I’ll get right to the point and make my plea to both egalitarians and complementarians:
Egalitarians, don’t conflate hyper-headship and complementarianism. Complementarians, don’t give egalitarians a reason to conflate them.
Agreement: Equal Essence and Worth
Egalitarians and complementarians both agree that the Bible views women and men as spiritual equals in God’s sight. There are no gender differences whatsoever in terms of dignity or value.
The two views are unified in terms of equality with respect to gender essence and ontological worth.
Disagreement: Equal or Distinct Roles?
The debate between egalitarians and complementarians boils down to two different understandings of gender roles, not gender worth. Egalitarians believe equality extends to gender roles, while complementarians believe in distinct yet complementary roles.
The defining difference often comes down to the concept of authority. Egalitarians believe Scripture “calls women and men to share authority equally in service and leadership in the home, church, and world” (mission statement of Christians for Biblical Equality). Egalitarians believe in mutual submission, because they believe men and women should share authority equally. Complementarians believe men are called to use their God-given authority to serve women in a Christlike, servant-hearted, lay-down-your-life way so that women in the home and the church will flourish. (Complementarians differ slightly with each other regarding how men and women relate in the world with respect to authority. It would take us too far afield to explain the differences with sufficient fairness and thoroughness in this article.)
We’ve seen a point of agreement and a point of disagreement between the two views. My point isn’t to enter into the exegetical debate to demonstrate why I’m a complementarian and not an egalitarian. Rather, my burden is to point out that both groups should have another point of agreement. We should be equally opposed to domestic abuse.
Agreement: Equal Opposition to Domestic Abuse
One would think this point goes without saying, but sadly it needs to be said. Both groups should oppose domestic abuse with every fiber of their being. (Though I’m mainly discussing spousal abuse here, we should be equally opposed to child abuse.) Who could even conceive of making an argument for how domestic abuse glorifies God?
But sometimes our shrill rhetoric obscures our real agreement on this score. Egalitarians sometimes fail to distinguish between genuine complementarianism and extreme distortions that cease to be complementarian at all. This is a sad feature of many debated points of theology. Something similar happens in debates between Calvinists and Arminians. Arminians think they’re speaking against Calvinism when they’re actually speaking against hyper-Calvinism. Likewise, egalitarians sometimes think they’re speaking against complementarianism when they’re actually speaking against hyper-headship.
What Is Hyper-Headship?
Complementarians believe biblical marriage should display the model of Christ’s marriage to his bride, the church. We believe each gender has a distinct part to play in that picture. God calls the man to take the lead in loving his wife in a lay-down-your-life, Christlike manner. God gives the woman the responsibility to receive that loving Christlike leadership in a submissive and respectful church-like manner.
Hyper-headship destroys that picture. The husband abuses his headship in a self-centered and self-serving manner. He may be self-centered and self-serving in a covertly aggressive way that refuses to do anything to serve his wife or family. Or he may be self-centered and self-serving in a harsh, oppressive, controlling way. Self-serving lordship isn’t Christlike leadership, for Christ gives himself for his bride. Harsh lordship isn’t Christlike leadership, for Christ doesn’t abuse his bride. He doesn’t treat her harshly.
The bride of Jesus flourishes under his servant leadership. Hyper-headship is exactly the opposite. Far from leading to the flourishing of the wife, it becomes a breeding ground for domestic abuse.
A bare-bones summary of the differences, then, could look like this:
Hyper-Headship Complementarianism Egalitarianism
Self-serving lordship Servant-hearted headship No headship
Egalitarians, Avoid the Fallacy of the Excluded Middle
At this point egalitarians need to avoid the fallacy of the excluded middle.
When you’re opposing complementarianism, please don’t conflate it with hyper-headship. Represent our views carefully and accurately in a way that maintains the middle instead of excluding it. Represent the real core of what someone believes before responding to it. It’s a matter of integrity.
Complementarians, Maintain the Integrity of the Middle
As complementarians we play a major role in maintaining the integrity of that middle position. So don’t give egalitarians reason to confuse hyper-headship and complementarianism. Speak strongly against sick distortions of our views. Make much of the difference between loving male leadership and abusive male lordship. Meditate deeply on the difference between true and false leadership in 2 Corinthians 11:20–21. Christlike leadership focuses on becoming a servant; Satan’s distortion focuses on making servants and then exploiting them for self-serving ends.
I know some speak against complementarianism as if it were the culprit in domestic abuse. Humble headship breeds domestic abuse, they say. If you’re a complementarian, perhaps you’ll be criticized by both sides (hyper-headship and egalitarianism). So what? Maybe that’s a good thing. Maybe that’s a sign you’re maintaining biblical balance. Don’t get bent out of shape; keep calm and keep maintaining the integrity of the middle.
Protect the Vulnerable
Christlike headship doesn’t cause abuse; on the contrary, it’s a powerful catalyst against abuse. It should go without saying that complementarians ought not be guilty of abuse personally. Spousal abuse runs against the grain of everything we hold dear. It is, to put it bluntly, the most un-Christlike thing a husband could do.
I’m not denying the fact that some wives abuse their husbands. Such abuse is sinful and should be equally opposed. But I’m speaking out against domestic abuse in which the husband harms the wife from a posture of abusive authoritarianism. We ask women in complementarian marriages to take the most vulnerable position in the relationship, which can quickly become a dangerous position when our views get distorted. The flourishing of the wife requires the husband to love her in a servant-hearted way. Therefore, we must be vigilant to call for husbands to love their actual wives, not just the idea of a wife. Husband, do you see your wife as someone to serve you or as someone to serve? Because we teach that husbands have God-given authority as leaders, we must maintain an extra vigilance against its distortion and abuse.
Raising the Bar
If we set our sights on avoiding abuse, we’re setting the bar far too low. Complementarians ought to be the most outspoken people against abuse. And we ought to keep watch most closely over our own churches to prevent it. Those in leadership must protect the vulnerable and go after the abuser with the full force of legal action and biblical zeal.
Egalitarians and complementarians have many differences to debate. Domestic abuse shouldn’t be one of them.