Evangelicals are, at heart, authoritarian. And that means that they can’t tolerate dissent of any kind. Nothing reveals that truth more than their lockstep over culture-war topics. On that note, an evangelical pastor recently wrote a post over at The Gospel Coalition that made me snerk extra-hard. In it, he asks what he calls ‘a simple question’ — but as we see so often in this crowd, his answer to his own question is anything but honest or accurate. As I read his disingenuous post, I got one of those surges of helpfulness that marks me as a person. So for today, I thought I’d help this guy answer his ‘simple question’ more truthfully and accurately than he could.
He’s Just Asking Questions, Y’all!
Joe Rigney works as a pastor. He also has a gig as an assistant professor at a religious college, where he teaches “theology and Christian worldview.” And he writes a lot of blog posts for various ultra-evangelical Christian sites. Like a lot of evangelicals, he loves him some C.S. Lewis and Narnia stuff. In fact, he’s written books on those topics. One’s called Live Like a Narnian. (See endnotes for my objections.)
On December 27, Rigney contributed a blog post to The Gospel Coalition, a firmly fundagelical culture-warrior site. The post is called “A Simple Question for Complementarians.”
Immediately, we can make a few educated guesses about where he’s going with this topic. Rigney’s post immediately smells like that long-favored tactic of evangelicals, just asking questions (also known as JAQing off). In it, they ask a question that they’re not in the least interested in having answered. It just exists as a gateway to a preaching session or sales pitch. “Where do atheists get their morality?” is one of the famous examples of the breed, but there are lots of others.
Another big indication that a Christian is about to JAQ off at us is that right after “just asking” their question, the Christian immediately answers it. That’s what Rigney does here.
He didn’t need to construct his post like this. He could have simply offered his observations. Instead, he acts like he’s someone’s dad asking what the hell we think we’re doing right now.
It’s a tactic designed to put others on the defensive–and grant the asker dominance in the engagement.
Yes, It’s Just Like Masturbation.
The masturbation allusions I’m making here are no accident, incidentally.
It’s very difficult to escape the impression, when dealing with Christians pulling this stunt, that they’re trying to masturbate using our hands. If they want to do that, then they need to ask us first! But they never do.
Our consent never mattered before; let’s not be surprised that it doesn’t now.
Like the JAQ’s kissin’ cousin, the cringeworthy zinger attempt, this display exists for the exclusive benefit of the person doing it. It’s a show of virtue signaling, a display of dominance. And you can tell that because they don’t ever JAQ off at people who stand above them on the ladder of power. Oh no, never! If they did, their target could easily (and rightly) get offended by this snide, condescending display and retaliate in meaningful ways.
A church member won’t JAQ off at a powerful pastor known for having a bad temper. Nor will they try it with a judge deciding their criminal court case in trial, nor the police officer about to haul them off for drunk driving. Authoritarians, being bullies, tend to possess an exquisitely-tuned sense of where the lines of power lead. You can predict quite a bit by simply looking at exactly who evangelicals abuse, when, and how.
Authoritarians reserve zingers and JAQing off and all those similar power plays for people they can safely abuse. If you ever find yourself on the business end of one of these plays, that’s where you stand in that authoritarian’s mind.
Because Sounding Deep Is Good Enough.
In Joe Rigney’s case, his “simple question” centers on which Bible verses complementarian pastors use to illustrate their sermons-slash-demands to which ones they avoid using–or will use only with tons of caveats.
That’s it. The way he sees it, complementarianism represents a very narrow path between slippery slopes on either side:
. . .some churches might be in greater danger of sliding down the slippery slope to domestic tyranny and abuse. Others might be in greater danger of sliding down the slippery slope to feminism and egalitarianism.
So these are the two dangers, to this guy, of complementarianism: that men will abuse their power… or that someone will go all feminist-y and reject complementarian men’s demands entirely.
When evangelical sexists wring their hands over those “slippery slopes,” this is the sort of thing they’re talking about. Rigney can’t actually question the doctrine itself, not honestly and certainly not critically. So instead, he concentrates on policing it:
[W]hen it comes to preaching and teaching my congregation, which truth am I eager to say out loud and clearly, and which truth am I reluctant to speak, or only speak with layers upon layers of qualification and nuance?
And since he’s simply JAQing off, he already has an answer to this question.
The hilarious and sad part is that Joe Rigney is halfway right about why pastors might hesitate to teach/preach certain things about his idolized doctrine:
This question is relevant to all sorts of issues. Its value lies in highlighting our real but unacknowledged reluctance. It’s a way of revealing those things that we know, but don’t know that we know. We often have an intuitive awareness of which cliff we’re closest to; you can tell by how we tiptoe. The above question simply draws attention to the tiptoeing, and forces us to ask where it comes from.
See, he perceives two potential Bible verses here, both of which lead to “slippery slopes.” Here they are:
- “Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them?” (Col. 3:19)
- “Wives, submit to your husbands as is fitting in the Lord” (Col. 3:18)
(Yes, he listed them out of order. I’m not sure why.)
He asks an interesting question. He just isn’t interested in a real answer for it.
Rigney’s so eager to virtue-signal and assert his own dominance that he failed to actually ask any of his fellow pastors why they might hesitate to preach certain topics. Once again, we discover that when people refuse to allow input into their behavior and decision-making, they can easily end up adrift.
The JAQed-Off Answer.
Here’s how Joe Rigney thinks his question would shake out:
For my own part, in our present climate, I’m willing to bet that large numbers of complementarians would be eager to preach the first sermon, summoning men to love and sacrifice for their wives like Christ did. They would preach it clearly, straight down the middle. On the other hand, there would be some fear and trepidation about preaching the second one, and everything would be handled with massive amounts of nuance and qualifications.
His first error: assuming that pastors would “preach it clearly, straight down the middle.” He mistakes eagerness for power and dominance–and virtue-signaling and pandering–for clarity and straightforwardness.
His second error: mistaking the source of pastors’ hesitation in approaching the second verse and teachings around it. He seriously thinks that any pastor who treats carefully with that second verse and set of teachings does so because he’s in danger of sliding down the feminist-y slippery slope:
But in our egalitarian age, I can imagine significantly more churches that are eager to preach Christ-like headship, and tiptoe around Sarah-like submission.
Sure, Jan. That’s exactly why evangelical churches don’t talk too much about “Sarah-like submission.”
Did I mention this guy’s obsession with Narnia? Or how he thinks his tribe of totalitarian tin-pot dictators aching for their very own Republic of Gilead is totally like the Narnians who worship Aslan?
Things Fundagelicals Know: Biological Hard-Wiring and Evolutionary Psychology.
Rigney makes a third error, as well, in his assumptions about why pastors might have trouble identifying the problem spots he’s seen in his strawman effigies of them:
We are hardwired to worry about the other guy’s danger, not our own. We see it clearly, and we’re all too eager to give him advice. It’s much, much harder to detect our own slippery slopes.
In reality, evangelicals are the least self-aware and introspective people I’ve ever encountered, ever. They are hardwired to worry about their own danger. They couldn’t care less about anybody else’s “danger.”
They’ll happily pray for a tornado to avoid their own homes, even knowing that according to their beliefs they’re all but signing the shipping form to send it to their neighbors instead. Instead of praying for an end to all cancer everywhere, they pray for their own family member’s cancer to be healed. If they find a magic $20 bill on the sidewalk, they praise Jesus and use it to buy a coffee instead of giving it to a hungry person (or finding its owner).
Nobody is more laser-focused on self-preservation and self-enrichment at any cost than authoritarians.
To avoid self-examination and the dangers of being wrong, evangelicals hyper-focus on everyone else’s perceived shortcomings. Like all authoritarians, evangelicals feel safest within a bubble of dominance, but they must test the bubble’s walls constantly to maintain that feeling. Slamming dissenters is just part of that process.
Even Joe Rigney falls victim to this truth.
Why The Slopes Are Slippery.
See, Rigney knows that his tribe’s divinely-mandated sexist system, complementarianism, represents a big hurdle for a lot of people. Even true-blue evangelicals struggle with it.
And yes, I mean it definitely should and they definitely should, just not for the reasons Rigney imagines.
Complementarianism is a great moral evil. Even within evangelicals’ own belief system, it has very shaky and sordid underpinnings. In that sense, Rigney’s late to the party in finally noticing that some people within evangelicalism aren’t 100% on board with his party line.
Having recognized some of the risks inherent in his idolized doctrine, Rigney then falls right off the rails.
. . . a chief part of wisdom is learning to not only articulate and defend one’s position, but also understand and manage one’s suspicions.
In Rigney’s Bizarro World, the people in the wrong here are those harboring “suspicions” about complementarianism’s validity and divine approval rating. That’s how he maintains complementarianism in his mind as a pristine, perfect belief. In authoritarians’ world, a perfect belief cannot be questioned–or changed–by anybody. If anything goes wrong with it, then the people of the system did something wrong with it.
Why Evangelical Pastors Like That First Verse.
It’s very easy to see why many evangelical pastors might prefer preaching the first verse. It’s pure virtue signaling! Any pastor who stands up in front of an evangelical audience and bellows, “Husbands, you should love your wives as Christ loves the church!” will get a raucous chorus of AMENs. It’s one of those bigtime gimme sermon topics.
The men cheering for such a pastor will all be on board with this teaching. They all love imagining themselves as mini-Jesuses anyway, and in the moment they’ll all be seeing themselves in their idealized state as big strong manly TRUE CHRISTIAN™ men. None of them will sting or smart or get defensive at that topic, even if they committed domestic violence earlier that very morning.
For many complementarians, such abuse actually fits in with their redefined vision of love–or can easily be forgotten by their imaginary friend through the incantation of a quickly-recited magic spell.
It is impossible to imagine any evangelical church crowd that would get angry about this topic. It’s a glorification of male privilege without a single check on the effects of privilege.
Why Evangelical Men Love That First Verse.
Maybe evangelical men love this topic because there’s literally nothing about the doctrine forcing them to obey any rules, nor any solid repercussions for disobeying these nonexistent rules. Nobody holds them to any accountability.
And I can personally attest to this truth. When I went to my pastor for help with my then-husband Biff, that kindly, genial old pastor gave me tips for managing him. Biff’s status as our family’s leader, however, went completely unquestioned. I still had to obey his whims, as dark and childish as they were. Jesus, I was assured, would make Biff a better leader over time. Until then, I just had to put up with his ineptitude.
Men protect each other in this culture.
They have always been bad at living up to their own hype. That’s why they needed a doctrine in the first place rather than sliding into household leadership positions through aptitude and skill. They needed to be able to point to a real live god as the one demanding that women put up with an obviously-unjust, obviously-self-serving, obviously-abuse-prone notion like complementarianism.
Now that they’ve got their rationalization, any pastor can count on them to get totally happy-clappy imagining that Jesus totally loves and approves of this doctrine that serves them so well.
Why Evangelical Pastors Hesitate Around That Second Verse.
As for the second verse, the one about women having to “submit” to men, I can easily see why pastors might step carefully around it and give lots of caveats around it.
Unlike the first verse, the second one imposes some very harsh, strict rules upon women–and the men in this culture stand at the ready to impose some equally harsh, strict punishments upon the women who disobey it.
Complementarianism, itself, imposes no rules nor penalties upon men who abuse their power. And so power-mad, abusive, control-hungry men glom right onto it. I am completely certain that this simple reality explains why my ex Biff converted so quickly to it–and why he remains an enthusiastic part of this sick, dysfunctional tribe even today.
One Australian expose of domestic violence within evangelicalism tells us that the men most likely to abuse their wives are evangelical men who attend church sporadically, but we could have guessed that. We already know that in places without no-fault divorce or in regressive covenant-style marriages, men feel much freer to abuse women, while in places where wives can easily obtain divorces and seek legal redress for abuse, men commit far less domestic violence.
Evangelical pastors learn quickly what damage this doctrine does to very real women and children–if they failed to notice that damage while growing up in a church family and with ultra-authoritarian parents. (Many evangelical men do totally fail to notice it.)
As For Those Caveats.
Those caveats that Joe Rigney sneers at? Those “layers upon layers of qualification and nuance” he so scorns?
In reality, they’re not a sure sign of crimethink (as he insists). Instead, they amount to ineffectual damage control. To curb some of that damage, pastors offer caveats and asterisks to the doctrine. Usually, they “allow” women to disobey their husbands in certain cases:
- Demanding something that the pastor would consider “sinful” for the wife to do
- Inflicting physical abuse upon the woman (for varying definitions of physical and varying extents of abuse)
A pastor must be very careful about drilling down on the idea of female subjugation these days. After all, that’s more or less what led to Paige Patterson’s downfall.
… And Their Absolute Impotence.
Alas, those caveats represent the extent of pastors’ power in defanging this abusive ideology. Even Al Mohler, one of the holy crusader-knights of complementarianism, conceded recently that yeah, this doctrine acts as a permission slip for abusers:
“Some men have cited complementarian doctrine as an excuse for lording over their wives rather than leading and serving,” he said, “and even taking advantage to the point of abuse and denying that abuse is abuse.”
But no matter how many abuse scandals spring forth from complementarian groups, complementarians refuse to critically examine their belief system. The Big Problem Here, as they themselves always see it, is simply human sinfulness rather than a systemic weakness they created and cling to and need like air. Since women aren’t really people to them anyway, men like Al Mohler feel no need to pursue justice and compassion on their behalf.
These men have gotten exactly what they want. Who cares about anybody else? Women aren’t men, so it’s not like they can do anything about it. Anyway,
Aslan Jesus totally wants it this way and well, he eats anybody who angers him so…
Why Evangelicals Hate Equality.
It is now obvious that the so-called “biblical argument” for male headship has no textual support, and that the complementarian appeal to the Bible can only persuade ill-informed anxious young men and already convinced complementarians.
“Complementarian Theology in Crisis” (2018)
The rest of the world has already figured out that separate but equal doesn’t work. Hell, we even know why it doesn’t work. We know that when you strip power from one group and hand it to another, and then allow that powerful group to police itself with no restraints or checks, abuse is what you’re going to get. There’s no other way it works.
The utter failure of complementarianism–and the many victims created by it–speaks to the failure of Christianity itself. “Jesus” doesn’t help the women facing abuse in this system, nor shape complementarian men into better, more responsible leaders.
Evangelicals and other regressive sorts fight human rights progress tooth and nail because they sense instinctively that their pursuit of power is a zero-sum game.
If we ever achieve true equality, then power will go only to those who deserve it. It will elude and be denied to those who do not. Evangelical men do not deserve the power they crave. They know this to their very bones and marrow. Without resorting to authoritarian demands for undeserved power, they will get no power at all.
And I think Joe Rigney realizes that. It’s why the only thing that Mr. Full-Frontal Narnia can do in response to his tribe’s mounting losses is demonize dissenters and grab as hard as he can for whatever he can get till everything falls apart for good.
NEXT UP: Many Christians also love imagining that they’re oh so very brave for believing nonsense. We’ll explore this idea next time — see you soon!
Regarding Evangelicals’ Narnia Obsession: Rigney doesn’t realize that the ultra-authoritarian evangelicals, who love torture, fighting against human rights, and caging children, are the bad guys in this literary world, not the pretty Telmarines or Narnians or whatever? Then again, this is the faith group that thinks it’s totally just like Dietrich Bonhoeffer fighting the evil Nahtzees. No villains like to imagine themselves as villainous; as the saying goes, the best villains are heroes in their own minds.
Even with that rule in mind, I’ll never forgive Marvel for making Magneto willing to sacrifice an unwilling child to achieve his plans. He had principles, dammit. #NotMyMagneto #Team80sXMen (Back to the post!)
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