The Psalm of Vengeance and How I Learned to Forgive My Mother’s Abuser
The passage we are going to reflect on today is not your typical Bible passage. It is apart of the group of Psalms called the Imprecatory Psalms. These Psalms are angry sounding and vengeful.
Why is this in the Bible? What is God trying to tell us in these? These are the questions we are going to take up today.
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 There on the poplars
we hung our harps,
3 for there our captors asked us for songs,
our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How can we sing the songs of the Lord
while in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand forget its skill.
6 May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth
if I do not remember you,
if I do not consider Jerusalem
my highest joy.
7 Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
“tear it down to its foundations!”
8 Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
happy is the one who repays you
according to what you have done to us.
9 Happy is the one who seizes your infants
and dashes them against the rocks.
As we have been saying, the Psalms retell the story of God’s people. The earlier Psalms speak of the life of David the first king. Later ones lament the failure of human kingship, looking to God as the true King.
This one, located towards the end of the Psalms was written around the time of the exile. God’s people were oppressed, enslaved, carried off into exile while their homes are burned. Their children were slaughtered and their neighbors, like the Edomites, the brothers of Israel, cheered on the Babylonians as they pillaged.
Israel watched the brutal Babylonian army murder their children by dashing them against rocks. Then the Babylonians mock them telling them to sing songs of Zion.
This is a song of a people that have been hurt, frustrated, demeaned, and are in terrible despair. As the Israelites consider what happened to them, they cry out for vengeance, for God to do to the Edomites and the Babylonians what they did to them: dash their children against rocks.
The bitterness in their words is bone-chilling.
How can a Psalm of such anger and vengeance and brutality be in the Bible? Is this giving us license to be angry and vengeful?
I would not normally preach on passage so dark and easily misunderstood, but in doing a series on the Psalms and getting people to read through the Psalms, these Imprecatory Psalms inevitable come up. People come to me saying, “Pastor I love praying through the Psalms, but what about this one?” And they don’t know what to do with it.
In fact, I know a person who read one of these passage, and were so disturbed and scared that it turned her off of reading the Bible for many years.
Many of us have similar experiences reading other parts of Scripture. Why are they in there? How can they be in there? What could God possibly be trying to say in these words?
Does God want vengeance like this? Vengeance does not sound like the heart of God, so why is this in the Bible?
Well, I suspect that this passage does have something to say about God, but before I walk you thought that, can we just admit that sometimes the Bible is not easy to understand?
I talk to some Christians that think the Bible is always clear on everything. That all you have to do is pray, crack your knuckles and the answer will just pop into your head. To which I want to ask: Are we reading the same book? Yes, there are lots of passages that are beautifully clear, but others that are not.
Listening to any voice in any relationship takes work. You cannot passively listen to your wife while the TV is on. Trust me, it does not work. You have to work to listen. Same goes with God and listening to him in the Bible.
Brian Zahnd once said the Bible is like a vast terrain with mountains and valleys. All the land is God’s Word, but if you get stuck in a valley, you can’t see what is going on. If you look from one of the peaks of the mountains, you see the whole land clearly. The Gospels’ are the peaks. John 3:16 is a peak. This passage can be a valley.
As we will see, this is just one of many passages that we need to read through Jesus Christ as the fulfillment of scripture. Jesus is the summit of Scripture.
Another way of saying it is that we believe that all Scripture is inspired and thus able to teach us salvation and righteousness. Yes, but that does not mean all Scripture is inspired the same way and teaches us our salvation the same way either.
This Psalm teaches us something profound about God and profound about ourselves, just not in the same way other passage of the Bible do that.
John Calvin called the Psalms the “mirror of the soul.” One purpose of the Psalms is to help us express what is in our souls, help us realize what we got going on inside.
The Psalms are unique in that they are the Word of God by first being our words to God.
This Psalm helps us be honest with ourselves. In being honest with ourselves, naming what is going on within us, we can then be honest with God. God is listening.
1. God is listening
Do believers ever feel crushed with hurt? These do. Do believers feel like their faith has been shattered? These did. Can believers feel incredible pain, frustration, even bitter anger over it? Yes they can. Does that make them evil? No. It makes them human.
This might sound obvious but the only way we relate to God is in our humanity, full honesty, laid bare.
The Jews in this passage are angry because they just lost their homes. Their land was conquered. Their safety and security was gone. Their temple was destroyed, so their way of related to God was compromised. And they had to watched their own children get killed.
Here they cry out to God in all the anger they are feeling.
This psalm does not condone anger, but does say God is listening to us when we are angry.
We worship God Immanuel, God with us. God with us, finding us, listening to us, wherever we are at, including times of anguish.
God does not wait to be with us after we get over our hurt; he meets us in our hurt.
The question is not whether it is appropriate to pray this way, longing for vengeance, but rather it is appropriate to share what is on your heart with God, no matter where you are.
Let me reassure you: Where you are at, what ever you are feeling, God is listening. God never stopped listening.
This Psalm, like all the other Psalms, invites us to share what is on our heart with God, allowing all of our lives to be seen from God’s standpoint. Don’t be ashamed of your emotions. That does not help. They are real and need to be dealt with. Voice them, tell them, express them.
Angry at others? Tell God. Angry at God? Tell him that too. He is listening.
He listened to the anger in Israel’s heart. He is listening to you now.
I am reminded of a time when I coordinated a soup kitchen in Toronto. There was an man that came in. He had a lot of problems. Homeless and alcoholic, his life was completely self-destructive. So, I asked around: What is this guy’s story?
The man had been abused terribly. One other coordinator of a drop in a few blocks from ours told this story:
During an open mic night, where anyone could come up and offer a prayer for the community, this man decided to come forward. People prayed blessing on their communities and thanked God and praised Jesus. People were surprised to see him come up.
As this man took the mic, he began to scream curse words at God for what had happened to him, cursing all the people that had hurt him.
“Did you stop him?” I asked. “No, we let him say his piece like everyone else,” said my colleague. “Why did you do that?” I asked. “Because, Spencer, at the end of the day, this was still a prayer, it was directed at God, and I have to believe that God was listening. He had something to get off his chest.”
There was a noticeable change in this man after his blow up. I think in order for that man to start healing, he had to name his hurt in all the raw anger it entailed, which he did not know how to process.
God loves the hurt and the broken, and for that reason, I have to believe God was listening to that angry rant of a prayer. Not because there was something moral about that prayer, but because God listens to us.
What are your hurts? How has someone hurt you? Can you remember the most angry you have ever been in your life?
If you remember how you feel in that moment, you probably aren’t too far off from the anger of this Psalm.
God knows what you utter in the bitterness of your soul. You can either keep it in, feel shame and have it destroy you, or let it out, and begin healing.
2. When we realize that God is listening, we entrust God with our anger
Expressing our hurts to God means placing our hurt in his hands.
As several commentators have pointed out, venting our anger to God disarms our anger towards others. When we vent it at God, we restrain our vengeance towards others.
Thus, it is not so much what Psalm 137 is saying – for many of us its language is not our language of hurt – it is what is able to do in us. It permits us to release our anger to the true Judge.
Notice in Psalm 137, the Psalmist does not ever imply that he wants to take vengeance.
When we do this we find that when we place our anger at others in his hands, we are freed from our anger to even do good to our enemies. Consider Romans 12:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink…Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
When we entrust our anger to God, we focus on God. Which means we are able to focus on his goodness again. Notice, for Israel who prayed these Psalms, the next few Psalms move from vengeance to focusing on love. The prayer continues.The process continues.
When we pray though our anger, we are able to heal our anger.
This is where the next stage of healing happens. When we entrust our anger with God, we turn to God and his goodness. When we entrust God with our vengeance, we have to turn to God and ask, what does justice look like for God, not us.
3. When we trust God with our justice, we realize God’s justice is mercy
Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount:
You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well.
You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous…Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
The end is important. Jesus has been talking about the true character of God: God is perfect. How? Not in punishment, but love, not is moral indignation, but mercy. God is not perfect in vengeance, but perfect in mercy.
“If Justice is an eye for an eye, the whole world will end up blind,” says Martin Luther King.
Are we willing to see?
From Sinai to Zion, from Zion to Golgotha, the Bible is trying to teach us that God’s justice is not retribution, not even restitution, but restoration.
How does God repay his enemies? When we turn to God for justice, we realize we have done wrong. We are all sinners. We all deserve punishment, and yet God has chosen to bear that judgment on himself.
When God’s people prays in vengeful anger to kill the children of the those that kill theirs, God offers his only son to stop the cycle of violence.
When we are angry and in despair, this Psalm allows us to vent our anger knowing God always listens.
When we realize God is listening, we start focusing on God and trusting him with our anger, restraining our wrath.
When we trust God with our vengeance, we then have to ask, what is justice like for God? “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” But how did God in his sovereignty choose to repay?
He repaid the death of his son with forgiveness.
God listened to the hurt Israelites. He listens to all of us in our anger. But did he obliterate the Babylonians? Babylon did eventually fall, but that was just God saying, “Have it your way,” and letting history run its course. Sin is often its own punishment. No. he did not bash their babies against rocks. In Jesus he died for them.
God’s plan was not vengeance but reconciliation.
Far from racial genocide, God’s plan was for one day Babylonian and Jew (and us, Gentiles, too) to embrace as family in Jesus Christ.
That is God’s plan in our broken hurting world. He listens then he heals.
God is listen to the hurt of Syrian refugees, who have watched their homes get bombed.
God is listening to the cries of children who work in sweat shops.
God is listening to the cries of enslaved sex workers
He is listening to the worries of cancer patients
He is listening to the broken, hurt, disenfranchised, abandoned…
He is listening to you. Whatever it is that you are going through. He is listening to you.
When we realize he is listening, we become open to how he is working in us.
That brings us to now.
Who has hurt you? Who makes your blood boil? Who in your life has done things that the only think you can think of that they deserve is punishment?
Can you vent that anger to God?
Have you been discouraged. Have you experienced a moment where life just stopped making sense, and your only response is anger and confusion.
Can we realize that God is listening?
You might not think that this process works, but trust me it does.
I have spoken before about how my mother was abused. Not physically, but emotionally.
She remarried a man with a mal-formed conscience. He would verbally threaten her and demean her to get his way. He was a big man, and very intimidating. I remember being down in my room as a kid in high school, listening to the arguing. I heard his voice boom from the ceiling in my basement room:
“You’re just a stupid woman, Susan.”
“Don’t you dare, or I’ll break your arm.”
When my mother developed cancer, and he began holding money away from her, so that she would not use it on medical needs. He was banking on her dying and him being “taken care of” after she was gone.
My mom eventually split from him. It was difficult and police were called on occasion.
I hated my step-father. I used to fantasize about beating him up. I used to pray, “God give him what he deserves.” Of course, I had a few ideas about what he deserved.
Years when on. I learned from my step-father’s brother, that he had been abused. He had been treated the worst out of all the siblings by a father that was a bigot just like what he was now. After that, I did not see my step-father in the same way. It humanized him, and I remember praying, “God just stop him from hurting other people. Help him to realized what he has done and change.”
The last I saw my step-father was at my mother’s funeral. He came into the visitation, and my family and I kicked up a fuss. We did not want him there, and we wanted the funeral attendant to remove him. But, I believe it was my sister that said, “Just let him morn and go.” We realized we would be doing something terribly indecent if we refused a person to morn. We watched him come to the casket, give flowers that simply said, “Thank-you for all the good memories,” and he left. I never saw him after that.
I realized that day that he did love my mother, albeit with a broken distorted love. I also realized that to include him in the funeral was just a small but very significant act of forgiving him, choosing to end the cycle of hurt and anger, embracing peace. I remember praying after that, “God bless him. Care for him. Heal him….and heal me too.” For me to say that prayer, authentically, began with my praying those original vengeful prayers. It took ten years or so. Healing takes time. God had a few things to teach me. God was listening to all of those, answering those prayers. I trust he still is. But that answer I think is not what I wanted originally, thank goodness.
i suspect it is like what Jesus told the disciples who betrayed him: “Peace to you.”
“Peace to you, Spencer”
Peace to you, Dave, where ever you are.
Seven Last Words: Forsaken
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34)
In his book, Night, Elie Weisel gives his bitter account of the Holocaust, an event so horrifically evil it unsettled the very core of his Jewish faith. He was only a boy when he saw the execution of an innocent man, starved, emaciated, beaten, broken – broken of his very humanity. He was robbed of his dignity by people devoid of their own humanity, the Nazis.
This man was hanged in front of all the other prisoners: the poor man was made into a spectacle of the Nazi’s brutality as the audience was made to watch, feeling the full measure of their own powerlessness. Weisel, a boy, was made to watch.
As this happened, someone called out, “Where is God?” That man had had enough, the injustice caused him to cry out at the risk of his own execution. “Where is God?!” As if to say: How can he not be here? How could he not intervene in a moment like this? The crowd could give no answer as he indicted God in a crime of cosmic proportions.
“Where is God?” the voice rang out again, again and again.
Elie Weisel, a young man at the time, felt in his heart the only possible explanation: Where is God? God is dead. He died there in those gallows.
Weisel saw this admission as the very moment his faith collapsed into a bitter semi-atheism. His hope in God was shaken.
But as Weisel reports, he did not lose faith, for while he felt hurt by God, the prospect that there was no God at all rendered the events of the Holocaust even more tragic: no God to denounce the evil as fundamentally wrong, no God to command compassion rather than indifference, no God to offer the promise of restoration.
Weisel’s shaken faith, I think, is an honest faith. Faith calls for nothing less than honesty about ourselves and our world, and that honestly about our world calls for nothing less than the honesty of being deeply upset over the tragic injustices of this life.
But to have that honesty in faith means addressing that frustration and lament before God as Jesus did: “My God, my God why have you forsaken us?”
This phrase comes from Psalm 22, a psalm written by David, who was a righteous man that was attacked by his king, his friends, and later, even his own family. He spent much of his life on the run, hunted like an animal.
One way to understand the cross – perhaps the most basic way – is to understand that Christ died, “according to the Scriptures” (cf. 1 Cor. 15:3-4). Jesus embodies the story of Scripture. He is the word of God.
He is the suffering servant of Isaiah 53: “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” He is the “stone that was rejected that is now the corner stone” (Psalm 118:22 cf. 1 Peter 2:7). He is the perfect Passover lamb, slain as a sin offering for us, etc.
Jesus fulfills this scripture as the rest of the psalm shows:
Dogs surround me,
a pack of villains encircles me;
they pierce my hands and my feet.
All my bones are on display;
people stare and gloat over me.
They divide my clothes among them
and cast lots for my garment. (vv. 16-18)
In claiming these words as his own, he is not merely fulfilling the Scriptures. He is showing God’s solidarity, his oneness, with all the forgotten of this world. Jesus in crying out in forsakenness, embodying the cry of the oppressed, the abused, the victimized, the neglected, the humiliated – all who feel that God was not there when they needed him. Listen to the rest of the Psalm:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
so far from my cries of anguish?
My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
by night, but I find no rest (vv. 1-2)
But I am a worm and not a man,
scorned by everyone, despised by the people.
All who see me mock me;
they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
“He trusts in the Lord,” they say,
“let the Lord rescue him. (vv. 6-8)
I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart has turned to wax;
it has melted within me. (v. 14)
This is the lament song of a soul in despair. This is also the words of God in Christ.
In Christ, God knows what it is like to be abandoned, betrayed, tortured, humiliated, blamed, and executed.
Jesus, in his trial and crucifixion, was the subject of personal betrayal: his best friends and students ran, denied him, and even received money to betray him.
Jesus, in his trial and crucifixion, was the victim of religious corruption and abuse. He was accused of blasphemy for his message of forgiveness: that God is with us, sinners. He was tried falsely by corrupt priests who didn’t want their sins exposed or their power taken away. As John 8 tells us, Caiaphas, the high priest, ironically saw Jesus as his sacrifice to save their religion.
Jesus, in his trial and crucifixion, was the target of political oppression. He was brought before the magistrate, Pilate, who ultimately cared only for order at any cost. So, he gave Jesus over to his psychotic soldiers for torture, humiliation, and finally execution by the slow death of the cross.
The cross is a rare kind of anguish. It is the slow death by bleeding out from the torture and nails. Hanging on the nails meant one’s diaphragm would be stressed, causing the person to gasp for air. The subject would hang there starving to death, slowing hallucinating in a delirium of despair as people stand there and mock. Nailed there, few pictures of the atonement render it accurately: few picture the victims unclothed and naked, exposed to desert sun that would blister exposed skin. (Ironically, no crucifix renders Jesus naked – an accurate depiction of the cross is still too scandalous, even Christians!) And the nakedness of exposure was more than physical: hanging there naked, the victim was exposed to the scoffers, jeering, removing whatever dignity remained. Jesus had the added pain and humiliation of a thorn crown pressing into his head and a sign above, mocking his claim to the throne of David.
How could God let this happen to Jesus? How could he have forsaken him? Where is God?
The answer is right there. God was right there. God was in the man who was godforsaken. God revealed that he is with those who feel forsaken by God.
Jesus, Immanuel, “God is with us,” is here as God bound to our fate, our death, our despair, our pain, our sense of the absence of God. He loves us so much he stands with us in our darkest moments.
This does not make sense by our worldly logic, but this is the logic of God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it well when he said, “Only a suffering God can save us.” Only love that is willing to suffer with a victim, feeling their pain, willing to take their pain as his own, can disarm the anguish of suffering.
Jesus cried out, “My God why have you forsaken me?”
Jesus deserved justice’s vindication, but he gave it up to live in solidarity with those whom justice has forgotten.
Jesus deserved the throne room of heaven, but chose a crown of thorns.
Jesus deserved to inhabit heaven, but instead he chose to harrow hell.
So, we return to our Holocaust anecdote: Where was God as an innocent man died in the gallows of the Holocaust?
God was with that dying man. He was in that dying man. He was dying for that dying man. God is that dying man, “slain before the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8).
God did die that day, but not in the sense that would lead us to atheism.
God did die that day, because he is love; he is suffering love; he is a God that refuses be far away from those who feel forsaken.
God refused to stand far off as his beloved children suffered. It is that same refusal of a God that chooses to suffer with us that refuses to leave suffering forever forsaken in our broken world. If God suffers with us, we know that God did not cause our suffering. If God suffers with us, we also know that he would not will this suffering to be without end. A God of love is a God of hope for us.
We know this because three days after the cross, Christ rose from the grave. Suffering will stop because the cross leads to resurrection.
So the Psalmist affirms in his suffering that one day…
The poor [i.e. the oppressed, the abused, the abandoned] will eat and be satisfied;
those who seek the Lord will praise him—
may your hearts live forever!
All the ends of the earth
will remember and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
will bow down before him,
for dominion belongs to the Lord
and he rules over the nations. (vv. 26-28)
There will be a day when suffering stops, when tears are wiped away, when hunger is satisfied, when wounds are healed, when pain turns to praise, when repentance and reconciliation reigns.
There will be a day of perfect justice, perfect mercy, and perfect peace.
That day is coming because the God who died on the cross, rose from the grave. Death could not change the impassible character of a God who is boundless life.
The cry of the cross was answered with the triumphant joy of resurrection. Let’s pray…
We ask with Jesus sometimes, “Why have you forsaken us? Why all the injustice? Why all the destruction? Where are you?”
God, remind our broken souls that you were with us in the times that seems like you were absent. Help us to look to Jesus and trust that you are not far off. You are with us. You are for us. You bear our pain.
You did not abandon us as you did not abandon Christ. Soften our hearts to let go of that pain and anguish, knowing that you have already taken on that pain in the cross.
Lord, allow the wounds of our past to heal in the same way the cries of Golgotha were answered with the resurrection.
Allow the cross and resurrection to inspire us. Give us the grace to live out what your promises demands. Convict us of the courage to confront the injustice of life with Jesus’ innocence. Convict us of the empathy to confront the suffering of this world with Jesus’ solidarity. We pledge to act in trust, compassion, and hope, knowing that you will restore all things.
Why Christian Patriarchy Cannot Prevent Abuse
Here I will further demonstrate with an analytic argument that patriarchy in theory is incoherent and cannot prevent abuse.
Patriarchy, as I have previously argued, is the denial of the gift of the Spirit for all who are one in Christ (which I have argued elsewhere in regards to Galatians 3:28). Under this basis, patriarchy is the denial that a woman could have the gift of the Spirit in leadership (apostolic or general), teaching, prophesy, etc. whether in the church, society, or marriage.
Patriarchy is the position that holds to an inherent hierarchy within the male-female relationship where men have a position of authority or leadership by the merit of their gender, which usually is applied to a marriage (where the man has the power of decision in some way) and church leadership (where men only can be pastors), but also to other aspects of society in general (some argue against women holding any position of authority). However, for purposes of this paper, the marriage example will be used as the normative referent, since it is the male-female relationship at is most basic (where a congregation of pastor-congregants involve relationships not just of a man and women) and it is abuse in marriage that is most distressing.
I find this term is a pretty muddy term because some will argue that Christian marriage and church leadership is by the gift of the Spirit, therefore a man leads, either as husband or pastor/elder, by that gift where a secular marriage or institution does not have this grace. Christian patriarchy is in theory something that only good Christians can do. In other arguments, since gender is apart of the creational design, in principle all marriages and all institutions should naturally work best under this scheme. In this account Christian patriarchy is something that is natural and therefore should work for all. However, Galatians 3:28, forbids the idea that a man would get a gift the Spirit (i.e. leadership) that a woman could not. This leaves the basis of leadership and authority in the realm of the natural. This should grant us some level of demystification. If it is based on natural and rational order, it should be accountable to natural principles of reason.
Thus, I will now argue that Christian patriarchy is incoherent by the fact that it cannot offer an accurate description of its own criteria of success. I will also then argue that it is condemnable by the fact of its inability in principle to restrain oppression and abuse of women. That sounds strong. After all there are so many good husbands, fathers, marriages, pastors, churches, etc. that hold to this. That is fine. This is why we should qualified this and say its inability in principle not reality. In reality there are lots of good marriages that display patriarchy, however, we are analyzing the natural logic of that conviction. To this we will return to the second assertion that argues patriarchy examples of success do not offer the criteria necessary to understand that success. What I mean by that is that patriarchy in successful Christian marriage, is one where there is a practiced intimacy, equality, and mutual accountability, which actually implies the opposite of any hard version of patriarchy.
1. The Incoherence of Patriarchy
Christian patriarchy cannot sustain the assertion that it is good that a man can have a role by the merit of him merely being a man over a woman. It has to argue this assertion by saying he has to be a good man and a capable leader, but cannot sustain that every man is good and capable. This slides the criterion of authority and leadership from a criterion of gender essentialism to pragmatism: a man does not have authority because he is a man, but because has the ability to do so and the character to do so well.
If this is the case, patriarchy has already failed on two fronts. The first is that if a man does not have good leadership and good character he should therefore be disqualified from leadership on principle. There is no basis by which a woman must listen to a man of incompetent judgment, unsound mind, or questionable character (as we will see, the insistence otherwise, therefore, creates the inability for patriarchy to prevent abuse).
The second is that if it is actually on the basis of skill and character (or the gift of the Spirit) that leadership is based, then if a woman manifests these qualities (as we have argued previously in regards to Gal. 3:28), there is no objection in principle that she could in fact lead and the man should in fact submit.
A patriarchalist is then left with three very uncomfortable options: (1) Resort back to arguing that leadership is in fact based on gender without character and ability. This option is incapably of offering criteria that could prevent abuse. (2) Deny that any woman does have naturally the skill and character capable of leading. This option leads the patriarchialist into bigotry. Good female leaders, whether in the church, marriage, or society are ignored, or worse, explained as if they are abnormal women. This option is left explaining away any good preacher, politician, business owner, or administrator that is a woman. As I said, nothing short of calling this bigotry will do because the vast amount of life data one has to explain away virtually makes this position on par with insisting that the earth is flat. So, we come to the final option: (3) Admit that a patriarchalist holds a double standard, either principled inequality or even intentional repression. Inequality is seen in either allowing a man to do something that a woman could do, and overt repression is seen in any act of actively preventing a woman to do something a man is privileged with. If it is the third option, they are left with having to deal with Galatians 3:28 again: the Spirit does not discriminate in regards to the gift of the Spirit on the basis of gender, ethnicity, or wealth. Therefore, theological patriarchialism is left without foundation. Fideism offers no shield to the accusation of the double standard. If a woman is in fact capable of leading there is no position of these three that does not result in a type of authoritarianism (the wrong use of power) or ignorance (refusal to be informed).
Again those are strong words, and I shall qualify: the traditional marriages that we know and respect are ones where the man has the character and skill in leadership, which the woman is content to trust. In other words, while it is undeniable that our gender does affect our relationships and positions, the notion that masculinity as such is the prime criterion of leadership has been exposed as inaccurate. A male leader will inevitably lead in some kind of “male” way, but that is nothing more than a tautology. A female leader will inevitably lead in a “female” way as well. We express ourselves with gender, but gender is not the deciding factor. If woman can in fact possess the qualities of leadership and skill in using authority, gender is incidental.
The opposite scenario (authority without character) offers the falsification criterion required to prove my original point: If we can agree that the logic of even patriarchy of good character is incoherent, (it always requires the ability and character to lead, which is not restricted to gender on the basis of experience or theology) it attests to the fact that patriarchy as such is potentially abusive. The potential outcome is why a logic of egalitarianism is the preferable and in fact necessary one for any successful display of Christian leadership.
Authority can be defined as the power to make decisions, give direction, or have control over something, and to control something is to exert force to direct or restrain. If a man, empowered by the ideology of patriarchy, is set up as an authority in a marriage or an institution, there is now the potential that power can be utilized without a moral or even rational criterion. As we already established, if male-authority is based on skill and character, then that is not patriarchy, it has pragmatic criteria. If authority is actually based on skill and character, than a woman can lead if she displays these skills and character. In fact, as we just demonstrated, with regards to the gift of the Spirit, there is no basis for discrimination.
However, if authority is wielded on the basis of male gender (thus, truly patriarchial) the decision need therefore not be a good decision; the direction need not be a good direction; and the exertion of power need not be a good exertion of power. The obliged response by the female is submission, trusting that any decision by virtue none other than it was a decision by a male is worthy of trust.
This makes things complicated. I have heard some patriarchal Christian valorize this kind of blind submission, and in fact, many resort to this defends in order to dismiss the existence of good female leaders (option 2 above). They would resort to a fideism of trusting in the order of male-authority/female-submission despite the perceived impracticality of it and examples to the contrary. Again, this option fails by its lack of theological basis (if the Word of God in Galatians has anything to say about it) and is therefore a retreat not into the mystery of faith but into the perpetuation of the irrational.
However, most Christian patriarchialists will oppose this fideist notion and qualify that women have to a degree of liberty to inquire and even challenge an unfit decision by a male authority. This, ironically, falls back into the logic of egalitarianism. The criteria to evaluate the validity of a decision, the right to challenge the validity of a bad decision, and the power to refuse to submit to a decision by an authority once it has been made, all imply that authority and leadership is not validated by positional authority alone, but rather by the degree of skill and character an authority or leader has. Again, the criterion is pragmatic not gender based, and therefore any gender that displays these qualities may lead. Any relationship that permits the freedom to question a decision, the freedom to apply a set of criteria to evaluate a decision rationally (and not accept it on merit of positional authority), and the freedom to even refuse a decision if it is incorrect rather than be compelled to submit to it, implies that the relation operates within the parameters of equality: mutual accountability, mutual submission, not hierarchy. If it claims differently, as many do, the description of the relationship is inaccurate and even disingenuous to the reality of the practiced relationship.
In fact, no successful Christian example can be offered in which a man can wield power and authority, well or not, without the woman also allowing him to, implying she exerts her own power and authority over him, if only to relinquish it and empower him. Authority is reflexive. In a marriage, his exertion of power actually is dependent on his legitimating power of his wife’s consent, approval, and ongoing accountability. This is not patriarchy, however. This is egalitarianism that expresses itself in mutually agreed upon traditional roles. The site of authority is equally in each person together, but the execution and operation of power is entrusted to one on behalf of both. However, as I insist, there can be no defeater offered for what a couple cannot agree for the opposite.
2. Complementarianism and the Possibility of Abuse
Some will note that I have only used the term “patriarchy” which some might found offense to their position because it sounds harsh. They would prefer the term “complementarian.” My intent in using patriarchy is because it is more basis to what I take issue at: gender hierarchy, not the notion of similarities within a gender and differences between genders. Some will insist that they are “complementarians” not patriarchialists offering something similar to the description given in the last paragraph, but less objectionable.
Complimentarianism in this case might be essentially the dual thesis that men, by the merit of their gender, are called and best suited to lead or have authority, and women, by the merit of their gender, are called and best suited to submit. This position insists on the need for men to exercise power and authority well (whether as a husband or a pastor, etc.) and a woman (whether a wife or congregant) to submit well. Both together are understood as forming the basis of a successful male-female relationship.
This is more nuanced than patriarchy, but essentially it is just as incoherent. While it offers a more holistic account of how power is applied (i.e. rarely one-sidedly), the notion that a man must lead well and a woman must submit well does not prevent the slippage from a positional criterion of power to a pragmatic one that we just talked about. A man can lead (and a woman submit) only if he actually has the skill and character to do so, and therefore, if the woman possesses these qualities, there is no reason why a man then in turn should learn to submit to her or pray and ask God for help in doing so.
However, I will argue that complementarianism is just as bad and in some cases actually worse. While complementarianism recognizes the dual notion of the relationship, patriarchy is overt in placing the emphasis on male power and control. In patriarchy then the onus is, typically, on the power yielded by the man. Complementarianism is in many ways identical to patriarchy, but when unsuccessful, creates the possibility of female scapegoats. The marriage failed, so one could complain, due to lack of complementarity, not the deficient use of male-power. In other words, the person that refused to fulfill their role is to blame. While it could be the man in refusing to take responsibility, the possibility is offered that it is in fact the woman’s fault for refusing to submit since that is her role. This could create the situation where that a man in merely asserting power on the basis of his gender is deemed virtuous, even though in other regards he is not a supportive husband, but a woman who defies his orders is deemed immoral for failing to uphold her role. This creates a potentially terrible situation: Her displeasure and defiance to the authoritarian nature of her husband’s authority therefore become her fault, purely because she expresses her displeasure and defiance of it.
What is worse is that if authority implies the application of power, if position is legitimated by gender without character, and if decisions can be implemented apart from the ongoing consent and accountability of an egalitarian logic, the result is something that is indistinguishable from abuse. What happens when a wife refuses to submit to her husband? There are two outcomes. The first collapses positional authority into mutual-accountability: the man explains himself and offers compelling reasons for the decision. This implies the logic of egalitarianism as the execution of leadership is based on the pragmatics of ability and character with accountability and equality.
So, the worse outcome is where patriarchy becomes dangerous, which will serve as my closing cautionary example. If the woman refuses to submit, she is in defiance of the order of the relationship, legitimated purely on the basis of gender. In fact, I would point out that if the relationship does not qualify the criteria of accountability for decision to be challenged, all disagreement could potentially be understood as defiance. Rather than accept negotiation or accountability, the failure to maintain this order could be seen as requiring the application of simply more force.
Here is where the possibility of abuse in patriarchy cannot be prevented in theory and is, in fact, bolstered by bad theological analogies. Obviously this does not mean self-espoused complementarians are all abusive, but I have already accounted for why that is not the case, and it is because the relationship is in fact disingenuous about its own pragmatics. However, I will maintain the potentiality in principle.
If a man can wield power and authority purely on he basis of gender and a woman called to submit, if the power is truly positional then power can be wielded without the legitimation of another, without a woman’s approval or accountability. This implies then that he is at liberty to exercise power against her will.
There is dangerous analogous logic that can reinforce the abusive nature of this power. Power relationships often imply the use of force. After all, bosses can fire bad employees. Police can imprison deviant citizens. A teacher can expel a student. A parent can, in traditional understanding, spank a child.
While it is not our project to exegete 1 Corinthians 11, a misapplication of its logic would be thus: God is head of Christ; Christ is head of man; and man is head of the woman. Apply the logic to divine headship over humanity, as some do, to marriage, and it starts to get scary: a very coherent set of logic in its own right is thus offered for the use of force by a man over a woman for the purpose of carrying out the decision. If God is head over humanity and can exercise power regardless of the consent of people and if the male is the head of the female as God is the head over humanity, then the man can analogously wield power regardless of the opposition of the woman. He may think he can do so even to punish her for her own good as God does to humans. The fact that God is morally perfect and people are not can get ignored. The man, if he thinks he is in the right, is now able to exercise the force of punishment against the woman’s will. It us under these schemes that we see examples of “domestic discipline” and abuse perpetrated by Christian fundamentalists. Patriarchy, if it gravitates to this level of theological analogy, can delude itself into laying claim to God’s infallibility and wrath for its own.
This may all sound very extreme and quite offensive to a complementarian or gentle Christian patriarchialist. Thankfully, most who hold this position out of Christian conviction object strongly to the use of force. However, this is the challenge of convictional consistency: What restrains the use of force as a virtue that comes from patriarchial values or an unadmitted egalitarian one? If complementarianism promotes power over women, how is force that much different? As I said, many complementarians are in actuality egalitarians first, who together mutually consent to traditional roles. However, if the logic that God is an authority with the capacity to use force is analogous to the male power in the patriarchy, the refusal to use disciplinary force is actually disconnected within the linear implications of the logic. This is why patriarchy, as such, cannot prevent its own abuse.
It is for this reason that Bible believing, Spirit-loving, reason-using, and justice-promoting Christians should seek to reform any form of patriarchy. This does not mean demeaning well-intentioned marriages and churches, but it does mean taking seriously the task of clarifying Christian convictions (as we have done here) and promoting the most coherent theology of authority and gender. The most probable exegesis and the most coherent account of relationships is one that works within the bounds of egalitarianism. Patriarchy, as I have shown, in its purest theoretical form, cannot offer a compelling logic to prevent abuse.