“For your good”: Joshua Harris’s “Word to Wives,” pt. 3)

Part 1
Part 2

Harris continues to lay out his interpretation of the connection between the verses on female submission in 1 Peter 3, and the verses on other kinds of submission and authority in the preceding chapter. Peter’s point in these passages is to teach Christians what “honorable conduct” is so that non-Christians will be able to see how holy they are:

When an unbelieving word looks at [Christians] and slanders them and calls them evildoers, they will see that it’s not true, and on the final day they will glorify God. On the final day they’ll be able to say, you followed Jesus, you represented this holy god.

Ah. Problem: people who aren’t already invested in patriarchal assumptions see demands for female submission as dehumanizing and oppressive, not as “honorable conduct.” Good luck getting us to believe you’re being holy by telling women and girls they have to obey men if they really love God.  Harris does actually teach in this message that “submission” means obedience and subordination:

Peter gives a very specific way that we as God’s people can be honorable in our conduct . . . He says, “be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.”  That phrase “be subject” is the same word used to tell wives to be submissive to their husbands.  It means to obey.  Be subject, to be submissive, to submit, means to place yourself in a secondary category, and to receive the leadership of someone else.  It means to obey. [bold my emphasis; italics are his]

I’m somewhat surprised that he’s so candid. My experience in SGM was that the words “obey” and “obedience” were very deliberately avoided when discussing female submission. The pastor who did our engagement interview (yes, really) advised us not to choose the traditional vows that include the word “obey” in them, because it could “give the wrong idea” to wedding guests from outside our church – not that we would have chosen that set anyway! It was particularly strange given that this set of vows was included in the materials they gave to engaged couples with ideas for the wedding ceremony.

This is yet another example of the hypocrisy and cynicism of complementarian leaders.  They distance themselves from the clear meaning of their beliefs in mixed company because they know it’s bad PR. The only explanations I can think of for Harris’ candidness in this sermon are that SGM has gotten more extreme in its beliefs on gender in the years since I left, and/or that Harris feels comfortable using such language because he’s preaching to the home crowd.

Harris continues with the argument that male authority in marriage isn’t a misogynistic singling out of women, but rather is just one kind of authority set up by God :

What’s being communicated is that God, in other words God, has ordained institutions of authority. And so because you are a Christian who is submitted to the Lord, be submitted to every institution of authority that your Lord has set in place in this world for your good [my emphasis].

And then Peter lists three examples: government leaders, who are set in place by God to determine and enforce laws; masters or employers in the workforce, and then husbands in the home who are called to be the head of the family.

I discussed in an earlier post one big reason why the comparison of “authority” in marriage to “authority” in the workplace is problematic: 1 Peter 2 doesn’t actually say anything about “employers.” It calls on slaves to submit to their masters, and states that a slave owner’s authority is God-ordained. It calls on slaves to submit even when they are unjustly beaten (as opposed to justly beaten, I guess?). This is the real parallel to female submission, not workplace chain of command. The real meaning of this passage, using Harris’ philosophy of biblical interpretation, is that wives are their husbands’ property, and they are obligated to obey them even in cases of horrible abuse.

Again, Harris tries to have things both ways, preaching an oppressive message while being dishonest about it’s implications.  He lies by equating slave masters with modern day employers, and goes on at length about the importance of authority in the workplace and in the government, as though either has anything to do with the very different kind of submission Peter preached – a philosophy of ownership that saw women, slaves, and children as literally belonging to the male head of the household. He lies by equating patriarchal marriage with an employer-employee relationship, or the relationship between a citizen and the government. Neither employees nor citizens are expected in our society to “obey” or be “subject” to employers or the government in the way complementarian wives are expected to – total and complete submission to their husbands in every little detail of their lives.

And he uses this false equivalence to argue that just like there would be chaos in society and in workplaces if there were no one to lead, or set the agenda, there would be chaos in the home and family if no one was the leader:

Go spend a week in Somalia [ah, the classic look how bad things are in Africa example – Grace], and you will realize what a blessing it is to have just laws and a government that enforces it [sic].  Authority is a good thing.  Authority is all around us.

If you go to the workplace, uh, you want there to be leadership.  You know?  Th-this idea that you know what, we should just all be equal, let’s just all show up and do what we think is right, and – have you ever worked in a place like that?  That’s not a good place to work! . . . The same is true when it comes to the home.  Someone has to lead.  And God has set authority and roles of leadership in these different contexts, and this is not a bad thing, it’s an expression of his care for his creation to establish authority in human institutions. [emphasis his]

Funny, somehow my husband and I and the vast majority of couples we know manage to run our households just fine without one spouse telling the other what to do and think all the time. Maybe we just got lucky?

13 Comments

  1. “Someone has to lead” at work — has Josh Harris ever held a job outside the church? The leadership at my school is more like SGM than I’d like — top down, capricious, noncommunicative about pretty basic stuff. My preference is to work (and worship and maybe someday marry again) in a situation that is far more inclusive and egalitarian, more “let us reason together”, less fearful.

    • Great point. Authoritarianism in workplaces is generally a terrible way to go about things in terms of both morale and productivity.

      Josh is pretty clueless about a lot of things, and the more I think about the influence and authority he has the more amazed I am. He hasn’t the slightest clue what it’s like to be in a normal work environment. He doesn’t have any clue what it’s like to apply for a regular job or go on an interview. Nor what it’s like to be in an environment where men’s leadership and superiority isn’t constantly being “affirmed,” nor what it’s like to be a woman in a culture like SGM. He’s treated like some sort of authority on marriage and family when he’s been married for, what, ten years? He has no college education or any education beyond whatever his mother taught him at home. It’s mind-boggling. And much the same could be said of how CJ came by his authority, too. Thousands of people in SGM being led (and many thousands if not millions more outside SGM being influenced) by people who have virtually no real world experience. It’s appalling.

    • david cameron says:

      Now I have not listened to joshua harris on submission but I would say that th view you hold is out of context.. I suggest listening to a pastor by the name of matt chandler.. there is nothing degrading about submission.. the word submission is a horrible misunderstood word when it comes to marriage. A husband who is the head of the household, leads out of love and respect and honor and kindness, any husband who bends or twists the bible is evil and should be begging his wife for forgiveness and begging God for forgiveness. The key idea in submission(there is obviously more too it) is the responsibility of the husband for the spiritual being and is also the one when there is an issue he is the accountable one. When God holds someone responsible for sinfulness of any kind in the marriage , it is the man who has to answer. Can the words of God be twisted? Of course they can. Does that mean the submission is wrong? Absolutely not. I apologize for any grammar issues as I am typing on a phone and this site doest like to cooperate. Again just because people pervert things doesn’t make the original purpose incorrect. Would you blame the environment for the actions of green peace? Or negate any thoughts of saving the environment because of it? Im hoping people have better discernment then that. Because some nutjob thinks the bible says he can control his wifes every action based off of his arrogance andlack of understand, doesn’t make the biblical idea of submission any less correct.

      • The doctrine of submission is inherently abusive, controlling, and misogynist. That’s what this blog is about. Yes, there are husbands who believe in submission who don’t abuse their wives, and that’s a very good thing, but the theology of submission is nevertheless a toxic one. It denies women full and equal partnership and therefore full humanity in marriage. It denies men the blessing of being and having a full and equal partner in marriage. It’s based on an antiquated model of family and society that was inherently misogynist, classist, and ageist.

        Paul’s teaching on submission, fyi, is not original to him, but is rather based on ancient Greek beliefs about how society should be ordered. The ideal city, according to Greek political philosophy, was ordered around the household, headed by a free property-owning male, to whom slaves, women, and children were to submit. Only free men could be full citizens. You can see this in Aristotle’s Politics, for example. This is the philosophy of human inequality from which the teaching on submission is drawn – it’s why Paul talks about slaves and masters, wives and husbands, and children and parents in both passages where he talks about submission. It’s not a Christian teaching originally at all.

        I’m deleting your next comment. Mark Driscoll is one of the worst offenders when it comes to using the Bible to defend his vile contempt for women, LGBT people, and gender nonconforming people. I will not allow this blog to be used as a platform for his bile.

  2. So, in a same sex relationship, who owns who? Or is that the real reason that christians are so distraught by gay marriage?

    • Yes.

      There’s also the whole “ewwww, gay sex” business, but seriously, I think some of them protest a bit to much on that point, if you know what I mean. I do think a lot of the objections are tied up in patriarchal assumptions about what marriage should look like. Someone has to lead, you know.

  3. I heard a lot how “the world” had turned submission into something bad, but really, submitting to your husband is something good and wonderful! It’s our silly human sinfulness that recoils at it.

    It was always assumed that a marriage where the husband was leading was the most Godly and therefore the most successful. Marriages that were failing because of that weren’t doing the submission thing right, marriages that were successful outside of that were in denial and weren’t actually happy or successful. They put blinders on to justify everything.

    • People who are happy without following their way of life are either pretending or deceived. People who are unhappy and follow their way of life only think they’re following it properly. No matter what the actual evidence you present them with the bottom line is their way is correct. It’s a very dangerous mindset, to refuse to change your opinion no matter what the facts or reality tells you.

  4. Two things.

    First, I do have to chime in about the ‘who leads in a gay relationship’ question because it’s one I’ve faced so many times! My partner and I, especially when I still presented as female, always got asked this horrendously degrading and yet familiar question: So which one of you is ‘the man’? …really? It’s definitely founded on the presumption of hierarchy. Which of you leads? How do function if the relationship doesn’t have a boss?

    Second, actually regarding the post, Harris’ whole argument is founded on yet another flawed concept: both employee and even citizen relations are voluntary in nature. Except birth citizenship, you decide when you want to be employed/made a citizen, you decide when you want to leave. In fundy marriage, especially SGM style, you barely have a say in when and whom you marry, and you have NO option for leaving if the relationship doesn’t work out to your liking and satisfaction.

  5. So I work at a law firm where there are 23 partners who have to lead together — even women!! — and cannot act with more than two dissenting votes on most things. They also frequently solicit the opinions of the 15 associates on even high-level management decisions. So now you’re at 38 voices in the room.

    Oh yeah, and since the staff bargains collectively, you could argue that the roughly 30 person staff has to come to agreements with the 38 attorneys for things to get done.

    Somehow, we’re still in business! It’s almost like people are capable of reasoning, compromise, and fair treatment without autocratic leaders! Of course, we have a three person management committee to deal with the nuts and bolts of operations, but two of those people are women. So I guess to Harris, the third (and male) member would be the true leader.

    • You just think your workplace runs smoothly, but really you’re all just sadly deceived.

      That’s basically what we were taught about everyone who lived outside of the narrow evangelical script. If they’re happy, it’s only because they’re just to deceived by sin to see how truly unhappy they are. And because sin feels good for a time, boy how many times did I hear that. Which actually explains a lot about why evangelicals are so repressed – they think things that are easy to enjoy are necessarily sins, which implies it’s more holy to do things that you don’t enjoy. Where to start with how fucked up that is?

  6. I see submission, placed in the proper context, as a very beautiful thing–the subjection of the Self to the needs of the Other that every Christian is called to. For me, submissin becomes a problem when it’s one-way street determined by gender hierarchies rather than a free gift of self.

    But what also boggled my mind were the different conclusions I drew from Joshua’s exegisis. If the point of the passage is that obedience to human authorities gives glory to God (and I think it is a fair point, within obvious limits,) then how does husbandly authority become some kind of Divinely ordained sacred cow? The social structures of the time might have made an equal partnership completely unrealistic, just as slavery was completely woven into the fabric of society; the literal text might have been very good advice at the time. But temporal, human authority structures are subject to change over time. Some, like slavery, need to disappear altogether. Unless Joshua thinks that a workplace hierarchy should never be restructured, or slavery never abolished, there is no reason to assume that husbandly authority still need be in effect.

    To me, it seemed that what we should draw from that particular text is just the injunction to submit to the just authority in our particular circumstances, not that those circumstances should be forever crystallized in 2000 year old patterns.

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