Is Christian Complementarianism Helping Fuel The Abuse Reflected In #Me Too?

Harvey Weinstein, Hugh Hefner, Donald Trump –  the list of prominent men who abuse women could be added to from every walk of life: comedians, athletes, political figures, and of course prominent religious figures.  Harvey’s brother describes him as an abusive bully who regularly insulted and hurt those around him.  He said he is unrepentant for his actions and is incapable of remorse.  The figure that came to mind with Bob Weinstein’s description of his brother was the administrator at the college where Faith and I worked.  His open misogyny and abuse of power will continue, as with Harvey Weinstein, because grievance and complaint were squelched by the institution.  While his forte was not private sexual assault but open cruelty and abuse, the wall of silence is the same. The difference between the movie mogul, the porn king, and the Christian leader, is that the latter is backed by a theology which demeans and objectifies women. Notions that women are made to be subject to men and that their primary duty is to please their husband, feed into systemic dehumanization.  As this man explained to a female student, “Your role is to satisfy your husbands sexual needs.” Having counseled those so advised, it is clear marriages are damaged and become unbearable under this prescription.

Women gifted with an array of talent and abilities are made to squelch their natural abilities so as to conform to the strait jacket of “complementing” their husbands.  The sheer waste of talent and lives is appalling to witness close up.  It was often clear that the brightest and best are being sacrificed to a skewed theological understanding – complementarianism.

It is not simply women and wives, however, who are demeaned but their husbands. Those who would reduce their wives to subservient helpers relinquish their own humanity. In an abusive relationship, as Hegel recognized in the master/slave dialectic, it is the master who is most quickly and irrevocably dehumanized.  On this little campus, cases of assault and male students fathering children (sometimes multiple children) would typically result in minimal disciplinary action.  Female students were held to higher standards.  As recently reported in a local newspaper, a former female student of this school was forced to take classes to learn how to be feminine as a disciplinary measure.

Far from promoting Christian notions that we are created in the image of God, this perverse theology denies women notions of self-determination and innate value. Though this little fundamentalist college may have created a peculiarly poisonous atmosphere, popular books by best-selling Christian authors (Fascinating Womanhood by Helen Andelin, Captivating by John and Stasi Eldredge, Real Marriage by Mark and Grace Driscoll, and Lies Women Believe by Nancy Leigh DeMoss) promote a similar sort of abusive dishonesty. According to Samantha Field they “tell women that they are not permitted to have open, honest, and direct communication with their husband.”[1] Instead, they promote a passive-aggressive mode of manipulation in which they must be “alluring” or “cunning” so as to “handle” their husbands.

In a strange echo, the atmosphere of fear which reduces one to passive aggressive manipulation (in complementarianism) resembles the mode of last resort of Weinstein’s victims. The women accosted by Weinstein report their revulsion but also their fear.  Physical fear (“Harvey is a big strong guy,” as one of the women reported), fear for their careers, and fear of humiliation, were common themes.  Rather than boldly confront him, many of the women resorted to passive-aggressive modes of resistance in which they would offer only slight resistance due to fear or terror.  The assault by Weinstein would ruin lives and require years of counseling for many. Though the trauma may not be as immediate or blunt in its impact, the cumulative and long-term effect of a theology which empowers men and disempowers women has a similar, though, broader result.

The publications and the teaching of complementarianism tell wives the same things as the abusers: the abuse is your fault, if you were more . . . (submissive, modest, fill in the blank) the “necessary” abuse would not have occurred.  I am convinced the long-term effects are very similar to the sudden trauma induced by the sexual predator, but in this case women are made to believe their role is to endure this sort of perverse objectification and submission.  The difference is that the sheer numbers, years, and publicity, served to expose the tide and stop Harvey Weinstein.  The same cannot be said for the mass of victims abused, dehumanized, and mentally assaulted by perverse theology.

The movie and porn industry have no particular ideology but rely primarily, like our Commander in Chief, on mass tolerance and perhaps mass enjoyment for demeaning others.  Rather than address the objectifying desire which feeds this enjoyment, notions that women are primarily created for “complementarian” relationships seem to feed this perverse desire.

To defang this beast,[2] it must be acknowledged that abusers all share a disproportionate power. Weinstein is physically powerful and wielded the power to make or break the career of an actress.  Trump, in his “locker room” talk, made it clear that the power of celebrity enabled his groping and abuse.  The power assigned to men in complementarianism is backed by the presumed authority of God and those institutions which would speak for Him.  In each instance, where an individual is able to exercise the power of employment, the power of money, or the power of position, without constraint, he will, as the college administrator explained to me, do whatever he wanted.  I cannot say he was wrong.

The tragedy of the abuse is not simply found in the endless stream of celebrity preachers caught in abusive relationships, Roman Catholic priests and bishops systemically committing and hiding abuse, or little college campuses throwing up a protective wall around abusive administrators. The abuse is given room and encouraged in countless marriages and homes where complementarian ideas are propagated.

The case of John Howard Yoder and the Mennonite church provide a warning and a lesson. Yoder, through his power as a celebrity theologian (a small sort of celebrity indeed), openly experimented in immoral and abusive relations.  His college and his entire denomination created a protective wall of silence which began to tumble only after some one hundred complaints from his female victims.  More than thirty years after the first incidents of abuse and long after Yoder’s death, his church is shifting paradigms, according to Rachel Goossen.

She says, “this tragedy reflected how silence, patriarchal assumptions, and concern for damage control enabled” decades of abuse.[3] What they have come to recognize is that Mathew 18 gives strong warning against imbalance and abuse of power which would blame the victim.  In this passage the victim/child is considered the greatest in the kingdom. As to the one who would abuse the child/victim Jesus concludes “it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.  Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” (Math. 18:7-8, KJV). Whether the power of abuse is granted by money, power, or perverse religion, the warning is clear.  The one who would abuse and thus create victims is hell bound.

[1] http://samanthapfield.com/2016/04/13/surviving-complementarianism/

[2] The language of the article below.

[3] http://www.bishop-accountability.org/news5/2015_01_Goossen_Defanging_the_Beast.pdf

Author: Paul Axton

Paul V. Axton spent 30 years in higher education teaching theology, philosophy, and Bible. Paul’s Ph.D. work and book bring together biblical and psychoanalytic understandings of peace and the blog, podcast, and PBI are shaped by this emphasis.

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