Is complementarianism harmful and dangerous?

In our #FaithrootsLive sessions we’ve been looking at church leadership and the roles than men and women can/should play in this.  I come from what is usually referred to as a “complementarian” position. 

Now, one of the challenges about this conversation is that it is a difficult, if not impossible conversation to have because as I said at the start it is so personal and so controversial.  The result is that often I think we end up talking past each other and too often the conversation descends into name calling.  There’s the famous incident of John MacArthur telling Beth Moore to go home, egalitarians have been accused of liberalism and called worse. Meanwhile for my efforts I’ve been called a misogynist and likened to the Taliban -see this twitter thread as an example.

I’m not sure where the name calling gets us.  In terms of the example just cited it was both ironic that the person seemed to be filling in the gaps and accusing me on the basis of what they thought I would/wouldn’t say rather than what I actually had said and distressing to see someone so casually throwing words like “Taliban” about without regard to the real circumstances of the victims of the Taliban’s cruel barbarity.  That kind of approach isn’t really persuading me to acquiesce to demands. Sometimes it can be about playing to the gallery, sometimes it is born out of a desperation to be heard.

The same is true when we immediately assume that someone taking an egalitarian position is simply motivated by feminism, liberal theology or their own ambition.  I disagree with the egalitarian position because I don’t think it accurately interprets and applies Scripture and because I don’t think that in the end it does enable women to flourish and to serve Christ with their gifts. However, I do respect other believers who I disagree with on this but know to be committed to the Gospel and Scripture, who believe they’ve reached a more accurate interpretation and whose desire is to serve Christ and love his church. So I think the conversation is worth persevering with.

Part of that conversation must involve criticisms and challenges against a complementarian position. The main challenges/critiques are as follows.

  1. That it misunderstands Scripture because it applies cultural passages transculturally. I’ve responded to that in detail here and in parts 2 and 3 of the recent #FaithrootsLive series.
  2. That it encourages abusive relationships in the home. I dedicate a chapter to “Marriage at Work” to this question
  3. That it is in effect abusive because it creates a harmful environment for women and diminishes them.

I want to respond to the third point here.  Part of the reasoning for this criticism is that we’ve seen examples of complementarian churches and networks showing evidence of abusive and toxic behaviour.  It’s worth noting in response that whilst there are some recent and horrific examples of abuse and toxic culture in conservative evangelical circles and those issues need fully addressing, it does not seem that the issues were around complementarianism and that indeed where there had been bullying and abuse that it tended to have been directed from men against men. Secondly, that in the headline examples of male abuse against women that these included high profile examples from churches and organisations that took an egalitarian position. So to link the issues narrowly to complementarian theology seems to me to go beyond and against the evidence available.

Sadly over my lifetime, including time in Christian ministry I’ve met too many people who have experienced toxic church culture and abusive relationships. I’ve also seen some pretty horrendous stuff first hand. The examples come from across the theological spectrum. However, I’ve seen too much from within my own theological tribe for it to be ignored. .

Distorted interpretation and application of Scripture does not make the Scripture itself wrong. Abusers who find excuses in particular interpretations of scripture don’t invalidate the interpretations. At the same time we must not ignore what has happened or allow abuse to go unchallenged. I would simply encourage all readers to be ready to listen to all stories from those who have experienced toxic, manipulative and abusive church cultures and relationships – without prejudice.

The other thing I want to say in response is that yes it is possible to distort complementarian theology in a way that becomes toxic and harmful. That’s why it is important for us to constantly check those things.  I want to point you back to the diagram that we used right back at the start of the #FaithrootsLive series.

I argued there that Scripture presents us with four boundary themes. We need to keep all of them in play if we are to be protected by error.  Scripturally, harmful places are those places outside of the boundaries that God sets and it is in those places that we come under tyrannical and abusive rule instead of God’s rule.  Out of a fear of going too far in one direction, some churches and individuals have run so far away from mutual submission and human equality that they have stepped over the boundary and gone too far regarding male headship and role distinction.  The result has been tyrannical hierarchies where women are silenced and become little better than servants or property of men.  That is a clear example of where a distortion leads to abusive and toxic behaviour.

Now, it may not appear so obvious to our current culture in the light of present experience but to push too far the other way and completely reject Scripture’s teaching on headship and role distinction will also take us into the realm of toxic and tyrannical leadership. I’ve not seen the full on effects of this, I’m more familiar with the opposite problem but I’ve seen glimpses of it and I do know people who have experienced its worst extremes and their testimony is that it was just as toxic and dangerous.  You see, God puts those boundaries in place to protect us. The safest place to be is in a church that is spiritually healthy and obedient to the full counsel of God.

What this also means is that we do need to carefully distinguish out actual harm from the temptation of our culture to see harm in anything and everything that does not fit with it’s values. Scripture puts boundaries in place that constrain us and there is a tendency to identify any constraint or limit as dangerous/harmful/controlling. When we seek to put our own controls in place then that does risk manipulation or abuse but when we meet the limitations that God places on each and everyone of us then that is always for our ultimate good.

What tends to be harmful is when people usurp God’s authority in order to gain power for themselves. Now, as it happens, I don’t think that complementarianism, rightly understood offers much help for those seeking power for themselves.  The argument that it is a view created by men in order to sustain them in power doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because primarily those who want power want it not for their kind but for themselves personally.  It doesn’t work because actually complementarianism properly understood and enacted doesn’t actually help me get power. Why not? Well because of this thing called “mutual submission.” This prevents men from appealing to headship in order to impose their will and insists that they sacrificially love their wives. Submission is an active, un-imposed, free and willing act. 

That’s the point, abusive cultures in the home, church and workplace arise when people seek power and control for yourself. However, you understand the word “head”/kephale in 1 Corinthians and Ephesians, the call in Ephesians 5:20 to submit to one another as spirit filled believers, the insistence of Paul in Romans that we are to be humble and to prefer the needs of others and the example of Christ who willingly suffers and serves completely rules out and forbids you or me from seeking power and control over others.

In church life, there is a danger that complementarians can fail to recognise the value and part that women have to play in the life of the church, that is less than healthy.  That’s why in the last talk we were reminded that families need dads but they need mums too.  Both complementarians who fail to provide for the role and to hear the voices of women and egalitarians who lock onto one role in a hierarchy and attempt to force-fit everyone and everything and everyone into that particular position are at risk of creating unbalanced, unhealthy churches.  This is why again that I keep coming back to the household/family image.  Scripture’s instructions on headship and submission make so much more sense when we think “family” instead of “business hierarchy.”

In the end the proof is in the eating. In order to see whether the theology is really toxic and harmful, we need to look at how it is applied and that’s what we go on to do in our final #FaithrootsLive session this term.