Study time! Marriage, submission, and control in the Message

Let’s take a walk down Message theology lane. Today’s text is a relatively recent sermon (July 14, 2010) called Sowing the Right Atmosphere by pastor Brian Kocourek.

At issue in this sermon are scriptural gender roles and the submission and headship model of marriage. Kocourek begins with Deuteronomy 6, a famous passage about taking the words of God and “binding them upon your forehead.” Kocourek’s interpretation runs as follows:

([This] means that they encompass your mind or mindset). And, remember, your forehead is where your frontal lobe is and that is where your memory is resident. When a person has a lobotomy they lose there memory. But here we see that they are to take the preeminent place of our thinking. Even as frontlets between our eyes, that all we see is the word of God. As phylacteries that go “boing, boing, boing” as we walk along, and they bounce off our head. A constant reminder.

Obedience to God’s Word is apparently equivalent to getting a lobotomy, wearing a blindfold (“all we see is the word of God”), and porting around phylacteries. In case anyone is wondering, phylacteries look like this:

Phylacteries or frontlets

You don’t actually see the phylactery in front of you (it does not sit “between our eyes” or influence vision at all). What’s more interesting, however, is the allegation that believers today should wear spiritual phylacteries. Branham himself preached that we are not under the covenant of law or legalism, but under grace. This is because phylacteries weren’t Jesus’ favorite expression of devotion. He ridiculed the Pharisees in Matthew 23:5:

But all their works they do for to be seen of men: they make broad their phylacteries, and enlarge the borders of their garments….

The ostentatious parading around Scriptures on one’s head was exactly the kind of spectacle Jesus taught his disciples to avoid. Interesting, then, what a spectacle Message believers make of their devotion to their faith: denim skirts trailing the floor, mountains of untrimmed hair twisted in gravity-defying buns, 15-passenger vans carrying around infant armies for Jesus, men with checkered shirts and khaki pants carrying a Bible to their business meetings. I wonder who’s supposed to be looking? – “Man,” who looks on the outward appearance, or Jesus, who spent his time with tax collectors, prostitutes and the “down-and-outs” whom Message believers tolerate only if they can convert them (in a limited amount of time!)?

Now let’s tackle the formula for successful marriage Kocourek expounds using a mixture of the Bible and the Message. First, his interpretation of Ephesians 5 (emphasis his own):

#1) Ephesians 5: 25 “Husbands, Love your wives, EVEN AS Christ loved the church, to the point of giving Himself for it; Now this is point  #1) Husbands, you must love your wives even as. That means your love must be equal with her as for yourself. What you do for yourself, you must love to do for her. You spend $50 dollars on your self, you had better be not only willing but wanting to spend $50 on her. You spend $15,000 on your self  for tools or equipment or pleasure, you had better have $30,000. Because she deserves her share as well. $15,000 for her would be EVEN AS.

What he’s advocating here is actually a 50/50 split, not self-sacrifice. By choosing to omit the crucial point in the sentence (as Christ loved the church, and gave himself for it), he arrives at a monstrous perversion of its intended meaning. Christ did not have two lives to give: one for himself and another for the church. He did not half-die so that she could get her fair share of salvation. He did not reserve 50% of his blood on the cross. He willingly gave all of himself, subjugating his own will for her wellbeing and giving up his own life to preserve hers. His was 100% sacrifice. Incidentally, this looks a lot more like the model of submission typically foisted on wives in the Message than the model of love taught to husbands. It’s actually rather chilling that Kocourek’s Message eliminates the sacrifice of Christ from the passage explicitly telling husbands to follow his example. Who is Lord here, anyway?

Kocourek goes on to claim that submission enables women to control their own fates in marriage (emphasis mine):

Now wives, wouldn’t you just love it if your husband would always consider these 3 principals [sic; the principles in question are love, benevolence and not being bitter] in your marriage?  But are you aware that  you control whether he feels bitterness toward you or not? Are you aware that you are in the control seat when it comes to this?  Let’s just look at what the bible tells us about your 3 principals. If you keep these 3 principals, you will never have to worry about an angry husband.

Submission, he claims, puts women in control of their husbands’ feelings toward them – in fact, if a woman is properly submitted to the Holy Spirit through her husband, he is incapable of getting angry with her! Pretty sweet deal… if it worked. The problem is, it doesn’t. And when it doesn’t, it’s no great leap from “you control whether or not your husband is angry with you” to “if he is angry, it’s always your fault.”

Kocourek goes on to explain that submission is not just obedience, because “animals can show obedience.” It is a total denial of her own will in subjection to that of her husband (the difference appears to be one of attitude, though Kocourek does not make this explicit). He repeats a favorite story of William Branham, about a woman who is abused by her husband and finally wins him to Christ through submission:

Remember the story brother Branham tells about the man who was out drinking with his buddies and they got into a conversation down at the bar as to whether there any real Christians any more or not. And he said, tell you what, My wife is a real Christian.

And so they bet him and they planned how they would put her to the test. They came home acting as if they were drunk and carrying on. He crashed through the door and said in a harsh manner as though he was drunk, ” Make me some eggs.” She proceeded to cook up some eggs and when she served them to him, he through them on the floor and shouted, “That’s not the way I like them!” And he said, ‘come on boys, let’s get out of here.” And they left the kitchen.  Instead of doing what most women would do, and throw a fit and begin cussing and screaming, this woman just started to clean up the eggs and as she did she began to sing, “Must Jesus bear the cross alone, and all the world go free, no, there’s a cross for every one and there’s a cross for me.” And that night she led her husband and his friends to Christ. It’s not a matter of trying to get even, it’s called submission.

Kocourek, like Branham, argues that submission and consecration to God surround the believer with an “atmosphere” that anger cannot penetrate. That atmosphere is supposed to be transformative: it demonstrates Christ’s perfect love, which casts out evil spirits. Kocourek concludes (emphasis his):

So we see that if you reverence your husband with a deep respect and you submit yourself to your husband,  and principal #3) is as we said before, to render due benevolence which is to  be kind and  good will toward him, how could he ever be bitter or angry or stingy with you. What you are doing is you are creating an atmosphere.

The story of the woman who won over her abusive, alcoholic husband and his drinking friends was a fiction. This doctrine – that wives control the anger their husbands are able to have – is the kiss of death to women in abusive relationships. No Longer Quivering is filled with stories about how submission enabled abusive, angry husbands to seize more and more control. The more space they were given, the more tyrannical they became. Like toddlers indulged in every whim, men placed at the head of their households with wives forever affirming and submitting and yielding to their desires came to see their word and will as law and God’s word as justification for it. It is curious that groups like the Message, which expend so much energy teaching the proper discipline of children, absolve husbands of accountability to their own households. Men are only little boys grown up. When the husband is accountable only to God, he is uniquely susceptible to believing that God affirms everything he does – and that when something goes wrong for him, it’s because his wife or children stepped out of line and undermined his godly authority.

Some may say that the Message holds men accountable, or that “true” submission by women following the Message would never meet such a perverted end. They might say that the only way to create an atmosphere is to have the Holy Spirit, and that the only way to have the Holy Spirit is to be in the Message. My own mother, however, is by all accounts a Spirit-filled Christian following the Message to the letter. She responded to my father’s anger with prayer and subjection. She never denied his will except when he tried to prevent her from going to church. She kept silent when he screamed and did not strike back when he struck her. And still he took more and more. As I grew up, I watched the boundaries fall. He who would never criticize her cooking or her looks increasingly felt entitled to criticize every detail of both. He asked with false concern whether she might not be mentally ill, then by turns berated her for being stupid (she is neither). He struck her, pushed her, spat in her face, and still she submitted. She never answered him back except to tell him that God was waiting for him to come into the truth.

I left my home one morning after a night of screaming rage from him at her, the culmination of thirty years of abusive marriage, when I heard him fiddling with a gun in their bedroom. I begged my mother to come with me and escape the torment, but she declared that her place was with him, submitting to him, and she cast me off as a rebellious child. Still he torments her.

Submission did not create an atmosphere that deflected his anger. It only created a bubble of denial in which she refused to listen to his words and prayed herself silently through each physical attack. He grew more and more enraged when he couldn’t get her to respond. Her silence and submission only ever made matters worse.

Such relationships only end with death or escape. I hope it will be the latter. But my mother is not the only Message woman with an angry husband, who is taught in vain that she can control him through submission. Message believers, take responsibility for your poisonous doctrine. Shame on you for sending women, shorn and lobotomized, to their graves.

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