It is fascinating to read the numerous articles circulating about the just-released film, 50 Shades of Grey, which is based on a wildly popular book trilogy.
I am not sure there has ever been an event in which feminists, the BDSM community, and conservative Christian organizations like Focus on the Family have united their voices in mutual disgust.
The concerns of most are that:
- The film is “soft porn” and should not be marketed for mainstream consumption
- The story glamorizes what psychologists have asserted to be “consistent with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s official definition of intimate partner violence — and… perpetuates dangerous abuse patterns.”
There are many articles written by Christians trying to pick apart why it is that so many women, both in and out of the church, are flocking to see this film, after buying 70 million copies of the book (sales divided equally among professing Christians and the American adult population ). Secular and religious experts are discussing the repercussions of rape culture, feminism, the innate need for love, and the search for the divine as explanations for the popularity of the books and movie.
As I look across American culture in general, and American Christian culture in particular, I am left wondering, “What else did we expect?” 50 Shades of Grey is simply a mirror to the experiences of women. Regardless of what side of the church walls they grew up on, women both in secular society and in Christian subculture are consuming the books and film because the underlying ideology of the story is what so many are familiar with, only it has been exaggerated and sexualized in form.
Both in and out of the church, women are regularly fed the message that we are not complete without a man by our side. From the time we start ingesting Disney films, we know that life revolves around finding our prince. Tabloids and self-help books are filled with titles about how to get a man and how to manipulate him into staying. The vast majority of secular material on sexuality written for women is about how to make a man want you and how to please him in bed. Throw in the statistics about how frequently women experience assault (1 out of 5 American women have been sexually assaulted), the discrepancy in income earning (78 cents to the dollar), and the lack of women in leadership (10-20% in most fields) and you end up with a pretty clear case of misbalanced power between men and women. 
In conservative Christianity, the experience is hardly any better.
Women living under complementarian Christianity are told regularly that God’s intention for humanity is that men should hold exclusive power in the home and in church. They are the decision makers and the ones responsible for the well-being of the women and children under them. A Christian woman in the complementarian world is left hoping for a man like Jesus because that is exactly what it takes to guarantee gender hierarchy NOT be abusive.
Please do not understand me to be saying that all complementarians are abusive. Not at all. I know a number of wonderful, godly men who more often than not manage to live up to the Christian complementarian ideal of a Christ-like head. We can recognize that there is misbalanced power in this patriarchal system as well, even while noting that most complementarians are good-hearted people trying their best to live out their convictions and understanding of Scripture, which requires them to take power and authority from women and give it to men. I believe they do it, most often, out of true concern for women. If they are correct in their view of Scripture – that women must have the spiritual covering of men – they would be cruel and sinful to refuse to give her one.
The Christian complementarian viewpoint is, at its essence, an attempt to redeem the fallen-ness of male authority/female submission. Complementarians would say, rightly, that 50 Shades of Grey is a satanic twisting of how God intends men and women to relate to one another. The difference is that they would continue to define God’s intended relationship between men and women in terms of authority and submission. As one complementarian writer explained, “Domination is, in essence, Satan’s counterfeit of healthy submission.” 
The problem is that the basic ideology itself is exactly the same. In the very worst of scenarios, a culture of male-dominated authority leads to horrors like what is depicted in 50 Shades of Grey (and worse). The most perfect possibility that complementarianism can offer is a safe, life-giving relationship resting in the capable and loving authority of a man who is at all times just like Jesus.
Except even the most godly man simply is not Jesus, and does not have the unwavering selfless love or the omniscience required to lead perfectly.
Owen Strachan, the Executive Director of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (a well-known complementarian organization), describes that perspective well. He explains that in the hierarchical or complementarian view of marriage, “Nothing less than perfection is the standard for masculine conduct and manly headship.“ If God intended to perfect the hierarchical relationship brought on by the curse of sin, it would indeed require the perfect man to make it work. Unfortunately, no such man exists.
Aside from the practical problem with Christian patriarchy – that no man has in him what it would take to make gender hierarchy work in a way that honors women – there is no biblical basis for the effort. Jesus did not come to fix the curse; he came to abolish it. He came to overcome, to make right what was made wrong, and to offer a new covenant in place of the old.
In his lifetime, Jesus repeatedly treated women as equals, despite the cultural pressure to do otherwise.
He never tried to make holy what never was. He rejected the whole sinful system of hierarchy for what was meant to be all along, when the first man and woman were told to govern the world together (Genesis 1:28). Christ broke down divisions of race, economic status, and gender, and he still requires his church to do the same (Galatians 3:28).
I wonder why we are still trying to band-aid our curse? Perhaps instead we should recognize that we have been lifted out of it to a place where brothers and sisters share together the awesome, joyful responsibility of seeing God’s kingdom move forward toward its complete fruition in our homes, in our churches, and in our world.
Latest posts by Dalaina May (see all)
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