Christian patriarchy hurts men, cont.

Toranse made a comment on the previous post that was really insightful:

I thought this statement was very telling: “give men a God-sized task that they know requires a man.” The presumption is than manliness = god-like qualities. A standard no one can meet, and thus, every single man technically fails at his supposed role. The pressure is enormous and the fear to be less, to be “female” so ingrained in this kind of indoctrination that the only way to go is to be angry and domineering to ensure that one never slips into anything remotely “less.”

Part of the issue here is that complementarians have fabricated a male God in the image of “masculinity” as they define it – a God even more patriarchal, authoritarian, and domineering than they say men should be.  I hadn’t thought about it quite this way before, but I think Toranse is right that the idea that equating “manliness” with godliness must add to the burden of already unrealistic and unhealthy definitions of masculinity (which aren’t at all unique to complementarianism).

For one thing, no one can have complete, unquestioned authority over another human being without dehumanizing them and denying them their dignity and rights – which I suppose makes sense when you’re teaching men to relate to their wives or children as God supposedly does to humans.  And then there’s the fact that it’s completely unrealistic to expect total compliance or submission from another human being.  Yet complementarian men are taught they can and should expect total obedience, that if they don’t expect it, push for it, and receive it from their wives and families, that they are less than “men,” and perhaps worse, sinning against God by rejecting his plan for them as men.

This sets men up for failure and frustration in their family relationships and sets up a cycle of domination and anger.  I’d say lot of the rage and attempts at domination I’ve seen in patriarchal men comes from a place of deep frustration that they can’t be the god-like men that their churches are teaching them they have to be.  In my family, for example, it was just taken for granted that the kids should do whatever my father expected without question, and most of the time, this was the case.  But it was inevitable, given that we were human beings and not robots, that some of the time we would challenge or disobey his orders.  And when we did, we faced my father’s wrath.  I can’t speak for my siblings, but I know I grew up being incredibly afraid of my father and his explosive anger, which could flare up with little warning – if we didn’t anticipate his wishes, or didn’t follow his instructions to the letter, or were found wanting in some other way.

I suspect my dad has natural tendencies to control and anger that he would have struggled with even if we’d never been part of SGM.  But complementarian theology validated his absolute conviction that we were obligated to submit to him in every little detail.  And it raised the stakes so that when we weren’t completely submissive, we weren’t simply challenging his ego and pride, we were making him into an inadequate man and Christian by disrupting his authority over “his” home.  The only way for him to reestablish himself as a godly, man’s man was to assert his authority even more aggressively than before.  And even when we were compliant, the threat that we would stop being compliant for even a moment was constantly looming.  Complementarianism set my dad up to be constantly dissatisfied with his family relationships at best – because he had to be constantly vigilant against signs of lack of submission, and it also set up a cycle of domination, followed by frustration, then, anger, then further attempts at domination.

Obviously this was a major obstacle to a loving, trusting relationship between my parents and me when I was a kid.  If anything, it’s been even more of an problem in our relationship now that I’m an adult.  My parents never prepared themselves for the time when I would be able to make my own decisions, or for the possibility that I would make choices they might not agree with.  They don’t know how to relate to their children without attempting to control them.  And for my dad in particular, I think his relationships with some of his adult children have often been profoundly dissatisfying and infuriating because we’ve directly challenged his attempts to control us in ways we never did when we were younger.  He’s been robbed of the pleasure that parents can get from seeing their adult children living happy, responsible, independent lives.

I don’t think my dad is an exception or anomaly.  These are tendencies and patterns inherent to complementarianism.  Men in complementarian communities have so much to lose if their dominance is called into question.  In my parents’ denomination of churches, for example, a number of pastors (only men, of course) have been demoted or forced to step down because they have failed to “keep their households in order,” meaning that their children “rebelled” in some way.  This even applies to adult children who “sin”; reasons for demotion in the past have included that a pastor’s adult daughter eloped without her father’s permission, and in another case that a pastor’s adult son got his fiancee pregnant before they were married.  SGM bases this policy on their interpretation of 1 Timothy 3:4-5: “[An overseer] must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive,  for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church?”  It’s clear how men in these community have huge incentives to keep their families in constant subjection.  They stand to lose everything if even their adult children make even one mistake.

Complementarian leaders also teach men that aggression, domination, and even abuse are natural, manly responses when wives or children fail to submit:

“And husbands on their parts, because they’re sinners, now respond to that threat to their authority either by being abusive, which is of course one of the ways men can respond when their authority is challenged–or, more commonly, to become passive, acquiescent, and simply not asserting the leadership they ought to as men in their homes and in churches,” [emphasis mine]- Bruce Ware, a leading member of CBMW

Ware also teaches that part of the legacy of Adam and Eve’s fall is that women have a tendency to want to be in “the man’s role” and dominate their husbands, and that men have to assert their authority over women in response:

Most complementarians understand the curse of the woman in [Genesis] 3:16 to mean that sin would bring about in Eve a wrongful desire to rule over her husband (contrary to God’s created design), and that in response, Adam would have to assert his rule over her.  . . . Eve’s desire will be to rule illegitimately over Adam . . . and in response Adam will have to assert his rightful rulership over her. Most complementarians hold, then, that sin produced a disruption in God’s order of male headship and female submission, in which a) the woman would be inclined now to usurp the man’s rightful place of authority over her, and man may be required, in response, to reestablish his God-given rulership over the woman, and b) the man would be inclined to misuse his rights of rulership, either by sinful abdication of his God-given authority, acquiescing to the woman’s desire to rule over him (and so fail to lead as he should), or by abusing his rights to rule through harsh, cruel and exploitative domination of the woman. [emphasis mine] – Bruce Ware, Summaries of the Egalitarian and Complementarian Positions

This stuff is built in to complementarianism.  It’s not an accident.  Complementarianism systematically teaches men that they have to constantly assert their right to dominate over women and children, and in so doing systematically makes it impossible for patriarchal men to have loving, mutually supportive and respectful, satisfying relationships with their partners and children.  That’s incredibly sad.

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3 Comments on “Christian patriarchy hurts men, cont.”

  1. Toranse says:

    Wow, something I said made it into a post. :)

    My father was abusive, and our Christian community certainly gave him the wiggle room to be that. He thrived on dominating over his family – in fact, before I was born, my mom was not allowed to see her family, not allowed to go to any place he did not approve of, and when he came home from work, my brothers were not allowed to leave his lap. Even now that he and my mother are separated, he still calls – not because he wants a relationship with us, but because we’re *his* kids, and he wants everyone to know that.

    In fact, all the men in my family got that message – I’m *his* daughter, I’m *their* sister, I belong to them and am nothing more.

    I wonder sometimes what would have happened if our church had said, “he’s abusive, leave him” instead of “seeking the Lord for redemption” and still trying to shove this same tired model of husband = head and wife = submission. As though somehow that would fix the abuse. Or what would have happened if my brothers had received the message “Treat her with respect because she’s a fellow human” and not “treat her with respect because she’s *your* sister, she’s a girl” as though that would make them stop them from thinking I was a toy they could kick around if they pleased.

    Very rarely do the Christians that espouse these beliefs know how to deal with people. They know how to deal with formulas. But no one can have a happy, fulfilled relationship if they try to conform themselves to something that isn’t who they are – or something teaches them that their worst traits are to be exonerated.

    • Grace says:

      Yes, I think traditional Christianity definitely pushes an ownership model when it comes to how males relate to females. All the stuff about “protecting” wives, daughters, sisters is really just about ownership – I get to decide what poses a danger to you, I get to decide what’s safety for you.

  2. […] act are harmed by the severe limitations it places on their emotional expression and behavior, the impossible standards of godlike dominance and control it imposes on them, and the damage it wreaks on personal […]


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