Is Complementarian Theology the Root of Domestic Abuse?

ruth tuckerI recently picked up a copy of Ruth Tucker’s Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife.  From other reviews, I anticipated that she and I would differ theologically, but I hoped to gain some helpful insight on caring for women in abusive situations from listening to her story.

In Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife, Tucker shares her painful story of domestic abuse.  Any reader will sympathize with her struggle and I found myself filled with compassion for her as she shared her story. One of the most insightful moments occurs when she recounts an incident of being scolded by a colleague for walking home alone at night. Years later she revisited the conversation with him, explaining, “I chided him for assuming I would be safe behind locked doors. I told him I had walked that long block hundreds of times and that I had never even once been attacked in the neighborhood. It was inside that house, not outside, where I was assaulted.”

Tucker’s story reminds us that we often have no idea what is truly happening in the lives of others. Tucker is a highly educated woman and her ex-husband was a pastor. Many people might have concluded she enjoyed a healthy, loving marriage.  And, most of us would have assumed she had the resources and knowledge to get help.

So, as a reminder that domestic abuse is happening (even in unlikely places), Tucker’s account has value.  Unfortunately, I found her book lacking in certain ways that makes this a book I wouldn’t recommend on the topic of domestic abuse.

It Lacks Statistical Analysis

Tucker’s main premise seems to be the notion that complementarian theology leads to domestic abuse. She bases this thesis on her experience:

During his violent rages, my ex-husband often hurled biblical texts at me, as though the principal tenet of Scripture was, ‘Wives, submit to your husbands.’  He spit the words out, repeatedly beating me over the head, at least figuratively, with his black-and-white Bible.

Tucker does what so many do in our day in age. She presents a thesis and offers no statistical evidence to back it up.  Her story is one data point. And, while her story is one that we need to hear, to extrapolate that complementarian theology is the root of her husband’s abuse is simply unfounded. She also shares that her ex-husband was expelled for cheating in college, arrested as a peeping Tom, caught stealing money, molested a thirteen-year old girl, and eventually abandoned his son. Are we to conclude that all of these abuses are the result of complementarian thinking?

The only evidence Tucker offers is her own experience.  While I fully believe that there are men who sinfully use complementarian theology to support their abuse, more corroboration is needed to conclude that it is the root cause of abuse. I could provide a completely opposite data point explaining the beauty of a complementarian marriage, sharing the many ways my husband loves, cares, supports, and sacrifices for me.  However, that would only then provide us with two data points.

We live in a world where truth is often based on feeling. But, as I used to tell my math students, “You are not allowed to feel that the lines are parallel.  You must prove that the lines are parallel.” Tucker essentially feels that complementarian thinking led to her abuse and so it must be true.  I kept waiting for (and would have been interested in reading) statistical data to support her argument. She offers none. As sympathetic as I am to her abuse, I find this type of experiential argument manipulative and unhelpful.

It Lacks Theological Insight

Multiple times Tucker mentions Ephesians 5:21, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”  However, she never interacts with it in light of Ephesians 5:22, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.”  To provide theological clarity, we cannot pick and choose verses that suit our own arguments. As a complementarian, I must consider what these verses mean in light of one another. As an egalitarian, Tucker must do the same.  She makes no attempt to provide a theological argument, but simply declares, “To argue that male headship does not infringe on female equality is disingenuous.”  I completely disagree. We have all sorts of leaders in our world today from presidents to generals to CEOs.  Just because someone has a different role doesn’t mean that inequity exists. Am I any less of a citizen of the United States than President Obama?  While he serves in a different role, we both have equality under the law. But he is my president and I am commanded to be subject to him (Romans 13:1).

Tucker could have shared about her abuse in a way that encouraged all churches to consider these issues. However, her unclear arguments against complementarian theology end up distracting from her desire to share her story as a means of helping women. While I have no doubt that her intent is to serve as a warning against abuse, it often comes off as a warning against those who have literal interpretations of Scripture (with their black and white Bibles). Unfortunately, this unproven correlation serves to alienate many who could benefit from her painful experiences.

It Lacks Practical Help

I hoped to read this book and walk away with helpful insight.  What should I be aware of in my church when looking for abuse?  What questions can I ask that might help an abused woman open up and share?  How can the church be a safe place?  Are there resources available to women trying to get away from an abuser? What advice can male leaders learn from her story? Unfortunately, Tucker misses the opportunity to answer these questions.  At times, she seems more interested in airing her frustrations about complementarian men than providing insight for both men and women who are seeking to care for the abused women in their churches. Additionally, I don’t think this book would help women suffering in a domestic abuse situation. It would seem confusing to most (many women in abusive situations aren’t aware of complementarian and egalitarian theologies), and it lacks guidance on practical ways to flee abusive situations.

It Lacks Spiritual Guidance

A notable absence in Tucker’s story was insight into her relationship with God.  She made little mention on her own faith as she faced an abuser for year after year. Did she pray for deliverance? Did Scripture provide comfort? Did she experience God’s protection in the midst of a terrible circumstances?  Did she feel distant or angry at God because of her marriage? In the midst of “telling her story”, I learned little about her relationship with God.  He seemed relegated to the fringes.  I wonder if one of the most painful parts of her abuse (since she relates it to a black and white Bible) might be that God’s word became linked to pain, rather than a source of comfort. I think probing into these parts of her story would have provided a helpful window for women who want to help others (or who are themselves facing abuse).

It Lacks Mutuality

Tucker proposes that her goal is mutuality. However, I found her description of her current husband problematic. She writes:

John is the least demanding man I’ve ever encountered. I often comment to people that he’s the perfect husband, having had three strong wives to whip him into shape. He’s easy to please and rarely complains (italics added).

There’s a disturbing irony in her words. Is it appropriate to use the phrase “whip him into shape” in a book about domestic violence?  If Tucker were to switch this description from a woman describing her husband to a man describing his wife, wouldn’t we have cause for concern?

On mutuality, she also quotes James Carville’s words, “I would say the three ingredients to a successful marriage are surrender, capitulation, and retreat.” Once again, if this quote was from a woman wouldn’t we find it rather disturbing? Applying a different standard of acceptable words and phrases based on gender belies her thesis of mutuality.

It’s important for the church to care for the domestic violence victims in her midst. Christian men and women, pastors and elders, friends and neighbors, should come alongside such victims and offer them wise counsel, protection, and love. I long for the day when our local churches are places where abusers repent and victims heal—and, even more, where abuse doesn’t happen in the first place. If Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife is not going to help us do this—and ultimately I don’t think it does—I eagerly await a thoughtful contribution from someone else.