About that “not degrading” submission thing . . .

It boggles my mind that complementarian pastors like Joshua Harris stand in front of congregations that admire and respect them and have the audacity to claim that what’s expected of an appropriately submissive wife isn’t degrading.  These men know what submission entails.  They know it’s a lifestyle with both explicit and unspoken rules that dictate attitudes and behavior in every aspect of marital and family life.  There’s not a chance that any of these men wouldn’t consider it degrading, as an adult, to “show respect” to another person in the way their wives are expected to “respect” them.

This is the thing.  Complementarians shroud submission in misleading and vague terms like “respect” and “courtesy” and “affirming leadership” – obscuring the reality of what it means to live, day to day,  as a submitted wife.  It’s a miserable, and yes, a degrading way to live.  There’s plenty of evidence of this at sites like No Longer Quivering and Razing Ruth, which document the oppressiveness of Christian patriarchy in wrenching detail .  Of course, many complementarians would object that these are extreme examples (which is sort of true), and that the leaders in these communities are extremists (also sort of true) who “don’t really understand” what submission means (yea, this I’m not buying).  Real godly male leaders don’t rule harshly, the way the men in these stories do.  They don’t condone abuse or expect women to be doormats.  Ok, whatever.

This doesn’t hold up if you look more closely at the teachings of more “moderate” complementarians  like Harris and John Piper.  And it definitely doesn’t hold up if you look at the books they recommend as “godly” resources on female submission.

Take, for example, Nancy Wilson’s The Fruit of Her Hands: Respect and the Christian Woman.  Here are just a few of Wilson’s claims about what submission means for married women:

  • A woman shouldn’t go on a trip without her husband’s permission, because she is her husband’s helper and can’t help him if she’s not with him. (55).
  • It is the wife’s job is to cheerfully submit to her husband’s decisions on all matters, including decisions about how many children she should have, about family planning, about child-rearing and education, and to support and help him in these decisions. (44-6; 60-1).
  • A woman should only say things about her husband to her friends “that would please him to hear her say” (48). She should never share his flaws or mistakes with anyone, unless they are drastic enough to require pastoral or police intervention.  She is always required to talk about her husband with respect, no matter what – so basically, a woman has to “show respect” to her husband even if he’s, say, an abuser or a pedophile (28-9; 34).
  • A woman should not work to provide for the family, even if her husband refuses to work or they are in dire financial circumstances, unless the husband deserts the family (50-52).
  • A woman’s body is like a garden tended and owned by her husband.*  She is obligated to have sex with him whenever he wants, and to make sure that he enjoys it.  It is a woman’s job to keep her husband constantly satisfied sexually:  “A husband is never trespassing in his own garden.” “Your breasts are his to enjoy.” The wife should keep her husband “so completely sexually satisfied” that he is “like a wet noodle” – ewww.  (89;91-2)
  • Women who are victims of rape or sexual assault are obligated to forgive the perpetrators – meaning no matter how much trauma they might still be dealing with, or how triggering they might find sex, they shouldn’t “make [their] husbands suffer” by denying them sex (94-5).

This is a book that SGM leaders recommend to engaged and married women; it’s a book that I was given as part of our premarital counseling at an SGM church.  It’s a book that teaches women that God wants them to cheerfully submit to being a man’s slave and sex toy.  Joshua Harris knows this is what women in his church are being taught is “biblical womanhood,” and yet turns around and asserts that this isn’t degrading.

This is what complementarians really mean when they go on about “servant leadership” and “joyful submission.”.  What complementarianism often means is enduring verbal, physical, and/or sexual abuse with a “gentle and quiet spirit.”  What it always means it that a woman has little to no say in decisions that intimately affect her and her children.  What it always means it that women have to “joyfully” suppress any emotion, desire, or dream that is contrary to their husbands’ wishes.

* This is followed by rather hilarious passages in which she says “Some women need to recognize the fact that they must tend their own garden.” and “Let God tend your garden.”

8 Comments on “About that “not degrading” submission thing . . .”

  1. presentlyhuman says:

    This is a major reason why I stopped going to church. For a few years I was at a church where the pastor thought John Piper was the best theologian of all time (I didn’t really know who John Piper was at the time) Sermons like this I couldn’t bear to sit in – the idea of submitting to a husband felt like a loss of control I couldn’t bear to go through again. Heck, the idea of submission to God felt the same way – all I ever heard was, “It doesn’t matter that you feel like some part of yourself was taken away, you have to take that part and now give it to someone else (be it God or man)” I don’t know how the average person hears it, but for someone who’d been abused growing up, the idea is absolutely, blindingly terrifying.

    And yes, I heard the “forgive your rapist” stuff too. Which I can’t do either. Some people can, and that’s great for them, but for me, forgiveness implies a loss of power. I’m giving something up and over to a person who took so much away from me. I can’t do it.

    It’s hard too, because they tie it so much into salvation and God that thinking that you can NOT forgive someone, NOT submit to your husband (or in my case, future husband) and still be a Christian is inconceivable to them. And now I’m left struggling with maintaining my own sense of self and safety and my own rights to be a whole and independent person and believe that I’m still somehow a quality Christian. It really screws with your head.

    • Grace says:

      Yea. Submission is about not only putting total and unquestioned trust in another person (never a good idea) – but also giving that person (or God) total control over decisions that effect your life and giving up your own power. And I think that’s a scary proposition for a lot of people, but probably not in the same way or to the same degree that it might be for people who have been abused. Not only because the experience of abuse makes trusting people very difficult, but also because abuse is all about control and power.

      And now I’m left struggling with maintaining my own sense of self and safety and my own rights to be a whole and independent person and believe that I’m still somehow a quality Christian. It really screws with your head.

      Yes. In SGM they explicitly preach that the notion that people have rights is sinful and self-absorbed. Both because we belong to God and have to obey “Him” and because it’s not appropriately showing love to others to assert our own rights. (e.g. this post by Josh Harris).

      It is really fucked up to teach people – especially children – that it’s sinful to believe they have a right to not be treated poorly or abused, or a right to talk about and process abuse in whatever way they need to. And it’s super extra fucked up to teach people that they have any obligation whatsoever to their abusers, much less an obligation to forgive them (what would that even mean? I suspect in this extreme view it would involve trusting them again and letting them back into one’s life. Ugh).

      • presentlyhuman says:

        I was raised in Pentecostalism, which very much believed that you prayed and heard from God about every little thing. My mother still prays about what to buy at the store, what lane to get into on the freeway, etc. The idea of total surrender seems so risky – how do you ever judge for yourself what is only your own thoughts and not God’s? or someone else’s thoughts that are actually dangerous and unhealthy? It strips you entirely of your power, and makes you dependent on others (especially if your idea of God is contrary to what your gut tells you is right or wrong). You have no personality anymore; you’re just what everyone tells you you are.

        In my case, “forgiveness” was doing the best to reconcile with him (because he was a Christian and wanted to put it behind us, so naturally that should mean I accept this nonexistent apology of his and move on). I’ve never seen forgiveness for anything used and talked about in Christianity in a way that didn’t seem manipulative and designed to silence someone, rather than actually caring about that person’s individual emotions and healing.

  2. Debra Baker says:


    But it is SGM what else can I say.

  3. Ginger says:

    “Women who are victims of rape or sexual assault are obligated to forgive the perpetrators – meaning no matter how much trauma they might still be dealing with, or how triggering they might find sex, they shouldn’t “make [their] husbands suffer” by denying them sex (94-5).”

    Have you heard about the “sins of the father” doctrine? We were taught in Sunday School that bad things happen because of ancestral sin. So, being raped or sexually abused should be expected if you have either in your family history. Naturally, one should immediately forgive their rapist/abuser because it wasn’t their fault that they hurt you. It’s absolutely disgusting…

  4. acme says:

    I thought y’all might be amused/horrified by the following facebook exchange. On one hand, there’s the silly game, which I would have just ignored. On the other, there’s the focus on poor men who can’t control their thoughts–and the right to call someone out like that.

    A 01 October at 16:33 Reply • Report
    OK ladies here’s a game like the bra color game which was a total success and we had men wondering for days what was with the colors and it made it to News. Well, this game has to do with your handbag – where we put our handbag the moment we get home. For example “I like it on the couch”, “I like it on the kitchen counter”, “I like it on the dresser” well u get the idea. Just put your answer as your Status with nothing more than that and cut n paste this message and forward to all your FB female friends to their inbox. The bra game made it to the news and it was for a purpose, this is just to screw with them. lol REMEMBER – DO NOT EXPLAIN YOURSELF IN THE STATUS AND DO NOT REPLY TO THIS MESSAGE! :O)

    B 01 October at 17:09 Reply • Report
    Are we really going to conspire to excite / confuse men on purpose? I was so sad so many ladies who love the lord participate in tintillating men who aren’t their husbands… Woould you want other women to do that to your husband?
    Sent via Facebook Mobile

    A 01 October at 17:43 Reply • Report
    no, it’s not to tintillate. I’m sorry that it came across that way. but, I see your point.

    B 01 October at 17:46 Reply • Report
    What else would it do???! Given how men think…
    Sent via Facebook Mobile

    A 01 October at 17:48 Reply • Report
    wasn’t thinking…just thought it was funny (a girl’s club thing) since I don’t think like a man, sometimes I forget. I removed the posts.

    B 01 October at 18:55 Reply • Report
    Thanks for being humble. . . .
    Are you going to send a note to all the ladies in your thread?
    Sent via Facebook Mobile

    • Grace says:

      Good grief. Amazing how little credit they give men for being able to control themselves, and how repressed and unrealistic they are when it comes to sexual thoughts. Really, everyone has them, pretty much all the time, so why not learn to accept them as a fact of life and deal with them like grown ups? The world will not end if a man thinks about having sex with someone other than his wife. And there’s really nothing anyone can do to stop that from happening, anyway!

      The really sad part is, accepting and enforcing these kinds of beliefs about uncontrollable male sexuality (and by corollary passive, virtually non-existent female sexuality) is just participating in their own oppression.

      I can’t help but notice the misspelling of titillate. Sigh. There are lots of reasons why people have trouble with spelling – learning disabilities, socioeconomic/educational disadvantages – but the latter aren’t generally isn’t an issue in SGM churches, or at least, when it is, it’s usually because parents choose less rigorous educational programs, not because they have no better options. I don’t think learning disabilities are quite so common as to explain the widespread inability of many SGM women to spell (often not terribly difficult words) properly. It’s a big pet peeve of mine, and to me it’s indicative of the broader issue of how little value is placed on women’s education in SGM – including by the women themselves, whom I’ve noticed joke a lot about their bad spelling. Have you noticed that?

  5. acme says:

    The spelling thing is even more concerning in that both of these women have taught at the church school. In their defense, I think both were using Facebook mobile (tiny keyboard syndrome).

    I also think it highly unlikely that many of them have male facebook friends — married women don’t really talk to other men, even at Care Group.

    In the Episcopal church I now attend, I was astonished (then relieved) with the way the male rector talked to and hugged me, one human to another; the way the male bishop actually touched me, one human to another; and the way folks mingle without regard to gender.

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