A Response to Mr. Piper’s clip – I cannot keep silent
Recently, a video clip surfaced on social media of John Piper hotly defending “complementarianism,” against allegations that it “feeds” abuse. Piper has hotly defended this view before. This is a response to that clip. I encourage you to watch it – not because I concur with him, but so you can hear his words and see for yourself the vigor with which he speaks them.
He is partially right, of course. Complementarianism does not teach men to abuse nor does it condone it. Many of the ideas behind complementarianism are pure and noble. We must be honest about that. Men lovingly protecting and defending their wives to the point where they would willingly lay down their lives for them, is Christ-like, and this is a central understanding of the framework. The research bears this claim out, too. There has been no study (though they have tried) which proves that a patriarchal, male-dominated, “traditional” or “conservative” religious ideology causes abuse, teaches abuse, or promotes abuse. At least, none that I could find – and I’ve looked. It is also true, that interpersonal violence of all sorts is equally represented across all religious faiths, denominations, and non-faith-practicing sectors. No one group has the corner on the abuse market. So, it is unfair to lay abuse at the feet of complementarianism and leave it there.
But there is cause for alarm. While the evidence does not indicate that complementarian ideology causes abuse, it does show that it does not prevent it either. And there is a growing body of evidence that indicates that those churches which hold to a very traditional, patriarchal, yes, complementarian theology represent both the best and the worst- case scenarios regarding abuse in faith communities. (It is believed that this has been hidden in the general statistics which consistently produce an overall “average” that is consistent with the general population, but a trend is emerging that shows the most conservative faith communities represent those with the highest rates of domestic violence acceptance scores and the lowest scores of all groups studied. More research is needed, but at best we have the same level of problem as the rest of the population. At worst, we have a serious problem with the way things are being taught and internalized by abusers, their victims, and the congregants which keep silent.) So, let’s be honest about that, too. Abuse in the church – two things which ought to be about as incongruous as anyone could imagine, is a topic which is repeatedly placed on the altar in defending complementarianism. That is a problem.
Piper is also wrong in asserting that complementarianism does not feed abuse. It does because it creates an environment where abuse can hide and flourish. Piper argues that complementarianism stands in the gap between “dominating patriarchalism and egalitarianism.” What he doesn’t seem to understand is that at least for those who are outside of complementarianism and for those who have been abused within it, complementarianism is dominating patriarchalism. It is not unusual for men in complementarian cultures to be unable to see this problem, which, honestly serves to underscore the point. It is true in any setting that abuse occurs because it is in the heart of the abuser to abuse. This is why it is safe to say that complementarianism (or any other -ism, for that matter) does not cause abuse. But it is also true that abuse is tolerated and even encouraged in some environments much more so than it is in others, in large measure because of the power dynamics at work within those environments.
Nazism is an easy example because it shows the extremes (I am not equating complementarianism with Nazism – but the example is straightforward). Men and women who might have previously thought about abusing others were given carte blanche to do so with the impunity from the powers in place. Even more striking, men and women who might have never considered acting on abusive impulses, were convinced it was permissible (or even good) to do so based on the things being said and encouraged by the authorities in the environment. Men and women were easily convinced to do things that they were previously prevented from doing because the environment changed, the teaching changed, and the preventative forces that kept them from acting on those thoughts or desires now, instead, encouraged them. (Those who know the human heart at all know that any one of us is capable of these things.) The point is, through the speaking of words that appealed to their hearts’ desires, the lifting of prohibitive restrictions, and the explicit or implicit approval of authorities, abuse became rampant in an environment where it had not been.
This is often true when abusers sit in churches where complementarianism is taught, too. Too often (not always) an environment is created where complementarianism is not constrained to biblical boundaries, whether by what is said or what remains unsaid. The framework (primarily gender role definitions) becomes the standard, the practice, and the governing principles by which decisions are made and life is lived out. Once complementarianism is established, it becomes as scripture in practice. Challenges to it become akin to challenging the veracity of scripture itself. And the very act of a woman challenging this framework from within the framework, is an almost guarantee for her to be labeled as a troublemaker at best or a usurper, or rebel who needs church discipline at worst. Jesus had much fewer problems with women asking questions, leading, or preaching the Good News than staunch proponents of complementarianism have.
The Bible does call women to submit to their husbands, but it is a voluntary act of love and self-giving, sandwiched in between two passages that clearly express that this is a mutual submission in all human relationships, not just one. Submission is not about hierarchical dominance or control – it is exactly the opposite. Submission is something one willingly does, not something that can be demanded. (The irony of that is striking – if it is demanded or coerced, can it be biblical submission?) The Bible calls both men and women to grow in their gifts and abilities, doing everything as unto, and out of reverence for, Christ. It calls each of us to honor and defend the image-bearing quality and nature of every man, woman, and child regardless of their ethnicity, status, or gender, for in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male or female. The ethos of complementarianism might be argued to be for the good and protection of the vulnerable, but it is very easily abused when its boundaries and limits are not also taught at every turn. They seldom are unless the teacher has come face to face with the harsh realities of the kinds of abuse that takes full advantage of the absence of those boundaries.
Piper’s criticism that “all” egalitarians can say to “husbands who tend to be abusive,” (which is itself a problematic statement) is, “‘Christians shouldn’t do that! You don’t treat other people that way!” is, well, odd. There are many things Christians shouldn’t do based solely on their claiming the name of Christ and submitting to the authority of scripture. Identifying one’s self as a Christian means that we are saying, “I am following Jesus and desire to be like him.” Therefore, there are myriad things Christians shouldn’t do. Christians shouldn’t kill. Christians shouldn’t steal or deceive. Christians shouldn’t be racists, slanderers, or gossips. Christians shouldn’t act in ways that degrade or dehumanize others in any way whatsoever, because the very essence of being human is to bear the image of God, and defacing one another defaces him. We do not need to appeal to extra-biblical constructs to say this or that thing is right or wrong. Abuse is wrong. Period. The coercion, manipulation, exploitation, battering, and/or crushing of a human being is wrong – whether the abuser is male or female, old or young, drunk or sober, angry or calculatingly calm. It is sufficient to say, “You can’t treat other people that way!” on the grounds that the Bible speaks clearly, and frequently, against it. But Piper is so offended by anyone criticizing his construct – his institution of gender-based roles – has become more valuable to him than the people who are supposedly protected in that institution. He cannot see that his appeal to the “unique call of manhood to be protective,” or the essence of maleness as a “better” reason for saying that abuse is wrong is not only ludicrous, it is the extra biblical argument he would decry. Jesus cleared the temple when the religious rulers were trying to protect the institution of it rather than the people for whom the temple was made as a sanctuary.
What’s wrong with this framework is not the teaching of lovingly laying one’s life down for one another. It is teaching women that they need men to speak for them, protect them, defend them. They don’t. They especially don’t need that in order to be truly godly women. They might at times, and it would be at these times that loving Christian brothers or sisters ought to protect, defend, and speak up for them. But complementarianism puts women in this de facto position at all times and in all situations. The Bible does not.
It is also placing a false responsibility on women that says men need women to need them like this in order for them to be real men. Men can be real men whether they are in the presence of a needy woman or not. I hope the concept of that is as insulting to men as it is to women, but I fear that the insult is not recognized by them frequently enough. Their response to vulnerability reveals how genuine their godly manhood is, it doesn’t create it. The vulnerability can come from many places – women, children, and other men. But men can be “real men” whether they are in the presence of vulnerability or not. The character of a man is frankly, neither gender dependent, nor is it vulnerability dependent.
Perhaps saddest of all, however, this framework leaves both men and women the poorer for being so separated by it. It creates fear among men against encouraging women other than their wives to flourish (and sometimes they are afraid of that!), it creates intense and irreconcilable frustration for talented and capable women who long to serve the church well according to their gifts, and it leaves both sides bereft of the enhanced growth and maturing that happens when we do all of that together. We ought not be encouraged to fear the presence of one another, but we are.
While the above is sad, there is real danger when mutuality is left unstated – and it often is. It is common for example, for women to be told that submission to their husbands will be hard, it will go against their natural, sinful hearts, therefore it is their duty to God and their husbands to submit no matter what. When things get really hard, women are told they need to work harder at purifying their wicked hearts even if it means suffering – and that, in fact, the suffering involved will aid in the purification process. This might be true for a woman whose struggle really is within her own heart. But what does she do when it is not? What does she hear when the struggle is actually against the sin of her husband? What recourse does she have when the struggle for safety and security is against the one who is supposed to protect and defend her? How does she faithfully respond when her husband is not laying his life down for her, but is laying down her life on the altar of his own selfishness and greed? In a different video Mr. Piper suggests that abused women appeal to their husbands sense of decency by telling them they “really want to submit to (them).” He advises they “take being abused for a season, even if they get smacked,” in order to continue lovingly and sweetly submitting to her husband. It is painfully clear that Mr. Piper does not understand the nature, dynamics, or impact of abuse at all. And he is leading many pastors in the same dangerous ignorance.
But even if we allow for Piper’s claim that complementarians have the “higher ground” by not only saying “humans don’t treat humans that way, but men don’t treat women that way,” he is not being consistent.
We do need one another – to encourage, sharpen, strengthen. Men and women, whether married or not, as co-heirs, need each other. We should always be looking for ways to encourage one another and build each other up in love and good deeds. Complimentarians would likely agree – to a point. The Bible indicates that those ways ought also to be complementary, but this complementarity is based on gifts and abilities, not gender. No scripture talks about the make-up or essence of manhood (the “unique call,” “deeply rooted,” “written on the soul” of men) the way Piper has. Perhaps it is based on what his own experience has been, I don’t know. But the call of Christ is for everyone to use the power and influence they have to bless, protect, rescue, redeem. We are called – each of us – to protect the vulnerable, the weak, the small. That is not a gender-defined calling.
To be clear, I am not referring to the gender-specific role debate (that of pastors, elders, teachers, etc.) Regardless of where one lands on that specific topic, calling men to protect and defend their wives, is Christ-like, but the calling to be like Jesus does not stop or start there. If men protecting their wives is “manhood” it leaves a lot of men out of picture. What of men who never marry? What of men who are not mentally or physically capable to carry out the “soul cry” he speaks of? The same error occurs when women are only viewed through the lens of “wife and mother.” The “woman-ness” of single and/or childless women is dismissed altogether, and neither of these views is biblical. In theological terms, if something is not true in the tough situations – if it can’t stand up to suffering and trial and hard circumstances – it’s not true. Piper’s claims are simply not true.
We cannot be so wed to a construct which has been created to try to explain the bible that we refuse to see damage that the construct does to understanding the bible. And while I will agree that this construct does not teach men to abuse their wives and children, I will also fiercely argue that it creates an environment where abuse can flourish. It is easier to abuse the vulnerable if the community is giving someone the fuel they crave to feed their lust for power and control. It is easier to abuse the vulnerable when the vulnerable are taught – implicitly and explicitly – that their duty to God is to submit to that authority “in all things.” It is easier to abuse in an environment where the vulnerable are silenced and instructed to take any issues they have up with the ones who have already violated them. It is easier to abuse when the congregation is also taught the same things. And it is especially easy to abuse when the ones the vulnerable might hope to appeal to – those who ostensibly have authority over their abusers – neither understand, nor care to understand the nature, dynamics, and impact of abuse, causing them in turn to say to the abused, “go in peace, be warm and well fed.” Piper, perhaps unintentionally, but harmfully nonetheless, is advocating for a system that fosters an environment which promotes the ongoing perpetuation of the abuse of the vulnerable which is worse than faith without works which is dead. It is the unforgivable sin – calling that which is evil, good.
(This blog post was edited for grammatical errors on 8-19-20)