Most of us—no matter our stance on gender roles or faith background—are stunned by the vast number of people demeaned by sexual abuse and harassment. Tragically, girls and women are abused at essentially the same rates inside and outside the church. It’s clear that complementarians and egalitarians alike must press toward humility, self-reflection, and an honest assessment of Christian complicity in gender-based violence (GBV).
Like many other Christians in the age of #ChurchToo, John Piper is searching for the root cause of GBV. He believes he has found it: egalitarianism.
In a recent Desiring God podcast entitled “Sex-Abuse Allegations and the Egalitarian Myth,” Piper argues that egalitarians are to blame for abuse of girls and women because we neglect God-created gender differences. By elevating gender competence—giftedness for any vocation—over God’s design for men to lead women, egalitarians have removed men from their God-given role in protecting girls and women from abuse. For Piper, confusion over the “special care” men owe women explains the levels of sexual abuse in culture and in church communities.
Piper explains, “for decades Christian and non-Christian egalitarians have argued, have assumed, and have modeled that those peculiar roles and responsibilities among men and women in the home, in the church, and in the culture, should emerge only from competencies rather than from a deeper reality rooted in who we are differently as male and female.” According to Piper, male leadership, not competence, causes humanity to flourish and protects women from abuse.
The Dividing Line: Male/Female Roles or Newness of Life in Christ?
It’s confusing that Piper, who has spent his life preaching the gospel, links human flourishing to male and female roles instead of intimacy with Christ. However, Scripture does not associate male/female roles with holiness/godliness. According to the New Testament, godliness is inseparable from our spiritual rebirth and flourishes through relationship with Christ.
The dividing line that separates spiritual death from human flourishing has nothing to do with gender roles and everything to do with spiritual rebirth through the Holy Spirit. It’s Christ in you—the hope of glory—that imparts holiness, as demonstrated by fruit of the Spirit (Col. 1:21-27, Gal. 5:16-25). Here is where complementarians make a catastrophic error.
By insisting that maleness qualifies men to lead and care for women, complementarians give men responsibilities that rightly belong only to those who have demonstrated a capacity for leadership. Maleness is not morality. Maleness is not a character quality. Maleness can tell us nothing about a person’s intimacy with Christ, their character, or their commitment to holiness.
Based on a shallow interpretation of a few passages of Scripture, Piper has convinced millions that gender, rather than newness of life in Christ, is the primary qualification for leadership in the church and in the home. This horrific error—advanced by many religious traditions—has placed females at risk throughout history by putting biology ahead of morality and character. It can allow the wrong people—abusive men—to have authority regardless of whether they have demonstrated spiritual and moral maturity.
This isn’t a new phenomenon. Throughout history, the powerful have often believed they were born to rule, subjugating others based on their caste, skin color, religious ancestry, and sex. The result hasn’t been human flourishing but centuries of bias, suffering, and abuse.
Talking to Your Children
So, when our children ask, “what should I be when I grow up?”, our answer should be: “A follower of Jesus who welcomes and honors the outsiders, the marginalized, the abused, and the enslaved.” We need to teach our kids that they are called to demonstrate newness of life in Christ, regardless of maleness or femaleness.
As Christians, whether male or female, we should strive to model “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). Holiness is the “deeper spiritual reality” we are all meant to image. Surprisingly, Piper never mentions it.
The Deeper Reality: Genesis 1-4
Piper insists that the deepest identity of humanity is found in the early chapters of Genesis, and he’s correct! But then, he says that “the author of Genesis, Moses, wants us to see that part of the collapse of God’s beautiful order in the garden was the failure of Adam to speak up.” This is where Piper misses the “deeper reality” found in Genesis 1-2.
The text teaches that man and woman are both created in God’s image—a spiritual substance with an earthly purpose—to govern together over the created world. Genesis 1:26-29 emphatically declares, three times, that man and woman bear God’s image for a purpose—to rule over Eden, not each other! In the second creation account, Adam’s aloneness is the only “not good” in a perfect world. God’s solution is to create woman—an ezer. Though often translated into English as “help,” ezer means to be “strong” and to “rescue,” and most often refers to God’s rescue of Israel (see Psalm 121:1-2).
God intended humanity to flourish through male-female co-dominion, which sadly, does not endure. Adam’s sin and first failure was disobedience to God, not failure to protect and lead Eve. God did not tell Adam “protect and hold authority over Eve,” but “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, you shall not eat,” (Gen. 2:17). When they disobey God, their shared rule deteriorates into the “he will rule over you” of Genesis 3:16. Male rule, authority, and dominance is a consequence of sin. It is a distortion of God’s ideal for humanity. It wrecks the thriving that God intended.
According to Prepare/Enrich—the largest group studying marriage in the world—domestic violence and abuse are statistically linked with dominance. Theories that advance dominance can only fuel abuse. For this reason, humanitarian organizations “marble” gender equality into their goals for successful impact. Gender equality neutralizes the power imbalances that allow for abuse, which explains why adding women as middle managers and on boards lowers the rate of unethical practices.
Let’s turn our attention to the church. According to Kathryn A. Flynn, clergy-perpetrated sexual abuse (CPSA) is “not an issue of sexuality but rather one of a power imbalance that negates any possibility of ‘consensual’ mutuality. This distorted power dynamic has been accentuated by some clergy abusers through the misuse of significant social, cultural and even supernatural power ascribed to religious representatives as being derived from God.” Further, the World Health Organization found that “traditional gender and social norms [are] related to male superiority.”
Gender roles are neither biblical nor do they protect from violence either in the world or the church. On the contrary! Abuse in churches doesn’t happen because men don’t know about their God-given responsibility to “care for women.” The reason complementarian churches have and continue to struggle with sexual abuse is because they confuse “maleness” with morality. Complementarian theology endangers women by teaching that men have a special role and authority solely because they are men. Egalitarianism makes no such mistake.
Despite the evidence, Piper blames egalitarianism for the abuse of women and insists that male leadership is the antidote. But the abuse scandals exposed in churches that by and large adhere to complementarian theology undermine Piper’s argument. It is time we examine how power imbalance—fueled by religion—furthers male dominance and enables abuse.
 Flynn, Kathryn A. “In Their Own Voices: Women Who Were Sexually Abused by Members of Clergy.” Journal of Child Sexual Abuse. (17:3-4), 216-237.