Calling Out Sexual Harassment: The Implications Of Complementarianism

Calling Out Sexual Harassment: The Implications Of Complementarianism February 7, 2018

Meredith Stone, a Baptist female seminary professor, responded last week to John Piper. If you remember, John Piper recently posted the script of an interview on Desiring God. He argued that women should not teach at seminaries.

Actually, that isn’t correct. John Piper argued that women are disqualified from teaching pastors because–according to his complementarian reading of scripture–women are disqualified from the pastoral role. This isn’t because women are less capable; it is because women are divinely created to be subordinate to men. Therefore women are unable to exercise authority, especially pastoral authority, over men.

Not surprisingly, Stone argues that Piper is wrong.  “Why in the world would God not want all people to use all their gifts so that Christ’s message increases? If a woman is a skilled teacher, why would God not want pastors to learn from someone who has the ability to teach them to think more deeply.” We can almost hear the frustration in her voice.

What is more surprising is the connection Stone makes between sexual harassment and complementarian theology.

Drawing from the student handbook at Hardin-Simmons University, her place of employment, Stone writes that sexual harassment goes beyond sexual conduct. It includes acts that limit female advancement.  “Sexual harassment also includes gender-based harassment, which may include acts of verbal, nonverbal, or physical aggression, intimidation or hostility based on gender or gender stereotyping, even if those acts do not involve conduct of a sexual nature.” The handbook uses the example of a male scientist disparaging women through comments about women’s inability to understand science.  Stone concludes that “if it is sexual harassment to tell a woman she does not have the capacity to understand God’s good creation through science, is it different to tell a woman that she  does not have the capacity to understand a ‘man’s field’ of sharing Christ’s love to God’s good creation of humanity through ministry?” Complementarian theology argues that women do not have the capacity to lead men, and therefore should not work in occupations which assume direct authority over men. Stone argues that this can be a form of sexual harassment.

Do you see the implications?

If sexual harassment is more than unwelcome sexual advances, if it is also attitudes and behaviors towards the female sex which subordinate women and limit their advancement, then what does that mean for complementarian theology? What does that mean for Christian colleges and universities like Cedarville University? In 2014, Cedarville solidified its gender theology of female subordination by restricting Bible classes taught by women only to female students (a move very much in line with John Piper’s stance on female seminary professors). Women, at Cedarville, are disqualified from teaching theology and scripture to men.

Is this sexual harassment? Just as importantly, how do attitudes that diminish women as eternally subordinate to men affect the treatment of women? Seriously.

Let me ask it another way. Are attitudes that women are subordinate to men, disqualified from certain occupations open to men, and defined by their sexual roles damaging to women? Just last spring, Carol Howard Merritt denounced male headship, in which women cannot question male authority without “the full force of the church community, their social connections, and their Christian doctrine back[ing] him up,” as clearly abusive towards women. As she writes, “Biblical womanhood, headship, and male authority teaches women that they have no right to choose…well…anything.” This, proclaims Merritt, is toxic. While she uses the word abuse, sexual harassment seems implied. Indeed, Houston pastor Andy Savage’s recent admission that he sexually assaulted a teenage girl (only to receive a standing ovation from his church forgiving him) coupled with  former USA gymnast Rachael Denhollander’s horrific experience with Larry Nasser screams about  the devastation and rampant nature of sexual assault. They also scream about the devastating impact of ideas that subordinate women and elevate masculine (often unchecked) authority.

Funny enough, defining sexual harassment as going beyond sexual misconduct to include discriminatory behavior that subordinates women is rather common. For example, several ad hoc committees have emerged recently within academic organizations, charged with creating guidelines to  better define and better discourage gender-based harassment occurring at academic conferences. I myself am on one of these committees. From the guidelines emerging, Stone’s expansion of sexual harassment to include actions that emphasize female subordination seems spot on. The Medieval Academy of America defines sexual harassment as misconduct “demeaning to another person.”  While it takes “many forms, including, but not limited to, offensive or suggestive jokes or remarks; inappropriate personal questions or conversations; unwelcome physical contact such as patting, hugging, or touching; public display of sexually explicit, offensive, or demeaning photographs; leering or ogling; sexual remarks about someone’s clothing or body; unwanted requests or demands of sexual activity; or repeated requests for dates after having been told no,” sexual harassment also includes authority figures coercing subordinates. Indeed, the policy underscores that sexual harassment occurs in its most “extreme” form when “someone in a position of influence or control uses his or her authority or power” over a subordinate.

Wait, is there a connection between sexual harassment and hierarchical systems that emphasize male authority and female subordination?

The popular academic blog The Professor is In  recently posted “A Crowdsourced Survey of Sexual Harassment in the Academy.” It connects rampant sexual harassment in academia with the preponderance of male authority figures over female subordinates. “The entrenched hierarchies of the academic world, the small size of most scholarly fields, the male dominance of virtually every field other than women’s studies, the culture of collegiality (read, evasiveness and pretense) that predominates, and junior scholars’ desperate dependency on good references for career advancements, make conditions in which sexual abuse (and indeed abuse of all kinds) can flourish with impunity.” Entrenched hierarchies filled with male authority figures presiding over female subordinates flourish in academia; they also flourish in American Christianity.

Do you see it yet? Do you see the connection between sexual harassment, sexual assault, and hierarchies which emphasize male authority and female subordination? I actually am not sure if I really needed to write this blog today. I probably should have just reposted John Wigger’s article on “Jessica Hahn and Evangelical Silence.” As he writes, “The gospel should challenge abuse of power, protect the vulnerable, and give voice to survivors.” Instead, Christians silenced Jessica Hahn after her horrific sexual harassment and abuse by Christian leaders. Instead of protecting Jessica Hahn, instead of encouraging Rachel Denhollander, Christians shamed the female victims while continuing to support the masculine hierarchies which harmed them.

My post today interrupted my series on Paul. Lately, I have been arguing against a complementarian read of the Pauline epistles. Drawing from both church history and modern biblical studies, I argue that complementarianism is a historically recent and predominantly western understanding of “biblical womanhood.” There are other egalitarian and both historically and theologically sound ways to understand Paul’s teachings about women.

But my post today also fits well with my overarching argument. Ideas about women really do matter. Ideas that emphasize a gender hierarchy, reduce women to eternally subordinate roles, and define a woman’s worth by her sexual status, really do have implications for everyday life.  Just ask Rachael Denhollander or Jessica Hahn.

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