Please note: If you’re looking for a response to Tim Challies’ review of Ruth Tucker’s book that isn’t steeped in melodrama and sarcasm, I hope you’ll enjoy, err, something else.
A few days ago conservative blogger Tim Challies – “Informing the Reforming” – reviewed Ruth Tucker’s book Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife. The book chronicles Tucker’s escape from an abusive marriage to her complementarian husband. The blurb of her book says
Ruth Tucker recounts a harrowing story of abuse at the hands of her husband, a well-educated, charming preacher no less, in hope that her story would help other women caught in a cycle of domestic violence and offer a balanced biblical approach to counter such abuse for pastors and counselors.
Weaving together her shocking story, stories of other women, and powerful stories of husbands who truly have demonstrated Christ’s love to their wives, with reflection on biblical, theological, historical, and contemporary issues surrounding domestic violence, she makes a compelling case for mutuality in marriage and helps women and men become more aware of potential dangers in a doctrine of male headship.
I haven’t read the book and I’m not really interested in Tim Challies’ review of the book as such; more in what his view of it says about complementarianism in general. We’ll take it from the top.
Challies’ first issue with the book seems to be that it connects the author’s experiences with theology, as if a person’s theology isn’t somehow influenced by their experiences, or vice-versa: that experiences don’t influence theology. Bizarre, but this critique recurs. Challies feels it is irresponsible of Tucker to condemn the entire system of complementarianism because her husband defined himself as a complementarian and used complementarianism to justify his abusive behaviour. Challies says true complementarians are against this kind of “hyper headship”.
Two things here. First of all, are they? Complementarianism claims to believe that men and women are equal, but insist that men are the head of their wives. So, they’re not really equal? you ask. I say “Yes”; complementarians say, “No, hold on, let me explain that again: men and women are fully equal but different.” Now, I’m from South Africa, and this rhetoric seems very, very familiar (equal but apart). You cannot claim, as complementarians do, that the two sexes (they only believe in gender binaries, by the way) are equal when they’re so equal that one half has to “rule” over the other half. This doesn’t make sense… Unless they don’t really think men and women are equal, which is of course closer to the truth.
In her response to Challies’ review, Tucker wrote this:
The most honest statement a complementarian could make is: “The Bible does not teach equality for women, and as politically incorrect as that is, I stand by the Bible.” I would greatly respect such an admission. That would be straight talk. Egalitarians say the Bible teaches equality for women; complementarians say it doesn’t. We would then start out the discussion in plain English (or whatever language is being used).
Complementarianism claims that they back women’s full equality on one hand while repeatedly punching their actual empowerment in the stomach with the other. You can see how this is a bit frustrating.
Second, Challies is missing the point. His reaction to Tucker’s experiences is, basically, “Well they’re wrong.” Because true complementarians don’t act this way. And yet, they do. Tucker’s experience isn’t singular; it’s the norm. This is a thing that happens, Tim, to many women. But by saying that Tucker’s husband wasn’t a true complementarian, Challies totally disengages from this reality and, in fact, this whole discussion. His complementarianism takes place in a vacuum where no real people are involved. In his complementarianism, there is absolutely not a chance that anyone would, say, abuse a position of cultural, religious and societal privilege. Not a chance!
His second issue is that Tucker has ***emotions*** and that she talks about these emotions more than she does a theological dressing-down of those verses (Challies feels) contradict biblical egalitarianism. My understanding of Tucker’s book is that it deals with how she moved from being abused under complementarianism to a place of believing in egalitarianism, in which case it would make sense that the primary focus isn’t on discussing, at length, the various valid theories against male headship. But we must remember that theology occurs in a vacuum and must not, at any cost, be contaminated by “real life” or, indeed, “feelings”. Now, I do wonder what Challies’ reaction would have been had Tucker entered into these arguments in more length, and my suspicion is that he still would have dismissed them as being primarily a result of Tucker’s emotions.
Of course, Challies’ complaint that Tucker’s book is too emotional is not a new one when it comes to men engaging with women in territory where they feel vulnerable. Make no mistake of it, his issue with Tucker’s emotions is a gendered put-down; he might as well have called her a cunt, or he could just have cut through all the crap and called her “hysterical”, because that is what his argument boils down to. Challies is basically telling Tucker to be rational about this; that if only she would look beyond all of these pesky emotions and experiences of hers she would see. The arrogance at play here is astounding. It’s mansplaining at its best (by which I mean “most condescending”).
Challies’ third issue is that Tucker appears to think that only egalitarians can get divorced. He reassures us all, “Complementarianism offers protection and escape to the abused wife.” But does it? Here we have a system where male headship is emphasised, where women are restricted, where, in fact, a woman’s very self-sufficiency is suspect. So please tell me all about how this system, as expressed to whatever degree in a local congregation, deals with a woman coming forward because her husband abuses her, looking to divorce him and hoping for support from this community. Please tell me how leaders within this system and the community around it, who are in essence members of a privileged class, deal with a person who is “attacking” a fellow member of that class and by extension the validity and wisdom of the whole system. This isn’t to say that some of these churches wouldn’t support women in these kinds of situations, but Challies’ claim that complementarianism offers protection is entirely contingent on the ability of men in any given setting to perfectly love their wives and the other women in their community. In true complementarianism, there’s no such thing as, say, a history of misogyny, or spiritual abuse, or any one of a hundred other things that could have a direct and nasty impact on women’s lives. It’s the vacuum all over again. If Challies endorses divorce it’s with the caveat that his beloved complementarianism wouldn’t need divorce. Again he misses the point (a theme is developing).
His final issue with Tucker’s book is that she gives examples of egalitarian marriages that Challies believes weren’t egalitarian, but rather examples of good complementarian marriages. I find this debatable. We don’t really know how, say, Martin Luther’s marriage was. We can research and we can extrapolate, but even that is hopelessly filled with bias – both ours and our historical sources’. So, objectively, Tucker can’t really claim egalitarian marriages for people like Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora; but neither can Challies claim the opposite. Both can posit but, while Challies criticizes Tucker for her assumptions, he assumes he is free from the same critique. Funny that.
Challies concludes his review by paying lip service to Tucker’s terrible experience and the experiences of other women who have suffered similarly. But in light of his whole review, statements like (this still isn’t theology, by the way)
I understand that we are all products of our experiences and understand how Tucker’s experience prompts her to now be suspicious of the categories of leadership and submission. After all, these were used to manipulate and abuse her.
ring very hollow, especially since he follows this up with his (by now) old denial and last hold-out: that what Tucker experienced wasn’t true complementarianism, and that despite her bad experiences she should totally give it a shot. Because reasons.
I think his conclusion demonstrates two things: one, Tim Challies does not get it. He does not understand why women, oft-abused victims of a patriarchal and oppressive system, would approach any outpost of that system with suspicion. And at no point does it even enter his mind that when a system is that broken, broken for more than half of the world’s population, it doesn’t need a revamp; it needs to be scrapped. Two, he doesn’t give a shit. He literally had so much room to give a damn about the issues Tucker’s book raises, but he chose not to. He chose to break Tucker and her book down into pieces that presented no problem for easy mastication. And that’s what gets me, so much: his dismissal. He did not even have enough respect or consideration to meet Tucker’s book head-on. As far as I can tell, he never really engaged with it at all; he read it, made two lists, rubbished one and pissed all over the other.
This, of course, is exactly why we need to talk about egalitarianism: because men like Tim Challies can face a woman’s very worst experiences with complementarianism and still walk away from it apparently untouched.
 I do wonder why Tucker’s emotions should not play a part in her understanding of egalitarianism, when emotion so clearly plays a part in complementarianism? Fear is an emotion; hatred too.
Revised and updated 16/03/2016.