Adj. Pertaining to complementarianism and egalitarianism.

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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Dangerous Comments

I suppose I'm naive, but I've been genuinely surprised by the outcry concerning Bruce Ware's recent remarks that men sometimes respond to women who challenge their authority either by being abusive or by becoming passive. Obviously, egalitarians will object to Ware's assertion that husbands have any such "authority" over their wives, but most criticisms I've seen of Ware's statements don't seem to focus on that. Instead, Ware is being accused of implying that spousal abuse is always a response to the wife's prior sin of disobedience or rebellion.

As far as I can see, Ware neither stated nor implied any such thing. Ware, in laying out the complementarian view, stated first that male headship was part of God's creation design. No surprises there, that's standard complementarian teaching. He then laid out how in sin, that "good and wise" plan gets overturned:

What happens in sin is that that very wise and good plan of God, of male headship, is sought to be overturned as women now, as sinners, want instead to have their way instead of submitting to their husbands, to do what they would like to do and really seek to work to have their husbands fulfill their will rather than serving them. And the husbands, on their parts, because they're sinners, now respond to that threat to their authority either by being abusive, which is of course one of the ways men can respond when their authority is challenged--or, more commonly, to become passive, acquiescing, and simply not asserting the leadership they ought to as men in their homes and in churches.

Now, has Ware really said anything that scandalous here? He has said that in sin, God's design for a harmonious male-female relationship (which he sees as requiring male headship) gets overturned. Women seek their own way and want to use their husbands for their own ends. Apart from Ware's assumptions of male headship, would any egalitarian disagree that it is sinful for a woman to deal with her husband in such a self-centered and self-seeking manner? Ware then says that men have two different sinful responses to such "threats to their authority." One is to become abusive; the other is to disengage and become passive. Apart from the "threat to authority" language, can any egalitarian honestly tell me that this is not an accurate description of how men tend to behave in a difficult relationship? Examples of men who bully and men who check out are legion, and Ware describes both approaches as "sinful."

The real problem with what Ware said is that his words can easily be misunderstood to mean that all marital problems ultimately can be attributed to women failing to submit to their husbands' "authority." Do I think Ware meant to imply that? No. But it's certainly not hard to infer it from the way he spoke of the woman's sin first and then spoke of the man's sinful "responses."

Does an abuser only abuse in response to some "threat to his authority"? Absolutely not. An abusive man will abuse both when he feels challenged, and when the abused is trying hard to comply with his every whim. Abuse always proceeds out of the abuser's sinful nature, and can never be justified, or even ameliorated, by pointing to some sin in the abused.

Some have claimed that Ware's statements are "dangerous," because they will be used by abusers to justify their abuse. Of course they will. But then, an abuser will use anything he can to justify his abuse. Do we really think that an abusive man, sitting next to his wife at Denton Bible Church, upon hearing Ware's statements quoted above, would honestly think to himself, "Hey, it never occurred to me before now that my abusive behavior is merely a response to my wife's sinfulness! Here I've been feeling unnecessarily guilty when really it's all her fault!" No sinner needs to be told to blame someone else for his or her sin! That's one thing we all come by quite naturally.

The reality of physical, mental, and emotional abuse is indeed horrific. It is sickening to realize how prevalent it is, how often it is swept under the rug, and how prone we are to turn and look the other way. The Bible has been used to justify every conceivable manner of abuse, and countless people have misunderstood it as encouraging victims to allow themselves to be victimized. We might therefore conclude that the Bible is "dangerous" and discard it, but that is not a valid option for any of us who believe the Bible to be the Word of God. So we must do our best to understand what the Bible teaches, and to correct what we believe to be misunderstandings of what the Bible teaches—especially when it comes to the subject of abuse.

If, therefore, God's Word can be misunderstood as justifying abuse, perhaps we should extend just a little grace to Mr. Ware. He certainly could have been more precise and more careful in the way he phrased his comments. And he certainly could have made it more clear that abuse is a heinous sin which can never be justified in the sight of God. But it is probably safe to assume that Mr. Ware had no intention of saying anything "dangerous" or "hurtful" to women.