Commenter Nicholas, on a post from a few weeks ago, asks a good question:

I think this might be quite compelling if I were entirely clear on what, exactly, the contradictory philosophies are that you identify as “complementarianism” and “patriarchalism”. Just off the top of my head, I should have guessed that a complementarian was one who held that the masculine and feminine roles are two essential halves of a whole, neither of which is more noble than the other, while a patriarchalist held that all authority is ultimately derived from fatherhood – but that can’t be right, since those two theses are perfectly compatible with one another. (Unless, of course, one were to assert that authority is the only source of nobility – but that seems an unnatural thing for a Christian to say, to put it mildly.) A clarification would be much appreciated.

I responded in the comments but thought this would be useful as its own post with a little expansion. I think the above analysis of the terms is a reasonable take without knowing the history.

Complementarianism is a new word invented in the late 80’s by Wayne Grudem and John Piper. They didn’t like the term “patriarchy” because, after third wave feminism, it was an ugly term to culture. But they went further than that, and in their work (Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood), while they mention sexual distinctions, they reduce real roles down to those explicitly defined in the New Testament.

The patriarchal view holds that men and women are different by nature. God made men and women so different than they are the fundamental division of humankind. Patriarchalism means “father rule”, but it does so on the basis that men are, by nature, rulers in the home, culture, church, government, etc. Mothers have their own very important roles to play, but they are distinct. Again, these flow out of our natures.

Complementarianism on the other hand holds that there are distinctions in roles for men and women in the church (mostly prohibitions on women), and that there are some basic biological distinctions between men and women. However, it sees the differences between the roles as belonging primarily to special revelation. God said things about what women couldn’t do in the church, and so the real reasons are in the mystery of His will. We just don’t know. There’s nothing about women that makes them inferior to men in those roles, it’s just God’s seemingly arbitrary choice. This has only gotten worse as it has regressed toward egalitarianism.

Again, patriarchalism begins with human nature and general revelation (and the Bible too, but not exclusively). Complementarianism begins with the Biblical prohibitions; it uses the Bible exclusively.

The label “complementarian” is misleading because it doesn’t mean that natural distinction it seems like it should. Here is one of Dalrock’s many posts on the subject, featuring quotes by one of the founders of Complementarianism, Wayne Grudem:

“Patriarchy” does seem like an unfulfilling term in the sense pointed out in the comment that a Patriarchal system doesn’t necessarily entail equal worth to God, etc. Indeed, Christianity does teach that men and women are equal in worth before God, equal in their need for a Savior, and equally made in God’s image, and it would be a mistake to think that the authority vested in husbands and men in general is a sign of higher nobility or value before God. Christian Patriarchy or Biblical Patriarchy may do a better job at conveying my meaning of the term.

I usually shorthand the term to just Patriarchy or Father Rule, but this is what I mean when I do. I’m referring to this Biblical system that sees men and women equally made in God’s image, but with two fundamentally different natures within that.