“For your good”: Joshua Harris’s “Word to Wives,” pt. 4

Part 1Part 2Part 3

Harris argues that because everyone has to submit to authority in some context (at work, as a citizen), women shouldn’t feel “as though the word of God is picking on you.” Of course, this argument hinges on his audience joining him in the fantasy that “submit” and “authority” mean the same thing in the workplace, etc., as they do in a complementarian marriage.

He continues with an even weirder and more disturbing comparison:

We know from other parts of the bible, ephesians chapter 6, that male and female children are called to be subject to their parents.  Isn’t that right?  All the parents said “Amen!” [Laughing]  You know, I just was thinking about the fact that I’ve never heard of any scholar challenging the teaching in the NT that children are to obey their parents.  I’ve never heard that.  No one’s ever questioned those passages.  And you know why?  Because by the time you’re old enough to be a scholar, you’re probably a parent, and you want that to be true.  There’s no question that that’s the word of God speaking right there.  Well I mean, the ultimate example of authority as Christians is that we’re all under the authority of Jesus Christ.  We all call him Lord, we submit to his lordship.  So my point here is that authority is not a bad thing.

Once again, he’s arguing for analogies between relationships that are fundamentally not comparable. To compare a relationship of a minor child, dependent on parents and whom the parents have a responsibility to protect, to a marital relationship between two grown adults is all kinds of messed up. This is a particularly disturbing comparison given the very draconian and in many cases abusive approach to parenting that complementarians generally endorse. In SGM, which I don’t think is all that exceptional in this regard, one of the major goals for parents is to train children to obey immediately, completely, and cheerfully.* If any one of those factors is absent, it’s not true obedience. Practically all parents use corporal punishment from a very young age (as early as 1 year, or even earlier) and with high frequency: spankings using implements, as often as once or more a day.

So comparing a woman’s “duty” to submit to her husband with a childs “duty” to submit to parental authority is not only problematic by definition, it’s also quite alarming when you take into account that many complementarians define parental authority as having total, unquestioned control over their children’s behavior from infancy through adolescence and often beyond. What does it say about complementarianism that it presents this kind of relationship as analogous to a relationship between spouses? Bad news.

It does occur to Harris that authority can be abused, but his concept of “abuse” is a bit…strange:

Now it can be misused. It can be abused, and I just want to qualify all that I’m saying here today in saying that we are never called as Christians to obey authority when it calls us to disobey our ultimate authority, which is God and his word.  And so if the government commands us to disobey God, we obey God.  If our employer tells us to do something that violates God’s word, we obey God.  Even if our parents, the God given authority of parents, if they tell us to do something which violates God’s word, we are called to respectfully and humbly obey the Lord instead of them.  But in the majority of cases authority is something that is a blessing to our lives, and it’s something that God has given for our good, and without it there would be untold chaos, and misery in this world.

Joshua Harris thinks it’s very important that you understand you should never submit to authorities if they order you to sin. Because that would make God mad. That’s what “abuse of authority” means under this fucked up theology. As for abuses of authority that involve ill treatment or coercion of behavior that isn’t “sin,” well. Harris doesn’t seem terribly concerned about those. Priorities! The important thing is that GOD isn’t offended. Sound familiar?

If [a husband’s abusive behavior is] not requiring her to sin, but simply hurting her, then I think she endures verbal abuse for a season, she endures perhaps being smacked one night, and then she seeks help from the church”. – John Piper

ALSO. It is very important that you understand that without authority there would be untold CHAOS and MISERY in the world. UNTOLD and unprecedented. You know, fire and brimstone coming down from the skies. Rivers and seas boiling! The dead rising from the grave! Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together… mass hysteria!

I mean what the hell. Does Joshua Harris remember he’s talking about MARRIAGE here? Does his audience remember that? Here he is talking about a relationship between two people, and suddenly the future of civilization and the fate of the whole world hangs in the balance. It’s not only an enormous leap in (il)logic, it’s incredibly manipulative of his audience. That such an absurd argument is accepted as literal gospel is a testament to the incredible level of thought control that exists in SGM and similar evangelical church cultures. Such “reasoning” suffices only in a context where people have been trained to completely ignore logical fallacies and to accept whatever their leaders say without question.


*If you can stomach it, here are some of SGM’s teachings on parenting. Each message has a PDF outline that accompanies it – spares you from having to listen to the whole thing, thankfully.

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Slavery and submission: Historical revisionism and authoritarianism

To continue the slavery discussion for a bit – it might not be immediately clear, but I think there are a couple connections to complementarian theology here.  One is the common tendency of complementarians and other conservative evangelicals to insist on their own versions of reality and history.  They insist both that racism doesn’t exist anymore and that it was never that bad to begin with.  They also insist that their retrograde beliefs about gender liberate women and LGBT people, and that feminism has been terrible for women.  All of these beliefs are supported by distorted or fabricated versions of statistics and the historical record.

The other common thread between between complementarianism and conservative evangelical views of slavery (and other forms of injustice and discrimination) is the appeal to authoritarianism.  Such evangelicals insist that:
– marginalized people should submit to whatever the majority or the patriarchy dish out
– the authority of the majority and patriarchy is for the good of oppressed people and the good of society
– oppressed people should endure discrimination and ill-treatment quietly and be happy with what they have until their oppressors decide that they can have the same rights as everyone else.

As I’ve been looking into how complementarians deal with the issue of slavery, I’ve come across a number of examples of both historical revisionism and appeals to authoritarianism.

Apparently Glenn Beck decided to “educate” his viewers on slavery today with useful “facts” such as Christians ended slavery, “Religious White people woke up the rest of the country” to the evils of slavery, and a bunch of other lies and half truths. (I’ll post the transcript when Fox has it up.)

Beck has a history of making spurious and offensive arguments and citing racist, made-up shit as the “real history” of slavery:

Frantz Kebreau of the National Association for Conservative People of All Colors (NAACPC) reimagined an American history in which slavery was not initially raced-based and the “Christian” founders were anti-slavery. Republicans, in this narrative, have led the fights for abolition, emancipation, voting rights, civil rights, and even integration, while Democrats have fostered racism for political gain.

I’m not terribly surprised by any of this.  I heard similar things all the time growing up in mostly white, conservative churches.  These are the things white traditionalist Christians often tell themselves, and teach their children, so they don’t have to think too hard about the role people like them have played in the history of slavery and anti-black racism.

As a kid, I heard lots about evangelicals like William Wilberforce, a staunch opponent of the slave trade and abolitionist activist in the UK, but nothing about more representative evangelicals like R. L. Dabney, a lifelong defender of Southern slavery and the inferiority of black people.  Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were held up as great heroes of faith who just happened to be on the wrong side of history on slavery.  The evils of slavery and the role of white Christians in maintaining and championing it were minimized: black people owned slaves too, most slave owners were very kind and paternal to their slaves, most slaves loved their owners like family, and the few slave owners who were truly cruel to their slaves weren’t really Christians, anyway.*

This is stuff I picked up on mostly from the pulpit, bible study, and listening to adults talk history and politics, and less from a Christian fundamentalist education (though I did have a little bit of that, outside SGM).  So I asked Josh Stieber, who also grew up in Sovereign Grace Ministries, what he was taught at the SGM school he attended.  His response:

When learning about abolitionists, it was implied, if not outright stated, that they were rash, demanding, and irresponsible. The markets would figure themselves out in a way that could eliminate slavery while a wise government could solve the “problem” in their own time. We learned that slaves were so used to living out their indentured role that it would have been cruel for owners to simply turn them loose, they wouldn’t have known how to handle their freedom; the compassionate approach was to kindly continue to rule.
Reminds me of Joshua Harris’s implication that slavery was an institution ordained out of God’s kindness and care to provide necessary leadership.  Someone had to lead, and clearly black slaves weren’t capable of governing or taking care of themselves.  And just like these folks argue that slave owners protected black slaves from themselves, they also argue, against overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that patriarchal marriage and family structures protect women and children.
And despite the fact that there’s not a single shred of historical evidence to support the idea that any form of institutionalized discrimination ever dies without a serious fight, I know many conservative evangelicals who believe, and teach their children, that the invisible hand of the market takes care of discrimination with time.  Guess black slaves should just have “endured” suffering like Jesus until the markets and “wise government” saw fit to recognize their humanity.  But we shouldn’t be surprised.  These are the same folks who supported the Apartheid regime and opposed Nelson Mandela’s release because he was a dirty commie.

* Not incidentally, this rhetoric goes hand in hand with the lie that the “‘Founding Fathers’ “founded the nation on Christian principles” (except Jefferson, the cat’s out of the bag on that one) – and also goes with idea that the racist beliefs of the Founding Fathers and the fact that many of them were slave owners were irrelevant (they too were just misguided, helpless victims of their times, you see).