Motes, Beams, and First-Century Divorce

Wedding Rings, Photo by Jeff Belmonte, Creative Commons

Photo by Jeff Belmonte, Creative Commons

There’s a  certain type of “following the rules” morality that we often cling to, a kind that makes us feel good and holy. It’s the kind that looks at other people’s problems. It’s the kind that looks at their motes, and misses our beams.

It orders/asks of those who are being crushed by the rules to be willing to suffer for what is right. But it does not, on a daily basis, require the majority to set up an environment where the rules can be followed without crushing anyone. It asks the world of “them,” but nothing of “us.”

Let me give you an example. Some churches have a strong anti-divorce rule (this was more common in the past than today – J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis had their famous falling out because Lewis married a divorced woman). However, this usually ends up being (in practice)

  • “If you got married, and things are horrible, you have to just bear it, because divorce is BAD,” or
  • “If you do have to get divorced, you can never remarry, because that would make you an adulterer,” or
  • “If you divorce and remarry (or in some cases even just divorce), you’re no longer welcome in our church, because that’s a special type of sin that’s worse than the ones we good upstanding Christians do.”

Rarely does it mean: “We, as a community of believers, will take responsibility for teaching and modeling good marriage communication, helping couples work out problems, teaching and modeling financial planning and responsibility (since money troubles are the #1 cause of divorce) and even supporting couples emotionally and financially when they fall on hard times.  We believe marriage is sacred, and want to protect it.”

Look, we all know divorce IS bad.  Ask anyone who’s gone through one, or whose parents have gone through one.  It isn’t fun to sever your life from someone, to go to court and fight over who gets what, to have your years together reduced to bickering lawyers.

C.S. Lewis compared divorce to amputation: sometimes necessary, but never good news.

Nobody gets pulled into divorce by how awesome the process is; they get pushed into divorce by how awful their marriage has become.  And sometimes it’s not because the people, or even one of the people, in the marriage, is awful. Sometimes the people are basically trying to do good, but the relationship itself has been poisoned past the point of rescue.

The worst part comes when church leaders, writers, and culture warriors take a statement that protected women and use it to trap women in abusive relationships. They’ve taken Jesus’ intent and inverted it.

I know several divorced and remarried people. Their relationships are not the same as people caught up in adultery. Am I saying that Jesus was wrong? Hardly. When he spoke, in the first century, he was 100% right. But marriage has radically changed since then, and so has divorce.

In first-century Israel, men could divorce women pretty easily, but the reverse was not true. It was difficult, but not impossible, for women to obtain divorces. This was, in part, because of a debate between two great rabbis, Hillel and Shammai over whether a man could divorce only for immorality or for “any cause.”

Further, there was no such thing as a career woman back then. A women from a well-to-do family who brought a significant dowry into the marriage would be able to take some or all of that dowry out, live on it, and likely even remarry.

But a woman of lesser means? A small dowry means less to live on and less chance of being chosen for marriage as compared to a virgin. She could easily end up begging, starving, or being sold into slavery. To divorce a woman without an extreme reason (such as adultery) was capricious and cruel.

Further, it was emblematic of the way the “righteous, respectable” religious men of Jesus’ day obeyed the letter of the law while still exploiting and oppressing the poor and vulnerable (I’ll leave any comparisons to today’s “righteous, respectable” folk to the reader’s imagination). Jesus wouldn’t let them call such a thing righteous.

At no point was it about trapping abused women in a domestic cage with the men who are beating and torturing them.

Just telling people who are in terrible marriages that they’re out of luck is passing the buck.  We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.  We don’t get to put the hard decisions off on someone else, then sit around acting righteous. Especially when we do so little to help prevent these problems.

It’s a false morality, and it’s not fooling anybody. The eyes of the world see right through it. It brings shame on the church, and damages the reputation of God.

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The Farmer’s Wife (Complementarianism, Again)

Farmer and Wife, Irving Rusinow, 1941

Farmer and Wife. Photo by Irving Rusinow, 1941

A farmer’s wife is a farmer, not a housewife.  I know that because my maternal grandparents were farmers.  There was a division of labor, of course, but it wasn’t some philosophical self-conscious complementarian structure, but a legitimate division of labor.  Pa Clarence didn’t know how to sew, and Nanny Jet couldn’t fix or maintain a tractor, for example.  But the men and the women all picked crops (as did the boys and the girls, once they were old enough).  Both cooked, at least some: Pa Clarence made the best biscuits I ever ate (and he took the recipe to his grave).  Nanny Jet was the cornbread champion, and their chicken and dressing was a kind of joint effort, using his biscuits and her cornbread, though she prepared the dressing itself (a recipe that has been passed down to her daughters, and, through Mom, to me … but Katherine makes it better than I do).

Yes, men and women were different.  Men and women are still different, though changing times have revealed some of those differences to be cultural constructions, rather than biological conditions.  Perhaps in the future, even more of the differences between men and women will be revealed as nothing more than socio-cultural artifacts.  The gospel will endure, even as it endured blue stockings, suffrage, and industrialization, as it survived the birth of pantsuits, career women, and birth control.

The difference between a farmer and his wife and a 21st century complementarian is this: the farmer and his wife did what they did because it worked.  They were raising crops and livestock and children, and their life was in the land.  Every year, they planted their livelihood in the ground in an earthy leap of faith that most of us have never had to take.  They didn’t have time to theorize from their wealthy, government safety-net supported, megachurch attending, paid by a seminary or church, privileged position.  This wass as true of first century farmers and shepherds as early twentieth century farmers.

The complementarian movement isn’t returning us to some pre-industrial idyll.  At best, it’s sanctifying the white-upper-class privileged gender roles of an idealized 1950’s.  At worst, it’s dragging us back to old Greco-Roman house codes.  Some complementarians, like Douglas Wilson, Steve Wilkins, and George Grant, have even ventured into slavery apologetics.

As bizarre as that seems in this day and time (paleo-confederate?  Really?), it really is the natural, logical conclusion of God-ordained male dominance.  After all, the passages that teach women to submit are always located near passages giving slaves the same instruction.  The Greco-Roman households Paul wrote to were ruled by men, with wives having more status, but no more freedom or authority, than slaves.  Paul’s admonitions to mutual submission upended the heart of this one-sided power-structure, but in the interest of civil peace, he urged Christians not to flout the laws and customs of his day.  Twenty centuries later, we can do better.

They quote Paul, but they recreate themselves in the image of Ward Cleaver and seek to forge women into the image of June Cleaver, using the Bible as a hammer and tradition as an anvil.  They claim tradition, but in truth, lack all authenticity.  Past social arrangements were based on physical and economic necessities.  Past social arrangements made survival possible.  They may not have been just, but they were necessary.  This?  This is the retrograde fantasy, a dangerous escape from modernity.

Toxic Legalism (Jeremiad #1: Sexism, Lies, and Ecclesiastical Bling)

Lazarus and Dives by Fedor Bronnikov, 1886

Lazarus and Dives by Fedor Bronnikov, 1886

A new, toxic legalism, based on a shallow, piecemeal, combative reading of the scriptures, is choking the Evangelical faith like a clinging vine.  Our churches are shrinking, and our reputation is mud with the wider world – they think we are immoral in our vitriol and our intolerance.  They see us as less moral than non-Christians, as moralistic and manipulative and controlling.

And they’re right.  Our churches are segregated, even today.  Our divorce rate is no better than the non-religious.  Spousal abuse still lingers, and in some cases is even tolerated.  And our advice to abused women is often dangerously, even fatally wrongheaded.

You can proof-text me all you want, but homosexuals are not the ones degrading our nation’s culture.  We are, with our arrogance, our lingering racism, our commercialism and consumerism.

We build multi-million dollar churches, yet leave the poorest of the world (who often need things like $18 mosquito nets and $25 vaccinations) and the poor and homeless in our own cities to fend for themselves.

We keep spending money to prop up dying churches that exist only because a few elderly people don’t want to find a new church, but which are doing nothing for the community, spiritually or materially. We spend ungodly sums on “faith-based extravaganzas” on Easter, Christmas, and Halloween (“scare them to salvation with Hell House!”).  And all the while, like Dives, we watch the poor man starving at our gate.

We degrade our name, and our nation, when we let our political leanings dictate our theology.  Case in point: it’s no secret that the Southern Baptists are going whole-hog for Mitt Romney.

But when I was growing up, Southern Baptists considered Mormonism a “cult.”  Some still do.  Oops, never mind.  He’s backing Romney now.   So, which is it?  The answer no one will give you is this:  “it doesn’t matter, as long as he dislodges that black pro-death, pro-gay, liberal socialist we’ve got now.”

We bring shame on our name and Christ’s through our sexism and incredible insensitivity to the realities of women’s lives.  You can proof-text me all you want, but the truth remains:  when you pre-determine a woman’s role in life based on her gender, you take away her right to follow the Holy Spirit’s guidance, you take away her Imago Dei, and you make her less than human.

Who should we obey, God or Men?  The reality of complementarianism, as it is often preached, is this: Only men get to obey God.  Women obey men, and access God through the male spiritual heads – first their fathers, and then their husbands.  But I think we all know the right answer to the question, both for men and for women I think the answer is clear [Acts 5:29].  We obey God, not men.

One Night with the Mayor…Retelling the Esther Story

Esther in King Xerxes's Harem, by Edwin Long 1878

Esther in King Xerxes’s Harem, by Edwin Long 1878

“Your daughter sure is pretty,” the sheriff said.  Then he spat.  A line of tobacco flew from his mouth, splattering like a twisted branch on the dry ground.  He reeked of stale sweat and old chew, and his pale eyes gleamed from within the fleshy folds of his face. “All willow-thin and fresh-faced. Oh, my.”

Essie looked up at her uncle, then back at the hulking lawman, her dark eyes wide.

The big man with the big leather belt and the big black gun just grinned and tipped his hat.  “Even her nose is perfect.  Not a big beak like most o’ you Jews.”  He ran his thumb across the side of his nose, then continued, not even looking at Mordecai.  “Course, I know she’s not really your daughter.  Her parents are dead, aren’t they?”

“Please,” Mordecai said, “she’s only thirteen.”

Even in the heat of August, Essie shuddered.  Her Bat Mitzvah – and her first flow – had come only two month ago.

“That’s okay.  The Mayor likes ’em young.”  The sheriff tugged at the strap of his Sam Browne belt while his gaze crept over every inch of Esther’s body.  “Maybe not this young.  I think we’ll keep her around the mansion for a while, till she ripens up a little.”  He cupped his hands at chest level and mimed squeezing.  “I think a year will do it.”

“Sheriff -”  Mordecai’s face grew red.  He knew not to appeal any further to this pig’s sense of decency.  Obviously, he had none.

The sheriff laughed so hard his belly shook.  “I told you the Mayor likes ’em young.  Don’t worry, little Essie, you’ll have plenty of company.  He’s got every pretty little thing in the county livin’ up there.  I think you’ll be the only Jew-girl, but that don’t matter much. I’m sure you’ll pretty up just as well as the rest of them, if they can get your hair to behave.  I declare, girl, it’s wild as a badger’s backside.”

“Damn you -”

“What are you upset about?” The Sheriff said, turning on Mordecai, “The Mayor’s gon’ choose a new wife when all this is over.  Your little Essie here could be the new first lady, live in that mansion forever, maybe even do some good for your scrawny little tribe.”  He snorted. “If she pleases him.”  He leaned in close to Esther, his breath thick and dank, his eyes hard as diamonds.  “You know anything about pleasing a man, little girl?”

“That’s enough!” Mordecai snarled, pulling Esther back and raising his fist.

The sheriff stepped back, surprisingly nimble for all his bulk.   “Watch your step, boy.  We can do this the easy way or the hard way.”  He tapped the butt of his revolver, as if to remind them both what ‘the hard way’ meant.  “Either way, the girl goes with me.”

Mordecai swallowed hard.  “Go with him,” he whispered, “I’ll find a way to be there for you.  Just keep yourself alive.  And remember who you are.  Remember where you come from.”

Esther swallowed hard, tensing her jaw and raising her head.  She would not let him see her tears.  She walked, head held high,  to the sheriff’s car, sliding into the back seat like a prisoner, and like a queen.

The preceding, despite being time-shifted 2,500 years, and despite the liberties I took with Mordecai’s social status and the secrecy surrounding Esther’s religion and ethnicity, was still a far more accurate and truthful retelling of how Esther came to be in King Xerxes’ Harem than the rape-apologist, misogynist “exegesis” Mark Driscoll posted and preached Sunday.  An “exegesis” so wrong, so dangerous, that refutations have sprung up like white blood cells at the site of infection.  Rachel Held Evans has a good one (and kudos to her for bringing this to my attention).  So does Sarah Over the Moon.  So does Can’t Catch My Breath.

Honestly, I think (and hope) there can be some value to seeing an old story in a different setting.  Maybe we can see Esther’s humanity and stop slut-shaming one of God’s heroes, a true woman of valor.

A Clarification about Complementarianism

In writing about complementarianism yesterday, I did something that I’m all too often guilty of doing: I talked about the more radical edge of it as if it were the whole.

In other words, I talked about complementarianism in a way that makes all those who identify as complementarian sound utterly sexist.  That was not my intent, clearly.

Complementarianism as it exists in America, is a broad and difficult to define concept … so slippery, that the From Two to One marriage blog spent four posts just defining terms!

At the most minimal core, complementarianism is the belief that men and women are different in some way, and have some kind of difference in their God-given roles.  I think most of us believe that to some degree.

But that definition is too broad to be useful.  It’s like a man who was taking a hot-air balloon ride, and, looking down, didn’t recognize the landscape.  “Engineer,” he asked, panicked that they might be lost, “where are we?”  The engineer looked over the edge, looked back at the man, and said, “We’re in a balloon.”

Well, thanks.

An actual useful definition of complementarianism would need to be narrow enough that it actually excludes more than a handful of people.  So what I’m talking about is the idea of God-ordained different roles, to the extent of:

  1. Male headship in the home (wifely submission, as opposed to egalitarianism’s mutual submission and equal leadership)
  2. Male headship in the church (women may be excluded from all leadership roles, or possibly just the priestly/preaching role)
  3. The preparation of the next generation of girls to be good wives, first and foremost.

#3 is the one that troubles me the most.  I have no problem with women choosing to live in complementarian marriages, choosing to subordinate themselves to their husbands.  But I do have a problem with girls being told that that’s their role, and that’s where their worth and righteousness comes from.  I have a problem with girls being pushed to not get an education, to marry young, and to stay married even if the husband abuses them.

And while not everyone who calls themselves complementarian takes this approach, it is not a rare or unique thing.  Heaven Ministries, Buried Treasure,  and Ladies Against Feminism have all published articles questioning the need for higher education or outright advising against it for women.  A simple Google Search turns up even more.

So, I guess what I’m saying is that there is a significant group within the wide tent of complementarianism that I have a serious problem with.  While I don’t want to paint everyone who takes that title with the same brush, I feel like I have to stand up and speak out.  Because this affects our daughters, our sisters, our female friends, and that means it affects us all.

Why I Have to Talk About Complementarianism

Solomon's Judgment by Peter Paul Rubens

Solomon’s Judgment by Peter Paul Rubens, c. 1615

Edit : I realized that in this post, I’m guilty of doing something I all too often do; letting an extreme group stand in for the whole group.  I’ll post more on this, above, but suffice it to say that I’m talking about the far end of complementarianism, not the centrist end.

You know, there was a time when I thought the complementarian/patriarchy issue didn’t affect me. I wasn’t raised that way, I had (and continue to have) an egalitarian marriage, and, frankly, this “gender roles preset by God, regardless of the individuals’ specific gifts” business sounded like nonsense to me.  This was never something I personally had to grapple with, and so I never really thought it was important for me to turn my attention to it.

But now I see how much it impacts people raised within it.  I see how much it colors discussions on Christianity.  Just because I’ve been sheltered from it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.  And maybe I haven’t been sheltered from it as much as I thought.  Maybe, being male, I heard it and forgot it.

So it is possible that I encountered complementarianism and just didn’t realize it.  I do seem to remember a couple of sermons on Ephesians 5:22, and thinking those sermons might have been different if he’d read the rest of the chapter instead of just that verse.  This was, of course, pre-Danvers Statement, before there was an organized movement to sanctify soft patriarchy and return the church to 1950’s American gender roles.

Maybe I wasn’t hit by it because I wasn’t the target.  Complementarianism in practice is all too often about telling women how to be “biblical” – that is, how to be submissive and dedicate their lives to the support and edification of their husbands. The husband’s role, to love her and guide her as Christ loves and guides the church, may get equal attention, but it may not.  And it’s also harder to define, harder for a church community to agree on what it will look like, and, clearly, harder to enforce.

That never really occurred to me, perhaps because Dad and I studied the Bible together from before I was old enough to remember it up until I was in high school.  We used commentaries and chain references to see how the scriptures interacted, to explore their context, to get clarification for terms that were unclear or might have multiple possible translations.  I asked questions, and if Dad couldn’t answer them, he’d ask around until he found someone who could (our preacher had to call one of his seminary professors to find out what a “Tishbite” was, as in “Elisha the Tishbite.”  I was a little disappointed that it just meant he was from Tishbe).

So I knew about Deborah, Ester, Aquila and Priscilla, Lois and Eunice, and other Biblical women.  I knew that Mary Magdalene was the first to see Jesus, and was chosen to tell the Twelve that He had risen, to be the Apostle to the Apostles.  As far as additional reading went, I grew up on C. S. Lewis, not John Piper.

From my perspective, separate roles for men and women, based on gender and not on individual gifts or callings, seems legalistic, proscriptive and authoritarian, and maddeningly tied to an idealized version of 1950’s American conformity.  It seems so unlike the great freedom granted by Jesus Christ, even deaf to the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  I’ve read the verses on wifely submission, but knowing what I know about first century Greco-Roman house codes, I see those verses (in context) as radically upending the existing sexual hierarchy.

Yes, women were to continue in their first-century gender roles [Eph 5:22 ], but wives and husbands were to remember that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” [Gal 3:28]  And the idea of mutual submission, of laying down one’s life for one’s wife, loving her like Christ loved the church?  Radical at a time when (as they were for most of human history) women were, legally speaking, property.

It’s important to remember that one of the big “wives, obey your husbands” verses is Colossians 3:18.  The next seven verses talk about husbands’ responsibility to love their wives, children’s responsibility to obey their parents (along with an admonition to fathers not to “exasperate” their children), and finally, how Christians who are slaves should relate to their masters.  If we really think first century Greco-Roman house codes are some kind of Godly ideal, doesn’t that mean we need to bring back slavery?  And if we’re not willing to hold our fellow man in bondage, why do we want to hold our fellow women in bondage?

I don’t want to write this as if I have all the answers.  I created this blog to live in the questions, to grapple with scripture, God’s will, and my own thoughts, not to preach a certain viewpoint.  Unfortunately, I’m having a hard time doing that here.  Okay, I’m failing utterly to maintain any questions, any objectivity here.  Which of course makes me question whether I should even post this.  But I think I have to, because of this next paragraph:

But now I realize it affects me.  If I have a daughter, it will affect her.  It affects everyone around us.  If my unborn child is a daughter, she will inherit a Christianity very different from the one I grew up in.  She will inherit a Christianity that tells her that her purpose comes not from what God can do through her, but what she can do to support whatever God is doing through her husband.

I don’t want my (possible) daughter to hate her own independence, to abhor her ambitions, to denigrate her dreams.  And I certainly don’t want her to base her sense of self on a man, other than the Son of Man Himself.

Those of us who are male can sit in our safe places and pretend it isn’t happening, just like those of us who are white can ignore racism, and those of us who are heterosexual can ignore homophobia, and those of us who are wealthy and live in post-industrial nations can ignore the suffering of the world’s poor.

But it doesn’t make it right.

Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dotted Burqa (Modesty Part 1)

In my Weekend Wows post,  I mentioned Emily Maynard’s post “Modesty, Lust, and My Responsibility”  I urge you to follow the link and read what she has to say for yourselves.

For those of you who didn’t, she’s saying three basic things: 1) being sexually attracted to someone isn’t a sin, but fantasizing, lusting, dwelling in that is; 2) lust is about control (in the sexual fantasy, the object of lust does whatever the lust-er wants), and 3) men aren’t filthy animals who have no control over their own moral agency.  They can resist lustful fantasies just like women can.

A lot of people have replied saying that it is so important that women dress modestly so as to not tempt men to the sin of lust.  As a man who’s struggled with “the lust of the eye” (though I have thankfully been spared from participating in promiscuity, infidelity, etc.), I have a few thoughts about this myself.

First, the idea that women’s dress and physical self-image should effectively exist for the benefit of men is a profoundly worldly idea.  It’s the Kodachrome negative of the frat boy “she’d be okay if she lost a little weight” and “I’d do her.”  Worse, it veers into blaming the object of the unwanted sexual attention for the actions of the other.  “She was askin’ for it, dressed like that.”  Seriously.  Think about it.  If women are to blame for men’s lustful thoughts, aren’t they to blame for men’s lustful actions?  Do we really want to go back to that age?

Do we really want to dehumanize both men and women, taking away both of their moral agency?  I know men are visual creatures.  I AM ONE.  I know men have a tendency to think lustful thoughts.  ME TOO.  I also know that men are responsible for their own sins, including lust.  It doesn’t matter if I just saw the hottest, sexiest woman I ever saw walking by in a low-cut top and barely-there skirt, looking like something that just stepped out of a Prince song, I am responsible for what I do in my mind just as I am responsible for what I do in my body.

Am I saying that Christian women should wear thigh-high platform boots, micro-skirts, and corset tops to the mall?  Of course not.  Christian women should take responsibility for their mode of dress based upon their own relationships with God.  They have souls and minds, too, and we don’t have the right to play God, telling them what God does and doesn’t want them to wear.  A woman’s salvation and sanctification come from God, through Christ, not through any other person.

Besides, there will always be plenty of non-Christian women who dress provocatively.  We men better learn to control ourselves, or we’ll be sunk in a pit of lustful thoughts all day long.  And let me tell you, as a man who remembers what it was like to be in the grip of hormones, constantly battling a lustful eye, it is absolutely possible to lustfully deconstruct somebody who is modestly dressed. Long sleeves, long pants or dress, not too tight?  It doesn’t matter.  Lust will find a way, unless it is controlled by the person doing the lusting.

There’s another problem with this scenario.   “Dressing modestly” is a moving target, culturally constructed and not even consistent within a single culture.  When asked what “modest dress” was, nobody in the comments section (myself included) could come up with a solid, widely-agreeable definition.  In fact, The Rebelution Modesty Survey spent months, created an interactive website, and surveyed thousands of teens and young adults, to get … a series of questions with answers based on the percentages of their respondents who agreed or disagreed.  In other words, they got a fascinating, and maybe even useful, cultural snapshot of early 21st century, predominantly Christian, youth.  And they started a good conversation.  But they ddn’t get a definitive answer.

So what does it mean to dress modestly?  What does it mean to you?  Tank top?  Jogging shorts?  Cap sleeves?  Skirt to your knees?  Long sleeves?  Skirt to your ankles?  Head covered?  Face veiled?  Burqa?

You think that “Burqa” comment was a smartaleck remark?  Sarcasm?  A joke?  It’s not.  When powerful men decide that women must be controlled, they usually start with modesty.  They start by “protecting” women from the lustful nature of men.  Soon they’re protecting them from going to college and learning difficult, even un-godly things.  They say it’s better for women to stay home and learn to be good homemakers for their husbands.

The woman exists for the man’s benefit, whether to gratify his lusts or support him and his children, depending upon whether you ask a libertine or a hyper-conservative.

The Burqa is where this ends: the symbol of total male domination of women, shrouded from view, her sex, even her humanity, hidden behind thick layers of cloth.  Her life is no longer her own, to give in service to God if she is willing and faithful, but belongs to a man.

If we let men start determining how women dress, women become effectively dress-up dolls, to be remade in either a sexualized or a conservative modesty model.  In other words, we take away their agency and dehumanize them … just like we do when we entertain sexual fantasies about them.