Churches, Abuse, and the Danger of Male “Headship”

Recent events among Southern Baptists rekindled a long-standing debate about women, men, and the role of pastor. But a more critical discussion of sexual abuse and unchecked authority of male leaders is equally critical—and long overdue.

Following my piece addressing women in leadership, a former church member raised an issue that needs to be discussed: “In the household roles, men are the spiritual leaders. Not more important, just different roles.”

Knowing this person as I do, the comment comes with the best of intentions and a sincere willingness to understand. Likely it references concepts from Ephesians 5 (among others) that I do not interpret quite as she does. Still, “spiritual leaders” offers a lot of room to decide how that term is to be applied.

This is my ninth attempt to write an adequate answer to this issue that explains my understanding of Scripture. But it is also critical to highlight why reserving spiritual leadership form men only is dangerous and damaging. One way to do so is to look at the sad and infuriating case of Josh Duggar.

With draft #10, I will attempt to make it to the finish line.

Families often fall into “traditional” roles for husbands and wives, including issues of spiritual leadership. My fiercely independent mother and professing egalitarian father looked about as traditional as any couple you could find. The difference was that my father never mandated this arrangement or called it a “biblical” model for men and women.

He also did not pride himself on being the “spiritual leader” of the house. And he never tried to parlay that role into the idea of God-ordained male “headship” or authority.

Herein lies the problem. Spiritual leadership as described in certain Bible passages can be very good, although I continue to advocate that both men AND women can take that role.

However, this concept morphed into the monster of absolute authority for men in all aspects of family and church. Rather than a model of humble leadership that Christ offers, churches and denominations declare absolute authority and “headship” for men, mandate by God and defended at all costs.

Churches, denominations, male pastors, and theologians deny this. They say that the Bible mandates very “traditional” male and female roles that are different, but equally important. They forget that “separate but equal” does not work. Once that mandate moves from spiritual guidance to absolute authority, then someone inevitably become less than in God’s economy.

Not surprisingly, that someone ends up being women and even children—with extremely dire consequences. We can draw a straight line from the concept of male authority through the rash of sexual abuse cases and cover-ups that occur within systems advocating a fully “complementarian” position.

The rash of cases that engulfs the Southern Baptist Convention and the reactions of male leaders supports this theory. It is clear in the culture of abuse at Liberty University. Authority and headship must be maintained at all costs, especially if a revered pastor or spiritual leader’s reputation is at stake. 

This leads us to the current case study of Josh Duggar.

The Duggar family aligns itself with multiple movements that declare male authority and headship as an absolute, including Quiverfull, Bill Gothard’s ministries, and a Southern Baptist church Josh attends. Leaders in these organizations promote men as the final—and only—authority for church and family.

Consider the years of silence from Duggar’s sisters. Did they have any sense that their voices mattered? Did accepting their place of submission (taught as a biblical position) lead them to believe they just had to take this? If the male is the absolute, unquestioned power in the home, how could they feel comfortable in challenging the behavior of their older male sibling?

Josh Duggar’s circle of protectors went to extraordinary lengths to help him escape accountability for his actions—both then and now. His mother and pastor, SBC Executive Committee member Ronnie Floyd, passed it off as a youthful mistake. As if “Boys will be boys” is an acceptable defense.

Duggar’s wife Anna had to babysit him after this first offense came to light. Josh deceived her by downloading child pornography, described by one FBI agent as among “the top five worst I’ve ever had to examine.” Now, he is out on bail with supervised visitation. So Anna is babysitting her husband again—while pregnant with their seventh child.

A friend of the family stepped up to take Josh into their home. The wife, who teaches piano to children, accepted this. Why? “My husband made this decision and I must follow his rule.”

My friend who asked the original question likely had none of this in mind. Knowing her and her husband, they are truly seeking a spiritual leadership that models the life of Christ.

However, when we ignore women and risk children to maintain male authority, we are well beyond the Scriptures. When we ignore the cries of the physically, spiritually, and sexually abused to protect the brand, we are far afield of the Cross and the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Before last week’s Southern Baptist Convention, several Baptists wrote articles about SBC leaders and their response to Saddleback Church’s ordination of three women as ministers. Dr. Laura Levens, a professor at Baptist Seminary of Kentucky, suggested that the outrage from SBC leaders such as Albert Mohler and Owen Strachan provided a solid “smoke screen” to cloud out discussion of multiple issues facing the Convention, including (but not limited to) the issue of predatory sexual abuse in churches.

Dr. Levens is absolutely correct. What is even more upsetting is the failure of Christians to acknowledge the irony. The very policy and polity they use to distract from abuse is the very thing that leads to sexual abuse cover-ups and denial. If women are not worthy of doing ministry, then how can their word be trusted against the Christ-ordained authority of men?

When “spiritual leadership” devolves towards male hierarchy and absolute authority, the church ventures into a huge bear trap, with teeth that will tear people apart. Those labeled as “inferior” in God’s hierarchy—particularly women and children—are most likely to feel the teeth clamp around them.

I seriously doubt that Paul ever had in mind the kind of authoritative position that men in some houses, churches, and denominations claim for themselves. No person or organization is above God’s accountability—and full accountability in God cannot exist unless voices all God’s creation is equally credible.

God certainly wants men to be spiritual leaders. But this does not mean women are in any way forbidden from spiritual leadership. And God certainly did not intend to create mand as spiritual dictators.

We cannot stand with God’s children—all of them—if we view half of his creation as inferior to the other half. Until we are willing to hear all voices and see all people as worthy, we will not have spiritual leaders, male or otherwise.

We will only have power brokers imposing their will. And the sheep will continue to feel the teeth of their traps.