Righting America

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The Pain Wrought by Complementarian Theology | Righting America

by Margaret Bendroth

Today’s post is by Margaret Bendroth, executive director of the Congregational Library and Archives in Boston, and a historian of American religion. Her books include Fundamentalism and Gender, 1875 to the Present (Yale 1993) and Women and Twentieth-Century Protestantism (Illinois 2003), co-edited with Virginia Brereton.

Picture of the book cover for "Fundamentalism and Gender" by Margaret Lamberts Bendroth.

Book cover for _Fundamentalism and Gender, 1875 to the Present_. (c) Yale University Press, 1993.

None of the revelations about Paige Patterson and his ilk, so clearly and passionately excoriated by Emily McGowin, surprised me in the least. Though I was not raised in an evangelical subculture—Christian Reformed Dutch people hoped that if nobody talked about sex it would eventually go away—I encountered the icky, paranoid teachings about sex and dating in Christian summer camp, and later on in college. I’m guessing that most women in Campus Crusade or InterVarsity had to fend off at least one overzealous suitor convinced that God was calling him to marry her. I know I did.

Even so, hearing Albert Mohler interviewed on NPR last Sunday made me angry. Mohler presented himself as a reasonable and trustworthy adult, saddened by Patterson’s misbehavior but resolutely holding the line on “biblical” standards. When the interviewer suggested (rather timidly) that “complementarian” gender roles might have allowed powerful men to exploit vulnerable women, he waved her off with a proof text. Yes, wives were to submit to their husbands, but hey, husbands had to love their wives “as Christ loves the church.”

Nothing to see here, just keep moving.

During the interview, I kept remembering a documentary I used to show students, about the conservative takeover of Southern seminary in the 1990s.  I found “Battle for the Minds” a profoundly depressing film, a parade of smug talking heads nattering on about inerrancy and St. Paul. Mohler’s role was particularly troubling. Vaguely egalitarian in the past, when he became president of Southern Seminary he saw which way the winds were blowing in the SBC. Without turning a hair he joined the crusade to exclude women from M.Div. programs and oust Molly Marshall, a beloved professor of theology. It was all supremely sad. Above all, the documentary showed the emotional cost of the conservative takeover, the gut-level bewilderment and hurt of women who were suddenly and arbitrarily deemed unfit to pastor a church.

This is why I’m deeply skeptical of any explanation of complementarian gender roles, however dispassionate and “biblical.” Even the most wonderful man who insists he is ready, willing, and able to love his wife “as Christ loves the church” is simply missing the point, and badly. The dictum that wives must submit to husbands and that men have a godly duty to lead in church and family—it’s more than just a set of ideas. It hurts. It causes sadness. And inflicting pain on another person is, well, abuse.

It’s surprising to me how obtuse people can be about this. Years ago, when Fundamentalism and Gender was still in the draft stage, a male colleague begged me, almost tearfully, to omit the two sentences I’d included about domestic abuse.

Although conservative evangelical and fundamentalist literature was silent on the subject of domestic violence, the model of family life it espoused was a risky one. Modern studies have found the highest instances of spousal and child abuse in families that are socially isolated and characterized by rigid sex-role stereotypes, poor communication, and extreme inequities in the distribution of power between family members.  

He was deeply concerned that this would provide ammunition for scholars already disposed to disdain or dismiss conservative religion. I get that. But what if it were true?

Fundamentalism and Gender was not an angry book per se. In the early 1990s there was plenty worse out there, and I imagined my argument was safely historical, explaining the sources of fundamentalists’ dislike of women instead of denouncing them as evil sexists. But even so, I believe it was an uncomfortable read for some evangelical historians. At least, I heard no outrage or apology, just a subtle, ongoing defensiveness—counterexamples of fundamentalist women in leadership positions, or counterarguments to show that conservative women weren’t actually oppressed.

To me, this was all beside the point. By that time I understood viscerally, from my own experience researching that book, some of the personal cost of fundamentalist rhetoric. I had long since made my peace with St. Paul, but I would still come away from the library feeling gloomy and oppressed. I didn’t actually worry that I was an inferior being, I just felt beaten down after reading page after page of men talking about women in patronizing, demeaning ways. All those explanations, over and over again, about why God mysteriously preferred men over women were a kind of slow poison.

Regardless of whether Paige Patterson broke some law or even if he was simply guilty of being an insensitive buffoon, he’s an abuser. Regardless of whether husbands who love their wives as Christ loved the church beat them with a hairbrush or not, they are inflicting damage. Perhaps, now that Emily and others are speaking uncomfortable truths so eloquently, we’ve reached a moment of acknowledgement, maybe even repentance—and maybe even redemption.