Editor’s Note: This is one of the Top 15 2020 CBE Writing Contest winners. Enjoy!
Theology matters. It shapes the very framework by which we view the world. Who are we? Why are we here?
When our theology advocates traditional, or complementarian, gender roles, the man is defined as “head of the household” and thus acts as “spiritual leader” over the woman. In real world situations, the vague concept of gendered spiritual leadership is left to be defined by the man and can migrate from the spiritual realm to financial, emotional, physical, sexual, and religious leadership over the woman. Male decisions govern the home. Supporters of this theology claim that the roles are different but somehow still equal. In theory, the man could use his authority to humbly serve the woman. In reality, it is simply impossible for women and men to be equal when the man is given intrinsic authority over the woman in a relationship and deemed primary or sole decision-maker.
Complementarian theology relies on inequality, putting women in passive roles and men in powerful ones. This inequality allows men to disguise power complexes as love, care, protection, and leadership, and manipulates women to believe that to be a good Christian they must obey their husbands. This forms a culture that allows for spiritual abuse, placing even well-meaning couples at a much higher risk of spiritually abusive habits simply by ascribing to traditional “biblical” gender roles.
Defining Spiritual Abuse
What does that mean? Spiritual abuse is when a person uses religious texts or beliefs to coerce, control, manipulate, or abuse someone knowingly or unknowingly. In the book Rooted in God’s Love, Dale and Juanita Ryan write, “Spiritual abuse is a kind of abuse that damages the central core of who we are. It leaves us spiritually disorganized and emotionally cut off from the healing love of God.”1
For example, in “A Conversation about Love and Respect with Sheila Gregoire,” the Faith and Feminism podcast reveals how the concept of male spiritual leadership often controls the couple’s sexual relationship.2 The podcast shares stories of seemingly kind, Christian men denying the mutuality and depth of passages like 1 Corinthians 7, instead viewing sex as a man’s need and a woman’s duty. A man could coerce his partner into sexual activities in the name of respect and biblical submission. The ambiguity of spiritual leadership allows for blanket claims like, “You must do this because I say so, and God says you must obey me.”
Many believers are unaware of spiritual abuse or find it hard to identify because it’s masked by theological terms and cherry-picked Bible verses to appear God-approved.
Identifying Spiritual Abuse
Out in public, a spiritual abuser often looks like the “good Christian,” as he goes to church, talks “Bible talk,” and is liked by many people. In private, however, the woman often experiences a very different person who exhibits abusive or manipulative behaviors. These extremes can be confusing for her and potentially cause her to stay in a spiritually abusive relationship. It could also blind many abusers to their own faults by allowing them to genuinely believe their behaviors are biblically justified.
Spiritual abuse often feeds off a man’s insecurities from the social and theological pressures placed on him. The expectation to be the stereotypically dominant male is not only contrary to the humility taught in Scripture but also leaves men “with very fragile egos,” as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie commented in her TEDx Talk. She continued by pointing out that “then we do a much greater disservice to girls because we raise them to cater to the fragile egos of men.” Though not focused on religion, Adichie’s analysis describes the struggles many women face in the church. Women may be conditioned by complementarian theology to believe that it is their spiritual duty to cater to the fragile ego of the “male leader.”
Spiritual abuse based on complementarian theology can manifest in many ways, but for the sake of gathering a general understanding, here is a list of some common characteristics:
- The man demands respect from the woman without question due to his “God-given” masculine authority.
- The man discourages the woman from having a different opinion, especially theological, political, or social, because God has given him discernment for the both of them.
- The man shames the woman if she publicly expresses an opinion different from his own, because it challenges or even humiliates his male authority.
- The man is unable to see the woman as an accountability partner. If the man criticizes the woman on an issue, he believes he’s fulfilling his God-designed responsibility as spiritual leader. But if the woman criticizes the man on an issue, he believes she’s disrespecting his authority and therefore rejecting “God’s design” for men and women.
- The man emphasizes his dedication to caring for and protecting his partner but only does so in the way he believes is best. Because he is the spiritual leader, he thinks he knows what is best for the woman even if she says otherwise.
- The man rarely, if ever, considers that he could be wrong in his decision-making.
- If the woman confronts the man on an issue, he makes her think that she is overreacting, crazy, or simply a bad partner because she does not trust, is ungrateful for, or is disrespectful of his leadership (a form of gaslighting). He might twist the conversation so that the moral of the story is that the woman must learn to be more forgiving and gracious, as opposed to the man acknowledging his own mistakes.
- The man misuses Scripture to require the woman to perform sexual activities. If she says no, he claims she is denying God’s command to please her partner.
- The man demands primary or full control over finances as head of the household.
- The man uses statements like, “You don’t love or respect me anymore. If you did, you would…” or “I’m only doing this to love and protect you. Don’t you want that?” to emotionally manipulate his partner into doing what he wants.
- The man lies when necessary to protect his good reputation and “Christian testimony.”
- The man quotes from Bible passages like Ephesians 5 to require that the woman perform domestic duties and not maintain a career. Or, if she does have a career, the man demands that his career takes priority.
Our Theology Can Harm or It Can Help
As a whole, our theology needs rectification. When men and women are not deemed equal leaders in the church and in relationships, God’s Word is misused to endorse patriarchal systems that allow for, and even condone, spiritual abuse.
It is already difficult for a woman to stand up to an abusive partner; it is even more difficult when she feels that she would also be defying God. In this way, complementarian spiritual abuse capitalizes on the woman’s desire to be a good Christian. In their book The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse, Jeff VanVonderen and David Johnson write that spiritual abuse thrives by, “weakening, undermining, or decreasing that person's spiritual empowerment.”3 Complementarian spiritual abuse disrespects the woman’s imago Dei, the image of God in her, which emphasizes that God can speak to her too, that she deserves free will not limited by her partner, and that God has blessed her with her own discernment apart from her partner.
When we acknowledge the patriarchal bias ingrained in our terminology, sermons, Bible studies, and churches, and when we refine our interpretative process to discover the beauty of biblical equality, we can better identify and prevent spiritual abuse. This is especially true because anytime we learn more about the love, grace, and freedom of the Gospel, we are better equipped to recognize when the opposite is proclaimed. When men and women are treated as equals, God’s Word is glorified in the joyful empowerment of all voices, and Christian couples are encouraged toward mutual submission, love, and respect. And wherever a woman believes God values her leadership and decision-making ability equal to her husband’s, spiritual abuse cannot thrive.
Therefore, we must ask ourselves: Who are we? Why are we here?
May God help us see we are all beloved, made in the image of God. We are here for God’s glory as we “learn to do right, seek justice, defend the oppressed.” (Is. 1:17, NIV)>
1. Ryan D, Ryan J. Rooted in God's Love. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Publishing; 1992.
2. "A Conversation about Love and Respect with Sheila Gregoire." Season 1, Episode 88, Faith and Feminism podcast (Host: Meghan Tschanz), June 22, 2020.
3. VanVonderen J, Johnson D. The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse: Recognizing and Escaping Spiritual Manipulation and False Authority within the Church. Bloomington, MN: Bethany House Publishers; 1991.
Photo by Zoriana Stakhniv and found on Unsplash.