The Gospel Coalition, sex, and subordination

by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free

Patriarchy is old—so old that the writers of Scripture include it in their creation story.  

After Adam and Eve disobey God by eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, the once harmonious relationship between the pair is mired: “Your desire will be for your husband,” God tells the woman, “but he will rule over you.” These words are part of a curse. And no matter how you interpret Genesis 1-3, this curse is as evident in today’s world as it was in the world of the biblical writers. 

For egalitarians, the teachings and example of Jesus point to a new way of healing, equality, and mutual submission within male and female relationships. There is to be no more power struggle, no more “ruling over” one another. But, as we have discussed at length over the past year, for modern-day Christian patriarchalists (sometimes called complementarians), hierarchal gender relationships are God-ordained, so the essence of masculinity is authority, and essence of femininity is submission. Men always lead and women always follow. There is no sphere unaffected by this hierarchy—not even, it seems, sex. 

Now in the past, I’ve always made a distinction between the complementarianism of groups like The Gospel Coalition and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood and the hard patriarchy of groups likeVision Forum and the FIC Movement, assuming that the latter was much more legalistic and patriarchal than the former. But in recent years the two seem to be getting cozier.  I know many complementarians who, although they believe men should hold authority over women in the home, church, and society, make an exception for the marriage bed, acknowledging the Apostle Paul’s teachings on mutuality in this regard (1 Corinthians 7:1-5). So I was surprised and disturbed to see a mainstream complementarian organization—The Gospel Coalition—endorse male authority and female submission in sex. 

In a post on the GC Web site entitled “The Polluted Waters of 50 Shades of Grey, etc,” Jared Wilson argues that the popularity of 50 Shades of Grey simply reflects a perversion of the proper, God-ordained relationship of authority and submission between men and women. To support his point, he quotes from Douglas Wilson’s book, Fidelity: What it Means to be a One-Woman Man

"Because we have forgotten the biblical concepts of true authority and submission, or more accurately, have rebelled against them, we have created a climate in which caricatures of authority and submission intrude upon our lives with violence.
When we quarrel with the way the world is, we find that the world has ways of getting back at us. In other words, however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.This is of course offensive to all egalitarians, and so our culture has rebelled against the concept of authority and submission in marriage. This means that we have sought to suppress the concepts of authority and submission as they relate to the marriage bed.
But we cannot make gravity disappear just because we dislike it, and in the same way we find that our banished authority and submission comes back to us in pathological forms. This is what lies behind sexual “bondage and submission games,” along with very common rape fantasies. Men dream of being rapists, and women find themselves wistfully reading novels in which someone ravishes the “soon to be made willing” heroine. Those who deny they have any need for water at all will soon find themselves lusting after polluted water, but water nonetheless.
True authority and true submission are therefore an erotic necessity. When authority is honored according to the word of God it serves and protects — and gives enormous pleasure. When it is denied, the result is not “no authority,” but an authority which devours." (emphasis mine)

There is so much about this passage that I, as a woman, find inaccurate, degrading, and harmful that it’s hard to know where to begin.  That Wilson blames egaliatarianism for the presence of rape and sexual violence in the world is ludicrous and unsubstantiated.  His characterization of sex as an act of conquering and colonization is disturbing, and his notion that women are little more than the passive recipients of this colonization, who simply “accept” penetration, is as ignorant as it is degrading.  What is perhaps most disconcerting is the fact that even after multiple women expressed their concerns in the comment section, both Jared Wilson and Doug Wilson repeatedly dismissed these concerns with exasperation and condescension, ridiculing the commenters' lack of "reading comprehension."  

When your sister in Christ tells you that your words trigger upsetting images of rape and sexual violence, you should listen to her, not dismiss her. 

According to this post, sex is just another avenue through which a man must exert his authority over woman. As with everything else, the man is the boss and the woman is the subordinate. Wilson contrasts this “God-ordained” relationship of authority and submission to that of an “egalitarian pleasure party,” which I can only assume refers to a sexual relationship characterized by mutual pleasure, mutual authority, mutual submission, and mutual respect—which sounds a lot more desirable to me than being conquered and colonized. 

(Note: I get that some folks enjoy getting “conquered” to some degree in bed. That’s fine. Do what you both enjoy. But this should be a mutual decision, pleasurable to both parties, and it is certainly not required by God-ordained gender roles. Update: By this I simply mean that some couples prefer that one person be more dominant - not necessarily the man, by the way - and I don't think that should be categorically condemned. But this is not an endorsement of BDSM. ) 

Furthermore, for someone who claims to support “biblical manhood” and “biblical womanhood,” Wilson’s argument has no support from scripture whatsoever.

In a comment after the post, he tries to justify his position by pointing to Song of Songs, in which the suitor says of his beloved, “Her neck is like the tower of David, and her necklaces like a thousand bucklers,” and “a garden locked is my sister, my bride,” implying that the love poem is characterized by male authority and female submission. 

Nothing could be further from the truth! Wilson conveniently leaves out the fact that the Shulamite girl in Song of Songs initiates much of the action in the romance. She is the first to speak in the poem, declaring, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” (1:1). She actively seeks out the handsome shepherd in his fields, saying “Why should I be like a veiled woman beside the flocks of your friends?” (v. 7). When the two are separated, she goes out into the streets, looking for him, and at one point is accosted by the city guards. When she finds him, she brings him into a private room. There, she says, “I held him and would not him go” (3:4).  It is she who initiates a sexual encounter in a vineyard in the countryside, and it is she who offers her lover a frank invitation to drink her wine and to enter her “garden” to taste its choice fruits. Her lover confesses “you have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride.” And so the lengthiest and most detailed description of sex found in scripture is characterized by mutuality and shared pleasure, not conquering and colonization, authority and subordination.  It is precisely what Wilson refers to as an “egalitarian pleasure party.” 

Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, the Apostle Paul also taught mutuality in the marriage bed, writing to the Corinthians, “The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:3-4) This flat-out contradicts Wilson’s assertion that authority belongs only to the man. 

 I would say more, but honestly, it would feel a bit like throwing pearls to swine. This is such an overtly misogynistic post that I wouldn’t bother commenting on it had it not appeared on a mainstream complementarian site like The Gospel Coalition. 

As I was venting about all of this last night, Dan reminded me of something important, something to which we need to return:

“Remember,” he said, “rape isn’t really about sex. Rape is about power. This all goes back to what you’ve been saying from the beginning, Rachel. This is about power, not sex. So focus your post on that.” 

He’s right. For all of our debating about gender roles and church leadership, motherhood and singleness, sex and housework, women working in the home and women working outside of the home, this conversation isn’t actually about any of those things. It’s not about sex. It’s not about church leadership. It’s not about roles. It’s not about the Bible. 

It’s about power.

 It’s about whether or not patriarchy—man’s rule over woman—really represents God’s ideal for the world. 

And I believe, with every bone in my body, that patriarchy is a result of sin. I believe that followers of Jesus are to be champions of equality, and that it is our calling, as imitators of Christ, to reflect God’s new vision for the world, initiated through  Jesus Christ,  in which there is no hierarchy or power struggle between slave and free, Jew and Greek, male and female, for all are one in the family of God.  (See “Is patriarchy really God’s dream for the world?”)

So what do we do about this? 

Well, we can get angry. I think it’s totally justified in this case. The Church needs to see that women—and men—will not stand for this kind of language, as it is degrading, hurtful, and not even remotely biblical. But we must temper our anger with hope, keeping in mind that we serve a risen Savior who has promised that his vision of reconciliation and healing will one day be realized.  It will not always be this way, and that truth brings joyful tears to my eyes. 

We can also speak up.  We can contact The Gospel Coalition to express our displeasure and ask them to take down the post. If you know any of its council members, consider contacting them directly. We can contact Jared Wilson and Doug Wilson. We can write our own blog posts and articles, critiquing this position and providing an alternative. We can urge our church leaders not to use books by patriarchalists as church curriculum. (I hate to say it, but protests from men will be more effective than protests from women, so guys, please speak up.) Let's do this with as much patience and love as possible. 

And, best of all, we can support alternative visions—visions of equality, mutuality, and healing. We can support and build up women like Hillary McFarland of Quivering Daughters, who has devoted her talents and passions to helping women heal from emotional and spiritual abuse within authoritarian families. We can support Christians for Biblical Equality—both financially and with our prayers and publicity. And we can help women escape the ugliest forms of patriarchy, by supporting organizations like Not For Sale andInternational Justice Mission, and by contributing to World Vision’s girls and women in crisis fund. (There are, of course, many other worthy organizations. Please feel free to leave suggestions in the comment section.)  

As frustrating as it is to experience this sort of patriarchy within the Church, we can take courage knowing that it doesn’t have to be this way, that things can and will change.  The Bride of Christ has not been forgotten by God, and we can all look forward to the day when there will be no more patriarchy, no more power struggle, no more conquering and colonization, no more tears. 


Update 1: From our friend Scot McKnight

"I am calling on The Gospel Coalition to remove its post by Jared Wilson. It’s mostly a quotation from Douglas Wilson, but the offending paragraph is woefully ignorant of the mutual sexual language of Song of Solomon (a book sadly neglected too often by complementarians) and flat-out contradicts the gospel-reshaping denial of authority in the marriage bed in 1 Cor 7. This paragraph is not deserving of the sharp theological eyes of TGC and inculcates justified violence (“conquers” and “colonizes”) against women, who are told to be submissive to such conquering and colonizing by husbands. Jared Wilson is concerned about what he believes is a loss of a biblical sense of authority in families; we expect complementarians to be concerned about this; but this quotation is not biblical nor can it lead to the kind of love we find taught by the gospel itself."

Update 2: The Gospel Coalition has released a response in which Jared Wilson suggests we have misunderstood the post.

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