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.)
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.)
- Dear Complementarian Husband, A Marriage Operating Through a System of Power and Control is Abusive
- Men, Why is Being Asked to Love Your Wife Such an Offensive Proposition?
- Can We Talk About the Idolization of Christian Missionaries?
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.