Ethics Daily (via Feminist Peace Network) uncovers a particularly troublesome extension of the "complementarian" theology that's taken root among much of the Southern Baptist Convention, as well as other conservative Protestant denominations. Complementarianism, which argues for a "separate but equal" division of duty and authority between men and womenâ€”pushing a theology of male headship and female submissiveness that argues men and women are equal under God, but have different leadership responsibilities as laid out by Scriptureâ€”has been growing for the past twenty years, largely under the guidance of groups like the SBC-affiliated Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which has put a tamer, slightly modernized face on patriarchy.
But still, sometimes, the underlying emphasis on near-absolute male authority bleeds through, as in the arguments SBC seminary professor Bruce Ware made at a conference on "Biblical Manhood and Womanhood" in Denton, Texas. Making a familiar complementarian argument that men and women act out their sin natures in familiar patterns of rebelling against the gender hierarchy, Ware said that women victims of domestic violence were often to blame for their own abuse because they were failing to submit to their husbands' authority. Men's sin came in response to their wives' lack of submission, becoming either abusive or passive: equal failures in the eyes of Ware and many complementarians, who see men who fail to "lead their families" with proper authority as morally deficient as those who rule with too heavy a hand.
"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."
"He will have to rule, and because he's a sinner, this can happen in one of two ways. It can happen either through ruling that is abusive and oppressive – and of course we all know the horrors of that and the ugliness of that – but here's the other way in which he can respond when his authority is threatened. He can acquiesce. He can become passive. He can give up any responsibility that he thought he had to the leader in the relationship and just say â€˜OK dear,' – Whatever you say dear,' – Fine dear' and become a passive husband, because of sin."
Ware's argument, though disturbing, is only abnormal, among other complementarian arguments, in being heard in such explicit form outside the conservative Christian community. Within complementarianism, and the more explicit patriarchal, movements, women are commonly assigned blame for bringing on their own abuse through lack of submission. And, as conservative Christian dissenters such as Jocelyn Andersen, author of Woman Submit! Christians & Domestic Violence, have noted, the message that women "bring it on themselves" has been made at the highest levels of the evangelical and fundamentalist community.