Is complementarian theology really abusive?

I recently found myself tagged in a lengthy Twitter discussion. Megan Cornwell interviewed me for an article called ‘Is complementarian theology abusive’ for Premier Christianity. She posted a link, and the responses began. It was like watching a tennis match, a type of Twitter ping pong. Tweets passed backwards and forwards. The rallies were long. An accusation followed by a defence with a counterargument returned.

It was conducted in largely polite terms, but it was clear that neither side was moving. Despite well-argued attempts and long Twitter threads, Twitter is not a format for nuance. I observed from the sidelines. Behind the discussion lay different experiences and stories. There were those who had experienced abuse versus those with a more positive experience. Both stories were true. When this happens, Twitter tennis can go on forever – deuce, advantage, deuce. At one point, someone said this:

 ‘Complementarianism tells women not to listen to the Holy Spirit, but to rely on their husbands listening to the Holy Spirit. This is unscriptural and denies the lordship of Jesus in women’s lives.’

I left the sidelines and joined in: ‘

When this happens it is certainly wrong and heartbreaking – it is not taught or advocated in the “complementarian”  setting I know.

’ It wasn’t a match changer. The rallies continued and I withdrew, having only served once.

The truth is that some terrible things have been taught under the complementarian banner. My positive experience does not change the negative experience of others. Our culture validates truth by experience. The negative experience of others becomes the basis for understanding truth. This is illustrated in Jen Hatmaker’s Fierce, Free, and Full of Fire:

‘I am unable to separate policy, theology, rhetoric, theories, or interpretations from the people they affect. I lack all objectivity. I evaluate the merit of every idea based on how it bears upon actual people … And to be very clear, I believe loving people fits perfectly under the umbrella of loving God, so when “loving God” results in pain, exclusion, harm, or trauma to people, then we are absolutely doing the first part wrong. It is not God in error but us’.

Stories as truth-making are not new, but our culture has embraced this with vigour. If a lifestyle provides you with personal satisfaction and happiness, then it is valid. Personal satisfaction is the rule, and if theology causes you pain, then obviously, it is wrong. It doesn’t take long to see how this approach can lead to rejecting Scriptural commands on various issues. But my satisfaction or my pain does not prove the truth. When we think it does, we land in a dangerous place.

Glennon Doyle started as a ‘Christian mummy blogger’; she has written about her struggles with her mental health and marriage, but found happiness divorcing her husband and marrying a woman. She is loved and praised by figures such as Oprah, Reese Witherspoon and Adele, who said Doyle’s memoir Untamed made her ‘ready for herself’. Doyle’s advice contains this:

‘Maybe Eve was never meant to be our warning. Maybe she was meant to be our model. Own your wanting. Eat the apple. Let it burn.’

She teaches women to own their desires and bravely throw off societal expectations. It is stark and shocking. Sadly it is captivating generations of people. Everything is thrown in the reversal of what God asks of us. Jesus said: ‘If you love me, keep my commands’ (John 14:15).

As we seek to obey Jesus, we are also vulnerable to the spirit of the age. We can allow our feelings to dictate truth rather than Scripture. Experiences are authentic, but our interpretations of them may not be. And we must let the Bible interpret our experiences rather than the other way round. We are not the authority. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and we need to submit to Him.

(First published in Evangelicals Now in October 2022)

© 2023 Karen Soole