Cognitive dissonance and complementarianism

I’ve been transcribing Joshua Harris’s recent sermons on gender roles for the blog.  In reviewing them I’ve been struck again by the frequent disclaimers in both sermons about what submission “doesn’t mean.”  In his first sermon on submission, for example, he begins by clearly stating that the text he’s preaching on doesn’t belittle or condescend to women, that it doesn’t condone abuse, or teach that wives are inferior to their husbands.  Rather, he says, this passage honors women, and “elevates the dignity . . . [and] the value of women.”

This, to be clear, is a passage that says women should submit and be “subject” to their husbands “as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord.”  Oh, and it calls women “the weaker vessel.”  (1 Peter 3:1-6).  Not exactly a subtle or difficult to interpret text; yet Harris categorically states that it does not mean what it pretty clearly says, read as literally as complementarians say the Bible should be read.*

As I’ve discussed earlier, one of the reasons for such disclaimers is that complementarian leaders know perfectly well that their theology is misogynist both in its content and its implications, and they also know that such overt misogyny doesn’t fly with people outside their communities – which isn’t to say that American society in general isn’t extremely misogynistic – it absolutely is.  Many of the misogynist ideas explicit in complementarian theology are implicit in how our culture views and treats women.  Even so, openly stating a belief in the divinely ordained inferiority of women is pretty unacceptable in public discourse; most complementarians avoid doing so and try to distance themselves from this implication of their theology.

But on further thought, I think there’s a lot more behind these disclaimers than mere PR or image consciousness.  In fact, I think it’s probably the case that these disclaimers are primarily intended for people already in the complementarian fold.  I think they’re part of a strategy – perhaps deliberate, perhaps not – to use cognitive dissonance to manipulate and control people, particularly women.

Complementarian women are constantly reminded that “God” requires them to obey their husbands, that God created them to follow male leadership.  But at the same time they also hear a constant refrain that unquestioning obedience is really liberation, and that their second-class status in their families and their churches is really evidence of how loved and valued they are by complementarian men and their patriarchal god.  They’re taught that passages which, read literally, clearly teach that women are of less value and status than men, really don’t undermine gender equality at all.

In order to accept these contradictory claims as true, complementarian women have to live in a constant state of cognitive dissonance.  And there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that inducing a state of cognitive dissonance (deliberately or not) is a very effective means of controlling and manipulating people.  Living with cognitive dissonance requires constant rationalizations of obviously false or contradictory claims, and tenuous explanations of why these claims appear to be false or contradictory, but are in fact true or compatible.  And once you can get people to be constantly engaged in the mental gymnastics required to maintain cognitive dissonance, you have them in a place where they’re much more likely to accept other absurd or illogical ideas as true.  People are more suggestible and pliable in such a state, because they’re already invested in defending whatever you claim as true, no matter how far-fetched it might be.  Unsurprisingly, cognitive dissonance is a common feature of cultic or controlling groups (more on cognitive dissonance and cultic thinking/behavior here).

As I see it, this is one of many reasons why so many women accept complementarian theology as unquestioned truth and morality, despite its obvious devaluation of them, and anything or anyone considered “feminine.”  They’re so deeply invested in defending the absolute truth of their theology, and the absolute righteousness of their leaders, that they are primed to accept some truly ridiculous assertions about the “holiness” of female subservience as entirely compatible with gender equality.

*I’m aware that there are translation issues with this and other texts, and that there are other more egalitarian or feminist interpretations of these texts.  I’m talking specifically about the translations complementarians use and the principles of interpretation they apply to the Bible.



7 Comments on “Cognitive dissonance and complementarianism”

  1. prairienymph says:

    When I was questioning my church’s complementarian (patriarchal) teachings about women, I searched for something different but looked in websites like Boundless (focus on the family). I asked trusted friends for resources and was given nothing but the same.

    I needed to read this 15 years ago!

    Here is my explanation of how cognitive dissonance was really tied to emotional blackmail.

    • Grace says:

      Yea, there’s nothing that’s “godly,” approved reading that addresses any of these issues. Which of course is another one of the methods churches use to control people – limiting their access to any information that contradicts church dogma in anyway, and persuading people that reading anything they don’t agree with 100% will put their souls in danger.

      Thanks for the sharing your post, it’s great. I was definitely raised the same way – to deny anything I wanted or thought for myself, to identify with everyone but myself first (Did you get the J-O-Y stuff too?). Like you say, it’s emotional blackmail.

  2. […] “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”- there’s the idea that men and women are practically a different species. Even though I’m sure that, rationally, cis men are aware that women are human- there’s still a culturally spread idea that other people aren’t human in the same way, but in a lesser way. There’s a blog called “Are Women Human?” about gender and sexuality in Christianity and society as a whole. You’d think that the question doesn’t need to be asked, and while I’m pretty sure that anyone who was asked this would answer “yes”, it actually is a question that hasn’t universally been answered “yes”. It’s still all too common to think that women should be subservient to men. […]

  3. Karen says:

    Thanks for your blogs! I have been an unknown recipient of “complementarism” for a few years now, and am just emerging from the psychical damage it did to me! I had been married over 25 years when my husband started behaving strangely – he quit listening to me, became belligerent when we disagreed instead of talking it through, and a whole host of extreme behavioral changes. Turned out it was the new church he was attending…a Calvinist church led by John Piper…and he started reading and giving out Piper’s books such as “Recovering our Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” which preach the benefits of male headship and the woman’s role of submissiveness. I was never an outspoken feminist–never had to be because I rose up through the corporate ranks naturally through hard work and achievements. But now I feel I have to get involved in fighting against this damaging preaching against women. Do you have any books you’d recommend to help me?

    • Grace says:

      Hi Karen, thanks for the comment and welcome to the blog! I’m sorry to hear about the changes in your husband’s behavior. I don’t know if you’ve read my post about John Piper, but his views on submission are very extreme (though not the most extreme among evangelical Christians – not by a long shot).

      Sad to say but in my experience a lot of complementarian men treat their wives in a patronizing fashion, even with contempt. I think complementarianism makes it very difficult for men who buy into it to relate in a respectful and loving fashion with their wives and kids.

      As for recommendations for reading, if you’re looking for stuff that’s from a fairly traditional Christian perspective, Christians for Biblical Equality has a number of books on gender roles in their online store. I’ve heard people speak positively about God’s Word to Women, What the Bible Really Says about Women, and Woman This is War, all of which are sold through CBE’s site. The author of that last book has also written one called Woman Submit that I’ve seen recommended.

      I haven’t read any of these titles myself, so I can’t personally vouch for them. The reading I’ve done that relates to this topic has mostly been from the perspective of modern biblical scholarship (which most evangelical Christians don’t accept, since it treats the Bible as any other historical document, not inerrant), or from the perspective of feminist and queer theory. If you’re open to reading something from either of those perspectives, I’d be happy to recommend some good places to start. I’m also slowly putting together a recommended reading list under the tab of the same name.

      Hope that helps!

  4. My husband started doing the same thing to me after a few years of going to the church I grew up in. Fortunately, after we stopped attending that church he was horrified at who he had been becoming.

    I asked for reading material when I started questioning the patriarchy of the church I grew up in and was given Piper’s _Biblical Manhood and Womanhood_. Really not helpful :)

    The first book that I found useful was John Shelby Spong’s _Sin’s of the Scriptures_
    Elizabeth Johnson’s _She Who Is_ also helps deal with the sexism of the Bible from a Christian perspective.

    I am still looking for good material that is from a former christian viewpoint.

    • Grace says:

      I don’t think there is much or any material from a former Christian viewpoint. Not that I’m aware of, anyway. I actually had a book idea related to this the other day – wouldn’t it be great to get some short essays together on gender in the church by former Christians, or even people who left their denominations for very different christian traditions over gender issues. I think it’s a much needed perspective.

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