Ruth Tucker’s Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife opens with a provocative question – how might the tone of the complementarian / egalitarian debates shift if, instead of merely debating key texts, we began to share stories and ask questions? What might happen if women like her – brutally physically and emotionally abused by her former husband, a pastor – connected their stories to the issues at the crux at the debate? Tucker has debated complementarianism with such prominent figures as John Piper, but never before has she brought her own story to the conversation. “Why not?” she wonders. Why not fully hear stories of women’s suffering as part of our journey towards wrestling with Scripture and gender?
For many women who have not been abused or suffered injustice from a male-centric authority structure within the church, the complementarian/egalitarian debates might be of little interest. We might not even know the difference between the two positions (complementarians argue the distinctions between male and female are hierarchical in nature where male “headship” in the home requires a loving hierarchy of authority in both the home and church; egalitarians argue men and women are functionally equal and that sexual distinctions, because they are complementary, actually require women’s full inclusion in leadership for a healthy community.) For any woman who has been abused by a Bible-believing husband justifying his behavior by his beliefs about his wife’s “obedience,” the questions are utterly crucial – for Ruth, the sexism latent in both the church and secular culture literally put her life at risk. She recalls sickening, and common, stories of other women attempting to leave abusive marriages and being condemned by both the church and secular culture. In fact, the courts during the period she was contemplating fleeing her marriage, typically refused to take the physical abuse, even murder, by women’s husbands seriously – instead often focusing on how the woman might have “provoked” the abuse. She then weaves her own story in with church history, theology, politics, popular culture, and troubling statements of some of our most prominent Christian leaders about male authority and female submission in an abusive relationship. While the subject matter of the book is serious, Ruth presents her story in an accessible, witty, and convicting way. One of the strongest qualities of the book is the way she weaves her own reflections and journey with current events and statements in both the church and world. Her writing makes it very clear that issues of legitimizing the abuse of women in a range of ways remains deeply rooted in both the church and secular culture.
Whether you lean complementarian or egalitarian, Ruth’s story is a raw and painful reminder that our ideas about women, and our ideas about abused women, have serious consequences. In regards to the complementarian debate, a variety of telling – even shocking – statements from many of the most prominent complementarian leaders on how women should respond to an abusive marriage (one of the most chilling statements is Elizabeth Elliot’s statement in relationship to I Peter 2 that submission “might not require staying in a marriage to the point of being beaten to death - but then again it might.”) -- are sprinkled in with her reflections. Typically complementarians deny any causal relationship of gender hierarchy to abuse – pointing out that abusing one’s spouse is such blatant disobedience of Paul’s commands for husbands to cherish their wives that it cannot be defended from a complementarian worldview. While this may be true in theory, Ruth makes it clear first that this has not been true in the past, where men disciplining their wives physically was considered acceptable, and secondly that within the landscape of the church today, idealizing the subordination of women’s insights and abilities to male leadership continues to contribute to a culture of silencing women’s hurt, pain, and full personhood. When male voices are implicitly considered more authoritative by default, this often leads to disbelieving or minimizing opposing female voices. For many complementarian leaders today, a certain amount of emotional abuse within marriage is considered the cross a woman must bear for the ideal of male headship and preserving marriage. Abuse must typically reach a quite serious level before church leaders, often ill-informed about the progression of abuse, will recognize it as such. Whatever your views of gender roles, Ruth makes it very clear that complementarians have a lot of work to do, since many current complementarian leaders still explicitly or implicitly endorse women staying in abusive marriages.
Ruth Tucker is well positioned to speak into these issues in our own context. She was the first female professor of Calvin Seminary, and an early leader in defending an egalitarian position and exposing the problematic impact of the absence of women in church leadership, writing significant works like Women in the Maze. A member of the Christian Reformed Church, she connects her reflections with some of the data on rates of reported abuse in the Christian Reformed Church in North America. While Ruth makes a compelling case that egalitarianism provides a much stronger foundation for the church rooting out abuse of any kind, I think her story also offers some common ground for complementarians and egalitarians since surely either worldview desires to prevent the grave injustices she describes. If a given church is not presently egalitarian in structure, in what ways is it confronting and preventing abuse? How is it prioritizing hearing the voices of women and educating itself on emotional and physical abuse? How is the church educating itself about various forms of abuse and the laws that protect women? In what ways are male leaders of the church held accountable for their ideas about women? How are our leaders challenging the church to root out sinful ideas about women? Ruth’s story is a remarkable gift to the church to begin to open dialogue and challenge our theology to honor women and leave no place for abuse.