#MeToo and the Church: The Abuse of Women, 1 Peter 3:7, Egalitarian vs. Complementarian Solutions?

Another packed out arena for Bill Gothards’s “Seminar in Basic Youth Conflicts,” from either the 1970s or early 1980s. In 2014, Bill Gothard was relieved from his ministerial responsibilities, by his ministry board, due to accusations of sexual harassment, that some think are still unresolved.

8th in a series. We are about halfway through…

Here is a topic we normally do not like to talk about.

If you appreciate thoughtful, video podcasts, that deal with egalitarian versus complementarian issues in the church, this would be a good one. The presentation is worth listening to, but I will summarize it here, if you lack the time to watch and listen:

In January, 2019, British evangelical broadcaster Justin Brierley moderated a discussion between Natalie Collins and Phil Moore, examining the #MeToo movement’s impact on the church. Egalitarian vs. Complementarian: Which position offers the best solution to the problem of abuse of women in the church?

Natalie Collins, a gender justice specialist, has done important work to raise awareness of abuse of women in the church. Phil Moore is a London pastor, concerned about many of the same issues, that Natalie raises. However, the two could not be any more different in diagnosing the root of the problem of women’s abuse, and in offering a solution.  For Natalie, complementarian theology, that emphasizes male leadership in the church and in the home is to blame. Male headship IS the problem. Instead, an egalitarian response is needed. For Phil, the problem is that complementarian theology has been done badly, and it just needs to be done, and acted out, rightly, in order to address the problem. Male headship, done correctly, IS the solution.

Natalie’s passion is driven by the fact that domestic abuse, and sexual abuse in general (including children), has been an overlooked problem in evangelical churches. But this is changing. This is not just a Roman Catholic problem with priests. In 2018, a report in Texas revealed that over the past 40 years, there were 400 allegations against 168 male church leaders in 200 independent, fundamentalist Baptist churches. The Houston Chronicle in February, 2019 reported that in the Southern Baptist denomination, one of the largest evangelical groups in the United States, roughly 380 Baptist leaders and volunteers faced allegations of sexual abuse, involving more than 700 victims, over the past twenty years, since 1998. About 220 offenders have been convicted or took plea deals, 100 are still in jail. The rest? They could still be serving in churches.

Add on top of that, there is the recent situation involving Rachael Denhollander, the woman who exposed the sexual abuse perpetrated by USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. Denhollander and her husband then went on to eventually persuade Al Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Seminary, after seven years, to finally withdraw unquestioning support of Sovereign Grace Ministries pastor, C. J. Mahaney, who has been accused of covering up long standing claims of sexual abuse, by either staff or other volunteers in Mahaney’s churches.

In nearly all of these cases, particularly those involving women, the failure to act to investigate, much less discipline, the claimed perpetrators was due to a sense of deference to the male-led leadership. A 2017 report in Christianity Today magazine indicates that many Christian leaders want their churches to be safe havens for victims of domestic abuse, but they do not know how to do that. Two in five evangelical pastors personally know of someone, mostly women, who have suffered from domestic abuse. Yet only one out of two evangelical churches have a specific plan in place to help victims of domestic abuse.

And those numbers only correspond to cases that have been reported. How many women in evangelical churches suffer abuse, but never report it?

A crucial question to ask is this: If your church is a male-led church, and a woman were to come forward, with a claim that she was being abused by her husband, would that male-led church leadership believe her enough, to be willing to even investigate her claims, and offer protection?

As this is a serious problem, we should be thankful that women like Natalie Collins are sounding the alarm. But does Collins’ proposed solution effectively address the problem?

For example, at the 48:15 mark into the discussion, Phil appealed to a passage that has often puzzled me. It is worth thinking about this one crucial Bible passage:

Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered (1 Peter 3:7 ESV)

From a 21st century perspective, reading this passage comes across as condescending towards women.  Woman as the “weaker vessel?” That does not sound very fair, does it?

Yet as Phil Moore explains the passage, here Peter is not downgrading the women, as Peter fully believes in the equality of men and women. Peter is not saying women “you are the weaker vessel, so behave like this.” Rather, Peter is addressing the men, saying, “Guys, understand, she is weaker than you…. If you treat your wife badly, God will not hear your prayers.

In other words, Peter is admonishing the men, in the most severe terms, …. that are never spoken against women, by the way, …. such that the men are challenged not to use their physical strength, or any other advantage, as an excuse for abusing women. Men can not do that, and think that they are worshipping God at the same time. Instead, Christian men and women are to think of themselves as co-heirs together, “of the grace of life,” and thereby behave appropriately towards one another.1

Natalie Collins, on the other hand, was unfortunately rather dismissive of the text, and never adequately offered an alternative interpretation that could improve upon Phil’s interpretation. As a speaker for Christians for Biblical Equality, I was disappointed that Natalie advanced relatively little in terms of Scriptural application, in comparison to Phil. In fairness, not all egalitarians approach this issue in the same way that Natalie did.

Natalie did suggest that many Christians think that Peter considers women to be weaker vessels, because they believe that women are more easily deceived than men. But as Phil pointed out, there is nothing in 1 Peter 3 that indicates that this is the case.

Too her credit, Natalie does expose a popular misbelief, that can paralyze women. For example, a woman friend of mine, when she was a teenager, about age 14 or 15, was raped by the son of the pastor of her church, who was about 3 years older than her. After he raped her, he told her that she could not say anything against him, because no one would believe her. Rather, she should keep silent about the incident.

That is a terribly egregious example of completely butchering a verse in the Bible, “the women should keep silent in the churches” (1 Corinthians 14:34 ESV).

For folks like Natalie, much of what drives egalitarians crazy is the appeal, made by at least some complementarian advocates, that firmly believes in a hierarchy of order, as associated with traditional patriarchy. Traditional patriarchy only perpetuates domestic abuse. Phil sought to answer that in a different way, emphasizing that men need to learn how to become better men. I do not believe that Natalie heard that from Phil.

Furthermore, many egalitarians assume that if you get completely rid of complementarian theology, that this will solve the problem of the abuse of women in the church. However, if there is any one particular thing we can learn from the 2018 tragedy in leadership at Willow Creek Church, one of America’s largest and most influential egalitarian churches, it is that abuse still can happen at an egalitarian church. No church, whether it be complementarian or egalitarian, is immune from abuse.

Nevertheless, the podcast is a good discussion, and as Jennie Pollock says, it is “an exercise in disagreeing well.” Give it a listen if you have the time.


1. The NIV translation of referring to the woman as the “weaker partner,” is unfortunate. As the ESV says “weaker vessel,” it implies that the woman’s weakness is on the outside, an external physical characteristic, as opposed to something intrinsic to her being. The NIV’s “weaker partner” loses that sense of distinction, implying that the woman’s weakness is more intrinsic. The ESV rendering is to be preferred. Likewise, the Christian Standard Bible (CSB) is like the NIV is in having “weaker partner,”  but at least it is an improvement over the previous Holman Christian Standard Bible translation (HCSB), which has “weaker nature.” If I think of woman as analogous to a “weaker vessel,” I think of something like a ship carrying precious cargo. But strangely, the history of bible interpretation injects ideas into the text that are hard to make sense of. For example, in Martin Luther’s commentary on 1 Peter 3:7, he says, “The husband is also God’s instrument [or vessel], while the wife is weaker bodily, as well as more timid and more easily dispirited.” I get the “weaker bodily” part, as a boat vessel or cargo vessel, can be weak, with respect to the cargo being carried inside of that vessel. But what is a “timid” or “more easily dispirited” boat, or truck, or moving van? When did boats and trucks have feelings? 

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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