“For your good”: Joshua Harris’s “Word to Wives,” pt. 3)

Part 1
Part 2

Harris continues to lay out his interpretation of the connection between the verses on female submission in 1 Peter 3, and the verses on other kinds of submission and authority in the preceding chapter. Peter’s point in these passages is to teach Christians what “honorable conduct” is so that non-Christians will be able to see how holy they are:

When an unbelieving word looks at [Christians] and slanders them and calls them evildoers, they will see that it’s not true, and on the final day they will glorify God. On the final day they’ll be able to say, you followed Jesus, you represented this holy god.

Ah. Problem: people who aren’t already invested in patriarchal assumptions see demands for female submission as dehumanizing and oppressive, not as “honorable conduct.” Good luck getting us to believe you’re being holy by telling women and girls they have to obey men if they really love God.  Harris does actually teach in this message that “submission” means obedience and subordination:

Peter gives a very specific way that we as God’s people can be honorable in our conduct . . . He says, “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.”  That phrase “be subject” is the same word used to tell wives to be submissive to their husbands.  It means to obey.  Be subject, to be submissive, to submit, means to place yourself in a secondary category, and to receive the leadership of someone else.  It means to obey. [bold my emphasis; italics are his]

I’m somewhat surprised that he’s so candid. My experience in SGM was that the words “obey” and “obedience” were very deliberately avoided when discussing female submission. The pastor who did our engagement interview (yes, really) advised us not to choose the traditional vows that include the word “obey” in them, because it could “give the wrong idea” to wedding guests from outside our church – not that we would have chosen that set anyway! It was particularly strange given that this set of vows was included in the materials they gave to engaged couples with ideas for the wedding ceremony.

This is yet another example of the hypocrisy and cynicism of complementarian leaders.  They distance themselves from the clear meaning of their beliefs in mixed company because they know it’s bad PR. The only explanations I can think of for Harris’ candidness in this sermon are that SGM has gotten more extreme in its beliefs on gender in the years since I left, and/or that Harris feels comfortable using such language because he’s preaching to the home crowd.

Harris continues with the argument that male authority in marriage isn’t a misogynistic singling out of women, but rather is just one kind of authority set up by God :

What’s being communicated is that God, in other words God, has ordained institutions of authority. And so because you are a Christian who is submitted to the Lord, be submitted to every institution of authority that your Lord has set in place in this world for your good [my emphasis].

And then Peter lists three examples: government leaders, who are set in place by God to determine and enforce laws; masters or employers in the workforce, and then husbands in the home who are called to be the head of the family.

I discussed in an earlier post one big reason why the comparison of “authority” in marriage to “authority” in the workplace is problematic: 1 Peter 2 doesn’t actually say anything about “employers.” It calls on slaves to submit to their masters, and states that a slave owner’s authority is God-ordained. It calls on slaves to submit even when they are unjustly beaten (as opposed to justly beaten, I guess?). This is the real parallel to female submission, not workplace chain of command. The real meaning of this passage, using Harris’ philosophy of biblical interpretation, is that wives are their husbands’ property, and they are obligated to obey them even in cases of horrible abuse.

Again, Harris tries to have things both ways, preaching an oppressive message while being dishonest about it’s implications.  He lies by equating slave masters with modern day employers, and goes on at length about the importance of authority in the workplace and in the government, as though either has anything to do with the very different kind of submission Peter preached – a philosophy of ownership that saw women, slaves, and children as literally belonging to the male head of the household. He lies by equating patriarchal marriage with an employer-employee relationship, or the relationship between a citizen and the government. Neither employees nor citizens are expected in our society to “obey” or be “subject” to employers or the government in the way complementarian wives are expected to – total and complete submission to their husbands in every little detail of their lives.

And he uses this false equivalence to argue that just like there would be chaos in society and in workplaces if there were no one to lead, or set the agenda, there would be chaos in the home and family if no one was the leader:

Go spend a week in Somalia [ah, the classic look how bad things are in Africa example – Grace], and you will realize what a blessing it is to have just laws and a government that enforces it [sic].  Authority is a good thing.  Authority is all around us.

If you go to the workplace, uh, you want there to be leadership.  You know?  Th-this idea that you know what, we should just all be equal, let’s just all show up and do what we think is right, and – have you ever worked in a place like that?  That’s not a good place to work! . . . The same is true when it comes to the home.  Someone has to lead.  And God has set authority and roles of leadership in these different contexts, and this is not a bad thing, it’s an expression of his care for his creation to establish authority in human institutions. [emphasis his]

Funny, somehow my husband and I and the vast majority of couples we know manage to run our households just fine without one spouse telling the other what to do and think all the time. Maybe we just got lucky?