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Does Complementarianism Lead to Abuse?: A Response to Mimi Haddad, “Helping the Church Understand Biblical Equality” and Kylie Maddox Pidgeon, “Complementarianism and Domestic Abuse”

June 22, 2023

My official assignment is to respond to two chapters in the third edition of Discovering Biblical Equality: Biblical, Theological, Cultural, and Practical Perspectives: Mimi Haddad’s “Helping the Church Understand Biblical Equality” and Kylie Maddox Pidgeon’s “Complementarianism and Domestic Abuse: A Social-Scientific Perspective on Whether ‘Equal but Different’ Is Really Equal at All.”

Haddad’s chapter possesses a pastoral purpose — to help readers lead a church toward accepting and following her view of biblical gender equality. Pidgeon’s chapter has a polemical one — to persuade readers from social science research that complementarianism creates and fosters discriminatory practices that in turn “facilitate gendered violence” (595).

Both chapters offer a charitable tone toward those who, like me, adopt an “equal but different” complementarian position. Both present their case in measured tones without over-speaking or caricaturing. And both, I trust, seek the good of the body of Christ. I am grateful for all this, and I hope to follow their example in these ways.

Yet I am not convinced either author adequately understands authority or equality, and in that way reflect the weaknesses of egalitarianism generally. Rather than responding line by line to their arguments, therefore, I would like to frame my response around the question, does complementarianism lead to abuse? I will consider the two authors’ claims along the way, yet the larger answer requires us to think more carefully about authority and equality, which means I am attempting not merely to respond, but to offer my own substantive contribution to the conversation. I will do all this in seven points.

1. Complementarians should work harder than anyone in opposing abuse.

Egalitarians may critique complementarianism for making women susceptible to abuse. Yet a complementarian’s first word of reply should be, “Thank you for opposing abuse. We stand with you against it,” even if some egalitarians will reject that partnership.[1] Using authority to harm people, which is how I define “abuse,” is terrible both for what it does to the victim and for how it lies about God. It dehumanizes both the abuser and the abused, and it destroys faith. It is wicked.

I am not arguing that we should adopt an egalitarian’s definitions and indictments of abuse wholesale. “Concept creep” can be a problem when locating and defining abuse.[2] Still, concept creep is a problem if for no other reason than we do not want to discount real cases of abuse, as with those who heard the boy crying wolf. And we want to hear the real cries.

A World Health Organization (WHO) study based on data from 161 countries between 2000 and 2018 shows that 26–28 percent of “ever-married/partnered women” between the ages of 20–44 “have been subjected to physical and/or sexual violence from a current or former husband or male intimate partner at least once in their lifetime.”[3]

Another study compiled from 66 surveys in 44 countries, representing 481,205 women between 2000 and 2013, says that nearly one in three women experience intimate partner violence in their lifetime, with a less than 4 percent prevalence in high-income countries and at least 40 percent prevalence in some low-income settings.[4]

Complementarians should care about and highlight this kind of data. Within their own churches, moreover, complementarians should be at the forefront of fighting against abusive husbands and pastors. We believe God has specially tasked men with protecting wives and flocks. Therefore, we should be first in line both in training men not to abuse their authority as well as in disciplining, even excommunicating, those who do.

In other words, if we would presume to teach about the goodness of good authority, we bear a special responsibility to also teach against the badness of bad authority. Jesus does (Mark 10:42). Paul and Peter do (Eph 6:4; 1 Pet 3:7).

Along these lines, Pidgeon’s chapter helpfully distinguishes between different kinds of abuse (physical, sexual, financial, spiritual, emotional, and so forth). As a pastor, I have seen them all. Her chapter does a good job chronicling some of the effects of abuse. And it rightly targets the unconscious and conscious biases Christian men (whether complementarian or egalitarian, I would add) can sinfully bear toward women.

One crucial way to work against such biases is to recognize the “essential and indispensable” role women play in the work of the church and the spread of the gospel.[5] Haddad’s chapter, in that regard, helpfully chronicles the marvelous ways God has used women in Scripture and church history to expand the gospel’s reach. At several points, my margin notes read, “Amen!” She also lists six practices churches can use to transition toward egalitarianism: use couples as greeters and ushers; have women read Scripture aloud in church; give women the opportunity to pray publicly when opportunities arise; encourage women to participate in church business meetings; ask women to serve on church committees; have women share leadership of house groups. The funny thing is, except for that last example, every complementarian church I know practices the first five. Perhaps our churches do not neglect the ministry of women as much as she imagines?

In short, complementarians and egalitarians agree on this much: we hate abuse. The difference is our solution. Egalitarians say, “Let’s dismantle the structures.” Complementarians say, “Good structures can be abused. Let’s get better at teaching the structure and disciplining every wrong use.” I will return to this.

2. The data on male headship’s correlation to abuse is mixed.

That spousal abuse occurs is clear. Do views of male headship or hierarchical gender norms contribute to this violence?

Pidgeon says yes, and I do not believe she is entirely wrong. She points to a WHO Fact Sheet that says, “community norms that privilege or ascribe higher status to men and lower status to women” act as a risk factor for violence against women.[6] Though this statement does not offer the research basis for this claim, it is not hard to imagine that men who regard their wives as possessing a “lower status” might find it easier to justify abusive behavior (to be clear, complementarianism does not teach that women possess a “lower status”). She also points to an article by four Australian researchers who conducted interviews with leaders and members of various faith communities (Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jewish) and determined that abuse remains poorly understood in those communities.[7] Too often, they treat abuse as a taboo topic. Too often, such communities can minimize abuse, blame the victims, overemphasize forgiveness to the neglect of protecting women, or encourage women to remain in abusive situations. I do not believe these things happen only in complementarian churches, but they do sometimes happen in complementarian churches. That should not be.

Beyond what Pidgeon highlights, it is not difficult to find studies that demonstrate some type of link between hierarchical gender norms and abuse. One of the massive studies I cited in section 1 above observes that “especially predictive” of partner violence “are norms related to male authority over female behaviour, norms justifying wife beating, and the extent to which law and practice disadvantage women compared with men in access to land, property, and other productive resources.”[8] No complementarian would justify wife beating, of course, but what does the report mean by “norms related to male authority over female behavior”? To answer, it points to a further OECD Development Center study which measures for several items: early marriages for women ages 15 to 19, norms condoning domestic violence, female genital mutilation, the bias toward sons as seen in abortion rates (think India and China) and inheritance laws, access to land ownership and financial services, and equal civil liberties and political participation. The only criteria which would potentially apply to complementarianism is “unpaid care work,” referring to higher rates of mothers caring for children in the home than fathers.[9]

Best I can tell, such criteria are typical in the world of social science surveys. They indicate that, yes, gender norms that grant higher status and power to men over women from womb to tomb tend to correlate with comparatively higher rates of abuse.

That said, these studies act like massive fishing nets that capture, from a Christian perspective, both the tuna they should catch and the dolphins they should not, as it were. That is, they measure for a host of things that biblical complementarianism (not to mention Christianity) utterly opposes as well as a few things it might endorse (though a researcher at WHO or the OECD would not). Such is the case for the surveys Pidgeon cites as well. She mentions “community norms that privilege or ascribe higher status to men” from the WHO Fact Sheet, which itself is left undefined. Yet right next to that criterion is another: “harmful masculine behaviours, including having multiple partners or attitudes that condone violence.” To draw lessons for complementarianism from such studies, in other words, is a bit like surveying “feline attacks on humans” and including in your sample set both wildcats and house cats but not specifying the difference.

Are there any studies which come closer to comparing apples to apples — Christian complementarian marriages versus Christian non-complementarian marriages? In fact, there are, and these studies treat gender-traditional marriages as presenting either the lowest rates of domestic violence or at least differences that are statistically negligible. Simultaneously, such studies present so-called “gender-traditional” women as happiest.

University of Virginia sociologist Bradley Wilcox, in his 2004 book Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands, draws from his studies to argue,

Contrary to the assertions of feminists, many family scholars, and public critics, [churchgoing conservative Protestant men] cannot be fairly described as “abusive” and “authoritarian” family men wedded to “stereotypical forms of masculinity.” They outpace mainline Protestant and unaffiliated family men in their emotional and practical dedication to their children and wives… and they are the least likely to physically abuse their wives.[10]


churchgoing conservative Protestant men “spend more time with their children; they are more likely to hug and praise their children; their wives report higher levels of satisfaction with the appreciation, affection, and understanding they receive from their husbands; and they spend more time socializing with their wives.”[11]

With regard to domestic violence itself:

churchgoing conservative Protestant men register the lowest rates of domestic violence of any group in this study. Indeed… churchgoing conservative Protestant family men have the lowest rates of domestic violence of any major religious group in the United States. [12]

Interestingly, Wilcox concludes that conservative values are not the problem; nominalism is, as shown in the following  graph:

Figure: Husbands who commit domestic violence | Source: NSFH2 (1992–1994)

Why would this be? The Bible’s teaching about male headship seems to restrain faithful Christian men, while nominal Christian men are more likely to twist it for their own authoritarian purposes. Do not forget: the devil knows how to use the Bible, too (Matt. 4:6). Progressive Christian men, meanwhile, fall somewhere in the middle.

In 2017, critics of the survey that Wilcox relied on remarked that the survey used over twenty-year-old data, that it was restricted to the United States, and that it depended on men’s reporting of perpetration and not women’s reporting of victimization.[13] In 2019, however, the Institute for Family Studies published similar findings to those reported in Wilcox’s 2004 book in the World Family Map, which draws from eleven countries and cites both women’s victimization and male perpetration.[14] When it turns to measurements of intimate partner violence (IPV), the World Family Map affirms Wilcox’s 2004 book as pertains to the distinction between nominal and faithful Christian men.

Religiosity, or religious commitment, seems to be the determining factor, not religious tradition, and it seems that nominal religiosity may present the most risk, with both the nonreligious and the religiously devout being less likely to perpetrate IPV than are those who attend religious services infrequently.[15]

As pertains to the distinction between traditional and progressive on IPV, the map cites differences that are statistically negligible:

Popular accounts suggest the idea that wifely submission to husbands provides theological cover for abusive relationships — or at least for men to abuse women. We see little evidence of this here, though. Women in highly religious couples, be they patriarchal or egalitarian, are not statistically different from any other group of women…Headship beliefs themselves (i.e., not in combination with couple religiosity) are not associated with women’s victimization.[16]

Critics had also faulted the 1990 survey with only pointing to physical abuse. Interestingly, however, the surveys informing the World Family Map found that “highly religious gender traditional” women express the highest rates of “contentment, satisfaction, and stability” in their marriages (17.02 on their index) relative to every group, including “highly religious gender progressive” women (16.76). Also, “less/mixed religious gender traditional” women (15.59) scored higher than “less/mixed gender progressive” women (15.22).[17]

Perhaps the most significant differences showed up in the surveys on women’s sexual satisfaction. The study reports, “With sexual satisfaction, a different pattern emerged with highly religious traditional women being significantly more likely to be sexually satisfied than women in all other groups – including highly religious progressive women.”[18] In terms of women who strongly agreed with the statement, “I am satisfied with my sexual relationship with my partner,”

  • 56% of “highly religious gender traditional” versus 37% of “highly religious gender progressive” women strongly agreed;
  • 36% of “less/mixed religious gender traditional” women versus 29% of “less/mixed religious gender progressive” women strongly agreed;
  • And 31% of “secular gender conservative” versus 32% of “secular gender progressive” women strongly agreed.

In the New York Times, Wilcox summarized what the surveys behind the World Family Map teach: regular church-attending, conservative-gender women are, far and away, the happiest of any group. Among regular church attenders, 73% of conservative-gender women report happy marriages versus 60% of egalitarian women. Interestingly, secular progressive wives are happier than secular conservative wives: 55% to 33%, respectively. Meanwhile, 46% of wives in the religious middle, who attend infrequently or have husbands who do, report happy marriages.[19]

Why would gender traditional wives among the church-attending subset and the egalitarian wives among the secular subset each be happiest in their subset? Wilcox remarks in his Times piece, “It turns out that feminism and faith both have high expectations of husbands and fathers, if for very different ideological reasons, and that both result in higher-quality marriages for women.”

What can we conclude from all this data? Authority is a tool that can be used for good or for ill, like computers, scalpels, or dynamite. With dynamite, for instance, you can blow up a home or lay a railroad line. Likewise, the feminist and egalitarian agenda rightly reports of the damage done by sexist gender norms around the world. Therefore, they seek to eradicate those norms, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The baby they throw out is all the good that a husband and pastor’s authority can do. Their analysis, finally, is one-sided.

Reading through Pidgeon’s chapter, I kept waiting for her to present evidence that complementarian men abuse their wives at a higher rate than egalitarian or non-Christian men, but it never comes. Still, she concludes the chapter, “It is no longer credible to simply state from the pulpit that complementarianism, due to its loving kindness, does not facilitate gendered violence.” How does she arrive at this conclusion absent evidence? It’s baked into the premises of her overall argument. In the final analysis, her argument is not based in social science but ideology. Her argument is not, “Look at all these complementarian churches where rates of abuse are comparatively high.” Rather, her argument is, complementarianism and domestic abuse operate by the same power dynamics: both limit women. And since any affirmation of authority that limits what a woman might do is bad (the implicit premise), of course complementarianism leads to abuse. She then doubles down on this instinct when she says that refusing to acknowledge that “gender inequality” (she employs the United Nations’ definition) is the basis of abuse “is itself an act of abuse.”

Notice, then, how her question-begging argument works: the premise becomes the conclusion. Namely, since limiting women is abuse (premise), limiting women leads to abuse (conclusion). That is the chapter. Another way to state this premise is, authority is bad because it places limitations on people, a point I will turn to next.

Yet what if she believed in the goodness of good authority, and that some limitations on people are not always bad, and that a man’s authority in the home and church really could serve a woman’s good?

3. Egalitarian arguments concerning abuse put authority in a wholly negative light.

This one-sided analysis means that egalitarian arguments concerning abuse tend to put authority itself in a wholly negative light.

Pidgeon’s chapter, for instance, spends three pages using the story of David and Bathsheba to teach the lesson that “Each degree of power and privilege that a person holds add more scope for abuse” (581). Power corrupts, she observes. So far, so good. Yet where she goes next seems unfortunate for her argument. David was able to take advantage of Bathsheba, she remarks, because “Bathsheba did not have equal authority.” She then draws the parallel: in complementarianism, “Women are denied equal authority.” The solution, then, is to take away the man’s authority, lest it lead to domestic abuse. The implication, working backward to David and Bathsheba, though, is that David should never have been given authority either.

Whether she means to or not, her arguments indict authority itself. To continue following the logic, we should remove the authority of government so it cannot be abused. So with parental authority and managerial authority and every authority. Even God’s authority, frankly, begins to look a little suspect.

I am highlighting the wholly negative instincts toward authority at play here because it is the deep and entrenched bias of our postmodern generation. The Enlightenment tradition, which postmodernity ironically depends upon, is one sustained argument against all forms of authority, whether epistemological, religious, political, moral, scientific, linguistic, and finally gender. We have fixed both eyes on the badness of bad authority.

Yet the solution to bad authority is not no authority, but good authority. Civil rights advocates in the 1960s responded to racist local and state authorities by appealing to federal authorities. Likewise, those opposing child abuse in the home or church appeal to state authorities in the form of child protective services.

Just because power can be corrupted does not make authority any less God-given. Human agency itself is corrupted, but God still gives it. The lesson of David and Bathsheba is that David wrongly used his authority and needed to be disciplined, as the prophet Nathan did. The lesson is not that David’s possession of authority is altogether illegitimate and that no one should possess governing authority. God made him king, after all. David’s authority was legitimate, even if used wrongly.

Pidgeon is right: more power and privilege adds scope for abuse. Let us always keep one eye fixed on that reality. Yet do not throw the baby out with the bathwater, as I said. As Christians, we also need to keep one eye on good authority. Speaking of…

4. Authority, as God intends it in creation and redemption, is good and life-giving.

The Bible teaches that authority-in-the-fall is bad and destructive. Egalitarianism gets this much right. Being “under” a fallen person can be a disadvantage. It can make children vulnerable, citizens vulnerable, church members vulnerable, wives vulnerable. Complementarians and egalitarians alike must not deny this, but attend to it. Bad authority discourages, cripples, wilts, sucks dry, dehumanizes, snuffs out, annihilates. It uses, but does not give. It is political imperialism, economic exploitation, environmental degradation, business monopolization, social oppression, spousal and child abuse.

What people today overlook, however, is that authority-in-creation and authority-in-redemption are good and life-giving. Good author-ity authors life. To hate authority is to hate the act of creating, because creating something — a game, a computer, a car, a marriage, a house, a book — requires design principles which then govern (rule) that which is created. Creation and authority are utterly intertwined. God the ruler is God the creator, because good rule creates and creation requires rule.

Good authority does not just work from the top down, but also from the bottom up. Good authority says, “Let me be the platform on which you build your life. I’ll supply you, fund you, resource you, guide you. Just listen to me.” Good authority binds in order to loose, corrects in order to teach, trims in order to grow, disciplines in order to train, legislates in order to build, judges in order to redeem, studies in order to innovate. It is the rules for a game, the lines on a road, a covenant for lovers.

Good authority loves. Good authority gives. Good authority passes out power.[20]

It is to a person’s advantage to be “under” a good authority because it strengthens and grows. Everyone who has ever had a good teacher, coach, or mother knows as much. For instance, my boss, Ryan, shoulders final responsibility for the challenges and anxieties of our organization. I get to go home and leave all this behind. He does not. Meanwhile, he builds a track for me to run on in my writing, teaching, and speaking. His authority does not hinder me, it frees me.

In other words, authority in creation and redemption is good not only for what the person on the top gets, but as much as for what the person on the bottom gets. The person on top, in fact, should bear the greatest burdens and costs of all. He or she possesses power not to horde it but precisely so that it might be spent on others’ behalf. As with our Lord Jesus, who gave his life as a ransom for many, so it is with a good husband, pastor, governor, parent, teacher, pilot, or army officer. Good school principals tend to arrive earliest and leave last. Good store owners absorb the costs of employee mistakes and offer a second chance. Good pastors hear and weep more for the sins of the church than anyone. Good husbands do not push anxieties and fears downward onto their wives and children, but draw them up onto themselves.

David had his terrible moments, but he also had his good ones. Listen to these hard-won “last words” of David:

When one rules justly over men,
ruling in the fear of God,
he dawns on them like the morning light,
like the sun shining forth on a cloudless morning,
like rain that makes grass to sprout from the earth. (2 Sam 23:1, 3-4).

Christians, again, must keep one eye on bad authority and one eye on good authority — one eye on David with Bathsheba, one eye on the call to “rule in the fear of God” like sun and rain on the grass. We cannot forsake either. No doubt complementarians can take their eyes off the bad when they commend a husband’s headship. Yet egalitarian arguments like Pidgeon’s, as a posture, seem to have taken an eye off the good.

5. By targeting authority instead of the selfish use of power, egalitarianism picks the wrong foe and in so doing weakens marriages.

Crucial for understanding the debate between complementarianism and egalitarianism is the distinction between authority and power. Power is the ability or capacity to do something — the ability, say, to pick up a boulder or solve a math problem or fix a leaky faucet. Authority, on the other hand, is the moral right or license to make decisions with that power. It is an authorization to do something. The reason the distinction is crucial is, just because you take away someone’s authority does not mean you have taken away their power.

The Bible establishes offices of authority in those places where power exists by nature, which is to say, by God’s creation design. God’s revealed law, in other words, maps over his natural law. Parents naturally have power over their children. Therefore, the Bible gives structure, order, and purpose to parental power (e.g. Deut 6; Eph 6:1-4).

Humans naturally possess power over the resources of the earth. Therefore, the Bible gives structure to governments and rules for due process insofar as fallen humans fight over those resources (e.g. Gen 9:5–6).

By the law of averages and creation design, husbands and wives also naturally possess varying forms of physical, emotional, and social power, and their procreative roles necessarily differ. Therefore, God maps over husband and wife distinct sets of duties, responsibilities, and obligations, ones that broadly correspond with their distinct grants of power and possibility.

Suppose, then, you have a man who physically abuses his wife. Neither the complementarian nor the egalitarian would say he possesses the authority — the moral right — to hit, threaten, or intimidate her. Authority, formally at least, is not the problem. What is? It is the fact that, even if you take away his authority as a husband, you cannot take away his physical power, and he is using that power selfishly and proudly. So say whatever you want about his authority, the real monster remains unaddressed: a selfish and proud employment of power. Egalitarianism, in other words, offers a kind of misdiagnosis by pointing to authority as the problem.

Yet the problem is worse than just misdiagnosis. Removing the man’s authority or office removes the restraints on power. Why does God establish authoritative offices? He establishes them both to empower and to constrain. To give freedom and to give responsibility. To present opportunity and to impose accountability. The authority of an office binds office holders as much as it looses them. If authority is the lines on the road, as I said above, egalitarianism takes away those lines and speed limit signs while doing nothing to slow down the car.

In Scripture, the grant of authority comes with an increased accountability. Notice:

  • the increased accountability of an elder: “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account” (Heb 13:7);
  • the increased accountability of a husband: “live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered” (1 Pet 3:7);
  • the increased accountability of a parent: “Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged” (Col 3:21);
  • and the increased accountability of a master or employer: “Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him” (Eph 6:9).

Again and again, the Bible stresses that the authority figure bears the heavier judgment (see also James 3:1).

The tragic irony of egalitarianism is that, in the attempt to protect women, it actually lightens men’s accountability. One thing I have observed among immature married men in counseling situations is their instinct to blame their wives for difficulties in the marriage. They squabble like children: “But she…” “But he…” “But she…” Even if these men claim to be complementarian, they argue like functional egalitarians, which is to say, as if everyone possesses equal responsibility when the relationship hits rougher waters.

A more biblical complementarianism, however, recognizes that, while men and women can equally sin, men bear the greater responsibility to patch up the problem and find a solution, as every leader does. A husband does not get to say, “But she…” Rather, he must always look at the bigger picture. Maybe they are squabbling about “x.” He should ask himself: what could he have done to prevent “x” in the first place? Or, if “x” was beyond his control, how does God intend him to love and lead his wife through “x”? In other words, he must no longer play the childish tit-for-tat game. Rather, the buck stops with him. When something goes wrong in a marriage, Jesus will knock on his door first — just as God did in the garden when he came looking for Adam when he and Eve had sinned. Therefore, a man must die to his ego, absorb whatever blame or cost he must, and get to work taking responsibility for the whole.

Doing away with the office of authority, in other words, actually weakens and endangers a marriage. To be sure, abuse is one very serious problem. But probably the more common problem a pastor like me observes on an everyday basis is the problem of plain old immature and selfish men who will not take responsibility for ending the argument, for putting themselves in harm’s way, for using their strength for her good, for being the first to apologize, for recognizing that Jesus has tasked them with bearing the burden and initiating peace, who refuse to absorb an injustice, who insist on going tit-for-tat, who, in short, act like six-year-olds by insisting that everything is “fair” and “equal,” especially when they do not get their way and life gets difficult.

Yet these are the kinds of men egalitarianism licenses — thin-skinned, defensive, buck-passing men. It does not call them to something higher, harder, tougher, more selfless, more generous, more self-forgetful, more initiative-taking, more thick-chested and self-sacrificing. Instead, it is a worldview that teaches men and women alike to think in terms of my gifts, my rights to use them, my self-discovery, and my self-expression. And so we all become more centered on ourselves.

How many times have I sat alone with a married man who keeps saying, “But she…” To which my response is something like, “I’m sorry. That sounds hard. But, brother, I’m calling you to step up and die to yourself. Enough with the blame game. Jesus is knocking on your door. Forget all the petty childish stuff. How are you taking responsibility? What are you doing to build up, encourage, unify, and lead? Have you convinced her that you are 100 percent for her, or do you give her reason to think you’re really out for yourself?”

Fallen husbands and wives both will use their physical, emotional, and social power selfishly. This is true of every culture in every time and every place. The feminist and egalitarian solution is to dispense with all hierarchies and structures in order to protect the self and its ambitions. The biblical solution is to place husband and wife into a structure that insists that each person takes the focus off of themselves and serves the other, each according to their natural grants of strength, whether physical, emotional, or social.

6. Egalitarianism fails to recognize that equality, like authority, divides between good and bad versions.

Egalitarianism, as the name communicates, is driven by a vision of equality between men and women. One need read no further than Haddad’s title to see this: “Helping the Church Understand Biblical Equality.” The trouble is, she, like egalitarians generally, fails to recognize that equality, like authority, divides between good and bad versions. The good version roots in Genesis 1 and our creation in God’s image. The bad version is a product of Genesis 3: “You will be like God.” And it is the more common version of equality in our fallen world.

The bad version presumes to be God’s equal. It says your basic instincts and desires are good. You can define and create the universe for yourself. You become equal by self-discovery and self-assertion.

This brings us to where we need to engage with Haddad’s chapter. The burden of Haddad’s piece is to help church leaders persuade their congregations of egalitarianism. The teaching about biblical equality has been circulating for nearly five hundred years, she observes, yet most churches still practice men-preferred or male-only patterns of leadership. What should church leaders therefore do? Following Everett Rogers’s book Diffusion of Innovations, Haddad’s chapter lays the five basic elements that Rogers says are necessary for helping a new idea or change diffuse through a group: use understandable language, show how the new idea improves people’s lives, connect the idea to people’s core beliefs, model, and provide easy starting points.

Yet as Haddad walks through these five elements, a common theme emerges: a focus on people’s gifts. Since element one in the science of diffusion is using simple language, Haddad advises: “instead of using the term egalitarianism, we can speak of gift-based ministry” (541). Since element two is showing how a new idea improves people’s lives, Haddad encourages asking church members, “Will the traditional view of male leadership and female submission provide for the fullest development of the gifts God has given [our daughters]” (544)? Since element three is connecting an idea to core beliefs, Haddad suggests, “we can also speak of the rich tradition of women throughout the history of the church who brought many to faith by using their gifts of preaching and teaching” (547). Since element four is modeling, Haddad observes, “We cannot underestimate our need to observe women using their gifts in the church” (549).  Since element five is providing easy starting points, Haddad offers, “Egalitarians can help their brothers and sisters in Christ try out or sample the message by empowering them to use their gifts” (552).

A focus on an individual’s gifts is the thread that ties the chapter together. Gifts — the language of gifts, the demonstration of gifts, the connectedness of gifts, the modelling of gifts, the discovery of gifts — provide the concept that should bear the weight of persuasion. As she says, she means to replace a ministry that is “gender-based” with one that is “gift-based” (544).

In these ways, Haddad’s chapter sounds utterly consistent with so much evangelical discipleship literature from the second half of the twentieth century. How many Sunday School programs and leadership guides emphasized “spiritual gift tests” and “every member ministry” that called people to employ their gifts? Church members dissected Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12, asking which gift they had. Youth and college pastors talked about the gift of singleness from 1 Corinthians 7 and the call to missions. If nothing else, Haddad knows her audience.

Well before reading Haddad’s chapter, in fact, I had noticed that this discipleship emphasis from the 1980s and 90s had migrated into conversations questioning complementarianism in the 2000s and 2010s. The topic of gifts has become one of two bells (the other being abuse) being rung over and over by godly friends who know their Bibles, who tacitly accept the complementarian readings, who sincerely mean to serve the church, and yet who wonder, what about women who are gifted to preach, teach, or lead? The answer “teach other women” is unsatisfying. Still, I trust the question is usually earnest and rooted in love for other women, their development, and the good of the church and kingdom.

To answer more fully, then, there is a right and wrong way to think about the gifts that God gives us. A right view of a person’s gifts keeps a loose grip on them. It is better to discover and employ them than not. We should encourage young Christians to do so. Yet we should not place a primary value on them, as if our sense of our gifts should determine the structures of our churches or the ministries we are entitled to. That is the wrong way of viewing them: “I’m an amazing singer; you must feature me up front.” “I’m not good with children; you should not ask me to serve in childcare.” Rather, we are to place all our gifts and talents and resources at God’s feet, and ask him to use them as he will for his purposes and glory. “Okay, maybe I’m not gifted at working with children. But will it allow the two-year-old’s parents to sit in service and be refreshed and edified? Sure, sign me up. I can serve the church that way” (see 1 Cor. 14:12). That is why the male-only elders in my church serve in childcare. What is more, we all will discover the better and truer versions of ourselves not through self-expression but through self-sacrifice: “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

Oftentimes, God prefers to use us where we are weak and not gifted, as with Moses who was not gifted to speak, requiring God to supply Aaron’s mouth; or with Gideon, who was not gifted with large forces, yet God determined to give him victory anyway; or with the person gifted with tongues, but who chooses to give priority to prophecy since prophecy builds up the church (1 Cor 12:2–5). This way, God receives the glory. Our gifts are merely tools to be used at the Lord’s discretion. They are not a Christian’s identity or boast. Our identity and boast are already secure in the vicariously received worthiness, righteousness, and giftedness of Christ.

My concern with the emphasis or pride-of-place given to gifts is that it sounds less like the Bible and more like the expressive individualism of our historical moment — the post-Rousseau, post-Marx, post-Freud, postmodern assumption that my deep-down inner self is my truest self and that my fullest potential depends upon casting off the socially constructed constraints that get in the way of that emerging self. This emphasis can too easily depend on an atomistic “just let each flower bloom” anthropology, which works hand-in-hand with a romanticized worldview. Ariel wants to walk on land, Belle wants more than a provincial life, and Queen Elsa employs all her ice powers. That is the fulfilled life. The whole world should be available to me if I believe something accords with my gifts and inner self.

The entire construct makes little room for the possibility that God might have communal purposes that transcend any one of us individuals, and that he might put different groups of people to work in different ways so that the whole body can be built up. Consider the biblical image of church as “family,” with mothers, fathers, sisters, and brothers (1 Tim 5:1–2); or the church as a “body,” in which the eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you,” with the weaker parts deemed indispensable and the less honorable parts receiving greater honor (1 Cor 12:21–23).

How much more colorful and resplendent is God’s picture than Disney’s picture of Queen Elsa, declaring that she would no longer conceal who she is, but would take her stand and “let it go,” self-discovery and expression being the paramount good.

Haddad wants a gift-based ministry. I think the better model is an obedience-based and family-based and commission-based and sacrificial-love based ministry, in which the call to obedience and family and commission and love determines how and when we use our gifts, not the other way around.

Or let me use structural language. A church’s “structure” is nothing more or less than a set of rules or obediences required by King Jesus for how we live our life together: “Baptize them…”; “When you come together to eat…”; “An elder must be…”; “…tell it to the church.” Church structure, in other words, is whole-church ethics. And the lesson here is that biblical structures should determine how we use our gifts. They both empower and constrain our use of our gifts. Yet Haddad and the egalitarian agenda ask us to fix our eyes on our gifts and let those determine our church structures — our requisite obediences. I fear that is backward. It risks becoming a Christianized version of individual expressivism.

All this brings us back to the right and wrong way to think about equality. The wrong way looks inward, lists the self’s assets and virtues, and then asserts itself by comparing itself to others. “I’m as smart as he is.” It possesses a strong sense of entitlement. It lives by making demands. “I deserve this. I have a right to that.” It has little to no room for assigned roles, responsibilities, differences, and, most of all, hierarchies. Rather, it seeks to level all hierarchies because the self’s sense of the self is rooted in the self and can therefore tolerate few externally imposed limitations. It despises any role for submission or talk of constraint. It lives on continual self-assertion.[21]

Meanwhile, the right way of thinking about equality begins with the fact that God assigned all of us inestimable and equal worth by creating us in his image. All human beings possess equal, God-imaging value — from the embryo in the womb to the king on the throne. In that sense, Christianity offers a more radical egalitarianism than anything else. Yet then God puts us all to work and is not nearly as worried about our rank and status as we are, as if our worth depended upon this-world hierarchies. Rather, God is doing something bigger. Getting on board with his agenda means being willing to be last instead of first, lowest instead of highest. It is the person who says, “Lord, I’m happy to be lowest and last,” whom God grabs and says, “You’re just the kind of worker I’m looking for. I’ll put you first” (Matt 20:16).

Godly equality feels no threat from God-given roles, responsibilities, or even hierarchies. It delights in difference, trusting that every God-assigned distinction possesses purpose and contributes to the countless refractions of his glory. It does not assume that God’s assignments of different stewardships and stations, responsibilities and roles, undermines equality. Rather it views them as so many parts of one body, each part purposed with doing the work of the whole body. It follows long-term thinking, and ultimately reinforces equality under and in the rule of God.

Every one of us must drive within our lanes, whether we are a leader or a follower. Every one of us must keep the speed limit, and drive in the direction in which God tells us to drive. We must all submit to him and to his law. Leaders lead and followers follow —all in submission to him. There is, in that sense, no difference between leading and following for a human. To lead according to God’s law is to follow according to God’s law. They are the same, because his law is one.

In short, good equality works together with good authority. People hear “authority” and think immediately of a one-dimensional — higher or lower — hierarchy. That dimension exists. Yet the bigger picture is multidimensional and communal. To establish an authority is to establish an office, complete with responsibilities, obligations, purposes, and accountability mechanisms. And God puts us all to work in various offices because every office serves a much bigger purpose than itself. He gives one job to the husband, another to the wife; one to the pastor, another to the member; one to the parent, another to the child; one to the governor, another to the governed; some “higher,” some “lower,” but all for the sake of his larger purposes in our lives, in the church, and in creation. Every office, moreover, comes with a theological lesson. The office of earthly father teaches us something about our heavenly Father (Eph. 3:15). The offices of husband and wife teach us something about Christ and the church (Eph 5:22–31). Offices of son and daughter about being God’s children and our promised inheritance (e.g. Gal 4:1–7). Offices of brother and sister about being a fellow heir with Christ, our firstborn brother (Rom. 8:17). The office of governor about the wrath of God against sin (Rom 13:4).

The exercises of authority and submission, two sides of one coin for a human, always teach theology, whether we are teaching rightly or wrongly. To be in authority you must be under authority, and to be under it is to be in it. By being under or in it, then, we teach the world what God is like, even as the incarnate Jesus ruled by submitting to his heavenly Father entirely, showing the world what the heavenly Father is like.

7. Complementarians must teach that a husband and elder’s authority does not include the right to discipline.

Finally, complementarians must do a better job of teaching in their churches that God does not give husbands and elders the right or power to discipline. And such teaching should also function as an abuse-preventer.

Let me explain. God has established two types of authority on earth. Both types of authority possess the authority to issue binding commands. Yet only one type may compel obedience externally with the threat of discipline (examples: state with the power of “the sword”; parents with the power of “the rod”; church with the power of “the keys”). The other type may not apply external pressure. Instead, it is a form of authority suited to the new covenant and the gospel. It therefore seeks to compel action by appealing to internal desire (examples: husbands by the power of love and empathy; elders by the example of a righteous life). I have labeled these two types the authority of command and authority of counsel elsewhere,[22] and expand on it at length in my book on authority.[23]

The parent of a three-year-old can unilaterally enact consequences for disobedience. So can a policeman. So can a church over its members. A husband cannot, and an elder cannot (I say this as a congregationalist). Rather, these latter two possess an authority of counsel.

An authority of counsel is a real authority, because God commands the wife and church member to submit. Wives and members possess a real moral obligation that God will one day enforce. Yet the husband and elder, in the here and now, lack an enforcement mechanism. Instead, their form of authority forces them to love, to live with in an understanding way, to teach with great patience, to wait, to woo, and in all things strive toward provoking that internal desire (e.g., see 1 Tim 1:5; Philem 8, 9, 14).

As such, an authority of counsel does not use force, but renounces force because doing so requires it to rely on the beauty of whatever compels those new desires. It works best by pointing to that beauty. By inviting. By compelling with kindness. Then the hearts “under” it want to follow. It is a form of authority suited to partnership, collegiality, and oneness.

More specifically, God gives husbands the opportunity to exercise this type of authority with the drawing power of a Song-of-Solomon-like love. This is his common-grace gift for all creation, and part of the underlying logic of the typological connection between husbands and wives and Christ and the church. God then gives elders the special-grace opportunity to exercise it with compelling lives of righteousness. Their righteousness should prove attractive to a born-again congregation, so that elders can say with Paul, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).

A good husband or pastor does not want to force decisions now, as a parent of a three-year-old must from time to time. What good is “forced love” from a wife? And how righteous is “forced righteousness” from a member? That is not gospel righteousness. Rather, good husbands and pastors play the long game. Their question is not, “How can I get her to be a perfect wife today, or them to be perfect members?” Their question is, “How can I help her and them to look more like Jesus over the next fifty years by acting like Jesus myself?” That is the job to which biblical complementarianism calls men.

All of this means that an authority of counsel is essentially evangelistic. You invite. You do not force. You exercise a comparatively light hand, not a heavy one. You work at being present and with. You do not make pronouncements from on high or without investing in the relationship and earning trust. Sometimes you correct, but mostly you compel with hope. You point to the law, but mostly you announce grace. You speak plainly, but you also speak kindly, because your goal is to win people over — wives toward unity, members toward righteousness, non-Christians to the gospel. You are not to be a pushover, any more than Jesus was a pushover, nor to capitulate, any more than Jesus capitulated. Yet like Jesus calling his disciples from their fishing nets, so husbands and elders exercise authority by initiating and pointing in love toward the path forward. Wives and members, in turn, possess an obligation to follow whenever the husband or elder leads, even as the non-Christian hearing the gospel does.

The type of authority God gives to elders and husbands, in other words, is not the stuff of abuse. When exercised as God intends, it is the stuff of love, tenderness, compassion, strength, and a Godward direction.


Does complementarianism lead to abuse? No. When practiced biblically, it’s an abuse preventer and a woman protector.

Do abusive men love to use Scripture and complementarian theology to maintain control? Yes. Again, Satan likes to use the Bible for his wicked purposes (Matt. 4:6), because abuse always lies about God. It teaches us that God uses his authority for wicked and deceitful purposes and that we cannot really trust him.

That means pastors possess a special responsibility to speak against abuse. Here is one practical tip for pastors: As you are preparing a sermon, ask yourself how an abuser might misuse your biblical text, and perhaps include a warning against such misuses in your sermon. Especially include those warnings with the abuser’s favorite texts, like “turn the other cheek”; “do everything without grumbling or complaining”; “bear with one another”; “wives, submit to your husbands”; and so forth.

I am grateful Pidgeon wants to prevent abuse, and Haddad wants to help women fully realize and employ their gifts. I just think there is a better way to accomplish both goals, one that begins with all of us, men and women, submitting to the structures — that is, commands — of his Word. That includes teaching others to do the same and correcting, even excommunicating, the abusers who do not.

Jonathan Leeman is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church in suburban Washington, D.C., editorial director for 9Marks, and the author of Authority: How Godly Rule Protects the Vulnerable, Strengthens Communities, and Promotes Human Flourishing (Crossway, forthcoming).

[1] See both the statement against abuse and the article explaining the Christians for Biblical Equality’s rejection of such a partnership on page 3 of this newsletter:

[2] Nick Haslam “Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology.” Psychological Inquiry: An International Journal for the Advancement of Psychological Theory 27 (2016): 1–17.

[3] World Health Organization,“Violence against women prevalence estimates, 2018 – Executive summary,” last modified March 7, 2021,

[4] Lori L Heise and Andreas Kotsadam, “Cross-national and multilevel correlates of partner violence: an analysis of data from population-based surveys,” The Lancet Vol 3 (June 2015): 332–340,

[5] Jonathan Leeman, “Essential and Indispensable: Women and the Mission of the Church, “ 9Marks, last modified December 10, 2019,

[6] World Health Organization, “Violence against women,” last modified March 9, 2021,

[7] Mandy Truong, Bianca Calabria, Mienah Zulfacar Sharif, and Naomi Priest, The Conversation, “New study finds family violence is often poorly understood in faith communities,” last modified April 17, 2019,

[8] Heise and Kotsadam, “Cross-national and multilevel correlates of partner violence,” The Lancet,,

[9] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Social Institutions & Gender Index: Synthesis Report (OECD, 2014), 9, 16,

[10] W. Bradford Wilcox, Soft Patriarchs, New Men: How Christianity Shapes Fathers and Husbands (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), 199–200.

[11]Wilcox, Soft Patriarchs, New Men, 206–207.

[12] Wilcox, Soft Patriarchs, New Men, 207.

[13] Pidgeon points to the methodological criticisms of the “church-attending men have lower rates of violence” argument listed in this article: Mandy Truong, Naomi Priest, and Nicholas Biddle, The Conversation, “Domestic violence and Australian churches: why the current data have limitations,” July 23, 2017,“ To be clear, neither she nor the authors here provide counter evidence. Their concerns are methodological.

[14] Institute for Family Studies and Wheatley Institution, World Family Map 2019: Mapping Family Change and Child Well-Being Outcomes.

[15] World Family Map 2019, 33.

[16] World Family Map 2019, 36.

[17] World Family Map 2019, 26.

[18] World Family Map 2019, 26–27.

[19] W. Bradford Wilcox, Jason S Carroll, and Laurie DeRose, “Religious Men Can Be Devoted Dads, Too: Faith, like Feminism, Sets High Expectations for Husbands,” New York Times, May 18, 2019, accessed May 31, 2023,

[20] This and the previous paragraph come from my book Authority: How Godly Rule Protects the Vulnerable, Strengthens Communities, and Promotes Human Flourishing (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, forthcoming September 2023).

[21] This paragraph and the next few adopt heavily from my forthcoming book Authority: How Godly Rule Protects the Vulnerable, Strengthens Communities, and Promotes Human Flourishing (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, forthcoming September 2023).

[22] Jonathan Leeman, “Complementarianism: A Moment of Reckoning (Part 3),” 9Marks, December 11, 2019, accessed May 31, 2023,

[23] Jonathan Leeman, Authority: How Godly Rule Protects the Vulnerable, Strengthens Communities, and Promotes Human Flourishing (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, forthcoming September 2023).

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