Sexual Abuse & Ordination Exclusivity: Theology of Complementarianism is neither Theology nor Complementary

On February 6th, Pope Francis confessed that clerics abused nuns as sexual slaves. On February 10th , J.D. Grear, the president of the Southern Baptist Church, said in response to a report of 380 Southern Baptists facing allegations of sexual abuse from 700 people, “the abuses described in the Houston Chronicle article are pure evil” and that “it’s time for pervasive change.”[1] As important as these confessions and commitment from the highest office, a true “pervasive change” won’t happen until they stop justifying male-only leadership. When Pope Francis praised his predecessor, Benedict, for closing an order where the nuns were abused as “sexual slaves,”[2] Pope Francis exposed his worldview still deeply embedded in the system that led to the sexual abuse in the first place, that only men can be priests thus the only moral agent worth recognizing is the man who did something to rescue the women.

It isn’t few bad apples, or even a bad apple tree. The whole field is toxic with a theology that privileges men. Disparity of power is what festers sexual abuses.

The hunt for the immoral abusers is on. Pope Francis says it is mostly found in “certain congregations, predominantly new ones.” Southern Baptists are quibbling on what churches to investigate.[3] While abusers must be brought to justice, trying to find cause in types of congregations or individual priests and pastor and their profiles is a misdirection. When you have “few bad apples,” then you don’t have to test the soil. But this isn’t just a case of abuse of power but an abusive power system of male-only leadership.  It isn’t few bad apples, or even a bad apple tree. The whole field is toxic with a theology that privileges men. Disparity of power is what festers sexual abuses. With privilege comes predatory acts. They prey because they know they can get away.

First, all the systems’ decision tables are chaired by men. Men will protect their own. They will produce and promulgate policies protecting their privileges, like the continued defense of male only ordination, and silence anything and anyone that questions the morality of that privilege, the cause of years of cover up of abuses. On occasion, they will throw one of their own to the “square” of public outcry when protection becomes impossible and too costly a liability. By publicly decrying the abuses they obtain a “moral higher ground” by which they justify the necessity of the current system that it can self-correct. It was, after all, the courage of Benedict that finally stopped the abuse, so what we need is such strong and just male leadership.

Secondly, male-only leadership creates a class in the church that is vulnerable, mainly those who are not adult males having no legitimate path to priesthood and pastoral authority. That vulnerability makes them easier victims because the vulnerable internalize their devaluation.

Protestant church uses the theology of complementarianism to legitimatize their system. It’s two main points are: 1-that male only leadership is about biblical authority and that 2-assignment of roles is not hierarchy (Catholic church has its only rules of theological justification, so they have a more complex set of arguments, but they really boil down to the same fundamental points, but I will deal only directly with the theology of complementarianism).

I want to address the two fundamental points of complementarianism.

The first point is about legitimacy. Legitimacy is the spine of any authority, the foundation of any systems. This is why racism produced numerous pseudoscience’s, from evolutionary biology to psychology, on the supposed natural hierarchy of races; this is why the Catholic Church created the Donation of Constantine, a forged imperial document where Emperor Constantine transferred the authority of Rome to the Pope. Legitimacy wields authority over minds and hearts. Complementarianism roots male-exclusive control on divine mandated order. People who write papers and give talks on the rightness of complementarianism on biblical and church tradition grounds might do it with the sincerest intention and conviction but it’s a theology that is as much a forgery as Donation of Constantine, except here they put the authorizing order not on human pen but divine pen. Their reasoning reads as ridiculous as the pseudoscience on race. For example, even their methodology of arguing on biblical authority is fraught because no church’s practices are all grounded on biblical authority. We do not practice everything our ancestors did in the pages of scripture. We are highly selective, and our filters barely conceal our agendas. For example, one argument for male ordination is that the twelve apostles were all men. But why stop there? Why not also imitate their way of life? They were itinerants without salary. So maybe all pastors should travel and live off the kindness of the locals? Or why not the number twelve? Maybe all ministry boards should only have twelve?

The second point is really a public relation move, a woeful one though they try to pull it off as philosophy. They say male-only leadership is about function and role and not about hierarchy of being. Now, role, by its definition is temporary. Roles in complementarianism is permanent. There isn’t a time when a woman can get ordained to preach, lead a congregation, or administer the eucharist. If a role is permanent than it is a hierarchy.

A March 11th, 2019 New Yorker article reported on the sexism in the world of sushi chefs. Some men walk out if they see a women sushi chef behind the counter no matter how many starts the restaurant got on a culinary magazine. And you are more likely to see non-Japanese man behind the sushi counter than Japanese woman. Male sushi chefs have litany of pseudoscientific reasons for why women shouldn’t stand behind the counter. Yoshikazu Ono, the son of a famous Tokyo sushi chef, Jiro Ono, gave the following rational in Wall Street Journal for why women cannot make good sushi chefs: “because of the menstrual cycle, women have an imbalance in their taste.”[4]

I share this because we don’t know the water we swim in, and we don’t know how ridiculous our practices are until we can see it in another setting. The parallel between the sexist practice of not wanting women behind the sushi counter and some Christians not wanting women behind the pulpit is difficult to deny. I know many Christians who walk out of a sanctuary if a women goes up the pulpit.

The descriptive label this school of theology claims for itself, “complementarianism,” is misleading. It’s a euphemism preposterous as calling the five-year-old child dead from a bombing “collateral damage.” Complementarianism is not the complementing of sexes. It’s sexism. Complementarianism is a bully theology and it isn’t the gospel.

If Pope Francis wants to stop the abuses of women (and minors), and if J.D. Grear wants a pervasive change, the most important action both can take is to open ordination to everyone. It won’t instantly remove gender inequity, but it lays the groundwork for that path. And for us in the church, though we hope for this change, we shouldn’t wait for all-male tables to open the doors. We should elect women elders and invite women to our pulpits. We don’t need permission when Christ has already demolished all barriers.

[1] https://www.christiancentury.org/article/news/southern-baptist-leaders-address-reports-showing-decades-sexual-abuse

[2] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-47134033

[3] https://religionnews.com/2019/02/26/southern-baptist-executive-group-urges-caution-before-investigating-church-abuse/

[4] https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/03/11/the-female-chef-making-japans-most-elaborate-cuisine-her-own

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