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Complementarians, Egalitarians and Domestic Violence

Sunday, 31 May 2015  | Tamie Davis

“If we want to understand the teaching on marriage in Ephesians 5,” said the Tanzanian Pentecostal pastor I was listening to, “we read 1 Corinthians 13. Husbands, be patient with your wives. Husbands, consider your wives better than yourselves. Husbands, keep no record of wrongs.”

This is radical teaching. In Tanzania, it’s not uncommon to hear the story of Eve being taken out of Adam’s rib used to teach that a woman is an extension of a man, under his command just as is his own hand or foot. Many women are punished severely, often physically, if they are not obedient. Sandra Mushi’s short story ‘Bride Price’ opens with these words:

“I bought you woman!” He bellowed as he kicked her. “You are my property! You hear me? Mine!”

Vumilia, Majuto. Get used to it. That’s marriage,” her mother and aunts told her, whenever she ran them in tears.

So when this Pentecostal pastor says that there is no place in Scripture for a husband to demand his rights from his wife, he is making a hugely counter-cultural statement.

Nevertheless, this pastor is what we in the West would call a complementarian, though Tanzanians do not use that term, nor its counterpoint ‘egalitarian’. This pastor believes in male headship, and he believes in female submission, but he does not believe in punishing his wife if she does not submit. He says his wife is not his servant; it is God whom his wife obeys when she honours her husband, and Him to whom she answers.

In Tanzania where I live and work, male headship and female submission in marriage are a given. Even those who believe in women’s ordination struggle to see how it can be implemented because of a wife’s responsibilities at home and to her husband. Their answers on the topic sound like something parroted from a theology textbook; reliant on western constructs, they have little potential to subvert cultural expectations. In contrast, the approach of the Pentecostal pastor I was listening to was not to tell people that their cultural expectations were wrong, but to transform them. Does being the head mean you are in charge? Fine, take charge of your wife’s well-being.

I know it grates on western ears, making the woman sound more like a beneficiary than a partner, but if the goal is less violence against women, this man is an ally.

I confess to being somewhat dismayed by how the discussion about domestic violence unfolded in the Australian church recently. Julia Baird was not the first to highlight this issue - it had been raised at a Sydney Anglican Synod in 2013 – but her article in the Sydney Morning Herald brought it into the public arena, and with a uniquely doctrinal angle. She argued that the doctrine of female submission, which she located in Sydney Anglican churches, is one reason women feel obligated to stay in abusive relationships. The response was overwhelming from women for whom this was indeed their experience.

In the ensuing discussion, the issue became the extent to which complementarian doctrine is inherently oppressive to women, and thus a tool used to allow abuse of them. Complementarians felt attacked and misunderstood and put effort into defending themselves. For Sandy Grant, that meant demonstrating his and the Bible’s abhorrence of domestic abuse. Though many egalitarians would disagree with him, at least from his perspective, complementarianism contains the resources to combat domestic violence.

To me, it seems that embracing complementarians like Grant as allies is likely to yield a better outcome than asking him and others to give up their complementarianism. Like the Tanzanian Pentecostal pastor I was listening to, Grant is better placed to speak to his own people than an outsider, and his message is one of opposition to domestic violence. Neither of them advocate a man’s unbridled control of his wife.

Egalitarians will no doubt be impatient with the conservatism, and fearful that no amount of good teaching can overcome the dangers of this kind of patriarchal doctrine. However, I wonder whether an overthrow of complementarian doctrine is realistic or even desirable. Change is needed in all quarters, and so advocates for change are needed within each quarter.  We all want to see domestic abuse of women eradicated as soon as possible, but it may be that the way forward here is some kind of awkward partnership of Christians who disagree on the way to get there, but are allies in seeking the safety of women within our churches.

Tamie Davis is a CMS Australia partner who works with university students in Tanzania. She blogs at www.meetjesusatuni.com


Philippa Lohmeyer-Collins
June 1, 2015, 9:39PM
Thanks Tamie. I think your point is helpful - yes - working from within and promoting healthy relationships grounded on respect is godly, appropriate and right. My concern with this debate, 'egalitarian versus complementarian' is that I suggest it misses the key point of promoting all people, men and women to use their God-given gifts. I suggest that both men and women need to be affirmed and when they feel threatened or unable to pursue something that is really important then often the default behaviour is unhelpful or even worse, violent. So we need to work hard on also helping men to flourish in relationship with women.
Your intercultural example is helpful here because it emphasizes that culture and the current culture needs to be considered. But if the approach is helping men AND women to flourish and both to use their God given gifts in serving God and each other - then yah! When the headship side of the argument is emphasized then we are placing power above giftedness and that I see is the key problem with the debate.

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