After making his standard disclaimer denying the misogynistic implications of the theology of submission, Harris launches into one of the main points of his sermon, that everyone is called to submit to some human authority, that human authority is ordained by God, and that wifely submission is just one type of many different kinds of submission to authority. This is really a more detailed (read: fanciful) attempt to present submission theology as not hostile to women:
To rightly understand this text . . . we need to understand the overall context of what Peter’s communicating in this section . . . we need to realize that Peter is not primarily putting women in their place, so to speak. What he’s doing in this section is he’s wanting to put God in his place, and for God to be glorified, and what he’s saying to these Christians is your conduct and the way you relate to human authority can point to the greatness of God.
This is just one of many, many times that Harris will assure the women in his congregation that God isn’t just picking on them by requiring them to submit to men. Of course, the fact that he feels the need to say this so often is telling; there is such a thing as protesting too much.
Quoting 1 Peter 2:11, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul,” Harris argues that Peter’s instructions to his fellow Christians on how they are to submit to human authority are rooted in the idea that Christians are called to a different standard of behavior than non-Christians (“the world”):
What that means is, Christians, you are set apart from this world. You have a new hope, a living hope through Jesus Christ. Because he rose from the dead, and because he’s given you an eternal inheritance, you have a different hope which leads to different behavior. You’re sojourners, you’re just passing through this world. This world is not your ultimate home. [my emphasis] And because of that, because of that, you need to abstain from the passions of the flesh. The way that this world works, the way that this world functions, the anger, the malice, the way of getting things done, you’re not to have anything to do with that, you’re called to be holy, set apart, and different, because of the hope you have in Jesus Christ. And then [1 Peter 2] verse 12: Keep your conduct among the Gentiles – that is, the unbelieving people [this is Harris interjecting] – honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
I’m struck again by the various ways in which complementarian leaders manipulate their followers into uncritical acceptance of their teachings. Harris is playing off the notion that Christians (which, for him, of course means protestant, evangelical Christians) are a special people – “holy, set apart, and different.”* From most perspectives, the requirement to submit would seem to be a sign of the inferior status of women. Instead, Harris casts obligatory submission as a sign of being chosen by God – over the rest of “this world.” Slick. And as a corollary, you demonstrate that you’re part of God’s chosen people by adhering to the
bizarre special guidelines for holiness that God requires chosen people to live up to. To sum up: Christian wives are required to submit because God thinks they’re special, and they show they’re special by submitting. It’s all very circular and confusing.
The other bit of manipulation here is connecting submission to the related idea that Christians are just “sojourners” in this world, living in hope of an “eternal inheritance” in their “ultimate home” – heaven – and therefore because they are of a different world, and have a different hope from the rest of the world, this “leads to different behavior.” This implicitly frames Harris’s definitions of “godly” behavior – including wifely submission – as the way people who are headed to heaven behave. It also presents submission as something wives only have to endure temporarily, in exchange for an “eternal” reward. Harris implies this even more strongly in the next sermon, when he says that there won’t be any submission in heaven.** What’s a lifetime of subjugation compared to an eternity in heaven?
Harris’ argument reminds me of a scene from The Invention of Lying. Ricky Gervais’ character Mark has just invented the first religion in his world, teaching that people who live good lives will get a mansion in the sky when they die. He does this thinking that it will make people happier. But when he asks a friend who has been depressed and suicidal if he’s any happier than he was before, the friend responds that he’s just as depressed as ever, but he figures things will be fine once he gets his mansion.
The scene illustrates how evangelical ideas about heaven, like the theology of divine sovereignty, can foster apathy and complacency about suffering. If “this world is not your ultimate home,” and everything will be put to rights in heaven, then perhaps it’s not worth getting worked up about social injustice or personal unhappiness on earth. Or maybe it’s even worth putting up with discomfort and suffering in the here and now, if God requires or ordains it, for an “eternal reward” after death. And this is precisely what Harris says later in the sermon: keeping a “godly” perspective on earthly life, viewing life “in light of eternity,” means enduring suffering and submission not only without complaint, but joyfully.
This is effectively what women in complementarian churches are being taught: if you just surrender your agency to your husband and your church, and suck up being a glorified servant for the rest of your life, you’ll get a mansion in the sky. It might sound silly – it certainly sounds that way to me now – but when you’re in that culture, it’s a pretty powerful argument for falling in line with what your pastors teach.
*This is not, to be clear, an idea at all unique to evangelicals or even Protestants. But the way Harris uses this idea is manipulative of his audience.
**Which naturally raises the question as to why God requires submission on earth in the first place, but of course he doesn’t really address that.