Posted by: minnow | November 23, 2008

Abuse: Egalitarian vs Complimentarian

Gluttons for punishment, the Parchment and Pen  blog got into the debate between the complementarian and egalitarian models for Christian marriages more than once last week.  (It probably will not be the first post but browse through the catagories on the sidebar).  An interesting question was raised but not actually addressed so I thought I would bring it over here.  Given both kinds of abuse—passive (neglect) or aggressive (physical and emotional intimidation)—which model for marriage—complementarian or egalitarian—provides more security for marriage and the family?  Or to turn it around slightly, which model leaves the family more vulnerable to abuse? 

Please note the vast majority of complementarians and egalitarians agree that abuse and neglect are both the result of individual SIN, NOT adhering to a particular belief. At the same time, each of these positions contributes to their own particular atmosphere within a family. Note also: the question of security from a spiritual point of view can be touchy. Personally, I believe our ultimate security comes from God.  To that end, the question of security can be nuanced to the point of saying the atmosphere created by either position has no consequences or even negative consequences because when we depend on any security other than God we fall into sin.  Therefore for this discussion we will assume the sense of security we experience in either atmosphere is actually God’s provision for our lives.

In the best case scenario the expectations of the complementarian position are that the husband protects the family and provides for the needs of the individual members.  This is most frequently walked out by the husband/father becoming the primary bread winner though both husband and wife might work.  Husbands/fathers also tend to be the predominant “rule” makers.  In the best case scenario the wife’s/mother’s counsel is sought by the husband/father and her input is weighed out in the decision making process, especially as it impacts her.  Still, the final decisions are left up to the husband/father.

From the egalitarian point of view protection and provision are a mutual responsibility.  In the best case scenario, husbands and wives together assess and meet the needs of the family.  Neither husband nor wife has more responsibility but neither does either have less.  In this model if the husband and wife do not agree, the partner who will be most impacted by the final decision decides.

So now let us move away from the best case scenario slightly.  The husband/father unexpectedly dies.  Which model is left more secure?  Obviously income will be impacted even if the wife/mother has been contributing to the financial security of the family all along.  (And believe it or not which model you operate under does not completely determine whether or not the wife/mother works outside the home).  Still, it is most likely, especially in the complementarian model, that the larger portion of the income is gone.  While both models allow the wife/mother to make some decisions, in the complementarian model, most of these decisions have been monitored and all of them have been within specific parameters.  In addition, the wife/mother most likely will not have had any experience making final decisions about major issues.  Ideally, should this kind of tragedy occur, the Church and extended family will be available for help and counsel.  Still, this is no less true for the egalitarian.  In the end, the complementarian model has left the family slightly more vulnerable then the egalitarian model when facing the loss of the husband/father.

Move away from the best case scenarios further and we face the real issue that was brought up on the P&P blog.  Is one model more vulnerable to abuse, either passive or aggressive, then the other?  Again, I cannot over emphasize, abuse is the result of individual sin and is not caused by adhering to a specific set of principles.  That said, neglect, or passive abuse, is not limited to the egalitarian mind set despite the assertion on the P&P blog.  Certainly, a husband/father could talk himself out of needing to be responsible by telling himself that his spouse is just as or more capable than he is to provide for the family.  But that is no more likely then for a father to talk himself into letting his wife and children go without something because he, as the head of the house, deserves to have what he wants.  In fact, I had a friend sustain her family on rice and potatoes for months while her “head of household husband” treated himself to fast food every day because he did not want to be embarrassed by packing a sack lunch. 

Whether or not an egalitarian is more likely to abandon his family then a complementarian (which is really what the P&P blog comment was pointing toward) is more difficult to prove or disprove.  What we do know statistically is the divorce rate for Christians is just as high as for non-Christians.  We also know that single moms who have been under a complementarian model have had less practice making independent decisions then their egalitarian counterparts so they are not as well equipped to take on the head of household role if they are abandoned.  Ultimately, abandonment and neglect are self-centered behaviors and the misuse of both models can contribute.

Is physical abuse and emotional intimidation more likely to show up in one of the models then in the other?  Perhaps not.  However, better coping skills are promoted in the egalitarian model then in the complementarian model.  When women are encouraged to see themselves as equal to men in value and power  taking advantage of them becomes more difficult.  When women are expected to be able to protect and care for themselves and their families they are more likely to do so, especially when they or their families are threatened or neglected. 

Abuse is about power and abusers prey on the most vulnerable.  When women are taught to submit to men, whether those men are husbands or Church leaders, they are in essence expected to make themselves vulnerable.  When a woman is taught that lack of submission is rebellion, insisting on her rights is pride, women are more easily deceived then men, and God gave a husband authority over his wife, she is in essence taught that abuse is sanctioned by God. 

When abused women have not been allowed to work outside the home their situations are even more precarious since they are then totally dependent on their abusers for food and shelter.  For most, their only alternative to silent suffering is to seek help from Church leadership.  Sadly, a precious few Church leaders willingly confront an abusive husband on the wife’s say so alone.  (One hopes the potential loss of a tithe does not factor into leadership’s reluctance but uglier things have happened).  Instead, most of the wives who even dare to bring their situations before leadership are reminded that divorce is a sin, are encouraged to have sympathy for the pressures their husbands are under, and are told to go home and submit to their husbands as unto the Lord. 

Clearly the complementarian position leaves a woman at greater risk for physical abuse and emotional intimidation then the egalitarian position because it gives would-be abusers more power.  And, unless Church leadership willingly takes on the role of protector for women who find themselves in abusive situations, it ends up protecting the abusers.  Many individuals, like the authors of the P&P blog, both promote and walk out the best case scenario of the Complementarian position.  But, one only needs to see a few statistics to realize that as honorable as these men are too many others are not.  Enough damage has been done.

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