There’s no need to debate complementarianism or egalitarianism when it comes to marriage, says Nancy Pearcey, as she promotes her new book The Toxic War on Masculinity.
Conservative, churchgoing men do best, she claims — and complementarians do as well as egalitarians. In fact, she claims, “The happiest of all wives in America are religious conservatives … who hold conservative gender values and attend religious services regularly with their husbands.”
In her book, Pearcey beautifully describes Jesus’ ministry and care for women and she shows deep concerns with issues of abuse. She calls men to more — to live out Jesus’ calling in their families and cast away the ideas of masculinity that are holding men back from abundant life.
However, she also follows a long line of pastors and writers bragging about complementarian men’s successful outcomes, from Texas Southern Baptist megachurch pastor Josh Howerton writing in The Gospel Coalition that conservative evangelicals like him have the best marriages, or 9Marks, a complementarian organization, claiming complementarian men make the best husbands.
Should complementarians be patting themselves on the back? Let’s take an in-depth look at the data.
How do we define a complementarian?
Multiple researchers over the last few decades have run into a conundrum when studying complementarians: Asking survey questions based on beliefs won’t paint an accurate picture, because the vast majority who claim to believe complementarianism don’t actually act out its tenets.
Let’s say a researcher wanted to study the effects of spanking on kids. Would it be wise to study everyone who believes spanking is an appropriate discipline technique? Or would it be better to look at those who actually spank? Parents can believe spanking is OK while also choosing not to spank their own kids. To accurately measure the effect of spanking, you need to measure actions, not just beliefs.
Measuring the effects of complementarianism similarly requires studying those who actually live out complementarianism’s tenets, not those who merely give lip service to it.
Sally Gallagher’s Evangelical Identity and Gendered Family Life was a ground-breaking academic sociological study examining the interplay between belief in male headship and the lived reality of evangelical families. Gallagher found while the majority of survey respondents (68.11%) affirmed male headship, her interviews with couples revealed they almost universally practiced “pragmatic egalitarianism.” For most people, claiming male headship was a way to signal “we do marriage differently than the world” more than it was a way to actually do marriage differently. It was an identity statement with little practical implication.
Pearcey acknowledges this trend, stating, “Committed conservative Christian couples use the traditional rhetoric of male headship, yet in practice these men fit the close, relational model favored by progressives.” If most who claim male headship actually practice mutuality, then we can’t measure complementarianism’s outcomes merely by asking people if they believe in male headship.
Which actions can we measure to identify complementarianism?
Judging the fruit of complementarianism necessitates measuring what distinguishes complementarianism from other ways of doing marriage. For instance, some complementarians may say their main marriage belief is that husbands should sacrificially love their wives as Christ loved the church. However, this isn’t unique to complementarianism. Egalitarians also strive for that level of love.
“One can act out traditional gender roles without believing in male headship.”
What about women staying at home with their kids while the husband is the main breadwinner? Again, egalitarian families also arrange life like this in large numbers. One can act out traditional gender roles without believing in male headship.
To parse out the effects of complementarianism we have to examine the non-negotiable, specific tenets unique to its belief system.
The Danvers Statement, published in 1988 at the inception of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, attempts to codify complementarianism and has been adopted by many Southern Baptist Convention seminaries, the Presbyterian Church in America, and multiple other organizations. It asserts marriage is characterized by a husband’s authority and leadership and a wife’s willing submission. Emerson Eggerichs, whose Love & Respect has become the best-selling complementarian marriage book, advocates for marital hierarchy based on a husband’s authority, where he gets the tie-breaking 51% of the vote. Widely respected late pastor Tim Keller wrote in his book The Meaning of Marriage that the husband is to “have ultimate responsibility and authority in the family.”
Egalitarians, on the other hand, explicitly reject the idea of marriage as a hierarchical relationship, instead asserting, “The Bible teaches that husbands and wives are…bound together in a relationship of mutual submission and responsibility.”
Ascribing authority and responsibility to the husband is what definitively differentiates complementarians from egalitarians — and thankfully this we can actually measure. We can test what happens to marital outcomes when husbands hold that tie-breaking vote when the couple can’t agree.
The 1996 Religious Identity and Influence Survey demonstrated that beliefs in male headship made it more likely the husband would make the final decision and less likely they would practice egalitarian decision-making. When a wife believes in a husband’s authority over her, she is twice as likely to report typically giving in during disagreements with her husband.
“When a wife believes in a husband’s authority over her, she is twice as likely to report typically giving in during disagreements with her husband.”
In our survey of 20,000 predominantly evangelical women for The Great Sex Rescue, we attempted to update the 1996 RIIS and found similar trends: Only 27.8% of women who believe in male headship act it out, but even though few actually practice it, the belief in male headship still makes practicing it more likely. Just as in the 1996 RIIS, we found when women believe in male headship, they are 3.14 times more likely to give him that tie breaking vote.
What happens when men do make that final decision, even if they consult with their wives first? Couples who acted out male unilateral decision-making were 2.6 times more likely to have below average marital satisfaction when compared to those who practiced collaborative decision-making. Perhaps not surprisingly, their chance of divorce also increased 7.4 times.
Our data lined up with those of the world-renowned Gottman Institute. John Gottman concludes: “Statistically speaking, when a man is not willing to share power with his partner, there is an 81% chance that his marriage will self-destruct.” He further concluded: “We did find that the happiest, most stable marriages in the long run were those in which the husband did not resist sharing power and decision-making with the wife. When the couple disagreed, these husbands actively searched for common ground rather than insisting on getting their way.”
Nancy Pearcey pulls findings from the same chapter in Gottman’s work, citing his conclusion that in both egalitarian and hierarchical marriages “emotionally intelligent husbands have figured out the one big thing: how to convey honor and respect.” Thus, she claims, labels don’t matter.
“Complementarian men only do well when they don’t act out hierarchy and put aside their beliefs.”
However, she omits to mention the big finding Gottman uses to frame this entire chapter: Complementarian men only do well when they don’t act out hierarchy and put aside their beliefs. You can’t claim beliefs in complementarianism are irrelevant by quoting someone who found acting out those beliefs is disastrous.
Turning to sexual satisfaction, we see similar disturbing trends when people act out hierarchy. Overall, our research for The Great Sex Rescue uncovered a 47-point orgasm gap between evangelical men and women (where 95% of men almost always/always orgasm in a sexual encounter, while only about 48% of women do). When we look at how acting out hierarchy affects orgasm rates, though, the gap increases.
- 51.7% of women who act out egalitarianism almost always/always orgasm (giving a 43-point gap).
- 40.2% of women who act out complementarianism almost always/always orgasm (giving a 55-point gap).
What about women who never reach orgasm?
- 10% of women who practice egalitarianism have anorgasmia.
- 16.7% of women who live out male authority have anorgasmia.
Zeroing in on the lived-out effects of complementarianism’s distinctives shows a disturbing picture of a belief system that works only if one doesn’t practice it.
Beware complementarianism’s rose-colored glasses
The IFS study cited by Howerton also suggested another danger in concluding conservative or complementarian Christians fare best: The “rose-colored glasses” phenomenon. The report’s authors posit: “It is possible that simply being married is more important to highly religious women, which may raise their satisfaction ratings. They may be more likely to look at their relationship through a rose-colored lens.”
In our study of 20,000 women, we attempted to overcome the “rose-colored glasses” effect by using both objective and subjective measures when possible and by looking not just at global measures of satisfaction (how happy are you with your marriage?”), but also specific ones (“In arguments with my spouse, I feel heard”).
“While complementarian women were more likely to rate their overall satisfaction highly, when you asked them about individual markers of satisfaction, things didn’t look as rosy.”
We contrasted those who strongly agreed that marriage should not have a hierarchy (egalitarian) and those who strongly disagreed (complementarian). Complementarian beliefs were correlated with 33% higher odds of having above average global marital satisfaction but also correlated with 35% higher odds of having below average specific marital satisfaction. While complementarian women were more likely to rate their overall satisfaction highly, when you asked them about individual markers of satisfaction, things didn’t look as rosy.
Those rose-colored glasses are present in the bedroom, too. When we look only at women who never reach orgasm, for instance, they are 22% more likely to say they’re satisfied with their orgasm frequency if they also believe in hierarchy in marriage compared with women who believe marriage should be equal.
The more one believes in hierarchy, the larger the “rose-colored glasses” effect — which is fine if you want couples to have a cheery outlook regardless, but rather problematic if you want to claim women who put themselves under a husband’s authority have objectively better marriages and sex lives.
It shouldn’t be considered a success that women who believe in hierarchy don’t think they deserve to orgasm or don’t mind as much if their marriages are objectively worse.
What can we conclude about Christians and marital outcomes?
Committed churchgoers who believe in Jesus definitively do better on the vast majority of measures than both the general population and casual churchgoers. That is good news.
However, we must not claim this means complementarians do better, because the data not only don’t support that conclusion. They actually warrant the opposite conclusion.
Regular, committed churchgoers who act out complementarianism do worse than those who act out egalitarianism, whether they claim to be complementarian or not.
We agree with Nancy Pearcey that it’s a relief that most who believe in hierarchy actually model the “close, relational model” promoted by egalitarians. But claiming complementarians in name only who act out egalitarianism do well is hardly a ringing endorsement for complementarian men.
We can’t declare the complementarian/egalitarian debate “worn out” by measuring what happens when people don’t act out their theology. We have to grapple with what happens when they do.
It’s time for complementarianism’s practitioners to stop claiming success they didn’t earn. Instead of riding on the coattails of those who follow Jesus’ words about living a life of service rather than focusing on power and authority, research shows complementarians really ought to join them.
Sheila Wray Gregoire and Joanna Sawatsky are the co-authors, together with Rebecca Lindenbach, of The Great Sex Rescue and She Deserves Better. Together, they have surveyed more than 32,000 people to discover how evangelical teachings affect marital and sexual satisfaction. Find their work at Bare Marriage.
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