Thursday, January 21, 2016

Control: The Reason The Gospel Coalition and CBMW Cannot Actually Condemn Spousal Abuse

‘There are spectrums and varieties of domestic abuse. A good working definition of domestic abuse is “a godless pattern of abusive behavior among spouses involving physical, psychological, and/or emotional means to exert and obtain power and control over a spouse for the achievement of selfish ends” (John Henderson).’

This is a quote from an article by Justin Taylor (quoting Henderson approvingly) on the Gospel Coalition website a few months ago. The article was in response to an ongoing controversy over the problem of domestic violence in the church - which often goes undetected and unaddressed. As many writers have noted - many of them women - the teaching that women must obey men (so beloved by the Gospel Coalition and much of conservative Evangelicalism) tends to attract abusers, and give them power over their victims.

It is a good thing that the Gospel Coalition felt compelled to come out against Domestic Violence and spousal abuse.

If only they could have actually brought themselves to do so.

Because this statement comes close, but in the end, completely fails to actually condemn abuse.

On the plus side, it is good to see an acknowledgement that abuse goes beyond the physical. Indeed, the emotional side of abuse is often more damaging in the long term than the physical, because it is calculated to destroy a victim’s self worth.

However, the statement fails for two reasons. First, it fails to grasp that the root of abuse is control, and that therefore, control is the problem. Second, it contains so many qualifiers as to be useless to either identify or prevent abuse.

  1. Control is the root of domestic abuse.

I have worked for the last 16 years as an attorney. As part of my practice, I represent victims of domestic violence (in some cases pro bono), and have also regularly dealt with abusive relationships in divorce and custody cases in general.

A common misconception about abuse is that it is tied to anger. Thus, the formerly common advice to abused women that they should avoid making their husband angry. “What did you do to provoke him?” Even now, abusers are often ordered by the court to take anger management classes. While I believe these classes can be good, simply addressing anger does not address the root issue.

Anger can cause abuse to escalate, but the trigger isn’t anger. It is control. Plenty of abusers get angry, but what are they angry about? (Hint: it isn’t because their partner kicked the dog.) Abusers become angry when their need for control is threatened.

Furthermore, it is entirely possible to be abusive without displaying rage. In fact, the very worst abusers I have ever encountered were never angry. The calm and collected man out to exact absolute control is the most dangerous, because he can toe the line between legal and illegal, between socially acceptable and unacceptable. He can always appear the good guy, while he calmly destroys the psyche of his victim.

That is why, in order to address domestic abuse, we must address the issue of control. This should manifest itself in a few ways. First of all, we need to clearly understand that control is the issue, rather than anger. As a result, we should be able to identify likely abusers by their need and demand for control, rather than simply by their tempers. (Not that having a bad temper is good. But a quick temper is just one manifestation of a need for control.)

This will make a difference in how we evaluate potential spouses, for example, or how we advise our children to pick partners. (More about this below.) This would also radically change how pastors and other church-based counselors counsel married couples. (See below as well.)

2. The qualifiers negate the rest of the statement

Let’s look at those qualifiers: “godless,” “abusive,” and “selfish.” These create loopholes so large that any reasonably competent abuser should be able to justify any behavior to themselves and others.

Here is the sentence without the qualifiers:

“a pattern of behavior among spouses involving physical, psychological, and/or emotional means to exert and obtain power and control over a spouse.”

That is a more accurate statement of what domestic abuse and violence are all about.

Because with the qualifiers, what do you get?

It is okay to use physical, psychological, and/or emotional means to control your long as you aren’t doing it in a godless manner. Or as long as you aren’t being “abusive” about it, whatever that means. Or as long as you are doing it for “unselfish” ends.

If you think that an abuser cannot justify his control on the basis of it being for the good of the victim, and in fulfillment of God’s will for her, you are naive indeed. Of course he is doing it for her good, and of course he has God’s blessing on what he is doing. Duh! Very, very few people believe they are being evil when they are being evil.

So why couldn’t the Gospel Coalition just come out and condemn the use of “physical, psychological, and emotional means” to exert control over a spouse?

Because it would destroy the foundation of their doctrine, which is that men have a God-given right and responsibility to control women.

To put a fine point on it, “Complementarians” have taught for the last several decades that the key insight that the Bible and Christianity bring to marital relationships is that women should submit to men. They teach that what is wrong with modern society is that “Feminism™” has ruined male/female relationships by teaching women that they no longer need to obey men. Thus, the key “insight” into how to improve marriages is just that: women need to obey men, and everything will be better.

I hate to have to break it to the Complementarians, but this “insight” isn’t original at all.

Rather, this supposed “insight” is something that has occurred to pretty much every single pagan society from the dawn of human history forward. The name for it is Patriarchy, and, until recently, it was the way things were everywhere. (And, to put a fine point on it, it is still the way things are in many parts of the world.) 

And it wasn’t based on some benevolent ideal, but on an explicit belief that males were morally, intellectually, and spiritually superior to females. And nobody felt compelled to claim otherwise, because everyone believed it. 

This isn’t the first time an influential “Complementarian” organization has struggled to find a way of condemning abuse while preserving the right to control. Back in 2012, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood made this statement:

“We understand abuse to mean the cruel use of power or authority to harm another person emotionally, physically, or sexually.”

Again, a qualifier: “cruel.” So it is okay to use authority to harm another, as long as it isn’t “cruel?”
“Harm” should be sufficient to indicate that wrong is being done. This blogger suggested an alternative:

“A pattern of conduct designed to obtain and maintain ungodly control over another.”

I would go one further by eliminating the qualifier: “A pattern of conduct designed to obtain and maintain control over another.”

If your pattern of conduct is designed to obtain and maintain control over another, you are an abuser.

3. If you believe that women have a God-imposed duty to obey men, you will need a means of control.

I am by no means the first person to raise this question, and many of those that influenced me on this matter are quite conservative doctrinally in other areas. So this isn’t a liberal/conservative issue.

When you say you are “complementarian,” what do you mean by that? It is often hard to get a handle on this. In my opinion, this is generally because “complementarianism” will generally look like patriarchy and gender roles...or it will look suspiciously like egalitarianism.

Leaving aside for now the teaching that women belong in the home, rather than in the workforce (which is often the other teaching of "complementarians" and patriarchists), we are left with a basic question:

Does God require that women obey men or not?

If your answer is yes, then what is the “solution” to the situation where a woman is unwilling to do what a man tells her?

Well, is he allowed to use physical “correction” to compel her to obey? (The answer for most of history was “yes,” incidentally.) What about emotional and psychological coercion? (Withholding of affection, telling her she is sinning, having the pastor lecture her about her duties?) At some point, if she does not cooperate, then some form of “physical, psychological, or emotional” pressure would need to be applied, right?

Otherwise, you have a rather uncomfortable impasse. She does not wish to obey, and he is convinced that she is living in sin for disobeying him.

Without a means of control, there is no “cure” for a lack of submission.

However, there is a potential alternative. What if one simply stopped trying to obtain submission?

Katie Botkin (yes, a “black sheep” relative of Doug Phillips’ crazy co-author of the 200 Year Plan), wrote an interesting article in which she discusses mutuality in the context of consent.

Consent, again, comes into the idea of against your better judgment. If you “submit” to someone only when you agree, it’s not actually submission at all — it’s agreement. If you “submit” when you disagree because you’re a rational, reasonable person and you understand compromise, that’s not submission either. If that’s submission, egalitarian couples “submit” to each other all the time. So, truly, the concept of “submission” only comes into play when one party really doesn’t want to do something.

This is exactly the point. I am in an egalitarian marriage. But many supposedly “complementarian” marriages are actually what we egalitarians call “functionally egalitarian.” In other words, they look like what Botkin is describing: We discuss and come to agreements. We both compromise. And we both work to practice kindness as a guiding principle.

Communication. Compromise. Kindness.

Some use the “Christianese” term of “mutual submission” to describe this, which is okay, I suppose. But outside of a certain bubble, it isn’t that meaningful. For everyday people, what actually makes sense is the triad I named: Communication, compromise, and kindness.

The problem is, of course, that these are exactly the sorts of things that one could hear from any reasonably competent secular counselor. These are the things that we egalitarians do in our marriages. And they are perfectly compatible with feminism, that favorite bogeyman of groups like the Gospel Coalition.

For decades, conservative Christianity has taught that Feminism™  destroyed the family, by telling women they did not have to obey their husbands.

So groups like The Gospel Coalition and CBMW have made a central tenet of their faith that Christian marriages are supposed to look different, and the difference is in accepting gender roles, and hierarchy. Indeed, this has become - particularly for CBMW - a core issue of the faith.

When you eliminate the need for control - by making marriage about communication, compromise, and kindness - you end up with a vision of marriage between equals. Something egalitarians and feminists can approve as well.

That is why The Gospel Coalition and CBMW cannot simply come out and condemn abuse.

Because it would eliminate the element of control which is central to their vision of marriage and Christianity.

    4. Having daughters has made me care deeply about this

Some have wondered why I have expressed a good deal of anger at Evangelicalism in the last year.

Here is one reason why:

When I think about where my daughters will learn the “lesson” that they should submit to abuse and control, it isn’t the atheists I worry about.

Let’s be honest.

Except for frat houses and the Pick Up Artist community, the voices telling my daughters that it is acceptable for a man to control a woman are coming from “traditional” culture and “traditional” religion.  And the voice they are most likely to hear comes from Evangelicalism, because that is our tribe.

I figure frat boys and PUAs are pretty easy to identify as jerks, at least with a little care. I figure my daughters aren’t that likely to convert to Islam or Mormonism. 

But I do worry that they will absorb these lessons from the church.

The problem isn’t that all Evangelicals are abusers (clearly they aren’t) or that all of them teach the lesson of control. (They don’t.)

The problem is that those who teach the lesson that men have a right and duty to control women feel so darn COMFORTABLE in Evangelicalism.

This is why I bristle when I hear false statements like “Christianity is responsible for reducing domestic violence.” Um, no. Feminism did that. Some feminists were Christians, others weren’t. Some Christians fought against feminism and their efforts to make sure violence was against the law and prosecuted accordingly. Some Christians fought efforts to make divorce available to victims of domestic violence. And some are still fighting on the wrong side of these issues.

Right now, at this particular time in history, here in the United States, the most significant force fighting our efforts to further reduce and eliminate domestic violence isn’t atheists.

It’s Evangelical organizations like the Gospel Coalition and CBMW.

    5. What I want to teach my children

Let’s start with this:

Control is not okay.


If someone starts using physical, emotional, or psychological means to try to control you, get out. That means that if someone ever starts talking about how God wants you to obey that person, that is a huge red flag for an abuser. (Also, for a narcissist and/or a sociopath…or a cult leader...)

If there is an expectation of obedience, then we have a problem. This is why I believe that premarital counseling should address dispute resolution, and seek to identify control issues. Secular counseling usually does. But “Christian” counseling more often than not (in my personal and professional experience) just advises the woman of her duty to “submit” and the man on his duty to “lead,” and leaves it at that. At best, the man is reminded of his duty to “love” his wife. But “love” in this context can easily mean “making her do what is best for her.” Thus, the controlling sociopath can pull the wool over the “counselor’s” eyes. He looks just like someone with orthodox complementarian doctrine.

An interesting discussion that I have listened in on in Christian circles these days is what parents desire in a spouse for a child. A bone of contention arises when someone says, “I would rather my child marry a non-Christian as long he treats her kindly.” Thence the discussion of whether it is okay to marry outside the faith, and so on.

This is a red herring. What is really being expressed here is a legitimate fear that the abusive men are are a problem within conservative religious traditions - including Evangelicalism. Because Evangelicalism is one of the very, very few places in our modern Western culture where it is still okay to seek to control a woman. Abusers are all too comfortable here.

So I do worry about what my kids will hear. And I also worry that I cannot trust others within our tribe to have been taught that control is never okay. Even otherwise decent men may feel pressure to act like “leaders” in the relationship, and otherwise decent women may be expecting “leadership” from their husbands. What my experience in family law has taught me is that neither of these is healthy, and many a relationship has cratered based on these expectations.

    6. How the Church must change

First, I believe that the Church needs to acknowledge that control is the issue. Second, the counseling given to couples needs to change dramatically. Right now, as I have said publicly before, I would never in a million years recommend to a couple to get counseling from a pastor or at a church. It would be best if they found an appropriately licensed professional, of course. But I often think that they would get better advice calling a random person in the phone book.

I have just seen the results of too much horrid advice.

It is not an exaggeration to say that my primary enemy in my fight to protect the victims of domestic violence is indeed the American Evangelical Church.

That is where victims are told to go back and “submit” and “obey” better, so that they won’t be beaten. That is where they are told that he has “repented” so she needs to forgive him. (Classic “honeymoon phase…”) And that is where they are told that he has the right, and indeed the duty to control, I mean “lead” her.

The second part of this is that the church needs to work at identifying controlling people and removing them. Unfortunately, this would mean a lot of pastors would have to go. Not all, clearly, but all too many. The moment one says, “God says you have to obey me,” that should be it.

But this will also mean removing the narcissists and sociopaths from the church - a place where they are often all too comfortable. (Again, the narcissists and sociopaths I have dealt with in my practice have usually been in good standing with their churches - or were pastors. There is a pattern.) I suspect too that if church counselors were actually trained in psychology, they might recognize abusers far more readily. And if abusers knew that they would not be able to fool people at church, they might be less comfortable there.

This story (involving Doug Wilson’s father - himself a pastor) illustrates what usually happens when a victim of abuse seeks assistance from a Complementarian/Patriarchist pastor.  You can see the two problems. First, the abuse is assumed to be her fault because she doesn’t submit. Second, the goal is always reconciliation rather than protection of the victim.

Even thoroughly mainstream Evangelicals, though, seem to be having the same problem. It has now been taken down (WOW, this is a pattern!), but Focus on the Family recently (re)published an excerpt from one of James Dobson’s books, in which he advocates for a thoroughly bizarre response to domestic violence, putting all the burden on the victim. Oh, and it gets even worse. He goes on to explain that women "bait" their husbands into hitting them, and are thus partially at fault for the abuse. I am not making this up, although I wish I were. 

(Kudos to pastors Jeff Crippen, Neil Schori, and Mike Sloan for being willing to take on Dobson for this statement.)

This has to change, and it changes with a recognition that control is never okay, and that the cure for abuse is to remove the abuser from the situation so he can no longer abuse.

Third, I believe the Church needs to recognize that in abusive relationships, the goal should be protection of the victim, not prevention of divorce. For true abusers, I do not believe there is a way to put the marriage back together that doesn’t compromise the victim. At least in 99% or more of the cases, a healthy relationship isn’t going to happen, no matter what is done. I have never seen a man change because the woman submitted more, or tried harder. I have - rarely - seen a man who lost everything finally make an effort. But not until he has lost everything.

Fourth, while controlling abusers are a serious problem, the teaching that women should obey men also harms relationships that otherwise could be healthy. I have read somewhere the opinion that Patriarchy/Complementarianism makes a great man good, and a good man merely mediocre. I am inclined to agree. By making marital dispute resolution about a hierarchy, we deny both parties the chance at mutual solutions to problems. Instead, because it is already pre-determined which party wins, true compromise and negotiation cannot occur.

Perhaps an emphasis on communication, compromise, and kindness as the way to resolve marital issues would help. Unfortunately, decades of teaching that marital problems are due to feminism and the rejection of gender roles and hierarchies have taken a huge toll. Many, even those in “functionally egalitarian” marriages are unable to let go of the old way of interpreting a passage - even if those interpretations were made in a misogynistic era, by those who were unashamedly misogynistic. 

But look at it this way: the identifying characteristic of us as Christians is supposed to be how we love each other. In that most intimate of relationships, marriage, shouldn’t this be even more apparent? If we are to be different, we should be different not because we make marriage into a hierarchy, but because we are more loving as spouses.

Our goal should be that we can communicate and compromise with the greatest of kindness, with no need for control. 


Just a note on gender: I realize that women can abuse men too, although men typically cause more physical damage due to size and strength advantages. However, the way that the “complementarian” worldview damages men is different. Men raised to believe that they should be in control and dominant suffer severe unmanning when they are abused, and it is generally hard for them to admit it. Still, I don’t see men being advised to go back and suffer, rather than end the marriage.

My professional advice, however, would be the same. Get out. Call the police. Protect the children. Don’t go back.


Lest you think that TGC and CBMW are guilty of bad rhetoric, rather than bad actions, a look at the multitude of stories coming out of TGC affiliated churches should be enough. 

Addendum 2-15-2016: This post by Nate Sparks lays out a series of questions for TGC about the epidemic of abuse of women and children that has come to light involving its member churches and its leadership. There are extensive links that are worth checking out. It turns out that bad doctrine does in fact lead to bad results. Who would have thought? 


Just a thought: maybe The Gospel Coalition was afraid of offending one of their regular contributors, Doug Wilson.

This whole article is worth reading, as it brings together so many of Wilson’s horrific teachings. But here is his view of this topic: 

“Second, wives need to be led with a firm hand. A wife will often test her husband in some area, and be deeply disappointed (and frustrated) if she wins. It is crucial that a husband give to his wife what the Bible says she needs, rather than what she says she needs. So a godly husband is a godly lord. A woman who understands this biblical truth and calls a certain man her husband is also calling him her lord. It is tragic that wholesale abdication on the part of modern men has made the idea of lordship in the home such a laughable thing.”

Certainly there is no way a woman could know what she needs. Patronizing much? And we all know women really want to be controlled, right? Actually, Wilson is pretty much the poster child for a narcissistic sociopath, but he says the right things as far as the Gospel Coalition is concerned…

Also note that John Piper, who has said that women are obligated as Christian females to stay and endure abuse, is a founder of CBMW and on the board of the Gospel Coalition. Hmm. 


Just a quick thought: If you look at what Pickup Artists believe, it is actually interesting to see how many of their beliefs about women, gender essentialism, and power are similar to those of the Patriarchists. The goals are a bit different (getting laid for the PUA, getting laid for life getting married to a submissive woman for the Patriarchist), but the root beliefs are often the same. 


Regarding the question of where you find the abusers these days, Katie Botkin also has an interesting question to ponder:

The problem with this gender theology: non-Christian men (or all the ones I know) are kind, generous, and protective of women and children. I grew up thinking that the non-Christian world was a pretty dangerous place, but once I got into it, started traveling the world on my own, started talking to people on my own, I realized I was wrong. Without Christ, men are not just rapist pedophiles out to beat women up — so the answer to being a rapist pedophile or a wife beater is probably not “more Bible verses as told by your pastor.” There’s a lot more to it than that. Without Christianity, men can be, and are, amazing human beings. And, of course, many men within the CREC [Doug Wilson's church] are as well. I know some — I know some really, really wonderful men and women who attend CREC churches.
But the nice people don’t change the fact that I know not-so-nice people who attend or attended CREC churches. I’ll be honest: all of the most pushy guys I’ve known personally — the kind who wouldn’t take “no” seriously, the kind who wouldn’t take repeated rebuffs seriously — attended CREC churches at some point or another. I’ve said this before, but the theology of the CREC enables men to be secure in a certain measure of asshole-ness — just look at the way their Presiding Minister talks about non-Christian women, about how men “dream of being rapists” and how women dream of being raped.

This is one of the issues for me too. I know a lot of nice men within American Evangelicalism. But I also know a lot of nice men who are out of religion altogether. And, on balance, it isn’t even close when it comes to the abusers I have dealt with personally and professionally. With very, very few exceptions, the ones who believe they have the right to control women came out of Evangelical homes, not Atheist ones. One might wonder exactly why that might be...


This one is a late addition, but I just ran across it recently. Nate Sparks breaks down the claim that “not all complementarians are like this” with summaries and links. If you ever doubted that gender roles are considered to be fundamental to the Gospel by these guys...


I’ll close with a personal story.

My wife and I, as regular readers will know, spent time in Christian Patriarchy. (Bill Gothard for me, Jonathan Lindvall for her.) We got married fairly young, and still hadn’t really processed all of our experiences - although both of us were glad to be out and determined never to return to those poisonous beliefs.

In preparation for our wedding, we discussed our vows. Both of us are traditionalists in aesthetic - if not necessarily in philosophy. There is something familiar and classy about the old service order from the Common Book Of Prayer. So we started with the traditional vows.

The question, however, came up of whether we would leave “obey” in there. I had no intention of ever asking my wife to obey me. So I told her she could leave it out if she wished.

She wasn’t quite as far along on her journey toward egalitarianism and feminism, so she decided to keep it.

Being a good egalitarian, I let her have her way.


Addendum February 4, 2016: I think this post is relevant to the discussion. It illustrates the quick pivot to blaming the victim and demanding reconciliation that is endemic to Evangelicalism when domestic abuse is encountered.

Naghmeh Abedini, Franklin Graham, and the Silencing of Evangelical Abuse Victims

Please read my Comment Policy before commenting.


  1. If I recall, my wife and I replaced "honor and obey" with "aid and abet" in our vows, to the exasperation of the celebrant.

    1. That's awesome. My wife and I refer to each other as "co-conspirators" all the time. We should have used this one...

    2. I like that: co-conspirators. I refer to my husband as my closest or most intimate ally.

      It is quite sad hierarchical complementarians are taught and accept as truth that females are necessarily antagonists. If men perceive girls and women as their adversaries seeking their rightful position then exerting control, euphemistically, exercising leadership, follows. Oh, that male and female could see each other as co-conspirators, allies, co-vice regents with shared responsibility to steward God's cosmic temple.

    3. Beautifully put.

      I find that "power struggle" is the silliest way to describe life with my best friend.

    4. Nemo, I admire this beyond all telling.

    5. My husband and I had a Stealth Pagan wedding, but had fairly traditional vows, including, from the old Anglican service, "with my body I thee worship." We also promised "Your concerns will become my concerns, and your wants and needs will be as important to me as my own." This, I believe, is the heart of our marriage.

    6. That's a great idea :-) I wish I had it when I was getting married myself. When I was attending the pre-marital counseling with my fiancee, my pastor showed us three vow texts and said to choose the one we wanted. Two of them had "obey" and one did not (as I learned earlier, it was just introduced by some pastor) so of course we chose the one without. I made the mistake of answering truly when the pastor asked why this one - I said that I don't want my wife to say that, especially in from of our unbelieving families, because I feel it would humiliate her. The pastor went ballistic, which I really did not understand back then because hey, he was the one who proposed that text to us in the first place! He was enraged for some time but finally he agreed to use the text we chose.

      Then after a few weeks, when the wedding preparation was well underway, he called me on my mobile phone and said that his "conscience" does not allow him to use this text and my wife must say "obey", otherwise he will refuse to marry us. That was a total shock, because he dropped this bomb on us quite right before the wedding. I asked my friend pastor from another city to marry us instead but it turned out that my pastor had told him some atrocious things about us having "wrong attitude" (whatever that meant) that my friend backed off (which shows what kind of "friend" he was all along, but that's a digression). If I had more time, I would reschedule the wedding or even have the marriage ceremony in the magistrate before a secular officer, but it was too late to re-invite all the guests etc., so we just said fine, we will do what we are told. In hindsight, that was a mistake and my wife was really not as happy on her wedding day as she should, but we were young, gullible and still under the impression that the pastor has some kind of authority to control us. Today I would know better.

    7. Wow. That's a pretty clear case of spiritual abuse by a pastor. I was tempted (for other reasons) to elope, but am glad we were able to go through with things as they were. But we definitely insisted on a low key wedding. I also had a long-time friend who was ordained marry us, and he didn't put that kind of pressure at all. (We were fairly knew to our church - relatively - and didn't feel comfortable yet with our pastor. Maybe for the reasons you stated. In retrospect, now that we have been attending the same church since then, our pastor would have been gracious either way, so it would have been fine.

  2. When I told my husband about biblical patriarchy and wifely submission he accused me of making it up. "No one would believe that in real life," he said. "It would add barriers to communication!" He figures it's a fringe belief found mostly among the internet. May that one day be true!

    1. May it some day be true throughout the world indeed!

      I very much agree that it adds barriers to communication. The other problem that I see is that it just can't fit for those who do not believe males have some sort of special wisdom or access to God. If we are truly equal in intelligence, judgment, and spirituality, why would the fact that I have a penis determine that I win every disagreement? But the point is that, whatever Complementarians claim to believe, their words and actions show that they do believe that God talks to males in a way he doesn't to females, and that they believe females are inferior in intelligence, judgement, and spirituality.

    2. I've noticed this as well. If, every time someone talks to me, they have to say, "Now, I DON'T think you're stupid, but..." before they tell me what I should be doing, sooner or later I'm going to suspect they're not being quite honest.

  3. Lately I've been thinking about the weirdo tunnel vision we get around these issues, as though the rest of the New Testament isn't there. I mean, I'm not supposed to imitate Ruth, or Sarah, or Esther--I'm supposed to imitate Christ. (Just like men aren't supposed to imitate Abraham, or Moses, or David, but Christ. I do note they're not told in teaching materials to imitate Abraham quite so much as I'm told to imitate Sarah....might get awkward what with the concubine thing.)

    Anyway, what you see when you look at how Jesus handled people is that He never exerted control over them. If anyone, ever, in the history of time, could make the argument "I should control them because I know what's best for them and it's God's will", the literal Son of God would be the one, right? But instead, He merely told people the truth, and let them make their own decisions. (See: the rich young ruler.) Something to think on there, if ever someone makes the argument that imposing control is a requirement in a "godly" relationship.

    (Anticipating objection: yes, parents have to exert some control over young kids who lack the mental development to know that stepping in the road can get you hit by a car, and that this could result in death. But parenting is supposed to be a process of turning over control to the kid--like a regent handing back the reins of government. It would be pretty sad and stupid if I made my 18-year-old still hold my hand in the parking lot. My husband is not my parent, and I am not his. Thank God.)

    1. Great points. (And yes, I thought about including the bit about kids, but my posts already run long. My main addition would be that even small children prefer guidance to control, and that I have found more success in letting my kids reason through their own choices than in imposing my will on them.)

      I particularly love the example of Christ here as well. As you point out, control wasn't his method.

    2. It's not really a tunnel vision. The Bible is very clear that the wife must submit to her husband - Paul says that several times in his epistles. The problem you are describing - that this is really not compatible with how Jesus treated people - is not the problem of us people reading the Bible "wrong way". It's the problem of the Bible saying contradictory things on the same topic.

      As I learned over time, Evangelicals tend to focus more on Pauline letters and ignore the Gospels in this regard so that they focus on this "submission" thing. Other groups like Progressives focus more on the Gospels and not the letters, so they do not teach "submission".

      The problem only starts when one tries to follow both things - the example of Jesus _and_ Paul's advice to wives - at the same time. They are simply incompatible, so trying to do both requires lots of mental gymnastics like described in the article (like redefining "submission" into something that really sounds like "equality", or trying to write into the text that the husbands should submit to their wives as well even though it's clear that Paul absolutely did not mean that). "Submission" means "submission", the same word is used by Paul a few verses later to describe how slaves must submit to their masters, and there is no way around it.

    3. I wince when anyone says "very clear" as if the Bible is easily understood and interpreted, and as if historical context doesn't matter. Also, as if any one verse or book stands alone unaffected by the rest. Now, I agree that this is exactly how most Evangelicals approach the Bible. But that is their literalist, proof texting hermeneutic. It's hardly the only way to approach the text, nor the only historical way either. (For example, I have learned through commenters on this blog some interesting things about the Jewish paradigm, which dates back before the time of Christ.) Literalism and theonomy are not the only ways to interpret the text.

      (Peter Enns has some great stuff on the way that literalism is its own hermeneutic, and must be defended just like any other. It isn't self evidently the only way to interpret.)

      Personally, one of the most earth-shaking points in my journey on this text was reading Aristotle's Politics. Once you see that St. Paul was quoting Aristotle, you can see that he was remixing the legal relationships of the time. Freemen owned women, children, and slaves. (The three in the passages...) He then engages in a Midrash, as the Jewish tradition acknowledges. It is a similar process to the Sermon on the Mount. "You have heard that it was said...but I say unto you..." In that time, of COURSE those lower on the scale would have to submit. On pain of death under the legal system. But Paul turns it around by requiring mutual submission. (That's what the Ephesians passage starts with.)

      Not saying that there is on way one CAN interpret Paul the way you have, but it is not the only way, and it is based on a particular literalist and theonomic viewpoint which also ignores the historical context. I find it is usually the most fundamentalist - and those hostile to religion like Richard Dawkins - who insist that the literalist approach is the only possible one. Just saying...

    4. I mostly agree with you, but I would like to point out two things:

      1. The correct alternative to fundamentalist approach of "everything is literal" is not "everything is subjective" nor "everything is a metaphor". I see it often with people who like me (and perhaps you as well) grew up in a strict fundamental version of Christianity, where the notion "the Bible clearly says X" is often abused, that they tend to go overboard in the opposite direction and start to claim that no such claims can be made about anything the Bible says. This is not true. Yes, there are some things in the Bible that are metaphorical, open to interpretation etc. but there are many things which simply are not. For example, I suppose you would agree with me that the Bible is very clear that God exists, or that Jesus was raised from the dead - these are things that are stated in the Bible loud and clear without any wiggle room (or, like the existence of God, simply taken for granted without question). So there are many things where it is perfectly OK to say that the Bible is "very clear" on them.

      2. There is interpretation of the text, and then there is twisting of the text. Interpretation is trying to find ways to explain why something was written the way it was written, and how (or if at all) it should be applied in the reader's life. Twisting is trying to find ways to make the text mean what the reader wants it to mean. Since every interpreter comes to the Bible with some preconceived notions on what the Bible is "supposed" to say, it's not always easy to discern between these two, but I think that an honest effort should be made to avoid twisting as much as possible.

      Now returning to the passages like Ephesians 5:22-33, I am sorry but this is a passage that is very clear. There is nothing unclear in, for example, "Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing." Over and over again this passage states that the organization of marriage must be hierarchical, just like the relationship between Christ and his church is hierarchical. As much as I would like it otherwise, this is exactly what this passage says, and the same for Colossians 3:18-25, also similarly in 1 Corinthians 11:8-10, 1 Timothy 1:11-15 and 1 Peter 3:1-7. Every of these passages clearly requires to have a hierarchical relationship between women and men (be that in the family, in the church etc) and I hope you won't be offended by this, but I say that claiming that the requirements put forth in these passages are not clear is simply dishonest.

      Then of course we get to the interpretation of these passages, and you rightly point out that they mirror the legal and social systems of that time. This is the interpretation - the way to understand why it was written the way it was written. The interpretation would also be to say that since we live under different legal and social systems today, these requirements should not be followed today because they are not applicable to our situation. I am perfectly fine with such interpretation. However, I am not fine with trying to twist these passages into saying something they don't say. Specifically, there is absolutely nothing in any of them to suggest that Paul was using the same technique as Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: "you heard that it was written ... but now I say that ...". There is nowhere even a slightest hint of "but now I say that ..." in these passages, and trying to write it into them is (again I hope that it does not offend you) simply plain dishonest to me.

    5. [continuing because I hit the comment size limit - whoa...]

      BTW, I did read some Enns awhile back, which was not easy since there is not a single one progressive Christian church in my country so nobody bothers to translate authors like Peter Enns or Rob Bell, therefore nobody reads them (they would be considered heretical by practically all Evangelicals here). I have the privilege to speak English fluently so I was able to get these books from Amazon and was lucky they were not stolen in transit like many Amazon packages are. Anyway, I like Enns's ideas, but I think that even for him this idea that "submission" should mean "not submission" would not sound right.

      The problem here is exactly that the Bible _as_a_whole_ is really not "clear" in the sense that it does not convey one coherent message, but is rather a collection of many different messages written from very different perspectives and with many different concepts of God, so obviously these messages can (and do) sometimes contradict each other (actually Enns beautifully describes that in "The Bible Tells Me So"). This is perfectly fine for me to acknowledge that. The problem is that many people choose one message from the Bible as "the main one" and try to twist the other messages to adhere to the first one they chose. So, for example, they say that the whole Bible must be viewed in the context that God is merciful and loving and always forgiving etc. That's a great message, and I would advocate wholeheartedly that every Bible reader would get such a message from reading it. However, there are also so many passages in the Bible that explicitly show God as not merciful but vengeful and cruel. Sorry but that's what is written there. It's perfectly OK for me to say (again along with Enns) that people who wrote these passages simply did not known God good enough and they imagined him to be different than he really is, therefore we should not follow these passages. But it's not OK to twist them into meaning something they don't mean and try to pretend that the whole Bible is coherent on this topic. It simply is not, and the only think we can do is trying is to pick the message from the Bible we think is most "correct" and explain away the rest.

      The same thing is here with submission of wives to husbands. It's OK for me to say that we follow the example of Jesus and will treat our wives as Jesus treated people, therefore we will not treat our wives as Paul required. But it's not OK to claim that what Jesus said and did is compatible with what Paul wrote about husbands and wives, because it's absolutely not (without significant twisting of Paul's texts of course).

      Now of course the real problem here is that it everything starts with what the Bible reader chooses as the main "message" of the Bible at the beginning. Purely by logic, the idea that "following the example of Jesus is most important" is on equal ground that "following the example of Paul is most important". Compassionate people would likely choose the first one, whereas fundamentalists would be more likely to choose the second one, and in the Bible itself there is nothing to say they are wrong and we are right. We choose the more compassionate viewing of the Bible because we feel in our hearts that it's the best one based on our own moral standards, but based on the Bible alone it can hardly be argued that it's so.

    6. Breanna, I thought that was very well put. I was thinking, as you did, while reading this article that Jesus didn't demand obedience, and He didn't force people to obey Him.

    7. Tim, without joining any debate here, I just wanted to comment on your comment. You explained your view on what Paul and Aristotle were saying in the comment better than in some others you've made, and now I understand better what you are driving at. I don't know that I'd say I agree, but that's an area for more study on my own part.

      I have been altering my own views in recent times because it finally dawned on me that it is idiotic to build hulking belief systems and practice on one or two verses, or even fragments of verses. For example, I've heard a lady give detailed instruction on exactly what a wife's income can and cannot be used for, but at the time I realized that she was pulling it all out of her own _personal preference_. It had absolutely nothing to do with scripture. Now, although I believe the phrase that says "keepers at home" regarding married women, I have to admit to myself that this is not sound basis for the sprawling belief and practice that has evolved from it. If we figuratively put our thumb over that one tiny phrase it's virtually impossible to "prove" from scripture that women must never work outside the home. So, can it possibly be right to make such an immense issue out of it?

      Speaking of interpreting this "literally": "Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing." I would just ask, "How _is_ the church subject to Christ?" This is a problem because the church is very erratic, and even mistaken, so many times in how we are subject to Christ, and yet how much He blesses us anyway. So, what is the "right" way to be subject? Well, now we're back at the point of our own interpretation of scripture and/or personal experience. So, from where I stand, we can't simply quote this and think we have a formulaic answer to marriage relationships, and not really even an exact meaning. We need other scripture to help us interpret or our point of reference becomes nothing more than our own opinions, which don't seem that significant in the economy of God.

    8. Michau, I'll defer to those with more background in translation for specifics on the art of Midrash.

      One of the questions, then, if these passages are "clear," is what is the point of beginning the Ephesians one with "Submit to one another." At minimum, there appears to be a "push" if you will, away from the Patriarchal norms of the time.

      One thing I very much agree with you on is that there isn't one "clear message" in the Bible in the sense you mean. There are competing agendas, seemingly contradictory views of God, and so forth. The question of how we view that central meaning is a tough question, and it isn't made easier by the nature of the book itself, written by many people over the course of a thousand years (at least.) Christ seemed to reorient the central theme to himself, and that is to a large degree how I find myself approaching it these days, but there is no "one way" to do that either.

      I think that my point, though, about TGC and CBMW holds, and you have given some insight into why. If you come to the text with the lens that the central point is to find detailed instructions for life, you will likely come to the same conclusions they did.

      Then you end up with an uncomfortable choice between one's beliefs and one's conscience. In my case, I couldn't leave my conscience or my brain at the door of the church, or rearrange my good marriage to match the patriarchal ideal. So either I was going to have to abandon my faith, or consider an alternate way of looking at scripture.

      Thanks for commenting. I enjoy your thoughtful approach to the issues.

    9. Also, another thing that matters to me on this: slavery was also addressed in the same passages - it was part of the Domestic Codes too. Slaves were to submit to masters as to the lord as well.

      In our modern times, we do not view the Bible as *requiring* slavery. We rather chose to abolish it, and thus, the admonition to obey one's master (and, for that matter, be kind to slaves) is pretty meaningless. The relationship of employee/employer isn't analogous in nature to that of slavery.

      By a reasonable analogy, the abolition of "marriage" in the sense of the ownership of women has been abolished. Thus, to require the re-establishment of "marriage" with a hierarchy would seem to require the re-establishment of the relationship of slavery, right? To be consistent...

    10. Thanks, good to know you enjoyed my nonstandard way of thinking :-)

      I am afraid though that you are putting way too much weight on Ephesians 5:21. Yes, the passage on the hierarchy at home is preceded by this verse, which again is a part of a preceding longer fragment which starts around the beginning of the chapter and deals with conduct of people in the church. These fragments address different topics - Eph 5:21 belongs to Eph 5:1-21, not to Eph 5:22-33. Also, while this specific "marriage advice" fragment is preceded with an admonition to "submit to one another", the other ones (in Colossians and 1 Peter) are not, nor are other passages establishing "man over woman" hierarchies (in 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy).

      Even if we claim that Eph 5:21 is somehow connected with the following verses (which it is not), about the only conclusion we can draw is that it establishes the _general_ principle, while the following verses establish the practical _application_ of a principle in a specific situation (marriage in this case). And the specific application should be that wives obey husbands and husbands care for the wives, not the other way around. This is a well known argumentation method "from generality to details" (I am not sure how to express it better in English). If anything, Paul is absolutely not trying to divert from egalitarianism to patriarchy, but the exact opposite: he very clearly (sorry! :-) diverts from egalitarianism back to patriarchy. So I still maintain the point that the meaning of all these verses is really clear.

      You write that you choose your conscience over your beliefs - I think that's a choice that many people in fundamentalist churches must face sooner or later. Some will choose morality, and some will choose Biblical literalism. But here are another two thoughts: (1) choosing one's conscience at such point implies that our morals should preside over the Bible and inform our understanding of it, exact opposite of Evangelical claim that it must be the Bible that informs our morals, and (2) if we start from our morals and then reinterpret the whole Bible in their light, why do we even do that? If morality trumps the Bible, why do we need the Bible at all? Instead of spending so much intellectual effort on this enormous task of re-interpreting or explaining away all its immoral parts, wouldn't it be better spent simply perfecting the morals we already have? That' a question I keep asking the progressive Christians I meet online, and so far no one of them could provide a satisfactory answer :-(

      PS. I don't think any verse in the Bible _requires_ slavery. The Bible _accepts_ slavery as something normal, then provides a description on how it should be conducted. During our moral development as human beings, we chose at some point to disagree with the Bible and stop accepting slavery as something normal.

    11. Just a couple of points. I disagree as to where Eph 5:21 connects, so we'll have to agree to disagree on that point.

      As to the argument from generality to details, that is precisely how I interpret a number of things within the bible.

      Very much to that point, if the bible does not *require* slavery, then in the same way, it does not *require* a patriarchal system. It accepts the ownership of women as something normal, then describes how it should be conducted. Presumably, Paul didn't envision a world in which slavery was abolished or a world in which women were considered to be equal rather than inferior. That doesn't mean he forbid either the abolition of slavery or of patriarchy. I don't see how you can have one without the other, consider that both are in the same passages, and are a clear reference to the Domestic Codes of the time.

      That Paul explains how to live as a Christian in a Patriarchal (and slaveholding) society does not - in my view and that of many others - compel us to preserve those institutions, any more than the acceptance of polygamy and tribalism in the OT requires us to resurrect those institutions as well.

      You have a good point that there is a lot of time spent trying to harmonize the immoral parts of the bible with morality. The reason I don't think this is entirely a waste of time is that there are a great many people who can only be persuaded to change their morality for the better if they can find a way that harmonizes their existent beliefs. Abolition, for example, would not have occurred when and how it did, had not a great many Christians found a way to reconcile their faith with their moral conviction that slavery was a moral evil. Many today are unwilling to let go of patriarchy because they feel their faith requires them to. It is a worthy effort to change that belief without making it a matter of rejecting the faith altogether.

    12. Yes, I think at this point it's best to agree to disagree on Eph 5:21 and leave it at that :-)

      However, I should note that you are making a serious category error by equating slavery and patriarchy. You are comparing apples and oranges here.

      The Bible does *not* require slavery, but it says that when you find yourself in slavery, you are *required* to obey your master. In the same way, the Bible does *not* require anyone to be married (actually Paul is advocating against marriage in the famous 1 Corinthians passage), but it says that if you are a wife, you are *required* to obey your husband.

      Slavery and marriage are social institutions. Obedience and patriarchy are ways to engage in these institutions. These are two completely different categories. So again, the Bible does not require anyone to engage in the institutions, but it does contain requirements for you if you do engage in them. Therefore, while the Bible does not require slavery, it does require patriarchy. I respect your opinion that it's not so, but I cannot stop noticing that your opinion is based on a logical fallacy and therefore is unacceptable to me.

      Interesting thought about harmonizing morality with beliefs. It is indeed true that some people are unable to stop believing things even though they are demonstrably false, so it's better to accommodate moral and social progress within their belief systems instead of outside of them. I think the Soviet Union was a great experiment in trying to instigate new social and moral norms without referencing them to the preexisting belief systems, and it failed rather miserably. So that would bolster your point that in moral development, evolution is better than revolution. I need to think about it.

      Though again, it should be noted that such reconciliation is not always easy, and sometimes outright impossible (see for example the almost futile struggles of Indian government against harmful practices of Hindu religions).

      Also, I am not an expert on American history, and slavery was never prevalent in my country, but it seems to me that slavery, racial segregation etc. were not abolished because Christians found a way to reconcile its abolishing with their faith, but rather because it was forced on them by the rule of law and they simply had no choice but comply. Have you not waged a civil war, I am pretty sure the Christians in the South would not give up slavery voluntarily (at least not in the 17th century). Similarly, racial desegregation was forced by federal law onto Southern states, which otherwise would be reluctant to accept it on their own. Similar things are happening now with acceptance of gay marriage after the recent SCOTUS decision. So, it seems that for many people the ability to accommodate moral development into their beliefs is severely limited, which brings us back to the question whether it's a good idea to try such accommodation.

    13. Obviously we will disagree on this, but I think the category error is actually in your argument, because you (and most post-slavery interpreters) have created a difference that was not there originally. This is where reading Aristotle's Politics was a revolution for me. Aristotle (and the Greco-Roman world he helped create) didn't see slavery and marriage as different at all. "Patriarchy" wasn't one approach to an institution, it was the one commonality for the governance of the Polis. Aristotle believed that the rule should be that the superior govern (and essentially own) the lesser. Hence, children (who are temporarily inferior) are ruled by parents, slaves (usually "barbarians") were born inferior to Greek freemen, and thus needed to be governed by them, and women, who were inferior to men, needed to be governed by males. Aristotle expressly states that slavery is as necessary to society as (patriarchal) marriage. The abolition of slavery was as unthinkable as the idea that women would be equal to men. And in both cases, the institution (slavery or patriarchal marriage) was ownership, legally and culturally. And Aristotle believed that such ownership was necessary to the proper regulation of society.

      Here too is where the American slavery experience can be of help. (If you haven't read Mark Noll's excellent book, The Civil War as Theological Crisis, you should.) Here too, slavery and patriarchal marriage were *always* considered to be different manifestations of the same thing: rule of the congenitally inferior by their superiors. R. L. Dabney (among others) linked the two, and predicted utter societal chaos as the result of the end of slavery and feminism - and for the same reasons.

      That's why, here in the US in particular, there had to evolve the concept that slavery and patriarchal marriage were somehow different. Otherwise, granting that slavery was wrong meant one might have to reconsider patriarchal marriage. Some took the tack that while all men were equal, women were still inferior. Others did what you do, which is to claim that there is a different category, and thus never have to address the underlying assumption behind the domestic codes, which is the rule of the inferior by the superior.

      On a related note, just like slavery doesn't exist in most of the world these days, neither does "marriage" as it did in NT times. Women are not bought and sold by their fathers and husbands. The institution of marriage we have now would be completely unrecognizable to a 1st Century person. Little but the name and the participants are the same. One might just as well label an hourly job as "slavery." So in that sense, we have abolished "marriage" just as we have slavery. The specific institution no longer exists.

      So then, the question becomes, do we have to resurrect the old institution (ownership of women by men)? If that is required, then why is slavery different? The 1st Century belief was that both were expressions of the same idea, and equally necessary to society...

    14. Great point about the failure of Stalin and Mao in replacing institutions wholesale. (Starvation was one of the consequences.) Another example that comes to mind is the French Revolution, which ended up full circle in a lot of ways because there was an institutional vacuum.

      A great contrary example is the English Civil War, which ended up making revolutionary changes to society (including the establishment of a degree of religious toleration.) As G. M. Trevelyan pointed out, though, these revolutionary ideas were presented as a natural outgrowth of existing beliefs about the rights of Englishmen. As such, they were seen as fully compatible with the existing social and economic structure - even though they would change it significantly.

      Coming back to the issue of American Slavery, you are absolutely correct that the Southern Christians would not have abolished Slavery on their own. (In fact, even today, many white Southerners still think African Americans were better off under slavery.)

      However, the northerners were also Christians. (Again, I strongly recommend Mark Noll's excellent book for more on this.) Northern opinion changed, not because the north became atheist - it didn't, but because abolitionists reframed the discussion to be in terms of the other themes of the Bible. Love your neighbor, stuff from the Prophets, and so on. Thus, the US wasn't split on religious lines so much as on interpretive lines. It's really a very interesting bit of history, and one of the reasons why I think that it is worth working within a religious tradition to change culture and institutions. Obviously, some will remain unconvinced, and the force of law (or army) will be necessary to institute the change.

      (One can also note the history of the Civil Rights Movement, where Christianity was enlisted on both sides.)

      I'm not going to get into the whole same sex marriage thing here, but I agree with your point on that. In this case, though, most of American Christianity will probably be like the South on slavery and Jim Crow.

      In all of these cases, though, my observation has been that it usually requires a combination of factors for change to occur. Some make the moral leap first, then reconcile it with their existing beliefs. Others reject their old beliefs. Still others have change forced upon them by the law or other factors. (Typically, those who benefit from the old system are loath to change their ways...) There will always be those, however, who are reluctant to change because they believe their religion prevents them from taking a step they wish they could take. For those individuals, a little help in reconsidering the interpretation and meaning of their texts can be the difference. Just my opinion and observation.

    15. Thank you for your thorough reply. I am certainly not implying that no Christians are capable of moral development - many of them certainly are, and during the centuries they have stood on the side of oppressed and marginalized. That's undisputable. However, what I am suggesting is that *many* Christians are really unable to raise over the shallow morality of their literal Bible interpretations, and nothing short of the force of law can make them to change that. Of course it happens most frequently when they benefit from these shallow interpretations, sure, but not always - I have observed that fundamentalist women are often as vocal in depending the patriarchy as fundamentalist men, so it's not only (and maybe even not primarily) the case of who benefits.

      The problem I see that (as I said above) there are generally two possible approaches to the Bible (and to the holy texts in general). One is fundamentalist / literalist, where the holy text is searched for moral insights, and one is liberal, where the holy text is reinterpreted to adhere to the moral insights the reader already possesses. The liberal approach has the obvious advantage that its morality is not set in stone but can evolve and change according to social and moral development of humanity. But it also has a significant disadvantage that its morality must essentially come from elsewhere, not from the holy text itself - the holy text is only searched post factum for confirmation of moral insights already developed. While this is (like you pointed out) very important for many people to be able to maintain both their morality and their reverence for the holy text, for many others (like me at some point) it simply highlights the fact that if the holy text is not the source of our morality, it is simply not needed at all and can be discarded.

      This has, however, significant consequences - it clearly follows from the above that liberal churches will be shrinking fast, because the liberal approach to the Bible will show many people that the Bible is not really infallible / important / needed, and they will start dropping from the church at some point. Whereas the literalist churches will hold their ranks because they are centered around their interpretation of the Bible and thus strongly impregnated against any change.

      And I think that is exactly what is happening right now - fundamentalist churches, which include Evangelicals on one side, and Catholics on the other side (where the Bible is generally replaced by the Catechism, but a lot of thinking mechanisms are the same) while maybe not growing very much, are at least not shrinking fast either, whereas liberal churches are generally the ones who are losing their members the fastest.

      Which leads to a quite unsettling conclusion, that the religion in general has strong inbuilt mechanisms that favor its fundamentalist versions over more compassionate ones. This is a bit disquieting.

  4. As to how dominance/control works in actual relationships, I think they can go three ways.

    First, I think there are relationships (I would bet money on Doug Wilson's being like this) where the setup works for both parties as kink. I say this not trying to be gross, but essentially I believe the parties in those relationships would be comfortable in the BDSM community. The honest thing to do would be to acknowledge you and your spouse like this kind of thing and quit trying to pretend it's an actual doctrine.

    Second, I think if neither party is into that kind of kink and are trying to be "godly", the role-playing involved makes them experience some of the stresses of an abusive relationship even if neither person is trying to be abusive. It trains you to maintain the same thought patterns that people in abusive relationships maintain. (This concept occurred to me when I read about how the medical community is just now realizing that the stuff they require of diabetics--obsessive attention paid to food, record-keeping, rigorous rules about what they eat--is the kind of thinking those with eating disorders have, and that it can, indeed, create an eating disorder where there wasn't one before.) So I think that imposing patriarchy/domination/control/submission on a HEALTHY marriage actually HARMS the marriage and makes it less healthy, and makes the partners LESS able to focus on becoming Christlike because half their attention is always on trying to force the domination/submission/control thing to work.

    Third, like you, I have seen many, many marriage that use the "complimentarian" words, but that are actually egalitarian. This is because, as I note above, it's really stressful trying to live that way--for the men as well as the women. My husband has stated that a big reason why the whole thing doesn't appeal to him (apart from the obvious) is that it's exhausting being the only "grownup" in the house--the only one who can make decisions or take actions. The patriarchal setup tries to train men to be jerks and women to be cowards. Grownups have to wrestle with uncomfortable situations and figure out what to do. What dude wants that all dropped into his lap, when there's another competent grownup refusing to pick up her end of the load?

    Once again, the answer is for folks in "functionally egalitarian" relationships to just be honest and do the hard work of understanding Scripture in a way that hasn't been in fashion in our particular Evangelical cultural niche. Because not everybody is "nice", and we bear the responsibility for what our words enable the not-nice people to do.

    1. I think a lot of marriage suffer from the "role playing," particularly when the spouses are subjected to the Complementarian teaching. Because their "godliness" depends on their ability to make a role-play work, it is a tremendous pressure, often made worse by the normal stresses of kids, job loss, illness, and whatever.

      One of the best things my wife and I did early in our marriage was to just admit that we weren't even going to attempt to play the game. It took SO MUCH pressure off, and we were able to look at each other as allies - co-conspirators against the world, really - rather than as participants in the supposed power struggle that we were taught defines marriage.

    2. That pressure also robs people of their real gifts and competencies--because if she's a good accountant and he's a good cook, those skills aren't allowed to be put to use, because Roles--and keeps them distracted from their real work in the world, by continually forcing their attention inward ("are the Roles okay? couldn't they be MOAR okay if you tried harder?"). It harms the family, the church, and society, and drastically reduces people's effectiveness. It's a brilliant strategy for keeping people quiescent and confused, or, failing that, paranoid.

    3. Indeed. And it distracts from the much harder job of helping each other, and promoting communication, compromise, and kindness. Much easier to just reduce it to a formula. And sell it.

    4. "Your Roles aren't working out how they're supposed to? That's probably because you haven't bought my handy Role-O-Matic Daily Study Guide With Tracking Charts!"

    5. One of my dearest friends is Pentecostal, and also a very successful business owner -- she runs our area's biggest cleaning service. She is quite clearly in charge. Her husband's "servant leadership" includes admitting his wife is better at running the business than he is, and letting her do it. :-D

    6. This comment has been removed by the author.

    7. Roles based on giftedness, rather than gender? Could that *possibly* work? [sarcasm font]

      I've told my wife that in the event of the zombie apocalypse, I'll be her number one assistant while she saves the world.

    8. One more in response to Brianna: If Doug Wilson and his wife truly both enjoy BDSM style dominance and submission, then doesn't that actually contradict his teaching that marital sex should NOT be an "egalitarian pleasure fest"? I mean, if they both enjoy it, then it sounds mutual to me.

      Personally, my suspicion is that he likes it a lot more than she does. Could be wrong, but that's my guess.

    9. It's possible--I admit that I don't know much about the poor woman. I do know that in that community it's *wink* all about the dominant one's pleasure *wink* supposedly without reference to the submissive partner *wink*. His talk about how 50 Shades "reveals" what all women want was revealing in a different way, I think. However, I also believe that if this is his kick, he would absolutely pursue it regardless of whether it was also his partner's kick--because he is an asshole.

    10. I should also note in the interests of clarity--I'm not a member of the BDSM community, so everything I know about it is hearsay, and I believe *consent* features heavily in that community (at least from the outside), which would distinguish it from Wilson's ramblings. Again, because he is an asshole.

    11. Breanna, once again - your top comment is very interesting and thought provoking. I just wrote an article recently on the subject of how spiritual abuse and those who seem to crave it is a form of spiritual BDSM. So, it makes sense that the world of Christian patriarchy would have a from of "godly sexual BDSM."

      I also don't know anything about BDSM except what I've read, but one secular psychologist whose article on Fifty Shades of Grey I read, made it clear that even when a woman chooses of her own free will to be a participant, she is still choosing a destructive lifestyle, and that statistically it never ends well for either party. Considering the direction of this discussion, I'd say that's pretty scary for the women who are forced to accept this type of relationship as a "Christian duty." (You can read Ms. Grossman's original article here: )

      As for being forced into a role-playing situations in the Christian context - stop and think how much of so-called "good, godly Christian living" is nothing more than forcing us into role-playing. Why are we surprised when people can't take the pressure and quit? I feel this stress in my life from time to time still. It comes all the way down to church attendance and praying over meals at a very basic level. If we don't play the role just right, we're "rotten, wicked, backsliding sinners." Hmm. I'm about %100 sure that isn't how Jesus meant us to live for Him!

    12. Another thought on this particular subject - don't you think it serves Satan's purposes well to keep people living like this? While being distracted by all the roles they are "supposed" to fulfill they are less likely to be doing the one thing that is needful - sitting at Jesus' feet.

    13. Mary, I particularly like these lines:

      "As for being forced into a role-playing situations in the Christian context - stop and think how much of so-called "good, godly Christian living" is nothing more than forcing us into role-playing. Why are we surprised when people can't take the pressure and quit?"

      Exactly! I don't think my faith or my marriage would survive trying to do a Patriarchy role play.

      "While being distracted by all the roles they are "supposed" to fulfill they are less likely to be doing the one thing that is needful - sitting at Jesus' feet."

      Just one other thing I thought I might mention in response to the BDSM issue. (Disclosure: NOT my thing at all, so no personal experience here.) I think it is important to make a distinction between 50 Shades and BDSM. I'm not an expert by any means, but a number of people from the BDSM community have pointed out that 50 Shades is actually a portrayal of a violation of the "rules" for doing BDSM right. The Grossman article is correct as to the bad messages from the movie, and probably the book too. However, I am not convinced the criticism applies universally. Again, not my thing, but I'm a little hesitant to condemn something based on a Hollywood version of it.

    14. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. I think many people at The Gospel Coalition are in my second category. I agree with you that while they remain there, they cannot come out and condemn spousal abuse, because it's a logical no-go. And I find it really, really sad that they've founded their version of the Gospel on a fake role-play instead of, you know, on Jesus. Because I thought He was kind of the whole point.

  6. This is the message that I wish more churches would understand. It was my exhusband who abused me, but it was the church that gave him the tools to manipulate me. And it was the church that told me I should take it.

  7. Kudos on an excellent post! As someone who has worked with abused women and who has lived as a second-class citizen within evangelical circles, I applaud your thorough treatment of power and control within relationships.

    My tolerance for the teachings of evangelicals on gender roles, etc. is absolutely zero. This issue has become the KEY one for me. I have just seen too many wounded women who sincerely desire to follow God but are told to sit down, shut up and "be sweet."

  8. In our court people on probation are ordered to domestic violence classes rather than mere anger management.

    1. In some cases, I have seen this too. I think it depends on the availability of DV specific classes in the particular County. Small Counties often have limited options.

      Don't get me wrong, I think that Anger Management classes can be beneficial, and often do cover the control issues. And, in general, I see signs that secular society is changing for the better. (In fact, Domestic Violence is on a long term decline - and has gone down dramatically in the last 20 years alone, despite it becoming more acceptable to seek help and leave abusive marriages.) My heartburn comes from the fact that it is the American Evangelical Church that is the primary opposition to the positive change in this area.

  9. Are you quite positive that the "foundation" of the doctrine from the folks at TGC is that men have a right and responsibility to control women? And are you sure it's being taught that women are to submit to men, or just their husbands? I think you missed their hearts entirely with this post and come off as more judgmental than you probably meant to be.

    1. TGC has made it clear from their doctrinal statement that the submission of women to men in marriage, the church, and (for some of them) society at large is (to them) a core doctrine of the faith. Denny Burk, for example, has stated outright that Complementatianism/Patriarchy is a more important doctrinal issue than either baptism or the Lord's Supper. (So, one can disagree about paedobaptism and still be in the faith, but not about gender heirarchy.)

      I don't know if you saw it, but last year John Piper came out and said that women probably should not be allowed to be police officers, because then they would give orders to men, which would disrupt the gender heirarchy. Naturally, this begs the question of whether women "should" be allowed to be in any supervisory positions whatsoever. And we are talking, not about the church or family - but about society in general. At least for Piper, no woman ever should be in authority over a man anywhere, anyhow.

      I would urge you to take a look at a few videos, easy to find on the internet. First is "Why is TGC Complementarian." In it, D.A. Carson, Tim Keller, and John Piper assert that gender hierarchy is a non-negotiable doctrine of the faith. The second is from the T4G Conference in 2012. Greg Gilbert, John Piper, Ligon Duncan and Russell Moore discuss the issue and again assert that Complementarianism/Patriarchy is absolutely "essential to the faith." In other words, without this belief, one is not a "true Christian."

      The third one I urge everyone to watch is of John Piper a few years back telling women that God requires them to endure physical abuse "for a season" because God requires women to submit to men.

      Do I mean to come off as "judgmental"? Heck yes! There are vipers in the church, and it's time that we recognized that.

    2. Most of what the author is talking about is the husband wife relationship. As someone who grew up in these circles I can assure you that the real meaning is women are not equal to men. Most of Evangelical Christianity in the U.S. doesn't directly teach that all women submit to all men but all women are expected to submit to the always male pastor so that is where the teaching logically leads.

    3. The elephant in the room is that throughout most of human history it was (near) universally believed that men were vastly superior to women, which was the entire foundation for the idea that women should obey men. It is only through ignorance of history that one can deny that. The very words of Aristotle, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Tertullian, Martin Luther, St. Jerome, John Chrysostome, Albert Magnus - and those are just the ones in the Western/Christian tradition. St. Clement put it most succinctly: "Every woman should be overwhelmed with shame at the thought that she is a woman." Once you strip this foundation away, the whole edifice collapses.

      And isn't it obvious that women aren't considered equally valuable? Nobody advises *men* to stay where they are being abused. Okay, except for slaves. And pastors get to abuse, right? But in a real sense, the reason Piper can say women need to endure abuse is that he considers women less entitled to escape it. That's the real meaning of his teaching. The hierarchy is more important than the safety of women.

    4. I don't know if you are still following the thread, berlinpoet, but here is one more (which I also added to the body of the post.

      In it, Nate Sparks compiles an impressive set of links to the primary sources for a whole set of cases where TGC affiliated churches covered up spousal and child abuse. This isn't just an academic problem. The doctrine leads to real world damage to victims.

  10. I deleted the previous comment for a few reasons. First, as my comment policy makes clear, I'm not interested in having people come on here to defend Patriarchists any more than I wish to have people defend Segregationists. Honestly, once you say a woman should endure abuse - of any kind - you have crossed the line, and I will not give anyone a forum on my blog to defend that person.

    Can you be a Christian and believe what Piper teaches? Sure. I am not calling for ordinary people to be removed from the church for those beliefs.

    Is John Piper unfit for ministry? I absolutely believe so. When you place your flock in harm's way to preserve power structures, you are not a shepherd, but a wolf. Sorry. Not backing down from that one.

    1. Fair enough. I'm not insulted. Your blog is for people who agree with you and not for discussion. That's fine. I am wondering if you would like a response to your questions though. I wouldn't want to put a lot of time/effort into a response if you were planning on deleting it. I did watch an entire 17 minute video in order to respond to the first one. :-)

      I would like to point out that I didn't say a woman should endure abuse. So, just in case anyone thinks I'm a little cray-cray, that wasn't me. Well, I guess we'll find out who Jesus agrees with as far as John Piper once we get to heaven, and by then I'm sure it won't matter.

    2. John Piper did say that, however. And he remains in good standing with TGC. We probably will continue to disagree as to the meaning of the videos - and I am not the only one who believes that the fairly clear meaning is that Complementarianism/Patriarch is - to TGC - a non-negotiable of the gospel. And there is no doubt that the *reason* these men preach that women should obey men is that they believe it is a necessary element of the gospel. Otherwise, why insist it is the only correct position?

      Whether or not it will matter how we treat the abused when we get to heaven is a matter of opinion (I believe Christ taught that it may be the *most* important consideration in that regard), but it most certainly matters here on earth, and has real-life consequences to people. I would say it is one of the most important issues facing the Evangelical church right now. The very fact that someone can say "you must stay and endure abuse" and the reaction isn't the same as if he used the N-word from the pulpit just staggers me. If we as a church can't even protect victims of abuse, how do we expect anyone to take us seriously on other issues. We haven't show to have good ethical judgment.

    3. I can't speak for the first video, but they very clearly said they don't believe it's part of the gospel, like in the very first section they said it.
      Also, Can you let me know at what point they said women should "obey" men? I didn't catch it.
      Let me again point out that he said verbal abuse. He didn't say stay in a physically abusive relationship.

    4. Okay, finally had time to go back through the Piper video, and here is the exact quote:

      "If it's not requiring her to sin but simply hurting her, then I think she endures verbal abuse for a season, and she endures perhaps being smacked one night, and then she seeks help from the church."

      That sure as heck sounds like physical abuse. And note, she doesn't get to leave or call the police, she "seeks help from the church." Presumably, at that point, the pastor tells him to stop it, and for her to stop provoking him. (Ala James Dobson...)

      As to the interpretation of the video, I guess we just disagree. Let me add one thing in, however. Those who speak for TGC *themselves* have stated in other forums that they believe that gender hierarchy IS a core part of the gospel - and have linked the video as part of the argument. So THEY at least believe that the meaning of the discussion is that "complementarianism" is a "gospel issue."

      Here is just one, but there are plenty of others out there:

      Note that "gender roles" are also cited. An example of that is Piper's teaching that women should not hold careers that allow them to give orders to men.

      That sure *sounds" like a directive that women should obey men, but never vice versa...

    5. A few more things. First, if you haven't read it, Russell Moore wrote an interesting article (available in PDF) about why he believes Patriarchy is essential to the Gospel. (The article is notable for, among other things, admitting that "complementarianism" is in fact patriarchy, and for bemoaning the fact that "functionally egalitarian" marriages exist. He believed that "male headship," that is, men obeying women - as he makes clear - was a non-negotiable.) This article is regularly cited and quoted by various members of TGC as supporting their position.

      The other thing I want to mention is that the Piper quote above, "If it's not requiring her to sin but simply hurting her, then I think she endures verbal abuse for a season, and she endures perhaps being smacked one night, and then she seeks help from the church." Doesn't that seem to say that "mere" verbal or emotional abuse doesn't even warrant going to the church for help? She's suppose to sit there and take it...

    6. I can respond a bit. I wrote an article about Piper and obedience. This is still up on DesiringGod. Piper says:

      Now, maybe this is the same point, but it needs to be said this way, too. Any man who says, “I do the thinking in this family,” is sick and has a sick view of his authority. I dealt with a couple one time. The wife said he demanded that she get permission to go to the bathroom. That really happened. I just looked at him and said, “You’re not well. You have an unbelievably distorted view of this fellow heir of the grace of life. You don’t understand the Bible. You’re taking a word like ‘authority’ or ‘leadership’ or ‘submission,’ and then you’re stepping away from the Bible and filling those words up with stuff you want to do. You’re not getting this from the Bible.”

      Piper's silence is deafening. While he tells the husband his command is unbiblical, he does NOT tell the wife she is free to disobey. In an article about what submission is NOT, this would be an easy point to make and very appropriate. So, what Piper is saying here, by omission, is that the wife DOES have to ask her husband's permission to pee. His correction is aimed at the husband - you have no right to require this, but if the wife said, "do I still have to ask permission or can I disobey my husband", he would say, "you still have to ask permission".

  11. "Abuse for your own good.." sounds somewhat similar to "I beat you because I love you"....both very frightening. Thank you very much for the article!

  12. St. Paul was ahead of his time, but he found a way to move the conversation a step or two in the direction of egalitarianism. His letters to the Ephesians and the Colossians were meant to be read aloud in the church meeting. So he addressed the wives first. With what he said, the husbands' ears perked up. What he said to them amounted to hubby becoming an egalitarian. The love he advocated was self-sacrificing and serving. Maybe Priscilla and Aquilla were models for this. Also, in 1 Corinthians, he told the man that his body belonged to his wife. No withholding of affection. He also taught that men and women were spiritual equals.
    Now in that patriarchal society, he could only go so far. Why can't we go further today when we can?

    1. By the way, I know people who have control issues, both men and women. They just generally have different methods.

    2. Agree with both comments. I see both sorts of control all too regularly in my legal practice.

      One thing my pastor has said for years that I really like is that too often we focus on stopping divorce rather than building marriages. I think this speaks to the key to this issue. Rather than worrying about who has control, both parties should focus on "self-sacrificing and serving love," as you put it. Or, as I put it, "communication, compromise, and kindness."

      Thanks for stopping by to comment.

    3. "Focus on stopping divorce rather than building marriages" - that's a great insight. As a former Evangelical pastor I definitely agree, and moreover, I think that this approach applies not only to marriage, but also to other areas of life in fundamentalist churches.

      It starts with the fundamentalists' view of God, who is above all a God who is offended by sin. That's the primary attribute of God in these circles, and it colors their understanding of the whole Bible and especially Jesus's sacrifice as a means to appease God who is soooo angry because of all that sin in the world.

      Then from this view comes their obsession with sin, trying to categorize everything into being a sin or not, enumerate all possible kinds of sin and trying to prevent all of them, and so on. This way they focus not on leading a good life, but on preventing to lead a sinful life.

      I like to view Matthew 25:14-30 in light of this. The worker who buried his talent did so because he was so afraid of failure ("sin") that he thought it's better to do nothing good and not sin, than do lots of good and risk sinning from time to time. But as we see in this passage, Jesus did not approve of this way of thinking.

    4. Definitely agree, Michau.

      It's a vision of "goodness" which means absence of bad, not the active presence of good. Kind of like thinking of perfect beauty as the absence of blemish, rather than the presence of, well, beauty.

  13. I appreciate your explanation of the quote you began with. To be honest, at first I didn't see your point, but as soon as you explained the shades of meaning it became as clear as glass. This is horrifying. Not only did they not take a position, but they just enabled the abusers! I know a husband who would easily use this to justify his behavior towards his wife and kids because he is so "godly" and "unselfish" about it all. (gag)

    When did they actually start using the word "Complementarian"? It's maybe less than ten years since it came on my radar. I was wondering recently why the word was even needed, but of course it's because we "need" boxes and labels to keep people from thinking we might be one of "those nasty other things." (Feminist or egalitarian in this case.) Personally, though I have no desire to be a "stereotype-defier", I am trying to avoid boxes and labels - both for myself and others (unless they've self-identified or are self-evident). But, I still wonder that control of women became a central aspect of their Christian belief system. Things like that don't happen by accident Honestly, I've known a number of Christian couples where the woman was definitely not in submission as the Complementarians would see it, and yet God blessed them and used them for His glory anyway. Which means -- grace and mercy triumph over legalism in spite of the Pharisees, I guess.

    I couldn't even say where my husband and I fall. We believe the N.T. teaching on women submitting to their *own* husbands, and so forth, but my husband doesn't have a need to control me and never has. I can't tell you how that works exactly, but I suppose you'd consider us "functioning egalitarians." Truthfully, I can only remember once in 7+ years of marriage when my husband has even given me a direct order to do something I didn't want to do, but the truth is I knew I needed to do it in that case. (It was a complicated situation where I was too afraid of offending someone.) And, he doesn't manipulate or abuse me to get me to be compliant; we try to be mutually courteous in our interactions and wouldn't consider abuse of any form for any cause to be acceptable. But then, I don't see Jesus forcing people to obey Him either. If we go back to loving one another as He has loved us, somehow the complications all seem to fade away in my mind. (Btw, I don't believe that the "chastening" passages would excuse abuse, though I can easily see how some abusers would use them as such.)

    One day when we were discussing the issue of "biblical patriarchy" and how women are supposed to obey every command, and even whim, of their husbands, my husband asked, "But what if the husband wants his wife to be more independent?" Ha! Now we have a conundrum. It's one of those cases where she's damned if she does and damned if she doesn't. Which brings up a question I've meant to ask: Have you and Amanda noticed some situations where the wife appears to be forcing her husband to be "the patriarch", even if it isn't his natural instinct? We have noticed some situations that look this way.

    If there is one thing that would drive me to embrace the name of egalitarian it is this - sending women back to abusers in the name of Christ; telling them if they "obey better" they won't be abused so much. This makes me angry, and I don't believe it's a sinful anger in God's eyes.

    1. I believe I would consider your marriage "functionally egalitarian." One test I propose to my "functionally egalitarian" friends is to consider if their marriage would change if they became egalitarian. My suspicion is that in most cases, the answer would be "not really."

      Just for fun, the history of "complementarian" is interesting. The term was originally used by what we call "Egalitarians" to describe their view of the sexes as complementary, not heirarchal. However, the term was "borrowed" by the other side, because, it appears, the term "patriarchy" was a bit loaded in our modern times.

      Scot McKnight had an interesting bit on this.

      You might also find it interesting that both Denny Burk and Russell Moore essentially admitted that "complementarianism" is patriarchy, by a different name.

    2. Well, the history of "complementarian" _is_ interesting (and laughable)! The origin makes a lot more sense considering the meaning of the word complementary. Thanks for the link. That was a very informative read. And, it clears some things up in my thinking. It just didn't make sense before.

      As a note of possible interest - one of the ladies in my extended family whom I loved and respected a lot was a deaconess in her church for years. She went to be with the Lord last year, but she was one of sweetest, most quiet tempered women I've known, though she was strong. So much for stereotypes. :-)

    3. The stereotypes don't really fit, do they? I can think of a number of people like your family member. (Particularly from the time we spent in a Charismatic church, where female pastors are accepted.)

      Likewise, it is ironic that the women who I think of as being the most kind and loving to their husbands are typically strong, self confident, and in no way the "submissive ideal." In fact, the more the word "submit" comes up, the worse I know the marriage will turn out to be...

  14. By the way, I posted an article by another author today that goes along with this fairly well. You might be interested. It is titled "The Arrogant Patriarch". Here's the link:

  15. Spot-on, Autodidact. I've been following your blog for some time and this is one more post I'll be sharing.
    Note, I think there's a small typo in the title. "Sposual" - pretty sure you meant "spousal".

    1. Thanks! Error noted and corrected. Dyslexic typing strikes again ;)

  16. Hi autodidact, you and your readers may like to know that the blog A Cry For Justice has heaps of stuff about domestic abuse in a Christian context. We are seeking to awaken the evangelical church to domestic violence and abuse in its midst. You can find us at

    You are spot on about anger not being the abuser's problem!

    I'm glad to hear you see through abusers and support victims of domestic abuse in your legal practice. God bless and strengthen you!

    1. I have read a number of articles on A Cry For Justice, and I applaud the good you do.

  17. Autodidact, may I have your permission to translate this article into Spanish and share on Facebook/Google+? (Linked to your blog, of course.)

    1. As long as you link and attribute, have at it.

    2. Thanks a ton! I limited the translation to the main article (without the added notes at the end), mostly because the extra issues addressed wouldn't be so relevant to the Spanish reader. Also I changed the title to "Control: the Reason Some Evangelical Organizations Cannot Condemn Spousal Control" because here people aren't familiar with Gospel Coalition or CBMW. If you're ok with that, I'll post it.

  18. "An interesting discussion that I have listened in on in Christian circles these days is what parents desire in a spouse for a child. A bone of contention arises when someone says, “I would rather my child marry a non-Christian as long he treats her kindly.” Thence the discussion of whether it is okay to marry outside the faith, and so on.

    This is a red herring. What is really being expressed here is a legitimate fear that the abusive men are are a problem within conservative religious traditions - including Evangelicalism. Because Evangelicalism is one of the very, very few places in our modern Western culture where it is still okay to seek to control a woman. Abusers are all too comfortable here."

    Thank you for saying this out loud. It would be exactly the position I find myself in, as the mother of a beautiful, but excessively compliant daughter who has learned about the "role" of females from evangelical complementarianism.
    It absolutely terrifies me.