So Much More, p. 33-51 – Part 4: The Pleasantville Priesthood

“A&E” refers to Anna Sofia and Elizabeth Botkin, authors of So Much More. I chose the abbreviation to save space and time.

At the beginning of chapter 4, A&E write:

Before we get into submission, we should let the reader know that we are fully aware that “submission” is seen as a dirty word to our generation, especially when connected with pejoratives like “hyper-patriarchal tyranny.” The Church at large is made very uncomfortable by these passages, because they seem to violate our fallen sense of what’s “right” and “fair.” The few Christians who recognize that this command does actually appear in the Bible and therefore needs to be obeyed, tend to be ashamed and apologetic of the fact. Why is this? What is there in God’s pattern for authority and submission that is not wonderful, wise, loving, and perfect? We should rejoice in it and make the most of it!

After reading this, I thought to myself that A&E might as well wear a big neon sign on their heads, reading “I AM 100% CLUELESS ABOUT ABUSE IN THE CHURCH.” Have they never heard of women who were told to return to their abusive husbands and submit to them, women whose husbands suspended their driving privileges for their bad behavior, and patriocentrist leaders who suggested that wives could be brought up on church discipline if they failed to do the dishes? And those are just a few of the stories I and others have heard.

So in answer to A&E’s question: many Christians start to twitch when they hear the word “submission,” because submission is almost always preached with no checks and balances whatsoever. In other words, for many people, “submission” means near absolute power and no accountability for the husband, and servitude and entrapment for the wife. In a perfect world where husbands are never abusive or controlling, the system might work pretty well. But even at 15 and 17, when they started writing So Much More, A&E were old enough to understand that our world is far from perfect. Unfortunately, their own version of headship and submission suffers from all the same problems – and actually has worse ones of its own. Let’s start with the authority side of the equation.

Princelings and priestlings

The root problem with A&E’s views of paternal authority I’ve covered before, many times over. It is, quite simply, that they are putting fathers in the place of God – for example, by claiming that a girl can blaspheme her father’s name by telling embarrassing stories about him to non-family members. It comes through even clearer in this chapter, in which one of the interviewed girls, Hannah, not only refers to her father as her “priest” (which is actually the real foundational error here, as I’ll explain later), but even goes so far as to refer to him as “king of [the] home.”

Another more prosaic example is the idea that women must submit to their male head unless they ask them to sin:

God has placed our fathers in a position of authority over us, and to disobey them is to disobey God, unless the two come in direct conflict with one another. A father does not have the authority to make his daughter commit sin, because his authority is limited – he can’t overrule God’s commands or usurp God’s authority. A daughter has a duty to disobey her father in such circumstances.

Notice A&E limit this to “direct conflict” – i.e., dad ordered me to go steal the neighbors’ lawn mower after ours broke, but that would violate the seventh commandment so I am not required to obey him. They make no provision for differences of conviction or conscience, or for requests that are harmful in some way but fall short of “sin.” Failing to allow daughters to make choices based on their own consciences is an obvious violation of Romans 14 (see my last post – this is also a widespread problem in most complementarian constructions of wives’ submission to husbands), and once again A&E show their utter cluelessness about abuse. Anyone familiar with controlling, manipulative or abusive people, will tell you that they can hem, haw, parse, redefine and equivocate until your head is spinning and you don’t know up from down anymore. In other words, do we really think that an abusive father won’t find a way to redefine his request as “not sin” so his daughter is required to comply? Where are the checks and balances to protect the daughter from her malicious father? Answer: there are none, and it’s a feature, not a bug (see my last post about daughters submitting to their fathers’ advice in order to show a willingness to be guided by male authorities).

As if that wasn’t bad enough, A&E come awfully close to putting fathers’ instruction on par with the Bible:

Unfortunately, some girls have been told by their fathers, who in turn have been told by their corrupt culture, that it’s a sign of maturity for a girl to stop looking for her father’s instruction and start relying chiefly on her own judgment. … The proverbs that extol the glory of our parents’ instruction never indicate that it’s just for little children and that girls with “good heads on their shoulders” don’t need it. Now, when a girl marries, her father’s authority is transferred to her husband, and she is no longer obligated to obey her father. But in the same that it’s good for us to read the Bible, no matter how many verses and principles we already know, it is healthy – humbling to us and honoring to our parents – to show them that we will always seek the blessings of their wisdom.

Aside from administering another huge dose of “visit your nearest male authority to find out what to believe” (see last post), there are two potential problems here. First, it opens the door to all sorts of controlling and invasive behavior by extended family members, by creating the expectation of a divine right to be consulted on important decisions. (“Sure, you’re no longer required to obey me, but you know, honey, I’m just sayin’, you and Billy really should invest in my business as opposed to that other one down the street.”) Second, it’s another perfect example of how A&E’s system doesn’t work in the real world. What happens if a daughter’s parents are both dead? What if they’re non-Christians? What if they’re profoundly dysfunctional, or paranoid, or white supremacists, or some other unsavory thing, and she already knows that any advice they give will be terrible?

As I said earlier, the root of all this unchecked authority is the belief that a father and husband is “high priest of the home” (and in this book, even “king of the home”!) and the appointed “spiritual covering” and representative of God to his family. I’ve previously covered this in the Big Box series (see here and here), as well as documented its most noxious manifestation, the practice I call “patriocommunion” (which even some other FIC churches have distanced themselves from). Jeff Crippen has also done an excellent series on father priesthood at A Cry for Justice. It is obvious to me that this doctrine, aside from producing nothing but toxic, controlling attitudes in men and victimizing women and girls, elevates fathers to semi-divine status. As such I would call it Satanic in nature, because it represents an attempt by men to usurp the place of God.

So heads up, women of patriocentricity: you are not required to regard any human’s opinions as equivalent to the words of God, simply because he happens to have married you or contributed DNA to your genome. And men of patriocentricity: your opinions and Biblical interpretations are not, never have been, and never will be divine mandate. If you want someone to listen to you, you have to convince them first. Pulling the God card illegitimately will not solve your popularity problem.

Godly guilt trips

Turning our attention to the submission side of this relationship, what we find are mainly guilt trips, devaluation of women who are not wives and mothers, and yet more cluelessness about abuse. It begins with this statement from Hannah:

I listen to my father pray weekly for my sisters and me – that we would be established in marriage, that our marriages would be Christ-honoring, and blessed with many children. This does a wonderful thing in the heart of a girl, when she knows how treasured she is by her father, when she knows that her life was not created in vain, but has a significant purpose to which she was called. It gives a girl hope and it gives a girl vision.

I suspect the “significant purpose” Hannah mentions is a reference to the first sentence – i.e., that a girl’s purpose in life is to get married and have children. But notice the equation set up here. If a girl does not fulfill her “significant purpose” (i.e., marriage and family), then, as per the third clause of the second sentence, her life has been “created in vain.” Congratulations, A&E – I cannot think of any better way to tell single and childless women that they are completely worthless. Has it occurred to you that many women are not childless by choice? Have you ever heard of miscarriages and infertility (some of which is actually due to male problems like a low sperm count)? Did you know that some single women want to get married but cannot find a suitable spouse? (And they’re not all just “too picky,” either.) And most importantly, do you still agree with Hannah now that it is 2014 and you are both still single and childless?

I’m also a little concerned that Hannah’s statement about girls being able to tell that their fathers “treasure” them because they pray for them to get married and children, could unintentionally drive a wedge between fathers and daughters. I’m certainly not against fathers praying for their daughters, and if a daughter has expressed to her father that she wants to marry and have children, then it’s perfectly acceptable for him to pray that that would transpire for her. I do worry a little, though, that this could lead girls to unjustly suspect their fathers of not “truly” valuing them, if perhaps their dad does not advertise his prayer life or does not pray for her future marriage as often as she thinks he should, or lead them to believe their fathers don’t love them if they don’t pray for their future marriage at all (which is hardly fair to dads).

And while we’re on topic of girls whose dads are not perfect, A&E demonstrate repeatedly throughout this chapter – and really throughout the whole book so far – that though they pay lip service to the idea that some girls have dysfunctional or less than perfect relationships with their fathers, this reality is not reflected in most of their practical advice. Take for instance, this shockingly naïve statement:

Can you imagine a man more deserving of your devotion and assistance, someone whom you love and trust more than your own father?

Now for many girls, I’m sure this is true. It might be true of A&E’s relationship with their father Geoff (and I certainly hope it is, for their sake). But as I said before, life is not perfect. Some girls live in broken homes because their fathers abandoned them. Some girls have been hit and beaten by their fathers. Some have been molested or raped by their fathers, or their fathers turned a blind eye while other men (sometimes the girl’s own brothers) did the same things. Some girls don’t even know their fathers, perhaps because they were raised by a single mother, or have grown up in multiple foster homes. I’m sure many of these girls desperately wish that they had a father, or a functional relationship with the father they do have. But all A&E have done here is rub salt into an already open, bleeding wound.

Twice in this chapter we’re also treated to some good old-fashioned blaming and shaming. Let’s start with this rather peculiar nugget:

God meant for women to be honored and respected. However, this respect was not to be gained in the same way as for men. It is said, “Behind every great man there is a great woman.” In times past, people would see a great man and know that much of his greatness and success was due to his wife, and she would be honored and praised accordingly. Because women are not praised for being good wives and furthering their husbands in our society, it is little wonder that women don’t think of that as being a praise-worthy thing and seek praise and glory elsewhere. No wonder our society is so short of real men! If our men aren’t successful, it largely means that their women have not made them successful. They need our help.

Now we’ve all heard the phrase “Behind every man is a great woman” (though whether it’s accurate or not is another question), but beyond that A&E leave so many details unexplained here it’s hard to tell what they really mean. For instance, what do they mean by “success” and when has a man achieved it? (I hope this isn’t code for “rich and/or famous,” because otherwise those of us who are middle- and lower-class are pretty much screwed.) But one thing we can say with certainity. Whatever “success” is, it’s a man’s wife’s fault if he doesn’t have it. (Never mind that there are many men who are unemployed through no fault of their own, and some who are financially neglectful of their families either through laziness or selfishness.) But since A&E never explained how a wife can “further her husband in society,” either, I’m not sure what wives are supposed to do with this information, other than feel guilty, since A&E blamed them for causing a completely undefined problem but then gave them no practical advice on how to solve it. And that’s not even touching the unpleasant implication that the amount of respect you are entitled to as a woman, is completely dependent on your husband’s social status (which is apparently your responsibility to maintain).

The more disturbing guilt trip, however, was this one, courtesy of Amber:

If I have not learned the vital principle of serving the one I am under, what right do I have to marry a godly man? – for in the truest sense I have proven myself not worthy of one.

We learn here that women who are not trained to submit to male authorities are not “worthy” to marry “godly men.” The question that immediately comes to my mind is, what are they worthy of? Abusive men? Criminals? Ho-hum guys who are okay I guess but you really could do better? And if a “godly man” (according to A&E) did approach such an “unworthy” girl and asked to marry her, would her parents allow her to do so? Would his parents discourage him because she was “below” him?

There’s also the added problem of what makes a man “godly.” I get the distinct impression that a man who did not want his wife to be servile and agree with everything he said would not be seen as “godly” by A&E, because he would be slacking off on his duties as king and priest of his home by not requiring his wife to submit properly. So if a young man wanted a more independent wife, would he allowed to express his true desire to his potential spouse, or even to his parents?

On that note, I think it’s fitting to close with a comment left by one of my favorite bloggers, fiddlrts from Diary of an Autodidact, under my last post:

Mark me down as one who would be driven crazy by a wife that always agreed. In fact, I would even be driven crazy by a wife who was tentative at all in challenging me. I am happy to have found an intellectual and assertive equal, who treats me like a friend, not a superior, and who doesn’t have any illusions that I speak for God. And, for some reason, I feel more like a man when I am not coddled.

See? Clearly not “godly” enough.

2 comments on “So Much More, p. 33-51 – Part 4: The Pleasantville Priesthood

  1. fiddlrts says:

    Definitely not “godly” enough. In fact, I have had a few patriocentrist sorts accuse me of abdicating my “god given” responsibility to rule my household. Not to long ago, a commenter on my blog went off on me after I revealed that my wife works outside the home. I deleted the comment as inappropriate in tone, so I can’t quote it exactly, but it was to the effect that I was in sin because I wasn’t supporting my family (because men are called to be the SOLE breadwinners), and that I was failing to do as God commanded because I had not ordered (or forced?) my wife to quit her job and stay home full time. And that’s just one. I have had it strongly suggested to me on several occasions that I was failing to properly control my wife – particularly after she asserted herself in a way that did not fit with their understanding of gender roles.

    It is certainly clear enough that patriocentrists – and to a certain degree, mainstream Evangelicals as well – have a rigidly defined idea of what a “man” is, and what a “godly man” is and isn’t. As you pointed out, there is an expectation that a “godly man” does this, or that, in this way, and not that way, and it leaves out significant personality types. Sometimes I fit the expectations, but often not…

  2. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Now for many girls, I’m sure this is true. It might be true of A&E’s relationship with their father Geoff (and I certainly hope it is, for their sake). But as I said before, life is not perfect.

    Do A&E plan on outliving their father? If so, they will discover the hard way that life is not perfect.

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