Complementarianism and family violence

John McClean’s recent Pulse article Does Complementarianism promote Domestic and Family Violence? [i] noted that while complementarian theology does not in any way promote violence against women, patriarchal thinking does have some inherent risks. This current article will not attempt to argue for or against complementarianism, but rather draw out some parallel dynamics that exist between complementarianism and family violence, in hopes that the church will gain greater awareness of these dynamics, mitigate the inherent risks, and work towards being a safe and encouraging environment for all people.

Family Violence is a problem that disproportionately affects women, children, people with disabilities, the elderly, and Indigenous Australians. It is an issue that demands thoughtful attention if Christians are to take seriously the biblical mandate to care for the vulnerable, both within and outside of the church. There has been increasing discussion in Christian and secular forums about the influence of gender roles in churches as it relates to Domestic or Family Violence.

Family violence (in fact, all violence) can fall into two categories: abuse and neglect. Generally, acts of abuse are sins of commission, where an act such as hitting or shouting is performed that harms or hurts the victim. Other acts of family violence are types of neglect, (or sins of omission) where a person with a responsibility to care for another fails to properly do so, or excludes the victim from a healthy environment. Acts of abuse are generally easier to pinpoint than acts of neglect.

The Australian Department of Human Services defines family and domestic violence as conduct that is violent, threatening, intimidating, controlling or intended to cause fear.

It can include:

  • physical violence

  • verbal, emotional, sexual or psychological abuse

  • controlling money (financial abuse)

  • stalking

  • harm to an animal or property

  • serious neglect where you depend on their care

  • restricting spiritual or cultural participation [ii]

Abuse and neglect share the same underlying relationship dynamic: one person holding a position of power and control over the other. Violence is often a pattern of subtle behaviours through which the victim is coerced, manipulated, or threatened into a position they would not choose for themselves. Victims are usually silenced, undermined and unsupported by their abusers. In situations of family violence, the perpetrators are most likely to be men, and the victims are most likely to be women and children [iii]. Family violence is an abuse of human rights [iv] and some forms are criminal offences [v]. God detests violence (Psalm 11:5, Ephesians 4:31).

Complementarianism holds that God has created men and women equal in their essential dignity and human personhood, but different and complementary in function, with male headship in the home and in the Church. The usual result is that women are restricted from positions and roles of spiritual leadership, such as minister, elder, and preacher, while suitably gifted men are freely permitted to hold and enact these roles. Men therefore occupy the positions of greater power and public influence in a church and hold the offices charged with major decision-making and general oversight of the spiritual health of the congregation. Women usually fill ‘support’ roles, such as teaching kids’ church, reading the bible, or preparing morning tea.

While the intentions of men in positions of leadership are often good; to exercise their authority with love and care, and while a male-led structure by no means guarantees that women will be abused, it is apparent that patriarchal structures place women at greater risk of abuse. Research shows that the most significant determinants of violence against women are “the unequal distribution of power and resources between men and women, and an adherence to rigidly defined gender roles.”[vi]

The life and culture of a church is shaped and guided by its leadership. Leadership sets the tone, defines the norm, and provides oversight for the followers. All male leadership, without careful consideration and proactivity, may lead the church into a culture of male-ness, prioritising male issues, and hearing male voices more clearly.

McClean’s article stated that: “The experience of women in complementarian churches must be taken seriously and complementarians have to take responsibility for the kind of church and family culture they are promoting.” While many women do have positive experiences in complementarian churches, my experience, and the experience of other women I have personally heard from and professionally counselled, has been that equal dignity and personhood for women when compared with men has not yet been achieved.

Some of these real-life experiences include:

  • Women are less able than men to receive pastoral care by a minister of their own gender, by virtue of most ministers being men. This is especially important when the issues are specific to women, such as pregnancy, childbirth or sexual issues. (The importance of appropriate and timely pastoral care at vulnerable times of life cannot be underestimated.)

  • Topics specific to women are either neglected in preaching, or are handled clumsily by a male preacher due to lack of familiarity. This leads to the congregation being less educated and biblically informed about women’s issues. Even with some attendance at women’s events, the majority of preaching heard is masculine.

  • Single women experience even greater barriers to receiving pastoral care from all-male leadership teams, due to necessary propriety.

  • Women have fewer visible role models and mentors in areas of spiritual formation, resulting in slowed maturity and growth.

  • The issues that affect women are either not prioritised or are removed entirely from the church’s agenda by men in positions of leadership.

  • A culture of male-ness forms and is perpetually led from the front

  • ‘Women’s ministries’ are developed as special interest ministries, rather than as mainstream.

  • Women, who are equally gifted in leadership, preaching and teaching as men, are denied the same opportunities to express and develop their gifts (even if only to female audiences).

  • Women have less input into decisions regarding the spiritual direction of the church than men have, resulting in feeling marginalised and voiceless.

Many of these experiences of women in complementarian churches bear a frightening similarity to two types of abuse: “serious neglect where you depend on their care” and “restricting spiritual or cultural participation.” Both the sphere of family violence and the sphere of gender roles in church involve men holding positions of power over women, men holding primary decision making roles, and restriction of women’s equal voice and participation.

As noted in the March/April edition of The Pulse, “Domestic and family violence is a pattern of behaviour, rather than a single incident… it gradually undermines the victim’s ability to seek help and their confidence in themselves and others.” [v] The dynamics at play in complementarian churches can function in a similar way, where the patterns of behaviour exhibited by male leaders gradually undermines women’s confidence in seeking appropriate counsel and guidance. Victims may then lose trust in the bible, reject God, and be triggered in mental illness when in contact with male leaders. A culture that consistently neglects or undermines the spiritual health, contribution and giftings of women is an environment of abuse.

King David, a man after God’s own heart  (1 Sam 13:14), showed that even God’s anointed leaders will cause grief and pain to those whom they oversee. David’s power corrupted his godly judgment when he took Bathsheba for himself and arranged for Uriah to be killed (2 Sam 11). David demonstrates that even the godliest of men will at times fail to serve and protect their charges, and instead abuse and control them. God’s people are not immune from the adage that ‘power tends to corrupt….’

The dynamics of power and control within a church need to be thoughtfully, thoroughly and regularly evaluated in order to ensure that the needs of women are not neglected (and not just evaluated by men!). The same principle applies to all groups that are not represented on leadership teams, e.g. people with disabilities, children and young people, and people from non-English speaking backgrounds.

Equal weight must be placed on appropriate teaching, pastoral care, gift expression and participation for both men and women. If one group receives less appropriate teaching, less pastoral care, fewer opportunities for gift expression, and less voice and participation, how can it be termed that they are being treated as equal in dignity and personhood?

Jesus, in his position of authority as head of the church did not wield his power to restrict or neglect any person or group. Instead he exchanged exclusion for inclusion, elevated the oppressed at the cost of his reputation, and bled and died for others, even for those who opposed him. He gave up his position of power on the throne and lowered himself to the role, not of an overseer, but of a servant.

Dan Allender, in his book Leading with a Limp, describes how Jesus-like leaders use their position to ensure that power is used fairly within their sphere. Essentially, giving their power away[vi]. Male church leaders truly modelling the self-sacrificial love of Jesus will actively invite the voice of women, seek the development of the women’s giftings, anticipate and prioritise women’s needs, and pursue a culture of both woman-ness and man-ness as mainstream.

Some practical strategies to work towards mutual equality and respect include:

  • Provide equal encouragement and opportunity to women who are gifted in preaching to develop their gift as much as men, even if the women are only permitted to preach to female audiences 

  • Ensure Session is pro-active in becoming educated about, and acting to meet the needs of women in the congregation

  • Develop a public procedure for the ideas and concerns of women to be prioritised on the church agenda

  • Train and appoint multiple female pastoral carers

  • Appoint multiple female (and male) staff who are specifically trained in the dynamics of family violence and how to respond well.

  • Provide financial grants for women to attend conferences in order to hear women preaching (as men can hear men preaching without cost)

  • Give deep thought to the inclusivity of all people within the life, direction and leadership of the church

By omitting these acts of deliberate love and service towards women, male leadership may be unwittingly modelling neglect, and giving ‘silent permission’ to male congregation members to similarly rule over and neglect their wives. Though patriarchal structures are inherent in complementarian churches, patriarchal attitudes must be challenged and ended. Only by actively mitigating the risk of dominant male-ness in the church will complementarian churches ensure that women flourish. The Presbyterian Church (USA) has developed resources for male leaders that go some way towards this goal.[vii]

“A man of integrity is someone who is willing to say publicly that he is acting in accord with what he believes. That is a risky thing because it means our lives can be measured by standards of coherence between what we say and what we do.” – Herbert Anderson [iix]

Kylie Pidgeon. May 2016. Reproduced with permission.

Kylie is a Christian Psychologist who works with perpetrators and survivors of family violence. She holds tertiary qualifications in theology and psychology.

[i] The Presbyterian Pulse, March/April 2016. http://pcnsw.org.au/pulse/pulse2016marchapril.pdf

[ii] https://www.humanservices.gov.au/customer/subjects/family-and-domestic-violence

[iii] Research from the 2012 ABS Personal Safety Survey and Australian Institute of Criminology. http://anrows.org.au/sites/default/files/Violence-Against-Australian-Women-Key-Statistics.pdf

[iv] Australian Human Right Commission https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/family-and-domestic-violence/why-domestic-violence-human-rights-issue#fnB1

[v] Family Violence Protection Act (2008). http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis/vic/consol_act/fvpa2008283/s5.html

[vi] Australians’ attitudes to violence against women. 2013 National Community Attitudes towards Violence Against Women survey. Vic Health. https://www.vichealth.vic.gov.au/~/media/programsandprojects/discrimin ationandviolence/preventingviolence/ncas%20summary%20final.ashx

[v] The Presbyterian Pulse, March/April 2016. http://pcnsw.org.au/pulse/pulse2016marchapril.pdf, p7

[vi] Allender, D. (2008) Leading with a limp: take full advantage of your most powerful weakness.

[vii] https://www.presbyterianmission.org/site_media/media/uploads/phewa/ pdfs/revised_men_in_the_mirror-0914_revision.pdf

[iix] Anderson, H. (2002). Jacob’s shadow: Christian perspectives on masculinity. P114