Ministry wives are often forced to live out a toxic distortion of the biblical teaching on male headship, songwriter and Christian commentator Simone Richardson believes.

Commenting on an article by Australian writer and broadcaster Julia Baird about the potential dangers of hard-line complementarian theology, Richardson says she has seen many examples of Christian husbands’ controlling behavior.

Complementarianism refers to the complementary roles of men and women in church and marriage as expressed in various Bible verses. Commonly this is referred to as male headship and female submission.

In a recent column for The New York Times entitled Is Your Pastor Sexist?, Baird quoted Carol Howard Merritt, a pastor in the US Presbyterian Church, who argued that, at its extreme,  complementarianism can mean “married women have no choice over their lives at all.”

“Merritt describes a toxic kind of complementarianism where a husband controls all aspects of his wife’s life – her weight, her haircut, her schedule,” notes Richardson.

“Unfortunately, I have seen this kind of thing lived out. I’ve been at conferences where women – often ministry wives – speak as if they have Stockholm Syndrome and are held up as examples of godliness and wisdom. This is a terrible distortion of biblical teaching.”

“My question for all ministers is: how do you guard against … misinterpretation and abuse of a doctrine intended to be about sacrifice?” – Julia Baird

Baird was canvassing the controversial issue after Princeton Theological Seminary awarded its Kuyper Prize for Excellence in Reformed Theology and Public Witness to Tim Keller, a complementarian and popular author, speaker and pastor. After an outcry from feminists, seminarians and liberal theologians, Princeton subsequently withdrew the award.

While Baird acknowledged that Keller would never condone abuse of God-given male authority, Richardson took issue with her for not acknowledging that complementarian theology “doesn’t have to be like this, and indeed it mustn’t be.

“The thing that concerns me most with Baird’s article and, indeed, with the way that marriage and ministry roles are often spoken of in church, is that anyone reading or listening in is likely to come away with a wildly incorrect picture of our faith,” Richardson says.

“The Christian is never to be snatching for power. We are not looking to ‘lord it over one another’, as Jesus says the pagans do. The Christian ethic is to give up power, to become a servant. The Christian who finds him or herself in a position of power must put it aside for the sake of others.

“When the gospel is lived out, the lofty will be brought down and the lowly lifted up. This is true in the home and in the church.” – Simone Richardson

“In the home, the husband has traditionally been the one with the power. He is likely to be physically stronger than his wife and more financially secure. Paul says that he is to lay down his life for his wife. He is to set aside his power and lower himself for her sake. The wife, now finding herself in a more powerful position, is not to lord it over him either. She, likewise, gives up her power. When the gospel is lived out, the lofty will be brought down and the lowly lifted up. There will be always be a flattening of the hierarchy in Christian communities. This is true in the home and in the church. Those in positions of power shouldn’t hold on to them tightly. We follow a saviour who washed his disciple’s feet.”

Sandy Grant, Senior Minister of St Michael’s Anglican Cathedral in Wollongong, south of Sydney, also believes the problem is not with the theology but with how it can be misapplied to make wives submit.

“Let’s be clear for any Christians who missed the memo: the Bible says any abuse or aggression from one spouse to another, whether physical or verbal, is wrong,” he says.

“I am sad when pastoral advice or teaching in this area is still not up to biblical standard or undercuts best-practice professional advice.”

Grant tells Eternity that some women have thanked Anglican pastors such as himself, who hold to complementarian theology, but have helped protect them and also escape domestic violence situations, “such that it could be called ‘life-saving’.”

He says while progress on the Sydney Anglican Diocese domestic violence taskforce has been slower than he would like, Anglicare is advertising for a full-time domestic violence adviser who will oversee quality service provision in relation to family violence services in Anglicare, and who will work closely with the Diocese to ensure parishes are well equipped and able to respond to family violence situations by providing appropriate resources.

Grant believes that, in practice, male headship is only properly expressed in loving sacrifice and a concern to nurture, provide and protect (Ephesians 5:28-29). And loving submission is a loyalty that respects and leaves room for a husband’s initiative in the above (Ephesians 5:33).

“The American pastor John Piper was wrong when he suggested a wife might ‘endure perhaps being smacked one night’.” – Sandy Grant

“Of course, domestic abuse can occur whether the theory you espouse is ‘traditional’, ‘egalitarian’ or ‘feminist’. But whatever you understand when the Bible talks of ‘submission’ or being the ‘head in a marriage’, it’s crystal clear that husbands are never told to make their wives submit.

“The American pastor John Piper was wrong when he suggested a wife might ‘endure perhaps being smacked one night’, before seeking help ‘from the church’. Victims of domestic violence should be encouraged to seek help from the police and others too, and to get to a safe place.

“The church should support that. It is not disloyal to your spouse to raise concerns about such behaviour with a pastor or trusted friend.

“It is the selflessness of Christ that is radical in today’s culture, not male control.” – Julia Baird

“I’m with my former Moore College Principal and Archbishop, Peter Jensen, when he said that to use the terminology of the Bible or our prayer book marriage vows, ‘as an excuse to demand slave-like servility, or even to engage in physical and emotional bullying, is to misuse it utterly and no wife should feel spiritually obliged to accept such treatment.’”

Julia Baird told Eternity: “I agree that, of course, the church should be a place of refuge, and faith should be a source of strength and Christian partnerships characterised by enduring mutual submission. It is the selflessness of Christ that is radical in today’s culture, not male control.

“But it is vital that teachers of male headship and all ministers pastoring to congregations where women are present, are conscious of the potential for abuse, and are aware of the toxic form headship can take. It’s not abstract and it can be dangerous for women. My research has unearthed many, many examples of the misinterpretation and abuse of a doctrine intended to be about sacrifice, and often translated as being about power.”

“So my question for all ministers is: how do you guard against it?”

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