“Wives are to follow their husband’s lead, not to tell their husband how he ought to be a better husband. When each person gets their part right, regardless of how their spouse is treating them, there is hope for real change in their marriage.” Kirk Cameron via Christian Post (emphasis mine)
In an intimate relationship context, controlling behavior, even subtly controlling behavior, can be very damaging, and is one warning sign of a domestic abuser. Unfortunately, it is also the example God has for us in the Bible, and tells us to emulate in marriage.
Something about Kirk Cameron’s interview made me dig out my old premarital counseling book from twelve years ago, blow off the thick layer of dust, and prepare myself for the worst. Nothing beats a workbook about heterosexual marriage, which includes an entire chapter on womanly submission, written entirely by two dudes.
In it, gender roles are brought up over and over again, with required reading of all the verses from the Bible one would expect on the topic.
In this book, consent, or any kind of consensual language, is completely absent (just like in the Bible). When answering a question on the wife’s role, I compared it to loving bullies (see my written response above). What I meant by that was the idea that submission was a loving choice I needed to make even on my husband’s worst day. But to take that to its logical conclusion, would that mean submitting to abuse? At the time I would have most likely agreed with John Piper, a theologian and evangelical heavyweight, who taught that a woman being abused by her husband should endure verbal abuse “for a season” and submit to some physical abuse such as “being smacked one night.” Piper’s thinking was that the abuse was “simply hurting her” but “not requiring her to sin.”
Simply hurting her.
When asked for a definition of submission, I wrote (see above), “Doing what you don’t want to do because you recognize that you’re not in charge and you never really were.” The pastor doing our premarital counseling didn’t have any problem with this answer. That’s horrifying to me now.
Before I got engaged, my pastor told me to look for a young man* who believed the right things and could lead me down the right path. I was told communication was important, but what was equally important, as a wife, was being deferential and respectful to the man God put over me. So if I did have a problem with a boyfriend, or later with my husband, it wasn’t appropriate for me to bluntly communicate my opinions. (Recall Cameron’s words above, “Wives are not to tell their husbands how he ought to be a better husband.”) Only another godly man could call my boyfriend or husband out on his behavior. I could meekly bring it up, but I had no real authority.
Fun fact: When analyzing plane crash data by listening to black boxes recovered after crashes, investigators discovered there was one factor that caused more crashes than any other. It wasn’t mechanical problems, storms, or even sleep deprivation. It was what Malcom Gladwell, writing on the “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes,” called “mitigated speech.” Taylor Joy pointed out on her blog that “mitigated speech” is the same speech submissive Christian wives are taught to use when talking to their husbands. If the pilot and co-pilot were from a culture that valued hierarchy, thus mirroring the submissive wife/headship husband relationship, “the odds of the plane crashing were astronomically higher.” Better for a marriage to crash and burn, that to violate God’s gender roles, eh Kirk Cameron?
This gendered deference of girls to boys affected courting couples in my Christian community in bizarre ways. For instance, if a girl was riding in a car with a boy and he forgot to open her car door, she was just supposed to sit there until he figured it out. I once became drenched with sweat on a date doing just that. It was painfully hot, and my date was coming around the car for me incredibly slowly. I thought it was better to roast than to emasculate him by showing too much agency.
What was worse was, once married, if my husband decided we should do something I thought was wrong, the right thing in that situation would be to actually submit to doing the wrong thing. The only exception was if what he wanted me to do violated certain cherry-picked verses our church thought we should live by. Otherwise, wives should submit, and would be considered blameless in these situations.
“When the fireball from Heaven comes for your husband,” my church mentor informed me during a discipleship session, “duck!” As if someone I was completely dependent upon could burn without me being singed.
I watched a married couple in my church suffer financial losses, including the loss of their home, but the wife could not demand the husband to stop spending money they didn’t have or stop him from making bad investments. She was told she was sinning by worrying about money and not trusting God.
Are Submissive Marriages Healthy?
Having a subordinate in any relationship is bad for the subordinate. Or to say it another way, “Being Married To Kirk Cameron Sounds Great As Long As You’re Kirk Cameron.”
Dr. David H. Olson did a study of over 20,000 heterosexual married couples back in 2000 and found that marriages with gender-based submission are a great deal less happy than egalitarian marriages (18% compared to 81% happiness rating). That’s a pretty significant difference.
Submissive marriages based on gender roles are also much more prone to domestic violence. One recent study in Nepal showed that when women’s autonomy is low, the odds of her experiencing violence in her marriage become very high.
Thankfully my husband didn’t have a violent bone in his body, but that didn’t mean we didn’t suffer consequences for the biblical hierarchy we’d inserted into our relationship dynamic. Our exchanges often mirrored a parent/child relationship: I would beg for things I wanted while my husband considered if my requests were wise or not. If I did get something I needed, I had to be grateful to my husband. Older ladies in my church coached me on how to manipulate my husband without him noticing or getting angry. This set up made me miserable and furious–both of which were both considered borderline sins.
Of course all of this was worth it, because my heavenly reward for losing my autonomy through submission was getting sacrificial love. That’s the thing I was told every woman dreamed of.
Love was the currency paid out to me in exchange for my volition.
Ephesians 5:22-33 talks about wives needing to submit to their husbands “in everything.” And in return I was told that my husband would love me like Christ does, and be willing to sacrifice himself for me.
When studying Bible at a Christian college, I noticed the Ephesians 5 text indicates the husband’s “sacrificial” love is actually mostly selfish. Since wives did not have ownership of themselves, and are practically absorbed into their husbands, husbands were merely loving themselves: “He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body.” Marriage made those women an extension of the husband (verse 29). Even a verse on mutual submission (verse 21) becomes meaningless when it is immediately defined through gendered responsibilities. “Submit to one another,” two sentences later, “The husband is the head of the wife.”
Two becoming one is only an equal business if no one claims headship.
Based on these verses and others, rape in marriage is not clearly condemned, and in some cases, rape is even condoned by God. In fact, one of the biggest opponents to marital rape laws in the US was my brand of Christianity using Bible verses for their arguments. Consent was practically unbiblical.
I know from personal experience how awful and dirty it feels to submit to sex you don’t want. It’s painful both physically and emotionally. My husband would have been horrified to know how often I used to do this. He had the impossible position of having to read my mind and do what was best for me, going out of his way to encourage my opinion so it would be okay for me to give it.
That system would eventually fail, the plane would crash, and consent would be violated.
There was one devastating night when my 21-year-old husband informed me I was wrong for not submitting to him in some way I’ve now forgotten. I remember feeling horrible as he assured me he would love me anyway. Christ’s love, to him, meant loving the wayward wife, not forcing her to submit. (Christ also said to take a metaphorical sword to one’s family if they were not on board with him, so I’m thankful my husband was choosing the best version of Christ here.)
He would love me, like God did, and communicate clearly that my sins (i.e. not submitting to his will) were separating him from me, just like they separated me from God.
Our church implied (via Ephesians) that my husband’s job was love, while mine was submission. But since I wasn’t submitting like I should, I was getting something for free that I didn’t deserve. That’s a pretty awful way to view love. In this situation my husband became the loving hero as he continued to act in unintentionally controlling ways.
How could this list possibly set me up for failure…
Now I want to be clear, my husband did love me, and was trying to be the best person he could be inside this biblical marital system. But when the roots of a system are poison, so are the branches.
There’s no loving way to dehumanize a spouse.
When defining godly love, many Christians point to 1 Corinthians 13, which seems to be the ideal. But using the biblical examples of God’s love in action, we find godly love to be conditional, controlling, and abusive.
Psychology Today did an article about the 20 signs of a controlling relationship. I do not recognize my husband’s natural inclinations in any of these 20 items, but the God character in the Bible is highly recognizable in each one.
Controlling Love and the God of the Bible
Let’s compare God with the Psychology Today’s list on controlling patterns:
1) Isolating you from friends and family.
“Therefore, come out from among unbelievers, and separate yourselves from them, says the LORD. Don’t touch their filthy things, and I will welcome you.” 2 Corinthians 6:17
2) Chronic criticism—even if it’s ‘small’ things.
“Even our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” Isaiah 64:6
3) Veiled or overt threats, against you or them.
“Punish them with the rod and save them from death.” Proverbs 23:14
“They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew 13:42
“For those whom the Lord loves he disciplines, and he scourges every son whom he receives.” Hebrews 12:6
4) Making acceptance/caring/attraction conditional.
“Those who pay regard to vain idols forsake their hope of steadfast love.” Jonah 2:8
5) An overactive scorecard.
“He does not punish us for all our sins; he does not deal harshly with us, as we deserve.” Psalm 103:10
6) Using guilt as a tool.
“For I confess my iniquity; I am full of anxiety because of my sin.” Psalm 38:18
“For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation.” 2 Corinthians 7:10
7) Creating a debt you’re beholden to.
“As you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live your lives in him. [Because] you were dead… [but Jesus] cancelled the record of debt that stood against you…” Colossians 2:6, 13-14
8) Spying, snooping, or requiring constant disclosure.
“The eyes of the LORD are everywhere.” Psalm 15:3
“But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us.” 1 John 1:9
9) Overactive jealousy, accusations, or paranoia.
“The LORD your God, who is among you, is a jealous God and his anger will burn against you, and he will destroy you from the face of the land.” Deuteronomy 6:15
10) Not respecting your need for time alone.
“If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.” Psalm 139:8
11) Making you “earn” trust or other good treatment.
“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” John 14: 15, 23
12) Presuming you guilty until proven innocent.
“If we say we have no sin, we are lying to ourselves.” 1 John 1:8
13) Getting you so tired of arguing that you’ll relent.
“Do not fight against the LORD, God of your fathers, for you will not succeed.” 2 Chronicles 13:12
14) Making you feel belittled for long-held beliefs.
“Jesus answered them, ‘And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?'” Matthew 15:3
15) Making you feel you don’t “measure up” or are unworthy of them.
“What are mere mortals that you [God] should think about them.” Psalm 8:4
“The Lord spoke to Job [after torturing him endlessly on a bet], ‘Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?'” Job 38:1-2
16) Teasing or ridicule that has an uncomfortable undercurrent.
“You make us an object of contention to our neighbors, and our enemies laugh among themselves.” Psalm 80:6
“O LORD, You have deceived me and I was deceived; You have overcome me and prevailed I have become a laughingstock all day long; Everyone mocks me.” Jeremiah 20:7
17) Sexual interactions that feel upsetting afterwards.
“The Lord will expose their private parts [rape them].” Isaiah 3:17
“It is because of your many sins that your skirts are pulled up and you have been violated [raped]… I myself [the LORD] will lift your skirts [rape you].” Jeremiah 13:22, 26
18) Inability or unwillingness to ever hear your point of view.
“For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom.” 1 Corinthians 1:25
“Every person is stupid and without knowledge.” Jeremiah 10:14
19) Pressuring you toward unhealthy behaviors, like substance abuse.
“They [believers in Christ] will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all.” Mark 16:18
20) Thwarting your professional or educational goals by making you doubt yourself.
“And he said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ Immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Matthew 4:19
Some of these things seem fine when God does them to his sycophantic followers, but when a husband is supposed to love his wife in the same way, it is abusive.
When the husband is put in the role of a deity (Christ), and the wife in the role of the church whose job it is to worship him, it is a recipe for disaster. 1 Peter 3:6 literally tells wives to call their husband “Lord.”
I have had people ask me how I could say that atheism made my marriage better. Couldn’t a more liberal form of Christianity, which I tried for about a year or two, have the same effect? Maybe. For me, embracing the label of atheist—an honest description of my conclusions—finally allowed me to reject the significant parts of the Bible that are wrong, ignorant, or immoral. Once I did that, it made all my relationships better, but especially my marriage.
*The church I grew up in rejected science, and insisted on a human binary (“He created them male and female”) that confuses and combines biological sex, anatomy, and gender into one and sticks it into either a male or female category. Examples of gender roles above are based on heteronormative experiences between, as I’m labeling them, men and women. Since evidence of the gender spectrum would effectively throw into question gender-based roles, many Christians have rejected years of psychological research and personal experience in this area. But what is even more incredulous is the religious rejection of the spectrum of biological sexes even though they are clearly present in human populations. Considering the karyotypes alone, a person can be X, XX, XXY, XY, XYY, or XXXY. Even in XY and XX people, there can be atypical anatomical features which resemble the other.
Let me know when the fundamentalist church comes up with the appropriate gender role for intersex people. You know, when they’re done pretending intersex people don’t exist.