Posted by: vicholdsforth | February 5, 2010

A Theology of Woman (Part 13: Fruit)

Fruit is a recurring theme in the New Testament (Matt 3:7-10, 7:14-20, 12:33, 21:43, Luke 3:8-9, 6:43-44, 13:5-10, John 15, and Heb 6:7-8).  While we must be mindful to avoid falling into the humanistic philosophy of pragmatism (i.e., judging the rightness or wrongness of an act, idea, or philosophy based solely or primarily on its efficacy), an evaluation of the fruit of patriarchal and egalitarian doctrine is a biblical component of a fully-orbed formulation of a theology of marriage.  What can we learn by comparing egalitarian and complementarian marriages?

Longitudinal research indicates that the single best predictor of marital failure is when one partner holds all of the power in the relationship, as in the complementarian schema.  Women in complementarian marriages experience significantly more depression and a variety of other physical and emotional disorders than single women or women whose marriages are egalitarian.  Complementarian theology is the second-best predictor of both domestic violence and incest (it is exceeded only by substance abuse.)  Complementarians attempt to explain this data away by suggesting that spousal abuse is a means (albeit an illegitimate one) to which some husbands resort in an attempt to regain the control to which they are legitimately entitled, i.e., they have been provoked by a wife who will not submit.  I maintain that this interpretation of the data is highly improbable for several reasons.

First, domestic violence is more than four times as likely to occur in complementarian marriages as egalitarian ones.  These are marriages in which both husband and wife openly acknowledge the husband’s authority, so regaining control that has been usurped by the wife does not explain this situation.  Conversely, were the hypothesis correct, one would expect that the rate of abuse in egalitarian marriages to be at least as high or higher.  Second, the typical battered wife in many cases believes she is deserving of the abuse and is engaged in an ongoing campaign to “submit to” and please her husband in an effort to end the beatings.  Third, men have been beating their wives throughout history, thousands of years before the idea of an egalitarian marriage arrangement had occurred to anyone.  In fact, the church for centuries encouraged husbands to beat their wives and offered instructions for carrying out the task.  One was to beat her during the daylight hours so as not to disturb the neighbors with the noise.  Another was to beat her with a stick no thicker than one’s thumb, hence the phrase, “rule of thumb.”  To suggest that wife beating is simply the knee-jerk reaction of many men to egalitarianism simply does not make sense in light of the historical record or a survey of contemporary world cultures.  The cultures in which men hold the most power are also those in which the abuse of women is the most frequent and egregious.  This is universally true in cultures as diverse as Muslim kingdoms, Latin (machismo) democracies, and African tribal communities.  Fourth, this theory also fails to account for the fact that complementarian fathers are exceeded only by substance abusers in the frequency with which they rape their own daughters.   Finally, it smacks of blaming the victim, and is hauntingly similar to the manner in which women have, for centuries, been blamed by priests and pastors for the sometimes-debilitating injuries they received at the hands of their own husbands.

Evangelicals (those churches most likely to embrace complementarianism) have the highest divorce rate of all Christians, and a 50% higher divorce rate than agnostics and atheists.  81% of spouses (both men and women) in complementarian marriages describe themselves as unhappy.  Conversely, 82% of spouses (again, both men and women) in egalitarian marriages describe themselves as happy.  Stated another way, couples in traditional marriages are four times as likely to be unhappy.  If, as complementarians claim, the source of marital dissatisfaction is “failure to embrace biblically-ordained roles,” we would expect all of these numbers to be reversed:  evangelicals, those most likely to organize their marriage “God’s way,” should experience the lowest divorce rates and the highest levels of marital intimacy and satisfaction.  The opposite is true.  We might also expect that women, those most likely to resist their “biblically ordained” role as the subjugated partner, would express greater degrees of dissatisfaction than men, but the overwhelming majority of men in traditional marriages are dissatisfied, as well (and have been since long before The Feminine Mystique was published, too, I might add).

Complementarians express the fear that egalitarianism destabilizes marriages and families and is the root of a variety of problems for children, including homosexuality and future marital dysfunction (because they don’t have a clear idea of what their “role” is).  They must make their case by artificially conflating multiple factors such as egalitarianism and working outside the home.  The truth is, many men exercise their “headship” by pressuring their wives to work when they’d rather be at home with their young children; and many egalitarian couples have found creative means to raise their children at home because they are unfettered by nostalgic and unrealistic expectations regarding the “male breadwinner.”  When the data is isolated and examined for legitimate correlations, however, it is divorce, not equality or power-sharing on the part of the parents, that has been linked to these and many other undesirable outcomes for children.  And it is complementarians who divorce at a significantly higher rate than any other group.  The vast majority of those who do remain married are unhappy.  These data are enough to warrant a critical examination of the philosophy rather than simply blaming these staggering numbers on a flawed understanding and ineffective execution on the part of this many married Christians.    An unhappy marriage or divorce is the relationship model that the overwhelming majority of children from complementarian homes carry into their own marriages.  This does not bode well for their own marriage, and certainly does not reflect the intimacy and oneness God intends for marriage.


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