Why Complementarians Should Be “First Responders” Against Abuse


Over at United? We Pray, my friend and one-time fellow pastor Isaac Adams introduced the concept of historical asymmetry to help us understand the relationships between blacks and whites in the United States today. You should go read it yourself, but to capture his point in a single vignette: a black person calling a white person a “cracker” is just not the same as a white person calling a black person a “n*****.” Both remarks are racist, yes, but the latter insult will weigh more heavily—risk more damage—in light of America’s long history of discrimination and domination from white to black. While those two epithets may be formally equal, they possess asymmetrical meaning or significance to most hearers. I could take another paragraph explaining all this, but I’m going to assume most readers intuitively grasp the point.

I’d like to take this idea of asymmetry and apply it to gender and our debates in Christian circles about complementarianism, the abuse of women, and the #MeToo movement. Here’s my basic point: complementarians such as myself should be the first to recognize the responsibilities and dangers of authority because we recognize the God-intended asymmetries between men and women in the church and the home. To match Adams’ vignette with my own, a husband shouting, “You stupid woman!” to his wife is doing something much worse than the wife shouting, “You stupid man!” to him in the exact same tone and volume. To the man, God says, “I’m not even going to listen to you when you talk to me” (1 Peter 3:7).

Egalitarians may resist that. But if you’re a complementarian, you should believe that, and you’re my intended audience here.


Why? Because, if you’re a complementarian, you believe that God has given husbands an authority of counsel in the home (Eph. 5:22–24; 1 Peter 3:1–7). He has established this asymmetry, which means that a husband shouting those words carries more weight and (I choose this word wincingly) punch. It does more damage by virtue of his position of authority, his wife’s respective vulnerability, and the leverage he has. It does more damage because of the God-intended asymmetry of authority that exists between the husband and the wife.

How frustrating it is to me in marital counseling situations, therefore, when pastors quickly default to, “Well, there’s always fault on both sides.” Logically speaking, that’s what an egalitarian pastor should say. He (or she!) believes that that husband and wife, structurally speaking, are symmetrical. A complementarian pastor, however, should be quick to recognize that headship, ordinarily, means that a preponderance of responsibility falls on the head. You cannot insist men are the head and then absolve them of primary responsibility when things go south. If the buck stops with him, it stops with him. Wives bear their own responsibility, to be sure, yet what headship means finally is that Jesus knocks on the man’s door first when trouble comes (Gen. 3:9).


Complementarian pastors who believe in the good of authority should be the first to understand that God-given authority has nothing to with its prerogatives and advantages, and everything to do with its responsibilities and disadvantages. It knows its job is to bear the weight. Was Jesus more concerned about his prerogatives or his responsibilities? Were his final three years of ministry (pre-resurrection) primarily to his advantage or disadvantage?

Godly authority primarily operates through sacrifice. It leads, yes. It makes decisions, yes. Again, think of Jesus. Yet it always does so from a heart or posture of self-sacrifice. It works always for the good of others, even at cost to itself.

Michael Emadi, a missionary to Ireland, tells grooms during his wedding sermons, “Being Jesus in the marriage relationship doesn’t mean playing the hero, it means you’re the one that gets crucified” (see Eph. 5:25).

Godly authority also recognizes that, since God established this asymmetry between a husband and a wife, it must act as a “first responder” to any threat of abuse, like New York City firemen on 9/11. This is why it boggles my mind that some complementarians have responded so defensively to the #MeToo movement. Shouldn’t our response have been, “It’s about time the rest of you showed up”?

By the same token, godly authority should be the leeriest of imposing cultural stereotypes as biblical writ. It doesn’t want to misrepresent or wrongfully impose something as God’s law which is merely prudence.


Here’s the irony: egalitarians assert that husbands and wives are equal in everything, but then they disproportionately prosecute the sins of men with (revealingly) complementarian instincts (and good for them). Meanwhile, complementarians assert that husbands possess authority, but then—sometimes—they let husbands defend themselves as if everything was equal: “But you should see how she’s treated me! I’m a victim here, too.” “Oh, well, that makes sense.”

When troubles hit marriages, egalitarians act like complementarians, while complementarians, too often, act like egalitarians. Yes, that latter comment was meant to kick in both directions.


Aaaand one more thing: shouldn’t we who are complementarians also be the first to recognize and applaud my friend Isaac’s point about the asymmetries that an African Americans feels?

Now slow up here. Gender and ethnicity are not the same. Complementarians believe that God himself established an asymmetry of authority in the home between husband and wife. They don’t believe that any power asymmetry should exist between different ethnicities. Any such authority or power asymmetries root in the fall and acts of theft. They’re historical, not by design.

In other words, if complementarians are the ones who say that God-given authority is good, we should also be the most studied up on authority and most aware of its dangers. We should be the first to recognize that, while authority in creation and redemption are wonderful, authority and power in the fall are awful. We should best understand how authority’s abuses yield structural legacies that persist for generations, even when the worst abuses have ended, precisely because we recognize the potency of authority. Its effects are not short-lived.

We shouldn’t need anyone to explain to us that calling a black man the n-word (I don’t even like to say it) is worse than calling a white man a cracker. That should be intuitive to us. Insofar as these things are not intuitive to us, it’s not because we have not read up on critical theory or the latest manifestos on social justice. It’s because we’ve not read our Bibles carefully enough to see how much it teaches on oppression, from the prophets’ indictments of Israel, to the Psalmist’s cries about the violent man, to Jesus’ excoriation of the Pharisees. Our doctrine of sin is too shallow. We fail to recognize that sin, in its very nature, is the abuse of the authority and power which God gives, whether our circle of authority is as small as Adam’s garden or as big as Pharaoh’s kingdom. We fail to remember that, when things went south, God first called Adam, not Eve.

To speak personally, it just might also be because we’re selfish and enjoy the prerogatives of power and privilege and not their responsibilities. Maybe that’s not true of you. It is of me.


Finally, we who are complementarians should be among the most assiduous in fighting wrongful usurpations of power, whether in the home or in the nation. Since we understand power asymmetries, we should be quick to acknowledge both “Why White Churches Are Hard for Black People” and “What the Church Can and Should Bring to the #MeToo Movement.”

After all, we recognize that God alone possesses absolute authority, and that everything we as image-bearers do with our relative and derivative authority reflects upon him. Therefore, we recognize what a precious commodity authority is. We should want to protect it, and so, if we’re going to err, err toward under-spending it rather than over-spending it, as with money.

On one occasion, a friend suggested that my approach to a certain pastoral conversation “might have been a little heavy-handed.” This is probably the charge I’m most sensitive too, both because I know I’m capable of it and because heavy-handed leadership ill-reflects the Lord, tempting people to reject his authority in their lives.

To my complementarians brothers and sisters, then, continue affirming the good of authority (as David does in 2 Samuel 23:3 and Solomon in 1 Kings 3:1–15). Yet be leerier than others of its dangers. If we’re going to fight to preserve God-given authority, we must also fight its abuses.

Jonathan Leeman

Jonathan (@JonathanLeeman) edits the 9Marks series of books as well as the 9Marks Journal. He is also the author of several books on the church. Since his call to ministry, Jonathan has earned a master of divinity from Southern Seminary and a Ph.D. in Ecclesiology from the University of Wales. He lives with his wife and four daughters in Cheverly, Maryland, where he is an elder at Cheverly Baptist Church.

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