When We Can't Agree to Disagree
The idea that men and women are created differently, in ways that complement each other, sounds okay. But often, this “equal but different” thinking results in a hierarchy that can lead to distortions of truth, or even emotional and physical abuse.
For years, I thought that as with many theological side issues, sincere Christians can agree to disagree when it comes to gender roles. Some churches let women lead and teach the whole congregation, others interpret the Bible to say that women can only lead and teach other women, and in some cases, there are limits beyond even that. (I’ve heard of one church that doesn’t allow a woman to be the head of women’s ministries.)
I disagreed with this view, known as Complementarianism, but I figured, well, if that’s how they roll, then okay. But now, I’m starting to change my mind: often, it is not okay. Because if you take Complementarianism to the extreme, it becomes destructive.
Last week I received an e-mail linking to a news story that alleges that Saddleback Church in California counseled a woman to stay in an abusive marriage and also scolded her for “gossiping” about her marriage when she tried to ask for help (this story was all over Twitter and Facebook this week too). Saddleback (led by Purpose-Driven pastor Rick Warren) teaches Complementarianism—the wife must submit to her husband and that divorce in this instance is not an option.
For the record, Saddleback pastor Tom Holladay told GFL he could not reveal specifics of confidential pastoral counseling, but that Saddleback always counsel a woman (or man) in an abusive situation to leave and find a place of safety. They would, however, urge couples to get counseling and try to reconcile.
In the family, Complementarianism plays out like this: the man is the head of the household, and the ultimate authority. They cite Ephesians 5:22, which says that a wife must submit to her husband, and the husband should love his wife. The woman must submit to that authority, which comes with the man’s protection and provision. There are plenty of women who obviously want protection and provision.
They conclude that the husband is the head of the family. I cannot find a verse in scripture that says a man is supposed to be the head of the family. What the Bible says is that the relationship between a man and his wife is like a head and a body.
Egalitarians (the opposite of Complementarian) like myself see the head and body analogy is an illustration of the unity, or oneness that God intended in creation. A husband and wife need to be a team, like a head and a body. A body needs the head, the head needs the body. We cite the same biblical passage, but we look at the wider context, starting with verse 21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (emphasis mine). While someone (likely not a female translator) put a subhead right after verse 21, in the original text there were no subheads. So the next verses explain mutual submission—wives, submit to your husbands, and husbands, love your wives. Paul is talking about unity and oneness. He concludes his teaching with a reminder of the oneness theme, and mutual nature of submission: “each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband” (Eph. 5:33).
In churches that embrace Complementarianism, women rarely have the right to exercise their leadership gifts fully. When a church says that the man has more authority, can use his gifts more freely, it communicates a value (intended or not) that men are of greater value. And so if a woman (who has less value) complains of abuse, it is easy in that system to discount what she says, or blame her. So in addition to being abused by her husband, the woman is also abused by her church.
Think that doesn’t happen? In 2008, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Bruce Ware said that when women, “as sinners” try to usurp their husband’s authority and “do what they would like to do,” their husbands--also as sinners--might “respond to that threat to their authority” by being abusive (http://equalitycentral.com/blog/?p=14).
If marriage is understood as a hierarchy, then the person at the top of that structure can easily conclude that he has permission to do what is necessary to maintain power. We cannot simply say, “Well-intentioned Christians can agree to disagree” if those Christians argue that abuse is the husband’s prerogative, or worse, the wife’s fault. It is where we must stand up for true Christianity, which does not condone violence in any form, and which teaches mutual submission, not hierarchy.
[Editorial Note: The original post contained words claiming Ware blamed the abused for the abuse. We have since removed it as it was apparently an incorrect intrepretation and representation of his words. Dr. Ware disputed that this is what he intended in this quote and condemned abuse as a sinful response. GFL apologizes to Dr. Ware for this and hopes this further opens up dialogue on the issues of abuse in church and of the ramifications of our interpretations and our words. Blessings!]