Dangerous Ideas: Complementarian Marriage

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).

Image via Flickr.

Published by

Mackenzie Mulligan

I am a graduate of Biola University and a perpetual member of the Torrey Honors Institute, and I'm also married to the extremely beautiful Anna Mulligan. I make my living as a writer (like, for a job), and in my free time I write on literally anything that strikes my mind long enough to make it onto my computer, although it generally comes back to some aspect of theology, either on Evangelical Outpost or on my personal blog (http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/). And in my spare spare time, I wrote a book! It’s called "Simon, Who Is Called Peter", and if you’re interested in the life of Jesus’ most notorious disciple, you should definitely give it a read! You can buy it right here: http://www.amazon.com/Simon-Who-Is-Called-Peter/dp/162564535X/

  • Tony C.

    I’m not sure that your defense holds for a way of life which is taught as a universal good rather than a particular vocation.

    It seems to me that if every child in a complementarian society is going to be raised in a complementarian way (lets call it 1950’s Australia) then we do indeed have to ask what are the increased risk of harm from this. in comparison to a society which teaches egalitarianism or at least one which wouldn’t promote complementarianism.

    It seems to me that Paul didn’t envisage the possibility of Christians being anything other than a minority in their society until Christ’s return and wasn’t suggesting a responsible way to shape society. Further his suggestion of complementarianism is in contrast to male tyranny. If complementarianism is being proposed as a universally better model than egalitarianism which Paul wasn’t even able to observe then this goes well beyond the spirit of his letters. It needs to be evaluated for its harms even though some people may be able to make good of it.

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    What harm comes from a husband loving his wife as Christ loved the Church? The harm comes when the love ceases, and thus has nothing to do with marriage as Paul is teaching it. Otherwise, as I said in my post, Trinitarian theology becomes responsible for heresies that arise from it, and the doctrine of Christ’s hypostatic union of God and man becomes responsible for Gnosticism and Arianism. We cannot hold doctrines responsible for when they go bad by eliminating a key portion of the doctrine.

    And Paul does seem to teach this particular kind of marriage as a universal good. There are no viable alternative marriages, because Paul’s views on marriage are directly and inseparably tied to his views on theology.

    Marriage isn’t even primarily a human thing: In Ephesians 5, as the finale to his exposition and explanation of what marriage should look like, Paul takes the original marriage verse in Genesis–“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”–and says that this verse isn’t just about a man and a woman. It’s not primarily about human marriage: It’s about the relationship between Christ and His Church.

    This is the capstone to a long series of parallels Paul draws between human marriage and Christology.
    “…Submit to your husbands, as to the Lord.”
    “Even as Christ is the head of the Church…”
    “As the Church submits to Christ…”
    “As Christ loved the church…”
    “…Just as Christ does the Church.”

    Paul isn’t talking about marriage as a human thing, free to be shaped by society. To Paul, marriage is literally an earthly incarnation of the heavenly relationship between Christ and his Church, with the same fixed, eternal “roles.”

    I talk about this at length on my personal blog at http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/2012/06/marriage-theology-in-flesh.html: Feel free to check it out!

  • http://twitter.com/MichaelKares Michael Kares

    Very good post. Its mind-blowing how many people (on both sides of the issue) tend to hit that first verse and just stop reading. I also want to point out that not only is Paul’s doctrine of marriage a reflection of his ecclesiology, but a reflection of the natural order of things cf 1 Tim 2.15ff.

  • http://profiles.google.com/nonesuch42 Jessica Harmon

    Ok, so the main problem I have with complementarianism is that is sets up patriarchy as the only legitimate *societal* system (not familial only). This leads to women not being allowed to serve as teachers in the church (for one thing). That is one thing that I cannot accept. When I get a PhD, I’ll be teaching males that are considered adults by society. If I can do that in my job, why shouldn’t women who have gone to seminary be able to teach and preach in church?

    I know that’s not what you are addressing in this post, but patriarchy is the basis for Western (and Christian, despite our claims of difference from the mainstream) society. Until patriarchy is not the basis for our daily lives, women will always be cracking their heads against a glass ceiling somewhere. Shouldn’t the church be sticking up for the oppressed? That really is what “as Christ loved the church” means: giving up the authority you have so that those without power can live, and live to their fullest potential.

    (Also, you have done a good job of keeping the discourse as a civil, intelligent level, but please think about what it means to be a (relative to the rest of the world) rich, white male when using words like “authority” and “submission.” You are in a position of utmost privilege, and those words mean something slightly different when talking to people who have had to submit to some authority just because they were not rich, white, or male. Not that I have much room to talk, being about as privileged as it is possible to be except for the male part. But I still do not go out alone in the evening, and I keep a tazer-like thing in my backpack even during the day. Males don’t always realize that this “males have authority” thing is perverted into “males can take what they want,” causing fear and terror, not true respect or love. Please don’t take this last paragraph to be talking about you personally, but when speaking from privilege, we need to explain ourselves very carefully and define terms and perhaps consider using other ones.)

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    As you noted, I did focus this post very tightly on marriage. Paul’s comments on women in the church deserve an entirely new post, and I don’t want this comments section to be derailed.

    That said, you make an interesting statement with regard to authority: You say, “Shouldn’t the Church be sticking up for the oppressed?” Indeed we should: But in this case, your definition of “oppressed” seems to simply be “one who is under authority.” Are women in the type of marriage Paul prescribes oppressed, in your view? In that case, it seems like we could easily claim to be oppressed under the authority of Christ. I don’t believe that’s your intention, and I do agree that the Church has been used to further genuine oppression, but I do NOT believe that merely being under someone’s authority constitutes oppression.

    You also say that Christ-like love involves giving up authority for the sake of others. In a way, I couldn’t agree more. You see this extensively in Paul’s letters, particularly in 1 Corinthians 9:1-15. He gives up his rights for the sake of the Church.

    However, he retains his authority even when he is not actively using it, as seen when he needs to rebuke and guide the Church. This is the case with Christ as well: He was emptied of many things, but never of his authority. That’s what you’re missing: Christ-like love does involve sacrifice, but Christ never gave up his authority even when on earth. How else could he have rebuked the pharisees, Peter and the rest of the disciples, and so many other people throughout his ministry?

    Did he not love those people? Of course he did: But he still exercised authority over them, exactly because he loved them.

    It’s the same in marriage. The husband puts his authority away when he doesn’t need it, because he loves his wife so much. But the authority is always there to be used if he believes it’s needed to prevent his wife from coming to harm–just as Christ does the same for the Church, His bride.

    For your last point: I do indeed realize how easy it is for “authority” to be taken out of the context of love. In fact, I addressed this extensively in my last post at http://evangelicaloutpost.com/archives/2012/07/without-love.html. And believe me: Your anger at this abuse of authority is in no way greater than mine, or any true man’s. But, as I argued in this post, the fact that a doctrine can be abused isn’t an argument against that doctrine’s validity. Any doctrine can be abused, often with catastrophic consequences.

  • http://profiles.google.com/nonesuch42 Jessica Harmon

    Authority used without reason is oppression. And by reason, I mean for the well-being of the person under authority.

    I guess my problem is that I have never met a man (or person for that matter) that had authority over me and that I was equal to (in the sense that they were my match intellectually/spiritually etc.) There are people like my parents, who I am happy to submit to since a) they have more life experience than I could dream of, and b) they are always looking out for my well-being. Like God. There are people like my professors, who have studied in their field longer than I have been alive and have taught students both better and worse than me. I am glad to learn from them and study what they have to teach. I respect them for their knowledge, which is vastly greater than mine. There are people like pastors and missionaries, who have dedicated their lives to knowing and teaching the things of God. They have put in the hours of study and prayer that I have not. I listen to them when it comes to spiritual things, since I am only a child compared to their wisdom.

    But a husband? How does he know what is best for me? I have not met that man that I would trust my life to. Am I just supposed to go against my better judgment and do what he says? Does God give him special insight into what is best for me because he is a man? You said “the authority is always there to be used if he believes it’s needed to prevent his wife from coming to harm.” What in the world is endangering his wife that his wife can’t also see? Why would he have to exercise authority when he could say “this thing is going to hurt you”? What if the wife sees something that will harm her husband? She has no authority to prevent it? A husband can lay down his life for a wife, but a wife can only be protected? Are wives then, not supposed to be like Christ?

    It made sense in Paul’s time: women were uneducated and frankly, in a lot more danger from other men than they are now. But now, men and women are equally educated. Women may still be in danger from other men, but women see that a lot more clearly than some men. Saying that a husband can exercise authority to protect his wife sounds like saying that the wife is going to chase a ball into a busy intersection or fall into a pool like a dog or child. Or unintentionally flirt with the cute guy at work or envy the neighbor’s new house, like any person, husband or wife. I am not a child or a pet. And my husband should not have to bear the temptations of this world alone. He needs me as much as I need him, right?

    My question for a husband having authority over me is “how do you know what’s best for me better than I do?” God knows what’s best for me. Does a husband really have a direct line to God that lets him know what to do? By all means, let him lead. But I have not heard that claim being made (at least not recently.)

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    You said: “I have not met that man I would trust my life to.” My immediate question is this: Why would you ever marry someone you wouldn’t trust your life to?

    Your husband shouldn’t have to bear the world alone, and yes, the husband does need the wife, just as the wife needs the husband. Paul himself states this, saying, “In the Lord woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman” (1. Cor. 11:11). Paul was likely thinking of Genesis 2:18, in which Eve is created to be a companion to Adam, supplying what Adam is deficient in just as Adam supplies what Eve is deficient in.

    Nevertheless, both in Genesis and in Paul’s letters, Adam bears the responsibility for the fall. Their eyes (both Eve’s and Adam’s) are not opened until Adam eats the fruit, God calls to Adam specifically, and whereas Eve’s punishment only affects her (and other women), Adam’s sin warrants the cursing of all of creation. This correlates to Paul’s claim that “sin entered the world through one man and death through sin.” This demonstrates that Adam possessed authority over Eve, and it was his failure to exercise it appropriately that caused the fall (and it’s also very interesting that one of his first post-fall instincts is to attempt to shift the blame back to Eve, despite the fact that God is questioning him).

    So no, the husband will not get everything right, and yes, the husband does need the wife just as much as the wife needs him. The husband has obligations to the wife, just as the wife has obligations to the husband. Nevertheless, the Bible is quite clear that the husband is the one ultimately responsible for his family’s well-being.

  • Andromeda

    I’m not
    Married but I would
    Like to be. Most men do not love women that way though- most men see women as sex objects. That is why Paul’s idea of marriage is unrealistic.

  • http://imperfectfornow.blogspot.com/ Mackman

    Unrealistic in what way? It’s something to strive for, it’s how marriage SHOULD be, and if a man isn’t going to strive for it, why would a woman marry him?

  • VanillaMochaccino

    Because there would be very few men left and the female to suitable male ratio falls. You are not God. You are not perfect. It’s unrealistic. You can strive for it but how many will you hurt? Does it even matter how many women a man could psychologically damage on his thriving for this, while they willfully just ‘take’ it (and we are speaking of bigger problems that simple ego bruising)? Or des it just suck to be those women?