Hi and welcome back! We’ve been talking about complementarian Christians lately. Last time, I caught myself putting a word into scare quotes. I don’t normally use those. But this time, it felt inevitable. So today, I want to show you why I did it, and why respect is such an important concept to understand when one discusses this ultra-authoritarian, misogynistic flavor of Christianity. Hop aboard! Today, we ride the Respect Train right past these control-freaky zealots.
A Quick Note About Equivocation.
Equivocation involves a person sliding between varying meanings of one word without alerting readers or listeners to the definition shift.
Christians commit equivocation constantly, especially when they seek to persuade or they want pity and validation for being hard-done-by. It’s hugely dishonest, but I hope nobody’s surprised these days to learn about Christian dishonesty.
Today, we’ll be looking at respect. This word has some different shades of meaning. In one sense, it means basic civility and courtesy. In another, it means deference and obedience.
Often, a terrible person offers the civility-and-courtesy version of the word as a prize to those they abuse, but demands the deference-and-obedience version of it from those same victims. Watch for how Christians use this word, because they’ll never announce the shift.
In this post, we’ll generally be using the deference-and-obedience definition to describe the kind of respect complementarian husbands want and expect from their wives.
The Manufactured Need.
On the last post, I noticed a few people picked up on the video I linked–Dierks Bentley’s “My Last Name.”
Just in case anyone missed it.
I chose it for a reason. It reveals one of the biggest manufactured needs in that end of Christianity: that of deference masked as respect.
You can bet that if the woman at the heart of this song doesn’t want to change her last name to Dierks Bentley’s, then he’s going to take it as a massive dump of disrespect–right on his head! It won’t matter what else that poor woman does that shows respect to him. If she doesn’t perform by changing her name, and do so with a big ol’ smile on her face, then he will define her behavior as disrespectful.
And you can also bet that our singer would react accordingly at that point–and with the full permission of his tribe.
The Cosmic Permission Slip.
Over the past decade or so, right-wing Christians have drilled down harder and harder on one bees-headed idea. In their eyes, husbands “desperately” need their wives’ performance of actions that they define as respect.
A while ago, a Christian named Emerson Eggerichs began writing about this idea. In 2004, he published a book called Love and Respect: The Respect He Desperately Needs. He promised to teach wives how to perform in ways their husbands would find respectful. In fact, he calls this performative show of respect “the single greatest secret to a successful marriage.” (See postscript.) And he calls it “unconditional respect,” which he views as being as important to husbands as “unconditional love” is for wives.
At heart, his ideas are not so different from that dreck everyone ate up with a spoon back in my day, that ridiculous Men Are From Mars series of terrible relationship-advice books. Eggerichs infused his work with more Jesus language and aimed it more squarely at complementarian types, but it’s just as reductionist, misogynistic, and sweepingly assumptive–and as filled with outright pseudoscience woo.
All the same, Eggerichs’ work has informed complementarians’ vision of marriage ever since. Almost every site I looked at included some sort of reference to his work. As well, those referencing him also carefully note the unconditional aspect of the respect song-and-dance, meaning it must be made regardless of how the other spouse behaves.
Eggerichs’ work acts like a permission slip for complementarians. Waving it aloft, husbands gain a free hall pass to demand this behavior of their wives and then to become angry and petulant when they don’t get what they have been taught to expect and to need so much.
Toxic Masculinity and the Need for Shows of Respect.
If you’re already thinking about the idea of toxic masculinity, you’re sure not alone. I’ve been thinking it for ages, even before I had a name for what I was seeing in my own marriage to a Christian. At every turn, my then-husband Biff got the worst imaginable advice from his leaders–all of it geared toward grinding me down into cheery subservience, all to improve his own life at my complete expense.
In a culture of toxic masculinity, men get taught that all men must be like so, do like so, and feel like so. Above all, they get taught they should never act or think or feel in ways defined as excessively feminine. Women are not only the unknowable, inscrutable Other, but they seek to destroy men. The only way men can protect themselves from this onslaught is to subjugate and dominate women before it can happen to themselves.
With attitudes like that, men in these cultures view heterosexual relationships (the only allowable ones, mind you) as an eternal competition. One side must dominate and the other side must capitulate–or the relationship can’t possibly last.
Performance and appearance take the place of substantive reality. As long as a man behaves in really stereotypically masculine ways, he prevents his male peers from destroying him for seeming too feminine. And as long as a woman behaves like she is subjugated, that’s the same thing as her being truly subjugated.
That’s what that guy was so angry about in the last post. I’d refused to perform an action he’d been taught signified respect for my new husband. Therefore, I behaved shamefully disrespectfully toward him, and therefore, we courted disaster–and divorce–through my refusal to play along with this Christian life-script.
Eggerichs wrote his awful advice book in 2004. That’s near the peak of evangelical dominance in America. By 2006, they were heading downhill; they just didn’t accept it for some years yet.
As Christianity continues to polarize and become ever-more-extremist, the men remaining in the right-wing side of the Christian pool drill down harder and harder on their beliefs. One of those beliefs involves how important performative shows of respect are to men in general.
I’ve thought for a while now that my then-husband Biff glommed onto Pentecostalism because it offered him the fawning shows of respect and the personal power that he’d always craved. Similarly, the men I see in that flavor nowadays are there because they can’t get what they want from anywhere else for such a low price.
They might rightly be turning into the cultural villains at present, but at least in their own homes and church groups they can rule as the petty tin-pot dictators they always wanted to be. Anyone threatening that last bastion of power will provoke their angriest retaliation.
The One-Way Train.
Importantly, the Respect Train only runs in one direction.
The Christians who buy into complementarianism take as axiomatic the notion that men don’t just like or want respect, but literally need it like air. However, complementarians insist (wrongly) that women don’t feel that same need. To these Christians, women don’t need respect like men do. Instead, they want to feel loved and cherished by their husbands. Thus, women need love, but husbands must have respect even if their wives don’t feel loved.
Pretty much all the complementarians in the Christ-o-sphere insist that if a wife must confront her husband about anything he’s doing wrong, she must tread very, very, very carefully to avoid looking disrespectful. No matter what he’s doing or how it makes her feel, she must walk on eggshells.
Over the years, Christians have created entire seminars, courses, and libraries’ worth of typing to try to show women how to behave respectfully toward men. Their bad advice represents just as much of a cottage industry as apologetics does, and for the same reasons: nothing they say is true or even works the way they describe. Along the way, both industries’ hucksters have created a sort of canon about their respective topics. Christian marriage-advice hucksters have thus established respect for men as a major requirement for a happy marriage.
So what does a complementarian’s vision of respect look like?
Complementarians’ Version of Respect.
It’s a distasteful warping of the real deal, like most of the teachings coming out of those folks.
We can see a good summary of their version of respect in that Christian marriage-advice book we reviewed recently, If Only He Knew. On the back cover, author Gary Smalley makes various hucksters’ promises to readers who follow his instructions. Though he doesn’t use the R-word here, his list items add up to their idea of respect:
“So you want your wife to…
- Understand you?
- Appreciate you?
- Be more responsive sexually?
- Support you during hard times?
- Admire you?
- Share your interests?
- Listen to what you have to say?”
To them, the perfect complementarian wife is a thrall–a Lydia, divinely dropped into a husband’s life to do his bidding.
Smalley’s entire book seeks to teach complementarian husbands how to reduce their wives’ blistering resentment for just long enough that they can harvest respect back from them (and, of course, to placate them enough to dispense nookie). He promises his readers that if they follow his silly busy-work instructions, then they will win back their alienated, frustrated wives’ heartfelt respect–and stop those wives from seeking divorces.
What really caught my eye about that back-of-the-book blurb is that everything on Smalley’s list can be easily faked.
Faking It Till You Make It.
In fact, complementarian thought leaders like Smalley insist that wives should fake all of these things even if they don’t sincerely feel them. These same leaders teach complementarian husbands how to fake love-and-cherishing in order to persuade their frustrated wives to pretend to respect them again, for a little while at least.
The few times complementarians allow that gosh, y’all, wives need respect too, their advice along those lines reads a lot closer to being a generally-decent human being in a relationship (in other words, jumping to the civility/courtesy definition of respect). One such representative list includes items like “help around the house,” “engage in conversation with her and listen while she is talking,” and “continuously pursue her.”
Weird how TRUE CHRISTIANS™ need to be told to do such basic, elementary stuff, eh?
However, no complementarian husbands will ever consistently do any of that, much less show to any woman the kind of deferential respect they demand from wives. As we’ve seen before, those guys threw in with complementarianism in the first place to avoid holding up their end of the relationship blanket. They can’t even fake being basically decent human beings for very long. And their tribe teaches that they don’t need to!
But women must perform their roles steadfastly and without stinting.
As a last resort, complementarians teach that if a Christian wife doesn’t show signs of respect to her husband, then she is actively offending her god. And there’s only one penalty for doing that.
Why Complementarians Might Feel Disrespected.
A blogger for Christian Today calls this doctrinal belief in the necessity of respect for men “the honest truth.” [CITATION NEEDED.] He goes on to define “respect” as “a feeling of deep admiration for someone or something elicited by their abilities, qualities, or achievements.” So we’re dealing with the deference/obedience end of the word.
Then he skips ahead to declaring that “husbands long for their wives to show them some appreciation and admiration.” And then he moves smoothly ahead to mangling Bible verses to PROVE YES PROVE (ahem) that the Respect Train only goes in one direction: from wives to their husbands, “period,” and the Bible says that this is “how [man] was made by God,” so there you go.
Along the way, this blogger accidentally reveals exactly why complementarian men don’t receive that admiration and appreciation: they don’t deserve it. They either lack or don’t display any abilities, qualities, or achievements that might merit that kind of “deep admiration.”
But wives have to show “deep admiration” anyway, according to complementarians. Hey, it’s not men’s fault that their conceptualization of godhood just happens to favor them over women, is it? Certainly not! Oh, but wives must still make simpering shows of respect even if their husbands don’t in the least merit it.
Indeed, I saw very few lectures to husbands to be worthy of actual respect. One of those was a HAW HAW kind of jovial lecture that included this admonishment: “if we want our wives to follow us, we have to grow up a little.”
Boys will be boys, especially in cultures that don’t require them to emotionally mature past pre-adolescence.
The Mold, Broken.
These sorts of Christians bear many labels. Toxic Christians. Authoritarians. Dominionists. Complementarians. Patriarchal nitwits. Some they use themselves; some are bestowed upon them.
Six of one, half-a-dozen of the other; all these terms describe basically the same kind of person.
And what such people want more than anything else is uncontested, unilateral, indomitable, irrevocable control over literally everybody in the world.
That’s why they try so hard to gatekeep labels like male and female. That’s also why they keep trying to tell everybody–be they in or out of the tribe–how to properly conduct a romantic relationship. And it’s why they keep starting moral panics about big important topics like gender and marriage. Looking at how awful their relationships tend to be and how often those relationships tend to end in divorce, it’s beyond obvious that they should be taking advice from the rest of us! But they can’t. Their control-lust won’t allow it.
When we laugh at them and make them eat clay by denying them the control they seek, they retreat balefully back to their few remaining lairs. There, they strike out even harder for even more control over the few people who’ll still let them have it.
As we’ll discuss soon, though, those lairs are shrinking too. If they can’t adapt, then they will be left behind. Either way, humanity wins.
NEXT UP: Why Luke crashed Hannah’s party–and how another complementarian guy once got mad at me for not letting him crash mine. See you next time!
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PS: After writing this post, I asked Mr. Captain if he thinks I respect him. I didn’t define which version of respect I meant. “Yes, of course,” he said–instantly. So I asked, “What does respect look like to you?” Without missing a beat, he answered, “Inclusion, how you speak, how you care about what I feel and think, how you’re always thinking about what I might want and need, how responsive you are to me.” Any complementarian man would commit murder to have what my husband has. And there’s not a single Jesus Power Point in sight between the two of us. It’d be really weird, if I didn’t know what I do about Christian marriage rules. (Back to the post!)