Shorter John Piper: Women Can Be Possessions, or They Can Be Prey

Shorter John Piper: Women Can Be Possessions, or They Can Be Prey March 27, 2018

John Piper recently released a piece titled Sex-Abuse Allegations and the Egalitarian Myth. In that piece, Piper responded to this prompt, written in the age of #metoo:

We’re in a season here in the States faced with an incredible number of powerful men getting exposed for making unwanted and unwarranted sexual advances on women. Of the alleged perpetrators, the list includes of course Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Al Franken, Roger Ailes, Roy Moore, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Bill O’Reilly, and Garrison Keillor. It’s on the left and on the right, liberals and conservatives, politicians and entertainers, from Hollywood to Minneapolis to D.C. to New York City.

It seems like what makes these stories especially tragic, Pastor John, is not merely that these are powerful men who took advantage of less-powerful women. It’s especially tragic because, as men, they are called by God to demonstrate sacrificial care for women beyond what women are called to offer men. You’ve written on this in a recent article, Pastor John. Here, simply debrief your thoughts for us as you see the news.

Note immediately the framing the issue is given—these cases are especially tragic because men “are called by God to demonstrate sacrificial care for women beyond what women are called to offer men.”

The “sacrificial care” referenced here is what kept women under men’s authority and “protection” until relatively recently. In the U.S. a century and more ago, women were not allowed to leave home upon adulthood like men were. They were not allowed to marry without their father’s permission. Once married, they could not open bank accounts or conduct other financial transactions without their husband’s signature or say-so. This system, which stripped women of autonomy and placed them under the control of a husband, or father, has been largely dismantled since the 1960s.

Now let’s look at Piper’s response to this question:

My point in that article and in this podcast is that the egalitarian assumptions in our culture, and to a huge degree in the church, have muted — silenced, nullified — one of the means that God has designed for the protection and the flourishing of women. It has silenced the idea that men as men — by virtue of their created, God-given maleness, apart from any practical competencies that they have or don’t have — men have special responsibilities to care for and protect and honor women. This call is different from the care and protection and honor that women owe men. That’s my thesis. That’s my point.

Can you see what I’m saying?

Here is the problem—the “protection” Piper references never really worked out that way. Men still took advantage of women—and the control they held over women often aided them. Domestic violence and marital rape. Sexual abuse. Sex trafficking. These things are not new. They happened in the past too. And at that time, women had fewer ways to protect themselves against such abuses—particularly when they experienced them at the hands of a father, or a husband.

Individuals like Piper have created an imaginary past where men chivalrously “took care of” women, and women in turn smiled sweetly, with nothing more to worry about than caring for their children and decorating their homes. That time did not exist.

Piper lays out the “egalitarian” and “complementarian” perspectives as follows:

[F]or decades Christian and non-Christian egalitarians have argued, have assumed, and have modeled that those peculiar roles and responsibilities among men and women in the home, in the church, and in the culture should emerge only from competencies rather than from a deeper reality rooted in who we are differently as male and female.

Complementarians, on the other hand, believe that while competencies may shape the details of how our differing roles and responsibilities are worked out, nevertheless God has built in to males and females profound and wonderful, even mysterious, differences, that carry different burdens and different responsibilities.

I’d say Piper encapsulates the differences fairly well.

Egalitarians argue that people are individuals, and that each one’s strengths should shape the place they take in society. In other words, whether the wife or the husband or both work outside of the home should be guided by the couple’s specific needs, strengths, and desires, rather than by one’s gender. We see this principle at work to the greatest degree in gay and lesbian couples, which I would argue is part of the reason conservatives have so opposed these unions.

Complementarians, Piper writes, hold that there are underlying differences between men and women that are tied to fundamentally different “burdens” and “responsibilities.” Men are to be the protectors and providers. That is their duty, their burden, their responsibility. Women are to be caretakers of children, submissive to their husbands, keepers of the home. They are to be gentle, to be feminine, to be caregivers. That is their duty, their burden, their responsibility.

According to Piper, children want to know the answers to several questions: “What does it mean to grow up to be a man and not a women?” “What does it mean to grow up to be a woman and not a man?”

“Is there, Mommy and Daddy, a God-given, profound, beautiful meaning to manhood and womanhood?”

The kids don’t say it like that, but that’s what they want to know eventually: is there a difference beyond mere anatomy? Are there built-in responsibilities that I have simply because I’m a male or a female human being. There is a pervasive egalitarian disinclination to say yes to that question. The egalitarian inclination is to define all our relationships by competencies. And my suggestion or my contention is this is hurting us.

And therein, he says, lie the problems we see in our society today.

This refusal to answer that question or be burdened by it is hurting us. It confuses everyone, especially the children. This confusion is hurting people.

It has moved way beyond confusion. It’s a firm conviction of most of our egalitarian culture that men as men do not owe women a special kind of care and protection and honor that women do not owe men. I believe they do. I believe fifty years of denying it is one of the seeds bearing very bad fruit, including all those sexual abuses you talked about in your question. There are others seeds in our culture, but this is one of the seeds.

In other words, according to Piper, sexual abuse is the result of … egalitarianism. Because men and women are increasingly seen as equal, men now believe they are under no obligation to “protect” women.

Piper is not alleging that men abuse women in an egalitarian system because they now treat women the same way they treat men rather than giving them special protection(such reasoning might make one wonder about the state of interaction between men). Rather, Piper alleges that women are weaker and in need of protection, and that without that protection they will be exploited. Men will never treat women as equals, Piper alleges—they will either treat women as delicate possessions to protect (i.e. each woman has a male owner and protector), or as weaker beings to exploit and abuse at their whim.

This is a fundamental rejection of the very concept of egalitarianism. It isn’t that Piper has a problem with egalitarianism. It’s that Piper does not believe egalitarianism is possible. Any attempt at it, he argues, leaves women vulnerable to male predators, without protection or defense. That doesn’t make men sound all that great, does it? That’s part of Piper’s contention as well—he argues that egalitarianism leads men to view women as prey for the taking, with no restraint, while complementarianism trains men to see women as weaker beings to protect and care for (and own).

Piper somewhat obscures the extent to which he is arguing that women should function as men’s possessions, quoting some passages but not the one that ends up mattering perhaps more than any other for many conservative evangelical women:

In Colossians 3:19, the apostle Paul told husbands, “Love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.” Now, that is not the same as saying, “Neither of you should be harsh.” It is a special restraint on typical sinful male harshness and roughness and cruelty that’s gone on for thousands of years.

Colossians’ positive counterpart is spelled out in Ephesians 5:22-33 in a stunningly beautifully and counter-cultural way.

Piper references the Ephesians passage but doesn’t quote it. You know what you see if you click through on his link?

Ephesians 5:22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.

While his link only takes you to that one verse, he mentions the full passage—Ephesians 5:22-33. In order to be fair to Piper, let’s look at the full passage:

22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.

This is the passage Piper argues is countercultural. Here are Piper’s words:

I would argue that in every culture on the planet this is counter-cultural. There’s nothing like it in any culture in the world (unless it’s rooted in this text). There is nothing like the leadership of Jesus and protection of Jesus and provision and cherishing and nourishing of Jesus that are laid on the man as a man — not because he’s more competent, but because he’s a man.

The thing that is always left somewhat aside in the many, many conservative evangelical praises of the “positive” aspects of this passage is that it commands women to submit to and obey their husbands in everything.

I would argue from Scripture, from the creation account and other places, that this special burden put on man — this special responsibility toward women for honor and care and protection — does not evaporate when he walks out the door of his home. It’s not as though it were a matter of geography or a matter of marriage alone. Manhood does not cease to be manhood outside the home.

And there’s the rub—in Piper’s telling, women get to choose between being prey, and being possessions. We can’t do both, because if we’re not men’s possessions—if men aren’t conditioned to care for, protect, and own us—men will de facto attack, abuse, and exploit us, because there will be no restraint on their treatment of us.

Peter says, “showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel.” Now, there are ways, of course, that women are stronger than men, and ways women are weaker than men. And Peter is focusing on men being stronger than women and asking, “How shall a man relate to a woman if she is weaker, more vulnerable to his power?” The answer is, “Honor.”

My point is that this is a peculiar, special honor — a kind of honor God has built into the man as the stronger one. This is not merely mutual honor; this is a special honor flowing from the stronger to the weaker.

This is an honor of a man toward a woman precisely because he’s a man and, in general, men are in the position of physical power and strength over women. God inserts between them in that relationship a special duty, a special responsibility that a man has.

According to Piper, the only restraint on men’s abuse of women is Christianity’s complementation order for women to submit to and obey their husbands and husbands to love, care for, and protect their wives.

My point in this podcast is that this divine design for men as men to show a special care, protection, and honor to women is essential for good — for the good of families, churches, society, and for women in particular.

Millions of people in our day would rather sacrifice this peculiar biblical mandate given for the good of women. They would rather sacrifice it than betray any hint of compromise with egalitarian assumptions. What I’m arguing is that we have forfeited both a great, God-ordained restraint upon male vice and male power and a great, God-ordained incentive for male valor because we refuse to even think in terms of maleness and femaleness as they are created by God, carrying distinct and unique responsibilities and burdens.

We have put our hope in the myth that the summons to generic human virtue, with no attention to the peculiar virtues required of manhood and womanhood, would be sufficient to create a beautiful society of mutual respect. It isn’t working.

Men need to be taught from the time they are little boys that part of their manhood is to feel a special responsibility for the care and protection and honoring of women just because they are men.

Teaching boys that they should treat every human being with kindness and respect, regardless of their gender, doesn’t cut it for Piper—because, he says, we have evidence that it isn’t working. But has it really ever been tried? Harvey Weinstein wasn’t raised in an era when women were treated as equals. Even boys today are conditioned to see women as different—and even, in many cases, as conquests, as status symbols to obtain, as beings to take their pleasure from, and not as people.

There are several very serious problems with Piper’s reasoning.

Male abuse of women did not begin with the advent of feminism and egalitarianism. Part of the reason feminism rose was that women, in their limited positions, were vulnerable to exploitation. Women who were raped by their husbands often had no recourse. Women with abusive husbands did not have access to credit or financial resources of their own. Rendering women especially vulnerable to their male “protectors” renders them especially exploitable by those same individuals.

Men have never consistently acted as protectors of women. Violence against women has always happened. So has rape and sexual harassment. It’s difficult to compare rates, given that these things were often not reported in the past (just as they often are not reported today) due to the fact that nothing would be done even if they were reported. In some cases abuses against women (such as marital rape or wife beating) were not recognized as crimes to begin with (just as child abuse was not recognized as a crime before the mid nineteenth century).

Women have also always been trafficked and sexually exploited. This is absolutely not new. None of this is new. What is new is the awareness of it. Men demanded sexual favors from their secretaries in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, women have far more likelihood of receiving redress for sexual harassment in the workplace than they did in the past (though even now, the system is far from perfect, and justice is not always served).

Patriarchal men who believe that it is men’s role to protect and care for women are not immune from sexually abusing women. To the contrary. Consider Doug Phillips, and Bill Gothard. No, it is not enough to claim that these men must not really have believed that men are to protect and care for women. It is conservative evangelical teachings themselves that often contribute to abusive environments—cases where women (and children) are stuck in abusive situations with little recourse. Women are told that they are not submitting enough, and to stop provoking him. Children are told to obey their parents.

In the wake of the revelations about Harvey Weinstein, many have asked how he was able to abuse undetected for so long. Various factors led to a conspiracy of silence. Those who knew what was going on avoided reporting due to Weinstein’s pull in the industry, and victims knew that a single word could mean the end of their careers. In a similar way, evangelical Christian teachings about marital roles, and the power structures present in many evangelical churches, can create an environment of silence—an environment where an abuser can abuse, and abuse, and abuse again without being apprehended.

Consider Piper’s own words on domestic violence:

God himself has put law enforcement officers in place for the protection of the innocent. … A wife’s submission to the authority of civil law, for Christ’s sake, may, therefore, overrule her submission to a husband’s demand that she endure his injuries. This legitimate recourse to civil protection may be done in a spirit that does not contradict the spirit of love and submission to her husband, for a wife may take this recourse with a heavy and humble heart that longs for her husband’s repentance and the restoration of his nurturing leadership.

The prayer is always for restoration, and even contacting authorities must be done in a spirit of submission. What if a woman does not want to “reconcile” with an abusive husband? What if a woman does not want to again be under her abuser’s “leadership”? There is no recognition that a man who has proven himself willing to beat or otherwise abuse his wife should not be placed in a position of authority over her. There is no understanding that holding such a position can contribute to abuse—or that the expectation that a woman submit to and obey her husband can contribute to victim blaming.

For Piper, even spousal abuse and domestic violence do not negate the headship and submission paradigm he pushes. Even when you are being abused, you must have a spirit of submission. Even if you have been abused, you are expected to place yourself again under your abuser’s authority and control.

I should note that Piper’s words above were a “clarification” he made only after his initial response to an online Q&A about women and domestic violence met widespread criticism. After all, when Piper heard the question he was being asked to respond to, he chuckled. It’s on video. What did he say in his initial response?

If it’s not requiring her to sin but simply hurting her, then I think she endures verbal abuse for a season, and she endures perhaps being smacked one night, and then she seeks help from the church.

Every time I deal with somebody in this, I find the ultimate solution under God in the church. In other words, this man should be disciplined, and she should have a safe place in a body of Christ where she goes and then the people in the church deal with him. She can’t deal with him by herself.

The problem, as we have seen many times, is that the church’s goal is not simply to end the abuse but also to restore the relationship to a patriarchal structure Piper considers biblical. In conservative evangelical churches, the pastor is likely to ask whether the woman was submitting to her husband. Did she do something that provoked him? Such churches are also going to oppose the possibility of divorce. The goal will be (as Piper stated directly in his clarification) to restore the woman to her husband’s leadership—regardless of his history of abuse. Her role, after all, is to obey and submit to her husband.

What kind of protection does such a system offer?!

Consider, on a fundamental level, what Piper is selling here—if we women want to be safe and not abused, he tells us, we need to return to a gender role system that requires us to submit to and obey the male authority figures in our lives. We need to give up our ability to make our own choices. We need to give up our autonomy. We need to surrender ourselves to the care of a man—husband or father—and give up any dreams of being independent. Only by surrendering ourselves and our autonomy to men can we be free from the threat of male violence (and even this is a false hope).

I’ve actually heard it said directly that it is better for a woman to obey her husband than to be expected to obey all men—that was presented as the alternative. Women are weaker vessels, they’re incapable of protecting themselves. How much better, therefore, for them to function as possessions of one man (their husband, or father), than to function as the playthings and prey of all men? That really is the logic at play here. Women can’t be independent. They will always be at the mercy of men.

Piper is no fringe character. He is smack dab in the mainstream of conservative evangelicalism. This really is is what that tradition has to offer. Surrender your autonomy to a single man and be safe, or assert your independence and face rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment at the hands of men. Be a possession—or prey.

So attractive, this tradition.

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