In The Uncertain Sound (July 14, 1962), William Branham responded to complaints that he preached too much about various “sins” like smoking, drinking and wearing short skirts:
That’s the reason sometimes people think I–I–I get rough with people, bawling them out. It’s not ’cause I don’t love you, it’s because I do love you. What if your little boy was setting out in the street, and you said, “Junior, dear, I–I… You shouldn’t set out there. Daddy don’t want to hurt…” You’d better strip the hide off of him, if you love him. Keep him in off of that street. Real love is corrective. Genuine love is corrective.
What if your wife was running around with some other man, and you said, “Dear, I–I hope you have a good time, but really I don’t think you should do it.” She ought to kick you out the door. That’s right. Yeah. Real love is corrective. That’s right.
Drawing upon this passage, Message believers invoke the phrase “love is corrective” in many contexts. Most often, it is deployed against perceived sensitivity or sentimentality. Believers are exhorted to correct their friends or family members regardless of how ill-received their godly advice might be. There are varying levels of hesitancy and soul-searching involved in the process, depending on the relationship between the believer and the party in error. Parents are expected to correct their children in everything. In friendships, it is more likely that a Message believer will pray first and ensure that she or he is being “led” to bring the problem to the friend’s attention.
But what does it mean to say that love is corrective? Where does this idea come from? And how does it affect the practice of love in Message communities?
As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent. -Revelations 3:19
To the best of my knowledge, this is the Bible verse upon which Branham built his doctrine of corrective love. This is very clearly a parental definition of love – one that protects the child even when the child doesn’t understand that danger exists. But Message believers run away with this idea, treating it as the only real love and all other expressions of it as deception by fleshly lusts and feelings.
The Message website www.bridemessage.org warns young people and their parents not to be led astray by “phileo” (human) love but to adhere closely to “Agapo” (divine) love in choosing a spouse. “Remember, Agapo Love is corrective – It is not governed by human emotion or feelings – It stays with the WORD.” Let’s examine how this translates in real life.
Message women are taught to look for husbands who aren’t interested in them. The ideal, godly husband is one so lost in Jesus that worldly lusts can hardly reach him. Young men and women are both taught to pray (from an early age) for their future spouses, that God will identify and bring them together without either of them going out to look for each other. In practical terms, this means that a young man will feel attracted to a young woman and either (a) take this to be a sign that this is the one God had in store for him and ask her father for permission to court her, or (b) interpret his feelings of attraction as sinful lust and retreat into repentance and avoidance of the woman. Women are never, under any circumstances, to express interest in men. Doing so immediately brands them as unsubmissive, “modern” and possibly even promiscuous.
Since the courtship process is governed by divine revelation and mediated through parents, young people can, in practice, receive very mixed messages about their prospects. The doctrine of corrective love tells them that emotions are fleeting and belong only to the inferior realm of human attachment – phileo love. Agapo love, however, which is the essential love of God, is void of such superficialities. Therefore, it is conceivable that the divine love of God can spring up (and, it is sometimes argued, flourish better) in marriages untainted by the impurities of phileo love.
In practice, this means that young women in the Message interpret the coldness and disinterest of a man toward them as proof that his mind is set on higher things. Moreover, the related doctrine that “love is a choice” (which Lewis in The Commandments of Men has neatly exposed as unhealthy and ultimately unreal) leaves women convinced that they ought to choose to love men whom they don’t ultimately like (and who may remain cold and distant throughout their married life) if they believe that a divine match has been made.
Given the patriarchal authority structure of Message churches, a woman who is told by her suitor or her father that he believes the match was ordained by God has little room to argue. She will not have had the opportunity to get to know him very well, as the sexes do not fraternize except in large-scale group events. Even in that scenario, a climate of sex-segregation prevails – if only because people of both sexes tend to hang out with the friends they already know, all of whom will share their sex. Thus, even in “good” courtships, there is an element of blind faith to the beginning of the relationship. The man will be a stranger either way, so an initial unfavorable impression is likely to leave a woman questioning herself (Am I letting my own fleshly lusts obscure God’s will for me?) rather than objecting to a proposition.
The doctrine of “love is corrective” assumes that there is always an error to be corrected. Since women (and, to a lesser extent, men) are taught to question their own judgment and to be constantly on guard for the lusts of the flesh (“sin is beautiful,” says Branham), a consequence of viewing love as corrective is to always choose the less pleasant and less beautiful. Message believers are fond of claiming that God must be leading them to do things, because there’s no way they’d ever do them on their own.
Let’s follow a hypothetical young woman through the maze of the Message courtship paradigm. Young Esther spends her evenings in her parents’ home, praying for her future spouse and for God to reveal him to her and her parents in His own good time. She spends her days helping her mother with homemaking tasks, and occasionally brings baked goods to church in hopes of receiving praise for her skills. She is a Proverbs 31 woman – when she is not hard at work in the home, she is studying her Bible and the Message, ideally listening to at least one sermon a day. At social gatherings she spends time with her female friends, some of whom have older brothers. One day, she notices that her friend Ruth’s brother spends a little longer than usual chatting with his sister and casting glances in Esther’s direction. Something about him makes her uneasy. His gaze seemed to be sizing her up, and he doesn’t smile. It is an earnest stare, signifying intent. She finds him reasonably attractive, perhaps, but his look is unnerving. In a few weeks’ time, her father approaches her with the news that Ruth’s brother, Benjamin, has expressed the belief that God was leading him to court her. Her father thinks it’s a good match (after all, Benjamin is a song leader’s son and has a steady job), and has given his blessing – it is therefore up to Esther to field the question.
Esther begins to explain away her hesitations. She knows that Benjamin has a reputation as an upstanding man with a singleminded focus on the things of God. Indeed, she’d never noticed him looking at or speaking to another girl before. He had followed the godly method and prayed first, seeking God’s will. Then he had asked her father, her childhood head, showing deference to the authority God had set above her. Surely there was just a misunderstanding. Surely she could learn to love any man so full of passion for the Holy Ghost. She accepts.
The couple court. This means meeting together for the first time outside of their peer group, but it doesn’t mean that they are alone. Ruth acts as a chaperone for her brother, and sometimes the couple shares dinner with Esther’s parents. They speak about the things of God, and Benjamin tells her about his plans to build a homestead and live in accordance with the Word. Both are certain that the end times are near and that they ought to live sober lives, raising children to the glory of God. Esther still feels no attraction to the man, but searches her heart for the root of her own rebellion. He is godly – what more could her selfish heart want? God is gracious to provide such a reliable husband on fire for the Message. And so they become engaged.
William Branham taught that when a couple agrees to marry, they have already made a covenant with one another and are married in the eyes of God. They are therefore allowed to say, “I love you,” but not to back out of the relationship. Engagements in the Message are short, because sexual feelings must be blossoming by now and must be herded quickly into the marriage bed, lest they erupt and destroy the young couple’s souls. Esther carefully dwells on the excitement of her wedding day and the little things about her future husband that might one day inspire her to love him. Most of all, she tells herself, a man with the Holy Ghost will surely love her “as Christ loved the church, and gave himself for it.”
Once married, Esther discovers an alien world. Sex, once hushed and condemned and treated as dangerous, is suddenly an obligation. Her body belongs to her husband, her pastor teaches, and she needs to attend to his needs. Except her husband’s needs always exceed her own – and often, what he needs is painful to give. But he isn’t asking her to sin, so she can’t refuse. He is her husband. She needs to be obedient.
He never consults her in decision-making, moving the family quickly away to a different state where she has no friends. As the head of the household, it’s his choice. Esther tries harder to cultivate a submissive spirit and grow closer to her husband in their isolation. And the children begin to come, one after the other. She receives no help from Benjamin, who works twelve hours a day and studies his Bible for another two. She tries to ask for help, but he denies her, asserting that as the protector of the household he needs to be immersed in the Scriptures and the Message in order to keep Satan at bay. How dare she distract him with the things of the world, like cleaning up after children? She nods and walks away, baby in her tired arms. “I’m sorry,” she tells him. “You’re right.” He’s always right – she’s being selfish. She should be grateful for the blessings God has bestowed on her womb. She’s grateful that her husband has told her how wrong she is. After all, love is corrective.
As the years go by, Benjamin grows more demanding. He insists that she use more rigorous parenting methods, leaving infants to cry so that they learn not to demand attention on their own terms. He tells her that there’s no need to buy bread when she’s home all day and can make more nutritious bread from scratch. He tells her to start a garden. If she protests, he asks her if she thought following the Lord would be easy. “We need to fight against the laziness of our flesh,” he tells her soberly, without touching her. His gaze is as cold as it was when they first met. “We are to die to ourselves daily.” She concedes. She apologizes. Of course he’s right. It even warms her chilled heart for a moment – since love is corrective, all of this correction must mean that her husband truly loves her.
Soon Esther is asking permission from Benjamin to do basic things like go to the grocery store or visit a friend. All too often, the answer is no. Weariness sets in, and with it a kind of resilience. Leaving her young children with her oldest daughter, she sneaks out to a neighbor’s house to call a friend, who picks her up. The two enjoy an afternoon of tea, but their conversation contains a worried undertone. What would Benjamin think if he knew she hadn’t asked him permission to go out? What if he knew she hadn’t baked any bread today? She pushes the thought aside until her friend drops her at the end of her driveway. She walks around the bend to see her husband standing in the doorway.
“Where have you been?” He asks. She confesses. He strikes her. He reminds her of his God-given authority. He calls her a rebellious Jezebel and orders her to get into the kitchen and make him something to eat. It’s now eight o’clock in the evening. She silently trudges toward the kitchen, holding her bruised cheek, but doesn’t move fast enough. Angered, Benjamin whirls on her and slams her against the wall. “Delayed obedience is disobedience,” he reminds her. “You WILL obey me. God placed me above you, as your head, for your own good. When you sin, I am the one held accountable.” Love is corrective.
When she wakes up, she’s alone in the guest room with a broken wrist and blood caking her face. “This is too much,” she cries to God. “This isn’t in your plan!” She quietly masks the injury as an accident until she gathers the courage to bring the situation to the elders of the church. They confer with one another, weighing the teachings of William Branham that a husband may be won to Christ by the submission of his wife with the obvious damage Benjamin had done. At last, they come to an agreement. They sternly reprimand Esther for seeking them out and bypassing her husband’s authority. She had earned what had come to her by not properly submitting to her husband. She ought to go back to him and apologize for not living up to her marriage vows, and she ought to shave her head to demonstrate how she’d rebelled and stepped outside of her husband’s authority. Although her husband had overreacted, they agreed that he had the right – and indeed, the responsibility – to correct her. If he hadn’t corrected her in her rebellious spirit, it would have meant that he really didn’t love her or care about the state of her soul. They hate to tell her this, say the elders, but they have to – because love is corrective.
Love suffereth long, and is kind; love envieth not; love vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Love never faileth…. And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love. -1 Corinthians 13
Love clearly has many attributes in Scripture. I think it ought to be instructive, however, that the love described in Corinthians says nothing about correction. Correction itself is not love. It is often a necessary expression of parental care, as Branham’s example of the child running into the street demonstrates. But this corrective action is not love. A child who is endlessly corrected, but never shown affection will not feel loved. Believers might argue that it isn’t necessary to “feel” loved, because that implies a reliance on fickle human emotions. It seems hypocritical, however, to celebrate the love, peace, and joy of Jesus while denying those feelings to one’s children. Moreover, if love is by definition corrective, and women are commanded to love their husbands, why is it anathema to Message believers for a wife to correct her husband?
Love can exist without correction, and correction without love. What, then, is the purpose of the “love is corrective” paradigm? It is to ensure that women and children do not trust themselves. When their senses scream, “This is not love!” they are reminded that they do not know what love is. They cannot sense it. It is above them: eternal and inscrutable.
But is a love never felt, that never builds up, encourages or brings joy to the beloved, really love at all?