Since my first week at Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE), I’ve heard stories from women who have struggled with their faith in God because they were abused by men. These women were emotionally, physically, sexually, and spiritually abused by husbands, fathers, uncles, brothers, pastors, or other men close to them. Their abusers believed that Scripture (and therefore God) gave men authority to monitor, manage, and discipline women. Longing to please God, these women submitted to abusive men, regardless of the cost to themselves. Some nearly lost their lives, others went into hiding. All are deeply wounded.
We were surprised and overwhelmed by the number of people who attended CBE’s first conference on abuse. We were even more shocked to discover the countless women who experienced abuse in a Christian marriage, family, church, or organization. When Cathie retired from CBE, she became founder and president of Peace and Safety in the Christian Home (PASCH), a nonprofit organization devoted to addressing domestic violence and abuse.
For nearly thirty years, CBE has developed and promoted resources that challenge male-authority as a biblical ideal. In tandem with our biblical research, we have also walked alongside women who suffered abuse as a consequence of the power imbalances justified by distorting Scripture. These events are powerfully illustrated in Ruth Tucker’s new book, Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife, which recounts her own abusive marriage and the theology that fueled her husband’s violence.
A prolific scholar and highly regarded historian, Tucker unearthed countless examples of women’s leadership in church history throughout her career. Her work established women’s capacity for leadership, compelling many churches and denominations to liberate women and welcome their gifts. Tragically, however, in her own marriage, Ruth was abused by a man who used Scripture to dominate her.
Given the terrifying experiences Ruth endured, it is unthinkable that anyone might attempt to persuade her to stand with individuals whose theology fueled her abuse. It would be like asking Sojourner Truth to stand with pro-slavery advocates against the abuses of slavery! It was the grueling, dangerous, life-long work of abolitionists like Truth who exposed the abuse, deceit, greed, and twisted rhetoric inherent to slavery.
Like slavery, male-headship is deeply flawed theologically and therefore ethically. It is a system of privilege that elevates one group over another, extending power and impunity to men not because of their character, but simply because of their gender. Further, the consequences of male-headship often go unaddressed by its advocates. Perpetrators are accountable not to their victims but to those with equal privilege.
Like abolitionists, egalitarians are often accused of capitulating to a secular ideology. However, an honest and consistent study of the egalitarian evangelicals offers another perspective.
Abolitionists were committed to a high view of Scripture, conversion, and proclaiming the good news in word and deed. Egalitarians (past and present) share those same values. The ideals that drove the theological and social reforming work of abolitionists, compelling leaders like Sojourner Truth to ask essential questions about the teachings and practices of pro-slavery Christians, drive egalitarians today to challenge complementarian theology. Egalitarians ask complementarians to consider whether their ideas and practices imitate the life and teachings of Jesus.
Thankfully, those who have encountered the theological and moral failings of complementarian theology are working to expose it, particularly its collusion with privilege and power. Like Ruth, more and more Christians are refusing to protect ideas and practices that distort the gospel and obstruct human flourishing.
The truth is, we are all on a journey. We all have blind-spots and need not only the challenge of our brothers and sisters in Christ, but also their grace. The giving and receiving of forgiveness is essential to human relationships. However, as Jack and Judy Balswick explain in their chapter on marriage in Discovering Biblical Equality, we can confess our failures and ask for forgiveness, but confession should be evidenced by efforts toward responsible change. If proponents of male-authority are earnest in standing against abuse, I challenge them to consider the following as steps of good faith.
- Offer statistics on domestic violence at your events and churches, and in your published resources and online content. Give abused women and girls a platform and allow them to speak and write from their own perspectives.
- Provide a safe space for women seeking shelter from abuse.
- Ensure that your seminaries and colleges offer courses by trained professionals in anger management, domestic violence, and abuse.
- Preach regularly on domestic violence and abuse, aligning with victims and denouncing all forms of abuse.
- Discuss these topics during premarital and marital counseling.
- Refuse to shield and shelter perpetrators from the consequences of their behavior.
- Insist perpetrators are prosecuted when they break the law.
- Insist perpetrators undergo treatment by professional psychologists.
- Refuse to give perpetrators prominence as speakers, writers, and leaders.
- Never ask or suggest that abused girls and women return to abusive family members.
- Stock your church, college, and seminary libraries with a range of books on domestic violence and abuse, authored by trained psychologists.
- Be disciplined in praying for justice on behalf of those who have been abused as well as accountability from perpetrators.
Whether complementarian or egalitarian, we must be vigilant in watching for signs of abuse. We must hold perpetrators accountable. We must do our utmost to prevent abuse wherever possible. We must protect those who have been abused unreservedly.
Abusers often justify their behavior by hijacking Scripture for their own perverse purposes. This was true for proslavery Christians and Christians who supported Apartheid in South Africa. It is also true for men who use complementarian theology to perpetuate their abuse.
And, sadly, I have rarely observed complementarian theologians speaking out against those who use their teachings to abuse others. In fact, it is shocking to observe the defensiveness of some complementarians when they are questioned about the abusive consequences of their theology.
In a rebuttal of complementarian critiques of Ruth Tucker’s new book, Aimee Byrd wrote, “there is a greater fear of people reading Tucker’s book and becoming egalitarian than [readers]… leaving Christianity!” Byrd is among the growing number of complementarians who believe that while complementarian theology does not “advocate abuse ostensibly… it doesn’t protect women who are abused—at all. It exposes them to more abuse. And so it is fuel for an abuser.”
One question remains: Doesn’t complementarian theology make abuse possible and more likely by privileging men with authority over women contra to Genesis 1:26-28?
Thankfully, Byrd herself sees more mutuality in Scripture than many complementarians teach. She writes: “We are told to submit to one another out of reverence to Christ, women to their own husbands, as to the Lord (Eph. 5:22-23), and husbands are to give themselves up in love for their wives, just as Christ loved the Church (5:25).” But there is more.
From Genesis to Revelation, we see that leadership and authority belongs firstly to those who do what is right in God’s sight, regardless of gender or ethnicity. To insist that God gives authority based on gender is fundamentally and categorically a flawed reading of Scripture. It overlooks the prominent examples of women’s leadership throughout the Bible and church history. It is nearly impossible to implement consistently. And worst of all, it makes possible and sustains abuse, and often shields perpetrators.
Male-headship theology harms rather than promotes human flourishing. Like any systemic injustice, it is impossible to repair the damage of male-headship theology without dismantling the theology itself. If human beings are to flourish and perpetrators are to be stopped, this is the path we must take together.