Why Protesting “Equal But Subordinate” is Not Just Me Having a Problem With Authority

by Kristen Rosser cross posted from her blog Wordgazer’s Words

I received some feedback in the comments on my last post regarding the logical fallacy of claiming women are equal and yet divinely intended for eternal subordination to men.  Here is a quote from the comments:

I feel so sad that whether or not you are are subordinate or authoritative is the means by which you determine whether or not you want to go to or will enjoy heaven? We will all be subordinate to Christ. . . I have been both a boss and an employee, both roles have their perks and unpleasantries, I for one am glad to be in submission to Christ and if He determines that a man should be in authority over me, then in His wisdom I welcome it. Not all men are abusive and brutish with their leadership. . .When the new heaven and the new earth are brought about. . . authority and submission will not be the same as here under this fleshly existence and curse.

When it was pointed out to her that my post was not about the abuse of authority, but about assigning authority to men because they are men and denying it to women because they are women, the same commenter responded:

[I]f abuse of power is not the issue, then what is? What difference does it make then who is in submission to whom?  I have seen people who initially did not seem qualified and capable of serving by the gifts they presently possessed, rise and exceed expectation. . . As an older woman I have placed myself under the authority of younger men and women and rather than watch them for inadequacies, I rather encouraged and helped them succeed in their role. Submission is not an inferior thing unless you make it so by your prideful reaction to authority. That’s why I say this real, argument has not gone beyond that line of thinking. . . I for the life of me can not see what is so evil about authority and submission in and of themselves. People can corrupt those positions, but I don’t see where one is greater than another?

I promised the commenter that I would try to explain more fully using some concrete examples, so this is not an attempt to put her on the spot, but rather to address the issues she has raised.

This appears to me to be related to the argument from the article from the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (“CBMW”) that male authority and female subordination are mere “functional” differences.  My commenter is saying that there is nothing inherently superior about being in authority, nor anything inherently inferior about being in submission to authority.  In terms of “functional” differences, she is of course, quite right.  Despite her reference to my “prideful reaction to authority,” it really is not authority in and of itself that I am reacting against.  What I object to is the idea that one group has a divine right to have authority over another group, based on nothing other than their identity from birth as part of the authority-holding group.

To put it in the simplest terms, it makes a difference who is in submission to whom if the nature of man is to be in authority over woman, and the nature of woman is to be under the authority of man– because submitting to authority is not equal to being in authority, and I believe this is self-evident. To be the one who acts and commands (authority) is not equal to being the one who is acted upon and commanded.  That’s why the one under authority is called a “subordinate.” The very word means “under.”

You can be equal and still in a position of submission to authority if the submission is part of the position, not part of who you are.  But if these unequal things then become part of our very natures as men or women, then men and women not equal. I’m not against authority; I’m against being made unequal when the Scriptures say I’m equal.

This shows more clearly when we look at how it works in other distinctions besides that of male/female.  Look at it in terms of economic class, for instance.  A century or so ago, if I had been born into the aristocracy, I could feel confident that my God-given identity was as part of the ruling class.  That is, for no other reason than what family I was born into, my inherent, inborn nature was to rule over the lesser classes.  Many older novels refer to “an unmistakable air of breeding” or similar words meant to show that a member of this class had not just been taught refined manners, but that he or she was inclined by nature and inborn ability to take authority over the serving and working classes (who were taught to “obey their betters”).

Another obvious example would be that of race.  If people of one race, for no other reason than being born of that race, are created and decreed by God to be in authority over people of another race, then there is no equality, no matter what anyone claims otherwise.

This really is something different from what the commenter calls “authority and submission in and of themselves.”  Here is what “authority and submission in and of themselves” look like.  My boss is in authority over me by virtue of the fact that he hired me and is paying me, while I was hired by him to work for pay.  This is what is actually meant by “functional” authority.  My boss’s authority over me is not essential to his being or to mine– it is circumstantial, time-bound and limited.  When the workday is over, his authority over me ceases.  If I invite him to dinner at my house, he cannot command me to make him steak instead of of pork chops– and if he did get that obnoxious and I asked him to leave, he would have to go if he didn’t want me to call the police and have him arrested for trespassing!  (It’s true that I might not keep my job after that, but that doesn’t change the fact that the law considers me to be in authority in my own home.)

Even the authority of the police is time-bound and limited.  They cannot search my home without a warrant, for instance, and when a policewoman clocks off her shift and changes into her own clothes, she no longer has the power to direct traffic.

Furthermore, neither my boss nor that policewoman were born into their roles.  They had to go through training and prove themselves capable, before they could take on any authority over me. And since they have gone through that training, I am perfectly willing to submit to their authority.  Nor do I protest even if (as the commenter described) they don’t seem qualified or very capable at first and need to grow into their positions.  In fact, I too have helped a less experienced new boss succeed.  No prideful reaction against authority has ever been noticed by a boss of mine.

The question, then, is how the authority of men over women is viewed and treated by the CBMW.  If it is a matter of “authority and submission in and of themselves,” then there ought to be times and places where women are not expected to defer to men or to acknowledge any inborn, natural ability and inclination towards authority in men over women, simply because of being born men.

Furthermore, if CBMW considers the difference in authority between men and women to be functional rather than essential, then the philosophical differentiation between “necessary” and “accidental” traits as I discussed in my last post should apply.  CBMW should not be found saying that all men have “headship” over women, but that some, because of certain personal traits and circumstances of their lives, have simply lost or missed out on”headship,” just as a person can miss out on being able to do calculus or ballroom dancing.

But here are the kinds of things CBMW and its spokesmen actually say:

John Piper gives this definition of manhood and womanhood, in his contribution to the CMBW book Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, page 29 (he used all caps to show the centrality of this point, so I am rendering the text as he did):

AT THE HEART OF MATURE MASCULINITY IS A SENSE OF
BENEVOLENT RESPONSIBILITY TO LEAD, PROVIDE FOR AND
PROTECT WOMEN IN WAYS APPROPRIATE TO A MAN’S
DIFFERING RELATIONSHIPS.
AT THE HEART OF MATURE FEMININITY IS A FREEING
DISPOSITION TO AFFIRM, RECEIVE AND NURTURE STRENGTH
AND LEADERSHIP FROM WORTHY MEN IN WAYS
APPROPRIATE TO A WOMAN’S DIFFERING RELATIONSHIPS.

On page 37 he quotes J.I. Packer:

[T]he man-woman relationship is intrinsically nonreversible. By this I mean that, other things being equal, a situation in which a female boss has a male secretary, or a marriage in which the woman (as we say) wears the trousers, will put more strain on the humanity of both parties than if it were the other way around. This is part of the reality of the creation, a given fact that nothing will change. [Emphases added.]

Notice that reversal of male authority and female submission is said to put a strain, not on the parties’ roles or even on their sense of their own masculinity or femininity, but on their humanity.  Male authority is part of male humanity, and female subordination is part of female humanity.  Therefore, if they don’t act in accordance with their own, very different kinds (and it would not be inaccurate to say classes) of humanity, they are going against creation itself.

On pages 41-42 Piper gives examples of appropriate behavior for men and for women which affirms male humanity in terms of its authority over female humanity.  First, for men:

The God-given sense of responsibility for leadership in a mature man will not generally allow him to flourish long under personal, directive leadership of a female superior. . . Some of the more obvious[situations] would be in military combat settings if women were positioned so as to deploy and command men; or in professional baseball if a woman is made the umpire to call balls and strikes and frequently to settleheated disputes among men. And I would stress that this is not necessarily owing to male egotism, but to a natural and good penchant given by God. [Emphasis added.]

And for women:

[A] mature woman. . will affirm and receive and nurture the strength and leadership of men in some form in all her relationships with men. This is true even though she may find herself in roles that put some men in a subordinate role to her. . . One or more of these roles might stretch appropriate expressions of femininity beyond the breaking point . . . [but]her demeanor-the tone and style and disposition and discourse of her ranking position-can signal clearly her affirmation of the unique role that men should play in relationship to women owing to their sense of responsibility to protect and lead. . . To illustrate: it is simply impossible that from time to time a woman not be put in a position of influencing or guiding men. For example, a housewife in her backyard may be asked by a man how to get to the freeway. At that point she is giving a kind of leadership. She has superior knowledge that the man needs and he submits himself to her guidance. But we all know that there is a way for that housewife to direct the man that neither of them feels their mature femininity or masculinity compromised. It is not a contradiction to speak of certain kinds of influence coming from women to men in ways that affirm the responsibility of men to provide a pattern of strength and initiative.
But as I said earlier, there are roles that strain the personhood of man and woman too far to be appropriate, productive and healthy for the overall structure of home and society. Some roles would involve kinds of leadership and expectations of authority and forms of strength as to make it unfitting for a woman to fill the role.

It appears that there are in fact no times when the CBMW would say women are not expected to acknowledge the God-given and innate authority of men.  The proof of the pudding, though, would be in a real-life situation where it might make sense to say that male authority and female subordination are not functioning due to the particular circumstances involved.  If male authority is functional and not essential, then there ought to be exceptions to the pattern.  If there are no exceptions– if male authority holds true even in the most adverse circumstances possible– then we are certainly not talking about “authority and submission in and of themselves,” but of inborn and innate authority which puts male humanity and female humanity in different and unequal states of being.
So here is the test case: the sad and lovely marriage of Ian and Larissa Murphy. Here is Ian and Larissa Murphy’s Story on John Piper’s Website.  If you have time, please view the entire 8-minute video.
Her-Meneutics Article on the Murphys from May 2012 describes it like this:

They met in college and fell in love. They talked about getting married, and he started looking for a ring. They dreamed about life together, a life of beauty and joy, raising babies and laughing with friends and growing old. They did not imagine a car accident. They did not imagine his brain injury. They did not dream about the need for constant care and a wheelchair and fear that food might choke him. They did not plan for this.

Larissa agreed to marry Ian even though in every practical way, she is required to be the leader in their relationship.  She must manage the household, she must be the breadwinner, she must take care of the finances.  She does all of this while feeding and bathing him and giving him his medications, because she loves him, and he clearly is capable at least of loving her.  I admire her and that kind of love very much.
The Her-meneutics article goes on to say:

She differentiates (following John Piper in his book This Momentary Marriage) between primary and secondary things within marriage: “Ian can’t do many of the secondary things, like working or making a meal for me. Everything that’s primary, though, he can do, which is leading me spiritually.”

I’m glad that Larissa and Ian Murphy have found some way that he can contribute some strength of his own to the relationship, so that it’s not entirely one-sided.  And it’s possible that, despite his severe brain injury and inability to communicate more than the simplest concepts, he is in some way leading her spiritually.  But to focus on that as the one primary aspect of their relationship, passing over all the ways that she can and must be leading him, is pretty good proof that in CMBW’s view of manhood and womanhood, authority for leadership is essential to maleness– without exception.

The Wartburg Watch wrote about the Murphys in June 2012:

In the video we learn that Larissa, along with her pastor, had to go before a judge to be granted permission to be marry Ian. This means that Ian was judged incapable of making that independent legal decision. . . Larissa must do just about everything for Ian. She works, cares for the home, etc. She holds his head while he throws up, and she interprets what he is saying. She is in charge.
[But] this story is quite threatening to the patriarchal movement. It is obvious the Larissa is in control and has authority but that is an anathema to their “authority” definition. So, this situation has been reinterpreted to put Ian back in the driver’s seat.

Piper said in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (see link above), pages 29-30:

[A] man may not be physically able to provide for or protect his family and yet be mature in his masculinity. He may be paralyzed. He may have a disabling disease. His wife may be the main breadwinner in such a circumstance.
And she may be the one who must get up at night to investigate a frightening noise in the house. This is not easy for the man. But if he still has a sense of his own benevolent responsibility under God he will not lose his masculinity.
His sense of responsibility will find expression in the ways he conquers self-pity, and gives moral and spiritual leadership for his family. . . .

Piper wrote these words in 1991, long before Ian and Larissa’s story began– but his words and their story dovetail together.  Whatever else a man may lose, he cannot lose his spiritual authority, because it’s essential to his manhood.  He may not be able to act on his authority, but he never loses it; and no matter how much she may be required to lead, a woman never truly loses her innate disposition to submit to the man.

Piper, and CBMW, clearly believe that this is about the God-given, inborn and innate authority of men and the God-given, inborn and innate subordination of women.  When men and women don’t function according to these inborn directives, they are in rebellion against God and their own natures. But gender distinctions really are not different in any way from the distinctions of race or class. When one group of human beings has a natural, inborn trait of (and divine right to) authority over another group of human beings, equality is simply gone.  Just saying there is still equality will not make it so. 

So this really isn’t about my having a problem with authority.  It’s about me having a problem with being delineated as a woman in such a way that the image-of-God equality of all human beings set forth in Genesis 1:26 is to all intents and purposes negated and denied to me.

Lip-service to equality doesn’t satisfy me.  I want the real thing.

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Read everything by Kristen Rosser!

Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network member, Kristen Rosser (aka KR Wordgazer) blogs at Wordgazer’s Words

NLQ Recommended Reading …

Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich

Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce

 

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