Do evangelicals focus on hierarchy–or people having power over others–as a positive thing?

Keith’s been such a powerful advocate for giving women a voice, whether it’s professionally in his role as a physician or whether it’s in churches where he’s served on a deacon’s board that argued this, or whether it’s on our podcast.

He’s been mulling over this idea of the “slippery slope” argument against women being treated equally under Christ, and wanted to address it today.

So here’s my husband!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

​Sheila recently wrote a blogpost to pastors “Do you preach a form of marriage you don’t practice?”, tackling the question “Is it healthy to promote the idea that hierarchy in marriage is a Biblical principle that should be lived out?” The blogpost looked at the fruit of that teaching: Do marriages really do better if the husband makes the decisions?

Do marriages really fall apart if there is no “tie breaker”?

As Sheila and her team found in the survey of 20,000 women for their book The Great Sex Rescue, the majority of Christian couples say they believe these ideas, but in reality they are collaborative in their decision making. And those couples do well. But the ones who actually put hierarchy into practice, where the husband really is in charge, have bad outcomes.

Her point was that since we know that the “husband-as-boss” model of marriage results in bad outcomes, and that collaborative decision-making results in good outcomes, pastors should teach the latter rather than the former, regardless of what they personally believe.

I was not surprised to see that she got push-back from people who believe strongly in hierarchy in marriage.

I was also entirely unsurprised by the fact that they almost universally did not engage her arguments, but instead did the same thing they always do. They basically stated that “husband-as-boss” is the Biblical model, that anybody who says otherwise is twisting the Bible into their preconceived feminist ideology and that we are all headed for hell in a hand-basket if we allow this heretical idea–that husband and wife are equally sanctified, equally Spirit-filled and equally able to hear God’s voice–to prevail.

They always make some form of “slippery slope” argument.

The Bible is meant to be interpreted a certain way, they warn, and we will get further and further off-base if we ever deviate from that. I will leave aside the fact that some of our greatest heroes in Church history are shining examples of how amazing it can be for us to look at the Bible with fresh interpretation. Instead, I am going to focus on something that all these “slippery-slopers” miss: that there is a slippery slope in the other direction, too! If you cling to the concept of hierarchy in marriage, the natural and logical progression is to take you down truly bad pathways in several areas.

What does the “slippery slope” of believing in hierarchy and power get us?

First: It warps your sense of reality

My first blogpost was about how couples do better with collaborative decision-making. This has been shown time and again. Dr. John Gottman’s research showed that when husbands are unwilling to share power in their marriages, they had an 81% chance their marriage would self-destruct. Sheila’s research for the Great Sex Rescue showed that marriages were 7.4x more likely to end in divorce when the husband makes the decisions-even if he consults with her first. This is not opinion. This is fact. The collaboration model is better than the husband-as-boss model. But people who believe in hierarchy in marriage as God-given and who are unwilling to re-evaluate their interpretation of the Bible, now face a big problem. They find themselves in the situation where “God’s way” doesn’t do as well as “the world’s way”.

How does one reconcile that?

Answer: Ignore it completely and continue to believe what you want to believe anyway. Emerson Eggerichs is a typical example of this.  In his book Love & Respect, he says “To set up a marriage with two equals at the head is to set it up for failure. That is one of the big reasons that people are divorcing left and right today. (pg. 221)” He gives no statistics or evidence to back up his position for one simple reason—there are none that he could give!  All of the available evidence proves exactly the opposite of what he is teaching.

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Evidence is very important to me as a physician. When a new drug comes along it doesn’t matter to me what I “feel” about it. It doesn’t matter to me if a friend is on the research team that developed it. What matters to me is if it works. I don’t ever want to lose that; for me that would mean completely losing touch with reality. I reject hierarchy in marriage for the same reason.

Second: It warps your theology

The idea that if you stop believing in hierarchy in marriage, your theology will get progressively more off-base is completely unfounded. In fact, the very opposite is true, as we see with the current rise of the doctrine of the “Eternal Subordination of the Son”.  If you are not familiar with this, let me do a quick synopsis.  Basically, the idea of a wife being in subjection to her husband has not been a problem throughout the vast majority of history since society incorrectly saw women as fundamentally less than men. Saying that only men could lead, then, made sense, because women weren’t capable of it.

In our society, though, we have arrived at the point where we realize that women and men are actually equal. This creates a problem because we can no longer make a case for female subjugation based on women being innately inferior to men.

Enter Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and the introduction of the concept of “roles” in marriage.

Rather than consider that we have been misinterpreting some passages of the Bible and perhaps husbands and wives should share in decision-making as co-laborers in Christ, the proponents of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood insist hierarchy is God’s plan. Although husband and wife are equal, they preach that God has given the husband the “role” of being in charge and the wife the “role” of being subject to him.

The “fly in the ointment” is that it is perfectly obvious to everyone that it is impossible for two people simultaneously to be equal and to have one in subjugation to the other. These are mutually exclusive ideas. The “Eternal Subordination of the Son” doctrine fills the gap by explaining that just as Jesus is equal to God the Father, but eternally subject to Him, so wives are equal to their husbands, but also must be subject to them.

The only problem is that this is complete heresy.

In fact, it’s a heresy that almost tore the Church apart sixteen centuries ago, but was considered dead until its recent resurrection in the last few decades by those trying to promote male leadership. I stand amazed that I have personally been told that if I reject hierarchy in marriage I am rejecting the Bible. But those very people are so invested in clinging to the idea of hierarchy in marriage, that rather than considering maybe they are the ones mistaken in their interpretation, they are willing to change their concept of the Trinity, arguably one of the most fundamental aspects of our faith!

Finally, it warps your sense of justice

I recently read Beth Allison Barr’s The Making of Biblical Womanhood. If you love history (as I do), it is a very informative and enjoyable read and I highly recommend it. In addition to giving a phenomenal description of the historical attitudes toward women in the church through history, she tells some of her own story as well.  As a university professor, she was not allowed to teach the high schoolers at her church since that would mean she, a woman, would be teaching men (i.e. 13-year old boys). When they challenged the matter with church leadership, her youth pastor husband lost his job.

How did we get to the point where a person who is clearly trained, equipped and (as her book shows) gifted as a teacher could be prohibited from teaching purely on the basis that she was born a woman? The prevalence of this teaching in the church is appalling to me in itself, but it gets even worse when I see the attitude of its supporters on-line.

The one commenter who did actually engage Sheila’s arguments countered that Sheila’s teaching also had “bad fruit”. What was that bad fruit? Basically, he was saying people are unhappy because they are being taught these damaging things about equality and don’t want God’s way anymore. It took me a while to understand what he was saying: namely, that women–having had a taste of freedom–are unwilling to go back to how things used to be.

In other words, the problem with Beth Allison Barr is not how unfair it is that she can teach in university but can’t teach at church. The problem is that she should never have been teaching at university in the first place! I am not suggesting that all people who promote hierarchy in marriage believe we should go back to not allowing women to have an education or to work outside the home. But it is clear that some do. And if we accept hierarchy as God-given, there is a certain logic to their argument. So that’s another reason I don’t accept it; I see the slippery slope where I would lose all sense of justice.

Perhaps the most appalling instance of this happened during a debate with a man whom I considered a friend at the time. I was suggesting that some of the Biblical passages which look like they call for the subjugation of women needed to be taken in the context of the culture and the time at which they were written. He responded with the standard argument that it was dangerous for me to shift beliefs based on cultural changes. If it was true when Paul wrote it, he said, it is true now, full stop. I then pointed out you could make the same case in favor of slavery since Paul talked about it and never specifically condemned it. I thought I “had him” and he would have to concede the argument, but he looked me straight in the face and said, “Well, maybe God doesn’t see slavery as evil.” I was floored. I still cannot process how anyone could ever believe that.

May I never see the day that I would be so wedded to a doctrine that rather than considering whether I could be wrong, I would instead twist my theology to the point that I could actually imagine that the idea of one human being owning another could ever be from God.

Nobody comes to the Bible as a complete blank slate.

The things we have learned or experienced in our life will undoubtedly influence how we interpret Scripture. Certainly it is wise to remember this and to consider when we study the Bible whether we are bringing something to the Bible which is not there.

But remember that this applies to all readers. 

We all come to the Bible with preconceived notions, including those who believe in hierarchy in marriage. And the more I hear men like Piper, MacArthur, Grudem and Strachan talk, the more it is clear to me that ultimately their main goal is not  preserving the authority of the Bible, but preserving the authority of men. And those men will only be happy when everyone else brings that same bias to the Biblical texts–or are completely silenced.

I admit that I come to the Bible with the idea that women are equal to men in dignity, value and significance.

I see this as self-evident, not needing Biblical proof to be true. I make no apologies for the fact that I believe God loves His daughters just as much as His sons.  So when I read in 1 Corinthians 14:34 “Women should remain silent in the churches”, I admit it makes me do a double-take.

This does not mean I am refusing to believe Scripture. It means I am trying to make everything I know fit together. In fact, my “check” over this passage prompts me to remember something those who espouse hierarchy seem to miss – that in 1 Corinthians 11, Paul talks about women praying and prophesying in church! How do they not see the contradiction? Do they believe the Corinthian women prayed and prophesied with some ancient version of sign language? (Or maybe it was mime!)

The intellectually honest approach is to wrestle with these difficult passages and see them in a way that truly honors God as well as women and men who are created in His image. But assuming hierarchy is God-given and embracing it wholeheartedly easily allows you to skip past all that, pluck 1 Cor 14:34 entirely out of context and use it to try to silence talented women like Beth Allison Barr. And Sheila. And Beth Moore. And so many others.

Tragically, I expect maybe that’s the point. The Jesus I believe in said whoever wishes to be greatest must be the servant of all and his first post-resurrection act was commissioning the women to go tell the men. Let’s all resist a slippery slope that would create a Church where women are silenced and where our focus is on who has the power rather than on serving one another as Jesus commanded.

What if you're NOT the problem with your sex life?

What if the messages that you've been taught have messed things up--and what if there's a way to escape these toxic teachings?

It's time for a Great Sex Rescue.

Beware the Slippery Slope of Complementarian Theology

What do you think? Why do you think nobody talks about the slippery slope in the other direction? Have you ever heard anyone defend slavery to justify men being over women? Let’s talk in the comments!

Keith Gregoire

Keith Gregoire

Blog and Podcast Contributor, Co-Author with Sheila of two upcoming marriage books

Keith is the rock that supports Sheila, who runs this blog! Sheila and Keith married when Keith was attending Queen's University medical school in Kingston, Ontario. He later completed his residency in pediatrics at the Hospital for Sick Children, and has since directed the pediatric undergraduate program at Queen's University, and been Chief of Pediatrics at a community hospital in Belleville, Ontario. He and Sheila speak at marriage conferences around the world, and together they've also done medical missions in Kenya. Next up: They're authoring The Guy's Guide to Great Sex together! Plus, of course, he's an avid birdwatcher.

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