Once again, a complementarian pastor has revealed why so many evangelical men like their sexism-for-Jesus relationship rules. And once again, evangelical women struggle to reconcile that truth with the indoctrination they’ve absorbed.

(The 80s songs are linked throughout the post because before I gained the vocabulary to describe my unhappy first marriage, I used to say that my entire dysfunctional conceptualization of relationships came from 80s media.)

(This post first went live on Patreon on 4/26/2024. Its audio ‘cast lives there too and is public as well!)

Situation Report: Yet another complementarian leader gives away the game

Recently, complementarianism landed in the headlines. For the umpteenth time, a complementarian pastor accidentally revealed the sickening rot shot all through this misogynistic doctrine. Here’s how it went down:

In early April, news got out that a Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) pastor named Josh Howerton said a little something about marriage. He actually gave the sermon in February, but it took a while to filter out to the Christ-o-sphere.

As for Howerton himself, he’s a typical boilerplate right-wing SBC culture-warrior. He spices things up with a particular hate-hardon (archive) for women’s bodily autonomy. As you might suspect, he has never met a dishonest anti-abortion talking point he hasn’t embraced (archive).

After a seminar at his Dallas-area megachurch called “Marriage Night,” Howerton presented his Sunday morning sermon. Dude loves offering evangelicals instructions for how to marriage the Jesus way. A lot of churches in all flavors of Christianity hold similar instructional events, though, so the event itself isn’t weird. For some wacky reason, most Christian leaders think they’re qualified to tell adults how they should conduct their most intimate relationships.

The next day, Howerton still wasn’t finished talking about marriage.

At the very beginning of his sermon, Howerton decided to tell a joke. About women. About women’s bodies. And about how evangelical men control and use women’s bodies.

It’s just a joke, y’all!

A Dallas news site has the details (archive):

He [Howerton] first told the men in the audience that women have been planning their entire lives for their wedding days.

“So here’s what you need to do, man,” he said. “When it comes to that day, just stand where she tells you to stand, wear what she tells you to wear and do what she tells you to do. You’ll make her the happiest woman in the world.”

He then reversed the advice for women on their wedding nights.

“Now, ladies, when it comes to his wedding night, he has been planning this day his whole life,” he said, “so just stand where he tells you to stand, wear what he tells you to wear and do what he tells you to do, and you’re going to make him the happiest man in the world.”

YOWZA! Give him a hand, everyone. He’ll be here all week—unfortunately.

For good measure, Howerton called this disgusting example of sexism “an old preacher joke.” That means that he’s heard other male leaders repeating it.

He doesn’t appear to have cited any sources for it, but apparently a Florida pastor, Joby Martin, repeated it in 2022. Goodness, these complementarian men seem to love this repulsive misogyny! It travels just everywhere! But Howerton’s told this joke for years. As Sheila Gregoire has pointed out, he’s been “warned against [telling] it by many people” and since at least 2021.

Times have changed, even for complementarian creeps

Back in the 1980s, proper young ladies would have called what Howerton said tacky as hell—and then, for good measure, suggested that he go pound sand. But those proper young ladies grew up and are now in our 50s or thereabouts. We’re all mah-TOOR now. We’re past that childishness. So nowadays, we make “ewww” faces. We express pity for the women in his life and church who must put up with this misogyny. That is simply how it’s done now.

But in our hearts, trust me: Accusations of tackiness and demands for sand-pounding can be heard echoing deep within us, rising up like the inexorable jingle of the Bangles’ tambourines.

And the Christ-o-sphere exploded

Once word finally got out about what Howerton claimed was a “gold nugget of advice [he] was given by a mentor,” the Christ-o-sphere exploded. A quick search revealed that many hundreds of Christians had noticed his joke at last.

Sheila Gregoire, who often takes complementarian men to task for their utter lack of accountability and their entrenched misogyny, was quick to note that this “advice” occurred at the very beginning of the church’s YouTube upload of that sermon.

Yes, Howerton was so eager to get this “gold nugget of advice” out of his system that he led his morning service with it.

What’s hilarious is that apparently Howerton replied to Gregoire’s tweets about his latest retelling of this terrible “advice.” As far as I can tell, he hasn’t responded to her blog posts about it (archive), but the tweets at least got his attention. He’s so emotionally stunted and misogynistic that he thinks that Gregoire left out the whole part of the routine that made it totes acceptable: The first part, which had women mistreating men:

Howerton appeared to respond to Gregoire in a since-deleted tweet. “The person who originally posted this took an old preacher joke about marriage, edited out the comment immediately before aimed at men, and then very conveniently ended the clip before it’s made clear it’s part of a joke,” he said.

I’m just aghast.

Not surprised, no. But aghast all the same. As excuses go, this one reeks of complementarian toxicity.

Segue: A wild not-pology appears! It is not effective

I haven’t seen Howerton’s tweet reply to Gregoire. As the earlier quote reveals, he deleted it. However, I do believe he used that “editing” excuse as a way to escape criticism. I believe that because he presented the same excuse to his church on April 8.

He begins with happy-clappy announcements about the church’s apparent Easter success. YAY TEAM JESUS! Interestingly, he did not share similar good news before his joke in his February sermon. No, he launched right into it that time! This time, he needs to soften up his audience. See, they need to know how incredibly Jesusy he is—and of course how much Jesus likes him—before he hand-waves away his offensive joke.

Then, he tries his best to negate and minimize this latest retelling of his long-running, years-old, favorite sermon joke. Here’s my attempt at a transcript of his not-pology:

A couple weeks ago, right after the week after “Marriage Night,” I tossed out a joke. Emphasis word, joke. I tossed out a joke at the beginning of a message about men and women planning their wedding days and wedding nights. And it became a thing.

So let me talk about that real quick. Here’s what happened. Somebody grabbed that clip of that joke. They clipped off the beginning of the joke. They clipped off the part of the joke to men, kept the part of joke to women, and then clipped off the end of the joke before you could tell it was a joke.

Oh, man. He really doesn’t understand at all, does he? He really doesn’t get that with both parts presented, it’s still sexist and demeaning to both men and women. But most of all, he thinks that his presentation of women demeaning men first made it totes okay for him to show men using women like property.

This excuse also reveals that he really has no clue in the world why his “joke,” his “golden nugget of advice from a mentor,” might bother so many women. And apparently, he’s had no idea why even after numerous women have told him it bothered them for years.

According to Sheila Gregoire, Howerton’s also got a longstanding habit of making inappropriate sexual jokes during sermons. He also likes to humiliate his wife from the pulpit by talking about their bedroom struggles.

It’s really only a question of when, not if, a huge scandal erupts into headlines about this wanker. If Howerton’s this daring in public, you can count on him being much, much worse in private. In the lead-up to his own downfall (archive), Mark Driscoll got out of hand exactly like this.

A battlefield that hasn’t changed in thousands of years either

This whole situation is shameful. However, Josh Howerton isn’t ashamed at all of himself. Rather, he’s indignant.

This complementarian man thinks it’s totally okay to tell a story about men objectifying and using women like sex dolls or fleshlights as long as the women get to metaphorically hurt their menfolk too.

What a horrifying view of relationships!

“When God wants to change your life, he changes your relationships,” Howerton proclaimed on his LinkedIn a couple of months ago (archive). Alas, complementarian women everywhere know that these “changed relationships” always regress back to the mean. No gods are doing anything to any of their relationships.

There’s a reason why, too. Complementarian leaders perceive love as a battlefield.

That’s why they turn every relationship into a battle for dominance and control. They can’t even trust the women they’ve sworn to love, honor, and protect. Instead, they view their own partners as enemy combatants.

Complementarian theology is just the codifying of the Rules of Engagement in the Battle of the Sexes. Men glom onto complementarianism because they intend to be the winners of that battle.

By the wildest of coincidences, Jesus agrees with them! He totally thinks that men should be the winners of the battle! Really! I mean, sure, this godling rejected power on earth. He advised his followers to aspire only to serve and be last in line. At various times, his earliest leaders even ordered their followers not to divide themselves along lines of race, sex, or slavery status.

In modern times, though, Jesus has changed his tune.

Nowadays, he does everything he can to ensure that men always control women.

And how complementarian men try to fake the burdens they shoulder under this doctrine

As I said earlier, Howerton’s megachurch’s marriage seminar isn’t unusual in the wild world of evangelical complementarianism. In the same way, it’s also not weird that Howerton’s attempt at humor is as belittling and gross toward men as it is toward women.

Complementarian men talk like that all the time. It’s their way of rationalizing the obviously unjust and one-sided nature of their ideology.

Indeed, complementarian men project their own weaknesses and flaws onto all men. Then, they pretend that those weaknesses and flaws are part of a big fat happy ineffable divine fuckup er I mean plan. In a lot of ways, they embrace a sex-specific version of original sin. Call it All Men Are Like That (AMALT), since misogynists often claim that All Women Are Like That (AWALT). (But of course, I don’t think either is true.)

Complementarianism teaches that only correct and proper Jesusing can possibly make men’s inevitable, unfixable flaws endurable for the women upon whom they inflict themselves. Only through adoption of complementarian rules in marriage can any couple survive until death do they part.

And yet Howerton presents a view of marriage that consists of both partners abusing each other in different ways. His joke concerns a couple setting up their future marital battle stations.

When someone objects to what he said, Howerton is only upset that his critic quoted only the part he said about men treating women like property.

See, see, if she’d only included the part about women treating men like bystanders and servants at their own weddings, everything would have been understandable. A groom treating his new bride like sexual property would have been perfectly fine then! Nobody would possibly—could possibly—have gotten upset about that!

Josh Howerton wants to control women’s bodies. He wants to have the power to negate their most intimate decisions and make those decisions for women. He wants to override women’s consent any time he pleases.

Do not ever forget that fact.

Because he sure can’t.

A complementarian woman almost gets it

Folks, I saw a lot of reactions online. None sided with Howerton.

But one response got my attention the most. Its writer got incredibly close to the very precipice of understanding—before she skittered back away from it. It’s from Baptist News Global (BNG; archive), which is not affiliated with the SBC. BNG’s opinions tend to be a little more moderate than what we get from those Calvinist dudebros on their alt-right sites who try so, so hard to outdo each other with unthinkable cruelty, extremism, and control-lust.

Shannon Makujina, a missionary based in Uganda, titled her April 11 post “Why Josh Howerton makes me ashamed to be a complementarian.” It begins (emphases in original, as always):

OK, I’ll admit it: I hate to use the term at all. While I wouldn’t consider myself an egalitarian, complementarianism has come to mean so many things I don’t stand for.

Between John Piper saying a woman shouldn’t give directions to a man who is lost on a road trip and SBC pastor Josh Howerton saying newlywed brides should “stand where he tells you to stand, wear what he tells you to wear, and do what he tells you to do” on their wedding night, and Doug Wilson reposting all of it on Twitter and mocking, I am so done with being a “complementarian.”

She pleads with complementarian leaders to “be the very first to call out any abuses of that system.” To be “the first to champion the rights of women.” But she also notes how few of them actually do any of that:

As a complementarian woman, it is unspeakably disheartening to look around at the vast majority of evangelical pastors and ask, “Where are all the men who are supposed to be standing up for us?” and see almost no one. Where are all the men who are supposed to be protecting us as the “weaker vessels”?

At the very end, she laments:

I used to think I could be the change from within. Now I’m wondering if that’s too idealistic.

Oh, yeah, that hit me.

Long ago, I myself was a Pentecostal woman trying to juggle the clearly one-sided nature of complementarianism with my desire to Jesus correctly. Like Makujina, I once sought to square the obviously unfair power imbalance in complementarianism with my inherent sense of fairness. So I’d like to explore what she wrote.

If you aren’t egalitarian, then please show me on the doll what human rights you’re happy to give up to men’s control

From her photo, that BNG writer is in her late 20s-mid 30s. So perhaps she doesn’t know what the world was like when men controlled all aspects of women’s lives. In her world, complementarian doctrine jostles very uncomfortably with women’s hard-won rights.

When my grandmother was born in the very early 1900s, women couldn’t vote on the laws and for the people that would govern them. Right about when Grandma got married as a teenager, women gained access to that right. Many modern complementarian men want that right obstructed again. They think women do not use their vote wisely, unlike men who always make rational voting decisions (archive) and conduct American business wisely and judiciously.

In that marriage, Grandma raised a bunch of kids and worked her fingers to the bone—nearly literally—as a textile factory worker picking out hand-basted threads from machine-sewn garments. The hours were grueling, since the work week wasn’t capped at 40 hours till 1940. Complementarian men want women out of the workforce; they blame the rise of two-income families for making it impossible for a single-(male-)earner family—their ideal family setup—to survive. I guess they don’t know that from the get-go, that setup has been out of reach for all but a fraction of American families.

When my mother was born at the tail end of the Baby Boom, women couldn’t have credit cards, bank accounts, or leases and property titles in their own names. Men had to cosign for these. Single mothers, widows, and other independent women still needed some man somewhere to handle that! Women would not be able to handle their own finances until 1974, when the Equal Credit Opportunity Act passed (archive). (The Equal Pay Act passed in 1963, but it’s always been more of an aspirational target, hasn’t it.) And yes, many complementarian men want women to once again be completely dependent financially on them.

A year or so before my birth, wives in California first gained the right to leave their marriages without their husbands’ permission (archive). One by one, other states followed suit. In states that passed no-fault divorce, domestic violence rates plummeted. When abusive men know their victims can leave, they tend to tone things down a lot. They don’t even murder their female partners as often! Even female suicides drop in states with no-fault divorce. Still, it took until 2010 for all American states to allow women to access their right to no-fault divorce. Of course, complementarian men want no-fault divorce gone.

As I grew to adulthood, I often saw men blaming women for the sexual violence and assaults men committed against them. What had these female victims been wearing? How had they been behaving? Date rape wasn’t a known quantity until I was entering college. Similarly, marital rape didn’t become illegal everywhere in America until 1993 (archive). And yes, many complementarian men think these laws open the door to false rape claims. They want those laws struck from the books.

What ought to shame complementarian Christians is complementarianism itself, not its frequent bad actors and abusers

I’d really like a non-egalitarian woman to describe which of these rights she would completely trust men to handle for women from now on. Even in her BNG post, Makujina reveals that she’s well aware that most complementarian men would not be trustworthy stewards of those rights.

What she can’t do is critically examine why that is.

Women enjoy a lot more rights than they did in the early 1900s, for sure. But we still do the lion’s share of housework and childcare if we have families, even with men who strive for more equality in their relationships. All too often, men regard all that scutwork as a competition. The one who does the least, wins.

Evangelical women are stuck in a false vision of the past thanks to complementarian lies. They need to know one thing above all: Evangelical men are willing to do whatever it takes to win that battle forever.

They are as far as it can possibly be from the realization that in true love, there are no losers except when one side turns a conflict into a battle. At that battle’s conclusion, both partners lose.

All complementarian theology does is tilt the playing field so far in evangelical men’s favor that it’s virtually impossible for them to lose that fight. It tells adherents that Jesus H. Christ himself wants women to occupy the inferior position in a marriage, to do that scutwork without complaint, to be sexually available to their husbands at all times, and to ensure that nothing disturbs these fragile, delicate little weaklings’ sense of superiority and temporal power.

Complementarianism is a doctrine embraced by weak men who can’t gain power over anyone through honest means and fair rules. It was designed by frightened men, outraged men, incompetent men, wicked men, and most of all dishonest men.

That’s why it is no accident at all that every big-name evangelical who has ever advanced the cause of complementarianism has turned out to be an abuser, a predator, a liar, a hypocrite, or all of the above combined. Good men don’t need complementarian ideology. They reject it. They’re rightly revolted by the idea of using religion to control the people they love.

(It won’t surprise anyone to learn that apparently Josh Howerton is also a proponent of church covenants/archive. Yes, Howerton’s control-lust goes to the bone and informs all of his doctrinal stances.)

The scary truth about complementarianism

Complementarian abusers are not a quirk of complementarianism. They aren’t some bizarre outgrowth, some completely incomprehensible breakdown of rules that otherwise always reliably work. They are there because complementarianism opens the door for abusers and gives women no recourse against their behavior.

So it is complementarianism itself that is shameful.

There is no shame in being an innocent lil evangelical lad or lass who got taken in by all the Bible verses complementarians use. That’s why they use them: to baffle everyone into thinking a god of love and justice wants this disgusting power fight for marriage.

(Oh, my honey. My dear. It’s okay. We’ve all been there, we ex-Christians and exvangelicals. We tried to make this unworkable doctrine work. It was no fault of our own that it did not work. I wrote an entire series years ago about why it can’t.)

Complementarian theology benefits male abusers, not the women laboring under its yoke

Complementarianism is one of those things that is plainly, clearly, humiliatingly obvious to outsiders as a very earthly power grab.

But if weak, dishonest, wicked evangelical men put enough Jesus frosting on a dungheap, it fools the flocks every time. They’ve proven that many times over. If something sounds Jesusy enough to them, they can’t think critically about it. So yes, they see the scandals breaking out everywhere in the midst of this evil doctrine. Of course they do. But they’ve been very well-trained by now.

Their Dear Leaders have successfully taught the flocks to say “But what about his legacy!” in the face of big-name leaders like Paul Pressler turning out to be rapists and predators. They avert their eyes and murmur “Oh, he’s just doing it wrong!” in the case of countless examples of abuse and assault across the entire length and breadth of evangelicalism.

How many hypocritical architects of women’s subjugation need to be uncovered before one finally starts noticing that literally any doctrine can be supported with Bible verses galore?

Or how low in status must a leader be before his crimes can finally be examined as an integral part of his push for more control over others, not considered some unhappy side coincidence that had nothing to do with his doctrinal stances?

For that matter, how many complementarian men doing it wrong does anyone need to see before one finally begins to suspect that this supposedly super-Jesusy doctrine isn’t divine at all?

Ultimately, how miserable must complementarian women become before they’re finally allowed to question why a god of love and justice wants marriages to be nonstop battles run according to unjust rules by game admins they aren’t allowed to question or reject?

Apparently we haven’t hit that magic number quite yet.

It’s okay to question complementarian doctrines

Next time we meet up, we’re gonna talk about that very ending of the BNG post—that bit about her desire to create “change from within” being perhaps “too idealistic.”

It’s not at all “too idealistic.” In fact, it’s simply what evangelical leaders teach about all of their self-serving doctrines. They all say that strong believers with passion and drive can create “change from within” their religious groups.

So no, it’s not too idealistic a desire. It’s just based on a false claim about her tribe. Worse, the leaders who push this false claim know the truth:

A system’s function is what it actually does, not what it says it’s supposed to do.

Complementarian ideology benefits evangelical men. Its function is to give them a level of unilateral power that they can’t get otherwise. At the same time, it imposes no accountability whatsoever on these men in the use of that power.

More to the point, it cannot be reformed into a system that actually fulfills its own stated goals. If anyone could ever reform complementarianism into a system that does what it promises, it would become useless to complementarian men. They would reject such a system.

All someone can do is leave a system that broken and deranged.

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Captain Cassidy

Captain Cassidy is a Gen-X ex-Christian and writer. She writes about how people engage with science, religion, art, and each other. She lives in Idaho with her husband, Mr. Captain, and their squawky orange tabby cat, Princess Bother Pretty Toes. And at any given time, she is running out of bookcase space.

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