Benevolent Lording Over
As you may know if you’ve read my Disclaimer, I say that my citation of a given article doesn’t mean I support and agree with everything at a site. But on the other hand, it also means I don’t condemn or disagree with everything at a site if I select an article for criticism. A case in point is Middletown Bible Church; I’ve read some good articles and arguments there. But the one called Me Obey Him? isn’t, shall we say, one of their best.
The article is a critique of a hard patriarchy book by the same title, and you can find the reference to that book there. It serves as a classic example of arguing for “the lesser of two evils”, or degree versus kind, and tries to build a wall between hard and soft male supremacy in the Body of Christ. And in my critique of their critique, I’ll henceforth refer to this article as SOFT and the book as HARD.
SOFT begins by rightly exposing the HARD error of “absolute and unconditional obedience” of a wife to a husband. Though SOFT doesn’t use the word ’idolatry’, that’s exactly what such a view is. Citing 1 Peter 3:1 (see my view on the passage here), they point out that Peter’s advice is to a believing woman married to an unbelieving man. They don’t include the cultural context however, which explains Peter’s rationale. A woman in such cultures had little hope of proselytizing with words, so her best and only option was to be the model wife in that culture.
SOFT thus recognizes the error of making a believer sin in obedience to an unbeliever, but fails to recognize the absurdity of trying to apply the “wordless witness” to all cultures and times. And rarely does anyone ask why Peter does not likewise address believing husbands with unbelieving wives. But when we know the cultural context, we understand that the husbands were free to do whatever they wanted, including forcing their wives to worship their gods. That means there was no equivalent problem for Peter to address to the men. Conversely, had he meant to set up household codes, he would have included the husbands as well.
Under “The Meaning of Ephesians 5:24 in Context”, SOFT intends to contrast HARD’s misapplication of 1 Peter 3:1 with Paul’s instructions to marriages of believing husbands and wives. SOFT recognizes that this is an ideal and that Christian marriage illustrates our unity and intimacy with Christ. But then there’s the giant, screaming negation of that picture of perfection, trying to hide under the rug: the wife must be subject to her husband as if he is Christ. Of course they use “softer” terms, similar to what the English text typically reads, but the meaning is obedience to an authority; just ask any of the celebrated PMS (patriarchy/male supremacist) teachers. (Please see this article for my analysis of Ephesians.)
Then starts the excuses and hair-splitting: the wife only has to “obey in EVERYTHING” (their emphasis) as long as her husband loves her “as Christ loves the church”. SOFT doesn’t stop to consider what this does to the wife: it puts the entire burden of the marriage on her shoulders, because it’s up to her to discern when her husband is not doing his part or not obeying God. She is the de facto “head” under this teaching, and gets all the blame if things go wrong, but never gets the glory when things go right; he reserves it all. The rationale is that the wife is simply modeling the church while the husband models Christ, but this is life, not a play to act out. What Paul means by marriage as an illustration of Christ and the church is the powerful laying privilege down for the powerless; see Phil. 2:5-11. It cannot mean having the husband play “Father” to his wife’s “Son”, a disgusting illustration if there ever was one, because as I said this would be idolatry. To emphasize: the husband is NOT divine, and to treat him as if he were is idolatry.
Of course all SOFT believers scream that this charge is untrue and a straw man, but under “The Husband in the Place of God”, HARD comes right out and says it, and a clearer definition of idolatry could not be made. But is SOFT any different? Not according to this article, since their whole point of disagreement with the book is that this idolatrous relationship does in fact exist in a marriage where both spouses are Christians. SOFT also adopts the “husband as priest over family” view in saying “the husband stands in the place of Christ”. How is this different at all from HARD’s “She is to obey her husband as if he were God Himself”? How is this not idolatry?
As is to be expected, SOFT tries to equate the intimacy and unity of marriage with civil government, citing the ever-popular proof-text of Rom. 13:2. Aside from this ridiculous false analogy, SOFT wants to use it as an escape hatch for the de facto “head” whenever her non-divine “christ” drops the ball. But what happened to “obey in EVERYTHING”? The Romans verse says no such thing and thus Christians are allowed to disobey if they must. But Paul left nothing to the imagination in Ephesians, according to both SOFT and HARD, so how can this verse apply even if we allow the false analogy? This is the kind of inconsistency that is required to prop up bad theology.
The next few headings then turn to the OT to justify Christian civil disobedience. While HARD is exposed for trying to say that the wife is never responsible for her own sin as long as she obeys her little christ, the problem of false analogy still remains. And while citing some situations in Acts where believers disobeyed civil authorities, SOFT should have at least mentioned Ananias and Sapphira as the glaring proof that the wife is still personally responsible for sin. But under the part on church attendance, SOFT actually takes HARD to task for not demanding that women go to church!
Under “Facing Reality”, SOFT turns back to its “disclaimer theology” where the wife only has to obey if the husband is “filled with the Spirit”. There the ugly “reality” of the (loudly denied) consequences of PMS teaching comes to light. Women suffer under such teachings. It’s obvious to SOFT when the perps are HARD, but not when the “Christian” husband does the same things. SOFT would assure us that a true Christian husband would never make his wife sin, but the “reality” is that it happens all the time, and SOFT needs to “face” it. If, as SOFT argues, the wife “is to be a believer first”, then as I argue, she is the de facto “head” of the man and the true spiritual leader.
I want to point out one part of that section that illustrates a point made many times by Suzanne McCarthy: women are responsible under the law and cannot get out of it by appealing to husband authority so that he takes the blame and pays the penalty. Since the law holds her responsible, to put a woman under a man’s authority means she winds up paying for his sins! But such logical conclusions, proved daily, fly right over the heads of both SOFT and HARD... not to mention the fact that a lifetime of wifely dependency makes a woman utterly incapable of coping if her male guardian(s) die or abandon her. THAT is “reality”.
The “Conclusion” expresses agreement with HARD’s “central thesis”, which is obviously that a Christian wife is under the authority of her Christian husband; they agree in principle but just not degree. HARD’s position is actually stronger because of its internal consistency, while SOFT has to concoct exceptions and excuses. Neither can see how their views lead to absurdity in practice, as well as violations of over-arching principles such as “not so among you”. One cannot argue for “believer first” at the same time as “husband first, except...”; it’s this sort of attempt at playing both sides of the ball that leads to Talmud-esque rulebooks on how to “play roles”, with a different Talmud for each point on the spectrum from SOFT to HARD.
The “Word of Warning” is the “man behind the curtain” that exposes the true nature of PMS: why is a warning necessary, if the teaching is sound? Why is it necessary if such things as listed there never happen? Power and control, to any degree, are the last things a sinner should have over others. Put a fallible husband in charge of a fallible wife, and you’ll get the ruined marriages, hollowed-out and suicidal women, infantile and self-centered men, and cultic Pharisee behavior we see today.
The “response to the study” is Exhibit A to prove this point, citing professing Christian husbands abusing their wives. The cause, it must be emphasized, is PMS teaching of any kind, not just the HARD kind, because this SOFT article never bothers to tell Christian wives exactly how to discern good and evil better than the husbands they’re supposed to learn spiritual things from! Thus the poor Christian woman is left holding all the weight and responsibility and has to figure out for herself how this works in “reality”.
Want to truly free women from abuse and make them “believers first”? Drop the control and stop treating a woman like a child who needs an adult male to watch over her. Stop “swallowing a camel” by blowing chains of command all out of proportion to love and service, and trying to graft multiple “heads” into the Body of Christ. The example of Christ, for ALL believers, is to lay privilege aside and seek to serve instead of boss... however “benevolently” one might claim to exercise that lordship. And ladies, that means no more idolatry. Period.