Since when are doctrines judged by when they go wrong, as opposed to when they go right?
There seems to be this really weird idea floating around the egalitarian parts of the internet that complementarians are just one step away (or maybe not even that) from outright abusing their wives. This was exposed by a recent post (now taken down) by Jared Wilson which sparked a truly enormous amount of controversy. Jared apologized for the words he used, which had caused pain to many victims of abuse, and his apology was accepted by many. However, it was also rejected by many as inadequate: these were offended not merely by the words, they say, but also by the (perceived) ideas behind them.
One blogger, in the comments section of Jared’s post, rejects the apology, saying, “The words used just exposed a deeply venomous truth about complementarianism… you are still causing hurt as long as you continue to “conquer” and “colonize” women.” That same commenter goes on to say that she is simply stating “the harm his words and the philosophies behind them do to women.” Look through the comments: there’s a lot more where that came from. The complaint seems to be this: the belief that wives should submit to their husbands is, at best, a belief that merely allows abuse to happen. At worst, it encourages it.
And here, I really am lost. I mean, I can see where they’re coming from, a little bit. Does complementarianism have potential to be abused? Certainly. Does it open the door to more overt types of abuse than egalitarianism? Probably.
But it’s so much more than that! It’s so much more than what happens when it fails. Egalitarians read, “Wives, submit to your husbands” and assume that whatever complementarians say goes on in their marriage, behind closed doors it must be all forced, impersonal, dominating sex and (if the husband’s not too tired) some emotional and physical abuse of the wife afterwards. But the submission and authority is only half, and not even the most emphatic half, of what we believe to be important in marriage.
“Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (Ephesians 5:25-28). That’s our responsibility. Everything we do in marriage, and I mean everything, is supposed to be motivated by self-sacrificing love. Yes, we will lead our wives, and we will, when necessary, exercise authority, but we will never approve of any instance of authority that is not motivated completely by a self-sacrificing love for the wife.
Of course, we will fail at times. We will make selfish decisions at times. But if we truly are concerned with loving our wives as Christ loved the church, we will never progress to the point that many egalitarians seem to believe is the inevitable result of complementarianism.
So the ultimate result of true complementarianism will be a husband whose guiding principle in marriage is self-sacrificing love. The wife can submit to her husband in the full knowledge that everything he does for her is motivated not by selfishness or arrogance, but by his love for her, just as the Church can submit to Christ with the same assurance. This is what we’re talking about when we defend complementarianism. This is what we think marriage should be like.
Now, I previously mentioned the possibility of abuse. And it’s true: This is a dangerous doctrine. But, then again, as Chesterton reminds us, the Church has always been full of dangerous doctrines, doctrines that have vast potential for abuse. He writes, “Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas: she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfillment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious.”
So do we want to judge a doctrine merely by what happens when it fails, as many egalitarians seem to judge complementarians? Consider the Trinity, which has been the starting point for many heresies and false teachings, tri-theism the most obvious. It’s clearly a dangerous doctrine, with vast potential for abuse and misunderstanding. Shall we do away with it?
How about the divinity and humanity of Christ? That’s an extremely dangerous idea: Get one idea wrong and you have Arianism or Gnosticism, with enormous implications for the Atonement, prayer, and theology of the body. Shall we do away with it, merely because when it goes wrong, it can go very wrong?
Of course not. We cannot judge a doctrine by what happens when it goes wrong, because our entire faith is built on perfectly balanced doctrines that, if ever unbalanced, would shatter the Church into pieces. Every important doctrine is a dangerous doctrine.
This applies equally to marriage. The idea that a marriage relationship should consist of loving submission and respect by the wife and loving authority by the husband is a dangerous idea. Chesterton reminds us that “An inch is everything when you are balancing,” and anyone can see this very clearly in marriage. The respect wains, and the husband loses confidence. The authority wains, and the husband becomes weak. The love fades, and the marriage disintegrates into tyranny. Everything must be perfectly balanced, or all is lost.
So yes, the marriage I believe Paul describes in Ephesians 5 is a very dangerous idea of marriage. If it goes wrong, it can go very wrong. But that cannot be a reason for villainizing it, because the same could be said of every essential doctrine of the Christian faith. Instead, we should judge it by when it goes right. So talk about the necessity for “equality,” if you feel that’s being infringed upon. But stop insisting that every complementarian marriage is just abuse waiting to happen. It’s uncharitable and fundamentally dishonest (not to mention ignorant).