The Subordinate Place of Supreme Honor: A Response to Douglas Wilson

‘The Subordinate Place of Supreme Honor’: The Wedding Exhortations of Douglas Wilson

By Valerie Hobbs and Rachel Miller

Dr. Valerie Hobbs researches issues affecting Christian women and families from her home base at the University of Sheffield in the UK. She is also Associate Director of Greystone Theological Institute’s Lydia Center.

Rachel Miller is News Editor for the Aquila Report. She writes at A Daughter of the Reformation.

What is marriage? What is Biblical headship? What is a Christian wife? According to prominent leaders in the Reformed and/or broadly evangelical Christian community, gender roles and sexuality are among the most, if not the most, important issues of our day.

A controversy of major proportions has spread throughout the church. Now more than ever before, gender roles are openly questioned in the wake of evangelical feminism—a movement that is having a profound impact on society, the home, and the church. (John Piper and Wayne Grudem)

What is the confessional issue of our time? The confessional issue of our time is human sexuality, biblically defined. (Douglas Wilson, How to Exasperate Your Wife, Kindle Locations 984-986)

What we believe about our identity as man or woman is central to who we are are individuals, couples, and families and how each of us pursues our life calling…Biblical manhood and womanhood is too important a subject not to think through carefully as a Christian. (Andreas J. Köstenberger and Margaret Elizabeth Köstenberger, God’s Design for Man and Woman, p. 14)

These bold claims, combined with recent events such as the unfolding Duggar scandal and John Piper’s comments about women showing deference to the (presumably male) mail carrier, to whose defense Douglas Wilson quickly leapt, demonstrate a need to examine carefully views about gender and marriage among those with patriarchal leanings. In this article, we focus on the writings of Douglas Wilson, using his often controversial statements about marriage and gender as a means of achieving some understanding of where some of these patriarchal and complementarian church leaders are coming from. What do they mean, for example, when they say things like, ‘So, no. A Christian complementarian woman should not become a cop, especially when it involves riot gear. No.

Why Wilson?

Doug Wilson is regarded by some, perhaps many, as something of an easy target. Certainly, speaking his name among any who recognize it tends to evoke a strong reaction. He has been aptly described as the ‘nonconforming Calvinist who has made so many enemies in Reformed circles that no denomination will have him’. Many of his statements about history, slavery and marriage and the marriage bed are inflammatory, causing many to accuse him of racism and misogyny. And yet, as one writer puts it,

Wilson has quite a following, particularly among Reformed Christians. He’s written

numerous articles for Mark Driscoll’s “Resurgence” blog, has shared a stage with popular pastor John Piper, andhis book on fathering was released by Christian publisher Thomas Nelson in 2012. He has more than 16,000 twitter followers.

In Wilson’s writings, we observe a complexity and contradiction that make it difficult to dismiss his ideas immediately. How do we make sense of views that, on the one hand, espouse Biblical requirements for a husband’s gentleness, contentedness, faithfulness, and Christ-like self-sacrifice (Reforming Marriage, p. 25) and yet, on the other, generate oddly specific guidance on a woman’s hair length, argue that separate careers for husbands and wives are unBiblical (Reforming Marriage, p. 30), and endorse church discipline for a wife’s ‘neglect’ of the dishes (Reforming Marriage, p. 49)?

In this article, we focus on the ways in which Doug Wilson fleshes out what he calls the ‘father rule’ model of marriage. We begin by analyzing some of Wilson’s blog entries to identify the actions, roles and attributes he associates with husbands and wives. We then look elsewhere in his writings to explore how he fleshes these out in a couple’s daily lives.

We find that, at first, Wilson’s exhortations to husbands and wives seem to be words of encouragement designed to prepare husbands and wives for the challenges of marriage. On the surface, husbands are told to die daily, to love their wives in a sacrificial way, as Christ loves the Church. They are exhorted to see their wives as their glory and crown. Wives are instructed to honor and respect their husbands like the Church honors and respects Christ. They are encouraged to help and advise their husbands. All of these ideas sit comfortably, at first glance, within an orthodox, Reformed Christian view of marriage.

However, careful scrutiny of Wilson’s teachings about marriage uncover a concerning theology of marriage wherein the woman is a passive responder, a recipient of all that the man does and brings, a glory that serves merely to reflect the splendor of her husband. In Wilson’s published marriage exhortations and other writings about marriage, we find the practical implications of such views, each of which we will explore in turn, each of which suggest that, in the end, the woman has no self other than what the husband gives to her.

Texts and Technique

Our approach in this piece stems from two main principles:

  1. Language choices reveal one’s attitude towards the topic s/he is speaking or writing about. By systematically examining Wilson’s language choices about marriage, we can cut to the heart of his sometimes elusive views.
  2. Not all words in a text are created equal. Certain words and phrases appear more often than others. By looking at the frequency with which words and phrases in a text occur, we gain insight into what language a writer associates with a particular topic. This concept is known as lexical inequality.

Our discussion is based on analysis of 63 (out of 68) wedding exhortations extracted from Doug Wilson’s blog Blog and Mablog in August, 2015. Five exhortations on the site were excluded because they do not include individual exhortations to the bride and groom.

Our focus is on the particularities of the wedding exhortations given to men vs. women. To do so, we created two sub-corpora (groups of texts). This was done by identifying the place in each exhortation (always towards the end of each exhortation) where the groom and bride are spoken to directly by name and individually. In every case, Wilson speaks to the groom first and then to the bride, although after this, he occasionally switches his attention back to the groom and then again to the bride. Wilson averages 217 words in his individual exhortations to the husband and to the wife, 208 words, only slightly lower.

Once these sub-corpora were created, we then relied on AntConc, a corpus analysis tool, to identify keywords in each sub-corpus. In corpus linguistics, keywords are items of unusual frequency in comparison with a reference corpus. They are calculated via a statistical test which compares each word’s frequency in a text against its expected frequency in another corpus. This test allows us to rule out (to a large extent) the possibility of a keyword appearing more frequently just by chance. For example, the word ‘respect’ occurs 39 times in the wife sub-corpus and 4 in the husband sub-corpus. The ‘keyness score’ for this word is 34.8, which is far above the threshold for statistical significance (around 3.9). Further, in all four times this word appears in the husband sub-corpus, the word is actually referring to the wife’s respect. So we can safely assume that, for Wilson, this concept is strongly associated with being a wife but not a husband.

Once we identified lists of keywords for each group of texts (husband and wife), we were able to look at each in its various contexts and then identify emergent themes. In what follows, we explore two of the most prominent themes: being not doing and receiving/responding not initiating, focusing our attention particularly on the wife sub-corpus. The keywords in these two themes constitute roughly 33% of the total keywords in the wife exhortations and consistently have strong keyness scores, which, again, means that, for Wilson, these themes are central to what it means to be a wife.

Wilson’s Wives

At the heart of Wilson’s theology of the wife is the notion of being something belonging to her husband, signaled in part by the possessive form ‘his’, which appears 75 times in the female sub-corpus and has the 7th strongest keyness score of any word therein. Most frequently, the wife is identified as the husband’s glory (69 times, 5th strongest keyness score) and his crown (32 times) (see examples below). While the phrase ‘your husband’ appears 38 times in the female corpus, these frequently serve as a means of rephrasing this possession, as in ‘You are the glory of your husband’, ‘You are appointed to be your husband’s glory’, and ‘You are the crown of your husband’. The phrase ‘her husband’ fails to appear even once in the corresponding male sub-corpus.

(1)  …this is the day of Blake’s coronation, and you are his crown. (2007-10-20 Blake and Peggy)

(2)  Every wedding of a Christian man to a Christian woman is a coronation. Emily is your crown, your glory, and your symbol of office. (2009-06-13 Nethaniel and Emily)

(3)  You are the crown of your husband; you are to be his glory. He is the steward of grace; you are to be that grace. He is the guardian of peace; you are to be at peace, and not give way to fear. (2012-01-14 Jonathan and Allie)

Other, less frequent images (also possessed by the husband) Wilson identifies a bride with are a garden, a wonder, and a gift. These images are occasionally referred to as ‘stations’ to which a wife is appointed (rather than those she holds by virtue of her inherent worth).

(4) Annike, you are called to be that Garden for him, a place of refreshment and help. You are called to be his glory and crown, and to be, by the grace of God, the kind of Garden he would gladly die to preserve. (2011-08-27 Jonathan and Annike)

(5) I am charging you with the responsibility to be a wonder. This is not beyond your reach—this is what God created women for, and when you step into that role by faith you are working at the center of God’s creation design. The Bible says plainly that women are the crown and glory of their husbands. Accept that honor gladly. (2008-03-16 Brad and Nicole)

(6) The best thing you can do, the way to be the greatest help to your husband, is to be that gift. (2012-10-20 Tyler and Stephanie)

If one can overlook the inherent passivity in being identified primarily with objects rather than actions, Wilson’s connection of wives with these notions sounds like high praise indeed. Why wouldn’t a wife want to be known as the crown that turns her man into a king? What transforming power must a woman have, must a woman actively do, that so revolutionizes manhood! We find, however, that the practical outworkings of this subordinate place of supreme honor, for Wilson, are quite the reverse of what this high language suggests.

The honor, for Wilson, lies, first, in the wife’s role as receiver. We see evidence for these in the exhortations themselves, in the dominance of such keywords in the wife sub-corpus as ‘respond(ing)’/’response(ive)(ness)’ (‘respond’ having the 4th highest keyness score), ‘receive’, ‘back’, ‘return(ed)’, ‘given’, and ‘curtsy’. In the male texts, on the other hand, actions dominate, such as ‘love’ (2nd highest keyness score), ‘dying’/’die’ (6th highest keyness score), ‘sacrifice’, ‘take’, ‘guard’, and ‘stand’.

(7) God has created the world in such a way that when a man sacrifices himself for his wife and family, he is blessed beyond all reckoning in the return. You are the central focal point of that return. He gives and you respond. He initiates and you reciprocate. (2008-03-16 Brad and Nicole)

(8) Jon enacts the death; you are the resurrection. He enacts the sacrifice, you keep it from being a pointless sacrifice. He lays down his life in humility, and you are to be what such humility receives whenever it is exalted and lifted up. (2014-04-13 Jon and Jamie)

(9) Sam is called to imitate the initiative of Christ, to assume responsibility, to sacrifice, to lay himself out for you. God calls him to this; do not try to stop it or interfere with it. Do not feel sorry for him as he gives himself to this, and to you. It is his calling and his glory. Your responsibility is just as challenging, but strikingly different. Where he initiates, you respond. Where he gives, you receive. Do not make his calling more difficult by rejecting it, or by trying to compete with it. This is not cowed docility; it is intelligent femininity. As you honor your husband as the Church honors Christ, you will be growing into your true glory as a Christian woman. (2006-05-13 Sam and Jamie)

Second, we learn that a wife’s role is one of passive response. A husband desires acquiescence, not action. In (10) and (11), we see Wilson’s belief that a crown should accept, not argue, and display gratitude.

(10) Now many men have found themselves having to strive for a crown, but no one really wants to strive with a crown. (2008-01-18 Eddie and Carrie)

(11) A godly wife is a crown and glory for her husband…You are called to be something worth defending…When he takes a hit for you, you should respond with gratitude, but not with anguish or sorrow. He was called to this, just as you were called to this. And what you need to understand is that this kind of feminine respect and responsiveness is a man’’s glory and strength. (2007-06-09 Joel and Christine)

Third, we see that, for Wilson, a wife’s function is to take whatever is given to her (for example, money) and transform it into something useful in her appointed station, the home. Through this process of glorification, we learn that a woman fulfills her purpose, as in (12) through (14).

(12) The man brings home a paycheck, and she turns it into a living room, or bacon and eggs in the morning. Adornment is not a mere add-on extra; adornment is what the universe is driving toward. The woman therefore is the crown of her husband (Prov. 12:4). (2015-05-09 Adorned Clean Through)

(13) He tends the ground, harvests the wheat and gives it to her. She receives it, glorifies it, and returns it to him as bread. This is reciprocity, but it is not symmetrical. When a man loves a woman, she receives him, and she gives his love back to him as a son or a daughter (2007-05-25 Keith and Nellie)

(14) This is what will enable you to take what Caleb gives, turn it over in your hands, adorn it, and give it back to him glorified. This will be true in everything, in small things and in great things. You will adorn paychecks by turning them into glorious meals. You will adorn his love for you with children. You will adorn his table with flowers…Katie, you will be that crown— by faith. (2010-05-21 Caleb and Katie)

These concepts are developed in Wilson’s writings elsewhere, particularly in one of his better known passages on marital sex, wherein he makes plain, via the metaphor of war, that women’s role in sex is surrender.

When we quarrel with the way the world is, we find that the world has ways of getting back at us. In other words, however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts. This is of course offensive to all egalitarians, and so our culture has rebelled against the concept of authority and submission in marriage. This means that we have sought to suppress the concepts of authority and submission as they relate to the marriage bed. (Fidelity: What it Means to be a One-Woman Man, p. 76)

Wilson further highlights women’s passive role in his portrayal of wives as knowing little about sex and even about their own bodies, requiring instruction from their husbands. The husband ‘must teach her and then teach her to teach him’ (Fidelity, p. 135), though, of course, under his guidance and authority, keeping in mind that she is likely to teach him the wrong things, such as the lesson, via lingerie or other sexual accoutrements, that she is a hooker.

A lingerie shower for one of their number is coming up, and so off they go to giggle over things they shouldn’t. ‘What’s the harm?’ The harm is that men are not faithful to hookers. Why should a Christian woman want to look like one? Why on earth would she want to resemble the kind of woman who is easy to use and easier to leave? (Fidelity, p. 155)

This type of one-way instruction extends to other areas as well, where again we are given a picture of the husband as the possessor of wisdom and knowledge and the wife as the recipient. This is visible in Wilson’s act of discouraging wives from reading the advice he gives to their husbands about sex (unless of course their husbands give them a copy of the book).

This book was written for men and their sons. I suggest that wives read this only when their   husbands give it to them, and not the other way around. The introduction mentioned the issue of “straight talk” – and this means, in part, a rejection of euphemism. Some of what is said here may be offensive to Christian women, but the point is certainly not to give offense. The point is to provide biblically specific and pointed help to Christian males. (Fidelity, p. 1)

Such condescending instruction extends to broader theological issues, as well. Wilson’s image of husband is that of ‘resident theologian,’ the implication being that wives themselves are not theologians nor should they strive to be.

A man may not be a vocational theologian, but in his home he is still the resident theologian. The apostle Paul, when he is urging women to keep silent in church, tells them that “if they want to learn something, let them ask their own husbands at home” (1 Cor. 14:35). The tragedy is that many modern women have to wonder why the Bible says they should have to ask their husbands. “He doesn’t know.” But a husband must be prepared to answer his wife’s doctrinal questions, and if he cannot, then he must be prepared to study so that he can remedy the deficiency. (Reforming Marriage, pp. 40-41).

Having bestowed on the husband possession of his wife and jurisdiction over the flow of information, Wilson explains that a husband’s role as initiator and actor and a wife’s as passive receiver stem from a calling given by God. Wilson’s husbands are created for and called to work, and wives are created for and called to support their husbands in that work. Put simply, his calling becomes her calling, as in (15) through (17).

(15) [H]is calling—and now your calling—is a high calling, and worthy of all respect. (2007-08-25 Michael and Rachel)

(16) He accomplishes important tasks in the kingdom of God, and you honor and respect him for it. (2006-06-17 Seth and Naphtali)

(17) He initiates and you respond. He is masculine and you are feminine. He bows and you curtsy. He offers his arm and you take it. He consults you, and you advise him. He gets in over his head, and you are a helpmeet to him. He accomplishes important tasks in the kingdom of God, and you honor and respect him for it. (2006-06-17 Seth and Naphtali)

Wilson explains this further in Reforming Marriage, making it clear that a wife’s work is inextricably linked to and stems from that of her husband.

The fundamental orientation of an obedient man is to his calling or vocation under God. Under normal circumstances, he cannot fulfill his calling alone—he needs help. The fundamental orientation of an obedient woman is to give that help. Another way of saying this is that the man’s orientation is to do the job with her help, while the woman’s orientation is to help him do the job. He is oriented to the task, and she is oriented to him (Reforming Marriage, pp. 64-65).

The implication is clear. A wife does not have her own calling separate from serving her husband’s. In essence, her work is her husband. Again, we see Wilson trying to soften this blow to a wife’s crumbling sense of self, arguing that a woman is not less capable but rather less suitable.

In no way does this mean that women are not competent in many of the tasks they do. A crescent wrench can be used to pound in nails, but that is not what a crescent wrench is for. There are some tasks detached from the home in which women do outstanding work. But just because someone is able to do a job does not mean that he or she is called by God to the task. A wife can do many tasks in the home and find fulfillment in doing them. Her husband, confronted with the same job, is able to do it, but it is like eating gravel for him. He finds no fulfillment; he is not called to the task in the same way she is. (Reforming Marriage, p. 31)

And yet, Wilson adds insult to injury in his declaration that the acts of glorification that women do in the home are distasteful to her husband, ‘like eating gravel’. Not only must she give up her own tasks, but she must resign herself to doing those jobs which a man finds unsavory. Delegating these belittling jobs to wives serves the purpose of giving husbands the space and time to glorify God in their vocation and to make them look good doing it. Wilson considers this a great honor.

(18) You are being given the subordinate place of supreme honor. … As Caspian had to submit to the honor of being made king, so you are being called to submit to a life of growing in glory, and being the glory of another. (2007-05-28 Michael and Kathryn)

Wilson’s Objections and Our Conclusions

No doubt Wilson would strenuously deny that he paints this unsettling image of a passive wife who achieves worth via her reception and transformation of whatever her husband stoops to give to her. Portions of the wedding exhortations state this quite clearly, such as in (19), where he frames the actions of response, etc. as ‘not passive’. In the process of glorifying, wives take action, according to Wilson, but even that action is responsive.

(19) You are to receive, reflect, echo, glorify, and then give it all back. Your role is therefore not passive. Daniel, you initiate. Lydia, you respond. Daniel, you step forward and bow. Lydia, you reciprocate and curtsy. Daniel, you sacrifice in glory. Lydia, you glorify the sacrifice. Daniel, you are death. Lydia, you are resurrection. Daniel, you are the king. Lydia, you are the crown. Daniel, you are the singing of the song. Lydia, you are the hearing of the song. (2008-06-14 Daniel and Lydia)

He argues this point further in How to Exasperate Your Wife, claiming that a wife enjoys her subordinate calling in the home as this is her natural habitat.

None of this means that she is chained to the home; rather, she is within her element there. It is the domain in which she is gifted by God to bear authority. This is not her burden to bear any more than birds are troubled by having to haul their wings around. (How to Exasperate Your Wife, Kindle Locations 173-174)

For Wilson, a happy wife is one who accepts the confines of the housework and childbearing she was made for. But rather than acknowledging the inherent and multifaceted worth, strength and potential of a woman as a human being, Wilson’s exalted words are, in the end, hollow and debasing, masking a reality that ultimately denies the woman a sense of self. Wilson goes so far as to render her invisible in his declaration that when one looks at a bride, s/he should see instead the husband, as in (20) and (21).

(20) With Mary Katherine adorned and arrayed like this, in resplendent glory, if we are thinking scripturally, the thought that should come immediately to mind is this . . . Andrew never looked so good. (2010-07-18 Andrew and Mary Katherine)

(21) You have become Andrew’s crown (Prov. 12:4). You are now Andrew’s glory (1 Cor. 11:7). He looks good now in ways he could not look good before. This being the case, we have to consider this day as Andrew’s coronation. (2011-09-03 Andrew and Denali)

For all of Wilson’s assurances to the contrary, the language choices that he consistently makes reveal that for him, a wife is, ultimately, a passive receiver/responder in his view of marriage. She is an object and not a person. Her identity, calling, vocation, and her very self have been subsumed under her husband. She exists to serve and glorify him. Consider that the word ‘listen’ fails to appear even once in the exhortations to husbands. For Wilson, the wife has no self and, it seems, no voice. Far from the glorious picture of honor that Wilson paints, the reality is that she is not on a pedestal. She is the pedestal.

(23) You look up to him, that is true, but you are also the height upon which he stands. But this all has reference to your labors in restoring the created order in Christ. (2009-06-13 Nethaniel and Emily)

In summary, we find Wilson’s model of the glorified stepstool wife unconvincing and his notions of wifely fulfilment hollow and hypocritical. In his attempts at describing a diamond, multifaceted and dazzling, he has limited his scope to a handful of its many facets. We note that out of nearly 5,700 blog posts, containing 1,151 references to the word ‘marriage’, Wilson refers to Proverbs 31 in only one post. What we see from Wilson is a picture of marriage only in part. Instead of illustrating the Biblical ideals of marriage: husband as servant leader and wife as suitable helpmeet, Wilson paints the caricature that Christians are accused of teaching and living.

[We would like to make the following correction. We note that instead of only one post mentioning Proverbs 31, Wilson mentions Proverbs 31 in three posts out of around 5,700. We hope he will accept our apologies for this error. The Authors]

Our aim in this article was to make clear what this picture actually looks like. Wilson’s image is of wife only as passive receiver, always taught but never truly teacher, voiceless and invisible. This startling distortion, which Wilson presents to couples on the threshold of their lifetime together, which may in some contexts lead to abuse, should prompt careful examination of the Scriptures. Together with notions of manhood and womanhood recently and controversially articulated and discussed (see here, here, and here), it should prompt church denominations, church sessions, and husbands and wives carefully and explicitly to clarify and ask the Holy Spirit to sanctify their understanding of what God says about marriage and the ways in which husbands and wives serve one another and those around them, for the glory of God.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.