The Theology of Abuse (Part Two)

Power exercised benevolently over another human being is still power, and a serious temptation to our fallen nature. Slowly and painfully, the United States came to understand this about the enslavement of African-Americans, notwithstanding anecdotes of happy slaves and kind masters. We realized that some forms of subordination are so totalizing that they deny the image of God in a person, robbing him or her of something more precious than any material security that slavery might promise in exchange.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the subjection of women, a significant segment of the Christian church isn’t there yet.

I’ve been following the debate about complementarian Christian writer Douglas Wilson on the Internet Monk’s blog. Complementarianism, according to the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood website, “affirms that men and women are equal in the image of God, but maintain complementary differences in role and function. In the home, men lovingly are to lead their wives and family as women intelligently are to submit to the leadership of their husbands. In the church, while men and women share equally in the blessings of salvation, some governing and teaching roles are restricted to men.”

This is a pretty gentle statement of the agenda, more so than Wilson’s own writings, as you’ll see in a moment. Still, I’m straining to hold all these ideas side by side in my mind. If men and women are equal in God’s image and equally saved, why wouldn’t we make our social arrangements as egalitarian as possible? Isn’t God’s standard of value supposed to be the only measure of our worth? I thought that’s what it meant to be free from the curse of the Law. 

I can somewhat understand how spiritual equality could coexist with “complementary differences in role and function”. Although I don’t think it’s empirically true that men always make better CEOs and women make better stay-at-home parents, traditional role assignments don’t have to violate the theological principle of equality, so long as complementarian Christians are working to create a society where “women’s work” has the same prestige and economic value as men’s (which of course never happens).

Another area of caution for “complementary functions” Christians is who gets to assign the functions. Where men have a monopoly on official preaching and teaching, only men write the theology…which conveniently confirms their monopoly. Whatever the Spirit is telling women, no one will get to hear it. Having an equal share in the blessings of salvation may be nice in heaven, but it’s a notional concept here on earth if it doesn’t protect women against abusive Biblical interpretations by men.

And that brings us back to Douglas Wilson. In Monday’s post, the I-Monk, a/k/a Michael Spencer, objected to a female commenter saying “My abusive marriage was, in so many ways, modeled on [Wilson’s] book, Reforming Marriage.” Michael isn’t a complementarian and does think that conservative churches need to focus more on domestic abuse. However, he argued that Wilson should not be blamed when his followers use his writings to justify mistreating their wives:

[T]he word “modeled” implies that Wilson would endorse the behavior the commenter calls an “abusive marriage.” I take your presentation and I seek to copy it, i.e. “model” it. It implies the abuser was following the words of Wilson in being abusive, not distorting or twisting them into abusive actions Wilson would not approve of and did not suggest.

I’m sorry, Michael, but I think your male privilege is a big speck in your eye. The relevant inquiry is not whether Wilson intends harm to women. The relevant inquiry, first of all, is whether a relationship based on Wilson’s principles of inequality and control feels like abuse from the perspective of the woman.

Let’s hear about the female commenter’s marriage in her own words. (She blogs under the name “Molly” at Adventures in Mercy so I will call her Molly henceforth, for clarity.) It’s a long comment so I have boldfaced the parts that stood out for me.

Yes…I think some of Wilson’s teaching was taken out of context….but other parts…. Well, when you tell a man that “husband is to his wife as a farmer is to his field”….and to be “her lord,” and to “rule with a firm hand,” at what point is the man taking things out of context when he starts treating his wife as he would a field and begins to decide what she will and will not “grow,” when she will and will not “grow it,” because it’s what he thinks is best and therefore fully believes he is doing it out of love and rightness?

She will clean the kitchen this and this and this way, before she is allowed to go to bed at night, because she needs to learn how to properly clean (because she doesn’t use a toothbrush around the sink handles every night and so her obedience to my nightly cleaning list will help her be a better homemaker, as befits her calling). She will throw away those jeans, because they look good on her and that will cause men to stumble. She will give away those shoes because they do not please him. She will give away her car because he’s decided they will only have one. She won’t see their finances or be allowed to see them because he’s decided that the man should be in charge of the money. She will move to a state she doesn’t want to live in, because he’s decided God has called him there. She will work, even with a baby in daycare, because he said she had to. She will not work, because he said she won’t now. She will have more babies, even though she has them so close together and has medical problems becasue of that—and was advised not to have more, or at least to wait until her body was able to recover… But no, he says she must have another one, and another one, because he feels she needs to be kept busy at home… She will not speak in church, because he’s decided that she shouldn’t speak unless he is there to approve of her words—and he is busy doing his full-time ministry job so can’t be there. There are two driveways to the church. She is not allowed to pull in one of them, because he doesn’t like that one. She is only allowed to pull into the driveway that he likes. She will not read Harry Potter books, because he decided they were wicked. She must ask permission before she can accept any out-of-the-home obligation. She must ask permission to plant a garden. She will ask permission to get a pet. (He will say no for years—-he doesn’t like gardens and he doesn’t like pets, and the fact that she does indicates her rebellious heart). She must keep the children in perfect obedience. When a toddler acts like a toddler, it is her fault. She is a bad mother. Her relative dies and leaves behind furniture, including a desk (she’s wanted a desk for her very own for years!). She is not allowed to have a desk. He gives the desk to her child, instead. She cannot let her children help her cook things like bread dough—it’s too messy. Messes are a big no-no.

Through it all, she is never hit. In fact, she is treated very kindly in many ways, like a father treats a child. Kindly, as long as she performs properly and apologizes profusely when she doesn’t maintain perfection. He is convinced he is a good and godly leader, and he does everything out of a desire to help her become just the way he knows she should be. He is an amazing man (and he is—truly admired as a leader in the church, ministered and reached out to so many people in life-changing ways, and most people would never ever guess that there was anything but a perfect marriage there….including her, for a long time), and he reminds her that she is lucky to have someone like him to lead her into fullness, and soon, she believes it…. He is carefully crafting her into his image… because he loves her, and since he is so good, she will be happy, whether she knows it or not yet, when she is like him. He is sure of it. He is sure of a lot of things, one of them being that he is always right.

It gets complicated…I know that. I’m not saying it’s all Wilson’s fault. No, no, it was an abusive man who heard things in a twisted way—this is always how it works. And yet…and yet…and yet… There is such a huge, “and yet.” Because the teaching is there, in black and white, ripe for the quoting. I feel like the complementarian camp forgets all about the oft affirmed doctrine of total depravity when it comes to singing the praises of a husband’s authority over his wife…and though I am not a total depravity fan, persay, I do wish that they would remember that doctrine before they tell husbands to lead their wives with a firm hand or to view their wives as a field to be planted or that they are to be their wives primary instructor and guide in the things of God.

Wilson sais that a husband is a “husbandman.” My husband heard that…loud and clear. I am just the field….and every farmer knows that the field is his business, his property, his place. What rights does a field have to say no, or to refuse something? It has nothing. If I complained, which was rare, I was in sin… If I hurt, if I was angry, if I had a normal healthy reaction to being treated the way I was treated, if I objected to the kind but firm *total ownership* my husband had over me, *I* was the problem.

The teaching was there, for *me*, who was reading while striving to understand, struggling to make some sense out of the confusion….and over and over, through Wilson and through others, I learned that I have no right to say no since, after all, he’s not asking me to watch porn, not asking me to do outright “sin,” therefore I have no right to be angry, no right to be anything but sweet, submissive and respectful… Problems? Keep being sweet and honoring and respectful, and he will change… Don’t feel respected by him? That’s another sign of my rebellious heart, because Wilson (and others) have said that men were wired to need respect, not women.

I once thought it was only me, when I first began (fearfully, brokenly) stumbling my way out of this destructive world. That’s what I thought, at first. I have since learned there are others….many, many others. I am just one tiny body on a mountain of broken and bruised bodies from the fall-out of books like Reforming Marriage. We just don’t talk about it much….most of us can’t, the few of us that remain in the faith at all, that is. It’s too hard…and very few are able to understand. Silence is much safer, for so many reasons.

I enjoy Wilson’s mind. Well, I used to. I understand, in any case, how and why someone would enjoy Wilson. I certainly did…before. I just can’t stomach any of him anymore. It’s probably related to PTSD…I realize that….and part of that certainly isn’t Wilson’s fault….but part of it seems like it is important to note. Wilson was my husband’s favorite read. He bought a bunch of “Reforming Marriage” to hand out. He loved that book…he has a sharp mind, much like Wilsons. I underlined my copy, striving to be the woman my husband wanted me to be…after all, according to Wilson, God made me to face my husband, to orient myself around my husband, to find my identity and definition in my husband…

I do not appreciate it when I am told, now, that I took it out of context. No. I didn’t. It is all there. I obeyed what Wilson taught me: I tried to orient myself to my husband, to please my husband… Can a plot of ground say, “No?” Does a plot of ground have the ability, much less the right, to say no?

I kept the books for that very reason: proof. It’s there. Yes, a mentally ill and abusive man, who probably (literally) couldn’t help BUT to twist it, twisted it….but I was not mentally ill, and I was not sick. I needed help. Instead of helping me, the books, like Reforming Marriage, only tended to affirm the “godliness” of my husband’s stance.

today’s post, titled “When Bad People Need a Crutch“, the I-Monk takes a more nuanced position, but (as evidenced by the title) still seems to think the problem is the proverbial few bad apples rather than a fundamental flaw in complementarianism. Though he wouldn’t say that traditional gender roles are the solution to all our problems, he gives a nod to the “feminism has failed” camp when he says:

I have no sympathy for abusers. Not in any form, shape or fashion. But every day I teach at a school full of high school boys, many without dads, whose only model for being a man is a rapper or an athlete. They are 18 and can’t pull up their pants. They call women bitches and baby mamas without regret. And I see crowds of girls who buy it. They buy the disrespectful treatment and the commodification of their sexuality. I understand where complementarians are coming from when they look out at the destruction of traditional gender roles and wonder if anyone is counting the cost for what it means for boys to never become men and girls to literally idolize prostitutes as role models.

Egalitarians writing books about the evils of fundamentalism at Bob Jones and Christ Church, Moscow might want to visit their local public school- heck, visit their local Christian school- and see the state of things. See how the ideals of equality and respect are doing out there. If you can’t see why complementarianism makes sense in so many communities and sub-cultures, you’re looking past reality.

To which
a commenter named “Tope” rightly retorts:

There are a lot of problems with this argument. For one thing, public schools are no more egalitarian institutions than most other institutions in our society, which despite the protestations of some remains deeply misogynist. Secondly, I hardly see what egalitarianism or, if I’m reading between the lines correctly, feminism have to do with young women being called bitches or baby mamas, or the commodification of female sexuality. Both are firmly opposed to such things. The poor state of gender relations in American society is not the fault of egalitarianism or feminism; it’s the fault of sexism, the fault of an attitude which denies women full humanity by refusing to see them as anything more than bodies and sex objects.

I can’t speak all women who have grown up in complementarian communities, but my personal experience has been that the sexism I encountered when I was still immersed in complementarianism was in many ways just a repackaged and Christianized version of the sexism I have encountered in the “secular” world, including public school. Women were still reduced to their bodies and thought of as sex objects (modesty checklists, women constantly being reminded of their power to provoke lust, men treating women as ‘floating heads” because they were literally incapable of seeing them as anything more than just sexualized bodies). Women were still ostracized and punished for speaking their minds or having opinions. Women were still showered with contempt for being weak and emotional and unimportant. The major difference was that at church, people could hide behind God and the Bible as a defense for their misogyny. Gender relations in the church are every bit as broken as outside it….

…I would never say that all complementarians are abusers. I would never
say that abuse is unique to complementarianism; it happens in all sorts
of contexts and communities, and it isn’t restricted to a particular
socioeconomic group or religion or political affiliation, etc. But I
absolutely would say that *some* complementarian churches foster an
environment in which abusers flourish, by putting a disproportionate
burden for “good behavior” on wives and children, by constantly harping
on the importance of male leadership and the subordination of women and
children in every single aspect of marriage and family life, by
discouraging female education and interest in the world outside church
and home, by making comments as Bruce Ware as done suggesting that wife
beating is just one sinful response to a husband’s authority being
challenged . . . I could go on. Growing up in evangelical communities,
I often heard the phrase “ideas have consequences” uttered as preamble
to criticisms of other people’s beliefs. Well, they do. When you teach
that women don’t reflect God’s glory as fully as men, that a wife
should orient herself to her husband while he orients himself to God,
that a woman’s task is to help her man accomplish his tasks, that it is
selfish of her to think about her needs and personal fulfillment . . .
how can one teach such things and honestly claim ignorance when those
teachings are taken one or two or three steps further than what is
being explicitly said?

Exactly: the root sin is pride, not lust. (Or as some feminists say, “rape is a crime of violence, not of sex.”) Controlling gender expression is not going to solve that problem, and often makes it worse. Whether we force women into the “madonna” or the “whore” stereotype is beside the point.

I’ve spent the past couple of years involved in feminist anti-porn and anti-trafficking activism, and worked as a trained volunteer at a domestic violence shelter. We talk a lot about “abuse-enabling myths”. The purveyors of those myths like to distance themselves from the sick people who put them into action. For instance, a lot of mainstream porn eroticizes abusive scenarios like rape and incest, and depicts women as enjoying such victimization. Porn defenders love the “few bad apples” argument: many porn users don’t commit sexual violence, and not all abusers use porn, so the responsibility rests entirely on the man who crosses the line. The crucial fact remains: It is not a misinterpretation of these videos to imitate them by assaulting women and children.

In my opinion, Douglas Wilson’s defenders are trying a similar dodge. Molly says it best in her comment on the I-Monk’s second post (boldface mine, again):

My husband wasn’t “a bad excuse for a man,” or “scum,” or some of the other things he’s been called here. Truly, if anyone here has reason to revile him, it’s me. And…I don’t. He was just a man. He was human. He was amazing in some areas…when I say his ministry changed lives, I am speaking the truth..and destructive in others…his “ministry” to me, for example…I am deeply damaged by what happened during those years. That’s true… But if you saw another side of him, you would be like many others who held him in awe and high esteem, and, in those areas, rightly so.

In other words, good and bad were both there….like they are in *all* of us. His were just a little more extreme, but he was still human, is still your brother in Christ, and some of the comments here are crossing the line.

The thing about abuse is that we paint caracatures of the “abuser” as this horribly rotten person, and “abuse” as this easy to spot thing. It’s not that way. In most cases, it’s terribly complex. The abuser is often a wonderful person…in some areas…the guy you’d never think would do anything like that. And the abuse is often balanced out by wonderful times, or, at least, seemingly healthy times… It’s not so black and white as it seems when it’s condensed into a little five paragraph story….

…Btw, when it comes to Wilson, in no way do I assign him or any of the other Biblical Patriarchy teachers the full share of blame. No, no, not at all. And yet they will be judged for their words. They feed abusive people… they take away the personal power of the women in such homes, the power to have a choice, to say no, to set down a boundary, to even know that abuse is abuse.

That’s nice that Wilson tells husbands to be kind ot their wives. I’m thankful he says nice things like that. But he *also* tells a husband that he will and should sometimes do things his wife doesn’t like and he must be firm about it, that she should view him as her “lord” and that he should act like he is her lord and never forget that he is her lord even when he is being kind and loving to her, that he is a husbandman and she is his field and it is his job to decide what will grow there and it is her job to submissively and cheerfully accept what he chooses for her (or he is her wall and she must view things out of his window), that she was born needing to be led, that she is to find her identity in him, etc…? It’s all there, in the book. I’m not making anything up. It’s there.

You take a person with NPD or a tendancy towards dominance (a hallmark feature of testosterone, so something many men will struggle with, especially as younger husbands) or abusive behavior or mental illness or just plain ordinary selfishness, tell them that they are the “lord” of their wife and that she is his field and that she is to be oriented to him while he is oriented to the calling God gives him and that he is to be her spiritual guide and teacher and show her how to see things correctly…..please, please, don’t put all the blame on the man when he takes that seriously and starts acting accordingly.

A Focus on the Family site had a blog post up a while back that literally came right out and said that, yes, it’s true, some women get kind of controlling husbands, but, well, that’s their lot in life, and whether they like it or not, husbands have the right to decide whether their wives will or will not have children—and how many, whether they will or will not homeschool them, whether they will or will not work outside the home, whether they will or will not live in a certain location, whether they will or will not allow their dying child to recieve one treatment or the other…and that it is a wife’s role to submit graciously. This was from Focus. Not a fringe group in some little church somewhere. As far as I know, there was no retraction. Wives? You are in *sin* if you do not obey him.

I’ve had people chide me because I had the children my husband told me to have. They said I should have known better, that I should have said no, that I should have known he was wrong. These are the same people who promote the very ministries and teachers that taught me that saying no was *sin*, that what brought down the human race was a wife making a decision without first getting approval from her husband (another mainstream teacher posits that, Ware, not some sideshow extremist)… My husband felt that God wanted us to have more babies. Who was I, a woman who was designed by God to need male leadership, a woman who was now filled with the fallen desire to rebel against her husband, a woman who is to view her husband as her lord and spiritual teacher, to say no?

It’s not to say I remove myself from blame. Oh my….if I could only go back. It makes me sick to my stomach to even think about it. But that said, I *did* go for help. I probably read every complementarian and “biblical patriarchy” book on the market. I tried. You remember what happens when the blind lead the blind, though, right? 🙁

And then, because my husband went and did exactly what these ministries said he was allowed to do (and, in some cases, encouraged to do), people want the blame to land 100% on his back, they want to say that he was abusive or took things out of context, that the teachings had nothing to do with it…

Well, yes, he was abusive. Absolutely. But he also had plenty of back up from plenty of teachers who did *literally* approve of many of the things he was doing. The teaching from Focus said quite plainly that whether or not a wife will have children, and how many she will have, is the husbands decision and a wife who does not obey is in sin. That’s not me grasping at straws or trying to blame someone. That’s just a fact.

I agree with those who say that complementarianism does not necessarily make a man abusive. I never said it did. I know too many good, kind complementarian men to ever believe that. But, let’s face it. A Christian man who is inclined to be abusive and/or misogynistic is going to be drawn straight to complementarian and/or patriarchal teachings because they affirm the inner sense of the abusive person that *he* is supposed to be in charge of her, that he has the innate right to be in charge of her. It’s past time for patriarchal and complementarian teachers to realize this and preach accordingly, to start becoming educated on domestic violence in all its forms, to start studying the way abusive minds think and to start teaching women, the ones most vulnerable in the comp set up, what various forms of abuse are and when it’s okay to say no, that having boundaries is not a sin.

Here’s something I’ve noticed and find interesting…and sad…and common (and as others have mentioned, this is very true in areas of marriage teaching *and* parenting teaching)… Many people can tell abused wives that they shouldn’t be confused by the kind and nice things their abusive spouse does—that they need to stand firm against the abuse, period. And yet these very same people can’t seem to separate the abusive/destructive teaching from the good and kind teachings of a ministry or a leader that they like, and thus leap to their defense if someone points out the abusive nature of some aspects of the teaching…

Like an abused spouse who has yet to figure out that it’s really and truly abuse, they can’t seem to see the destructive nature of the thing. They want so badly to believe the good, to believe that the good is the main thing and the destructive parts are just these little things that are best passed over, or will be fixed in time, or are just little silly things of no consequence…. I know how that is. I am a very loyal person. I *want* to believe the good…and when someone I love or am endeared to is being attacked (whether for real, or just percieved), my entire being gears up to defend. There are admirable aspects to having such a reaction….but not when the “attack” is made up of valid points, things that truly are troublesome, things that can and should be addressed, things that can and are damaging people, sometimes irreparably…

The thing is, there are some very troubling things being taught by Wilson. This isn’t to say that Wilson himself is an abusive husband. We have no way of knowing that and to say that would be wrong. It’s also not to say that Wilson doesn’t teach good or wise things, or do good and wise things. It’s complex, remember? But the fact that he does good things in no way excuses the destructive things. And to say that he is teaching destructive things isn’t blame-shifting or taking a teacher’s words out of context.

Besides Molly’s blog, the websites Because It Matters and Emotional Abuse and Your Faith contain other good resources for speaking out against the abuse of women in the church.

12 comments on “The Theology of Abuse (Part Two)

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