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.
I’ve been transcribing Joshua Harris’s recent sermons on gender roles for the blog. In reviewing them I’ve been struck again by the frequent disclaimers in both sermons about what submission “doesn’t mean.” In his first sermon on submission, for example, he begins by clearly stating that the text he’s preaching on doesn’t belittle or condescend to women, that it doesn’t condone abuse, or teach that wives are inferior to their husbands. Rather, he says, this passage honors women, and “elevates the dignity . . . [and] the value of women.”
This, to be clear, is a passage that says women should submit and be “subject” to their husbands “as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord.” Oh, and it calls women “the weaker vessel.” (1 Peter 3:1-6). Not exactly a subtle or difficult to interpret text; yet Harris categorically states that it does not mean what it pretty clearly says, read as literally as complementarians say the Bible should be read.*
As I’ve discussed earlier, one of the reasons for such disclaimers is that complementarian leaders know perfectly well that their theology is misogynist both in its content and its implications, and they also know that such overt misogyny doesn’t fly with people outside their communities – which isn’t to say that American society in general isn’t extremely misogynistic – it absolutely is. Many of the misogynist ideas explicit in complementarian theology are implicit in how our culture views and treats women. Even so, openly stating a belief in the divinely ordained inferiority of women is pretty unacceptable in public discourse; most complementarians avoid doing so and try to distance themselves from this implication of their theology.
But on further thought, I think there’s a lot more behind these disclaimers than mere PR or image consciousness. In fact, I think it’s probably the case that these disclaimers are primarily intended for people already in the complementarian fold. I think they’re part of a strategy – perhaps deliberate, perhaps not – to use cognitive dissonance to manipulate and control people, particularly women.
Complementarian women are constantly reminded that “God” requires them to obey their husbands, that God created them to follow male leadership. But at the same time they also hear a constant refrain that unquestioning obedience is really liberation, and that their second-class status in their families and their churches is really evidence of how loved and valued they are by complementarian men and their patriarchal god. They’re taught that passages which, read literally, clearly teach that women are of less value and status than men, really don’t undermine gender equality at all.
In order to accept these contradictory claims as true, complementarian women have to live in a constant state of cognitive dissonance. And there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that inducing a state of cognitive dissonance (deliberately or not) is a very effective means of controlling and manipulating people. Living with cognitive dissonance requires constant rationalizations of obviously false or contradictory claims, and tenuous explanations of why these claims appear to be false or contradictory, but are in fact true or compatible. And once you can get people to be constantly engaged in the mental gymnastics required to maintain cognitive dissonance, you have them in a place where they’re much more likely to accept other absurd or illogical ideas as true. People are more suggestible and pliable in such a state, because they’re already invested in defending whatever you claim as true, no matter how far-fetched it might be. Unsurprisingly, cognitive dissonance is a common feature of cultic or controlling groups (more on cognitive dissonance and cultic thinking/behavior here).
As I see it, this is one of many reasons why so many women accept complementarian theology as unquestioned truth and morality, despite its obvious devaluation of them, and anything or anyone considered “feminine.” They’re so deeply invested in defending the absolute truth of their theology, and the absolute righteousness of their leaders, that they are primed to accept some truly ridiculous assertions about the “holiness” of female subservience as entirely compatible with gender equality.
*I’m aware that there are translation issues with this and other texts, and that there are other more egalitarian or feminist interpretations of these texts. I’m talking specifically about the translations complementarians use and the principles of interpretation they apply to the Bible.