When my wife and I were first married, we attended a small group about marriage at our church. It was based on Emerson Eggerichs’ book, Love & Respect. This was a New York Times Bestseller with 2.1 million copies sold that had a huge influence on the evangelical world.
On page 221 of the book, Emerson writes: "To set up a marriage with two equals at the head is to set it up for failure. That is one of the big reasons that people are divorcing left and right today."
Initially, we accepted that statement as fact. We decided that I as the man would be the head of the home. If we had a disagreement, I would always have the trump card. Well, early on in our marriage we realized that is not the best way to settle disagreements. Saying "you need to listen to me because I am the man" is not the best way to win friends and influence people. It certainly is not the best way to gain the respect of your wife.
Conversely, Dr. John Gottman’s research shows that when husbands are unwilling to share power in their marriages, they have an 81% chance their marriage will self-destruct.
Emerson had no research to back up his claim. But it took me a long time to realize how catastrophically wrong he was and how rampant the problem still is today. People like Emerson present their case as "biblical"; they see things through an authoritarian lens of hierarchy and power. But let me be blunt: the belief in a hierarchy of power is the greatest curse in the church today. It goes against the clear teaching and example of Christ, and it is wrong!
Because of my initial belief in hierarchy, I was opposed to women being pastors. I thought that women were equal to men, but women didn’t have the biblical authority to lead. The theological term for this is complementarianism. It is the idea that men and women are equal, but they just have different roles. It's interesting, though, because in this system women are always subservient, and men always have the power. It makes me think of George Orwell’s quote in Animal Farm that says, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
It is absurd to believe in equality with one breath and deny it with another. Imagine how that would sound if we were talking about ethnicity. All races are equal, but only white people are called to be pastors. It would sound insane right? That's because it is insane. We were created for equality, not for a hierarchy of power based on gender or ethnicity. This teaching does major damage.
The following testimony was shared with me by a lady who was negatively affected by complementarianism and Eggerichs’ book. She gave me permission to share but asked that I keep her name anonymous.
In 2009, I separated from my then husband of 35 years. It was a fundamentally unhealthy and destructive relationship that I would define as abusive. One of the key disagreements in our marriage was his unshakable adherence to complementarian theology, which meant I was to be submissive to him, I should not preach or teach in the church, I should not lead in the church or in our marriage. And he wanted me to defer to him in all decisions.
When I initiated a separation, saying that I would take one year to work on my own healing and growth with the hope of rebuilding our marriage, and asked him to do the same, the church was shaken, angry, and in shock.
The response of the elders, in part, was to encourage a group of couples to study the book Love & Respect. I had been honest and clear to the elders of our church about the effects of unilateral decision making, demands for submission, absolute lack of support of me and my ministry of leadership, teaching, and preaching. I had been so clear about all of this and yet their only response was to study the book.
I can only say this book did not help. I judge it did great harm to any hope of rebuilding a mutual and respectful relationship. Also, in retrospect I am horrified that, upon seeing a recognized and respected woman leader leave her husband, the response of our church leadership was to pull out a book that reinforced all the destructive, dehumanizing, misogynist, and massively dysfunctional patterns that destroyed our marriage in the first place.
She is not alone in experiencing this. Headship theology has done a colossal level of damage. It shouldn’t affect the Adventist church, but it does.
One of the Fundamental Beliefs of the Seventh-day Adventist Church establishes the equality of all believers. It states: “The church is one body with many members, called from every nation, kindred, tongue, and people. In Christ we are a new creation; distinctions of race, culture, learning, and nationality, and differences between high and low, rich and poor, male and female, must not be divisive among us. We are all equal in Christ, who by one Spirit has bonded us into one fellowship with Him and with one another; we are to serve and be served without partiality or reservation” (Belief #14).
Furthermore, official General Conference policy opposes discrimination, stating, “The church rejects any system or philosophy which discriminates against anyone on the basis of race, color, or gender. The church bases its positions on principles clearly enunciated in the Bible, the writings of Ellen G White, and the official pronouncements of the General Conference” (BA 60 05). The policy goes on to address issues of employment in section BA 60 10: “The world Church supports nondiscrimination in employment practices and policies and upholds the principle that both men and women, without regard to race and color, shall be given full and equal opportunity within the Church to develop the knowledge and skills needed for the building up of the Church.”
So far so good right? But the next sentence undermines and contradicts everything. It states, “Positions of service and responsibility (except those requiring ordination to the gospel ministry*) on all levels of church activity shall be open to all on the basis of the individual’s qualifications.”
Fundamental belief number 14 should come with a clear disclaimer that says we believe in the equality of all believers except when it comes to women in ministry. The Seventh-day Adventist Church practices discrimination on the basis of sex when it comes to the gospel ministry. All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
Never mind the fact that the largest church in the denomination is pastored by a lady named Pastor Hao Ya Jie. Never mind the fact that delegates at the 1990 General Conference Session voted to approve women as elders. Never mind the fact that the institution will accept tuition from female seminary students even as the likelihood for them being matched to a church is significantly less than their male counterparts. Women are told they are equal, but they can’t be ordained and rather are commissioned. This denies them access to leadership positions throughout the church. We need to stop playing semantical word games, or Orwell will be correct: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Kevin McGill is the senior pastor of the Green Lake Church of Seventh-day Adventists in Seattle, WA. He and his wife have two young children.
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