As I toured a local domestic violence shelter I asked if they find the women and children escaping danger have faith in God or come from certain religious backgrounds. Without batting an eye she commented that one of the largest megachurches in the Dallas area, that happens to be complementarian, had the highest number of women and children coming to their shelter. She casually mentioned it was because of their view on protecting the institution of marriage.
I wasn’t surprised. Countless women attending complementarian churches have confided in me their blow with abuse, violence, and sexual assault. To my dismay, a pattern emerges in their experience—when confronted with the abuse of my sisters, many male leaders choose not to report abuse to authorities. Instead, most of these issues are kept in-house. In extreme cases, women have been encouraged to endure abuse for a time, lovingly submit to win over their husband, or threatened with church discipline at the mention of separation.
By God’s grace I am safe because of the godly complementarian men in my life and on the elder board at my local church. I know what it’s like to have my brothers in my corner. Everyone should feel this safe. But they don’t. Like Rachel Held Evans has said, we have an abuse problem and we need to talk about it.
You’ve got the right convictions.
There is momentum behind the #metoo, #churchtoo, #silenceisnotspiritual movements. As that momentum grows the Church is faced with a reckoning. We cannot just stand by hoping for the best, we must teach and practice the truth. And that starts by taking a good hard look in the mirror and declaring, “This is not us.”
If Rachael Denhollander is right by saying, “the extent that one is willing to speak out against their own community is the bright line test for how much they care and how much they understand,” then here I stand proving that I care and understand. I don’t want to stand alone, and I don’t think I have to.
The last time I checked, complementarians still hold to the belief that:
“At the heart of mature masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for and protect women in ways appropriate to a man’s differing relationship.”
A benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect women.
Perfect, the stage is set for you to show everyone you mean it.
Where It’s Gone Wrong
Choose to care for the married, not just the marriage.
The #metoo and #churchtoo movements have created the kind of comradery that gives the abused confidence to come forward. This is the kind of thing that should cause Christians to praise God for dragging sin from the darkness into the light. But all too frequently, the response from the complementarian church has been to advise more submission from the vulnerable party.
When church leadership chooses to defend the institution of marriage over defending the married person, they are pushing what’s been brought into the light back into the dark. Defending institutions more than the people in them is never the answer. This is not benevolent. If we value marriage over a woman’s life or livelihood, can we even call that biblical?
No. The answer is no. Always no. Hard no.
Pastors and elders, women who agree to complementarian theology are choosing to abide under your care. They are standing in your lobbies saying, “We trust you.” The truth of this choice is that we are at your mercy. That’s okay with us as long as you hold up your end of the bargain.
Remember, getting it half right is still wrong.
Last year a friend’s husband was accused of sexual misconduct, and although the all-male elder board of her complementarian church was lovingly following all of the state mandated reporting measures and caring for the man in question, when I asked an elder who would be checking in on the wife they were silent. The elder then admitted that they “had not thought about that side of the situation.”
That side of the situation?
The elders were meeting with the accused one on one, helping the husband get into counseling, lovingly caring for him. But what about the wife? Who is advocating for her? In this situation, she had been called into an all-male elder meeting with her accused husband sitting right next to her.
Complementarian theology hangs its hat on headship. Headship makes every side your situation, right? So, where did this go wrong?
Without a doubt all kinds of abusers should be confronted and disciplined. Directly addressing abuse with a man is laudable. But when providing support and care for the affected woman remains an afterthought, that is not leadership, provision, or protection for her. In fact, this is dangerous.
My complementarian brothers would do well to learn and remember that all-male elder boards, executive leadership teams, deacons, and staff in our churches and seminaries can create dangerous barriers for women’s voices to be heard, let alone believed or understood.
Benevolence that cares for abused women starts with complementarian leaders in our churches taking a good hard look at their teachings and asking how it may have impacted those in their care.
As male leadership works to proceed with loving-care for abused women, they must do it with the humility and presence of mind to recognize that the power structure almost always leans heavily in the favor of men. On top of that, the narrative of what makes a woman valuable, especially a Christian one, often enforces that power differential.
Male leaders, consider these questions.
If your daughter is in a locked office with Matt Lauer, how will her socialization to submission apply to her situation? How will she feel in a closed door meeting with an all-male elder board?
If your daughter is caught between Weinstein and a hotel door, what have your teachings about pleasing men and her as the weaker vessel taught her to respond in that moment? How will she respond when an all-male leadership asks her to cooperate with their plan if she disagrees with it?
If your daughter is in Andy Savage’s car after a youth event, what will your purity and modesty talks mean to her in that moment? What emotional pain or shame would she bring into an all-male meeting where her unwanted sexual experience is publicly discussed?
Getting It Right
To be benevolent means that a person or group is organized for the purpose of doing good. Complementarian leadership is only benevolent when it’s organized for the purpose of doing good for both men and women. When a complementarian church is benevolent, it isn’t just apparent in a disposition but in their practices of protection, provision, and leadership.
Start with benevolent protection.
Benevolent protection is credited to complementarian churches when their protection begins with their teaching. Treating and proclaiming women as image bearers and siblings in Christ and not objects of seduction or temptation is the foundation for protecting them. Sharifa Stevens reminds us that doing this builds the right kingdom.
There’s nothing holy about the cultural condescension and spiritual laziness that treats women as caricatures of perpetual motherhood, infantilized girls, sexual temptresses, or nagging emasculators. This is actually ample evidence of the fall, not redemption. We don’t need evangelists for the kingdom of this world.
When women are celebrated and not fenced off as possible trouble, it creates a seamless transition for benevolent complementarian churches to clearly call their congregation to responsibility for lack of self-control; that means we should teach everyone that they have faculties and should use them. Boys will not be boys. Locker room talk is never okay. Hitting girls is not a sign of affection. Women are not responsible when a man crosses a line. Ever. Benevolent protection refuses to concede that position.
Commit to benevolent provision.
Benevolent provision is shown in public. Creating a safe place to care for abused women starts before they make themselves known. It starts when you make it known that you are their advocate. Declare to your flock that crimes will be reported, victims will be protected, and power will not be restored to abusers. Help your women understand that there will be no barriers to their safety. If a woman needs to file for a protective order, move out, get a divorce, or report to authorities, it is your duty to advocate for her in each step of the process for as long as they need protection. Benevolent provision is not a secret.
Part of that public proclamation is communicating that your church leadership recognizes that they are not the ultimate authority in all situations of abuse. Beth Moore said it best.
It is imperative that we learn to differentiate between sexual immorality and sexual criminality. Both are sin. Both call for repentance. Both require grace. Both can be forgiven, slates wiped clean, by our merciful God though the cross of Christ. Where church and ministry leaders are concerned, both also call for proper action. But one calls for a different proper action. It calls for the police. While all sexual sin is immoral, not all sexual sin is criminal. There is sexual sin in general. And there is sexual assault in particular. There must be a distinction drawn between the two.
Practice benevolent leadership.
Regardless of protection and provision, the time will come when even when a complementarian church will be met with an instance of abuse. That’s when we look for benevolent leadership.
Benevolent leadership is obvious when the leaders hear of abuse of power and privilege and respond to victims with “I believe you.” Then they open the doors of male elder-led care to qualified godly women leaders to be included in decision making. Just because complementarian elder boards are all-male doesn’t mean they need to be closed door. Bringing in a qualified godly woman to advocate for the female creates a support system for her and, at times, can even be lifesaving. Benevolent male leadership seeks out godly women in their congregation as ezers.
Together with the women they’ve chosen to help them, they report any possible criminal action. They immediately create a safe environment for the abused women and place a community of trusted people in place to support her. They develop a care plan for the abused women that includes making her feel safe to interact in meetings and that minimizes her feelings of shame. She’s an image bearer of God, and they relentlessly treat her as such.
The time is now.
Now is the time for the whole church to find the most effective ways of compassionately leading, providing for, and protecting all women from all forms of abuse. Based on their own definition of biblical manhood, complementarian churches should be the safest churches for women.
Complementarian leaders, I know we can do better. I know you can do better. It’s your time to prove it.
Cover image by Justin Follis.
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