When We Can't Agree to Disagree

The idea that men and women are created differently, in ways that complement each other, sounds okay. But often, this "equal but different" thinking results in a hierarchy that can lead to distortions of truth, or even emotional and physical abuse.

For years, I thought that as with many theological side issues, sincere Christians can agree to disagree when it comes to gender roles. Some churches let women lead and teach the whole congregation, others interpret the Bible to say that women can only lead and teach other women, and in some cases, there are limits beyond even that. (I've heard of one church that doesn't allow a woman to be the head of women's ministries.)

I disagreed with this view, known as Complementarianism, but I figured, well, if that's how they roll, then okay. But now, I'm starting to change my mind: often, it is not okay. Because if you take Complementarianism to the extreme, it becomes destructive.

Last week I received an e-mail linking to a news story that alleges that Saddleback Church in California counseled a woman to stay in an abusive marriage and also scolded her for "gossiping" about her marriage when she tried to ask for help (this story was all over Twitter and Facebook this week too). Saddleback (led by Purpose-Driven pastor Rick Warren) teaches Complementarianism—the wife must submit to her husband and that divorce in this instance is not an option.

For the record, Saddleback pastor Tom Holladay told GFL he could not reveal specifics of confidential pastoral counseling, but that Saddleback always counsel a woman (or man) in an abusive situation to leave and find a place of safety. They would, however, urge couples to get counseling and try to reconcile.

In the family, Complementarianism plays out like this: the man is the head of the household, and the ultimate authority. They cite Ephesians 5:22, which says that a wife must submit to her husband, and the husband should love his wife. The woman must submit to that authority, which comes with the man's protection and provision. There are plenty of women who obviously want protection and provision.

They conclude that the husband is the head of the family. I cannot find a verse in scripture that says a man is supposed to be the head of the family. What the Bible says is that the relationship between a man and his wife is like a head and a body.

Egalitarians (the opposite of Complementarian) like myself see the head and body analogy is an illustration of the unity, or oneness that God intended in creation. A husband and wife need to be a team, like a head and a body. A body needs the head, the head needs the body. We cite the same biblical passage, but we look at the wider context, starting with verse 21: "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (emphasis mine). While someone (likely not a female translator) put a subhead right after verse 21, in the original text there were no subheads. So the next verses explain mutual submission—wives, submit to your husbands, and husbands, love your wives. Paul is talking about unity and oneness. He concludes his teaching with a reminder of the oneness theme, and mutual nature of submission: "each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband" (Eph. 5:33).

August 07, 2009 at 6:36 PM

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