A Cry For Justice

Awakening the Evangelical Church to Domestic Violence and Abuse in its Midst

What Headship and Submission Do Not Mean

Just what is biblical headship and submission?

We approach this issue with fear and trembling.  Why?  Well, not because we don’t see the value of debate and discussion in an effort to better understand Scripture.  Our hesitancy stems from fear of getting drawn off-mission.  We understand that the biblical doctrine of  “the husband is the head of the wife” is certainly related to the issue of abuse and domestic violence – especially by abusers hiding in the church.  It is related, because wicked people take the good Word of God and twist and distort it to their own evil ends.  Whatever Scripture means by the husband being the head of the wife, and wives submitting to their husbands (Ephesians 5), we know that it is GOOD, just as Christ being head of His bride, the church is good.  On these things, all Bible-believing, Christ-loving genuine Christians agree.  The question of course is, just exactly what does Scripture mean by these doctrines?  It surely does NOT mean what the abuser takes it to mean.

We recognize that for many victims of domestic abuse, beliefs about submission and headship within marriage are one of the things that locks them into the abuse, and at some point they want to examine and perhaps re-evaluate these beliefs in order to get free. So for many survivors, part of the healing journey is exploring the issue of  submission and what the Bible means when it says “the husband is head of the wife”.

But let us state what we embrace as our target mission, from which we must emulate Luke Skywalker – “stay on target….stay on target!”  Here it is:

Our mission in writing A Cry for Justice, and in maintaining this blog site, is to expose to the church what is happening to victims of abuse who are sitting right here in our own pews, often side by side with their abuser who is parading as a fine Christian.  Our purpose is to do all we can to show pastors and Christians what abuse really is, and point out how the church has been giving terrible counsel to abuse victims.  All of this we intend to do to the glory of God, for the help and rescue of victims, and for the effecting of justice upon the abuser.

That is our target.

Now, to the degree that distortions of the doctrine of headship and submission in marriage come into play directly with this mission, we will tackle it head on.  I (Jeff) came to the conviction last year that while I believe I have preached Scripture’s teachings about marriage accurately over the years, I have still erred – I did not spend enough time very clearly describing what these doctrines do NOT mean, to the point of making any abusive man in the congregation feel like I was pointing at him and saying “Thou art the man!”  I have resolved to remedy that error.

So we will write some blog posts about distortions of headship and submission, and even talk about what those doctrines mean and how they play themselves out.  And we welcome comments and replies to any such articles.  But we do not see ourselves diving into other topics at this time, such as whether or not we should be working toward retaining or changing male/female roles in the church.  For one thing, actively striving toward some of those kinds of issues can work to alienate us from those very churches we want to gain a hearing in,  i.e., the conservative, Bible-believing churches. If they get the notion that we are ‘some kind of radical, liberal, inerrancy-rejecting types’, they are not going to listen to us in regard to abuse within the church.

Many conservative Christians will write us off immediately if we start talking about other hot topics.  And believe me, the subject of abuse in the church and injustice being dealt to abuse victims by the church is a plenty hot enough topic for now!  And you know, for those who hold to the complementarian position, the same thing applies. Some egalitarian churches won’t give us a hearing at all if we march in sounding the “comp” trumpet. And unless egalitarian churches have somehow totally solved the problem of abusers hiding among them, I suspect we want them to listen to us too.

Terminology tip for those who may not know:
Egalitarians (egals) believe in the equality of male-female roles, with role being determined by an individual’s gifts.   See Christians For Biblical Equality
Complementarians (comps) believe that male-female role distinctions in the church and the home are ordained by God. See The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood

We can all be engaged on fighting against domestic abuse, no matter what position we occupy in the egalitarian /complementarian controversy  or even if we don’t have a conscious position.  For us, the important thing is to keep the fight against abuse paramount, and to never let the gender-roles issue take precedence over the fight against abuse.

Here are a few more points that we hope you will find helpful:

1.  We are convinced that there is indeed a woman-unfriendly climate in many of our churches. That is to say, we agree that women are being viewed by church leaders in many cases as secondary to men.  And this we believe is in direct violation of Galatians 3:28.  This attitude certainly explains, at least in part, the shameful way abuse victims are so often treated by their pastors, elders, and fellow Christians.

2.  We are willing to listen to fellow believers who hold to the inerrancy of Scripture (in other words, they don’t chalk the Apostle Paul’s words up to his being a woman-hater).

But we are going to stay on target.  Our mission is to sound out loudly The Cry for Justice on behalf of abuse victims who have been further abused by the ignorance and arrogance in their fellow Christians, and by the wicked deceptions of abusers parading as Christians.  To that end we work and call on our brothers and sisters in Christ to join in.  Whether you be eagles or – hmmm….anybody know a bird name that starts with comp…?

So, give us some replies here that comment on this subject: What biblical headship and submission do NOT mean.
Imagine you are speaking to an abuse victim who has not yet sorted out what is happening to her, and she is being told by her abuser that “She must obey him – God says so!”

* * * * * *

Lastly, some reading matter for your consideration – not implying we agree or disagree with any of these, but they are more nuanced than many of the writings we have encountered that discuss domestic abuse in the context of the egal/comp gender roles debate:

Sabotaged Submission, by Carmen J Bryant
Command or Curse: Genesis 3:16 in the Light of Abuse, by Carmen J Bryant
The Proverbs 31 Woman – Fact or Fiction? by Carmen J Bryant

What Does Submit in Everything Really Mean? The Nature and Scope of Marital Submission, by Steven Tracy

1 Corinthians 11:3 – A Corrective to Distortions and Abuses of Male Headship, by Steven Tracy

Headship with Heart: How Biblical Patriarchy Actually Prevents Abuse,  by Steven Tracy

The Culture Wars Over “Family Values”: Are Evangelicals Fighting the Wrong Battles in the Wrong Way and Losing Badly? by Steven Tracy

For a critique of  heavy-patriarchy Christian cults, especially the “Quiverful” movement, see Quivering Daughters.

Man and Woman, One in Christ,  by Philip Payne. This book does not deal with abuse in depth, but it is a carefully reasoned and very well researched contribution by a man who spent 37 years studying the scriptural texts that pertain to gender issues.

20 Comments

  1. J. Ann

    I agree that we do need to know what the issues are, and I have been doing a lot of reading recently about complementarianism and egalitarianism. Barbara’s information is excellent. What concerns me is the infighting among conservative evangelicals that detracts from spreading the Gospel. It reminds me of a quote from one of the demons in Frank Peretti’s novel Piercing the Darkness.

    “These humans are only of flesh, of mud, and I suggest there is one force stronger than their zeal for God: their own self-righteousness! We will make them proud, pure in their own eyes, vindictive, unjust judges over each other, and stir up such a noise among them that the simplest prayer will not be uttered!”

    Yes, please stay focused on the mission. I will keep praying for you, and join in as God leads. Now that I have been set free I am focusing on helping others get free as well.

  2. Anonymous

    Okay, here is my reply to this. I am speaking here, about a marriage where there is no abuse, but I pray it will help those who are in abusive marriages, to see why they are free not to submit to their abusive husbands.

    I believe the Bible specifies specific roles in life and in the Church, for men and women. I have studied this for years and years. They are not oppressive and never abusive, when performed as Christ intended. As far as the role of headship and submission, this is what I believe about that. A wife is NEVER commanded to submit to sin, period. She is to stand her ground in the Lord and refuse, respectfully, to submit to her husband’s sin. Unfortunately, many of us are afraid of our abusive husbands, so we comply, rather than stand. But, the Bible never commands us to give in to their sin, abuser or non abuser. I believe also, that submission to our husbands, is to be “in the Lord” which also means that a wife submits to her husband in his leading, to build the Kingdom. It was meant for instances like this: A husband says, “Hey honey, let’s go down to so and so and minister to the people there”. She is to submit to his request to build the Kingdom of God and either go with him or stay and take care of the home (and/or children) for him while he goes. It means that she is not to hinder his leading to build Christ’s Kingdom, by saying, “Aww, shucks, I thought I would rather stay home and read funny books”. I mean, who can even imagine; a godly husband who wants to build the Kingdom of God, loving his wife and laying down his life for his precious bride (wife), her saying, “no”. That boggles my mind a little, but I guess it happens and that is why Paul had to say, “submit” to him in this way. Whatever. It can be as simplistic as him going to his job everyday. But even then, his thoughts should be, about building Christ’s Kingdom, and she helps him in it, by caring for the other details of his life and home.

    Submission is not just for his own personal whims in life. It is not about a woman bending and slaving and being a “yes” woman. She is to be his helpmeet, to help him build God’s Kingdom, taking dominion in the earth, for the Lord, and for Him alone. This submission role is not intended for a man who has no godly vision or no desire to even serve God, but rather thinks he owns his wife and commands her like the dog. He has lost any authority he had in his role as the “head”, because he is abusing his power and God strips him of his power, when he abuses it. (I learned this from Pastor Crippen) The wife is free to share her heart with her loving and godly husband, and encourage him and even correct him, when she has good advice for him, or thinks he is in error. *sigh* He actually listens to her too. Her command from God is to “see that she respects her husband” and so she must come to him in this way. However, if he is a loving husband and not a power monger, he will be pleased to have his God given helpmeet come to him with her ideas and suggestions, because he will know that she is doing what God created her to do. Even if her tone is not what it should be, he will lovingly remind her and embrace the fact that he is responsible for bringing her to Christ and he will lovingly teach her and guide her, without belittling or undermining her. He remembers that she is his greatest blessing and she remembers he is likewise. Do they ever argue? Yes. Do they ever get on each other’s nerves? Yes. They are human, but he loves her like Christ loves the Church and she respects him because of it, just like she respects and honors Christ, who is his head, because Christ laid down His life for her too. He is to be Christ to her, here on earth, and she is to be like the Church should be to Christ, in the way she treats him.

    Okay, so maybe I am dreaming here, but this is what I believe the verses in the Bible mean, when they speak of role distinctions and headship and submission.

    Abuse, is a whole other story. There can be no loving submission. You cannot submit to his sin, but you find yourself submitting, all the time. Only, it really isn’t submission, it is fear. Just remember, you are not in sin, because you are not required to submit to his sin, ever, at anytime. God help us.

  3. I think that one of the big problems in this for abused spouses is that the sins that the abuser demands of the victim are often hard to identify as ‘SIN’. There is a video of John Piper talking about how Submission doesn’t mean a woman has to comply with sin, and Piper gives the example of a husband who wants his wife to take part in a three-some.
    Well clearly, that is Sin, big time. But most abused spouses aren’t under pressure to take part in three-somes (some are, I know, but it’s not all that common).

    Most abuse victims face much more subtle things: Should I overlook my husband’s disrespect when he swears around the house, when he calls me names, when he makes a snide remark about my family or my clothes or my housework? Should I turn a blind eye when he is a bit domineering to the kids? Should I tell a white lie to his boss, so he can have a day off work? Should I promise the creditors “We will pay you next week” when we might be able to pay them – but we probably won’t. It’s these kinds of moral dilemmas, each of them small in themselves, but laid on top of the other every day, every week, every year, that the abused spouse faces … and doesn’t know how best to respond to. Should I submit to my husband by telling this white lie? Should I let him mistreat the children because that’s the best way to show him respect and raise the children to respect and honor their father?

    Need I go on? John Piper and his crowd appear to have no appreciation about this stuff. Yet it’s the very meat and potatoes of abuse. It’s the perennial wear-you-down-to-a zero moral dilemmas that leave the victim exhausted and bewildered and wondering “Have I done the right thing, or the wrong thing?” And when her spouse or her pastor declaim “You should submit more to your husband!” she has no answers except exhaustion and despair, so she climbs back onto the mouse wheel and runs (or limps) as fast as she can, getting nowhere.

    • Marisa

      Oh my goodness Barbara I can relate so much! Thank you for the encouragement.

      • EMSoliDeoGloria

        Exactly, Barbara. Or when submission is interpreted as a wife obeying her husband’s conscience even if it is in violation of her own. Thus he is allowed to have a conscience (in fact, his becomes family law) but she isn’t. Thus she is literally trained to avoid exercising wisdom and discernment. And then, after being conditioned to unquestioningly obey her husband and fulfill his vision for the family, she is expected to stand up to him courageously when he asks her to do something that is clearly sin.

    • Anonymous

      So well said Barbara. You are clearly aware of the real issues women face in abusive marriages.

    • Ginger

      I agree. This is the hardest place to be in all of life.

  4. So well said, EMSoliDeoGloria. Sounds like you’ve been there done that.

    • EMSoliDeoGloria

      My family of origin was a mess and the mess included DV. I had to deal with the emotional aftermath of those experiences in some very unfun ways when I was in my 20s. I also have a lot of experience on the edges of the patriarichal segment of the homeschooling movement. Thankfully, I’m married to a wonderful man who is fully my partner in life – we get to encourage each other in the Lord and enjoy a relationship characterized by mutual respect, love and service.

  5. J

    I am walking through the nightmare so many others have already. The church believes my husband and an elder and lay counselor from the church are testifying on his behalf. It is crazy! I remember getting to the point i hated hearing the word submit. Wanted to share some quotes I have heard……Love does not exist where there is no free will.
    The wife’s submission is to a “lover” not a “boss.”
    A husband’s leadership is about serving not to lord over his wife.

    • Anonymous

      Hi J. Can you go to another Church and try to get help and support from them and explain your situation? Could you just leave? Are you a member there and if so, have they threatened to bring charges against you? Lots of questions, but to get the best answers, it may help to know those things.

      You are right, a husband is called to lay down his own life, for his wife and he is not to lord it over her. He is to be a loving example, like Christ Himself is to His Bride, the Church and in turn, just as the Church submits to Christ, the wife submits to her “loving” God-fearing husband. If he is abusing, then he is not loving you and has in fact, broken his end of the marriage covenant. Please tell me you are not doing couple’s counseling with the elder(s).

    • Memphis Rayne

      Ugh J. That is horrible, the same thing happen to me, my MIW spawned out to a smaller church we had begun to attend, secretly attended the mens groups, infiltrated to the degree they were willing to show up at a contested restraining order hearing to support him!!! They never talked to me once, but judged me by everything he had cried about to them…it was a horrible experience, of course I showed up on my own with no support which just emolded him. Fortunately that day, they all got spanked by the judge, the Deacon actually went up on the stand to testify to what he had “”heard” to testify as to what he had “seen” which amounted to he had seen “”nothing” in regards to us being together, and somehow this so called Christian man felt justified to be there and testify with knowledge of anything against an innocent woman and her children who were trying desperately to protect themselves…….this guy looked like a fool, the MIW blew up when he realized they were being laughed at, then got escorted out of the court room….no doubt these idiots STILL align with him and any reasoning he gives them. Ugh!! The whole thing is just awful to think about, no wonder then I had lost 1/3rd of my bodyweight, the stress was beyond what I could expect my body to take on. I really like “”Love does not exist where there is no free will” Its hard to believe these people can do what they do to innocent victems, and still think they are Christians? Seriously the word Submit is so thrown around to beat down the oppressed, if we were married to true godly spouses, then you wouldnt need somebody else cramming there own crap down your throat all the time…..if we were married to true Christians we wouldnt need to hear or talk about submission, it would just be. For me it was a constant thorn to hear, and I woud sit with no words, just looking out the window, picturing myself tied to a tree, and reapedtly bieng whipped by these people until I lost all consciousness….it was that kinda misery, fear and doubt that made me realize God did not truly exist in that place, or in my spouse.

      • Memphis Rayne

        …oh and I also went through a time where I thought only “IF” they new or understood…then it would be different, naturally they would drop him and align with my kids and I, and rally in support of us. Unfortunately in most cases they do know, and they do understand. And then the most important thing becomes, how to cover these things up, A lot of times because they also, do not want to be exposed for what they are.

  6. Child of the One True King

    Like everything I read on here just brings me to tears.. because it’s so relieving to hear someone who “gets it.” I get a lot of support from going to support groups… and it’s so helpful, but it touches my heart on another level to hear these things from a sister in Christ. God is really working through you.. it’s like hearing Him say “Child, I know the pain you’re going through, I love you..and I don’t expect you to stay in this abuse.” Thank you for being a vessel God can speak through.

  7. Anna

    Since me and my two girls left our abusive husband/father, we have been staying with my mom and feel obligated to attend her traditional type church. My oldest told me the other day that in Sunday school, the teacher told her class that they should “stand by their men, even if they treat them bad, so that the love of God will show in them, etc.” I’m paraphrasing here, of course. Mind you, these kids are only like 11 or 12 years old. why are they starting so early to preach these kinds of messages? Obviously, it didn’t sit well with my child because she watched her dad abuse me so long and even my mom (who is a member of the church) tells me I do not deserve the abuse and no one should be in an abusive relationship. When we move, I’m going to find us another church or maybe none at all if I cannot find one that preaches the truth about the whole submission thing.

  8. Anna, your experience is very very common, sad to say. So much of the church is blind to domestic abuse and so isn’t concerned about the fact that careless teaching about headship and submission is playing into the hands of abusers. Abusers know this, and they definitely gravitate to churches where headship and submission is emphasised woodenly, and also to churches where abusers are not disciplined because of the yes-men boys-club mentality.

    And IMO, many egalitarians have not grasped the covertly evil tactics of domestic abuse well enough either. And prioritising the push for gender equality in church leadership has meant that domestic abuse is rarely prioritized: she’s the Cinderella in the comp-egal debate (except when either side want to play the righteous indignation card to score points).
    Sitting in the ashes, with few fairy godmothers to rescue her.

  9. Jennifer

    When I saw the word “Reformed” in reference to a faith, I have to admit, it invokes fear for me. My ex husband and I had joined a very small reformed type church, that was very legalistic. Just a few of the issues I had were, We were required to home school or children, disciplining children included beating them into submission, and of course my role was to always submit to my husbands will, regardless of my own conscience. I recognize homeschooling for many can be a great experience for them and their family. For me, it was absolute torture. The way to discipline our children was also very destructive in our circumstances, and took part of my soul every time I did it. Any time I cried about these issues, or any issue that caused me to pause, I was always met with the same resolve, ” why are you denying and against Gods will”, which of course broke me even more. I can’t even begin to try and explain what hearing that constantly while feeling in your heart something is wrong, did to me. It actually took me years after leaving my husband to even start to grapple with these issues. You start to feel worthless, never good enough, and feeling like you are not worthy..of anything. I reached such a low point, that when I decided to leave my husband I made some horrible choices. Felt an affair was the easiest and quickest way to get out…I knew he wouldn’t want me after that. I even ended up giving him complete control in our parenting plan with our children in fear that my ex would feel so threatened, that I may never see them again. I’m thankful for hearing some of the things you’ve said Barbara, I’m glad that I didn’t let my fear over a silly word (reformed) scare me away from digging deeper into this site. And I thank you for giving a clearer picture of what abuse can mean. I was never beaten physically, hence why I personally struggled with what happened to me. But where I was able to start, was that faith/religion/scripture isn’t suppose to make you feel like trash and worthless. I pray that those who are struggling the way I did and still am, find their way here.

    • Jennifer, what a testimony! You were spiritually and emotionally and psychologically abused in great measure, and then (like so many of our readers) you still ‘struggle’ with what happened to you because you were ‘never physically beaten’. Your ex did not physically beat you — he was beating you down in so many other ways, he didn’t need to beat you physically to maintain control. And that church was his ally. I’m so glad you found us.

Trackbacks

  1. Resources on headship, submission and family values « A Cry For Justice
  2. Twisted bible verses found in the Patriarchal bible | A Cry For Justice

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