Trigger warning – sexual abuse, spousal abuse.
Today is, more or less, my first blogoversary. I published my first real post on Are Women Human? one year ago today. That post was about John Piper’s advice on how women who are being abused by their husbands can still “submit” and affirm their husband’s leadership and should “endure” abuse “for a season.”
Comparing that post to my most recent post on child sexual abuse in Sovereign Grace Ministries, there’s an obvious common denominator of Christianized patriarchy. Piper’s response to abused wives and CLC and FCC’s responses to abused children and their families share in common an assumption that the world should be ordered around the belief that the authority of straight, gender conforming men over all other human beings should be universal and unquestioned.
Women should “endure being smacked around for a night” so as not to “disrespect” or be “unsubmissive” to to their husband – their leader. Children who have been abused should be sent away from home so that their molester fathers can “stay in the house as the head of the household.” Survivors and their families should shut up and tell no one about the abuse or the identity of the abusers so as to preserve the reputations of the men “leading” the church. Everything is set up so that men who abuse (not that only men abuse) are coddled, protected, enabled.
This is all about Christian patriarchy. It’s all about defending a worldview that God cares about straight cisgender (white) men more than anyone else, that they are worth more than everyone else no matter how disgusting or evil their behavior.
The devastating effects of these teachings on queer people, trans and gender variant people, women, gender people of color, and children are many. And As I’ve written over the past year, this kind of Christian patriarchy is incredibly toxic to men as well. It imposes a standard of perfect leadership and providing that no man can ever live up to. It teaches men that they aren’t “real” men if they don’t live up to this standard, if they are not able to dominate everyone around them (including other men) and thus turns everyone into challenges to be subdued. It primes men to lash out at any threat to their complete control over others with anger and abuse.
As I’ve blogged about these issues over the past year I’ve become even more convinced that they are entrenched, pressing issues that desperately need addressing. To a lot of people, the effects of Christian patriarchy might seem far removed from their lives. But the reality is that Christian patriarchy is just a more explicitly articulated, more extreme, spiritualized form of plain old patriarchy. Its response to rape is a theology that enshrines and sanctifies rape culture. Its response to female, queer, and trans sexuality and bodily autonomy is bigoted, paternalist, and based a belief in the supremacy of straight gender normative white men – just like our culture at large. The only difference is that in Christian patriarchy straight cis white men are held up as spokesmen and stand-ins for God, who is presented as the ultimate possessive, angry, abusive patriarch.
As I wrote in my introduction to the blog a year ago, many feminists and progressives who haven’t had much contact with evangelical communities don’t fully understand the context for evangelical teachings on gender on sexuality:
I decided to start this blog because I noticed that, while there are a number of blogs and books out there that bring attention to issues of gender and sexuality in traditionalist Christian communities, most are written either by people who are still in these communities or very similar ones, or by people who have never been part of these communities. Many of the blogs by evangelical Christians speaking out against patriarchy in the church still support homophobia, transphobia, and heteronormativity. Meanwhile, non-evangelical feminist and progressive critics of religious patriarchy are often puzzled by evangelical beliefs, or don’t take them seriously.
As I read more about Christian patriarchy, I was frustrated by the lack of resources that balanced a feminist and progressive perspective on Christian patriarchy with understanding and empathy for people who grew up in patriarchal communities. I wanted resources that situated Christian patriarchy in the broader context of gender and sexual discrimination, but also addressed why these beliefs can be appealing, and recognized that it’s a long and often arduous process to work to root out these beliefs from one’s life, and to learn to think about gender and sexuality in more humane and loving ways.
I hope and think what I’ve written over the past year has contributed in some small way to illuminating these issues from a feminist and theologically informed perspective, but I’m also very aware that there’s so much I haven’t touched on yet, much more to be said, much more work to be done. I’ve found writing here to be incredibly fulfilling work and am looking forward to another year of doing it.
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.”
I read a summary today of a sermon by Randy Stinson on, ahem, how it’s necessary for boys to get “bumps and bruises” and be indoctrinated with “warfare language” in order to avoid raising them to be “feminized,” “weak, soft, and ineffective” men. Stinson is the president of the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, an influential evangelical complementarian organization that also includes John Piper and CJ Mahaney (Joshua Harris’ mentor) as part of its leadership. Some highlights of his comments:
“We are raising our young boys to be way too soft, way too careful, as if the ultimate prize in our parenting of boys is to get them to 18 years old and say they never got hurt, nothing bad ever happened . . .. They never experienced pain. They never experienced disappointment. They have just had a wonderfully smooth life,”
“What you’ve done, you have handicapped that boy for the rest of his life,” Stinson counseled. “He will be a weak, soft, ineffective man.”
. . . A “therapeutic” model that eliminates competition and rough play among boys has created a generation of 20-something males that are the “most self-absorbed generation in American history.”
Stinson said that has spawned an industry of things like male skin-care and hair-color products that would have been unimaginable a generation ago. (Associated Baptist Press)
OH NOES, you guys, the only thing more self-absorbed than a woman is a man who moisturizes! Watch out for those male skin and hair care products, they’ll turn your little dudes into lady-men! Wow. These folks are completely oblivious to how ridiculous and immature such statements sound to the rest of the world.
Stinson’s comments demonstrate that in addition to insisting on hierarchies of privilege and oppression based on biological sex, complementarianism and other forms of Christian patriarchy also insist on rigid policing of gender expression and identity. Christian patriarchy teaches boys and men that relational, physical, and sexual dominance and aggression are the only appropriate expressions of “true masculinity.” It teaches boys and men that displaying gentleness, vulnerability, interest in beauty, and really, any trait or pursuit coded as “feminine” makes them lesser men, or not “real men.” It warps and damages boys and men who, naturally or otherwise, conform to this extremely narrow and rigid definition of masculinity, and mercilessly discriminates against boys and men who don’t conform to this standard.
“Men solve problems. They fix stuff. They get stuff done,” he said. “When we give men such weak assignments — we put them on the bereavement committee and the flower committee and the grounds committee and the fellowships committees — give men a God-sized task that they know requires a man.”
He also called on churches to “bring back warfare language.” . . . “The Bible is all about warfare, from Genesis 3 on,” he said. . . . .”We don’t talk about battle and warfare, but we’re in one,” he said. “Let’s just reclaim the language. Keep reminding our men they are in a battle and maybe they will start acting like a warrior.” . . .
[On a boy raised to be “weak”] He’s not going anywhere, and he’s not going to pursue your daughter, because he’s weak and scared and has no godly ambition. When he gets knocked down he’s not getting back up. He has no godly resilience.”
There’s nothing inherently wrong with a person of any gender having a naturally assertive or even dominant personality. But the constant expectation that a “real” man always has to be “hard,” “strong,” or in control places an incredible burden on men in patriarchal communities, even those who naturally tend towards “traditional” expressions of masculinity. There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that our cultural discomfort with men who express strong negative emotions besides anger and aggression, or express interest in “softer” or more creative pursuits, makes men more prone to serious depression and puts them under huge amounts of psychological and emotional stress.
Worse, Christian patriarchy indoctrinates men into being obsessed with having power, and to think of wielding power and authority over others as defining their maleness. It teaches that males are in constant need of something or someone to dominate in order to be “real men.” As a result, relationships between patriarchal men and anyone who is coded under patriarchy as being of inferior status are inherently imbalanced and dysfunctional. While women and children are taught to be submissive, subservient, passive, and silent even in the face of suffering and abuse, men are taught that they must always be aggressors, always in charge, and never vulnerable. This pushes an exaggerated and incredibly limited version of masculinity on men that makes it impossible for them to sustain healthy, functional relationships with women and children. It pushes male assertiveness and dominance to the point where it becomes oppressive and often violent (psychologically, physically, sexually). It fosters an environment where abusive men are protected and enabled while their victims are forced to keep silent.
These are some of the real, tangible ways in which patriarchal gender expectations harm men who conform to them. In the next post I’ll talk about about how patriarchy marginalizes and oppresses people who don’t conform to these expectations.
*Warning* – people who have been abused may find this post triggering.
Let’s get this blog off the ground.
A while ago I came across a video of John Piper, a complementarian pastor and theologian, addressing the following question: “What should a wife’s submission to her husband look like if he’s an abuser?”
Here’s part of Piper’s response (italics are all his emphasis, bolded are mine):
Part of that answer’s clearly going to depend on what kind of abuse we’re dealing with here . . . .
If this man, for example, is calling her to engage in abusive acts willingly – group sex, or something really weird, bizarre, harmful, that clearly would be sin. Then the way she submits – and I really think this is possible, it’s kind of paradoxical [sic]. She’s not going to go there. I’m saying no, she’s not going to do what Jesus would disapprove [sic], even though the husband is asking her to do it.
She’s going to say, however, something like, “Honey, I want so much to follow you as my leader. I think God calls me to do that, and I would love to do that. It would be sweet to me if I could enjoy your leadership.” And so – then she would say – “But if you would ask me to do this, require this of me, then I can’t – I can’t go there.”
Now that’s one kind of situation. Just a word on the other kind. If it’s 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.