A Cry For Justice

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

Abuse and the Puritans: A Puritan Theology, Doctrine for Life — a new book by Beeke & Jones

I just received my new copy of A Puritan Theology, Doctrine for Life by Joel Beeke and Mark Jones, 2012.  It is touted on the Westminster Bookstore website as one of the most important books published on this subject.  It is really a kind of systematic theology drawn from the writings of the Puritans, and I am glad to have it.

Now, in days gone by I would have grabbed up this book and turned immediately to the sections on the covenants, on sin, theology proper, and so on.  Not anymore, as much as I love those topics.  These days I turn to the table of contents and see if there is anything on marriage and family.  I wasn’t disappointed in this case as there is a section called The Puritans on Walking Godly in the Home.  

There is some good stuff in this section, but let me quote a few paragraphs for you here and then open things up for your comments and observations, good or bad.  Tell us what you think of what is said.  Here we go:

Lead Your Family with Justice and Mercy

In Psalm 101:1, David prefaced his commitment to integrity by saying, ‘I will sing of mercy and judgment: unto thee, O LORD, will I sing.’  David Dickson (c. 1583-1662) observed that David’s determination to ‘sing’ of these matters showed that he saw his first duty as a leader as being ‘to delight himself in all royal virtues.’  Specifically, David was rejoicing in ‘mercy and judgment’ because ‘all the duties of righteous government may be comprehended under these two heads, mercy and judgment; for mercy taketh in the care of the poor, needy, oppressed, or injured, and judgment taketh in the care of equity and righteous dealing among his subjects.’  Thus heads of households must lead their families with both love and righteousness.

Given the stereotype of Puritans, one might assume they were harsh legalists at home.  But this is not the case.  Following Ephesians 5:25 and 6:4, the Puritans called men to compassion and kindness toward their families.  William Gouge wrote, ‘No duty on the husband’s part can be rightly performed except it be seasoned with love…. His look, his speech, his carriage [or conduct], and all his actions, wherein he hath to do with his wife, must be seasoned with love…. As salt must be first and last uon the table, and eaten with every bit of meat, so must love be first in an husband’s heart, and last out of it, and mixed with every thing he hath to do with his wife.’

Gouge likewise warned against ‘too much austerity and severity’ on the part of fathers to their children such as ‘sourness in countenance, threatening and reviling in words, too hard handling, too severe correction, to much restraint of liberty, too small allowance of things needful.’

A father must correct his wife and children, but with gentleness, fulfilling the law of Christ (Gal 6:1-2).  Samuel Lee (1625-1691) said, ‘Let seasonable and prudent rebukes be administered, according to the nature and quality of their offenses.  Begin gently; use all persuasive motives to draw and allure them, if possible, to the ways of God.  Tell them of the rewards of glory, of the sweet society in heaven; endeavor to satisfy their hearts, that God is able to fill their souls with such joys as are not to be found in the creatures.’

At times, rebuke is needed, even rebuke with holy anger if a family member persists in sin.  yet even here the Puritans cautioned against ‘passions’ and ‘horrid noise and clamours,’ as Lee said.  Rebuke should be administered humbly and respectfully.  He wrote, ‘A wife ought not to be rebuked before children and servants, lest her subordinate authority be diminished…. Yea, for smaller offenses in children and servants, if they be not committed openly, rebuke them apart, and in private.  But, above all, take heed thou be not found more severe in reproving faults against thyself, than sins against the great God.’  In ruling your family with justice and mercy, Lee counseled fathers to distinguish between weaknesses, sin not committed in blatant defiance, and open, scandalous, and persistent rebellion and to wink at the first, merely frown upon the second, and to reserve sharp and public rebukes for the last.”

Alright then, there is a Puritan theology of family, in part.  I think we can all agree that there is positive instruction here that if heeded could do much good in helping a father be a good, Christian father and husband.

But herein also lies the danger.

You will notice that the authors include no mention of how the wife ought to go about rebuking her husband.  None.  It is my contention that this kind of presentation of allegedly biblical doctrine of marriage and the family is one of the factors that is producing and enabling abuse in our churches and homes.  It is what we fail to say that is the problem, and to an extent what we DO say.

Do you notice in these paragraphs that the wife and children are lumped together?  Now, perhaps the Puritans didn’t do so, but Beeke and Jones made these selections, edited them together, and made this presentation.  And what you have presented here is a father ruling over wife and children, but no mention is made of his accountability, his being corrected when he needs it, and so on.

And when we do this, we fail to teach the doctrine of husbands, wives, marriage, and family biblically.  Why in the world do we think that God gave Eve to Adam?  As a child?  Of course not.  As part of himself, as a co-regent in creation.  Whatever any of us believe about the role of the husband and the role of the wife, be we complementarian or egalitarian, we must stop presenting the blueprint for marriage, parenting, and family in the way it is presented here.  Why?  Because this kind of presentation is fodder for the abuser.  Let an abuser read this section and guess what?  HE WILL LOVE IT!  Oh yes, there are the parts about mercy, about love being in everything the husband does, but the fact that we read here of the husband this, and the father that, and how the husband/father is to correct his wife and correct his children, is the real content that sinful flesh is going to latch onto.  Here is POWER, and it is sweeeeet.

Ok, enough from me.  Now you all dive in.  and lets see what all we can learn from this.

17 Comments

  1. Jeff: I’ll be blunt. This part gives me the creeps: A father must correct his wife and children

    Is this implying that the wife is on the same level as the children, with husbands above?

    • Jeff Crippen

      That is certainly the way it will be interpreted by a wicked man. There is no development at all here of the wife as co-heir in Christ, as co-ruler of Adam, or even as an ADULT in contrast to the children. I don’t think the Puritans put a wife on the level of the children, but these sections selected by the authors of this book in this presentation are definitely going to communicate that to husband/fathers and if it is not corrected, as I said, it is gasoline on the fire of abuse. I love the Puritans as a source of theological studies, but dare we encourage our people to go back to their era and pattern their homes and marriages after them? No.

    • Jeff Crippen

      P.S. – Read in light of our knowledge of abuse and abusers, it creeps me out too.

    • Laurie

      That is what my ex said when he excused the smack to my face which left me unable to open my mouth for a month and gave me whiplash for life…”I was just correcting you.”

  2. I agree with your concerns, Jeff. No matter how well the guidelines for a husband’s conduct in the home are articulated, no matter how qualified and nuanced the teaching is that a husband’s conduct should be seasoned with love and mercy as well as justice (and those quotes you gave do this very well, way better than most modern complementarians do it), the missing ingredient is: What about when a husband needs to be rebuked by his wife? What if the husband takes the ‘power-over’ phrases and twists them to his advantage, while ignoring the rest? What then?

    • Jeff Crippen

      What then? is exactly what we are seeing played out in our churches today. A mess of abuse, enabled abusers, victimized victims.

  3. You are all saying exactly what struck me when I first saw that same line “a father must correct his wife and children.” I am wondering where in Scripture it says a man must correct his wife at all?

    And Jeff rightly pointed out, who corrects this father?

    And why is this father referred to as a father to his wife? Why did they not say “a man must…” though that is still problematic. But who is a wife to their father? Or who sees the marriage relationship as a parent to a child? There are certain responsibilities parents have to children that spouses do not have to each other and certain rights spouses have with each other that parents do not have with their children. I will leave it to the imagination to figure out what those are.

    One thing I cannot take away from this text is that a woman is in any way shape or form equal to a man. I am not speaking of egalitarian equality. I am speaking of plain equality. She is one down to him, period.

    • Jeff Crippen

      We have a very good library in our church that has lots of great works written by the Puritans. Not long after we began to study Reformed theology, and really even before, we collected these volumes and I am glad we did. However, if pastors and theologians take these works and quote and apply them as these authors did here, I am telling you that it is trouble in the making. For one thing, they lived a long time ago in another culture and era, under different civil laws. The Puritans were not perfect just as we aren’t. The y were colored in certain aspects by their culture and certainly not all of that was biblical. Men in old Britain had, as I understand it, quite the power and authority over their wives and children that we do not have today.

      So when a church exalts the Puritans and instills their works into the congregation, all kinds of unbiblical conclusions and traditions can develop. It isn’t necessarily the fault of the Puritans, but we end up reading things like I quoted in this blog post and pretty soon what you have is an unbiblical patriarchy that not only will be embraced by abusers, but it can actually – get this – turn good men toward abuse.

      • Bethany

        I saw this very thing play out in my life as my husband and I studied the puritans. We would read sections like this, then we would read about wives submission role and then like clockwork the next time we would fight he would be quoting it back to me and commanding me to submit and obey. I know SEVERAL men who read the Puritans and it creates in them a deeper love for their Savior, wife, and children. Yet in the case of an abuser it is used as ammo.

      • Jeff Crippen

        Bethany – Yes. The thing is difficult to explain in words, but you can see the dynamics in action. Personally I would be afraid to be in a church, for example, that made a huge thing out of the Puritans, constantly quoting them, constantly using their writings as study curriculum, and so on. I think that inevitably such practices will create an environment and culture in a church that will energize abuse. As we use their writings, we have to be prepared to correct them. “Now, look here. Is this statement correct? What do you think about this business of the father correcting his wife and children? Is one’s wife one of the children?” And if we are not going to do that, then we need to leave those books on the shelf.

  4. LorenH

    The New England Puritans are infamous for their treatment of women who had the temerity to challenge their theology.
    Anne Hutchinson, well trained in theology by her father and a follower of Puritan John Cotton taught bible classes to women and then mixed groups. She taught a “covenant of grace” theology which she saw was in opposition to the Massachusetts “covenant of works”. She was famously put on trial, excommunicated and banished from the colony.
    Mary Dyer was less fortunate. She was a Puritan turned Quaker who was banished from the Massachusetts colony for promoting her faith. The body of her stillborn deformed child was exhumed by public officials and held up as a sign of Satanic influence. Upon her return, she was put on trial and sentenced to death. Pardoned at the last minute and banished again, she felt convicted to return. This time she was tried again and the mother of five children was hung in public. It was said of her, “She did hang as a flag for others to take example by.”
    The hanging of Mary Dyer and other (male) Quakers led the King to forbid further capital punishment by the Colony and a revoking of their charter.
    The irony of these Puritans who fled England because of “religious persecution” going on to persecute those of competing faiths is instructional. It was not until they were held accountable by the Crown that this form of persecution ended. I find that pastors and churches that do not accept accountability frequently go in the same direction.

  5. In commenting on the post about Pat Robertson’s disgusting speech, Bethany wrote:

    I think the thing that struck me most about what Pat said was that the relationship between a father correcting a child and a husband correcting a wife are one in the same. My husband loved to “put me in time-out” or “send me to my room” just like I was one of the children. It made me sick as I was hearing Pat use the same language.

    Here’s my response to Bethany:
    It’s really important that we hear stories like yours on this blog. “Normal” Christians who have not brushed up close with domestic abuse may find it hard to believe that some husbands treat use ‘disciplinary’ tactics on their wives just the same as they use on their children. It’s mind boggling, for a naive Christian. And when Ps Crippen writes on the dangers of the Puritan teaching which refers to wives and children as being equally submitted to husbands/fathers, not many Christians can grasp what this morphs into in the hands of a wicked abuser. So your story brings people right up close with reality. It really IS that bad!

  6. The commments remind me of material I read re; ‘ Biblical Patriarchy movement ‘ It sounds very familiar – Scary indeed!

  7. I think a little more understanding of the Puritans should be found and a little less projecting our own modern value systems. I wont go into great detail but the reality is that the world the Puritans lived in held no regard for children and little for women. In fact childhood as know it did not even exist. A child was simply an unformed adult. The Catholic faith treated women and children far worse, as did more secular societies (as much as any society was secular at the time). By comparison the Puritans were models of how a family should behave. Women were far freer in a puritan household than anywhere else, women could own property, initiate divorce or marriage contracts, own business and hold their own money. And children were seen as integral components of a household with their own unique needs. In fact the very idea of Children’s literature began with the Puritans. Without them, like it or not there would be no Harry Potter, a book devoted strictly to children. They certainly got it wrong, but they were also more prone to self reflect and admit mistakes than other people. Case in point the Salem Witch Trials and the larger witch crisis. Most of the accused were actually fully acquitted. And though those who were executed were certainly innocent the verdicts as they were handed down were done so with very keen scrutiny on what was perceived to be proper conduct. In fact Cotton Mather was very precise on what evidence could be used and he rejected so called purely spectral evidence. By contrast the Catholic church of the Church of England would condemn a person to death based on hearsay.

    We must remember that we live in a different time so you cant simply say that a puritan father or mother was conducting abuse when they beat their children for some infraction because the world they lived in not only allowed it, but encouraged it. We always have to keep in mind the world a people lived in is not always the same as that which we live in.

    Having said this, the Puritans are a wonderful model of how to live lived with a focus on the divine. But this does not mean that they are a good example of how to live lives in general terms.

    • Jeff S

      Interesting perspective Candlewycke. I must admit I don’t know much about the culture of the Puritans, but it strikes me that writings taken out of cultural context do have the potential to be destructive.

  8. Sandisk

    Just came across this thread and thought I’d add a bit to it. (I’m a professor and historian specializing in the 1600s, currently researching my third book, this one on wife abuse in that period.)
    Some things to remember about the Puritans.
    (1) Massachusetts Puritans were the first people in history to make wife abuse against the law. You can read it for yourself in their 1641 Body of Liberties at http://archive.org/details/coloniallawsofma00mass, page 51). Try this link to go directly to that page: http://archive.org/stream/coloniallawsofma00mass#page/50/mode/2up, where you can see it in the original handwriting. Note Law # 80: “Everie marryed woeman shall be free from bodilie correction or stripes by her husband, unlesse it be in his owne defence upon her assalt. If there be any just cause of correction complaint shall be made to Authoritie assembled in some Court, from which onely she shall receive it.” (By the way, the Puritans were also the first to make cruelty to animals against the law.)
    (2) The Puritans were also the first to liberalize divorce, making true divorce (not just legally recognized separation) available to women and allowing them to marry another person after divorce. This was radical stuff for the time, and it flowed from the Puritan view that marriage was not a religious sacrament (as the Catholic Church had insisted for many centuries) but a civil contract between persons.
    (3) Scholars have long recognized that the Puritans revolutionized the West’s view of nuptial relationships by their emphasis on “companionate marriage,” that is, marriage based on mutual love and commitment between the man and the woman (rather than on pursuit of money, social standing, political advantage, etc.). The foundations of our entire way of looking at marriage we owe to the Puritans.
    (4) The Church (Catholic) had grown profoundly corrupt over the past 1,500 years or so, insisting that Church traditions carried more authority than Scripture. To note but one example, priests and prelates were not allowed to marry (so that they could, in theory, devote themselves entirely to God’s work), but they were allowed to keep concubines (despite the Bible’s strict prohibition against fornication) because, it seems, men do have their needs. So Puritanism was, at its core, a “back to the Bible” movement. The Puritans believed that the Bible was the absolute, inerrant, verbally inspired word of God (both Old Testament and New). Not that it merely contained the word of God, much less that is was just a good moral guide, but that it was the literal word of the true and living God.
    Bottom line for Puritans? If the Bible says do it, then do it. If the Bible says don’t do it, then don’t do it. The problem with physical correction of a wife is that this was not clearly addressed in the Bible. It was in the case of children (see Proverbs, 13:24 for example, spare the rod, etc.). In marriage, the husband is to rule over the wife and she is to submit to him in all things (except the ungodly or the illegal), see Ephesians, etc.
    But what if she refuses to submit? The husband can rebuke, encourage, admonish, teach, etc., all as part of his authority over her. But can he physically correct her the way every other superior/inferior relationship worked (master/servant, parent/child, king/subject, magistrate/citizen, and so on)? Does the right of physical correction follow logically from the superior/inferior relationship?
    The Puritans themselves were divided on this one. Some said it is, logically, a necessary part of all such relationships (if one has authority, one must have the means to enforce that authority). But, they insisted, physical coercion should only be used as a last resort and, in the case of the husband/wife relationship at least, could only be “moderate correction” (meaning what no one seemed able to define). Some said yes, it is an inescapably logical option, but unwise in its use (because beating someone into submission only breeds resentment, even hatred, of the beater, and so it is counter-productive).
    On each end of these “middle” positions, others took their stand. Some said physical correction, even severe correction if necessary, was always acceptable so long as it was done out of love and not in anger (just as with parent/child relationships). Others, taking up the opposite end, said physical correction (moderate or otherwise) was never acceptable within a marriage because the Bible does not clearly authorize it. The Puritans who migrated to Massachusetts in the 1630s were among this last group (or at least their leaders were – not everyone agreed).
    If anyone is interested, we can talk more on this.

    • Jeff Crippen

      Thank you for this history, Sandisk. Quite interesting. I do think that the information you provide here supports the main point of this blog article – that God’s Word must remain our foundation and that an undue emulation of human beings, such as the Puritans, is going to lead to repetition of their errors. Wives are not inferior to husbands according to Scripture, even in a complementarian understanding of the husband/wife economy. Wives are not like children, to be corrected and chastised and disciplined (other than as any other believer might be corrected by another believer). Like any group of human beings, though they hold to the authority of God’s Word, the Puritans embraced different, and sometimes wrong, notions of husbands and wives and marriage and family. Much was noble, some was not as you have indicated (i.e., authorization of physical “correction” – we would call it abuse – of a wife).

      Consequently, I would reiterate that if a local church immerses itself in books like the one reviewed here or other writings of the Puritans, and sets out to imitate the Puritan marriage and family, losing hold on Scripture as one’s only certain and sure anchor of truth, trouble is going to ensue. And it will ensue exponentially in the hands of an abuser whose mindset is one of entitlement to power and control.

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