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The Headship of Men and the Abuse of Women: Are They Related in Any Way? (Book Review)

November 20, 2020
By Claire Smith

Editor’s note: The following book review appears in the Fall 2020 issue of Eikon.

Kevin Giles, The Headship of Men and the Abuse of Women: Are They Related in Any Way? Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2020.


No one could be unconcerned about the scourge of domestic abuse in our communities, and even our churches. One victim is one too many, and the increased stress and isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic has only made the matter more pressing.

It is this sombre reality that makes Kevin Giles’ book, The Headship of Men and the Abuse of Women so disappointing. Although it is short, easy to read, and deals with an issue that should concern us all, the most commendable aspect of the book is the author and his wife’s evident concern and practical care for women victims. But as a biblical response to the problem, it falls far short.


The book’s central claim is that there is a causal connection between domestic abuse and a complementarian understanding of the relationship of men and women.

However, the most the book proves is that in the hands of “needy and controlling men” the Bible’s good teaching about the different responsibilities of husbands and wives can become toxic, and be used to justify abuse (3, 17, 34, 35, 39) — a sad reality that most complementarians readily acknowledge, but not a reason to reject the pattern of relationships set out in Scripture.

Giles is a long-time advocate for an egalitarian understanding of the sexes and a “sharp critic” of the complementarian view (3). He is also a strong critic of the Anglican Church in Sydney, Australia, which is again a significant feature of this book. However, he says that recent debates at both the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) 2019 annual meeting and Sydney Anglican 2018 synod, two large complementarian church bodies, prompted him to write.

Critical Interaction

I cannot vouch for the accuracy of his account of the SBC. I am certain, however, that his portrayal of Sydney Anglicans is not accurate.

For starters, his account of the synod debate about remarriage after divorce following domestic abuse contains significant errors of fact, which have been acknowledged by those on both sides of the debate.[1] I agree, and I was there and was an appointed minute reader. To be fair, Giles was not there, and has accepted others’ recollections. But he should have known better from the official public records.

These records show that the 2018 debate in question was about remarriage after divorce following abuse, not, as Giles frames it, about ensuring the safety of victims or even divorce per se.[2] They show that the debate followed the adoption of the Domestic Abuse Policy by the synod (unanimously, as Giles notes, 14), and that the Policy unequivocally prioritised the safety of the abused, and explicitly states that “we [Sydney Anglicans] will clearly teach that the Bible does not condone abuse and should not be interpreted to demand a spouse tolerate or submit to domestic abuse.”[3] Giles’ claim, then, that 1 Peter 3 was repeatedly invoked in the debate insisting that women were “to accept abuse and violence at the hand of their husband” is not only implausible but false (15, 70). (Again, I was there.) Similarly, his claim that the 161 members who voted in a secret ballot against the resolution did so because “they were convinced that a Christian woman should not divorce her husband no matter how abusive and violent he might be, even if she was in fear of her life and that of her children” (15) is utterly baseless, and an outrageous exercise in mindreading.

There are other problems. Giles does not even mention the Doctrine Commission Report[4] into the implications of domestic abuse for marriage, divorce and remarriage, which was requested at the 2018 synod prior to the remarriage debate, and released months before Giles finished writing his book; nor does he mention the chapter on domestic abuse in my own book, God’s Good Design: What the Bible Really Says about Men and Women (Matthias Media, 2012, 2019), even though the book is on his bibliography, and I am a complementarian Sydney Anglican.

Another curiosity in Giles’ portrayal is that he is scrupulous in giving the Sydney Anglican men he mentions their ecclesiastical or academic titles (14, 15, 96, 98, 109) but in the case of Kara Hartley — although he mentions that she was the deputy chair of the committee responsible for the Domestic Abuse Policy — he never once mentions her ecclesiastical title as Archdeacon or her role as Archdeacon for Women’s Ministry in the Anglican Diocese of Sydney (4, 14, 96, 97, 101, 106). Personally, I find this omission disrespectful. It is not as if he didn’t know.[5]

I could go on, but, in short, his portrayal of Sydney Anglicans is selective and fanciful.

The same is true of Giles’ portrayal of complementarians more broadly.

Biblical complementarians believe that a husband’s headship is to be modelled on the self-sacrificial love of Christ Jesus for his church. They do not believe, as Giles claims, that the Bible teaches “male privilege” and “entitlement” (34, 36). They would sharply distinguish the biblical complementarian view of marriage and any concept of “Christian or biblical patriarchy” from traditional, hierarchical gender models and power relations usually associated with the word “patriarchy” (28, 37), and would similarly reject any “traditional notions of masculinity” (36, 109) that were contrary to Scripture.

They would likewise consider any ideas of male superiority or that women are second-class as anathema (56, 74). They would not characterise a husband’s headship as making “all the important decisions,” and that a wife must just submit (36, 47). They would dispute the claim that only egalitarian marriages can uphold the equality and dignity of both spouses (38, 43).

And I expect they would respond to the real-life pastoral scenarios that Giles recounts much as he did (54, 57–58) — by prioritising safety, by providing practical support, love, care and compassion to the victim(s), by discipline of the perpetrator, and, where necessary, by involving civil authorities.

No biblical complementarian would recognise their view in Giles’ exposition of it. Rather, he has equated the ungodly, misogynistic, controlling behaviour implicated in most domestic abuse with the biblical model of marriage as ordered and complementary relations between equals.

Moreover, his repeated claim that complementarian teaching in evangelical churches often leads to domestic abuse, especially in ministry marriages, is never substantiated, and one article cited as evidence (9, fn. 20), published in December 2019, expressly states that “there are no statistics on the prevalence of domestic violence in the Australian Christian community.”[6]

As significant as these problems are, more problematic still is Giles’ engagement with Scripture. I include a few examples.

He repeatedly pits Paul’s teaching about headship against Jesus’ words, saying that “Our Lord said not one word on male headship and wifely submission and much to the contrary” (34, 42, 48, 66, 88). That is, he sets Scripture against Scripture, and places the authority and truth of Jesus’ words above those of the written apostolic word. And yet all Scripture is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16) and speaks with one voice, because it is the living word of the one true God.

He claims that Ephesians 5:22–24 contains “nothing distinctively Christian or countercultural” and that “Paul is speaking specifically of the fallen ordering of this world” (60, 67, italics original), despite the fact that Christ and the church are mentioned in these verses, and a Christian wife’s response to her husband is to be modelled on the church’s submission to Christ. Nothing could be more distinctively Christian.

He claims that Ephesians 5:21–33 contains “two contrasting and irreconcilable understandings of marriage standing side by side, a radically new and distinctively Christian one [i.e., 5:21, 25–33], and one that is as old as the fall and which prevails in the world” (67). Paradoxically, he claims to have arrived at this conclusion because of his “high view” of Scripture but observes that most evangelicals — both complementarian and egalitarian — will find his approach “very hard” to accept (67). Indeed!

Similarly, he claims that 1 Peter 3:1–6 is not about Christian marriage and that nothing makes this conclusion plainer to him than that “the word ‘love’ is not mentioned” (72). But on that basis how much else of the New Testament (NT) would similarly be sidelined?

He rules out 1 Timothy 2:8–15 as having application to today’s church because it says things that are found “nowhere else in the Bible” and “seem to directly contradict what is clearly taught elsewhere” (75–77). I would argue that many of the once-offs he lists are, in fact, addressed elsewhere in Scripture.[7] It’s also worth asking: If something in God’s word is said only once, is that not enough?

I have mentioned some of Giles’ more idiosyncratic claims. Many of his arguments are familiar egalitarian ones and have already been answered by complementarian scholars (and others). This includes the argument at the heart of Giles’ book, which is that the NT teaching about the ordered relationship of husband and wife is like its teaching addressed to slaves: it was practical advice about living with a cultural reality that was contrary to the will of God in the first century, and does not belong in the twenty-first century.

Briefly, this claim overlooks the fact that the NT never speaks positively about the institution of slavery — except our slavery to Christ — and, in fact, encourages slaves to gain their freedom if possible (1 Cor. 7:21). On the other hand, the NT only speaks positively about the institution of marriage and the ordered relationships of husband and wife, and does so, not with cultural underpinning, but with theological underpinning, referencing both God’s creation purposes and the relationship of Christ and the church.


Despite these significant criticisms of Giles’ book, it would be a mistake to deny the reality that there are men who take the Bible’s teaching about marriage and twist it to do great harm. They weaponize God’s word to terrorise those they should love and protect, just as some parents weaponize Scripture to terrorise their children, and some pastors their flock. In each case, however, the fault is in the sinful human heart not in the Scriptures.

This is why the solution Giles proposes is not a solution at all. It is in obeying the Scriptures and upholding God’s good pattern for marriage that true blessing is to be found. However, we must make sure that both our teaching and practice of that pattern could never be understood to legitimate the wickedness of domestic abuse. Moreover, we must do everything in our power to advocate, protect, and provide practical care for the vulnerable and abused, and leave no effort unspent in uncovering and acting against the evil of domestic abuse wherever it occurs.

Claire Smith is a New Testament scholar and women’s Bible teacher. She and her husband, Rob, are members of St Andrew’s Anglican Cathedral, Sydney, Australia.

[1] See the comments in response to both Andrew Katay and Robert Tong: (accessed October 27, 2020).

[2] “Resolution 50/18: Synod, noting that it is the prerogative of the Archbishop or a Regional Bishop, in accordance with the laws of this Church, whether or not to approve the remarriage of a divorced person, requests the Archbishop and Regional Bishops to consider approving the remarriage of a divorced person, where that person has been abused physically or emotionally by their former spouse.” This is cited in full by Giles, 14 fn. 36.

[3] The policy includes a 4-page document in easy-to -read English titled: ‘Appendix 14: Doctrine Commission on the Use and Misuse of Scripture in regard to Domestic Abuse,’ in Anglican Diocese of Sydney, Responding to Domestic Abuse: Policy and Good Practice Guidelines (2018), p. 5: %20Policy%20Guidelines%20and%20Resources.complete.pdf?doc_id=NTUyOTc=.

[4] A report of the Sydney Diocesan Doctrine Commission. The Implications of Domestic Abuse for Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage (2019):

[5] The title appears in the two articles by Hartley that Giles engages with (32, 120).

[6] Vicki Lowik and Annabel Taylor, “Evangelical Churches Believe Men Should Control Women: This is Why They Breed Domestic Abuse,” The Conversation (December 9, 2019). women-thats-why-they-breed-domestic-violence-127437. Italics added.

[7] For example, creational order: Gen. 2:7, 18–24; 1 Cor. 11:3, 7–9; different responsibilities in the church for women and men: 1 Cor. 14:33–35; 1 Tim. 2:11–15; 3:1–7; Tit. 1:5–9.

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