Inferiority and Abuse
I ended Wednesday’s post with the paradox at the heart of complementarian theology: that God views women as equal to men, but nevertheless has placed them in a position of permanent subordination to men. Complementarians like Piper don’t seem to see the problems in this paradox, however; they insist that being inferior in position is not the same things as being inferior by nature, or ontologically.
Of course, a woman’s nature is what places her in the position of inferiority to begin with, leaving the easy inference that our nature is indeed inferior. Either that, or God is arbitrary: for no reason other than a lack of male genitalia, we women are barred from leading and teaching men, even if we have the gifts and talents to do so.
In short, despite Piper’s insistence that God values women as much as men, complementarian theology undercuts this equality. And as I discussed on Wednesday, this subordination of women is exacerbated because men, in this theology, retain all the power. They lead in churches and in families, and are given the power of the final decision. They have both positional authority as husbands and pastors and real power over the members of their households or churches. Women are to affirm this leadership and partner with it, but not take on these roles themselves.
Now, I want to be careful here: many Christians affirm this theological position without adhering to it at all times. I know marriages in which the spouses intellectually affirm male headship, but practically function as egalitarians, sharing decisions, responsibilities, and power. I have been part of a church in which women couldn’t be the head pastor, and yet they served, led and taught at every other level of the church. Ideologies have power and can be damaging even when not fully implemented, but I want to be clear that many, and probably most, Christian men don’t intentionally abuse the position this reading of scripture gives them.
However, any theology that permanently places women in subordinate positions on the basis of their biological sex alone has the potential to be harmful.
First, it’s nearly impossible to maintain an intellectual distinction between inferiority of position and inferiority of nature, especially when that inferior position comes directly from nature. Thus women are viewed as inferior to men: physically weaker, emotionally less stable, analytically less capable.
In this attitude, the church is no different from the surrounding culture. The same perceptions keep women out of pulpits and C-suites, teaching roles and senate seats, finance committees and tech companies. And both complementarians and secular people fall back on the same excuse, that women aren’t inferior — just different. But when “different” overwhelmingly means “not as good as” and “subordinate,” women are left not only feeling but also being treated as less valuable than men.
This attitude harms both individual women and the church as a body. Relying on stereotypes of women, and particularly those stereotypes that make them inferior to men, means that the church misses out on many gifts and talents. The college professor may be shunted to children’s Sunday school rather than encouraged to teach adults. The brilliant accountant may be pushed to lead the bake sale rather than the finance team. The non-profit director may be asked to volunteer in the nursery rather than on the leadership team.
Enshrining stereotypes as God’s plan, especially when these stereotypes are combined with prohibitions on women leading and teaching men, means that talent and passion can get overlooked. And women do notice: they may continue to attend and serve, or they may leave, but they know that their gifts have been judged as not good enough for the church because of their gender. So individuals have been harmed, and the church body has also been harmed.
Second, and more seriously, viewing women as inferior and subordinate makes abuse more likely and makes male church leaders less likely to take that abuse seriously. As I said above, most complementarian men don’t abuse their power. But I have heard and read story after story of women told to stay in abusive marriages, of women not believed when they come forward with reports of assault, of women silenced and shamed. I have stories from my time as a professor at a Christian college that I can’t share but that still make me rage.
If men are more important than women, their word is more trustworthy and their reputation is more valuable. This leaves women alone, vulnerable, hurting, doubting their own experiences and making light of their own pain. Complementarian theology doesn’t condone abuse, but it creates the environment in which abuse can happen with few consequences for the abuser.
I believe that complementarians misread several key passages from scripture, but I want to end today’s post by returning to Ephesians 5, one of the key passages on which John Piper bases his assertion that men are to lead. This passage begins in verse 21, with the command for Christians to submit to one another, before moving into marriage specifically. Wives are told to submit to their husbands in verse 22, and in verse 25 husbands are told to love their wives as Christ loved the church “and gave himself up for her.”
In the context of mutual submission (verse 21), this verse implies something rather different from top-down leadership. The phrasing of giving oneself up for another obviously refers to Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, but it also evokes another passage: Philippians 2. In this passage, Paul describes how Christ “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (v. 7).
Christ is, by nature and position, superior to the church — he is God, and the church is not. And yet he becomes human because of his love for his people. Similarly, in first-century Rome husbands were considered superior to their wives both legally and by nature. Paul asks husbands in Ephesians 5 to sacrifice their superiority as Christ sacrificed his for the church; he encourages them to love their wives as they love themselves — as equals to themselves.
The analogy with Christ breaks down here, of course, because Paul suggests that men and women are actually equal in the eyes of God. But because men are not superior by nature, they are to imitate Christ and lay down their superior position in mutual submission to their wives. Today, unlike in Paul’s Rome, American men have not held legal superiority in their marriages for several decades. And yet complementarian theology tells husbands to hold on to their superior position, contrary to Paul and America’s legal system.
As I read this Ephesians passage, Paul assumes the equal standing of men and women in the eyes of God, and because of this he directs men to lay down their positional superiority. That is, men are not to be superior to women in position because they are not superior by nature, which means that women ought to be treated as equals rather than relegated to inferior positions. Ephesians 5 talks about marriage specifically, not church leadership. But it establishes that men and women are equal in value while asking men to lay down the superiority granted them by a patriarchal culture.
However, complementarianism argues that men have the superior position, even if not the superior nature. Because this distinction is difficult to maintain, especially in face of pervasive cultural misogyny, women are treated as inferiors and this causes harm to women and the church on a variety of levels. In response, the church needs to actively cultivate an environment in which women are taken seriously and treated as full human beings equal to men both by nature and in the positions they can occupy. Abuse will never be fully eradicated, but a theology that makes women inferior cannot address the conditions in which abuse flourishes.