John Piper: Wives should “endure” abuse “for a season”

*Warning* – people who have been abused may find this post triggering.

Let’s get this blog off the ground.

A while ago I came across a video of John Piper, a complementarian pastor and theologian, addressing the following question: “What should a wife’s submission to her husband look like if he’s an abuser?”

Here’s part of Piper’s response (italics are all his emphasis, bolded are mine):

Part of that answer’s clearly going to depend on what kind of abuse we’re dealing with here . . . .

If this man, for example, is calling her to engage in abusive acts willingly – group sex, or something really weird, bizarre, harmful, that clearly would be sin.  Then the way she submits – and I really think this is possible, it’s kind of paradoxical [sic].  She’s not going to go there.  I’m saying no, she’s not going to do what Jesus would disapprove [sic], even though the husband is asking her to do it.

She’s going to say, however, something like, “Honey, I want so much to follow you as my leader.  I think God calls me to do that, and I would love to do that.  It would be sweet to me if I could enjoy your leadership.”  And so – then she would say – “But if you would ask me to do this, require this of me, then I can’t – I can’t go there.”

Now that’s one kind of situation.  Just a word on the other kind.  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.

Now, I found the idea that an woman would have to submit to an abusive husband horrific enough on it’s own, but not terribly surprising given what I’d experienced and observed of the misogyny that pervades complementarian communities.  Even so, I was completely unprepared for the dismissive, abuse-enabling, stomach turning response that Piper gave.

Not only did he fail to challenge the assumption in the question that an abused wife is required to submit, he also placed the onus on the wife to grovel before her abuser – to affirm, validate, and never question her abuser’s authority over her, and to adopt a deferential, ingratiating tone in the face of a demand that she participate in sex against her will.  Worse, Piper’s concern wasn’t that in such a scenario a wife is being coerced by an abusive partner, but that she’s being asked to do something that Christ wouldn’t want her to do.  What the actual victim of abuse wants or feels doesn’t factor at all into his response – only what the man wants, and what God wants.

Piper’s dismissive comments about physical and emotional abuse forcefully drive home his total disregard for abused women, and all women.  I’m still grasping for words that adequately capture how callous and dehumanizing it is to describe abuse that doesn’t require a woman to “sin” as something that “simply” hurts her.  I find it particularly despicable given Piper’s position as a man, and a pastor, in a complementarian community, who’s extremely unlikely to ever experience emotional or physical abuse at the hands of his wife or anyone else.  It’s incredibly patronizing and deeply hypocritical.

It disgusts and infuriates me to watch complementarians spew this kind of poison.  This crap not only enables the abuse of women by telling them to “endure” it “for a season” (which is how long, exactly?) and to depend on the church to defend them, it literally puts women’s lives and health in danger. This stuff can literally kill women.

And I’m convinced from Piper’s facial expression and body language – his awkward laugh (honestly?!) and grimace in response to the question, his obvious discomfort throughout the video – that he knows he’s dealing with a land mine, and he knows he’s in an awkward position because he’s asking women to submit even in the face of degrading behavior that he himself will likely never experience.  He knows, on some level, that what he’s saying is deeply dishonest and unfair.

I have to wonder, too, how much thought Piper really gave to where the question was coming from.  Was this a question from a woman trapped in an abusive marriage, and further trapped by her religious community’s demands that she submit?  Was this a cry for help from a woman who was looking for someone tell her she doesn’t have to obey or appease her abuser?  It’s horrifying to think of a battered woman holding out hope that John Piper, so respected as a man of God, would be able to help her, only to have him give an answer that so completely affirmed her abuser’s power over her, and her total powerlessness to extricate herself from an abusive marriage.  I don’t hold out much hope that this was a purely academic question – I strongly suspect the question came from a woman who was living with an abuser, or someone who cared about her welfare enough to look for help.  I don’t know whether this possibility never occurred to Piper, but whatever the case, he completely failed any woman in such a situation, and abused the trust and power placed in him as someone entrusted with the counsel and care of people’s souls.

As I’ll discuss in my next post, this isn’t an isolated anomaly.  Complementarians as a group are deeply dishonest about the misogynistic implications of their theology and the very real, damaging consequences this theology can have for girls and women.

Full video of Piper’s comments:

21 Comments

  1. This is absolutely horrifying. And it directly confronts the biggest issue I have with the topics discussed here: profound helplessness. My instinct when I read this, similar to many I suspect, is to immediate think of how I would talk to this person. How I would show this person the absurdity of what he is saying. And then I realize that no, it isn’t just that he misspoke, he has actually “thought out” this answer and (apparently) truly believes what he is saying. I think people become incredibly dangerous when they get beyond the ability to consider how their believes would impact them if they were in the discriminated-against group.

    I have the same reaction to the Prop 8 people. You can make the very clear “separate but equal doesn’t work” argument, and follow it through, and still get nowhere. I have a friend from law school who is Republican and likes to think he is religious even though they neither go to church nor live a particularly moral life. He thought that Prop 8 was perfectly reasonable because of the existence of civil unions. This is a very political person, and when I talked to him about how he was advocating another try at separate but equal, he honestly hadn’t thought of it. We talked about it for a while, and he acknowledged the deep flaws in his position. But he ended the discussion with the same position, in favor of Prop 8. He no longer had the “justification” that he previously believed he had, but the position itself was unchanged. I can’t even express how helpless this made me feel. Here is an educated person, a self-professed “nice guy” and so on, and the stripping away of his justifications had no impact on his position. In other words, the exposure of his prejudices, while uncomfortable for him, failed to inspire a retreat from those prejudices. And that’s scary. Throw in the fact, in the above-video, that this guy is actively spreading his message, and you have a terrifying problem. I’m interested to hear: what, if anything, do people think is effective in combatting this disgusting, hateful indoctrination. I suppose that is, in general, one of the main questions of this forum. I hope we’re successful in finding answers.

    • Jordan – I know what you mean. People like this are both incredibly privileged and oblivious to their privilege (or think they deserve it or have been “ordained by God” to have it) – and that’s a combination that makes it virtually impossible to identify or empathize with those who don’t have the same privilege. I think on some level people like Piper realize they would never want to be a woman, given what they preach that this requires, and that this would necessarily entail being inferior and subordinate to men. I mean, they have to! But you’ll never get them to admit that, because they have all sorts of mechanisms of self-deception and gaslighting in place to prevent an open admission that they just don’t think women – or gay people – are worth as much as they are.

      Re: what we can do to combat this stuff, that’s a great question, and it’s related to the question of who this site is for . . . honestly, I don’t think there’s any convincing someone who believes this stuff as deep as Piper or your friend do. I think it takes some event or realization that forcefully challenges one’s assumptions to start to question these views, much less to abandon them. Reason won’t cut it, sadly. I’ve seen people start to question these ideas when they or someone they care about experience serious abuse, or when a child or close friend comes out as gay – things that shake their beliefs to the core. Anything short of that is unlikely to have any effect, IMO.

      The people who can be reached with reason and facts, I think, are the ones who have never felt completely comfortable in these communities, people who realize on some level that something is off or doesn’t quite make sense. That was my experience, at least. I wanted to be a good Christian and obey God, but I didn’t understand why God would make me so opinionated and so interested in careers and interests outside the home, and then require me to completely stifle all that. So I was in a place where I wanted to do the right thing and tried to reconcile what I was taught with how I felt, but I always had questions and niggling doubts. And as it turns out, there are lots of people from my old church – mostly women, but some men too – who felt the same way.

      So that’s really who I envision this site being for, in terms of people who are still in traditionalist churches – people who have doubts and questions, but still feel this obligation to internalize these hateful and damaging ideas. I want to make a space where people can come and realize the questions they have are valid, that there are other people who feel the same way and it’s not just them. And I also want people who aren’t in these churches to be more aware of what they teach and the kinds of effects they have on people – so that we can all be more informed and compassionate in how we approach people coming out of these communities.

      • I’m going out on a rhetorical limb here, so indulge me for a second. I think Piper’s problem here (and the major flaw with typical evangelical complementarianism) is precisely that he doesn’t believe what he’s saying. If he really believed in submitting to an abuser, why backpedal at the end with the stuff about seeking help and refuge in the church? Why tell a woman to report the abuse at all, if you didn’t believe that simple submission could ultimately win over an abuser? Why call in church leaders to quarantine the abuser and “discipline” him while sending her to a safe house if God can fix him that other way? Why? Because he doesn’t really believe all that.

        What you believe, as John Piper, or any other number of determined Calvinists, is in the depravity of human beings: in their potential for evil, even grave evil like violence or oppression. And while you believe God gave humans free will, and that in respecting that exercise, some evil will be done, you also believe God actively intervenes in this world because of His passion for those suffering injustices, and that His interaction often and most regularly comes from His people responding to said injustices and setting things right.

        I think you hit the nail on the head, Grace, when you said the point-of-view espoused in the video was coming from a place of privilege. Most of the complementarians I know have kind, loving, and yes, assertive wives (many of whom work outside the home). When you scratch at the practicality of their opinions (or, gasp! identify Bible passages that flesh out contextually and culturally what their fave verses say on these issues), these guys flinch because in real life, they’re not married to any such women, nor are they practicing these things as husbands. So it’s an easy thing to preach, when it generally doesn’t require much of you.

        I don’t think guys like Piper are uneducable, but they are uneducated and sheltered (and as long as their only pastoral activities involve preaching to large conferences and writing books they’ll remain so). It’s obvious Piper wasn’t considering the possibility that a victim might be watching; he was making a casual theological argument with no regard for its pragmatic application. That’s why your blog, and especially those like No Longer Quivering are so important. These leaders need to see the damage that has been done by this kind of teaching so they can reevaluate the counsel they give anonymous video chat participants (or whatever set up they had for this video).

        You’re not playing with theological theories in seminary anymore guys, you’re actual ministers. Lazy theology needs to give way to honest-to-goodness ministry so you can help women get the hell out of abusive relationships; which is probably what you’d actually DO if you ever met a victim in person.

        • Becky, thanks for the comment and welcome to the blog!

          I have to strongly disagree that this stuff is theoretical. I can’t speak about John Piper specifically, and I actually have more respect for him (such as it is) than a lot of the pastors in the circles I grew up in, particularly because of his bold (for an evangelical comp) stance on race issues. But I find it very difficult to believe that in 30 years of pastoring, Piper has never actually encountered an abuse victim. That’s statistically unlikely, if not impossible. But I can’t speak to what he actually does when confronted with the reality of domestic violence.

          I know that the pastors in SGM, the denomination I was part of, DO actually believe these things, and live them out. They’re not playing with theories. They apply these things. See Esther’s story and Acme’s story, more here, as just two examples of many (and then there’s the extra horrific Noel’s story, about child molestation, which appears to not be the only incident they’ve handled similarly).

          The pastors in SGM – which has close, friendly ties to Piper’s church – they know there are victims of horrific abuse in their churches. They actively prevent victims from involving the police and from removing themselves from dangerous or unhealthy situations. They enable abuse and abusers. They know these situations are going on in their churches and they still preach the same bullshit. I can’t come to any other conclusion that they don’t really see women and children as fully human, and they’re not educable on these topics, not without a massive intervention on a, well, divine scale.

        • It’s obvious Piper wasn’t considering the possibility that a victim might be watching; he was making a casual theological argument with no regard for its pragmatic application

          Like I said, I can’t speak to how Piper deals with cases of abuse in his own church. But I really don’t think, just from his response to the question and his body language, that this was casual, theoretical theology. I think he was *acutely* aware of the problematic nature of what he was saying. He’s practically squirming in his seat, he’s that uncomfortable.

          I’m sure there are many complementarian marriages where women aren’t doormats, but there are complementarian church cultures where women have to constantly suppress themselves. SGM is one of these.

          I’d also add that I think it’s telling that in all the teaching I’ve heard or read on this topic – which is a lot – the only kind of abuse I’ve heard taken with any real seriousness is physical abuse. Emotional, psychological, and especially sexual abuse are very seldom addressed, and definitely not seen as grounds for involving authorities of any kind, much less of separating from or divorcing one’s husband. Since looking more into these topics I’ve read story after story of women living with these kinds of abuse, often with the knowledge of their pastors, who usually offer no support (except perhaps for the abuser). I’ve come to think that these kinds of abuse are far more common than outright physical violence in complementarian communities, but there’s even less attention paid to these issues than there is to physical abuse (can’t dig up links right now, but for examples of sexual abuse in particular, the Redheaded Skeptic, Danni Moss, Acme in the story linked above, and a few others come immediately to mind).

  2. I found your blog via NoQuivering on twitter. Great blog!

    I wrote on my blog about a pastor that once spoke at a church I went it (is it any surprise that the senior pastor was a huge, huge fan of John Piper?) and in his sermon he made the statement, “Yes, you have to submit to your husband, even if he’s a jerk.” No clarification for abuse, no conceding that some behavior might not be acceptable. And knowing what I know about abusers – my father and then my brother having been one – men abusing their wives were going to take the sermon home and bash it over their wives heads, guilting them into staying. And women would hear that sermon and think, “well, if it’s what God wants…”

    It’s sickening, the way churches that espouse complentarian beliefs treat women. Because most of the leaders are men, because men are always the one in power, they can’t see and don’t understand what it’s like to be placed in a vulnerable situation where the person that’s supposed to love you is also the same person that can tear you apart – and that if they do that, no one will be there to support you.

    Growing up in those kind of churches, there was nothing that was ever said that made marriage appealing to me – if I stayed single, at least then I’d have some agency over myself, some control over what people did to me and what I had to endure. Marriage sounded like something that would strip me of all anatomy, leave me empty, faceless, voiceless, at the will of a tyrannical creature who could do whatever he wanted to me on a whim.

    It is one of the scariest messages that is cushioned in the lie of being “loving and true.”

    • Toranse – thanks for the comment and the encouragement, and welcome to the blog!

      Great comment – you’re so right that these teachings give women virtually no recourse to address abuse, much less get out of an abusive relationship, and they also give abusers incredibly powerful arguments to force their victims not only to stay with them, but also to put up with the abuse quietly. I absolutely think many women hear these teachings and come away thinking that it’s God’s will for them to be in an abusive marriage.

      I also really identify with what you said about being afraid of marriage. I remember deciding that if submission was what I had to do as a wife, then I would be really careful about who I married and would make absolutely and 100% sure he was someone I could really trust and respect enough to submit to. I decided I was ok with never getting married if it meant I didn’t have to be stuck with submitting to someone who didn’t understand me, or would use the teachings about submission to coerce me.

      It is one of the scariest messages that is cushioned in the lie of being “loving and true.”

      So true – this is what my next post is about, in part – how complementarian men go on about how wonderful submission is, and how it’s for women’s good, even as they tell women they have to accept degrading teachings if they really love God. It’s disgusting brainwashing, really.

      • In a way, it’s its own abuse. This kind of Christianity protects abusers because it functions under the same dynamic. “My husband loves me! He would never *really want to hurt me, it’s just x, y, z reason…and I’ve been doing all these things to provoke him…” as opposed to “God loves me! He would never hurt me, it’s just that I haven’t been living my life really serving Him, so of course my husband abuses me!” It reinforces the mentality, because it’s the exact same kind of mentality.

        It’s easy to reinforce what you don’t have to endure. Men have an easy time of declaring that this is the way things should be, because they’re not touched by it on a personal level. For them, everyone is statistic and theory. The Bible works this way, and for those it doesn’t, for those who are hurt or abused or destroyed by this message – it’s a small price to pay for their lofty desire for “Truth.”

        • Toranse – great point. I think these folks have made God in their own image – they believe in an abusive theology, and that depends on abusive God. God loves you, but only if you obey just so, and you’ll be punished severely if you ever stray in the slightest – sounds like an abuser to me.

          It’s very easy to say from a position of privilege that less privileged people are where they are “naturally” supposed to be and that they don’t have it so bad. How would they know?

      • There’s a quote I love from the book “Stealing Jesus” by Bruce Bawer, where he makes the point “The problem with legalistic Christianity is not simply that it affirms that God can be evil; it’s that it imagines a manifestly evil God and calls that evil good. In effect *it worships evil.*”

        That’s where I think the danger in this message is. It’s one thing to have differing opinions on God or the Bible, but it’s quite another to promote evil, to encourage evil, and to, in essence, worship that evil.

        I grew up engulfed in this kind of message, and it never set right with me. Because it was telling me that right was wrong and wrong was right. That hateful acts and hateful beliefs were love and that love was of the devil. The message itself is bred in abuse and hate, because that is the God that they are serving.

        • Great quote, I’ll have to check out that book. It wasn’t until I was well into adulthood that I really began to process the fact that I grew up being *terrified* of God. There is something deeply, deeply wrong with that.

  3. @im_a_theist says:

    Any man that smacks a woman is a coward. With that being said.. it’s up to the lady if she wants to forgive her husband for any type of abuse… no woman should have to put up with abuse….if it happens more than once..it’s a definite deal breaker.

    • Welcome to the blog, theist, and thanks for the comment . . . I hear what you’re saying, but I think it’s misguided. For one thing, domestic violence is rarely something that only happens once, and it doesn’t usually happen without warning – it’s usually preceded by months or years of verbal/emotional abuse. As for a woman forgiving an abusive husband, it depends on what you mean by that. I don’t think it’s wise to counsel a woman that it’s ok to go back to an abusive partner, for example – with the expectation, perhaps, that “it’ll be different this time” or “he’s really going to try to change.” Abusers seldom change their behavior for long. I don’t know if you’re a Christian, but I know something like this is tough for many Christians to hear and accept – but it’s the truth. Women need to know that the odds of an abusive partner changing are extremely low, and going back to such a partner could put their lives, and those of any children they might have, in danger. However I do think it’s possible for someone to forgive an abuser in the sense of letting go of (completely justifiable) rage and bitterness towards the abuse – but I would say that’s often more for the sake of the survivor, so they can move on and live the rest of their lives. No victim of abuse has an obligation to forgive their abuser, IMO.

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  5. Hey Grace -

    I got to this blog post via your recent comment on JNNPR about John Piper being a douche, and I just wanted to state that I couldn’t agree with you more. If you’ll indulge me, I’ll tell you a little story, and then give my assessment of his stance.

    There’s a branch of my extended family who all attend Piper’s church. This has led to a lot of tension between me and them because of this position on women – I am almost 25, single, and living by myself in another country (though not for much longer). That alone is somehow sinful in their eyes because I should be married and raising children by this point in my life. But I digress.

    The last time I visited them up in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, I went to church with them on Sunday morning. Not only was it a satellite campus where Piper wasn’t even PRESENT and we were watching the sermon via videocast (which is totally, in my opinion, against the Biblical role of a pastor and just emphasizes how much of a celebrity he is), but he was preaching on divorce. Boy, did I not know what I was in for. He was hesitant to say it directly, but the end gist of his message is that divorce is sin in any form. Yes, ANY form. That includes abusive relationships.

    So it doesn’t surprise me to hear this message coming from him. Now, I took the time to watch the whole video, and I think his response to your post would be that he doesn’t advocate doing nothing about the abuse but that one should rely on the church community to help. But, I think that’s bullshit (excuse my language) and here’s why: He doesn’t understand what abuse is, or how it works. For an abused woman to take the step of admitting to a church community – ESPECIALLY one that endorses complementarian theology – that her husband is abusive is a major, major step, and one that not many women would be willing to take if it meant their church body getting involved. His “solution” to the abuse – while ideal in a perfect church community (…which would mean that abuse probably wouldn’t be happening in the first place…) – is unrealistic and patronizing. It ignores legal steps for action, and ignores any world that might exist outside the bounds of the church, and that’s despicable.

    the fact that Piper, throughout the whole video, never once refers to the abuse as SIN is very, very telling. A man raising his hand against his wife is sin, pure and simple. Piper’s unwillingness to call a spade a spade her tells me that he is very, very aware of how his theology and literalism fails when it comes to real world applications, and that he is deciding to be willfully ignorant. He puts the entire burden of abuse on the woman – he victim blames. And that’s just disgusting.

    So, thanks for this post, Grace. I now have even more evidence that John Piper is a major douche.

    • Hi Dianna – welcome to the blog and thanks for the comment!

      I’m not surprised to hear about your family’s attitude towards your striking out on your own. SGM families are the exact same way. SGM churches also teach that the only acceptable rationale for divorce is adultery. Abuse isn’t good enough. I know of a number of women in SGM who were told they’d be under church discipline if they tried to leave their abusive husbands, and they are probably a small fraction of the actual number. Very sad.

      As you point out, complementarian theology makes it even harder for women to speak out about abuse. The whole system is set up to prevent women from ever saying anything even slightly negative about their husbands; that’s a sin. So how are they supposed to get help for being abused? The few who are able to get to the point where they can talk to a pastor about their abuse usually end up being told just to forgive or to try and submit better, or they’re ignored altogether.

      the fact that Piper, throughout the whole video, never once refers to the abuse as SIN is very, very telling. A man raising his hand against his wife is sin, pure and simple. Piper’s unwillingness to call a spade a spade her tells me that he is very, very aware of how his theology and literalism fails when it comes to real world applications, and that he is deciding to be willfully ignorant. He puts the entire burden of abuse on the woman – he victim blames. And that’s just disgusting.

      100% agreed. The truly frightening thing is that Piper is not the most extreme complementarian out there.

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  7. Would John Piper go home every day to wonder if he was going to be controlled or abused? Or would he work for someone who abused him? he would consider that an outrage and think the person is not really saved at all.

    And there is the rub. Is he talking about a believing husband who abuses his wife (whether verbal or physical)? Seems to me that is where he should start. Not on the wife but on the husband.

    But he makes no distinctions of whether we are talking about a professing believer husband or one that is not saved.

    The church is the LAST place she should go for help…and I say this because of Pipers own words.

    Never forget that Piper took time off to “work” on his marriage. What? The perfect comp marriage where lots of flowery adjectives are used by him needed work? It needed work because his wife is supposed to support him in his ministry. That IS her ministry. Yet, he is gone all the time speaking, etc. She is not his full partner because she has to be very careful what she does and not dare teach a man, etc.

  8. Piper’s recommendation that the wife make a syrupy plea to her husband is so out of touch with the real dynamics in domestic abuse.

    I think that the primary cause of Piper’s blindness is that he has all his life enjoyed such privilege (being white, male, etc) that he barely comprehends of what it is like to suffer systemic discrimination.

    I read a (pretty poor) book by a minister called “Power in Relationships”. He recounted how he had recently attended a seminar (put on by his denomination) which taught him about bullying. The trainer had described the characteristic features of bullying, and how the victim of bullying feels. This privileged white male clergyman felt a penny drop. He realised, “I’ve felt like that, on one or two occasions in my life when I was bullied by someone in my workplace! I’ve felt that self-doubt; I’ve felt how it affected my self esteem and coloured all my days, while it was happening.”

    Reading what this man wrote, it suddenly HIT me. He had only experienced a few brief episodes of discrimination in his ENTIRE LIFE. He had to have some seminar leader outline “Bullying 101″ to him, before he could START to understand! He was blindingly ignorant and utterly incapable of empathising with victims, before this.

    And I doubt he’s much better at empathising now, even though he’s authored a book about Power in Relationships. He has neatly turned his ‘lightbulb moment’ into a book, which of course, being a privileged male, he easily got published. So he probably thinks of himself as a bit of an expert in the issue now, and not needing any more ‘training’.

    Oh, let me go away and weep in the desert!

    • Hi Barbara, thanks for the comment and welcome to the blog. You’re absolutely right that much of this is coming from a place of deeply sheltered, ignorant privilege. Piper knows – but doesn’t seem to think it’s significant – that he’s highly unlikely to ever have to worry about living with an abusive spouse or enduring serious abuse from anyone, much less having to submit to an abusive person. It’s extremely self-centered.

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