Some humans are more equal than others: John Piper on spousal abuse and submission

Some humans are more equal than others: John Piper on spousal abuse and submission January 11, 2013

I’m doing a series on complementarianism’s manipulative claims at promoting equality. You can read the intro here. The first entry, on Joshua Harris, can be found here.

When I first left the tiny bubble of the Independent Fundamental Baptist Church and stepped into the larger (but still restrictive) bubble of conservative evangelicalism, I learned that I was supposed to love John Piper.

However, even though I was still a (fairly rebellious) conservative at the time, John Piper’s view of women prevented me from becoming that evangelical Christian who’s always putting quotes from Desiring God as her Facebook status (instead I became that feminist that won’t shut up about bell hooks, but I digress).

I’ve never been much of a Piper fan and videos like the following are why:

For those of you unable to watch this video, I’ll share the “highlights (though I really encourage you to watch it, because I cannot describe to you Piper’s non-verbal communication, but I believe it suggests he sees this as a completely abstract subject. He chuckles at parts and that really reveals his character and attitude toward women):”

What should a wife’s submission to her husband look like if he’s an abuser?…Part of that answer’s clearly going to depend on what kind of abuse we’re dealing with here–how serious this is. Is her life in danger?

This man and his hand motions, I swear.
This man and his hand motions, I swear.

He then goes into a rather confusing explanation of his belief that a woman’s submission to her husband is not absolute because she must also submit to God. This explanation includes awkward hand-motions. If a man is “calling her to engage in abusive acts willingly” then

She’s got a crisis of submission there, of course. To whom do I submit now?

Yes, abuse is a “crisis of submission.”

Should she “go along with” her husbands abuse and submit to him? Or submit to God? Piper says she must humbly explain that she would love to submit to him, if he wasn’t requiring her to sin (apparently being abused is a sin).

If it’s not requiring her to sin, but simply hurting her, then I think she endures verbal abuse for a season, she endures perhaps being smacked one night, and then she seeks help from the church…[The church then must] step in, be her strength and say to him, “No, you can’t do this.”

Piper’s words speak for themselves. And for years, people have been outraged by them. Kind of hard to keep up the pretense of complementarianism being good for women, when one of its biggest proponents is saying women should endure abuse for a season.

I guess John Piper realized this and recently decided to “clarify” his words (and four years too late. How many women in those four stayed with abusive husbands in part because of this man’s words?).

His “clarification” reveals the pattern that I discussed in the intro to this series. Complementarians take words and ideas that are actually very clear, and insist that they don’t mean what everyone in the world naturally thinks they mean.

John Piper might have said that women should be submissive even in cases of abuse, and should endure abuse for a season. But don’t misunderstand exactly what he said! Here’s a clarification!

Frankly, I see this as insulting to his critics’ intelligence.

His “clarification” does clear one thing up though. It makes it clear that, under no circumstances is a woman allowed to stop submitting to someone.

Sure, she can’t always submit to her husband. Not just because she shouldn’t have to put up with abuse, but also because, as John Piper said in his first sermon, submitting to abuse is a sin! His clarification makes this same point:

In expecting his wife to quietly accept his threats and injuries, he is asking her to participate in his breaking of both God’s moral law and the state’s civil law.

This isn’t about her escaping from suffering. It’s about her fleeing the temptation to “sin.”

And does an abusive man lose his right to lead? Can a woman stop submitting to her husband when he starts to abuse her?

Yes and no. But mostly no.

According to Piper:

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.

So, a woman never gets to stop being submissive. But since she must also be submissive to civil authorities (and feminists have pointed out time and again that civil authorities abuse women too), sometimes that responsibility to submit can overrule her responsibility to submit to her husband.

But she’s still to remain submissive to this man that decided to “smack her around for a season.”

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.

As Dianna Anderson points out, this “legitimate recourse” isn’t about stopping the pain she’s suffering. It’s about helping her abuser “see the light.”

The woman doesn’t get to divorce her husband. She gets to submit to a system that has done its share of abusing women (or she can submit to the church…but same difference, right?) while she waits for her husband’s leadership to be restored.

His being an abuser does not disqualify him from leadership. His leadership is merely suspended for a time.

How many abusers flock to Christianity when they learn that they will be treated like kings? I’ve met a few in my day.

All humans are equal.

But some humans have an unconditional right to leadership. Other humans have an unconditional responsibility to submit.

Some humans are more equal than others.

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  • Yes! “Abuse is a crisis of submission” just as robbery is a crisis of generosity.

    On another note, Sarah, don’t you know that people can’t be held responsible for the things they have said more than 7 months ago? It’s a pretty well known rule; without it, we’d have to actually choose our words when we speak to the entire online world.

  • “Is her life in danger?” stuck out as the most dangerous line in all this. It’s a rare abuse victim that knows that her life is in danger until either she leaves, looks back and realises how dangerous her situation was, or her partner directly tries to murder her. Meanwhile, I don’t know US stats, but here in the UK, two women a week are killed by partners or ex-partners. Most of them wouldn’t have said that their lives were in danger before they were killed.

    All violence has the potential of seriously injuring or killing someone, even when it is not intended – people do not know the force they have in their limbs, nobody can predict exactly how a blow is going to strike or the person is going to fall. “Is her life in danger?” If there’s violence, her life is in danger.

    Not that physical safety should be the minimum requirement for staying in a marriage.

  • T. Dwight Davis

    When I first became a Christian I was a huge John Piper fanboy. He is, arguably, the reason I became a Christian. I have since graduated from Evangelicalism and moved away from that culture, due in large part to stuff like this. I remember the first time I heard Piper talk about abuse. I had watched my dad (who was a paramedic in our city, that will come into play in just a second) beat my mom for fifteen years while my mom couldn’t do anything. She tried going to the police once, but since my dad was a paramedic, all of his friends were employed by the city as cops, firemen, etc. so they just believed their buddy when he said it wasn’t happening and that my mom was a bitch. It pissed me off that Piper said my mom should have been submissive to my dad. And then I read this “clarification” a few weeks back and just had to laugh. My mom tried to solve her crisis of submission but was abused both by the system and by her husband. She later re-married a fantastic man and I have to listen to boys like Driscoll call her an adulterer.

    I can’t stand the way that Evangelicals treat women. I’ve seen it’s effects on my mom and now I regularly see the lingering effects on my wife who grew up in an Evangelical megachurch. We work together to “deprogram” her from the crap she learned in youth group. Sorry for the longer story comment. But I wanted to show you yet another practical, concrete example of the kind of thing you’re talking about here.

    • No, thanks for your comment. So sad that your mom had to deal with that but so great that she’s found a good person now! 🙂 And yes, the way evangelicals talk about people like your mom (and so many other women I know) makes me so angry

  • I am enjoying this series very much. As a younger person whose views on this and other issues weren’t as developed, I kind of liked John Piper. It became increasingly apparent, though, that his gentle persona belies his hostile theology.

    Also, I’m always struck by the apparent complementarian perspective that if they keep clarifying their positions, we will all finally “get it” and fall in line. It blows my mind that they don’t realize that we do “get” their argument, and fundamentally detest the inequality and marginalization they preach.

    • “his gentle persona belies his hostile theology” and “we do ‘get’ their argument, and fundamentally detest the inequality and marginalization they preach” – BOOM! Well stated and SPOT on.

  • Your reading of his nonverbal communication is right on, I think.

    This man – his theology of creation is totally messed up! His understanding of the systems and patterns of abuse is non-existent! And he seems to have no pastoral presence to speak of! How is he so beloved?

    • When you tell people what they want to hear, and wrap it in an intellectual-sounding air of theological rightness, you get results, whether that’s page views, books sold, or preachers quoting him from the pulpit.

      I guess the old saying is true:
      You attract more flies with manure than with honey. . .

  • His reaction (chuckle) to the question at the beginning was weird and inappropriate. Abuse is sobering and wrong. Not funny. What’s a woman to do when the church tells her it’s her fault. Many church leaders and abusive husbands brainwash women into thinking that the abuse is their fault. No one should ever be told to endure verbal abuse or one smack, ever. From my experience verbal abuse often ends in physical abuse.

  • So let’s see if I’m following his logic… according to him:

    1. The most important priority a woman being abused has to face is how to continue staying acceptably submissive. Her responsibility to fix her husband is paramount to her own safety or well-being, because evidently women are culpable for their husbands.

    2. Yet it is a sin to be so servile that you “allow” your husband to continue abusing you, because you’re enabling him to commit sin. Again, a woman is always at least partially to blame for her husband’s behavior.

    3. But it’s wrong to usurp his authority by doing anything that goes against his wishes, even declaring your own right to safety and humane treatment. This is disobedient and selfish.

    4. As such, although allowing yourself to be victimized “too much” is a sin (not that he gives us any useful metric of when it’s “okay” to get help – one punch? two punches? Six months of abuse? A hospital visit? What if he hurts the kids?), it’s still worse to not be submissive. So allow yourself to get beat up. Your feelings are irrelevant. If you pray and submit enough, he’ll feel guilty and change his ways.

    5. In the event that #4 doesn’t work, she should rely on the church to intervene so that she’s not doing anything sinful like having some semblance of basic human autonomy. Plus we all know how reliable conservative Christians are about helping female victims.

    6. If the police have to get involved, you should feel really bad about it and still put his situation above your own needs. And don’t even think about divorce. You better believe things are returning to the status quo as soon as this all blows over. Just hope it doesn’t happen again, even though statistically it will!

    It never ceases to amaze me how people will tie themselves in knots trying to blame the victim.

    In my Seventh-day Adventist community, while there is a visible spectrum of progressives, I’d say a a good number of them ascribe to John Piper-esque gender roles. Unfortunately some theologians have even been aping Bill Gothard’s theology to spread among our conservatives. A study was done about abuse in the Adventist church, and our rates of domestic violence are measurably the same or WORSE than in non-religious homes (I can forward links to any interested parties).

    One big name in the church, Samuel Koranteng-Pipim, could fairly be described as the Adventist Piper. He recently resigned from his high position in the conference after allegations of raping a 19-year-old Bible student. He didn’t confess his “adultery” until word got out that the victim was going to go public. Some text chat conversations of theirs have been published… the guy is a total predatory creep.

    But of course, after a short sprint of damage control, fake repentance, melodramatic declarations that satan was out to destroy his ministry, and self-indulgent whining about how resigning was a pain “worse than death” (and worse than being raped, apparently!), things pretty much went back to normal.

    • Sue Blue

      I’m an ex-Seventh Day Adventist (always good to hear from others who understand their particular brand of evangelical fundamentalism!), and I have to say that this very issue was a huge factor in my leaving the church. I’ve watched my mother suffer through more than 50 years of miserable marriage to my verbally and emotionally abusive father, all the while blaming herself for “provoking” him and not being a proper “helpmeet”. It’s always her fault, never his. She completely ignores the fact that decades of earnest submission and prayer have failed to result in a change. I asked her once if she didn’t think God’s continuing refusal to answer her prayers for change were in fact, an answer – God was saying, “No! Leave him!”. Her whole life, every day, is structured around what he wants to do, what he wants to eat and when, where he wants to go, what he wants her to wear, etc., ad infinitum. She gave up her college education and a promising career to marry him.
      I chafed under the pervasive patriarchy and misogyny of the church, but the final blow for me was their attitude toward my younger sister’s marriage to a youth pastor who turned out to be physically abusive. He first beat up my sister when she was seven months pregnant with their second child. The police became involved when she was in the hospital. When she turned to the church for counseling, she was encouraged to stay with him and “work it out”. The counselor was not licensed or experienced with abuse cases, but thought that prayer and “submission to the will of God” could fix things. Of course my sister was shortly beaten up again, and the abuse continued over ten years as the church moved her husband from one state to another whenever he was arrested or the congregation got wind of the problem. After several serious injuries, including a broken pelvis and arm, she finally left him. When they could no longer ignore his activities, they disfellowshipped both my sister and her husband. Today, more than seventeen years later, she’s still living in fear of him (he stalked her for years after their divorce, vandalized her house and car, and refused to pay child support). I was so enraged at the way the church ignored the situation and covered it up that I left it forever, and so did my sister….but my mother still plugs along. What a waste of a life, mind, time, education, and career.
      I say without reservation that I loathe people like John Piper, and I hold them and their teachings and views directly responsible for the untold misery of every abused Christian woman.

      • I am so incredibly sorry for your family’s experiences. I frequent a Facebook group of Adventists in favor of women’s ordination, and unsurprisingly many of them are domestic abuse survivors (or they have grown up watching it happen often to friends and family). No one is fooling them… they’ve seen the mindset that breeds abuse. They know that men who expect female submission are NEVER concerned with trying to obey the Bible in good faith.

        I agree that misogyny is unbelievably prevalent in Adventism, especially given the irony of having a woman founder/prophet whose words carry a lot of authority in SDA doctrine. There is just something so twisted about psychology of a religious group that can revere a female spiritual leader from the pulpit, then turn around and treat the everyday woman in their pews with such utter contempt.

        An Adventist and former friend of mine, a woman who had internalized a lot of misogynistic thinking from her father (a well-known leader in the Texas conference), accused me and by extension anyone who had feminist leanings as being “bitter” and “lashing out” because we’d been mistreated by men – in my case, I was raped by an adult at 14 (I had confided in her to keep this secret, much to my eternal regret).

        Needless to say, I left that congregation and hope to never speak to her or anyone like her again.

        Anyway, while I did say “my Adventist community”, I’m also ex-SDA. I currently live in the midst of a large SDA population and as such end up engaging with them frequently even though I don’t share their worldview anymore. I converted in my teens and used to be a fundamentalist (thanks to my vulnerable emotional state at the time – it always felt weird and uncomfortable to me, but peer pressure won for a season). Mounting doubts and problems led me out of the church about two years ago (I’m 28 now). The mistreatment of women becoming more visible was certainly a significant factor, but far from the only one. Religious sexism doesn’t happen in a vacuum… it’s usually related to a lot of other systematic problems.

        I’m not sure if I really want to be Christian anymore, but if I ever were to believe again, I’d consider myself a Christian Anarchist. I feel like that movement does more to embody the positive traits that initially attracted me to Adventism… like pacifism, social justice, environmentalism, freedom of religion, separation of church and state, non-eternal hell, a view of God that isn’t a horrible tyrant, etc. Stuff they used to believe in once upon a time. Their greatest heroes are non-violent people like Desmond Doss who went into combat during WW2 refusing to even TOUCH a gun.

        Unfortunately, Adventist churches are increasingly filled with paranoid, extremist, gun-hoarding, right-wing, antifeminist, homophobic, theocratic conspiracy theorists who want to vote everyone else’s rights away. Despite the big deal they make about “God’s Character” and how it’s their special mission as a church to clear His name, really awful theology is spreading like wildfire. Gothard’s nonsense about submission among the godhead is a very popular one with the patriarchal crowd.

        I’m not surprised that all this hatefulness has coalesced into out-of-control abuse rates.

    • You forget – if a woman does everything right, she can end her abuse on her own. The only reason a male abuses a woman is because he feels challenged or threatened regarding his own position of authority over her. If she serves his meals as expected, washes, dries, folds, etc., his laundry as expected, raises his children as expected, has sex as requested, etc., there would be no reason for her husband to have to discipline her so severely. If a woman is being punished by her husband, she has done something to deserve it (yes, I have actually been ‘taught’ this in women’s Bible study classes about how to be an excellent wife). ~sigh~

  • LucrezaBorgia

    Sadly, there is little to no word on how men should act. It is always about the women.

    • Todd

      isn’t it strange that they go on and on about the husband being the head of the wife as Christ is to the church but never consider the extreme gravity of their duty as a husband who must embody the perfection ans self sacrifice of Christ(which personally i think is imposible). What winds up happening is they expect the women to embody in every way the behaviour and attitude of a true leader(a leader is to act like the servant was Christ’s instrustions on the matter)while the husband carries the title and worldly benefits of leadership and yet he gets to act like a spoiled brat who always has to get his way(which is leadership to men like piper-my 10 year old could give better advice to abused women).

    • I disagree, but in many ‘classes’ in my history I have been told that if the man is not behaving correctly a woman can change his behavior by behaving as a ‘Godly woman’ – if she works very hard to anticipate and serve his every need without him asking, makes sure to be dressed up with hair done and make up to greet him when he comes home from work, prepares all of his favorites, keeps the kids quiet and obedient so they do not disturb him after his hard day’s work, continually praises his good qualities and shows appropriate gratitude for his provision for the house, etc., the man will only treat her with love and adoration.

      If a man were to follow HIS instructions well, he would love his wife as much as Christ loved the church. He would nourish her and care for her as he does his own body. Most people don’t enjoy fear or pain, and they certainly wouldn’t inflict it on themselves. However, it is easier for any of us to blame others for our behavior, and it is very common in cases of abuse for the abuser to blame the abused – “if you would only do what I tell you, I wouldn’t get so mad in the first place” kind of things being yelled at you as you are being dragged down the hallway by your hair, etc. 🙁

  • I don’t get why Piper talks about women as though they’re a different species. Some evangelical leaders seem to insist that there are specific inferences between men and women, but those “differences” appear self-serving, as in “men are leaders, women are followers”.

    I’m really enjoying your posts, Sarah. Thank you for writing them.

  • Gary

    Thanks, Sarah. As a progressive pastor trying to build ecumenical bridges, it’s sad but necessary to identify the realms in which we must tell it like it is. Your blog will also help us prepare our confirmation class, mostly teen girls, for the realities of the complementarian mindset that they’ll inevitably encounter. I pray for all those teens/women who have drunk this Kool-aid, heading out into life theologically defenseless against abusive partners. And …for those of us in the institutional church who are called to confront it and name it for what it is – as you are doing.

  • The problem with Piper is that his complementarian views start in the old “he shall rule over you” patriarchy predicted at the fall and evident in abuse world-wide. He is no more immune to this sin-curse than any man is. As bad as that is, rather than fighting his sin-nature he adds the flawed evangelical view of the Bible; that we can sift through all the books of the Bible and cull out “biblical” teaching on anything we want. Hence he gets his basket of verses taken here and there from the Bible and, wonder of wonders, finds patriarchy to be “biblical. ” He then tries to apply that basket to issues they were not addressing and comes out with the alarming nonsense he spouts in the video. The problem is that he is trying to address situations that his basket was not speaking to. To his(slight) credit I do get the sense that, deep down, he is uncomfortable with what he is saying. but he is trapped in his flawed “biblical” paradigm and ends up spouting hate. He is not trying to endorse abuse, he intends to be a nice guy, but ends up doing so anyway. In this sense complementarianism is worse that patriarchy is that it supplies “good guy” cover to all sorts of evil. I have little doubt that there are abusers out there who see him as a hero, probably to his own horror.

  • It depends on the kind of abuse? Really? *gag* No one should have to put up with ANY kind of abuse EVER, including the spiritual abuse of being told that they need to submit to an abuser. He’s disgusting.

  • When I went to bible college in St. Paul, MN, I learned I was supposed to love John Piper. The students and professors at my school revered him like a god and sometimes we’d use his books as textbooks. I went to his church many times with friends. My classmates did internships at his church and the female ones would tell me how strict the rules were for what positions women could hold, even if they were doing all the work and skill of a man’s position. I can’t tell you how good it feels to be able to disagree with him and not feel guilty about it now.

  • I have to echo part of what grace4everyday said. I think some of the body language things are unconscious signals that somewhere within him, unconnected to his conscious mind (obvs.), he knows that what he’s saying is crap. Would to God the synapses would connect….

  • Lorna

    The obsession with sex that these ‘leaders’ have comes out in this too. When I think about spousal abuse, my first thought is physical beatings and emotional or psychological torture. The specifics of being asked to join a group sex session is not the first thing that comes to mind (for me anyway) and his immediate reference to that is kind of disturbing. I am not saying that pressuring someone into a sexual situation they are uncomfortable with is not abuse, it clearly is a sexual assault (Mr Atkin, please take note) however, his escalation immediately to the dirty subject of S.E.X. is just indicative of valuing a woman only for her ability to breed.

  • LC

    Maybe I view complementarianism differently. I just don’t think a man would even think twice about abusing his wife – verbally, emotional, physically or sexually – if he’s truly fulfilling his role within a godly marriage, which is to love his wife as Christ loved the Church. Christ loving the Church does not result in abuse.

    Unfortunately, the movement to end relationship and sexual violence is not one that has a lot of Christian representation – which sucks at times for me! But I think that’s another issue – some Christians are not educating themselves further about these issues. There are red flags that lead up to physical abuse, or really any abuse, within a relationship. We can’t just go to the Church in crisis after the fact! I don’t get why this wouldn’t be talked about before marriage! If we’re going to teach submission for women we have to teach respect to men – complenetarianism cannot just be looked at from one perspective.

    I kind of see both sides to this issue, but true complentarianism isn’t just about the woman’s role of submission – men have to take responsibility too! We can’t keep telling women to respect your husband or use buddy systems or take a self-defense class or don’t walk in parking garages by yourself, then turn around and not teach men how to hold each other accountable and have respect for women.