The newly-elected Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) president J.D. Greear recently exhorted male evangelicals to “humble themselves and apologize” to all the women his denomination’s doctrines have hurt through inaction and predation. Today, I’ll show you how meaningless Greear’s gestures are in the face of the SBC’s greatest triumph–which is also its greatest systemic flaw: complementarianism. He thinks he’s oh-so-evolved. But in reality, he’s simply battling to keep the status quo right where it is: in his lap. Worse yet (for him!), people have finally seen the real fruits of this doctrine.
In this post, we’ll cover the doctrine itself. Next time, we’ll look at how fundagelicals think they’ll reverse their decline.
The Crowning Achievement.
In a lot of ways, that takeover happened as a reaction to societal advances–specifically around feminism. Their politicization heated up around their first culture war (against abortion). The takeover, which was happening around that same time, specifically targeted women’s encroachment into ministry. As Susan Shaw, a feminist and formerly-Baptist minister, writes:
“Here, the fundamentalists draw from the rhetoric of feminism even as they oppose it,” she said. “While espousing a belief in the equality of women and men, they reinforce patriarchal family structures that disadvantage and control women. These statements attempt to appease women’s sense of fairness and need for self-worth, all the while maintaining them in a subordinate position, completely reliant on the benevolent protection of men.”
Here, in a nutshell, we see the SBC’s entire strategy for dealing with women. They seek to mollify and soothe, even to flatter. But they always keep all the power in their own laps.
The Nature of Power in Broken Systems.
Those in power always want to keep power there. Power becomes its own reward–and an overarching concern. And if the system in which the powerful move becomes broken somehow, its goals subverted and negated, then nobody else in it has any way to push back against their leaders’ increasing overreach–or any hope of fixing the situation.
The SBC created a social system that is custom-designed from the ground up to oppress half the human race. And then they somehow forgot to put in any way for that half to stop the other half from oppressing them.
Weird. And probably totally coincidental. Yep.
They called that social system complementarianism.
Smart people have always called it what it really is: separate but equal.
What Complementarianism Is Supposed To Do.
Conservative Christian leaders are very quick to remind us of what complementarianism should accomplish. (The following quotes come from the indicated links. In places, I had to summarize.)
John Piper, Desiring God: “Men have special responsibilities to care for and protect and honor women.” Of egalitarianism and feminism, he states: “This confusion is hurting people.”
Al Mohler, SBC Bigwig: “the pattern of God’s pleasure and design in the family and in the church is essential to human flourishing. . . the only sure foundation for the home, the church, and the Christian life.”
Jonathan Leeman, 9Marks: the only way to find true maturity; directly causes Christian men to be way more active and evangelistic, while making women way more feminine. “Makes the gospel easier to comprehend.”
Grant Castleberry, Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW): Brings about “our good and flourishing under his lordship, and not repression or unhappiness.” The best way to ensure “the training and development of children.” Will cause a husband to “lovingly give himself up for his wife,” while a wife will “respectfully submit to her own husband’s authority.”
Matt Chandler, The Village Church (TVC): Allows men to reach their full potential through wives’ “help.” Is “the space in which we all flourish.” Keeps women from believing Satan’s lies and committing sins that drag down the entire human race. Allows men to “lovingly lead” their wives, while stopping them from using their authority to “overpower and dominate” them.
Summarizing the Claims.
Through Jesus Power, Christian men gain total control over women. Also through Jesus Power, Christian women find the strength to graciously obey and indulge their controllers. Additionally, Jesus Power ensures that Christian men will always use their powers for good, never for evil or to further their own selfish ends. A couple that practices complementarianism can expect a happy, harmonious, lifelong marriage. A church that practices it can expect great zeal from their menfolk, a hunger for evangelism, and a thirst for what fundagelicals call discipling.
It’s a hell of a vision.
Nothing about it could possibly work in the real world, depending as it does on Jesus Power to make everything work. Nobody sensible designs a system that expects human beings to always engage in good faith and with altruism, then gives no way to handle those who don’t.
So if these claims were actually true, it’d be a compelling argument for Christianity. Even if I rejected the supernatural nonsense in the religion, I’d have to concede that something was bringing harmony and whatnot to Christians who practiced this doctrine. I might not know what the something was, but I wouldn’t be able to deny that Christians’ teachings were working against all odds and against all intuitive reasoning.
Too bad it’s not a true vision.
See, these Christian leaders have all forgotten something very important.
What they’re claiming rises to the level of a testable claim.
Weirdly, however, none of these men have ever actually tested any of these claims. Never once. I’ve never seen it happen. I don’t think these leaders would react well if someone even did try to test their claims. The most they’ll do is recite Bible verses they think support doctrines.
Fundagelicals despise the scientific method for a reason.
The Fatal Flaw in Complementarianism.
If male authority is part of God’s design, we would expect to see society flourish where patriarchy holds sway. Is this the case? Not at all.
Mimi Haddad, “Egalitarians and Complementarians: One Gospel, Two Worldviews.”
In all of the writeups I’ve ever seen of complementarianism, I’ve never once seen any Christian leader outline a real way to check men’s power or punish men who act out.
John Piper suggests that abusive husbands should be reported to the authorities. Churches “should not harbor an abusive man or woman.” (He implies with that last bit that churches should call the cops in abuse cases.)
But how often do his suggestions actually happen? Typically, the opposite occurs. Churches demand silence from victims; they shield and even rally around abusers. Women get blamed for their own abuse. Children are brutalized by their parents and caregivers. All their leaders do in response is move the abusers to new churches.
And it’s not our imagination:
Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune, Faith Trust Institute: “I have heard this story over and over. Well-meaning but misguided clergy who try to deal with child sexual abuse in-house.”
Carolyn Custis James: “One of the many disturbing aspects of spiritual abuse and a prime reason that it thrives unchecked in so many churches and in highly respected Christian institutions and ministries is because instead of “saying something” when signs of abuse surface, we take the path of least resistance.”
Boz Tchividjian, GRACE: “Too many Protestant institutions have sacrificed souls in order to protect their institutions, [Tchividjian] said. ‘We’ve got the Gospels backwards.'”
A Threat to Sales.
The real truth is that abusers and predators crept into fundagelical churches under the cover of complementarianism, and now those complementarian leaders find themselves unable to get them out of the house. The quotes I just listed speak to the pervasiveness of the failure of this doctrine.
Two things are happening here, and Christian leaders hate them both. But they are helpless before both.
First, remember that Christian dude I quoted above, Jonathan Leeman of 9Marks? Remember how he talked about complementarianism in terms of evangelism, particularly regarding cultures that aren’t steeped in fundagelicalism’s 1950s Mayberry nostalgia? His association of the one concept with the other might have sounded weird, but it really wasn’t.
Remember also what I said about complementarianism as a testimony to the truth of Christian teachings?
Fundagelical leaders think that, too.
Some denominations, notably Mormonism and the Quiverfull-type cults, specifically sell their religion to worried parents and couples who want a system of teachings that’ll keep their families safe and happy. Fundagelicals often trumpet complementarianism as a PROOF YES PROOF that the Bible is true.
But if people really knew what nightmares women and children experience behind those facades, they would never set foot in any Christian church–unless they were predators themselves. They’d never trust a single fundagelical leader ever again, that’s for sure, nor give way to them in matters of morality or discernment.
When you hear Christians trying to silence abuse allegations and revelations of scandals beyond imagining, listen for the telltale notes of fear there. What they want is for victims to keep silent to protect the religion’s image–to maintain the Happy Christian Illusion, so potential converts won’t be scared away.
They’re right to fear for their sales rate.
A Threat to Power.
Right now, sympathies are very firmly resting with the victims of complementarianism. And complementarian leaders surely know that whatever the outcome of this whole scandal, their future power as men is under serious threat.
These leaders have created a system that awards them unilateral power and control over women. This power comes solely through an accident of birth. The most categorically-incompetent and malevolent man in fundagelicalism can expect to get married and then do whatever he wishes to his hapless wife and children. By contrast, his family can expect to receive absolutely no sympathy or help from their spiritual leaders.
If their leaders discover that this one man is categorically unsuited to that level of power over others, then what’s stopping someone from examining any man in the group? Or even the leaders themselves? If this abuser sees his power stripped away, what stops someone from doing the same to any other man there?
This is serious stuff, for fundagelical men. They get the vapors over 90 minutes of concentrated focus on and appreciation shown to black people. What do you imagine they feel over losing every single bit of their unwarranted male supremacy forever?
Once power becomes the purview only of those who are qualified to wield it, male supremacy itself dies. Complementarianism depends upon a lack of examination. Men in that culture stand well above scrutiny. A “god” awarded them their power. Thus, mere mortals are not allowed to second-guess this “god.” They are definitely not allowed to remove what this “god” has awarded.
Their leaders designed the system to be like this. It accomplishes exactly what they want. It performs the way they want.
The Victory Dance.
By the mid-aughts, the leaders of the SBC probably felt great. They’d totally locked down the leadership in all of the SBC’s committees and subcommittees, packing them with ultraconservatives who could be counted upon to parrot nothing but the party line. Their plan, hatched in secret, quickly came to fruition. It’d been all too easy to execute.
Sure, some people complained. Some people always complain. The takeover had not happened without incurring a terrible cost. They lost 1900 churches in the battle. But in the end, the SBC’s new leaders completely destroyed any ability on the part of their critics to do anything tangible to fix what they had broken.
They could afford to ignore the societal changes happening in the background. In the SBC’s churches, their bizarro-world take on relationships not only continued to flourish, but grew ever more refined–and more extreme.
But in the background, drowned out by their victory celebrations, two of those societal changes were building steam.
The First Big Change.
The first of those societal changes to burst forth was freedom of religion.
Christian leaders and groups had always wielded uncontested power over most communities in America. But little cuts and jabs at their power had frayed that fabric. They began to lose these challenges. People began to slip through its tears.
And oh sure, the tribe descended upon those first brave dissenters ruthlessly. “Christian love” showered down upon these defectors, robbing them of livelihoods, spouses, children, possessions, everything almost. But the gates had opened at last. The trickle of the mid-aughts became the tidal wave of Nones and Dones by the 2010s.
Without coercive power, fundagelical leaders can’t hope to maintain their grip on their flocks. They sure can’t compel obedience through superior reasoning, nor through force of personality. They need fear to keep
the local systems in line their followers obeying–and trying (and failing) to meet their demands.
(Until I left Christianity, I never wondered why I’d never heard a fundagelical pastor speak against “Christian love” used as retaliation against dissenters. After I left, I didn’t need to wonder.)
The Second Big Change.
The second big societal change was a general move toward equality and social justice.
Remember, the entire Conservative Resurgence was, in essence, a reaction to what its architects saw as the greatest threat to their entire ideology: feminism. The fight against abortion was largely a fight against gains made by feminism. Likewise, the fight against women in ministry met head-on the first female interlopers to break into a formerly male-dominated field. Really, every step they’ve taken since 1969 has been a step further and further away from egalitarian ideals.
But they couldn’t kill those ideals. They could only delay things a little while.
Very, very slowly!, the veil of silence lifted. Abuse survivors grew more brave about leaving their abusive situations–and sharing stories that stunned the whole world. Ministers lost their footing on their pedestals of power. People grew more willing to discuss what they had hitherto turned away from.
Everything hit a tipping point last fall with #MeToo. Complementarians had tried hard to hijack that movement like they had the Southern Baptist Convention itself.
But the jaini had finally escaped her bottle.
And she demanded justice.
And Then A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Jamboree.
These two societal changes collided last week as the SBC met for their big Annual Ignorant Tight-Ass Club Jamboree. There, misogyny swirled with growing, clamoring demands for justice. The Old Guard did everything they could to keep their grip. Their victims pushed back.
I could see attempts to appease women and their allies in that meeting. The election of J.D. Greear, a few gestures toward inclusiveness on their convention stages, these could be seen as sops thrown to appease those who felt growing unease with their doctrine’s foul fruits.
But J.D. Greear is hardly some paragon of justice. I’ve read his writing. He’s just as lost as the rest of his fellow leaders. We’ll talk about them sometime soon. If women are looking to him to do anything to salvage this irredeemably evil doctrine, they hope in vain. I think of him like I think of Pope Francis; he talks a big game, but ultimately he doesn’t fix the fundamental problem with his religion’s fundamentals.
A Bad Situation (For Them) Gets Much, Much Worse.
Worse yet for fundagelicals, now an even bigger controversy has descended upon them.
I speak, of course, of the horror of child separation. When I search for news about it, I see Christians–and many Christian leaders–speaking out in the harshest terms against it. And yet it is nothing but the flowering of their ultimate politicization and polarization. It’s exactly what they wanted. It’s exactly why they wanted Donald Trump in the White House. Here we see their xenophobia and racism, their ignorance and their cruelty, on the most obscene and lascivious display imaginable.
And I don’t think anybody’s going to let them forget any of these truths. I certainly won’t. I sense a serious turning of the tides. This coming storm is so vast that I can’t see the shape of it yet. I just know that fundagelical leaders are seeking to dissociate themselves from something that is completely and totally their own goddamned fault. It’s not the first time they’ve tried.
What’s most pathetic about it all is that the evangelical leaders who are speaking against this purely evil and monstrous policy still can’t bring themselves to disavow their divinely-chosen Dear Leader. I suppose it’s hard to walk back a supposed divine pronouncement. That’s why it’s wise to keep politics out of one’s religion, and vice versa. They’d love us to refrain from mentioning that the policy they protest wouldn’t exist without their Dear Leader–and that he wouldn’t exist without fundagelical idol-worshippers.
Gang, I really don’t see how Christians are going to walk this one back.
I see J.D. Greear chirping and warbling about how he’s totally gonna revitalize and engage and continue growing and turn up the temperature in churches. And in just a matter of days, that entire triumphant happy happy joy joy post has likely–hopefully!–turned to dust in his mouth.
The Vital Connection.
People are making the connections at last. They’re starting to see all of these abuses as belonging to a worldview, a mindset. They’re starting to ask why complementarian theology always seems to end up (as Mimi Haddad points out) in abuse and heartache and cruelty and victims. (I quoted from that link above. It was hard to track down, and I very heartily encourage y’all to check it out.)
Remember that Matt Chandler blather from the link above? If your memory is sharp, you’ll recall that this is the same Matt Chandler from the Jordan Root scandal. The sermon I linked came from two years after that sorry, sordid display. Think people won’t notice that he’s still pushing the same doctrines that shielded an alleged child abuser? That he’s still teaching the same tired ideas that led him and his leaders to harass the woman bringing that abuser to their attention?
And now this.
It’s always the children who break the back of evil, isn’t it? I’m only sorry it always comes back to this. The abuse continues, until people are shocked into seeing its full depravity and evil. Then we connect the dots, and see how right-wing Christianity–the most toxic of all of its toxic flavors–always seems bound up in the worst scandals.
Fundagelicals are, as usual and always, their own biggest problem. We know how they’ve gloated and crowed about putting Donald Trump into office. We know they think he’s like a reincarnation of some ancient Biblical hero. And we heard them blow shofar horns like nutjobs the night he was elected, like he was their god descended to the earth to save them from irrelevance and powerlessness.
There’s no walking this one back.
It feels like we’ve finally escaped our bottle.
And we demand justice.
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