That’s Some Accountability You’ve Got There

Reader Rebecca recently responded as follows on one of my posts on the patriarchal system wherein a husband is the authority and his wife is to submit:

Why would anyone think a system that offers absolute power and is bereft of checks and balances is a good idea?

Don’t be silly! Of course there are checks and balances! For instance, the church elders (who are all your husband’s friends), or the police (who must never be allowed to intervene inside the home), or God (who exists in your abusive husband’s head as a being who approves of everything he does). So there’s no way this system can go wrong!

And therein is the problem.

Evangelicals and fundamentalists would argue that the system of husbandly authority and wifely submission does have checks and balances—that men are accountable to their church elders and to God, and, depending on the circumstances, to the civil authorities as well. But let’s talk, for a moment, about what that actually means.

Evangelicals and fundamentalists disagree on whether and when Christians may take other Christians to civil court. In other words, some would argue that a woman should take her abusive husband to court, as the courts’ dispense God’s judgement, while others argue that taking matters to civil court means taking them before unbelievers when they should in fact be handled within the church. I have much less of a problem with those who argue that abused women should seek recourse in civil authorities than I do with those who are more standoffish about that option.

Regardless, essentially all evangelicals and fundamentalists argue that there should be some form of church discipline in these matters, whether they see it as the only form of arbitration or a supplemental form. Further, the amount of tip-toeing around the issue of civil authorities is enough to make any abused Christian woman question whether or not she should go to the police about her abuse. But what I want to turn to now is this process of “church discipline.”

I should start by quoting Matthew 18:15-17, which is used as the proof text here:

15 “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister.

16 But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses.

17 But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector.

Matthew 18 lays out three steps: first confront the person who is sinning against you yourself, second confront him with one or two others, third report it to the church. This first step, by the way, is why you get things like this in articles with titles like “What Should an Abused Wife Do?“:

The first element in any relational conflict, or even in a case of abuse, is to talk with your abuser and confront them with their sin.

I’m not seeing that go so well. In fact, that could potentially be a very very bad idea, especially if the abuser knows that his wife is preparing to implement Matthew 18 in confronting him.

But let’s move on to taking the matter to the church.

Most evangelical and fundamentalist churches are fairly unaccustomed to serving as courts of sorts. Their pastors also tend to be unfamiliar with the dynamics of abuse. In other words, the evangelical and fundamentalist church today is not equipped to deal with cases of spousal abuse. In too many churches, women are simply advised to submit to their husbands. In other churches, women are told that their options are few, and that divorce is not biblically acceptable for their case. And in some cases, as we’ve gone over already, women will be told not to go to civil authorities about it. What’s a Christian woman to do?

And beyond that, who are church leaders going to believe? Let’s imagine that a man is an elder, or simply a well-respected member of the congregation. Think you that that man will admit to his abuse? He might, but it’s not likely. It’s more likely that he will explain it away, or promise that things will be different going forward but make no change at all. In fact, in some cases an abused woman may be chided rather than offered help. This makes going to church leaders about it a bit of a risk.

But let’s imagine, for a moment, that the church leaders believe the woman and decide to bring church discipline upon her husband. What does that mean, exactly? Telling him he can’t take communion? Most evangelical and fundamentalist churches only take communion once every three or four months, and they don’t tend to watch who takes it. What then? Barring him from the church? Sitting him down in his living room and telling him he must stop his abuse? Or else what? Or else he can’t go to that church anymore?

Are these people unaware that there are three churches on every street corner? Think you that an abusive man will submit to church discipline rather than simply switching churches? And it’s not like churches compare notes between them or share lists of those under church discipline—they don’t. In other words, undergoing church discipline is entirely voluntary. If you don’t want to, you don’t have to. Those carrying out church discipline have absolutely no actual authority over the one being disciplined. 

I appreciate those evangelicals and fundamentalists who argue that abused women should indeed go to civil authorities about their abuse, but they need to speak up and be loud and clear on this issue, because there is too much ambiguity out there at the present and there are too many leaders saying the opposite. If they want to carry out some form of church discipline as well, okay, but they need to understand that that should be supplemental and that church discipline lacks real teeth—and if they’re going to do it, they have got to learn more about the dynamics of abuse.

But let’s get back to the beginning, shall we? Things like civil authorities or church discipline tend to be brought up when individuals like myself argue that the system of husbandly authority and wifely submission lacks checks or balances. But when I say that I’m not simply talking about cases of physical abuse. Evangelicals and fundamentalists defend their ideal of marriage by arguing that while a wife is to submit to her husband, a husband is to love his wife. But what is to guard against a system where a wife submits, but a husband treats her cruelly or is domineering, stopping short of physical abuse? Where is the system of accountability to prevent that?

Wives are typically told to submit and submit and submit, barring only situations where the husband orders the wife to break the law or watch pornography (and some authors argue that she should submit even then). Husbands are told to love their wives, to treat them kindly, but there is nothing to ensure that they will do so. Could a wife invoke church discipline in the case of a cruel and domineering husband? I suppose she could, but everything I said above applies—even were church leaders to institute church discipline, such discipline would have no real teeth.

The problem here is a fundamental imbalance. If a wife submits but her husband does not love, her life may be a living hell. If a husband loves but a wife does not submit . . . well hey, that’s the way my marriage is, and my husband Sean has absolutely no problem with it. Oh noes, your wife does not submit—-wait, why do you want a partner who obeys you rather than serving as your equal? You see what I’m saying? System failure on the one side is not an actual problem, but system failure on the other side can be catastrophic—and there are no checks and balances in place to protect against it.

But then, Doug Wilson would invoke church discipline upon a wife for not doing the dishes, so I suppose they don’t see these two system failures as so unequal after all.

The first time the dishes are not done, he must sit down with his wife immediately, and gently remind her that this is something which has to be done. At no time may he lose his temper, badger her, call her names, etc. He must constantly remember and confess that she is not the problem, he is. By bringing this gently to her attention, he is not to be primarily pointing to her need to repent; rather, he is exhibiting the fruit of his repentance.

He does this, without rancour and without an accusative spirit, until she complies or rebels. If she complies, he must move up one step, now requiring that another of her duties be done. If she rebels, he must call the elders of the church and ask them for a pastoral visit. When the government of the home has failed to such an extent, and a godly and consistent attempt by the husband to restore the situation has broken down, then the involvement of the elders is fully appropriate.

It seems that for Wilson, a wife not doing the dishes is in the same category as a husband being cruel and domineering over his wife. And they wonder why I keep calling out a problem here!

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.


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