Holy Tension: A Big Picture Look at the Evangelical Marriage Machine

by | Jul 18, 2023 | Faith, Marriage, Theology of Marriage and Sex | 12 comments

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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).

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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).


Holy Tension

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.


Holy Tension

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.


Holy Tension

She Deserves Better!

Because we all deserve a big faith.

Your daughter deserves better than what you likely grew up with in church.

What would it look like to prepare the next generation without toxic teachings about modesty, sex, or consent, and instead set her up for a big faith?

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.


Holy Tension

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.


Holy Tension

Her whole article is fascinating, and I encourage you to read the whole thing!

And then check out her website at Holy Tension

Chelsea is an interesting voice that I’ve appreciated over the last little while, and I hope you will too!

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!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Kara

    I am right at the point of questioning complementarianism and embracing egalitarianism. My whole life I knew teaching wives to submit and men having authority just for being male was sexist, but was also taught it was “God’s design” so I felt ashamed to question it. But I know God more now as an adult (that He hates oppression!), and I’ve read more egalitarian books that have proved with scriptures what I have known deep down all along. I am still “deconstructing” from complementarianism, so any advice/prayers would be appreciated!!

    • Nessie

      This is a helpful site imo. https://margmowczko.com/

      I really apprciate seeing the resources of Greek scholars. It was so drilled in to me that the Word of God was inerrant and questioning it meant I had a rebellious spirit, etc. Seeing what God’s Word- not always equal to man’s translation- means in the original language/culture/context has really helped me grapple with that.

      I’m still deconstucting myself so not a lot of helpful advice to give, though Sheila did advise me a while back to stick with Jesus’ words and actions for a while, take a break from the OT. Most days it is almost a visceral reaction to opening the bible or even praying because I feel all the judgment from a previous pastor pouring down on me (rebelliousness, critical spirit, lack of humility, Are you SURE you understand God correctly because I’ve studied at seminary and preached for years- what are your credentials, etc.) and I have to be so intentional to try to trust that God isn’t trying to beat me to a pulp.

    • Sara

      Kara I highly recommend the FB group “Biblical Egalitarians”. You’ll find lots of posts with excellent resources.

  2. Nessie

    From Chelsea’s Sex Idol: Where Evangelicals Worship & Women are Sacrificed post. “My generation is beginning to recognize that purity culture was the sexual version of the health and wealth gospel.”

    It’s not a new idea that if you wait till marriage purity culture implicitly promised great sex, but seeing it written that way hit me. “Let’s take a warped idea- the prosperity, health and weath gospel, and add another layer of warp and distortion.” It’s like with play-doh growing up- twist 2 strands of different colors together. Bend it over on itself and do it again. Enough times of this and the colors are hopelessly entangled and it’s near impossible to separate them. I feel like many of us are desparately trying to unmesh the colors so we can see truth clearly. What a mess.

    Church- absolutely where I had the majority of my community! It was so much more important because our family systems are unhealthy so we are fairly isolated from them and needed some kind of support system. And it hurt greatly when we finally DID leave that so many chose to disengage from us. It took them a few years more to finally see what I had seen. I get it as they had been thoroughly duped, too, but it was a lonely few years and a lot of personal stuff hit the fan during those years. But it was still the best decision we could have made.

  3. Paula

    “HOW DID GENDER HIERARCHY THEOLOGY BECOME SO ACCEPTED BY SO MANY?” Has been the very question that I’ve been trying to answer. I’ve also been questioning the connection between the trinity and marriage. I’ve heard pastors talk about the submission hierarchy in the trinity and how that correlates to the male/female roles in marriage. Equal in essence, yet submissive due to our different roles and function. And how God crated male and female in order so that in itself is an indication of females being submissive. And how Satan went to Eve because he knew he needed to disrupt the God ordained order.

    I’m trying so hard to shake these teachings.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      The Eternal Subordination of the Son doctrine is actually a heresy. It contradicts the Nicene Creed, and everything Christianity has been for 1700 years. It’s a new heresy that started to find justification for women having to submit to men. Beth Allison Barr covers this well in The Making of Biblical Womanhood!

      • Lisa Johns

        We shall call it the Grudem heresy. Always give credit where credits is due! 😁

  4. J. A. Boone

    When I was an undergraduate, I asked the question once in Sunday school: “So, does the Bible put me under just my husband’s authority, or does it put me under the authority of all men, and how did that work with men who are not Christians?” They spent the next THREE WEEKS arguing about this, and finally came down on the side of putting all women under the authority of all men “within reason” or some such mealymouthed nonsense.

    It was the first crack in the foundation for me, but it took a ridiculously long time (and a marriage broken beyond repair by abuse) for me to finally walk away.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m glad you saw the problems and left. That’s so awful. I can’t imagine being in that Sunday School class.

    • Lucie Winborne

      J.A. Boone, I have to wonder if that Sunday School class’s final decision included women (or teen girls) with boyfriends!

    • Christine

      I grew up in a church that ordained the first woman pastor in the whole denomination, and am now at a very light complementarian church. It was the hilariously titled memoir “Does This Church Make Me Look Fat?” that helped me be okay with attending my current church. But I do see my daughter struggling with it especially interacting with more outspoken, conservative people (whose views are more extreme than our official stance as a church).

  5. Jessica Madden

    Thank you for sharing Chelsea’s blog…I am really enjoying her content 🤗


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