A few readers have challenged my observation that when complementarians say husbands are guilty of “not listening” to their wives what they mean is husbands aren’t doing what the wife says. I’ve recently offered multiple examples where complementarians do this (here and here), and so far no one has offered any counter examples. I’ll offer some more examples in a followup post, but we should also consider the different meanings of the expression itself and the context in which complementarians are using it. We should also consider the practical implications in real life marriages of what is at best a terribly vague charge.
Saying someone “isn’t listening” very commonly does mean the person isn’t doing what you told them to do. The distinction comes with the position of the person using it in relation to the person they are talking about. If a boss complains that his employees aren’t listening to him, he isn’t saying they won’t hear him out; he is complaining that they aren’t doing as instructed. The same is true for a parent who complains that their children aren’t listening to them. Outside of feminised Christianity there really is no controversy here. The term does mean not doing as they were told if the person doing the telling is considered to be in a position of authority.
Moreover, while they like to be coy about this fact, modern Christians do see the wife as being in a natural position of authority over the husband. This is why we frequently have Christian wives exhorted to tell their husbands no, set boundaries, and enforce consequences. If a husband were to “set boundaries” and enforce consequences on his wife, the term for this is abuse. Even pointing out that this would be abuse if the sexes were switched is itself a form of abuse. This is the complementarian position.
I have shared a long list of examples where wives are taught to give their husbands the wakeup call when the husband isn’t doing what the wife wants him to do. Joel and Kathy call this lowering the boom. Kathy Keller “submitted” to her husband Tim by throwing a “godly tantrum” and breaking their wedding china. Dr. Mohler explains that it is God’s plan for wives to deny sex if their husbands aren’t doing what they should be doing. In Fireproof the wife brings about God’s will to fix her husband by filing for divorce and starting an affair. In the advertisement for ReEngaged the wakeup-call came in the form of the wife having an affair. In the case of Bill and Vonette Bright, Vonette gave Bill a wake-up call by threatening to leave him and take the kids. FotF’s Glenn Stanton explains that civilization exists because wives make their husbands do the right thing. FotF’s president and Dr. David Clarke explain that God’s plan is for wives to teach and lead their less astute and less virtuous husbands. I could go on further because the examples are everywhere, but will stop at this point.
Having established both:
- The term does mean “doing as I say” when used by someone in authority.
- Complementarians present wives as being in authority over their husbands.
There really can’t be a question as to how complementarians are using the term except for the cloak of deception complementarians use to deny #2. “Listen to your wife” is the perfect expression here, because complementarians can play Motte and Bailey with the two established meanings until everyone tires of the game.
But there is another advantage for complementarians in stealthily selling female headship with this term. When wives disagree with what their husband is doing, their natural inclination is to demand to continue to discuss the question forever. Children do this too, and the effect (even if not done consciously) can be to wear out the decision maker with objections until they relent. In the case of the Kellers, Tim and Kathy tell us that they had discussed the issue of his workload for months before Kathy threw her “godly tantrum”. Tim listened to her concerns about his workload for months, he just didn’t agree to work less. It wasn’t until he agreed with her that he was finally listening. Likewise in the complementarian threesome the couple had discussed the issue for weeks before the husband finally made a decision. For making a decision his wife disagreed with he was deemed unloving and guilty of the sin of not listening.
Even if “not listening” didn’t have the commonly accepted meaning of not doing as told by a superior, this would still be a deviously clever way to enact feminist headship while pretending to honor biblical marriage roles. Wives would be free to continue objecting to every decision they disagreed with forever, and husbands would be in sin if they didn’t continue to listen. The husband would retain full responsibility for all decisions, but the wife is the one who is really in charge. This is the very definition of complementarianism.