Saturday, September 13, 2014

Complementarianism, Male Headship, and Domestic Violence

Domestic violence has figured prominently in the media this week. Ray Rice, the Oscar Pistorius verdict, and the 20th anniversary of VAWA remind us yet again that many women still endure abuse from their partners.

Two conservative Christians weighed in on domestic abuse this week, condemning violence against women. Unfortunately, they also defended complementarian gender roles and male "headship" over wives, oblivious to how these paradigms imperil women.

First, Russell D. Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, penned a commentary piece on domestic violence at his website. In "The Church and Violence Against Women", he advocated for supporting abused women and holding abusers accountable in both the church and the public sphere.

Moore encouraged believers to tell women in their churches, “A man who hits you has surrendered his headship, and that is the business both of the civil state in enacting public justice and of this church in enacting church discipline.” He called for social and economic justice to help vulnerable women while encouraging collaboration with secular feminists to combat rape culture.
"Church discipline against wife-beaters must be clear and consistent. We must stand with women against predatory men in all areas of abandonment, divorce, and neglect. We must train up men, through godly mentoring as well as through biblical instruction, who will know that the model of a husband is a man who crucifies his selfish materialism, his libidinal fantasies, and his wrathful temper tantrums in order to care lovingly for a wife. We must also remind these young men that every idle word, and every hateful act, will be laid out in judgment before the eyes of the One to whom we must give an answer.

In the public arena, Christians as citizens should be the most insistent on legal protections for women. We should oppose a therapeutic redefinition of wife abuse as merely a psychological condition. And we should call on the powers-that-be to prosecute abusers of women and children in ways that will deter others and make clear society’s repugnance at such abuse."
At first, I was pleased to see a conservative Christian condemning domestic abuse so firmly. As I kept reading, however, I became uncomfortable with Moore's defense of complementarianism. He claimed that abuse does not spring from "over-enthusiastic" complementarianism, reluctant to believe that male "headship" and rigid gender roles could play a role in abuse. He also warns readers against embracing a caricatured "gender-neutral feminism".
"An abusive man is not an over-enthusiastic complementarian. He is not a complementarian at all. He is rejecting male headship because he rejecting his role as provider and protector. As the culture grows more violent, more consumerist, more sexualized and more misogynistic, the answer is not a church more attenuated to the ambient culture, whether through a hyper-masculine paganism or through a gender-neutral feminism."
What Moore fails to realize is that domestic abuse will end only when society achieves true gender equality. A paradigm that gives men arbitrary power over women renders women vulnerable to mistreatment, whether he wants to acknowledge it or not. While Moore's heart is in the right place, he is so invested in the male headship paradigm that he refuses to jettison it for the greater good.

Similarly, John Piper discusses domestic abuse and complementarianism in a September 11th transcript of his "Ask Pastor John" podcast. He devotes much of his monologue to vaguely defining and sugar-coating complementarianism, as well as the male "headship" paradigm.
"Complementarians say men and women are different in deep and important ways, not just physical and surface ways, and that these differences God has designed, for our good, have profound influence on the way we relate to each other and what roles God wants us to take up ... This means that complementarians don’t think all the roles defined for us are based merely on competencies. So in a relationship you don’t just ask: Who is smarter? Or more articulate? Or physically stronger? Or faster? Or a better reader? Or neater? And so on. You ask, more significantly and more fundamentally: Is the man as man, created by God with a built-in deep sense — an inclination, a disposition, something deeper than cultural, deeper than societal, deeper than upbringing — a sense of responsibility deep in his soul to nurture and provide for and protect and take life-giving initiatives with the women in his life?

Complementarians answer that question yes. Man — as God created him, not as sin has distorted us, but man as man — senses deep in his masculine soul, “It is my special responsibility to show special care for and provide for and protect and be hope-giving and life-enhancing and woman-ennobling in the initiatives that I take in relation to the women in my life” (knowing this will look different from one relationship to the other, say, to the woman who brings the mail to the house or the bank teller or the woman police officer or his wife or his daughter or his mother)."
Piper insists that through these arbitrary gender roles, men offer "protection and care and vision" to women. He criticized Ray Rice for failing to do so.
"The complementarian says to Ray Rice, and every other man: Your manhood, as God designed you, and as Jesus Christ the Son of God can remake you through a faith relationship with him, means conquering your selfish impulses with the realization that real men don’t hit women. Real men protect women. Real men don’t use women to provide for their appetites. Real men use their strength to provide for a woman’s good. Real men are not led by the leash of their temper. Real men master their temper and lead women out of harm, not into it."
Piper ignores the fact giving men arbitrary authority over their wives is unfair, unethical, and potentially harmful. This arrangement takes agency away from wives, mutes their voices, and allows husbands to make decisions for them, all while arguing that these hierarchical roles are hard-wired in men and women. As much as Piper sugar-coats it, this paradigm is toxic.

While complementarianism and the male headship paradigm do not cause domestic violence per se, they do create an environment that renders women vulnerable to abuse. Women are commanded to submit to their husbands, so when a relationship becomes unhealthy, it can be difficult for the woman to undo the conditioning and escape. By dissolving healthy boundaries between husbands and wives, male headship sets the stage for the boundary violations that characterize domestic abuse. In real life, any belief system that gives men unchecked power over women and values men's voices over women's will put women at a disadvantage. Domestic abuse springs from the belief that a man is entitled to control his wife/girlfriend, so we need to look hard at these parallels.

Also, remember that domestic abuse is about power and control. Physical violence is but one of the forms that domination can take. As the power and control wheel reminds us, abuse can take the form of exploiting male privilege, economic domination, and isolation. Even if a husband never strikes his wife, if he makes all the major decisions, controls the household finances, prevents his wife from seeking employment, and tells her what she can and can't do -- all of which could be justified under male headship -- how is this not abusive?

Instead of clinging to a misogynist paradigm for marriage, people like Moore and Piper should embrace an egalitarian vision of relationships. Equality and mutual respect, not dominance and submission, are the basis of healthy relationships. If we truly want to end domestic violence, we must resist patriarchy and promote an egalitarian world.

Many thanks to Joan for bringing the Moore and Piper commentary pieces to my attention.

For additional commentary on domestic violence, visit the following links.

Religion Dispatches: Biblical Battered Wife Syndrome: Christian Women and Domestic Violence

Love, Joy, Feminism: Just Obey: Christian Patriarchy as Spiritual Abuse

Love, Joy, Feminism: That’s Some Accountability You’ve Got There

Rhymes with Religion: #WhyIStayed: How some churches support spousal abuse 


  1. For years the Mormon temple ceremony included a part where women vowed to obey their husbands. Then around15-20 years ago the wording changed to "obey your husband as he obeys God." -- In an obvious attempt to lean toward gender equality. Only, as you point out, if the man's still in charge, there can be no equality. In fact, in the Mormon case, I've heard the "as he obeys God" line used as an argument against the woman.--She should have known better than to stay with a guy who doesn't obey… Well, you get it.

    1. Donna -- The problem is, adding the "as he obeys God" line doesn't really fix anything. It's still a system in which men dominate women without any accountability. Imploring men to be pious doesn't make the whole thing any less unfair, or any less prone to abuse.

  2. the model of a husband is a man who crucifies his selfish materialism, his libidinal fantasies, and his wrathful temper tantrums in order to care lovingly for a wife.

    I know there's plenty else wrong here, but somebody needs to call these people out on putting "libidinal fantasies" in the same category as violence, as if having libidinal thoughts about one's wife were somehow improper. I suppose he thinks women don't have libidinal fantasies.

    As the culture grows more violent, more consumerist, more sexualized and more misogynistic,

    Historically, violence and misogyny are correlated with sexual repression, not sexualization. George Orwell in 1984 had some very on-target insights into how this works.

    1. Infidel -- That whole part about "consumerist", "sexualized" culture was a way to distract people from the misogyny in complementarianism. "Over there! All the sexism and violence are over there! With the enemy! Not over here!"

  3. As you pointed out Ahab, the most fundamental requirement for any healthy relationship is mutual respect. The concept of male headship kicks that requirement to the curb from the outset.

    1. Agi Tater -- It baffles me when "male headship" enthusiasts try to square the circle and claim that headship is somehow compatible with healthy relationships. It's not. It's disrespectful to women and creates toxic power imbalances.

  4. Back when my husband and I were active in the LDS church, I was your typical very obedient submissive wife. My husband would always say things like "you're my equal," which is very liberal thinking for an LDS man. Its his example and his respect for me that we can raise another good man- raising our son.

    I watch many female family members who completely submit to their husbands, while raising daughters to do the same. Unfortunately this issue will continue on and on and on.

    1. Heather -- I hope those daughters recognize their own worth and find their voices. No woman should have to live in submission.


All comments are subject to moderation. Threatening, violent, or bigoted comments will not be published.