“Please don’t tell my husband I said anything. These men think they can bully women into submission.”
I hear statements like this from Christian women in complementarian marriages quite often. But while many of these women are aware of the weight they bear, they choose to remain in obedience and service to their husbands.
Other women consider it an honor to take part in male-dominated hierarchies. Like the wives of Gilead in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, they accept their role, look the other way, and respond to whatever their husband decides with, “Praise be.” Some of them may even be allowed to write articles or books for conservative evangelical media outlets to support the power of men.
But many Christian women have an intuition that something is not right in their marriages, even though they may not be able to put a finger on what it is or know how to respond to the theology supporting it.
So one of the most significant challenges Christian women face today is recognizing and dealing with the abuse they experience.
Domestic Violence Awareness Month
In October 1981, the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence began the “Day of Unity” to bring together abuse victim advocates from across the country. As it evolved into a week of events, it garnered national attention. In October 1987, it became a monthlong focus. And then in October 1989, the U.S. Congress officially designated October as National Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
“One in three women and one in four men have been physically abused by an intimate partner.”
According to the National Child Traumatic Stress Network, “One in three women and one in four men have been physically abused by an intimate partner.” If that many women are suffering physical abuse, imagine how many are dealing with emotional or spiritual abuse that has been sacralized by theology.
Sacralizing male dominated hierarchies
The difficulty in recognizing domestic violence in Christian marriages is due to how it comes clothed in language about Christ and the church. Complementarian men are compared to Christ, while women play the role of the church who obeys and serves Christ.
Of course, they can claim the men must love their wives in accordance with Ephesians 5. But they fail to see how the Ephesians 5 household codes of husbands and wives, fathers and children, masters and slaves were culturally situated hierarchy shells discussed within the Greco-Roman empire — codes the author of Ephesians was deconstructing and opening up toward mutual submission and love.
Instead, today’s complementarians use the gospel to position women in a lower place of authority, autonomy and opportunity simply based on their identity as women.
Sarah McDugal is an author, coach and abuse survivor who helps Christian women identify and deal with systemic abuse in their marriages. She has created a free chart and crash course for Domestic Violence Awareness Month that helps Christian women recognize the red flags of abuse.
In an interview with Baptist News Global, McDugal gave her three-pronged definition of abuse as:
- A mindset of entitlement to coercion.
- A system of beliefs that allow power to limit liberty.
- A pattern of behaviors that harm or exploit.
When we compare gender hierarchies to McDugal’s definition of abuse, we see that complementarianism is:
- A mindset of entitlement where men are obeyed and served by women.
- A system of beliefs that allow men the power to limit and determine what women are permitted to do.
- A pattern of behaviors that harm and exploit women by lowering their identity and controlling what they can do.
“There is no healthy complementarianism.”
There is no healthy complementarianism. It is by definition an entitlement-based, power-driven exploitation of women simply because they’re women.
Identifying as a Christian woman
John Piper, founder and teacher for the conservative evangelical Calvinist, complementarian organizations Desiring God and The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, said in 2015 that women are made to be the helpers and servants of men regardless of their marital status: “Gender alone — that is, our sexual maleness or femaleness alone — is an essential part of our God-given identity, whether we’re married or not.”
While admitting he is “an absolute dinosaur when … speaking these things,” he proclaimed that “it would be hard for me to see how a woman could be a drill sergeant — ‘hut two, right face, left face, keep your mouth shut, private’ — over men without violating their sense of manhood and her sense of womanhood.” He went on to say he doesn’t think women could serve as police officers or as managers in the workplace over men “without compromising profound biblical and psychological issues.”
What peer-reviewed research has Piper done in order to back his scientific claims about gender hierarchies? In 2018, he said: “Just go to YouTube and type in almost anything, like, “Are men and women different?” Or, “What’s the difference between men’s and women’s brains?” You’ll get all kinds of amazing documented research about how different men and women are in their very biological, psychological natures.”
“In Christianity, the baseline conditioning to girls and women is to be nice, be forgiving, be long suffering, be patient.”
Despite this “amazing documented research” Piper has done on YouTube, McDugal recognizes the identity crises that men like Piper are putting Christian women into. She explained: “In Christianity, the baseline conditioning to girls and women is to be nice, be forgiving, be long suffering, be patient.”
A conditioned awareness
Women who see reality through the lens of male-dominated hierarchies are conditioned by their framework not to recognize how unhealthy their relationships are.
“Women are conditioned by society — whether secular or religious — to expect him to make demands of her that are unfamiliar at best and frightening at worst,” McDugal explains. “The cultural and religious framework in which she is immersed has taught her she exists for male pleasure and that her primary value is rooted in being sexually desirable to him, making him comfortable and keeping their children out of his way.”
Because the identity of complementarian Christian women is one of helper and obedient servant, their role is structured to support the calling and dreams of men. According to McDugal, “She generally views the world in terms of his success, not ‘their’ success, and she may find herself suppressing her own creative capabilities in favor of making sure he gets to pursue his.”
What is said and unsaid
The fallout from complementarianism’s conditioned awareness is that domestic violence can show up both in terms of what is said and unsaid in a marriage.
McDugal noted: “The surrounding culture has instilled in her an expectation that women must always act with love, joyfulness, peacefulness, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness or self-discipline — even when she is suffering harm, feeling hurt, or experiencing justified outrage.”
In addition to domestic violence appearing in the words men say to their wives, it also appears in the way women feel they cannot give voice to the harm, hurt and justified outrage they are experiencing.
“She has been conditioned to view feminine success as self-erasing, sacrificial, subjugated and, quite honestly, second best,” McDugal explained.
Not only are these women silenced regarding their hurt, but also regarding their desires. In McDugal’s “Is It Abuse?” course, she gives examples of comments these women often make. One common statement is: “My husband would never let me do xyz.” Such a remark signals an unspoken desire that’s probably left unsaid due to other words the husband has said.
Fighting culture wars or finding communal love
When Kevin DeYoung declared at The Gospel Coalition in 2020 that “the future belongs to the fecund,” he announced a new “culture war strategy conservative Christians should get behind: Have more children and disciple them like crazy. Strongly consider having more children than you think you can handle. … Tote your brood of children through Target. There is almost nothing more counter-cultural than having more children.”
These men bloviate about marriage as being between one man and one woman for life as a picture of the gospel. But they’re actually taking marriage in vain as a culture war strategy and subjugating the gospel as its recruitment pitch. And where do women fit into this picture? They’re the ones who have all the risk and pain of carrying and bearing children and toting them through Target, while the men get to have sex and then go pursue their dreams.
“Men who exhibit the Fruit of the Spirit — men who are loving, peaceful, patient, good, kind, gentle, faithful, self-regulated — are mocked by the ‘manly men’ as some sort of effeminate aberration.”
When I’ve written against these men, the response from the TheoBros has been to mock me for being a stay-at-home dad, a weak man, a loser, as effeminate due to my long hair. McDugal echoed my experience, saying: “Men who exhibit the Fruit of the Spirit — men who are loving, peaceful, patient, good, kind, gentle, faithful, self-regulated — are mocked by the ‘manly men’ as some sort of effeminate aberration.”
With communal love being co-opted by a politically conservative culture war, Christians think they’re being defined by orthodox theology when in reality they’re being defined by the culture.
McDugal gave one example, noting: “It isn’t just the conservative church leaders who propagate this, although they certainly do. Dennis Prager just released a video this week, telling women to ‘thank their husbands for being faithful’ because it’s ‘much harder for men’ because men are naturally wired to ‘want a variety of women.’ So, if he’s faithful, that’s hard on him, and you need to be grateful for his great sacrifice in honoring the most basic of your marriage vows.”
Not only are these women taught that they are lower on a hierarchy, they also are told within the context of common evangelical teaching to question themselves, to suspect themselves, to distrust themselves. So it is natural that they wouldn’t know how to love themselves.
The domestic violence of seeing marriage as a culture war rather than as communal love is that women are disconnected and exiled from themselves and their partners.
Disconnection and exile
The splintering of self and community leads to a disconnected and isolated experience of reality. McDugal said: “We tend to survive difficult situations by handling them one by one. We suppress or minimize things that happen, in order to deal with the trauma and keep going forward.”
“They’re gaslighted into compliance by the very belief systems that have created the space for abuse to thrive in the first place.”
“When abused spouses are told to forgive each instance of painful mistreatment and ‘not dredge up the past,’ they are being trained in blindness toward the patterns of repeated systemic abusive behavior. Once victims begin tracking the patterns — journaling, documenting, etc. — they begin to see that this isn’t changing. It isn’t a one-off bad day. It’s an ongoing pattern of repeated and harmful behaviors. It’s the actual character of their partner, not a rarity or an anomaly. Of course, when they bring this up, they’re promptly told to stop being bitter and stop focusing on the past. So they’re gaslighted into compliance by the very belief systems that have created the space for abuse to thrive in the first place.”
Is it abuse?
In her free mini-course titled “Is It Abuse? Recognizing Red Flags,” McDugal helps women examine and recognize patterns of abuse related to their beliefs and multiple contexts of life.
Domestic Violence Awareness Month should be an opportunity for all of us to grow in our awareness of how women are physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually abused. But it’s also important for Christians to begin seeing gender-power dynamics not as something Spirit-filled Christians can disagree with, but as sacralized domestic violence.
When we consider this month how theology has shaped the identity of Christian women and has conditioned them into being silent while they are delegated as baby-bearing soldiers in a male-dominated culture war that disconnects them from themselves and from their partners, McDugal asks, “Is it any wonder that women generally don’t have the tools to identify their abuse?”
Rick Pidcock is a 2004 graduate of Bob Jones University, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Bible. He’s a freelance writer based in South Carolina and a former Clemons Fellow with BNG. He recently completed a Master of Arts degree in worship from Northern Seminary. He is a stay-at-home father of five children and produces music under the artist name Provoke Wonder. Follow his blog at www.rickpidcock.com.
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