Pastor Doug Wilson has a new post up titled 21 Theses on Submission in Marriage (HT Hmm). Taken individually, most of the theses are good, and parts of the post are excellent. For brevity I’ll focus on what I see as the main flaws in the post, but I would encourage my readers to follow the link and read the whole thing.
One of the key ways complementarians neuter headship is by adding a special rule to husbands; submission is mandatory, they tell us, but husbands must not instruct or try in any way to coerce their wives into accepting their biblical role. As Mary Kassian explains in 7 Misconceptions about Submission, husbands must only love their wives sacrificially, and hope their wife gets the hint:
Misconception #4: Submission is a right—a husband has the right to demand his wife’s submission.
A husband does not have the right to demand or extract submission from his wife. Submission is HER choice—her responsibility… it is NOT his right!! Not ever. She is to “submit herself”— deciding when and how to submit is her call. In a Christian marriage, the focus is never on rights, but on personal responsibility. It’s his responsibility to be affectionate. It’s her responsibility to be agreeable. The husband’s responsibility is to sacrificially love as Christ loved the Church—not to make his wife submit.
Kathy Keller explained the same thing in her sermon on submission at FamilyLife:
Submission is something that a wife gives. It’s not something that a husband can demand.
Coercion, complementarians tell us, is reserved for wives to use against husbands. As Kassian explains:
Submission is neither mindless nor formulaic nor simplistic. Submitting to the Lord sometimes involves drawing clear boundaries and enacting consequences when a husband sins.
And likewise Keller:
He’s controlling, threatening (maybe even abusive). Am I supposed to submit to all of this?”
The answer is, “No!” Your submission to a husband who is sinning against God is to oppose him…
If he’s abusive, call the police—I mean, if necessary—but with the motive of trying to serve and save him—not punish, or dominate, or threaten him…
Note how this inverts biblical instruction to husbands and wives. In the Bible, husbands are to love their wives by actively leading them, by instructing their wives verbally (Eph 5:26, 1 Cor 14:35). Wives, on the other hand, are to win their husbands over without a word, even if the husband is sinning (1 Pet 3:1-2, ESV):
3 Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives,2 when they see your respectful and pure conduct.
I mention all of this as background, because Wilson does something very similar in his 21 theses. His instruction to husbands is to win disobedient wives without a word, and his instruction to wives is to bring in others to coerce husbands who aren’t obeying the word. Read the quotes below from Wilson’s points 5 and 11, and note how similar they are to the quotes above by Keller and Kassian:
- …When the authority of a husband turns rancid, a wife should receive the help of fathers, brothers, friends, and/or elders to help her stand up against it. I have been involved in this sort of intervention more than once.
- The Bible does not teach husbands to enforce the requirement that was given to their wives. Since true submission is a matter of the heart, rendered by grace through faith, a husband does not have the capacity to make this happen. His first task is therefore to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He is to lead by example.
Wilson may not be trying to encourage the rebellion of Kassian and Keller, but at the very least he is inadvertently encouraging this kind of thinking.
I’ll add that the question of a truly abusive husband is a difficult one, and while I’m not aware of any specific direction in Scripture indicating that elders should intervene, I believe that the general instruction regarding following civil authorities as well the instruction on church discipline can be carefully and wisely applied here. But we must be aware that:
- The purpose of the intervention should be to help bring a brother back from serious sin, and to protect the wife. The purpose should not be to help the wife stand up to her husband’s authority, as Keller and Kassian teach, and as Wilson says he has done. The purpose should be Christian, not feminist.
- Abuse has been redefined to mean anything that frightens or upsets the wife, and is being very openly used by feminists as a way to abolish headship and make husbands submissive to their wives. The creators of the pervasive legal and social model regarding abuse (Duluth) are very open about the fact that from the beginning their objective has not been to stop domestic violence, but to stop men from seeing themselves as heads of the household and teach wives to stand up to their husbands.
- When the Apostles Peter and Paul wrote about headship and submission, they did not feel the need to remind wives to monitor their husbands for sin and call in the authorities. Instead, they instructed wives to win sinning husbands over without a word. This was in the ancient world, in a time (as we are forever reminded) when husbands were violent chauvinists. Yet in our age of open feminist rebellion and docile men, no discussion of headship and submission can occur without telling husbands to mind their own business if their wives rebel, and reminding wives to call the cops if the husband is abusive. Was there an embarrassing omission by the apostles, or is this being added to appease the feminist rebellion? Why must the tone and content of the teaching be so radically different today than in the ancient world?
To understand the depth of this perhaps (to some) subtle flaw in Wilson’s teaching, imagine if he had instead told wives to win sinning husbands over without a word, and had encouraged husbands with wives who rebelled against submission to seek out church discipline. Flipping the message like this would have lead to an open rebellion.
The other major flaw with Wilson’s theses on submission is his denial of the nature of the defining feature of our age, the very open feminist rebellion all around us. This is despite initially promising statements in theses 2 and 10:
- We live in a time when honest exegesis is routinely threatened with calumny, and there are frequently honors and rewards for dishonest exegesis. It should not be surprising that we are getting less and less of the former, and more and more of the latter.
- At the same time, because of the curse that followed the Fall, women have a deep resistance to dutiful submission, even though such submission would lead them into the joy and true satisfaction that comes from obeying God. It may or may not improve the marriage (depending on his sin issues), but it will most certainly improve her walk with God. The prophecy that her “desire shall be for her husband” was not speaking of romantic getaways, but rather predicting that there would be a struggle for mastery. So instead of trying to gain mastery over her husband, she should struggle to gain mastery over this besetting impulse within herself.
The problem is that while Wilson recognizes that we live in an age of open feminist rebellion, and while he recognizes that women will naturally be inclined to feminist rebellion, he chalks the widespread feminist rebellion up to men tricking women into feminist rebellion:
- The liberation of women was a false flag operation. The true goal was the liberation of libertine men, and in our day this was a goal that has largely been achieved. These were men who wanted the benefits for themselves that would come from easy divorce, widespread abortion, mainstreamed pornography, and a promiscuous dating culture. The early twentieth century was characterized by the Christian wife. The early twenty-first century is characterized by the tattooed concubine. And these sons of Belial have the chutzpah to call it “progress for women.”
It is true that part of the massive sin involved with our adoption of feminist rebellion involves men, including Christian men, hoping to exploit feminism. But this overlooks the much more pervasive sin by men, the same sin of Adam in the Garden, of listening to women when they should have listened to God. Calling women out on sin is hard, and feels uncomfortable. I know Wilson knows this, because he has written that the idea of confronting women’s sin from the pulpit is so disturbing that other pastors avoid it entirely, and while Wilson is more brave than other pastors the very idea of doing so evokes a kind of nervous laughter.
Cowardice in the Pulpit
And the reason we have such cowardice in our homes is because the example has already been set in our pulpits…
Now suppose—just suppose—the presenting problem in three marriages I am trying to help is the problem of lazy and idle housewives. Is there any practical way, without becoming a Pariah for the Ages, to preach on “Lazy Housewives”? I could get myself into a fit of the giggles just thinking about it.
Moreover, the idea that feminism is merely about a few alpha men wanting to get out of the restrictions of marriage doesn’t pass the laugh test. Not only does our new family structure perfectly align with women’s (and not men’s) preferred form of promiscuity, but the rebellion involves much more than merely destroying the family. Women are acting out their envy of men all around us, and demanding to be placed into every conceivable male role. This includes everything, including men’s sports, combat, and church leadership. Wilson and others observe women demanding to usurp men’s roles, and they tell us men are forcing women to sin. This position requires a parade of embarrassing rationalizations, including the fantastic claim by complementarians that men are forcing women to push their way into combat roles. Wilson is more subtle than complementarians in this regard, but still engages in the same basic thought process. In thesis #7 he describes women finding themselves in leadership roles over men, which he says is driven by male fecklessness:
- The requirement of submission within marriage does not prohibit the occasional circumstance when a woman in civil society finds herself in a leadership role over men. Deborah, Esther, and Lydia come to mind. At the same time, when feminine leadership becomes widespread and common in a society, it is not a sign of progress at all, but is rather a sign of cultural decadence driven by male fecklessness.
Worst of all, by claiming that the feminist rebellion is caused by trickster men who want to exploit the rebellion, Wilson manages to avoid confronting the pervasive sins of both men and women. Men are sinning by being too cowardly to stand up to the rebellion. Women are sinning by giving into the temptation to rebel. Yet Wilson is encouraging women to rationalize this widespread rebellion as something men are making them do, and encouraging men to mind their own business.