Hyper-Complementarianism & Domestic Abuse
As a Christian Soul Care provider, I have cared for women who have experienced domestic abuse. In the vast majority of cases I have had, the women I’ve counseled belonged to churches and marriages that operated out of a form of hyper-complementarianism (HC). While general complementarianism emphasizes what it believes to be distinct roles between men and women; hyper-complementarianism emphasizes the dynamics of power between the two through the language of authority and submission. In this brief reflection, I do not desire to present a comprehensive assessment of these two ideas but rather address some of the ways hyper-complementarianism perpetuates domestic abuse.
Authority & Submission
One of the most common ideas in HC is the concept of male authority and female submission. The term “authority” in this school of thought can be misleading, the word “power” better suits the actual worldview and practice. In HC, male power and female submission to that power is foundational for human flourishing in the world, church, and home. In some extreme cases, adherents of this worldview will even redefine Trinitarian relations as being rooted not in love but power. They will argue that God The Father has always had authority/power over God The Son even prior to his incarnation. They will use this logic to justify male authority/power in society, the church, and home.
Their worldview carries with it great appeal for men, especially men who are insecure. This perspective on male and female relations grants insecure men power over women, especially their wives if they are married. Women are enticed by this worldview because in it they are told they find their ultimate purpose; serving men and helping them achieve their dreams.
Ripe For Abuse
This worldview creates a Christian culture that is ripe for abuse. Many men come to believe that their role as husband grants them power over their brides. This “authority” granted to them by God gives them the power to make decisions for their family that serves their own interests and their wife’s duty and purpose is to serve them in acquiring their desires. In hyper-complementarianism, the world and church are “man-centered”, men are granted power by God’s decree and the direction of the church and hope is to be determined by male inclination. Though many will never say it, in practice, women are second class citizens in the Kingdom of God, and their identity is rooted in how they serve men rather than in how they directly serve the Lord.
Biblical Womanhood or Biblical Servanthood
In hyper-complementarianism, wives are told that it is their purpose in life to do the will of their husbands and that they best serve God through serving not God directly but their husbands and meeting his desires. There is a darker layer to all of this, I do not want to be crass or disrespectful, but often wives are also treated as sex servants/slaves. Despite husband’s devaluing their wives every day they still expect sex from their wives every night. Often, they will wield the Bible as a weapon against their wives and use I Corinthians 7:5 to demand sex from their brides despite them not doing anything to woo them. This dynamic is one that wives are often forced to live under because on top of these challenges also comes the concept of marital permanence.
Marital permanence is the idea that God forbids divorce for any reason. For most of history, this view was more prevalent in Roman Catholic circles primarily due to the sacramental nature of marriage. In Protestant circles, due to theologians like John Piper, this view began to become more and prominent despite the exegetical obstacles for such a position. I am in no way seeking to accuse men like Piper of abusing women, I am confident theologians like him came to their conclusions regarding permanence out of a genuine desire to honor God’s word, but the view has still caused a profound degree of damage in the church. When men are granted power and authority over their wives and are then told that no matter how they treat their wives their spouses must stay married to them, the floodgates of abuse have been open; especially for insecure men who view wielding power as a means of obtaining personal significance.
Keeping Through Homemaking
One of the other ways that hyper-complementarianism keeps women in abusive relationships is through the worldview of the home. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a wife managing her home, in many ways she should [alongside her husband]. However, in HC, it is profoundly frowned upon for a wife to do anything outside the home. Women are encouraged not to get an education, not to pursue any career skill set, but to only grow in their management of home life and raising children. While Proverbs 31 shows us a woman who is making moves all around the city; HC presents the ideal wife as one who rarely leaves home and who finds her identity in managing the home. Within hyper-complementarian culture, housewifery as beautiful and glorious as it is; is often a position that is more reflective of a maid than a bride.
When you add abuse to marital permanence and on top of those things women who are not allowed to learn skills outside of the home; you end up with situations where women are being abused, and they have absolutely no recourse. They cannot leave because they would be in sin if they divorced abusive husbands, and they can’t separate because they don’t have any skills or experience outside the home that would aid them in getting a job and providing for themselves or hey and their children.
Over and over again I encounter this dynamic within an abusive marriage. A husband is abusing his wife [Physical abuse is just one form of abuse, there are many ways to abuse someone beyond the physical and often emotional and spiritual abuse leaves longer lasting scars] and the wife cannot separate because she doesn’t have any means of self-support. Also, abusive husbands will often use this reality against their wives as a means of keeping them in place and in fear. Wives cannot divorce their husbands because their churches see divorce of any kind as sinful. Finally, the most common advice they receive from their pastors and peers is, “just submit.” Whenever women in these situations stir up the courage to speak; they are usually accused of being the problem. The problem, in HC, isn’t the abusive husbands who wield power/authority as a weapon but in a wife’s refusal to be mortally wounded by it.
Hyper-Complementarianism culture is cultic. It is dangerous, toxic, unbiblical, and at times even demonic. It is also much more common than many people realize. When I see Southern Baptist theologians defend aspects of hyper-complementarianism during such a massive sexual abuse scandal in their denomination; it sends up red flags all over the place. Red flags not only of hypocrisy but of grave concern as well. From the Trinity to the marriage bed; the skewed power dynamics of hyper-complementarianism needs to be deconstructed. Classical Trinitarianism guards the church against developing a toxic theology of God and power/authority. It also protects the church, especially women in the church, from seeing God as culpable in the abuse they’ve experienced at the hands of men. Deconstructing hyper-complementarianism in the home will lead men to truly value their wives as partners and not see them as servants whose purpose is to serve their ambitions and lust.
Fleeing Cultural [hyper-complementarian] Christianity
Hyper-Complementarianism is not merely a worldview or doctrine; it is a culture. For many women, escaping the clutches of domestic abuse will require them to leave a church community which has been their faith family for years. Leaving hyper-complementarian contexts, for many women, will be like leaving a cult. For many women, breaking free of the culture of hyper-complementarianism may include church discipline for separating from an abusive spouse. They will be ostracized and treated as an unbeliever for not submitting to abuse. Like any other cult, this reality alone can lead to such deep fear that they stay and remain silent under abuse rather than risk speaking up or leave. I want to be clear, I am not counseling anyone reading this article to seek a divorce if they are in a toxic relationship. Divorce is serious and complicated, and I cannot counsel towards it in an article without knowing all the dynamics present within a marriage (Proverbs 18:13). With that said, I am absolutely telling women they should separate immediately from an abusive spouse and should seek to flee hyper-complementarian culture at the earliest opportunity. Divorce on the grounds of abuse is legitimate but not obligatory. I have counseled married couples who have had abusive relationships (abusive wives and abusive husbands) that have since healed and are now flourishing. God can even heal abusive marriages. At the same time, it was necessary in those counseling situations to deconstruct the idea of permanence and remove that level of power from the husband. It wasn’t until the wife was empowered with the right to divorce that the husband gained any sense of humility. The victim of abuse within a marriage has the right to divorce though it is not obligatory. With that said, separation on the grounds of abuse is absolutely necessary and required. No spouse should stay under the roof of an abusive spouse. Ever. No wife should remain under the roof of an abusive man. It is neither wise or safe. I encourage women who find themselves in these situations to seek someone outside of their immediate context who they can confide in and have as part of a support system. Sadly, in hyper-complementarian churches, a wife’s pastors are not always safe people to confide in. On the one hand, a wife should not feel she needs to protect her abusive husband’s reputation and she should feel the freedom to share issues with her elders. On the other hand, this requires discernment as elders can often be enablers for abusive men. Too often I have seen and heard stories of pastors blaming a woman’s “lack of submission” for a husbands abuse. This type of counsel is not of God, it is demonic.
Not all complementarianism is created equal. Complementarianism is a broad term, it is like an umbrella with many subgroups underneath it. Some of the subgroups under complementarianism can be healthy expressions of marital partnerships. However, there are other subgroups that can be toxic and even dangerous. It is vital for those who call themselves complementarian to assess the paradigms in which they understand their view. Is your complementarian view rooted in a conception of true gender equality where partnership and service guide marriage? Or, is your view of complementarianism more rooted in conceptions of authority/power and submission. Husbands, if your view of manhood and masculinity are more guided by notions of power than service you have been misguided. A husband is to be preoccupied with service and care not power. A husband is to be known in his household as a gentle, caring, & grace-filled servant to his bride. A husband’s primary question is not, “what do I desire and how can my wife serve me in obtaining it?” No. A husband’s primary question should be, “How can I bless my wife and lead my family in love, service, and care?” Yes, a husband leads his home but he is to lead holding his wife’s hand who is his covenant partner not rule his household as if he is a King. One posture is leadership guided by humility and the other is leadership guided by pride and ego. Church, we must protect our sisters from abusive men and domineering doctrine. We must also protect our brothers from developing a theological worldview that leads them to massage their ego and leverage power over their sisters- daughters of the most high God.
Kyle J. Howard currently serves the church as a Christian counselor. He is a student at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he received his associate degree in biblical/theological studies and a bachelor’s degree in biblical counseling. He currently lives in Atlanta & is finishing an advanced M. Divinity in Historical Theology and ultimately desires to pastor.