Joshua Harris: Female submission is “winsome” and “beautiful,” “not degrading”

I’ve been listening to a sermon on gender roles by Joshua Harris, whom some readers may recognize as the author of the book I Kissed Dating Goodbye.  He’s also the senior pastor of Covenant Life Church (CLC), the flagship church in SGM, a group of affiliated churches with deep roots and influence in the evangelical complementarian movement.

I’ll be blogging about Harris’s sermon over a series of posts.  It’s a perfect illustration of how complementarian leaders require the subjugation of women in the name of God, all while spouting lies about how submission is a blessing from God for women, and lies about how they believe women are equal to men.

As part of his introduction to the sermon, Harris says the following:

We need to talk more about what this means to be submissive, because that’s a big concept, it can be a confusing concept, and it’s often misrepresented and misunderstood.

The thing is, complementarian leaders are quite aware that most people outside complementarian communities would respond to their beliefs with horror and indignation.  So they often lead with a disclaimer that what they’re saying doesn’t actually mean what it obviously means.  People who present complementarianism as a message of female subordination to men are either confused or, worse, have an agenda to deceive women and lure them away from having God’s best.  This is the rhetoric I heard constantly growing up – submission doesn’t mean inequality, it doesn’t mean checking your brain at the door, don’t listen to the lies of the secular culture, blah blah blah.

Harris’s sermons hits all the same points: submission is a “confusing concept,” which is”misrepresented,” and “misunderstood.”  Submission is “not a statement of male superiority, it’s God’s direction on the ordering of marriage.”  Nope, actually women need to realize how wonderful and attractive submission is:

To be submissive involves winsome conduct . . . [so] that . . . husbands would be won without a word being spoken by the conduct of their wives.

Being submissive is, is, is, it’s not, um, it’s not degrading [doesn't he sound really convincing here?]. It’s not something that you see and you just oh, there’s this weak and kind of, subjugated person. No, it’s something that’s actually beautiful. It’s winsome, and it’s aim is to draw attention to Jesus Christ.  The goal is to win the husband to, to the reality of the lordship of Christ. [Emphasis mine]

Once again we have a male complementarian patronizing women by telling them how wonderful it is to submit to a man.  Charming, really.  Unsurprisingly, he makes a number of comments in the rest of the sermon that completely undermine his claims about how great submission is – like that wives should be “good [followers],” that they should never criticize their husbands, and that the opposite of a submissive wife is an “insubordinate” one.  Right. But take Josh’s word for it – having your husband treat you like an employee or a child is awesome!  Really, its not like he has a conflict of interest, or anything.

18 Comments

  1. It is um, um, uh, winsome. Attractive or appealing in an innocent, childlike manner. Yes, I suppose it is that. Submission wins the husband to the reality of the lordship of Christ. Well, sure. Give the husband a sex slave and servant, and whomever provided those things will be greatly appreciated. By the husband.

    In other words, the concept of submission is that in allowing this subjugation, women can make Christianity more appealing to the men they serve? Hard to see a downside there. I mean, women are already so drawn to Christianity for all that it provides for them. Like, uh, um, uh, uh, you know, a, uh, husband to tell them what to do?

    This is one of the scariest parts of these lectures: they often don’t even seem to address the direct question: what benefit do you even pretend to confer upon women (you know, about fifty percent of your desired constituency)? You win a husband, apparently, by being his slave. And you don’t even have to talk! Not a word! So in exchange for free will, dignity, and the right to speak, you get a husband who will let you continue to not have those things!! I guess that is a pretty tempting deal.

    Wait, I forgot. I’m just confused, misunderstanding, and misconstruing. Maybe he’s speaking in tongues that inadvertently wound up sounding exactly like some words that we ordinarily use to mean something else.

    • You win the internet for your comment! Yea, pretty much. The wonderfulness of being submissive is . . . how wonderful your husband finds it. Wait till I post some of his other comments from the sermon. There’s really no attempt whatsoever to present any real benefit to women from submission, but there is quite a lot of bullshitting about how difficult it is to be a leader. Boy, it must be so stressful to have a wife who is obligated to agree with you and do whatever you ask! How does he survive all the pressure, I wonder?

      There was a time when I stopped worrying so much about my female friends from my old church, but now that I’m working more on looking into this stuff . . . all of the worry is flooding back. What a horrible way to live.

  2. I hate sermons on submission so much. This is what I hear:

    “Love is about someone taking everything you are. You give, he takes. You don’t give, he still takes. You are nothing, you deserve nothing, you are just some…thing for your husband to use.”

    No amount of “secular culture has ruined the world” could change the way I heard that message. Because it wasn’t secular culture telling me these things. It was the Christians around me. Everytime they beat the submission message over womens heads, while ignoring any discussion of what husband’s were supposed to do, or reducing their requirement to the simple phrase, “Love you wife.” Every time the message of “Your body belongs to your husband, whatever he wants you give to him” (Rape is such a lovely aspect of marriage, isn’t it?) Every time abuse is looked over, every time women are held up as the ones to blame for problems in marriage…Christians may try to paint their submission message as beautiful and winsome in a sermon, but it’s the practice itself that reveals what the message really is.

    It is entirely about control, in my opinion. Christians want the perfect family because they think this will be some testimony to the world about good Christianity is (though I’ve never actually seen the average person think “Wow, their family is perfect, Jesus must be real!”) and in their desire to achieve perfection, they can’t deal with the problems throughout. If you have a bully and a victim, it’s much easier to get the victim to shut up and submit to the bully for the sake of peace and harmony, then it is to get the bully to stop being a bully. And that’s what I see a lot of time – Christians who think that if people would just stop pointing out the problems, just stop fighting, just stop existing – especially women – then the problems would just disappear.

    I was commenting recently on another blog about how I didn’t understand, if God made us so unique and individual, why he would want us to destroy that person for the sake of fitting into some arbitrary standard. And someone defensively attacked that saying, “Oh, so you can just be whoever you want with nobody telling you anything?” and I thought – if I had been a guy, I doubt you would have had a problem with my statement. If I had been male, announcing that God had created me in a unique and specific way, you would have taken no issue with me having my own personality. But it is because I am a woman that the idea that I could be my own person, separate from the rigid gender role standards, that he found my statement so offensive.

    • Oh, you would totally have gotten the same response if you were a (gay) male :-P

      • You’re absolutely right.

        I edited this to change your name back to your usual handle, since I think you might have posted under a different name by accident. Let me know if you would like me to edit it back! – Grace

    • Great comment! I was commenting recently on another blog about how I didn’t understand, if God made us so unique and individual, why he would want us to destroy that person for the sake of fitting into some arbitrary standard.

      I wondered this a lot growing up as well. Why would God bother giving women all these different talents and interests if they were never meant to use them (except for homeschooling, natch)? Was it just a test of how well we would obey God? And if so wasn’t that just random cruelty on God’s part? This is part of why I never fully bought into the submission stuff – I just could not accept that God created me to never use my talents outside the home.

  3. Well given that this is from the “I kissed dating goodbye” guy, whose book I’ve never read but I really have a strong reaction against this new incarnation of “courtship” which may sound all romantic but usually involves casting the father once again as the owner of the daughter, this isn’t surprising.

    What also bothers me about complementarism is the messages it’s sending to children. Now obviously for these families that’s the point, to model the version of marriage they believe is best, but this has dire consequences as girls grow up to believe they deserve very little and boys grow up to believe that the world and women cater to their needs at all times.

    • I really have a strong reaction against this new incarnation of “courtship” which may sound all romantic but usually involves casting the father once again as the owner of the daughter, this isn’t surprising.

      Oh yes. Yes. Oh, I could tell you stories about fathers trying to control and manipulate “courting” daughter . . .

  4. “Winsome”? Seriously? That was the best word he could come up with? I’m picturing myself flitting around with a basket of posies and batting my eyelashes. That oughta bring my man right to Jesus.

    • But Lauren, have you tried flitting around with a basket and batting your lashes? Can’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it, you know.

      Yea, he was able to come up with a few more words about how great husbands find it when their wives are submissive – some pretty damn creepy words. But as Jordan suspected, no words at all on what wives get out of the equation.

    • Oh, and – welcome to the blog and thanks for commenting!

  5. I just stumbled upon this blog for the first time today. Somehow, I started out reading the nolongerquivering.com site and through a series of happy accidents, wound up here.

    I was raised in the Foursquare church in Frederick, MD and attended the on campus New Life school; we had many, many kids in our school who also attended CLC.

    I recall being upset as a child at the fact that I was born a woman. I was treated as a second class citizen for as long as I can remember whilst attending that church and that school. I knew that if I actually managed to go to college, it wouldn’t be because I would eventually enter the workforce. Instead, college was reserved for women to find a husband (at least those who didn’t manage to do it in high school). Once said husband was found, I would be expected to submit, have babies, and stay at home. None of these expectations sat well with me.

    While my parents didn’t tow the hardline on “courting” they did encourage group dating. The influence of the CLC parents at the school was overwhelming. I remember having a “thing” for a boy in my class in 8th grade. His parents immediately stepped in and put a stop to our childish flirting. The fact that we had once slow danced at a party was considered scandalous.

    In high school, I began dating (with my parent’s blessing) a young man. After a year, his attempts at controlling me at all hours of the day and night finally got to me and I broke things off. My mother was furious with me and attempted to “counsel” me into changing my mind. After all, in her mind, God had placed us together and it was my strong will that was breaking us apart.

    I suppose it’s little wonder that I’m now a card carrying, Goddess worshipping, Pagan. My own daughter will never believe that being born with a vagina somehow makes her less valuable.

    Thank you for writing this blog. I look forward to reading more.

    • Hi Ginger, thanks for the comment and welcome to the blog! I completely identify with what you said about feeling inferior for being born a woman, and all the absurdity around dating and relating to the opposite sex. My parents would have a conniption fit if we so much as hugged someone of the opposite sex. That doesn’t give teenagers a complex or anything! #sarcasm

      Looking forward to reading more of your comments! I’m curious how people perceived the CLC families in your church. SGM churches/families often have a reputation for being cultish.

      • There were definitely some “cult” comments regarding CLC amongst the parents but they went to great lengths to shield us teens from such talk. After all, we’re all “brothers and sisters in Christ”.

        I think I was in 7th or 8th grade when the influx of CLC kids wound up at our school. I seem to recall their Christian school closed that year, so my school was the next best alternative.

        I do recall finding it odd that so many of my classmates had seven or more brothers and sisters and their mothers were still getting pregnant regularly. We generally didn’t see each other outside of school and playdates or hanging out was discouraged.

        I attended CLC just once for the funeral of a very good friend when I was in high school. It was a dark period in my life and the rumors surrounding my friend’s death were disturbing to say the least. The pastors of CLC lied through their teeth at the funeral; it was evident to me but I’m not sure if anyone else noticed it or if it was simply an issue of cognitive dissonance.

        • There were definitely some “cult” comments regarding CLC amongst the parents but they went to great lengths to shield us teens from such talk. I’m sure they did. A friend of mine told me that when The Village came out, some folks in the area were comparing CLC to the community in the movie and Josh Harris had to explicitly say to the church that “we are not The Village.” Um, seriously, if you have to tell your church that to stem concern – that ought to be a major warning sign.

          CLC families don’t really let their kids spend much time with kids outside the church. You have to focus on friendships with likeminded people who can build you up, you know.

          The pastors of CLC lied through their teeth at the funeral; it was evident to me but I’m not sure if anyone else noticed it or if it was simply an issue of cognitive dissonance.

          I don’t know if this is the situation you’re talking about, but over at the SGM Survivors blog there has been discussion of an incident in the 90s where, allegedly, a kid hung himself, and the pastors hushed it up and presented it as an accident.

  6. Pingback: Cognitive dissonance and complementarianism « Are Women Human?

  7. I understand the resentment against teaching about submission. I have felt it at times, until I left the churches that don’t give women respect except through their husbands, if you can call that respect. We left to go to a sound church where wives (not all women), were taught to submit to their husbands (not all men), but not under ungodly circumstances. Women are not expected to have no opinions, not work outside the home, and agree with everything their husbands say. We have wives who don’t work, wives who work some, and wives who are career women. We have families who homeschool, send their kids to private school, and many who send their kids to public school. There is no formula that pushed from the pulpit like I’ve heard from CLC. I went there for a couple of years and have family there. It’s about a peaceful home where there really does have to be one main head of the family (who is fair and seeks council from his wife). When both spouses are trying to be the one in charge it usually doesn’t end well. I know you all may not agree with me, but that’s okay. It’s good to have discussions.

    • Hi Sirona, thanks for the comment and welcome to the blog.

      You’re right to suspect that many readers here won’t agree with you about submission. Personally I believe the theology of submission is inherently degrading to women – and actually, to people of all genders – even if it’s not always used to abuse. It’s an inherently abusive theology that undermines the worth of women, and is also heteronormative (erasing the reality of marital and other committed relationships between same gender couples, for example).

      There doesn’t have to be one main head of the family or one person who has the final decision in all cases. Marriage can be a partnership and a back and forth give and take. In my marriage, sometimes I make the final decision, sometimes my husband does. It works just fine for us and many, many other married couples.