“What should a wife’s submission to her husband look like if he’s an abuser?”
This question opens a three minute commentary from John Piper. Let’s consider his answer:
Okay, now it’s time for a debrief.
Piper starts out with an obvious point. What kind of abuse are we talking about? As he says: “Is her life in danger or is this verbal unkindness?”
Now hold on a moment. This binary choice is terribly unhelpful given that there is a yawning chasm between “verbal unkindness” (“You could burn water!”) and a life in danger. There are a range of more serious insults (many of which are red flags toward even more serious abuse), and there are a range of degrees of physical assault. Piper could have said this. He could have noted the broad range of increasingly serious degrees of abuse. But he didn’t.
Piper then explains that while the wife is called to be submissive to her husband, that submission must ultimately be submitted to what Christ asks of her. This introduces a truly bizarre section where Piper advises the wife on how to respond if her husband asks her to participate in a sexual orgy:
“Honey, I want so much to follow you as my leader. God calls me to do that and I would love to do that. It would be sweet to me if I could enjoy your leadership.” BUT “If you ask me to do this, if you require this of me, I can’t go there.”
Now let’s pause for a moment to marvel at this statement. Is Piper talking about a human being or a robot? How would Piper advise her to respond if her husband was asking her to help him bury a body in the backyard? Perhaps like this:
“Honey, it would be sweet to me if I could follow you in this. I would love to pierce the cold earth with the edge of that spade, but I can’t cover up a murder.”
And what if her husband asked her to kick an old lady’s crutch so he could get ahead of grandma in the grocery lineup?
“Honey, the sweetness of submitting to your will would be more deliciously sweet than the sweet taste of all the candy in Willy Wonka’s factory, but I can’t agree to kick that old lady’s crutch. After all, she is my mom.”
Now let’s move into his advice for bearing up under abuse.
“If it’s not requiring her to sin but simply hurting her then I think she endures verbal abuse for a season and she endures perhaps being smacked one night and then she seeks help from the church. I mean every time I deal with somebody like this I find the ultimate solution under God in the church. In other words, this man should be disciplined….”
Note the first thing that is not mentioned here: the police. In other words, people with legal authority who are trained to deal with abuse situations. Does Piper have any idea how many abuse situations have been “dealt with” internally by the church? What do you think would happen if the pastor were smacking around his wife and she went to the deacons? How many would do their best to keep the matter “in-house” “for the sake of the Kingdom”? What appalling and irresponsible advice.
And what does it mean to endure verbal abuse “for a season”? I can understand a spouse enduring hurtful quips but what if her husband is calling her worthless and threatening to kill her but has yet to lay a hand on her? Is that to be endured for a season? Isn’t that akin to instructing your child that he can hang out with his little friend who plays with matches until the day the friend sets something on fire? What if all those moments of verbal abuses, like matches flaring up mere meters away from the gas cans, are warning signs for one event after which there are no second chances?
Finally, I note the asymmetry of the advice. Does the husband tolerate verbal abuse from the wife as well or is only she required to do so due to the order of submission? If Piper does think that the husband should bear up under some verbal abuse from his wife then why didn’t he say so?
To be sure, I do agree with Piper that the heart of Christian discipleship is carrying one’s cross and that can entail submitting to injustice. The general danger of and tension with this ethical vision is always found in complacency in the face of injustice (“I guess this is my cross to bear”) which ends up perpetuating cycles of injustice. That’s the general danger. But rather than wrestling with that danger in a piece of nuanced advice, Piper all but ignores it while providing vague and dangerous directions replete with eccentric hand gestures and mannerisms.
If there is a bit of good news it is this: advice like this was much more common in the church fifty years ago than it is today.