There is a challenge which I believe is incumbent on every complementarian leader in the church, to address: the torrent of revelations of the abuse of women by leaders in the church—in my denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America specifically, but in complementarian evangelicalism in general. It is your responsibility because you profess that within your complementarianism you hold a high view of women. According to your doctrine, men should be protecting women. And yet we see the same story re-enacted ad nauseum, as though from the same script: women find themselves abused by one leader and abandoned, or worse, blamed, persecuted, slandered, ridiculed, and shamed by adjacent leaders, while the abuser is protected, honored, and lauded with standing ovations (this is not a metaphor).
It is your responsibility because the church of Jesus Christ is being discredited by this pattern of abuse and cover-ups, as is his Word, on which your doctrine rests. If you care about the purity and peace of the church, and the witness of the church, you must vindicate this belief in complementarianism, not just by word, but in deed. It is not enough to have an airtight theoretical and theological case. You must demonstrate that complementarianism is actually not harmful and dangerous to women. Even if you are behaving well in your own church, your silence about abuse in other churches is supplying tacit approval and enabling of their abuse.
Here are some broad questions that need decisive answers in the local church as well as in our denomination:
- How will you make sure the abuse of women is prevented?
- How will you make sure if abuse does occur, women are protected after it is revealed?
- How will you prevent pastors from circling the wagons to protect themselves and their institutions rather than protecting their sheep?
If you intend to take up the responsibility to honor, protect, and reassure the women in your care, here are some issues you will need to wrestle with in the context of life in the church.
Missing the significance of the power differential
Men are more powerful than women in the church in at least two ways. First, physically. Second, by virtue of their lock on leadership, authority, and decision-making. Women are disadvantaged and at the mercy of the men in power. I hope you are not choking on the use of the word “power.” This is a fact that is quite independent of any association with critical theory.
Since you are in a position of power, you do not have the opportunity to experience the position of weakness (at least in this particular environment). The only way you can gain comprehension is through revelation—that is, from women. You need to hear from women the impact it has on their psyche, their souls, their self-concept, and their continual calculation of what to say and how to say it.
Misplaced emphasis on differences between men and women
One hallmark of complementarianism is an emphasis on the distinctions between men and women. I want you to hear me when I affirm that differences between men in general and women in general exist and are important. But it puzzles me when complementarians ground so many of their arguments in these differences and totally pass over the prior reality, right in the first chapter of Genesis. In Genesis 1:28, God speaks just as directly to the woman as he does to the man when he says, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground." Their ontology, their spheres, and their callings are identical. The distinctions come later, as those identical natures are expressed through bodies which mediate them through anatomical, hormonal, and neurological differences.
Arguments for male leadership which are grounded in the differences between the sexes tend to value men’s general characteristics above women’s. It is a natural progression to assume that if men are called to lead, then there must be something about them that makes them better leaders, and if better leaders, then better human beings, at least within the sphere of the church. I know when you read these words, you are objecting strenuously in your mind that you absolutely do not think men are superior to women! But left to human inclinations, that is the natural path to which such circumstances lead unless consciously and actively resisted.
It leads to a very subtle and surely unintentional, but nonetheless potent, form of misogyny. Rather than women being seen as fully competent allies in ministries of Word and works (excluding eldership), they begin to be honored only within the spheres to which they are relegated, mostly related to the home and children. If a woman does aspire to interact with men on more intellectual and theological issues, she is often viewed as a nuisance, a novelty, or a threat to church order. She has been moved from the category of powerful ally (ezer) to the category of suspect motivations or even of enemy.
These mistakes lead to a change in the conceptualization of male leadership. Rather than understanding themselves as shepherds and protectors of the sheep, leaders become keepers of power whose task it is to ward off those females who want to share it (still speaking in terms of everything but eldership). When an enemy approaches, supposedly in peace, what is a normal reaction? It is to be guarded, on alert for ulterior motives, for traps, for a sneak attack. That is why the attitude of men in leadership is so crucial. It becomes the lens through which they hear everything that comes out of a woman’s mouth.
If women are seen as suspect, or as enemies, it is easy to justify whatever you need to do to protect yourselves and the power you keep from their “attacks.” The fruit of this progression in thinking and leadership is seen in the abuse and cover-ups we started with.
The insufficiency of male-only perspectives
When we have arrived at the end of the progression described above, it is an absolute travesty of what God planned for men and women. Genesis 1 and 2 reveal God’s plan for a powerful, fruitful partnership between men and women. God stated that man was incomplete and in need of a powerful helper. Humans have twisted that vision into one of males having a grand purpose and women serving men to make their pursuit of that purpose more convenient. Without seeking a female perspective, men are wasting the greatest resource God provided for them.
Underestimating the differences between men and women
So, yes, in addition to over-emphasizing the differences between men and women, there is also a danger in under-emphasizing them. And if you are not regularly seeking a female perspective, you don’t know what you don’t know. You have on male blinders. You didn’t choose them. They are standard equipment (just as we all have various experience-based blinders). But you do have a very effective way to remove those blinders, expand your vision, and strengthen your calling and ministry.
Your sisters are ready, willing and able to help.
Amen Sister! You have done a marvelous job of identifying the weakness of the complementarian system as practiced in churches that adhere to this belief. Male leaders must address and correct these issues but I am not sure that is possible in a structure with such a power imbalance. Without power or real input, women are merely voices crying in the wilderness.
May I quote you?