Are some Complementarian Practices Gaslighting?

This post was originally posted on The Art of the Taleh.

In our diverse church, we have a plethora of theologies. Distinctives help us see different aspects of God and different interpretations of Scripture. But what do we do when the practice of certain beliefs harms members of the church? How do we deal with the fact that some churches take theological stances that gaslight women?

Complementarianism is the belief that women and men have distinct roles that complement one another. Because of the growing popularity of the Feminist movement in 1977, George Knight III wrote the book New Testament Teaching on the Role Relationship of Men and Women as a counter response. The book became the basis of complementarian theology. In his book, Knight argues that rather than seeing men as superior, the genders are equal, but occupy different roles. Knight also argues that a man’s role is to rule, and women are to obey. Since God created gender roles before the fall, he reasons, gender roles are universal and static. Knight also introduces the idea that the hierarchical ordering of the sexes is grounded in the eternal triune life of God. Since the Father is head of the son, then man is head of the woman because God made the woman from Adam’s rib. 

Knight’s work is the basis for much of complementarian theology today.  There are several different strands of complementarian theology that each define women’s and men’s roles differently. A relatively new progressive view of complementarians (appropriately called progressive complementarianism) holds that men and women are complementary, while also encouraging women to teach, and it commends strong women as leaders and wives. Beth Moore, a prominent Southern Baptist bible teacher, is complementarian. Her role as a bible teacher is an example of some complementarians encouraging women to use their teaching gifts.

However, there are complementarians on the other end of the theological spectrum, who believe a woman’s role is in the home. Pastor John Piper has been vocal in this more conservative view of complementarianism, which believes that men are the head of the family and the church, and women are called to submit to their husbands.

Conservative complementarians typically use Genesis 2 to defend a differentiation in gender roles. Because God created man first, complementarians argue, men should be the head of women. They also believe that God’s punishment of Adam after the fall is further evidence of man’s headship, and conversely that the curse proves that women have an evil desire to rule over their husbands.

Conservative complementarians use many of Paul’s letters to defend their arguments, most notably 2 Timothy 2:8-15 to argue that women should learn submissively and not teach and Ephesians 5:22–33 to say that women should submit to their husbands. Passages like 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2:13 are also utilized as affirmations of this argument.

I recognize that the question of gender roles is complicated, and debate among theological issues like this one is healthy. But some conservative complementarians don’t just espouse a different view. They present their view in a way that not only shames female intellect but ridicules any woman from asking challenging questions. This reality has repeatedly caused women to doubt their ability to hear from God and interpret Scripture. In this way, certain shaming practices utilized by conservative complementarians mimic gaslighting. 

Gaslighting is a psychological term, and is defined as “a tactic in which a person or entity, in order to gain more power, makes a victim question their reality.” It’s a form of abuse commonly used to control people, through lying, manipulation, and subtle grooming, until the abused can no longer trust their reality. This is the issue that I want to raise with regards to conservative complementarianism as well as ways that we, as women, and as the church can respond.


Conservative Complementarians often argue that their view is the only biblically accurate theology of marriage and leadership in the church. John Piper explains, “[Egalitarians] say dozens of true things about Jesus, but then draw inferences about leadership roles which simply do not follow. Nothing Jesus did or said calls into question the pattern of loving husbands taking the responsibility of headship and loving wives honoring that headship with a submissive disposition.”

However, while there is an argument to be made that some Scriptures can be interpreted to support complementarian theology, there are also passages in Scripture that advocate for different theological teachings of women in leadership and marriage, and we need to learn how to see the two side by side.

Egalitarians, for example, believe that men and women were not only created equal but can also share equal roles and rights. Dr. Roger Nicole argues, “The matter of the place of women in the home, in society, and in the church is not an issue that can be conclusively determined by a few apparently restrictive passages that are often advanced by those who think that subordination represents God’s will for women.” Many biblical scholars interpret Scriptures that depict women in leadership positions as evidence for female leadership in the church. The story of Jesus encouraging Mary to sit at his feet is an example that many egalitarians interpret as evidence that Jesus encouraged women to be his disciples.

Egalitarian scholars also offer competing interpretations for biblical passages that Complementarians typically use. Because God created both men and women in his image according to Genesis 1, egalitarians believe God desired the genders to be equal. Egalitarians also refute the argument that Paul encouraged women to be subordinate to men in marriage, pointing to Ephesians 5:21, where Paul argues for mutual submission. In fact, passages like 1 Corinthians 12:7-14 and Galatians 3:28 could be seen as advocating for equality among the genders. Furthermore, Paul’s affirmation of female leaders in the church, such as Junia, Lydia, and Priscilla, could be seen as examples of his inclusion of women in ministry.

The debate between complementarian and egalitarian scholars is extensive, and both use Scripture to define and defend their opinions. Certainly both sides are guilty of ignoring textual evidence that disagrees with their own interpretation. But to ignore scholarly biblical work that offers competing views is dangerous as it creates an environment where only their understanding is considered “biblical.” In the case of complementarians, selective reading of Scripture has hurt and confused women in several ways.

In a letter published by Theological Miscellany, a woman named Sarah shares how this culture of confusion within complementarianism impacted her. “I soon learned that there was apparently only one honest interpretation of the key texts that inform the complementarian doctrine. The texts were clear and chafing against them (particularly as a woman) was the chief of sins. And so I began the work of weeding out my sinful desire to be on equal footing with men.” What Sarah describes is the very definition of gaslighting. It is a kind of theological confusion that forces women to disbelieve their own reality at the cost of trusting their ability to speak with Jesus.


Before my wedding, a colleague shared that she thought my leadership in InterVarsity would be detrimental to my marriage. Her concern for me was earnest, but she seemed disinterested in my understanding of God’s call in my life or my definition of biblical marriage.

Many complementarians claim they desire women to thrive. Mary Kassian writes, “Complementarians stand against the oppression of women. We want to see women flourish, and we believe they do so when men and women together live according to God’s Word.” Nevertheless, when certain forms of complementarianism are linked to systems of power built by and privileged for men (what we often refer to as patriarchy today), these forms will always be oppressive.

Patriarchal systems can restrict women’s ability to advocate for themselves. The #metoo and #churchtoo movement brought to light how some conservative complementarian pastors have abused women. The Southern Baptist Convention had to deal with the fallout of allegations of misconduct from one of their most influential leaders, Paige Patterson. The charges included counseling women to stay in abusive relationships, objectifying a teenage girl, commenting on female Seminarians looks and encouraging a female student to refrain from reporting sexual assault. The allegations against Patterson came on the heels of several women accusing conservative complementarian pastors of sexual assault and harassment. Many of these cases were covered up, leading to an outcry for the church to address sexual abuse. The multiple allegations against conservative complementarians, seem to point to a tendency for the violence of women to go unchecked all so that patriarchy can be upheld.

Bill Hybels, a notable Egalitarian pastor, was also accused of sexual harassment and his church, Willow Creek covered it up. The reality is that the church – and our culture as a whole – has a problem with ignoring sexual assault allegations. However, the teaching of “male headship” can allow for congregations and pastors to value a man’s interpretation of a story over a woman’s. Pastor Kevin Giles explains that, while abuse and the putting down of women do not occur solely in complementarian communities, complementarian teachings seem to encourage it and condone it.”

The danger of conservative complementarianism is that it can create an environment that discourages women from following their callings, from pursuing opportunities or having equality in their homes. While some women do thrive in different complementarian congregations, many women find complementarian congregations oppressive at best and hurtful at worst as they don’t have opportunities to express their concern or report abuse.


Gaslighters often call their victims crazy. This is one of the most effective tools of the gaslighter, because it’s dismissive. When the abuser continues to call the victims crazy, it forces victims to question their sanity. Whether attacking women on social media, from the pulpit or in pastoral conversations, calling women and men, who advocate for equality, derogatory names is gaslighting. By describing people as crazy or unbiblical, conservative complementarians dismiss the legitimacy of a differing opinion.

An InterVarsity applicant once told me that she would not be applying, and she would no longer lead her sorority Bible study. She said, “My pastor told me how crazy I was that I thought I could hear from God. God does not allow women to be campus ministers. My calling to serve him must have meant that I’m supposed to be a pastor’s wife.”

She shortly left our ministry and then the faith.  She explains, “Being Christian made me feel crazy because I couldn’t be a Christian woman. I couldn’t be a stay at home, mom. I just didn’t fit the Christian mold.” Her childhood pastor’s words held her captive in a way that made her doubt her sanity.

Whether a conservative complementarian is badgering a female professional writer or speaking directly to a congregant, telling a woman that differing opinions are unbiblical is paramount to calling her crazy. This abuse creates a system where women must discount any opposing view, even if that view is their own.


As a woman and a mother, I struggle with how to respond to the toxic nature of some complementarian churches. It is tempting to decry the entire movement as unbiblical. But if we do that, we end up engaging in the very same gaslighting tactics that I am accusing certain conservative complementarians of using.

Having different views of women in leadership and gender roles is part of being a diverse church. I most closely align with egalitarian beliefs, but my interpretation of Scripture does not diminish or disqualify somebody else’s understanding of the same biblical passage. To truly value all of God’s people, I must also value the different interpretations of Scripture from my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, especially when I disagree. Theology is the study of God, who created a diverse community and made all of us in his image. Therefore, if I want to understand God, I have to be willing to listen and hear differing theologies and respect other interpretations of Scripture.

The problem isn’t that there are differing theologies on gender roles. The problem is that some choose to use complementarian theology to diminish women or restrict women’s abilities to follow Jesus. When theology leads to practices that gaslight women, we must stand against those practices.

Abusers who use gaslighting tactics rely on their victims’ inability to trust their reality. One of the ways that we as women can protect ourselves against this is to study Scripture and theology for ourselves. When we read or hear a theological statement, we need to test this word with Scripture itself and research its interpretation so as to create our own biblical understandings. We should also study differing theologies, and push back when someone argues that they have the sole interpretation of Scripture. By studying the Bible for ourselves, we can create a foundation that is not easy to shake with gaslighting tactics.

One danger with any theology is to rely too heavily on one teacher or to show preferential treatment towards one teacher. When the Corinthians were doing this, Paul reminded them that it is Christ they follow, not individual teachers. Teachers are merely stewards of God’s word. When we put too much stalk in any one teaching, we effectively deify that teacher, which can create an environment where teachers can manipulate, control or abuse congregations.

Finally, we need to steer clear of any teacher or theology that uses derogatory language to describe people they disagree with. Theology that shames other teachers is not of God. Even when Paul was condemning bad teaching, he never shamed people. He wrote, “I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you” (1 Corinthians 4:14). It is good to debate theology and to admonish people to follow Jesus more fully. But shaming is toxic. When we see teachers, pastors, or individuals shaming others, we should excuse ourselves from that environment.

It is impossible to guard ourselves completely against toxic Christian practices. But by steering clear of teachers that create platforms that diminish others, lie to make their point or exalt themselves, we can guard ourselves against many of the gaslighting tactics in the church.

To be one in Christ, we need to allow for differing theologies and learn how to engage in healthy debate. But differing beliefs should never allow for harmful practices. God created all women and men in his image, and as such, no theology should allow for practices that harm and abuse women. Regardless of our theology of gender, Pastor Carlos Rodriguez’s tweet is a good reminder to follow Jesus:

“Dear Church, Jesus protected women. Empowered women. Honored women publicly. Released the voice of women. Confided in women. Was funded by women. Celebrated women by name. Learned from women. Respected women. And spoke of women as examples to follow. Your turn.”


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