In early February 2023, evangelical Twitter was abuzz with a bombshell news story in Christianity Today. In the article, journalist Kate Shellnutt described megachurch pastor John MacArthur and his Grace Community Church as repeatedly dismissing the concerns of women in abusive marriages, sometimes threatening the women (implicitly or explicitly) with church discipline if they did not return to their abusive husbands or if they reported the abuse to the police. The story was a bombshell because MacArthur is, as Shellnutt described, “one of America’s longest-standing and most influential pastors.”
While Shellnutt’s article exposed long-term practices at MacArthur’s church, the case shared significant similarities with news stories from the previous year about the Southern Baptist Convention—at nearly 14 million members, the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. In a May 2022 story for the New York Times, Ruth Graham and Elizabeth Dias reported that a third-party investigation found Southern Baptist leaders had “suppressed reports of sexual abuse and resisted proposals for reform” for more than two decades. The independent investigation also documented “a pattern of intimidating survivors of sexual assault and their advocates.” Making matters even worse, the report revealed that for a decade denominational staff had kept a detailed list of ministers and other church workers accused of sexual abuse, yet no action was taken to ensure that the accused were not in positions of power at Southern Baptist churches.
“Complementarianism is an evangelical theology that… men are created to lead… and women are created to submit to men’s authority.”
Reports of abuse in both John MacArthur’s non-denominational megachurch and the Southern Baptist Convention can be linked to their shared complementarian theology. Complementarianism is an evangelical theology that men and women are created by God to serve different ends. While men and women are equal in worth, they are designed by God to fulfill distinct roles: men are created to lead in the church and home, and women are created to submit to men’s authority in both spheres.
In researching and writing Making Christianity Manly Again: Mark Driscoll, Mars Hill Church, and American Evangelicalism, I encountered stories of women who blamed Mars Hill Church’s complementarian theology for their husbands’ abuse in stories very similar to the reports of Grace Community Church and the Southern Baptist Convention. Mars Hill Church’s infamous pastor, Mark Driscoll, was a strident complementarian, who described himself as an “intense biblical literalist who believes that the man is the head of the home, that the man should provide for his family. . . and that we would not have so many deceived feminists running around if men were better husbands and fathers because the natural reaction of godly women to godly men is trust and respect.”
Members of complementarian churches firmly believe the theology of God-designed differences for men and women. For many, complementarian theology is a successful strategy to define roles and the division of labor within church and home. For some, however, the prescribing of authority to men and submission to women can result in men misusing their authority to keep women in line, resulting in abuse. Sometimes women interpret abuse as a corrective to their not being submissive enough.
“[T]he prescribing of authority to men and submission to women can result in men misusing their authority to keep women in line, resulting in abuse.”
Some women at Mars Hill Church reported that the church’s complementarian theology had led to boyfriends’ or husbands’ abuse. One woman I interviewed, Anna, reported that as she and her husband experienced infertility, their marriage faltered with her husband becoming physically abusive. Anna told me that when she sought counseling at Mars Hill, church policy at the time required permission from husbands before women could see an elder or counselor. After a concerned friend stepped in to make an appointment for her, Anna met with an elder who was supportive, telling her she couldn’t go back to her abusive husband. Anna told me this was the first time she realized she had been submitting herself to abuse because she believed that was what she was “supposed to do.” Unfortunately, Anna was later counseled by different church elder to return to her abusive husband. Anna eventually divorced her husband and left Mars Hill, feeling that church members (her friends and family) judged the failure of her marriage as a failure of faith.
Like Anna, the women interviewed for the Christianity Today article on John MacArthur and Grace Community Church considered themselves, at some point, to be “partly responsible for their husband’s behavior or had a church leader indicate they were.” These women reported being “reminded of the biblical directive for wives to submit to their husbands,” as a reason for reconciling and returning to their homes, even when they “feared for their safety and the safety of their children.”
Like other complementarians, Driscoll adamantly preached against husbands abusing wives, just as MacArthur preached “against women staying with abusive husbands,” as have many Southern Baptist preachers. Yet a theology that gives men power over women can lead to mixed messages, with men using their authority in abusive ways and women denying or minimizing the abuse as an expression of men exercising their authority. The research and reports on Mars Hill Church, Grace Community Church, and the Southern Baptist Convention illustrate the entrenched nature and dysfunction inherent in American evangelicalism’s complementarian theology.
Featured image: Grace Community Church Sun Valley building, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.