Monthly Archives: June 2012

A Woman’s Voice: Gender and Power


By Veldorah J. Rice

For the next few weeks, Stephanie is on vacation, and she has asked me to guest blog here while she is gone.  I was honored, as I am very interested in the philosophy of what she is trying to do here: have an open and honest discussion about the profound mystery that is marriage and investigate what the Bible says about it.  I would prefer to not identify myself with either the complementarian or the egalitarian view of gender at this time, as it appears that both sides have ideas that they believe are rooted in scripture, but both also draw conclusions that I would like to explore.  I am no theologian; my degrees are in English, communication, history, and film studies.  But I am a Christian, and I know that God has promised to reveal himself to all believers.  And so it is my interests that draw me to explore the problems of language and communication when it comes to portraying what a Biblical marriage looks like.  In this series of entries, I will be looking at how a lack of clarity in our definitions and in what the Bible really says often lead to miscommunication.  I will also be exploring how our carelessness in turning a principle into practice through imprecise language can harm others.

Power and Marriage

“Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.” Genesis 3:16

This verse is often quoted by both complementarians and egalitarians as a point of major contention.  Complementarians talk about this as proof that women’s sin nature leads them to try to usurp the authority of men:

“One of the consequences of the Fall for women, it says in Genesis 3:16, is that their ‘desire shall be for [their] husband[s].’ The form and context of the word desire actually has a negative connotation—an urge to manipulate, control, or have mastery over. Because of the curse, we now have a sinful tendency to want our own way and to resist our husbands’ authority. This evil desire poses the greatest opposition to our submission. So we see that the submissive wife—far from being the weak-willed woman our culture portrays—is actually a model of inner strength. By God’s grace, she has conquered this opposition within her own heart. It is actually weakness on display when a wife is not submissive; she is only caving in to her natural inclination to usurp authority and demand her own way. That doesn’t take any effort at all.” (Feminine Appeal by Carolyn Mahaney, pg. 140, emboldening mine)

Egalitarians use this same verse to state that we as Christians should fight against a sinful hierarchy of authority brought about by the fall:

“To woman belongs pain in childbirth and the grief of being dominated by men. … we see that there are no explicit statements revealing a hierarchal relationship between man and woman until after the event that Christians have come to call “The Fall.”…So it is within the context of judgment, not creation, that hierarchy and subjugation enter the Bible’s story of man and woman. Where there was once mutuality, there is subjugation. Where there was once harmony, there is a power-struggle.” (Rachel Held Evans,

These statements appear to oppose one another.  Mahaney states that a husband’s dominion over a wife is God-ordained, while Evans claims that it is a curse of the fall and has caused great pain and is not in God’s ultimate plan for marriage.  I would argue that they are both highlighting two sides of the same issue: living in a world under sin and its related warped struggles for power.  Original sin can be traced back to the desire for power—Adam and Eve wanted to have the same knowledge and power that God did.  They did not want to obey him.  They wanted to have the power to run their own lives.

Nothing has changed today.  Evans is right; there is a power-struggle going on.  As she points out, “Worldwide, women ages fifteen to forty-four are more likely to be maimed or die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war combined. At least 3 million women and girls are enslaved in the sex trade, and a woman dies in childbirth every minute.”  But as Mahaney points out, as Christians we are to resist our urge to usurp power.  She limits this to women, but I would argue that this desire to usurp power is not only limited to women.  All relationships have power struggles: it’s why friends backstab, why children disobey their parents, and why employees lie to their bosses.  And these are just reflections of the ultimate power struggle of our own sinful desires against a holy God.

Power is a part of every relationship.  But I believe that many Christians don’t understand the nature of power and how it affects relationships.  Power is not something that one person has and the other person doesn’t.  Both parties have a degree of power in any relationship.  A three year old doesn’t appear to have a lot of power, but don’t tell that to the mother helpless in the middle of the store while that child is writhing on the ground screaming his lungs out—he’s got plenty of power to control that situation!  The same is true in marriage.  Both partners have power, and the amount of power each partner holds in a given moment is circumstantial—the person preparing the dinner controls when everyone eats, for example, and the person holding the remote control determines what the room watches.  But power is also something that is used in very healthy ways to negotiate relationship development.  If I am holding the remote control, yet I cede to what you want to watch, my cessation of power shows my care for you as well as a recognition of the power that you hold over me—your happiness matters to me and therefore changes my behavior.

You see, there are all kinds of power.  Communication experts have defined 5 types of power:

  • Legitimate power—power based on respect for a position, such as a police officer or a CEO.
  • Expert power—power based on a person’s knowledge or experience, such as a doctor.
  • Reward power—power based on a person’s ability to reward us, such as a teacher giving us a good grade for excellent work.
  • Coercive power—power based on a person’s ability to punish us, such as a parent disciplining a child.
  • Referent power—power based on our attraction to and affection for a person, such as our love for a friend causing us to sacrifice our time or money for them.

Obviously, all of these types of powers can be abused.  Criminals gain access to houses dressed as police officers; dictators lead with heavy-handed coercive power.  But in a healthy relationship, these five types of powers work in conjunction with one another: parents use both reward and coercive power with their children based on their legitimate claim as having the role of “parent” and their expert power in the situation, but it is most effective when it is also based on referent power.

We don’t hear much about these different types of power when we talk about gender relationships, but they are there.  Unfortunately, in the arguments over Christian gender relationships, it seems like each side is defining “power” much more narrowly than it should be.  It appears that complementarians focus on legitimate power—a man has the God-ordained position of headship over a wife, and thus she must submit.  Egalitarians focus on referent power—because we love one another and value one another, a man and wife serve one another.  I would argue that both are true at the same time.  God IS the one with legitimate power to tell us to submit to one another, AND we are required to serve one another.  The Bible does call us to do both. We are also required to keep our coercive power struggles in check and to not use reward power to encourage sin.

The problem comes in when we begin to assign more weight to one type of power over another as a sin area in ALL marriages.   Complementarians claim that women are particularly guilty of usurping legitimate power in relationships, while egalitarians argue that women need to stand upon their referent power.  You can hear it in their language: “usurp authority” vs. “hierarchy and subjugation.”

I see two problems with this dissonance:

1)      Instead of discussing how sin has infiltrated all aspects of power in a relationship, we are too busy yelling at each other about who has the proper understanding of power in relationships.  We are so interested in proving a position that we begin to instruct others in their marriages by only seeing one aspect of a power web in marriage.

2)      When we begin to instruct based on this imbalanced focus on an aspect of power, we ignore the consequences our words have.  We assume that all the other aspects of power are in balance and we only need to address the aspect we see as most important.

It is this second point that I find most terrifying.  Let me give you an example:  a husband and wife are out of balance in the coercive power area.  He controls her and punishes her verbally when she does something he doesn’t like.  Now they go and sit under complementarian preaching focused on legitimate power where they are told that the wife is trying to usurp his legitimate power.  He is reaffirmed in his actions, and his wife is further oppressed.  But it’s not in the legitimate power where the primary problem exists.

Or take another example:  A husband and wife are out of balance in the reward power area.  He sits on the couch and plays on his phone all night.  His wife is dissatisfied because she feels like her husband isn’t investing in their relationship, but he thinks that he is giving her the space to make her own choices.  Now they go and sit under egalitarian preaching focusing on referent power and are told they should respect one another equally.  He feels like he is doing that well and is reaffirmed in his distance with her.  But it’s not in the referent power where the primary problem exists.

Marital relationships exhibit all five types of power—marriage gives a husband/wife legitimate power in the position as spouse to expect certain things (like faithfulness), referent power through attraction/affection for one another, expert power in their given agreed-upon spheres of responsibility, and reward and coercive power in a myriad of ways.  When we consider Genesis 3:16, we need to remember that this statement reflects the sin inherent in attempting a power-balance in a marriage in a fallen world.  It WILL be a balancing act of resisting sin and considering someone else—in effect, a constant renegotiation of power between two fallible people—and that process is exceedingly personal.  There is no easy formula or a universal power struggle/temptation common to all women, because every combination of two people is unique, so their balancing act will also be unique.  We need to be careful when we talk about gender and power that we are not focusing in on one aspect of power relationships while ignoring the others.  This can lead to unbalanced and even dangerously abusive relationships, protected under the guise of being “Biblical.” Instead, we should talk about principles of how to treat one another, how to communicate about power struggles, and what unbalanced power relationships might look like.