“The rule is, jam to-morrow and jam yesterday—but never jam to-day.”
“It must come sometimes to ‘jam to-day,’” Alice objected.
“No, it ca’n’t,” said the Queen. “It’s jam every other day: to-day isn’t any other day, you know”
― Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There
Last week I covered the complementarian argument that Adam’s sin was failing to prevent Eve from being tempted into sinning. This specific bogus claim is part of a larger pattern where headship alternates between being denied (or minimized to irrelevance) and headship being used as a handy club to bludgeon husbands (usually to blame men for women’s sins).
The speed with which the transformation occurs often makes this particular method of complementarian rationalization quite comical. I once attended a sermon where the pastor started by explaining that his wife is in authority over him, and discussed the proper ways she punishes him when he sins. Then, without missing a beat, he went back to Genesis and blamed Adam for not exercising headship and preventing Eve from sinning.
If you look for this pattern you will see it all over. In the movie Courageous there is a scene early on where the wife goes from nagging and bossing her husband Adam around to suddenly being sweet and making a big point of having him be the one who decides if their daughter can attend a friend’s birthday party. As with the sermon I attended, suddenly headship appears out of nowhere, only to vanish just as quickly. The reason is the same; this scene is a setup.
Pastor Doug Wilson plays a variant of this game in his book Reforming Marriage. In Chapter 2 (Headship and Authority) Wilson explains that when he does marriage counseling he starts with the assumption that the man is responsible for all of the problems in the marriage:
When a couple comes for marriage counseling, my operating assumption is always that the man is completely responsible for all the problems. Some may be inclined to react negatively to this, but it is important to note that responsibility is not the same thing as guilt. If a woman has been unfaithful to her husband, of course she bears the guilt of her adultery. But at the same time, he is responsible for it.
Wilson defends this unbiblical assumption by pretending that the husband is like the captain of a ship:
To illustrate, suppose a young sailor disobeys his orders and runs a ship aground in the middle of the night. The captain and the navigator were both asleep and had nothing to do with his irresponsible actions. Who is finally responsible? The captain and the navigator are responsible for the incident. They are career officers, and their careers are ruined. The young sailor was getting out of the Navy in six months anyway. This may strike many as being unfair, but it is indisputably the way God made the world. The sailor is guilty; the captain is responsible. Without this understanding of responsibility, authority becomes meaningless and tyrannical. Husbands are responsible for their wives. They are the head of their wives as Christ is the head of the Church. Taking a covenant oath to become a husband involves assuming responsibility for that home. This means that men, whether through tyranny or abdication, are responsible for any problems in the home. If Christian men had loved their wives as Christ loved the Church, if they had given direction to their wives, if husbands had accepted their wives’ necessary help with their God-ordained vocation, there never would have been room for any kind of feminist thinking within the Church. Christian men who abdicate their God-given authority, or who feel embarrassed about it, are leaving their wives unprotected.
Setting aside the problem of defining biblical roles in marriage based on the rules of a secular organization, note that Wilson isn’t serious when he implies that the husband is in complete command of the home. You can see this in Wilson’s 21 Thesis on Submission in Marriage, where he explains that a husband is not responsible for trying to make his wife submit (or do anything):
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.
The very metaphor Wilson uses to justify his take on marriage counseling is also absurd if you look at it from the other direction. Sailors don’t get to drag their captains to navy counseling where the captain is presumed to be in the wrong if the sailor isn’t happy. Moreover, the sailor doesn’t reserve the legal right to eject the captain from the ship and take over command like wives do. This is important because threats of divorce are inherent in the whole marriage counseling model.
But again, this isn’t about a serious belief in headship, it is about keeping headship around as a handy club and then discarding the club once it is no longer needed. Note how quickly Wilson switches between the two modes in Chapter 3, Duties of Husbands and Wives:
In any discussion of a wife’s duties, we must understand the context of these duties. The previous section did not just give us “the husbands’ part,” with this section giving us “the wives’ part.” Rather, all the responsibilities for wives listed below can legitimately be added to the husbands’ list of responsibilities. Not only is he responsible before God to do his job, he is responsible before God to see that she does hers. And of course, this is not done by bossing her around. It is done through nourishing and cherishing her.
Wilson’s defenders have acknowledged being baffled by his seemingly erratic shifts on the topic of headship, but if you understand the formula that he is copying from other complementarians it is not erratic at all. When headship is useful as a club against men it quite suddenly appears, oftentimes in cartoonish form. Once the club is no longer required, headship is just as instantly redefined back to the feminist friendly role of 99.999% servant, .001% leader.
Related: Hair Shirts and Chest Thumping.