The Headship of Men and the Abuse of Women: Are They Related in Any Way?

by Jonathan Tysick | April 30, 2021
Cover of the Headship of Men and the Abuse of Women

The saying goes that ideas have consequences and bad ideas have victims. Kevin Giles, a retired Australian Anglican minister of over forty years and long-time champion of the egalitarian movement, believes this is certainly true of male-headship teachings. Answering his title question in the affirmative, Giles forcefully argues that “headship teaching can encourage and legitimate domestic abuse and it must be abandoned if domestic abuse is to be effectively countered in our churches” (2).

Summary

This short book (just 116 pages) is divided into four main chapters, with three accompanying addendums. The first chapter shares the disturbing realities of domestic abuse. Citing recent academic studies and reports, Giles details how at least thirty-five percent of women around the world experience violence from intimate partners (5). He goes on to expose the tragic reality that domestic abuse is also rampant in the church, pinpointing the Southern Baptist Convention in the United States and the Anglican Diocese of Sydney in Australia as examples of evangelical, complementarian churches where an “endemic” of women’s abuse has been exposed by the light of the #metoo and #churchtoo movements (11).

In chapter two Giles synthesises contemporary data to define domestic abuse as “the ongoing assertion of power, almost always by the man over his wife or intimate partner, that has as its intent the complete control of the woman” (20, italics original). This manifests itself in verbal, psychological, social, financial, spiritual, sexual, and physical abuse (23).

Giles cites numerous studies to show the scholarly consensus that “behind all domestic abuse and violence lies the belief that men should be in charge and make all the important decisions and women should be submissive” (26). He goes on to argue that headship teaching (“God set the man over the woman and thus the hierarchical ordering of the sexes is God-given, good, and can never change” [32]) provides a divinely legitimized, biblical entitlement for patriarchy leading some men to abuse their wives (37).

While Giles concedes that complementarian theology “properly explained” might not directly lead husbands to abuse their wives, he argues that hearing this theology taught from pulpits “can encourage and legitimate abuse in needy and controlling men found in every church and among the clergy” (40). Thus, it is not enough for complementarians to condemn domestic abuse; rather, Giles argues that what is needed is a full-scale re-evaluation of complementarian teaching (40–41). Giles further cites leading complementarians who have said that happy complementarian marriages are “in practice egalitarian” (38).

In the third chapter Giles evaluates data and tells stories of his experience regarding the abuse of women in the developing world, once more concluding that the root of domestic abuse is patriarchy, usually legitimized by religious traditions (45). Again, he believes that Christians need to re-evaluate their interpretations of Scripture if they are to be part of the solution to domestic abuse and not its propagation (55).

In the final main chapter, Giles interprets key biblical passages that address marriage (especially 1 Pet 3:1–6 and Eph 5:22–24), challenging the exegetical and hermeneutical grounds of headship teaching. While I found certain aspects of his exegesis of Eph 5:21–33 unconvincing,1 Giles is strong in challenging the hermeneutical jumps undertaken by proponents of headship teaching to defend their interpretations. Throughout the book and especially in this chapter (see his handling of Mal 2:16) Giles also defends the view that abuse is among the biblical grounds for divorce (78–79).

Giles closes his book with three helpful addendums. The first details the historic dimension of the abuse of women, tracing how laws and attitudes (inside and outside of the church) have changed, especially since the 1970s. The second addendum summarises and critiques a document regarding domestic abuse created and endorsed by the Anglican Diocese of Sydney in 2018. Giles finds the document fatally flawed in that, while decrying domestic abuse, it endorses “the one thing that almost all the experts agree is the primary cause,” male headship and female submission (111). The third addendum is especially helpful; Giles here evaluates five common complementarian claims regarding the relationship between headship teaching and domestic abuse.

Critical Analysis

The Headship of Men and the Abuse of Women is a short, lively book that effectively forges a connection between male-headship teachings and domestic abuse. Giles brings his pastoral experience and academic skill together to challenge the foundations and harmful effects of complementarian theology. His chapter on “understanding domestic abuse and violence” is particularly strong at making accessible the academic research on domestic abuse and showing how headship teaching plays directly into shaping “rigid gender roles,” the main driver of such abuse (81). While not all will be convinced by his argument, this strong connection will hopefully lead readers to at least consider his titular question and subsequently wonder whether headship teaching is really what God wills and Scripture teaches.

Without addendums this book is only eighty-eight pages long, making it an accessible work that at times reads like a series of blog posts or articles. Despite this brevity, the book can come off as repetitive, as Giles repeats his thesis numerous times, even using the same quotations on occasion. On this note I wonder if his important thesis would have had a broader hearing if the eighty-eight pages were trimmed into an extended article.

Likely being his last book and having advocated for a non-patriarchal, egalitarian vision of Christian ministry and marriage since the 1970s, one gets the sense that the author’s patience with the complementarian arguments has run thin, resulting in a blunt book full of fiery prose. For instance, he says that “the Sydney [Anglican] Diocese has a low view of women” (108); the complementarian claim of upholding women as equal to men is “disingenuous” (103); he describes complementarian pastors as being “spiritually abusive” (42); and he defines complementarian theology as being “euphemistic and obfuscating . . . to sound acceptable to the modern ear” (32). Although I am sympathetic to many of his opinions and grateful for his life’s work, I fear this strong language will hinder rather than help his complementarian readers consider his claims.

It is said that there are timely books and timeless books, and this work is definitely of the former category. Citing contemporary studies and detailing current events in denominations that are at a crossroads in their response to domestic abuse, the book reads as a pertinent pamphlet of passion, calling his complementarian brothers and sisters to abandon their harmful teaching. As the isolating health restrictions of COVID-19 have caused dramatic rises in cases of domestic abuse,2 this book is potentially even more needed now than when first published in June of 2020. If readers are left unconvinced by the book’s thesis, at the very least it serves as a valuable introduction to the issues surrounding domestic abuse, which in and of itself will be a great service to every reader.

Notes

1. Giles argues that “in Eph. 5:21–33 we have two contrasting and irreconcilable understandings of marriage standing side by side, a radically new and distinctively Christian one, and one that is as old as the fall and which prevails in this world” (67). I find I. Howard Marshall’s exegesis more convincing in his chapter, “Mutual Love and Submission in Marriage: Colossians 3:18–19 and Ephesians 5:21–33,” in Discovering Biblical Equality, 2nd ed., ed. Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, and Gordon D. Fee (InterVarsity, 2005).

2. According to the Huffington Post, domestic abuse hotline calls have nearly doubled in Canada during the pandemic.

Book info
Author:
Publisher:
Cascade Books
Year:
2020
ISBN:
978-1725261389