The Absurd Legalism of Gender Roles, Exhibit D: ‘Biblical’ Manipulation


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

[See The Absurd Legalism of Gender Roles, Exhibit A: Black Belt Stand Down; The Absurd Legalism of Gender Roles, Exhibit B: Guys and Dolls; The Absurd Legalism of Gender Roles, Exhibit C: “As Long as I Can’t See Her…”’]

It’s been a while since I’ve written here about Christianity, gender roles, and the whole egalitarian/complementarian divide, but a couple things prompted today’s post. 

First, our recent dive into parenthood has made me exceedingly glad we ditched the strict gender roles promoted by conservative evangelical culture in favor of a relationship characterized by mutuality and flexibility. Dan has risen to the occasion of fatherhood with more sweetness and energy than seems possible, changing diapers, doing seemingly infinite loads of laundry, rocking and burping the baby, making pot after pot of coffee (which we now refer to as “liquid hope”), researching baby poo on the internet, and so on. Owen Strachan of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood may characterize this shift in his priorities as a “man fail,” but for us, it’s working beautifully.  I’ve never loved and respected my husband more. 

Second, John Piper recently posted an article at Desiring God entitled “Six Things Submission Is Not,” intended to explain to women how they should and shouldn’t submit to their husbands under a complementarian (patriarchal) understanding of a “biblical” familial structure.  While I appreciate Piper’s rightful condemnation of a husband who demands his wife seek his permission before using the bathroom, I believe Piper’s entire premise—that wives must be subordinate to their husbands—is faulty, and that this article’s application of that premise can actually damage marital relationships by, among other things, impeding honest communication. 

To review: In their letters to the early church, the apostles Peter and Paul include what you might call a Christian remix of the traditional Greco-Roman household codes, which detailed the responsibilities of a male head-of-house, his wives, slaves, and adult children (see Ephesians 5,  Colossians 3, and 1 Peter 3).

Complementarians like Piper believe these instructions are universally binding, and argue that what makes the New Testament household codes countercultural is their rejection of feminism in favor of male headship.  However, Peter and Paul didn’t live in a feminist culture; they lived in a patriarchal one. Noting that wives are to submit to their husbands and slaves to their masters was nothing radical. The authors were essentially stating the obvious about the nature of their time and place in the world and expected social norms. What makes the New Testament household codes radical is that they take a step toward mutuality by directing all members of the household—those with power and those who are powerless—to emulate the humility of Jesus Christ in their relationships. Piper’s post about “what submission is not” contains a glaring omission, then—the fact that “biblical” submission is not meant to be one-way. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul calls both wives and husbands, men and women to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). Directing a “how to submit” list to women alone perpetuates the mistaken notion that the deference and humility celebrated in the New Testament household codes are exclusively feminine virtues. 

[Perhaps the strongest argument against Piper’s hermeneutical approach to the New Testament household codes is the fact that the very same hermeneutic has been applied to these passages to justify slavery. All three of the biblical passages that instruct wives to submit to their husbands are either directly preceded or followed by instructions for slaves to obey their masters, with phrases like “likewise” and “in the same way” connecting them.   If the New Testament household codes mean that patriarchy is a good, God-ordained system for all places and times, then to be consistent, one must also argue that slavery is a good, God-ordained system for all places and times. There’s really no getting around that.] 

I, (and many biblical scholars and fellow Christians), would argue the point of these passages is not that patriarchy is the best foundation for marriage, but rather that the humility and service of Jesus Christ is the best example for marriage…and any relationship. That’s a posture one can carry in a patriarchal culture or an egalitarian one, so faithfulness to Scripture does not require an embrace of patriarchy. If it seems as though I’m repeating myself, it’s because I’ve written on this topic dozens of times, including an entire series on the New Testament household codes, which you can read here.

Not surprisingly, trying to force first century societal norms onto modern-day marriages has proven…complicated…even among those who subscribe to this approach.  I remember countless conversations in the dorm rooms of my conservative Christian college about how to defer to a guy as the “spiritual leader” in a relationship, an ideal that far too often resulted in women deliberately diminishing their own gifts, ideas, and dreams in an effort to better play second fiddle. 

Forced gender roles impacts relationships in countless negative ways, but the one I want to unpack here is the way this form of legalism can hamper honest communication between spouses by requiring women to “influence” their husbands without ever actually leading them. 

In his post, Piper says, “submission does not mean you do not try to influence your husband” and suggests that a good test of proper male headship in a relationship is to examine who says “let’s” most often—as in, “let’s go out to eat, let’s try to get our finances in order, let’s get to church on time next Sunday.” He seems to be saying that a woman can guide her husband, but not directly, not overtly. 

Piper expands on this idea in his book, Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, in which he advocates for what he calls “non-directive leadership.” 

“To the degree that a woman’s influence over a man is personal and directive will generally offend a man’s good, God-given sense of responsibility and leadership,” he writes, “and thus contradict God’s created order…A wife who ‘comes on strong’ with her advice will probably drive a husband into passive silence, or into active anger.”  Instead, “a woman who believes she should guide a man into a new behavior should do it in a way that signals her support of his leadership.” 

Ironically, his choice for an example of “beautiful non-directive leadership” is the biblical Abigail, who in talking David out of killing Nabal, “exerted great influence over David…but did so with amazing restraint and submissiveness.”  Missing from Piper’s analysis is the fact that Abigail was far from submissive to her actual husband at the time (Nabal), rejecting his leadership by going behind his back to gather the provisions requested by the king and appearing quite pleased when he keeled over from a heart attack. (Also missing is any mention of the fact that the supposedly model marriage between David and Abigail included multiple wives and concubines.) 

Here’s the problem, as I see it: When women are instructed to “influence” men without leading them, to “guide” them without offending their fragile masculinity by using scary words like “let’s," we end up with women who must resort to non-direct communication in order to try and achieve their ends. The result is a relationship characterized by repression and manipulation

Indeed, I’ve endured plenty church-sponsored bridal showers in which the older women instruct the younger ones on how to get their way by “making him think it was his idea.” Even sadder, I’ve listened with a broken heart to women recount decades of frustration and pain that went unaddressed because they believed a good Christian wife avoids saying things like, “I want” or “I need” or “let’s.” 

Few things make me ache more than watching decent, Jesus-loving people struggle under the weight of legalism, and I’ve received countless messages from couples who did just that before casting off the ill-fitting roles imposed onto their marriage by complementarianism.  Anyone who knows anything about healthy relationships knows direct communication is key. You can’t expect your spouse to read your mind, and you can’t build an effective partnership by beating around the bush in an effort to stick to unnecessary hierarchal roles. W

Dan and I discovered early into our relationship that being honest and direct with one another saved a ton of time and spared us all sorts of needless frustration. Dan’s masculinity is not threatened when I’m upfront about what I think or when I tell him exactly what I want us to do. In fact, he prefers not having to guess at those things.  And contrary to everything you’ve heard from the complementarian camp, in nearly 13 years of egalitarian marriage we’ve never reached that big, bad hypothetical impasse in which we simply cannot agree and need someone to play a gender-based trump card to prevent paralysis.  It just hasn’t happened. 

When both parties look to the example of Jesus, decisions can be made together, with mutual humility, gentleness, and deference. 

While I’m sure it’s not Piper’s intention to encourage repression or manipulation in marital relationships, I’m convinced that’s often the result when women are instructed to protect the fragile male ego by practicing “non-directive leadership.” 

You know what’s way easier, and more natural? 

Honest, direct communication of wants, needs, and ideas. 

In my experience, most men—indeed, most people—respond much better to that anyway.

So let’s give it a shot. 

***

For more on all this, check out our 2013 series on mutuality and our 2014 series on the New Testament household codes. 

For Dan’s take, read “Dan on roles, leadership, and supporting your partner.” 

You might also enjoy my book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood.

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