Does the Complementarian Marriage Model Contradict Itself?

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Imagine sitting through lectures, receiving critical education, and the only way to pass the class is by not following the core principles being taught.  

In the real world, how long would that subject be taught its current form?  

The self-contradiction within a complementarian marriage is that a marriage is only good when couples don’t follow complementarian instructions. Complementarian couples are healthy when they are functionally egalitarian (function as equals.) 

self-contradiction within a complementarian marriage

That’s what research found (also my own marriage experience.) Christian couples who say the husband holds decision-making power in marriage, who are healthy, actually don’t have the husband operating as a decision-maker/leader. 

In the most extensive research on marital satisfaction for evangelical women to date, Bare Marriage surveyed over 20,000 women and found that while 62.2% of the survey respondents agreed that a Christian wife submitting to her husband’s leadership is one of the best ways she can love him (39.4% of the respondents believed that the husband should have decision-making power), 78.9% of those marriages functioned without a tiebreaker.

The couples either made decisions together or refrained from deciding if they didn’t agree.

Healthy complementarian couples will say one thing (the husband has more power, he makes the final decision) but do another thing entirely: submit to each other, work together as a team. It’s what my husband and I practiced for most of our 15 years of marriage. (We have since changed and aligned our words with our actual reality.)

The Self-Contradiction Within a Complementarian Marriage: Aligning to Reality

I think it’s time we accepted that ALL the caveats in the world won’t help when the concept being presented is bad.

In the end, it’s not caveats that are needed. It’s a complete excision of the diseased concept and replacement with something healthier. You can dress it up, put lipstick on it, add a wig and fancy hat, but it’s still a duck.

The truth is, complementarianism doesn’t work as taught. When it does “work” as taught, it harms. Those who try to make complementarianism work in their marriages end up harming/harmed. 

“In marriages with collaborative decision-making, women are almost three times more likely to feel heard during arguments. But when women don’t feel heard, and instead feel as if their opinions are not as important as their husbands, their marriages are twenty-six times more likely to end in divorce. Twenty-six times. That may be why we found that the risk of divorce skyrockets in marriages in which the husband is the one who ultimately makes the decisions, even if he consults his wife on them.. When we set up marriages where a husband has decision-making power, we create marriages in which his opinions, by definition, matter more than hers.” From The Great Sex Rescue: The Lies You’ve Been Taught and How to Recover What God Intended (Aff)

You might be wondering why this article

Yesterday, I read an article defending complementarianism, among other things. (I mean, the article is a lot. There’s a lot to talk about but I picked one topic.)

The article in question is a review of a new book, The Toxic War on Masculinity: How Christianity Reconciles the Sexes by Nancy Pearce.1 I haven’t read the book so this post is in response to the review article titled “Debunking the Bad Rap Against Evangelical Men,” by Shaunti Feldhahn, not to the book itself.

Here’s what I shared with some advocate friends after reading the article yesterday. 

“I don’t think anyone is saying ALL evangelical men are horrible..yet that’s the premise being “responded” to (in the article) as far as I can tell. And that approach seems to be a perfect way to avoid dealing with the nitty gritties of the actual terrible ones..the ones who are churchgoers and check all the boxes but are awful character wise. Also marriages can be reported as happy but when that “health” is held up close, it’s far from healthy. Also (as Sheila and Rebecca were pushing back on Twitter coupla weeks back) we can’t keep pedestaling a fundamentally flawed model of Marriage…”

The article is on Shaunti’s website. I won’t link it here, but you can search the title Debunking the Bad Rap Against Evangelical Men on Google/other search engines.

I know changing one’s approach to marriage requires overhauling a belief system. Because the “man is the head,” viewpoint didn’t come alone: it’s often part of a larger ecosystem. I know this because changing my thoughts around marriage involved overhauling the core ecosystem (the core belief system) not just parts of it.

So it’s not easy to explore or change what we’ve been taught, like God created roles and men are made to lead, and women are made to submit, and marriages function best when everyone stays in their place. I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m suggesting truth is better.

The Self-Contradiction Within a Complementarian Marriage: Why it Matters that the American Church Gets it Right

And because the consequences of American/Western version of Christianity on non-Western conservative cultures rarely make a blip in the screen when Americans/Westerners are discussing church harm….

Here’s how it looks like in our world (I’m Kenyan American, born and raised in Kenya.)

When the version of “Jesus” Western worlds export to other cultures supports the domination and exploitation of women and children in cultures that are under-resourced to address girls and women issues, they need to understand they are truly the merchants of death to a considerable portion of the population in those cultures. 

North American pastors, authors, speakers, and missionaries need to know that it matters to the world (at least the “world” that receives American missionaries or is influenced by American Christianity) the type of beliefs the American church holds. 

Because what you believe is what you export. What you deconstruct is what is still hurting people out here. It matters that the American church gets it right because whatever brand of beliefs they ship to the world will most likely be mixed up with local cultural ideas that can be very unkind to women and children.

And then, no one can do anything in those cultures about the harmful outcomes because it’s now the literal “gospel.” And evaluating new information, thinking about what needs to change, especially theology, is near impossible when religious beliefs align perfectly with cultural beliefs. 

So getting it right in the Western world, particularly here in America, isn’t just for the sake of the church here. It’s for the rest of the world that has been, and continues to be, shaped, mentored, and influenced by American Christianity. See Shiny Happy People – An African American Perspective

It’s for my part of the world, which tends to value the opinions of American authors, pastors, and speakers more than the experiences of the harmed masses in their midst.2

The Self-contradiction Within a Complementarian Marriage: A More Accurate Picture

If you read Shaunti’s article and feel confused by all the research quoted, I want you to know that there’s good research and critical analysis of the same available elsewhere. 

Check out Bare Marriage and their research and Gretchen Baskerville of Life Saving Divorce who nerds out on research and writes on the same. Andrew J Bauman also has a new book (I believe) coming out based on research. Also check out this series discussing The Danvers Statement, which was “published by the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood in 1988 and became the touchstone for believers in male authority of what is “biblical” with respect to masculinity, femininity and their interaction.”

If you desire a more accurate picture of how the church treats those who have been harmed by complementarianism and oppressive religion, check out 

  • Natalie Hoffman of Flying Free 
  • Diary of an Abused Nigerian Wife (Facebook)
  • Sarah McDugal of Wilderness to Wild
  • Helena Knowlton of Arise Healing Community
  • Heather Elizabeth of Held and Healed 
  • MaryEllen Bream of Hope For Hurting Wives
  • Marg Mowzco (a theologian who writes about the mutuality and equality of men and women in Christian Marriage and ministry.)

Check out their websites, books, communities, and social media.

“It is impossible to have a healthy mutual relationship with someone who believes they are entitled to your compliance.” Thomas Pryde, Psalm 82 Initiative

Your turn: What other “self-contradiction within a complementarian marriage” have you observed or experienced? If you feel safe to share, what has been your experience with complementarianism? Or maybe you are like me and my husband and the many women in the survey who said the woman submitted/husband broke the tie but in practice they worked together as a team. Let’s chat in the comments!

(Ps, the original title, images and content of this article had the word “absurd” to describe the contraction I see in hierarchical marriage – so if you see it referenced in the comments, it’s a response to that. I changed the title, some of the content and images so as to be less severe in my wording. My goal was to communicate the contradiction I have observed, not be unnecessarily harsh with couples practicing a complementarian marriage model of marriage.)

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1. For more on the problems with The Toxic War on Masculinity: How Christianity Reconciles the Sexes book, please check out Sheila Gregoire, Rebecca Lindenbach, and Joanna Sawatsky Twitter threads, where they engaged with Nancy on some of the problems in her book, including her research. You’ll need to scroll a bit. Bare Marriage will also discuss the book in the coming weeks, so you can watch out for that. 

2. I see a bit of “it’s the same in America” when I talk about experiences that are uniquely African/Non-western. And I want to reiterate it’s not the same. The point I’m making is that the effects of conservative, oppressive Christianity on already heavily conservative patriarchal cultures are on a different level.

An example, where I come from, some Christian men beat their wives, and Christians will ask what she did or look the other way or expect her to persevere. Many women are tied to their abusers for life as legal divorce is not easily accessible. Women don’t have much recourse or societal/legal agency to begin with. 

Christ does not make a difference in wife-beating (and other harming practices) cultures when Jesus himself gives all the power to men. In America, there’s better access to support and help—shelters, law enforcement, government support (e.g., SNAP benefits), etc. The support is not perfect, but there’s something. So when I share the unique challenges of other cultures, it’s so healing when others can bear witness: read, listen, and learn.

Bearing witness to another’s experience does not invalidate your own experience. It validates the one who is sharing. It recognizes that while we are all affected, how we’ve been affected is different. It communicates there’s room for the differently affected at the collective healing table. For more on this, please read this post.


  1. Complementarianism as a system explicitly advocates for male headship and female submission. People can talk a thousand words around it trying to make male headship sound like a helpful service to the wife, but it’s not, and calling male headship “service” doesn’t make it service. Men wanted the credit for serving while still maintaining their headship, so they redefined “male headship” as “servant leadership.” They only fooled themselves with this wordplay. Just as we see and realize that “complementarian” doesn’t represent two “separate but equal” complementary roles. Words get twisted.

    Believing that your job as a husband is *genuinely (with no word games) to serve and sacrifice for your wife — that isn’t complementarian teaching. It isn’t complementarianism.

    Also noting that I’ve read Gottman myself. He explicitly says that the reason men are in a position to be a greater influence on a marriage is because most women are *already allowing their husbands to influence them in a healthy way. Not because men are inherently more powerful/influential in a marriage, or that they should be. Husbands are in a position to have a more dramatic positive influence on their marriages only because they’re NOT doing what they already ought to be doing, and what their wives ARE already doing.

    Following Christ as two sinners *equally in need of salvation isn’t gendered. And if either gender needs more to develop humility and be willing to learn to defer to others, it’s men. Gottman observed this in his research. That’s what that passage was about.

  2. Recently, the last year after reading The Great Sex Rescue, I didn’t realize there was another way. I thought the husband being head of the household was just simply being Christian. I didn’t realize the view I had been taught was called complementarianism. I didn’t like the idea but I honestly thought that what you had to follow to be a true Christian and follower of Christ. When I read Sheila’s book and realized that yucky feeling was there for a reason I began to study both views and came out on the other side against this unhealthy view seeing what it had done to my marriage and many others. I am now being asked to reevaluate my decision and if I remain against the views of my church. I’ve attended and been heavily involved for 6 years all of that no longer matters to them and I’ve had 3 different meetings dealing with my inappropriate posts on Facebook. I can no longer lead my Bible Study class or Lead a Pure Desire Betrayal and Beyond class because I don’t Align with the church. I started a blog, podcast and Facebook page to help women dealing with the beginning stages of sexual betrayal and have had so much push back from them. They’ve called me divisive, blasphemous, and selfish. It’s been a rough year.

    1. Charlene, we share a similar learning experience. I didn’t even know it was called complementarianism or it wasn’t universal practice of Christians. I too thought it’s “what you had to follow to be a true Christian and follower of Christ.” Until I began to read up on it myself, a couple of years back.

      I’m so sorry for what your church is putting you through. Truly, the liberating gospel of Christ is not welcome in many churches.

  3. So good, and so thought provoking. This!
    “It matters that the American church gets it right because whatever brand of beliefs they ship to the world will most likely be mixed up with local cultural ideas that can be very unkind to women and children.”

    Since complementarianism is self-defined as a “Biblical response to Christian feminism” countries where no such invention exists, cannot have this heretical quasi-doctrine introduced without even graver consequences.

    It hit me recently that a “tie-breaker vote” held by the man in a complementarian marriage means there can never be an actual tie. The man always wins, and will never submit.

    Thus complementarianism fails at every turn:
    – It lacks a universally relevant cultural application, a trait that sets Christianity apart
    – There is no mutual submission, equality before God, or balance between sexes
    – It baptizes male dominance in a world where such abuse is a result of sin

    If that’s not enough then the 26-fold increase in divorce should be.

    1. So very well said. And THIS –> “a “tie-breaker vote” held by the man in a complementarian marriage means there can never be an actual tie. The man always wins, and will never submit.” Exactly.

  4. It’s not absurd to have a complementarian marriage, if it’s done biblically. Mind you, I believe my fully egalitarian friends are brothers and sisters in Christ. Yet so many egalitarians these days make it seem that any other than their pinpoint place on the spectrum is anti-women or even anti-Jesus.

    The definition that many offer as “complementarian” simply doesn’t comport with what a lot of spouses believe and practice. Unfortunately, many patriarchal folks define themselves as complementarian, and that’s not what I’m talking about. Nor is complementarian simply “he breaks the tie.”

    That’s not how it works in my own marriage and many others! Rather, a Christian husband being the leader of the home does so according to the Upside-Down Kingdom. Whatever authority he has comes from having greater responsibility for the marriage and family. Research also supports that! (John Gottman, Brad Wilcox, and others; for biblical support, see Genesis 3:9-11). Jesus lays out his view of “authority” in Matthew 20:25-28, and Paul lays it out again in Ephesians 5:25-28. The role of “head of the household” isn’t an opportunity to subjugate others—and when that’s happening, it’s 100% against any biblical understanding of marriage! We should totally fight against that.

    But rather than trashing all complementarian marriages—some of which function by a wife voluntarily submitting and a husband lovingly leading—maybe we “soft comps” and egals could get on the same page and tackle the real abuse some women are sadly subjected to.

    1. J, we’ve engaged on this before but to comment on Matthew 20:25-28:

      “Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

      I think Jesus is making an entirely different point – how the disciples should *not* be holding power over others. Those with power (as was cultural in the day, as today) were to lay it down and serve.

      On Ephesians 5:25-28, Paul *first* talks about about mutual submission among Christians. (21Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.) I believe husbands and wives are included in that statement.

      I know Dr. John Gottman’s research shows that when husbands are unwilling to share power in their marriages, there’s an 81% chance their marriage would self-destruct. I have not seen anything to the effect that a non-mutual, hierarchical marriage is healthy.

      Boiled down, I’m simply saying “husband takes the lead” isn’t a truthful assessment (hence the absurd part) of what is actually going on in healthy complementarian marriages. If both are loving and submitting to each other, then why a “head of the household.” It’s a universal reality that when one person dominates, the outcome isn’t good for the one being dominated. Unless that “power” isn’t believed and actually acted upon, then the outcomes are more healthy.

      I’ve talked about this at length and for anyone interested in reading on this topic, you can explore the articles here. And for anyone wanting to explore how the core principles complementarianism of don’t pan out, here’s a series worth checking out.

      And again, I just want to repeat that I’ve seen the effects of complementarianism in my non-Western culture and many marriages have a spouse acting out on power that has been given to the husband. So to have a situation where we say “The role of “head of the household” isn’t an opportunity to subjugate others” yet that very statement itself puts him in a position to do so and gives him the power is well….tragic. If the only way that complementarianism doesn’t harm if someone doesn’t carry the principles to their logical end, I believe we need to change what we are teaching. Not defend it. Because people’s lives are at stake.

      1. Yes, we have engaged. But I keep feeling like others are defining what some soft complementarians believe and/or practice and then addressing that instead of the issue itself. Moreover, I’m concerned about this because it keeps wonderful Christians debating a secondary issue rather than spending their time and effort on fighting the abuse you and I are both heartbroken over.

        My point with citing Matthew 20:25-28 was to show an example of how Jesus’ view of headship or authority was never about power but rather service. Which seems like what you said too. So, I don’t really understand where the disagreement is on that verse.

        As for Ephesians 5:25-28, I agree that we mutually submit as Christians to one another. But if that covered marriage entirely, why add the verse about wives submitting to husbands? Or why not reiterate his need to submit to her as well? Not to mention that these oft-cited verses or 1 Timothy 2 don’t begin to cover the reasons I lean toward complementarianism. I could write a whole dissertation on why I came down on that side, because I have studied this topic so deeply and repeatedly. This is not an “I was raised this way” conclusion for me and many others. And I may find out in Heaven that I was just wrong, but God knows I’m trying to live out His Word faithfully on this count.

        As for Gottman’s Research, here’s what he said:

        “…even in the first few months of marriage, men who allow their wives to influence them have happier marriages, and are less likely to divorce than men who resist their wives’ influence. 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.”

        Well, of course a wife in a healthy complementarian marriage has influence and there is power-sharing. That’s not the question. In fact, the charge that a complementarian marriage is inherently “non-mutual” doesn’t take into account what many comps believe or even the definition of “mutual.” Interestingly, the article on The Gottman Institute site that cites this passage then follows up with this:

        “The study doesn’t suggest that men should give up all their power, but it does reveal that the happiest, most stable marriages were those where the husband did not resist power sharing and decision making with his spouse. Sounds pretty simple, right?

        “The problem is that even the most thoughtful, progressive, egalitarian men aren’t aware of their tendency to resist influence. Our training is too precise. And the rewards are too tempting. Even when we commit to emotional intelligence and availability, we’re evolutionarily prone to protect our sense of safety (and pride). So what’s to be done?”

        Oh, so even egalitarian marriages can struggle with this? Yes, they can and do.

        But in The Man’s Guide to Woman, also by John Gottman, he states:

        “Men, you have the power to make or break a relationship. That’s right. Research shows that what men do in a relationship is, by a large margin, the crucial factor that separates a great relationship from a failed one. This doesn’t mean that a woman doesn’t need to do her part, but it proves that a man’s actions are the key variable that determines whether a relationship succeeds or fails.”

        Brad Wilcox of The National Marriage Project has reported the same thing.

        You finish by saying: ” If the only way that complementarianism doesn’t harm if someone doesn’t carry the principles to their logical end, I believe we need to change what we are teaching.” But yet again, it’s “complementarianism” as you (and admittedly, some patriarchals and comps) define it, rather than the real view that many of us hold. Yes, if you only stress “he’s the head of the household” and “women submit,” then you can definitely get terrible outcomes! But that’s not the headship so many of us are talking about. Back to Ephesians 5:25-28, where husbands are love their wives and sacrifice for their good!

        Like you, I believe lives are at stake, and it’s not helpful to get mired into these arguments about comp/egal with people you know are in kind, mutual marriages. How about we instead band together and take on those misusing Scripture and mistreating others?

        1. There’s always that one dude who still hasn’t studied the Greek and just can’t let go. Smh

          1. What dude? I’m a woman who has done in-depth studies of various relevant Scriptures, in both Greek and Hebrew.

        2. I appreciate this conversation. I love Ngina and her excellent work and I appreciate the way that you, Ms. Parker, have responded respectfully. It’s allowed me to consider your comments.
          I grew up in a complimentarian church with an abusive dad who used what he heard from the pulpit, no matter how sweet and soft, to rule with his preferences and abuse. I also resisted this abuse which he viewed as rebellion. I see this abuse as a Gospel issue even evidenced in my 16 year old journal entry where I contemplated not being a Christian if it meant that I had to allow my dad to treat me how he treated me, and not react, to be a Christian.
          My personal mission is to go into churches, particularly ones that emphasize headship and submission, and ask them to hold the necessary and long overdue space that this teaching feeds the monster in an entitled abuser. I’m not going to argue with them about the teaching itself. I’m not going to land anywhere. I also asked them to define and describe abuse from the pulpit so that both perpetrators and victims might recognize it and either seek to become safe people or seek the righteous safety available to them (my mom said 43 years believing she would not be in right standing with God if she left my dad. She’s free now!)
          I’m thankful for the voices that are having this conversation and also shining a light that we can be brothers and sisters in Christ even if we don’t see this issue the same way.
          I write on Facebook, No More – Finding a Path of Righteousness Out of Abuse

          1. Laurie, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I’m anguished about the abuse you experienced. We should absolutely go into churches, and elsewhere, and talk about what abuse is, how prevalent it is, how it manifests, and how to end it. If a church’s main message about marriage is to stay in it no matter what, then we have lost the plot! Scripture speaks often about confronting and stopping oppression. We must make it clear that oppression of another, including (and perhaps especially) one’s spouse, is never okay and that the Church will step in and stand for the oppressed.

            I simply pray that many egals will recognize how many who still believe in some gender-role differences feel the same way I do and want to be involved in fighting abuse.

            Thanks for the work you do in raising awareness. And thank God you and your mother got out. Blessings!

    2. There is no trashing here—only a keen observation. What is frequently pointed out by Ngina and others with similar views is that, functionally, “soft comps” tend to operate much more like egalitarians while also, on paper, advocating a dynamic that is used to harm others when taken very seriously. You can say you are doing some form of “leadership & submission,” but if you’re really talking it out and working through it as a team, then saying you are having a lead/submit dynamic because the wife steps back and acts like the husband did it all then you aren’t really describing what you are actually doing. You are trying to make your words match the accepted doctrine of your church instead of your words matching what you actually do. On paper those words you “support” are used harshly against women who sit in your sanctuary each Sunday, and they aren’t even supported by a large sector of Christian scholarship. Ngina puts it well when she says she and her husband have made their words match their reality. She’s a great example of being in a marriage like what you describe having and then being vocal about changing her views when that time came.

      What is striking to me is that, functionally, complementarian marriages advocate such a worldly dynamic. They push women back into the shadows where they are often not in a position to defend themselves. They are completely at the mercy of the man they end up with, and he is more likely to go unchallenged and not have his character questioned by church leadership should problems arise because “he’s the leader.” If you look all through history and around the world that same dynamic can be found in almost every culture regardless of religion. It’s not some special Christian thing. In living and advocating a “soft comp” marriage you aren’t standing for anything transformational or different about Christianity as compared to the world. If there is power in Christianity—if it is supposed to be different—then why would the marriage it advocates look so worldly and no different at all than marriages under other faiths throughout time and place? Think of other modern religions or ancient religions. How is this different? Having the luxury of calling your views “soft comp” is more about certain cultural realities that make that so—it’s not really about what’s on paper and what that means to others (great insight about exporting views worldwide). It is the very fact that complementarianism advocates for a “traditional” marriage dynamic that makes it so worldly. Americans have lost sight of that because they get distracted by various political movements and the bugaboo of feminism. A transformed Christian marriage would be one in which women hold a place much different than what is advocated in a “traditional,” patriarchal, worldly marriage.

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