on gender and scripture – anyone can be a feminist?

One common defence by complementarians of feminism that I've seen is that it's a good thing – and indeed an important thing – when it secures equal rights for women under the law, allows them to gain an education, vote, and be treated 'fairly' by the state. It's also seen as a good thing when it takes a stand against those who abuse and mistreat women. The first wave of feminism – and the prominence of some Christian women in the movement – is often singled out for praise by complementarians, with more criticism reserved for the second wave of feminist activism, starting in the 1960s, and all that has come after it.

These issues are a vital part of the gender equality landscape. But whether they can be truly addressed by those who hold conservative views about men and women is another matter.

There's a world of difference between an 'equal rights' lens that quite rightly sees the injustice of some people being treated differently to others for no good reason, and a feminist lens that names patriarchal values as the problem. There's a world of difference again between a benevolently sexist view of abuse that calls upon men to use their elevated position in the gender hierarchy only for 'good' and stands against injustice against women from a moral point of view, yet fails to recognise that promoting the importance of distinct gender roles may be contributing to the problem in the first place. And this, unfortunately, is what a complementarian defence of feminism often boils down to.

That's not to say that some complementarians don't speak out against the more extreme outworkings of conservative views about gender. I'm thankful that they do. But decrying hardline conservative thinking or criticising the distortions of scripture needed to believe in the 'Christian patriarchy movement' isn't the same as recognising that patriarchy is the driving force behind inequality.

Feminism has always been a disruptor. It doesn't look at the state of the world, see how women have been treated as lesser for centuries, and ignore the root of the problem. One oft-used complementarian spin on an anti-equality perspective is to dismiss the 'low bar', the dull homogeneity of 'equality with men' on the grounds that the 'glory' and 'freedom' of God's 'true' design for women are far better. And yet this represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what many feminists hope for. Feminism is not the 'low bar' of equality, it's freedom for the oppressed. Not for nothing do we often talk of 'gender justice'.

If true freedom is the realisation, for women, that God created them to fulfil a particular role, it gives them permission to wrestle with questions about their history, their lives, and their place in the church – but not to come to a conclusion that represents the true diversity of women and what we are created to be. If God's final word on the matter was that men and women were created with different roles, qualities and responsibilities, then to question it is to reflect the example set by Eve, rebelling against her Creator. If the idea that women might exist and flourish outside of a particular mold is 'rebellion', it's not feminist and it never will be.

If complementarians want to support feminism, admitting the impact that patriarchal values have have on women is vital – as is understanding how conservative expectations placed upon men can create pressure, disappointment and resentment.

The answer to the problem is not to call for equality in society at the same time as repeatedly underlining a commitment to separate spheres in the home and Church, no matter how benign and honourable this might seem. It's not claiming to support equality while always being careful to distance yourself from all the aspects of feminism you think have 'gone too far' or have 'hurt marriage' or 'destroyed the family' without pausing to think why some of the things women have fought for have been entirely necessary, or what the alternatives to some of these changes are.

Truly tackling issues such as sex trafficking, domestic abuse, objectification and workplace discrimination means seeing how they're linked by a common thread: the belief that women are lesser than men.

There is, of course, great discomfort in some quarters of the Church that the liberation of women means turning power structures inside out to the extent that women oppress or emasculate men. Leaving aside the fact that it's never seen as so much of a problem when men are wielding the power, feminism and, notably, egalitarian Christianity have never been about women trampling on men. It's not hard to see how this became a worry in a world where many people feel there must always be some sort of hierarchy in existence, but it's a false panic that's led to problematic tactics to attempt to keep men in church and also to a greater emphasis on strict gender roles, for some.

If 'feminism is for everybody', it means that everybody's life can be changed by the realisation that women have historically been oppressed by men and continue to be today. That men and women are of equal value, and that we can take steps to change society that will reflect this. A worldview that stands up for the rights of women until they step outside the complementarian box isn't feminism, and will struggle to truly tackle patriarchy.

Hannah Mudge writes about feminism and faith and is one of the founders of the Christian Feminist Network. She works in digital communications and fundraising for an international development organisation. Follow her on Twitter @boudledidge