The Paternalism of Complementarian Anti-Abuse Activism

The Paternalism of Complementarian Anti-Abuse Activism September 25, 2018

Earlier this year, writer Kat Armstrong wrote a call to the church to protect women from abuse. Publishing her piece on Fathom Magazine, an online Christian platform, Armstrong spoke directly to complementation Christians—those who believe that men and women have fundamentally different roles in the church and in the home. Armstrong takes pastors to task for caring more about marriages than about the people in them, but she remains within the complementation framework herself, which becomes a bit of a problem.

Armstrong’s central call is here:

Pastors and elders, women who agree to complementarian theology are choosing to abide under your care. They are standing in your lobbies saying, “We trust you.” The truth of this choice is that we are at your mercy. That’s okay with us as long as you hold up your end of the bargain.

No. No, no, no.

It is manifestly not okay for one party to be at another’s mercy.

Armstrong outlines a harmful result of complementarianism—that women in the church end up at male leaders’ mercy—but rather than criticizing or questioning this harmful reality, she enshrines it as a matter of course, merely urging male leaders to hold up their side of the bargain and take care of women.

This sort of paternalistic “please take care of us, we’re vulnerable and need protection” framework is what got us into trouble in the first place. And yet, Armstrong uses it throughout her piece.

The conflict between Armstrong’s interest in protecting the vulnerable and the hard wall of patriarchal theology she runs up against—and chooses not to interfere with—is perhaps best demonstrated in her approach to all-male elder boards. Have a look at this section, for example:

Last year a friend’s husband was accused of sexual misconduct, and although the all-male elder board of her complementarian church was lovingly following all of the state mandated reporting measures and caring for the man in question, when I asked an elder who would be checking in on the wife they were silent. The elder then admitted that they “had not thought about that side of the situation.”

Without a doubt all kinds of abusers should be confronted and disciplined. Directly addressing abuse with a man is laudable. But when providing support and care for the affected woman remains an afterthought, that is not leadership, provision, or protection for her. In fact, this is dangerous.

My complementarian brothers would do well to learn and remember that all-male elder boards, executive leadership teams, deacons, and staff in our churches and seminaries can create dangerous barriers for women’s voices to be heard, let alone believed or understood.

Even yet, somehow, bewilderingly, Armstrong does not call for adding women to the elder board. In fact, she opposes doing so. She argues that elder boards should be all male—but that the men on those boards have a responsibility to recognize that this puts the women who come before them at a disadvantage.

I find this approach extremely frustrating. Armstrong comes partway—recognizing that women in the church are at the mercy of male leaders and that the all-male makeup of elder boards creates problems and leads to women’s needs being overlooked and unnoticed—but refuses to come any further. When push comes to shove, she’s not willing to question the power structures she has correctly identified as toxic.

Instead of working to topple male power structures, Armstrong resorts to begging male leaders to remember that women are at their mercy and need their protection.

Armstrong goes on:

As male leadership works to proceed with loving-care for abused women, they must do it with the humility and presence of mind to recognize that the power structure almost always leans heavily in the favor of men. On top of that, the narrative of what makes a woman valuable, especially a Christian one, often enforces that power differential.

Male leaders, consider these questions.

If your daughter is in a locked office with Matt Lauer, how will her socialization to submission apply to her situation? How will she feel in a closed door meeting with an all-male elder board?

If your daughter is caught between Weinstein and a hotel door, what have your teachings about pleasing men and her as the weaker vessel taught her to respond in that moment? How will she respond when an all-male leadership asks her to cooperate with their plan if she disagrees with it?

If your daughter is in Andy Savage’s car after a youth event, what will your purity and modesty talks mean to her in that moment? What emotional pain or shame would she bring into an all-male meeting where her unwanted sexual experience is publicly discussed?

Part of me wants to cheer Armstrong’s questions—she’s right on the nail about the problems with socializing girls and women to be submissive and obedient—but the other part of me wants to know what Armstrong means when she says “the narrative of what makes a woman valuable, especially a Christian one, often enforces” a power differential in favor of men. Does she share this narrative herself?

…what makes a woman valuable…

What, submission? Obedience?

Armstrong never challenges this narrative. Instead, she appears to accept it. Her argument is not that we need to stop valuing submission in women. Instead, her argument seems to be that male elder boards need to recognize that these valuable traits also render women vulnerable—and thus in need of their protection.

What exactly is Armstrong’s solution?

Benevolent leadership is obvious when the leaders hear of abuse of power and privilege and respond to victims with “I believe you.”  Then they open the doors of male elder-led care to qualified godly women leaders to be included in decision making. Just because complementarian elder boards are all-male doesn’t mean they need to be closed door. Bringing in a qualified godly woman to advocate for the female creates a support system for her and, at times, can even be lifesaving. Benevolent male leadership seeks out godly women in their congregation as ezers.

Just so we’re clear, “ezer” is one of the Hebrew words translated as “help meet” in the King James Bible. It doesn’t mean expert. In conservative and complementation churches, it has traditionally meant “helper.”

Together with the women they’ve chosen to help them, they report any possible criminal action. They immediately create a safe environment for the abused women and place a community of trusted people in place to support her. They develop a care plan for the abused women that includes making her feel safe to interact in meetings and that minimizes her feelings of shame. She’s an image bearer of God, and they relentlessly treat her as such.

Armstrong’s response to the problems created by complementarianism—with its ruthless emphasis on male leadership and female submission—is to implore male pastors and all-male elder boards to involve a few “qualified godly women leaders” when dealing with a case of sexual abuse or domestic violence.

Despite identifying underlying complementation power structures as toxic, Armstrong never questions the rightness of these structures. She never suggests that women should perhaps be added to elder boards. She never questions the idea that women’s submission and obedience is what makes them valuable. Instead, she merely begs male church leaders to remember that it is their job to take care of women.

Armstrong finishes with this:

Now is the time for the whole church to find the most effective ways of compassionately leading, providing for, and protecting all women from all forms of abuse. Based on their own definition of biblical manhood, complementarian churches should be the safest churches for women.

Safe—because women are taken care of. By men. No. No, no, and, again, noNo woman is safest when she gives up her right to protect herself and puts herself fully in the hands of another.

To her credit, Armstrong urges male church leaders to believe women and to report abuse to the authorities. She pushes back against narratives about women being Jezebels or temptresses and advocates for minimizing abused women’s sense of shame, and for creating safe spaces and protection plans. Within the oppressive power structures Armstrong refuses to question, perhaps, this is the best that can be hoped for.

Here’s what it boils down to: While I appreciate men who work to create space for women, who believe women, and who respect women as people and as equals (i.e. not the men Armstrong is writing to), I see no reason to put myself or my safety in the hands of men. I can stand up for myself, form community and forge alliances, and work to change the toxic power structures that create the problems I face.

Armstrong, in contrast, has chosen to place women in the hands of men—and to beg men to be gentle with them. This, it would seem, is the best complementarianism has to offer.

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