John Piper on Submission and Abused Women

Thanks to Sarah Moon, I recently came upon a video from a few years back where John Piper discusses whether God requires married women to submit to abuse at their husbands hands. Piper recently clarified his views, though without really improving them, as discussed by Sarah in this post (which is well worth a read!). See also Dianna Anderson’s take (which is also well worth a read!). Honestly, the fact that this sort of question is still considered a weighty and complex matter by a figure as respected as John Piper shows the depth of conservative evangelicalism’s love affair with wifely submission.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • perfectnumber628

    “the fact that this sort of question is still considered a weighty and complex matter” Yep. It’s like the whole “wife submission” thing blinds people to what’s really going on- which is that abuse is terrible and MUST BE STOPPED.

  • minuteye

    What the… How is his first interpretation of abuse: “Asking her to engage in group sex”?? Oh, and it’s not like reporting an abuser to the church so they can “discipline” him is going to enrage him or anything… Ugh.

  • Jaimie

    I’m taking my life in my hands when I say this, but it bugs women are gullible enough to buy into this crap and stay in abusive situations. They need to take some responsibility too for the choices they make.
    And let me make it clear that no one chooses to be a victim. But men like this make it perfectly clear that, in accepting this lifestyle, there is no way out. No help, just blame.
    Libby Anne, I would like to hear your thoughts on this. Why do these women believe that living a “godly life” is more important than their basic human rights, safety for themselves and their children, and simple logic?
    Are they vulnerable low-self-esteem targets, uneducated, indoctrinated, a combination of all, or something else? How are they getting these women to sign on?

    • jwall915

      I don’t know if this will directly answer your question, but I heard John Piper speak once and he actually uttered the phrase, “you are not entitled to a safe drive home. You do not have the right to make it home alive.” This was in the context of going on about Americans are obsessed with their rights and Americans are so godless and bratty and not dealing with our sinful natures when we demand basic human rights.

      I sure as hell wouldn’t want to be on the road when he’s driving…..

      • smrnda

        This kind of thinking never makes people better or more compassionate; when you recognize people have rights, among them the ‘right no to be treated like disposable trash’ for lack of a better way to phrase it then you have to act decently towards others and call out situations when people are being, used, abused or exploited. It leads to a better society.

        The belief that people are bad and that suffering is all you deserve, and that you should be grateful for anything is a recipe for moral and social stagnation since it sees nothing *wrong* with the world and doesn’t demand improvements, except perhaps purely individual ones.

        Knocking rights, or (did Driscoll say this?) that Americans are ‘obsessed with equality’ I mean, are these bad things? Focusing on personal rights and equality have really delivered some results; Calvinism is the easiest type of Christianity to back slavery and excuse abuses of power.

    • M

      If you raise a woman to believe she must submit from the time she’s a child, squish her every hint of rebellion, and basically tell her she has no worth unless she gets married and then follows his lead slavishly, she’ll believe she deserves no better. And if you make it perfectly clear that if you leave your husband, you’re also leaving your Church and your God and maybe even your family, that’s a huge amount of pressure to stay.

      If you tell a person that yeah, your life sucks but it’s YOUR FAULT and you can follow this magic formula to make it better, at least that puts control in the abused person’s hands. Abuse is about taking control out of the hands of the abused while twisting things to make them think it’s their fault. This sort of submission nonsense feeds right into the abuser’s game.

    • Rosie

      My own deconversion was closely linked to an abusive relationship with a “godly” man. Since Custador shared this link I’ve conceived of a little project: making note of how many red flags for domestic violence God triggers, given a literalist reading of the text (or, what I was taught is the “correct” reading). With very little effort I’ve been able to check off more than half-a-dozen; I’m sure I’ll find more as I keep reading.

      Is it any surprise that my faith and upbringing led me directly into an abusive relationship?

    • Lucreza Borgia

      I’ve heard many Christians say that life on earth is fleeting and can’t be compared to an eternity with god. Which do you think these patriarchal folks put an emphasis on?

    • tsara

      Can I just say here that your phrasing “I’m taking my life in my hands when I say this…” is really offensive in the context of a discussion on abuse?

      • ki sarita

        yes! As soon as I saw this I intuitively was set up to disregard the rest.

    • Steve

      It has a lot to do with being raised from birth on to believe this shit, never knowing anything else and never imagining that they could have another life. And when your church is all the people you know, it can be hard to leave that all behind, get shunned by them and your family and start a new life.

    • AnyBeth

      I’ve a feeling you may as well ask why any adult stays in an abusive relationship. Religion aside, I suspect it boils down to just a few reasons: one, I didn’t realize it’s that bad; two, this is the way I think it is supposed to be; and, three, I don’t see any other choice. I figure it’s likely these relationships start getting bad little by little like any abusive relationship.

      So say you’re in a relationship that’s getting abusive. You love this person, you know they wouldn’t do anything to hurt you, yet they did… like many (most) abused people, you consider the possibility you brought on the outburst. Concerned, you hesitantly mention this to a friend at church. They respond that of course you did something wrong, he’s a good man, and how dare you gossip, they’ll tell the pastor! (I love the irony there, and it totally happens.) The pastor takes you side, shows you verses that say you can’t trust your thoughts, your feelings, and that demonstrate how utterly worthless and evil you are. And then the ones on how God still loves you and you need to obey your husband, follow his leadership. You’re made to apologize… to the pastor, to your friend, to your husband, possibly the entire congregation.
      You go home and the abuse is worse. “You embarrassed me so much, look what you made me do!”
      Now what? You can’t tell a friend. You can’t go to the church. The police? But you love him and he loves you, and if you went against him, that’d make you even more evil than you are already and then you’d deserve even more maltreatment. God would “get you” if no one else did. And that’s presuming you don’t think you can lose your salvation.

      Self-blame is common in abuse. Makes it better and worse all at once, meaning you not only are you somehow responsible, but that you can take control of the situation. Some religious teachings capitalize on this tendency, confirming all of that and insisting the abused keep trying (just as they’ll likely want to do, at least at first.) They’ll also work to destroy whatever remains of the abused person’s sense of self: you are not you, you are his wife. You are a vessel for God, here meant to serve your husband. The only you is disgusting and evil, therefore best obliterated. With all this, why would anyone leave? Outside of the relationship, everything they can possibly do is wrong, is evil (so absolutely everyone you trust and your holy book has been telling you)…

      You must understand, you never see what it is you’re getting into and when every solution offered is further destruction of your self, the marvel isn’t why anyone stays, it’s how anyone manages to get out.

      Btw, started when I was 15, but with abusive parent and peer sexual abuse instead of spousal abuse. By 18, I didn’t understand I had a self or any choices whatsoever. There were 3+ adult years I thought myself a puppet, incapable of setting my path or playing in part in “who” I was. Must I take responsibility for those choices I had no idea I had while I had no idea there was an “I”? I suspect you haven’t a clue how screwed up this gets. I count myself very lucky to be out of that, and it was easier for me: I was unmarried and childless.

      • ki sarita

        The biggest reason why people stay in abusive relationships, is the belief that a relationship of power and dominance is normal until it crosses the line of extreme physical assault. Because once that happens- its too late to get away easily. The abused is too indimidated to even plan an exit much less attempt it. Add in children and financial dependence and the picture is very dismal indeed.
        If women sensed from the get go that power and dominance is NOT normal they would be much more likely to leave before the stakes got so dangerous.

      • ki sarita

        and make no mistake, an exit is something that can’t be done without extensive planning. When is the last time you moved to a new home? It wasn’t something you accomplished in a day. And you didn’t even have the complicating factor of secrecy.
        If you had an emergency- how many days would your friend allow you to stay on her couch? A week? two? what do you do after?
        “JUST LEAVE” everyone loves to say. Just go where?

      • Mogg

        Also, people in churches and other exclusive groups that push this kind of thinking also teach their members to not trust the outside, even other Christians in the case of fundy churches. Taking a matter like the way a husband and wife interact to the police, a counsellor or a doctor is a huge, almost impossible step, because they are “the world”, people who will only lead you astray from the true faith, and going to them means you are compromising yourself to the world and not fully believing. When your whole world is built up of your faith, your church and your family, you are quite literally risking your whole world by even thinking of standing up for yourself, let alone leaving. Add to that the stigma of divorce, the biggest of bogeymen in these circles – divorce is like proof that you’re not good enough, that you didn’t follow the rules correctly or were selfish or something (it’s always your fault, no matter why the marriage ended). Many churches, even quite mainline ones, tend to look down on divorcees in my experience.

        When I left my family’s church, I did so in genuine fear, knowing for sure because I had seen it in other cases that everyone who I thought of as a friend would immediately cease to have anything to do with me, that rumours about me would be circulated, and that even my family members might be told by the elders to shun me. Because everyone was encouraged not to be too involved with outsiders and because the church program was extremely time-consuming, that pretty much meant most of the people I knew. At least I was educated, was working in a normal job, had a few good outside friends and had started seeing a psychologist in secret, but even with that it took me years to leave, or even to see that I could leave. I can’t imagine how much harder it would be for someone in a more exclusive environment like Quiverfull or some of the other very separatist religious groups, or who was actually married and had children to consider.

  • Lane

    Those two posts are really excellent, but I think there is one thing worth adding: this sort of twisted thinking reveals complementarianism as the wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing that it is. If Piper has to go through this sort of twisted, 3-and-a-half-year mental gymnastics to make an abusive situation fit neatly with his complementarian paradigm, there is something CLEARLY wrong with his paradigm. It is obvious to us that spousal abuse is morally very wrong and that the abused partner needs and deserves to escape the abuser. It is obvious to us that human beings should not be made to needlessly suffer, especially at the hands of someone who is supposed to love them. I cannot possibly imagine that this moral intuition escapes Piper, and yet this intuition is clearly not what bubbles to the surface of his teachings. Here is what it boils down to: anytime your moral intuition (fast-thinking, heart/gut-thinking) and your rationalized thoughts (slow-thinking, head-thinking) do not very clearly fall in step with each other and your moral intuition is being actively silenced/stifled, you need to seriously rethink the merit of your views.

  • Holly

    “but simply hurting her”
    What?! There is no “simply” hurting her. If he’s hurting her, he needs to stop, and if it is unintentional, he needs to listen to her when she tells him he did that.
    Then never do it again.
    the end.
    If it’s deliberate, there needs to never be another opportunity to do that again. Because if it’s deliberate, he’s at the least unkind and at the most, hateful.

  • JethroElfman

    I do wish Piper hadn’t tried to cover two types of abuse. In both linked articles, they misinterpret his statement on sin, “if this man, for example, is calling her to engage in acts … that clearly would be sin,”. He begrudgingly comes to the right answer, that if your husband asks you to sin by engaging in group sex (Piper’s example), or doing drugs, or robbing liquor stores (similar examples), you must say no. Piper doesn’t say that being abused is sin, or that refusing abuse is a sin.

    I found his advice that the wife needs to endure getting smacked to be quite a contrast to the suggestion by the gun promoters that she should be packing an equalizer on her hip.

    • Libby Anne

      Just wait till we get to Debi’s criterion! If I remember correctly, she’s very particular that a woman must refuse to view porn or be anally penetrated, and VERY firm on going to the authorities on the smallest assumption that a man is sexually molesting his children, but when it comes to a man abusing his wife, not so much.

  • Lana

    Piper says go to the church. What if the church isn’t going to believe you? One of my friends had a husband who was cheating on her. The church came to give her “church discipline.” Didn’t believe her. Then they later believed her when they caught her husband with another woman at a restaurant.
    Katherine Joyce tells the story where Doug Philips didn’t believe a woman who was being abused.
    Anyway, I’m done with that too. Church discipline isn’t needed anyway. If your husband is hitting you, you get out. Pure and simple.

  • Chrs

    It bugs me that at no point does Piper encourage women to stand up for themselves. In cases of mere “sin” he wants them to be suck-ups even while refusing to do things that make them uncomfortable. In cases of abuse, they’re supposed to just deal with it until they can get The Church to stand up for them.

    I grew up communities that admired Piper, but even they encouraged women to be clear about their boundaries and stand up for themselves. Maybe I never got the “married” perspective, since I moved away before I got to that point in life.

  • ki sarita

    Frightening link here which eerily echoes Debi and Mike’s relationship- with the violent bedroom scene nearly identical. Trigger warning…. Although it doesn’t come from a religious perspective, very frightening that such influences are spreading in society at large, not just extremist enclaves.

  • Lusy

    Even without going into patriarchy and submission, Christianity itself already lends itself to creating an abuse victim mentality.

    When I was in my abusive relationship, my abuser tried to convince me to become Christian, even though he himself wasn’t religious. I think it was because on some unconscious level, he recognised that the Church would help to reinforce the same message that he was giving me to keep me under his control. See, he constantly gave me this same message:

    “You are a worthless whore, you have ruined me, nobody would want somebody as worthless as you… but I forgive you.”

    It would have been a lot harder for me to leave him had I not only had that message from him, but had also had to deal with the church whispering Original Sin in my other ear the entire time.

    • Steve

      When you get right down to it, Christianity is an abusive relationship with god. Aside from the Original Sin crap there is also “Obey me or I will torture you for eternity. But remember, I really love you”

  • Carlie

    On top of all the bs John Piper has to say in the video, I really hate his goofy demeanor on the subject, like it’s some big joke. He really has NO clue.

    Yeah, I’m super glad I don’t believe this kind of crap any more either. I wish it hadn’t taken so freaking long to feel free of it. They sure brainwashed me good… It was actually my questioning of gender roles in Christianity that gradually led to the questioning of all my ridiculous beliefs.

  • Nurse Bee

    And some of us (Christians) never believed this junk in the first place.

  • Alyson

    Listening to him talk about how what a woman should do depends on what type of abuse it is and whether it is “serious” or not was like listening to Todd Akin talk about “legitimate rape.” Abuse is abuse and it is always serious. Why is this even a question? The way he belittles verbal/emotional abuse and dismisses physical abuse unless it is life-threatening shows he is completely ignorant on the subject.

  • marilove

    I was in an abusive relationship when I was 19-21 years old. Not religious; neither of us were/are believers. I still, to this day, have no idea how I got sucked in. I’m really stubborn and independant, and it still boggles my mind that I was in that terrible relationship for so long. It just kind of … happened. I was young, and a little naive, and new to the big city with few friends. I broke and lonely and still trying to find my way.

    Thankfully, I was able to free myself, though it wasn’t a fun process and took another year to fully shake him off of me.

    But why did I end up with him, and why did I stay for two years? I honestly have no idea.

  • wanderer

    Like many here, I find Piper’s tone condescending. I find everything about this video offensive. The fact that when asked about abuse, he has to take a deep breath and think, as if it’s a big, difficult topic. The fact that he tells women to ENDURE BEING SLAPPED. The fact that his brain somehow equates an invitation to group sex with abuse. The fact that he twists himself in knots trying to give an example of how women should stroke a man’s ego while telling him “no thank you”. For shame, John Piper. You should know better at your age.