St Peter writes: "In the same way, you wives, be submissive to your own husbands" (1 Pet. 3:1). Allow me this interpretative observation and complaint about a complementarian understanding of this passage and this topic. Upon a prima facie reading of this verse, concluding that wives are to be submissive to their husband's leading, they will conveniently dismiss this verse: "just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord" (1 Pet. 3:6). Why do those husbands within a complementarian context not insist that their wives call them "lord"? I am in no sense whatsoever being trite or insincere. I am asking a serious question and I expect a serious response. If a complementarian suggests that wives calling their husbands "lord" was a cultural practice unnecessary of repetition, we can answer that the patriarchal framework in which they existed was also a cultural practice, and if we are to hold to the strict submission of wives to their husbands then those wives ought to call their husbands "lord." In this sense, then, we view a complementarian interpretation a dismissal of context, cultural practice, and a convenience afforded to passages with which they are uncomfortable. (cf. 1 Cor. 7:36-38; 1 Pet. 3:6)
So, complementarians want to interpret the Bible literally and observe all its commands. That is wonderful. Shall we begin with Old Testament sexual ethics? Shall we observe allowances for polygamy, stoning for adultery and homosexuality, marrying conquered virgins in war-torn lands, and slaughtering our enemies, including children? Shall we enforce young teen-aged women into pre-arranged marriages with older men? In an Old Testament culture, notes Jonathan Merritt, "while polygamous and incestuous relationships are not explicitly celebrated, they are regulated by Israel's God-given laws." (link) Obviously, we do not want to interpret the Old Testament in such a way that demands we manage our culture in the same fashion. So, we turn to the New Testament for guidance. We interpret the Old Testament by the New Testament.
But even here we encounter serious problems. The first-century culture is still patriarchal, even if to a lesser degree than previous biblical generations, and also assumes familial practices that no family in this country would welcome or consider a "biblical" model. Consulting this Pauline passage, we can no longer perceive of this as a viable practice, "But if any man thinks he is acting unbecomingly toward his virgin daughter, if she is past her youth, and if it must be so, let him do what he wishes, he does not sin; let her marry." (1 Cor. 7:36 NASB) Do complementarian scholars and lay persons adhere to this model of marrying off their virgin daughters? Of course not, for this practice is deemed ancient, and irrelevant to our culture. Yet, verbally coercing wives to "submit" to their husbands -- without having to call them "lord," of course -- is deemed relevant and "biblical." Why? Who is granted permission to cherry-pick the relevance of a passage?
We need to read and re-read this comment from J. Lee Grady: "The church has, unknowingly, created an environment that encourages abuse."1 (emphasis added) Egocentric men in the Church who imagine themselves God's General and spiritual leader have abused their office with totalitarian-like reigns of terror. If some of them have not themselves victimized their wives or other women, whether verbally, emotionally, psychologically, sexually, or spiritually, then they have covered-up the same, while insisting that wives (women) should "submit" themselves to their husbands or the authority of the men in the church "as to the Lord." Grady writes: "We cite familiar Bible passages demanding that wives submit to their husbands without providing any explanation of what submission means in a practical sense and without outlining what these same biblical passages demand of husbands."2 (emphasis added) What does submission of wives mean?
First a story -- an example of the deplorable consequences of complementarian theory rooted in a patriarchal context. Doris was the wife of an Assemblies of God deacon who endured physical abuse for years, unbeknownst to anyone in her church, except her pastor. This Pentecostal pastor informed her that she was to submit to her abusive husband, to pray for him, but never to abandon him: "He's your husband. You can't just leave him. It's his house. You're his wife. He has authority over you. You must be making him angry."3 So, Doris is treated like an object -- a piece of human property to be used at the disposal of the man -- and then she is blamed for his abusive attitude and practice. She is the victim and the victim is being blamed by the complementarian.
Doris, later, confided in a counselor named Nancie, who tried time and again to encourage Doris to leave her abusive husband, all to no avail. She was fearful of leaving her husband because her complementarian pastor insisted she had no biblically-valid reason for leaving. Nancie later moved to Florida, where she learned that Doris had been murdered by her husband. "As bizarre as it sounds," writes Grady, "this Christian woman was murdered by her own husband, a deacon in a Pentecostal church. Those who counsel abused women say this story is not as unique as it sounds."4 Some Complementarians will read this horror story and insist that I am appealing to emotion rather than properly exegeting Scripture on this subject. But this irresponsible reaction is merely the means by which they protect their cherished interpretative method.
For many of us egalitarians, such an irresponsible reaction is telling, in that they seem to care more about "being right" than they do about the women who are abused. Moreover, they also neglect to address the fact that, at times, complementarianism is instrumentally culpable for the abuse of women, as they are treated as objects over which to be ruled. Grady quotes Martin Luther: "Woman must neither begin nor complete anything without man: Where he is, there she must be, and bend before him as before a master, whom she shall fear and to whom she shall be subject and obedient."5 There can be little wonder why Calvinists, in particular, who follow this dehumanizing view of women are complementarian by default. God did not create a female for the male to rule over -- she was originally created to come alongside the male to help him; implicitly meaning, the man needed help, and the female could, in equal terms, help the man. (Gen. 2:20) God designed both male and female to work together in a coordinate unity (Gen. 1:26, 27, 28). Note particularly, "and let them rule" (Gen. 2:26, emphasis added), not "let him rule."
As for the husband of Doris, he may have been abusive due to a mental disorder, we do not know. The cause for his abuse, however, is irrelevant with regard to the advice of her complementarian pastor, who not only objectified her and blamed her for the abuse, even suggesting that she may be provoking her husband to hit her, but also gave her no way out of the abusive relationship that led to her being murdered. During one session, in which Doris again complained about the abuse, the pastor responded: "Don't worry. Even if you died you would go to be with the Lord. So you win either way. Just keep praying for him. But you are not allowed to leave."6 This is entirely unacceptable. How, exactly, does she "win either way"? If her husband murdered her then she "wins" by being with the Lord? But if he merely continues abusing her, how does she win? From my perspective, the pastor should be charged as an accomplice in her murder.
This post was written by William Birch. Tomorrow we will review part two and references will be provided as well.