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Published Date: October 7, 2015

Published Date: October 7, 2015

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When Staying In An Abusive Relationship Is Part of Your Theology

I was recently perusing the comments on a blog post by complementarian Tim Bayly. Two female commenters were sparring over feminism’s simultaneous assertions of female strength and female subordination through socialization. The women went back and forth on the supposed contradiction of asserting that women are, by nature, capable of “standing up for themselves” and at the same time, arguing that many women don’t have the tools to do so as a result of patriarchal socialization. The complementarian commenter felt that feminists contradict themselves by saying that women are strong, but arguing at the same time that they are still victimized by patriarchy. I was sad to see this argument leveled like a feminist Catch-22—like it is the trivia question that egalitarians just can’t answer.

In reality, that question (and contradiction) is a non-starter, because anyone who has studied egalitarian theology or Christian feminism knows that egalitarians do not believe that the capability of women and the infantilizing socialization of women in patriarchal culture are mutually exclusive claims.

Egalitarians believe both that:

  1. Women are naturally capable of leadership, self-assertion, and courage.


  1. Christian women are often socialized to believe that:
  1. They are not capable of leadership, self-assertion, and courage.
  2. They violate God’s order by “standing up” for themselves.
  3. They dishonor their relationships and families when they fail to be utterly submissive to men.

Women are strong. They make great leaders, eloquent speakers, and inspired activists. We can cast a wide net through history and observe the existence of prophetic female teachers and preachers who lent their lives to sharing the Gospel and advocating for others. Women have been gifted with a formidable spirit since the beginning of time. They have wild-fire faith and loud voices to spread that message.

Sprinkled throughout Scripture are plentiful examples of women who “stood up for themselves.” Bold Ruth, rebellious Sarah, prophetic Junia, and commanding Deborah are just a few specimens of brave womanhood. And outside of the biblical narrative, just in the US, we had Sojourner Truth, Ida B. Wells, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Anne Hutchinson, and Molly Pitcher, just to scratch the surface of women who had the guts to fight for what they believed was right. And if we jump to today, we have awesome examples of authoritative female leadership in Malala, Aung San Suu Kyi, and many others, Christian and otherwise.

So, women have proved their capability as leaders, both in the church and in the secular world. It’s been said before, those that argue that women aren’t capable of or prepared for leadership are out of touch—both with history and with the world. And it’s true, the question of women’s ability to lead and stand up for themselves was answered a long time ago—by God and by the women who stepped out from the crowd.

But is it really that simple?

For the purposes of keeping my point concise and in light of Domestic Violence Awareness Month (DVAM), I will use the extreme example of a women who stays in an abusive “Christian” relationship. If she’s being abused, many ask curiously, why would she stay? This is a complex question that has many answers, but here’s one small piece of the puzzle.

Women in patriarchal contexts are socialized from birth to believe that their value is in their obedience and submission to men, to husbands and fathers in particular. Women spend their entire lives deprioritizing their own needs, will, and desires. Subjection socialization begins very young, and women are steeped in that culture for a lifetime until that context, and at times, that dependency, is all they know. So, the question posed by the complementarian commenter asking why a woman who is capable of “standing up for herself” would not do so when she has spent her life in a state of subordination is really a nonsensical question. And worse, the question demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of both feminism and the role of theology in the subordination of women.

What could be more powerful, or more toxic, than the message that God mandates staying in your marriage when you’re being abused?

When a woman spends her life in an abusive, oppressive, silencing environment, she may never learn to assert herself. She may spend her entire life acquiescing to the wishes and demands of men, and she may never step outside her prescribed role in patriarchy. But does it follow that because she does not that she is not capable (as a woman) of standing up for herself? I think not.

And is it a contradiction to say that she has a deep capacity for strength, but that she is also deeply affected by her context and socialization? I do not think this is an unreasonable stretch. Subordination is her context, and it is what she knows. Some women reject their patriarchal context, while others do not.

Patriarchy is propped up on the expectation that women will stay silent, that they will bow, that they will fail to thrive independently. It devotes most of its energy to ensuring that this remains the reality. So, is it any surprise that women may, in some contexts, struggle to reject the patriarchal, male-centric theology that has been indoctrinated in them for a lifetime? And is it also any surprise that many women do “stand up for themselves” against all odds?

Let’s examine the force patriarchy has at its disposal: theology. When your theology tells you that submission is your ultimate purpose as a person of faith, you are far more likely to tolerate abuse. Consider John Piper’s words on abuse that allow for being “smacked around” a little for the night or being verbally or emotionally abused for a season. What could be more powerful, or more toxic, than the message that God mandates staying in your marriage when you’re being abused?

God-language has been used as a tool of oppression in the past—see “slaves submit to your masters” rhetoric in the slavery era for just one example of this type of emotional and spiritual manipulation. And of course, theological justification is used to support other oppressive systems that still exist. There is, arguably, nothing on this earth that motivates people like what they perceive to be the will of their God. If a woman believes that God wants her to stay in an abusive relationship, if her theology tells her that she simply needs to become more silent and submissive to honor God and her husband, then she is likely to do so, out of a desire to be a “good Christian woman.”

I know that most if not all complementarians believe that violence is wrong and sinful. I also know and accept that some women do find complementarian theology fulfilling and would not agree that it breeds abuse. I also do not mean to imply that all women who choose to stay in a patriarchal culture are only doing so because they are socialized to stay. The point I am making here is that female testimony has proven that many Christian women genuinely believe that it would be wrong to leave and divorce their violent or abusive spouses, because of theology like this. And yes, I take issue with that.

And so I ask, if this is the fruit, then where stands the tree? Patriarchal theology implies that female submission is more important than female health or safety in marriage.

So, why might she stay? Because her pastor, her church, her husband, her religion, her family, and her theology tell her it is the right and godly thing to do. Herein lies the great power of patriarchy—it uses God-language to subordinate women and so it is in its theology, at the roots of patriarchy, where the work must be done to liberate women.