How did gender hierarchy theology become so accepted by so many?
I’m taking a month off of the blog to get some much needed downtime, and I thought that this was the perfect opportunity to highlight some amazing women writers that I’ve been interacting with on Twitter, and reading insightful posts for a few months or years.
There are so many deep thinkers out there who deserve a much wider audience, who write pieces much more thought-provoking than most of the books and big websites out there.
As Rebecca and I have been doing some long-term planning for what we want this website to grow into as I think about retirement in about a decade, one of my goals is to raise up so many other voices that, when I leave, no one really notices.
One of the voices I’ve really appreciated is Chelsea from Holy Tension. She shares her personal story out of gender hierarchy churches, but she also has done substantial critique of some of our best-sellers, especially looking at Gary Thomas (since his book was one that prompted her exodus from the movement).
In a recent post, she was talking about the evangelical marriage machine, and how problematic it is. It platforms people who aren’t qualified; it fails to cite sources properly; and often spreads harmful teaching instead of what we know is helpful. And why does it do this?
Well, I’ll let you read her article to find out, but here are just a few excerpts:
An interesting connection between Married Sex and Beautiful Union is the way both books misrepresented female authors to support their theses. In addition to Sheila Gregoire, Butler name dropped Emily Nagoski, a female author dedicated to helping women pursue pleasure, without actually ever centering female pleasure in his book. Gary Thomas similarly name-dropped Esther Perel in a way that misrepresented her work that I didn’t address in my initial review of Married Sex because there were too many issues to address in one review.
Esther Perel is the international bestselling author of Mating in Captivity, a well-known book outside of conservative evangelical circles, but rarely read inside them because evangelicals mostly seek evangelical literature for their sexual education. In Married Sex, Gary Thomas shares an anecdote from Perel’s book about a woman “all for egalitarianism” who revels in the thrill of “losing control and letting someone else take charge” (140-1) in the bedroom to pressure women to let their husbands lead in the bedroom.
The problem is, Perel advocates for intelligent eroticism—the idea that eroticism desires excitement, unpredictability, and danger—which means for a complementarian couple (Gary Thomas’ primary audience), where by day, man leads and woman submits, it would be erotic for the woman to lead in the bedroom and the man submit (female dominant sex). Perel writes: “The power differential that would be unacceptable in her emotional relationship with Vito is precisely what excites Elizabeth erotically” (Married Sex 141). Perel was saying that male dominant sex can be erotic for the female WHEN she is in an egalitarian relationship.
I find it ironic that instead of highlighting the main points from her book, the one nugget of wisdom Gary Thomas decided to share for his complementarian audience was an anecdotal story of a woman who revels in the thrill of “losing control” and letting the man “take charge” in the bedroom.
This anecdote from Perel is found in Chapter 9 – “En Gedi Sex” of Thomas’ book. Thomas shares three stories— one of a wife providing multiple blow jobs a day for her husband on a trip, one of a husband providing a bubble bath for his wife once a week, and then this third, random, very long excerpt from Perel’s book. It’s like Thomas had to find a way to fit this example of a secular author writing about an egalitarian woman’s desire to surrender control in the bedroom somewhere in his book. Thomas misused Perel to reinforce his already stated view that women surrender: “The very act of sex speaks of profound differences in gender: forcefulness that requires gentleness, initiation that requires receiving, control met with surrender” (55).
She goes on to talk about some of the glaring problems with the people that the evangelical establishment has chosen to highlight and platform:
Stephen Arterburn, author of the best-selling Everyman’s Battle series, founder of the Woman of Faith conference, and host of radio counseling network NewLife is on his third marriage and has a M.Ed in elementary education. (I’m not condemning someone for being on their third marriage, but they should not be platformed as an evangelical marriage expert.)
He once wrote, “I graduated college with the easiest degree I could find, just to get out,” but positions himself as a mental health professional. He’s one of the biggest cons in the evangelical-industrial complex. He has no legitimate degrees or experience for the level of platform he’s been given—this is not a bug of the evangelical-industrial complex, but a feature.
It’s a great analysis, and I encourage you to read the whole thing.
In another article, she writes of her journey out of hierarchy theology.
Chelsea has spent most of her life in complementarian circles, and it was really reading Married Sex–along with other things that were happening at the same time in the church she was in–that helped her see she had to get out.
She writes of her journey out of hierarchy theology here, and I want to highlight some of it:
Deep down, I always wanted to believe women’s voices were as valuable as men’s in the church. I didn’t trust myself to objectively wrestle with ideas that would tell me it was so. The great irony in patriarchal systems is that when a woman judges that patriarchal theology is bad, (she interprets the Bible to believe her voice should be equally valued in the church), she’s criticized for being subjective. When a man judges that patriarchal theology is good, (interprets that the Bible teaches he should rule), he’s praised for being objective. I had internalized that as a woman, I could not objectively value my worth.
She explains why it took her so long to really question the dissonance she was experiencing (and my own experience mirrors with hers so much here!):
Complementarian theology was also a matter of circumstance. I met Jesus within conservative white evangelicism. Hallelujah! I was raised in it, and in many ways, I flourished. I was happily married with four children by my early thirties. I chose and enjoyed staying home with my children during their little years. Church provided nourishing social structures for my family that were not easily found in other places (but often not for women that did not fit the complementarian mold). As an adult, I lived in a city where most of the “thriving” evangelical churches were patriarchal on some level.
I had been raised to fear white mainline traditions and had limited (and not always positive) exposure to Christian traditions outside my bubble. I didn’t really have a full awareness of other options. Outside the parachurch organization for which I worked (and it was interdenominational—the “egalitarian” man who recruited me attended a patriarchal church and my male co-minister held patriarchal views), I never encountered a church that practiced healthy egalitarianism. In many ways, complementarianism was all I knew.
After explaining how she started to see the cracks, she said:
One of the crazy things during all of this was that I STILL didn’t trust myself to read “egalitarian” books objectively, so I asked my husband to read the one I had purchased years ago that had been collecting dust on a shelf. This is the part that’s still hardest for me to process. Why was I so afraid to even wrestle with egalitarianism? It’s so against the way I’m generally wired, but the fear of the slippery slope had been drilled into me since childhood.
To be honest, it is a slippery slope. Once you start to question the role of women in the church and home, you start questioning everything, because patriarchy is foundational to the sect of Christianity in which I was raised. I still don’t fully understand why I was so resistant to egalitarian theology for so long, but my resistance was partly driven by fear. I intrinsically knew to be judged a Jezebel, feminazi, or “contrary”, was one of the worst crimes a woman could commit within the white evangelical tradition I had moved and breathed my whole life.
Did you experience something similar to Chelsea and me, finding your church situation the one place where you had real community, so it was hard to question it? Let’s talk in the comments!