The Importance of Properly Characterizing Abuse

I had a long Facebook conversation with a Lutheran about headship and abuse this past week. It went the way conversations challenging dominant paradigms usual go: a distinct lack of thoughtful engagement with the critique. It likewise ended the usual way: with my interlocutor shifting the conversation from the ideas to myself in an attempt to pigeonhole. That’s usually a good sign that the time for edification is over, but since it gave me a chance to explore some relevant ideas, here’s the prose version of my half of the conversation.

It began with a blog post making a fairly typical complaint about headship causing abuse:

“Jesus was happy to give His followers ‘power-to.’ Power to be His witnesses. Power to tread on the power of the enemy. But the one thing He never gave anyone was what I would call ‘power-over.’ Yes, He said the disciples had ‘power over’ the power of the devil. But He never endorsed any of His followers having ‘power over’ other human beings. He said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. Not so with you. But instead, whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant.’ Matthew 20-25-26.

In Paul’s advice to Christian marriages in the first-century Roman world– a culture where only the husbands had any real power– Paul told husbands in Ephesians 5:25-33 to treat their wives as their own bodies– to imitate Christ in laying down their power and emptying themselves, in order to raise their wives up out of their lowly, powerless position, to stand with them in honor and glory. That was what the head-to-body relationship meant for Christ and the church. That was what he wanted it to mean for husbands and wives. In effect, he was telling husbands to stop using power-over and to grant their wives power-to.

The modern Christian male-headship teaching, on the other hand, gives power-over to husbands– and then simply asks them to use it wisely. To be kind and loving masters– who also serve.

But what if the husband is not wise? What if he likes power too much? What if he hears ‘be head, be master, be in charge’ much louder than he hears ‘be kind, be loving, and serve’?”

That quote and the blog post were shared on Facebook along with a comment that they disagree with the article’s solution, but think that it identifies the problem well.

But perhaps it doesn’t even identify the problem well.  Maybe trying to anachronistically force feminism’s reductionistic thinking onto Scripture is a bad hermeneutic. Maybe rather than clarifying anything, it makes God’s instructions to wives and husbands more difficult to understand.

Like all the philosophical offspring of critical theory, feminism flattens concepts like authority, ordinance, and hierarchy into different manifestations of “power” and sees all social problems as rooted in the power some people hold over others.  Accordingly, all of its solutions are attempts to redress what they see as power differentials–they’re always some variation on empowering and disempowering.  But power is insufficient for even conceptualizing God’s design of marriage, let alone solving any difficulties living according to it.

So what you end up with are the kinds of things you find in this article: false dichotomies like setting up “power-over” against “power-to” and questions that are subjective to the point of meaninglessness like “does my husband like power too much.” None of this helps us understand Scripture, and it only serves to stoke resentment among those who really struggle with following this part of it.

Posting articles to raise awareness about the issue is all well and good–it’s not my thing, but I have no interest in being the ear telling the eye “I have no need of you.” But when it comes to promoting understanding of the issue, pieces like this actually cloud understanding rather than clarifying it. Even if one does not accept the proffered solution, this is a poor diagnosis of abuse.

And the poor diagnosis has considerable impact on what the Church can really do regarding domestic abuse because it runs us afoul of the Two Kingdoms. As long as the problem is described purely in terms of temporal power, it’s purely the business of the left-hand kingdom, not the right. A great many people want the church to teach submission in a way that prevents abuse. But if abuse is nothing more than a power imbalance, then that is necessarily asking the church to teach submission in a way that empowers both actual and potential victims. In other words, it’s asking the church to alter its teaching for the purpose of granting victims power over their enemies. Christian citizens certainly have their roles to play in the left-hand kingdom, but granting temporal power is not within the Church’s purview.

Forcing the feminist understanding of abuse onto the Church is trying to force a square peg into a round hole; its worldly, and it severely confuses the Two Kingdoms. That’s a big part of the reason all sides are perpetually dissatisfied with the Church’s response to abuse, and it’s why so many people “dismiss such concerns as feminist claptrap.” Biblical submission simply cannot be properly understood, analyzed, or critiqued solely with the reductionistic concepts that feminism restricts itself to. It’s the wrong tool for the job, and it doesn’t belong in the Church.

So are there better ways to conceptualize abuse?  To be sure, I am by no means equal to the task of constructing a replacement paradigm.  Nevertheless, these kinds of changes only happen when people stop glossing over the problems with the old one.  Without the restriction to being “all about power,” there are likely any number of viable options, that could be vetted and/or sharpened through experience. But for starters, here is one possibility: Abuse is exercising legitimate or usurped authority contrary to the responsibilities for which that authority is ordained.  This is a definition broad enough to many different kinds of abuse, for there are many authorities, but it certainly applies to authority within marriage.

Power isn’t even mentioned because power plays only a tangential role in this alternative understanding. After all, power in this context is merely the capacity to carry one’s authority into execution. The true king on his throne and the true king in exile may have the same authority, but only one of them has the power to effectively exercise that authority and do what he seeks. Accordingly, power creates a mere capacity for abuse, but it is the misuse of authority in which we find abuse’s true nature.

One of the advantages of this alternative approach is its very clear distinction between authority and its misuse–a distinction that’s very difficult to maintain in feminist models (like the Duluth Model) which tend to flatten power and authority together and characterize any exercise of authority by a husband as abusive. The alternative approach also defines that authority in an objective way, allowing one to discern abuse by contrasting how one uses authority with the responsibilities inherent in that authority.

It works quite simply with obvious instances of abuse. In the case of wife-beating, for example, we know by natural law that a husband has a responsibility to protect his wife from harm. Using his office to physically harm her is about as obviously contrary to that responsibility as one can get and, ergo, obviously abuse.  It’s just as clear with severe psychological/emotional abuse (vicious name-calling, tearing them down, etc.)  According to Scripture, husbands are to wash their wives in God’s Word and not be harsh with them. Clearly, those kinds of actions are fundamentally contrary to these responsibilities, ergo they’re abusive. I suspect this understanding would also allow for more nuance and objectivity in some of the grayer areas along with a better capacity to sort out false accusations, but that’s the sort of thing that would need to be tested through experience.

It’s also entirely compatible with Christian doctrine as God is the One that ordained the husband as head of his wife and attached certain responsibilities to that role. Likewise, it’s compatible with the Church’s mission. For any Christians looking to do something about abuse, it leads directly into one of the Church’s primary responsibilities–teaching God’s Word & its exhortations to husbands and wives and practicing Church Discipline in response to grievous and unrepentant sin.

Now contrast that understanding with a more feminist definition of abuse used by other churches: Abuse is “a godless pattern of abusive behavior among spouses involving physical, psychological, and/or emotional means to exert and obtain power and control over a spouse for the achievement of selfish ends.”

While my suggestion naturally leads right into that as it makes working against such responsibilities the crux of abuse, this other definition doesn’t necessarily get to responsibility at all. The only part that could be said to characterize a “misuse” of power (with authority flattened in) as distinct from a simple exercise thereof is at the end where it adds “for the achievement of selfish ends.”

That’s better than definitions that define power and control per se as abuse, but it’s still problematic for several reasons: First, “don’t be selfish” doesn’t do as much to teach responsibility as one might think (see, for example, C.S. Lewis’ comments on “unselfishness” in The Screwtape Letters.) Second, it requires one to wade into the murky waters of ascribing motivations in order to identify abuse. This is a big weakness, as we’re all prone to falsely ascribing both evil motivations to others (e.g. “you’re just being selfish!”) and pure motivations to ourselves (e.g. the “come back here and take your medicine” school of abuse.) Third, the fact that as sinners we are all selfish to an unfortunate extent ends up making all practical exercise of a husband’s authority inherently abusive to some extent.

Following the “selfish power” understanding of abuse doesn’t teach men to exercise their authority according to their objective, God-given responsibilities. Instead, it teaches them to exercise their authority in a way that seeks to avoid having their wives ascribe motivations of selfishness. For all practical purposes, it ends up being an inversion of headship and submission (something Dalrock has cataloged extensively.) Add to all that subjectivity the nebulousness that comes from recursively defining “abuse” in terms of “abuse,” and rigorous attempts to act on this kind of definition are going to erode headship as much as they curb abuse.

That might elicit nothing but a giant shrug from those who think that living with a husband who exercises authority is a fundamentally terrible fate. And for feminists, that’s actually a feature rather than a bug. Nevertheless, faithful Christians are always going to be concerned with both obvious and subtle attacks on God’s Word–even in the name of good intentions and compelling causes. God has called us to nothing less. Anyone who doesn’t want faithful Christians getting in their way would do well to make sure they conceptualize their causes in a way that’s faithful to Scripture.

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3 Responses to The Importance of Properly Characterizing Abuse

  1. Nathan Rinne says:

    Matthew,

    Sorry, I might sidetrack you from the issue you want to discuss in this post.

    You say:

    “Abuse is exercising legitimate or usurped authority contrary to the responsibilities for which that authority is ordained. This is a definition broad enough to many different kinds of abuse, for there are many authorities, but it certainly applies to authority within marriage.

    Power isn’t even mentioned because power plays only a tangential role in this alternative understanding. After all, power in this context is merely the capacity to carry one’s authority into execution. The true king on his throne and the true king in exile may have the same authority, but only one of them has the power to effectively exercise that authority and do what he seeks. Accordingly, power creates a mere capacity for abuse, but it is the misuse of authority in which we find abuse’s true nature.”

    Matthew, when you said “Abuse is exercising legitimate or usurped authority contrary to the responsibilities for which that authority is ordained,” my first impression was “how can authority which has been usurped” (usurped=”take (a position of power or importance) illegally or by force”) be said to be ordained? Then, after reading the following paragraph with the note about the king in exile, I thought: “oh… here usurped authority is being used as a synonym for legitimate authority”.

    The question though, for Lutherans, goes pretty deep. Is there room in our theology for the usurper to gain authority, that in the end, is ordained (in that God *allows* for this to happen) — and which we eventually simply come to accept as legitimate? (otherwise, without a statute of limitations don’t we have unending war?)

    See the post here (yes, I think there is something wrong with this argumentation, but what, specifically?) and comment: http://metalutheran.blogspot.com/2011/01/more-two-kingdoms.html?showComment=1299706327572#c105528058938737830

    I’m looking, specifically, at this part of the comment:

    “Whatever Lutheran theologians believe about how the United States came into existence (and I understand most believe it was through sinful rebellion against the God given authority of Great Britain) the colonists won, and presumably that gave them the God given authority to write the Constitution. When they did so, the constitution vested God given authority divers[e]ly, apportioning it between various branches of the federal government and the state government and even the common people.

    One of the most elemental marks of those in “authority” is that they “bear the sword” (See Romans). Yet, the American founding fathers specifically reserved the authority to bear arms (the sword) to “the people”, i.e., you and me (see the 2nd Amendment). We have also have, pursuant to the Constitution, the authority to choose who serves in government and remove them if they displease enough of us.

    Therefore, “We, the People”, are, in the United States, the “powers that be”. That being so, by conventional Lutheran logic, those who would attempt to take our power and our arms from us would be in rebellion against God, since it was He who ordained that we should have our political power and our arms in the first place. Thus, if anyone in the government should attempt to increase his own power at the expense of us to whom it legitimately belongs, we the people (to whom God has given the sword) should remember that we do not bear our arms in vain and be prepared to use those arms to punish the evildoers in government who may attempt to usurp powers that God has given to us.”

    +Nathan

    • Matt says:

      Nathan,

      You asked, “Is there room in our theology for the usurper to gain authority, that in the end, is ordained (in that God *allows* for this to happen) — and which we eventually simply come to accept as legitimate? (otherwise, without a statute of limitations don’t we have unending war?)”

      Given the temporal nature of states and the fallen nature of mankind, I think there has to be some form of “right of conquest” by which new legitimate authorities arise–even if it’s a matter of the obliteration of the original authority incidentally giving rise to a need for a new one. (e.g. In a monarchy, the vizier usurps the throne and then kills all the legitimate heirs. In a case like that, the specifications of the original authority can no longer be met and so a replacement authority has to come into being.) If there were nothing along these lines, I don’t think there would be a single legitimate authority on earth and Paul’s instructions would be meaningless.

      As for the case for America specifically, I followed the link, and the blog is apparently by invitation only (which is, I guess, a thing?), so I can’t actually read it all. But here’s what I would say based on the quote:

      I think the big error is that he conflates bearing the sword with having civil authority. It’s a mark of some civil authority, but also characteristic of all sorts of people without authority. And among different authorities who bear the sword, there are different purposes and limitations on that–an executioner vs a soldier vs a police officer, for example.

      So what does bearing arms mean for American citizens? Let’s use the same starting place of the constitution as an authoritative document. It doesn’t merely give authority to the people, but also defines the nature of that authority and the mechanisms by which it must be exercised. It is indeed ours to remove people from power who displease us, but the mechanisms for that are explicitly defined in the details of representative democracy (and really, a lot of that was originally on the states, with the people having power within their own state.) It’s true enough that the constitution allows the people to bear arms. But although the 2nd amendment gives us the sword (non-exclusively, I might add, as the government also explicitly bears the sword), it does not clearly define it as a means of changing our elected officials. On top of that, we do have state and federal laws regarding the use of weapons that do detail more explicit responsibilities in their use. I’m no constitutional scholar, and it *might* be possible to make the case he’s suggesting, but he really hasn’t done so.

      The other problem is the presumption that God is on one specific side of such a conflict–that he’s with the legitimate governing authority (the people) and against those who take away their rights (an overreaching government.) There’s another possibility–that God often uses one knave to punish another, as Luther put it. The Old Testament has a number of instances where God rouses one terrible nation in order to punish another terrible nation while both are rebelling against him in various ways. He can use a rebellious federal government to punish a rebellious We the People just as easily.

      Finally, even if his case were correct or made correct, it’s insufficient. Even if you have the legal right, it doesn’t mean it’s morally correct to exercise that right. Accordingly, any justified war to take back the government by force of arms would have to satisfy the various ethics of a sound just war theory. That’s a little too much to go into here, but the very fact of letting ourselves get to a place that the extensive democratic mechanisms for peaceful transfer of power are completely insufficient really undercuts a just war case for violence *by the voters* to achieve the same ends.

  2. Nathan Rinne says:

    Matthew,

    Thanks. I will contact you off the blog for more on the America stuff.

    …and will reflect more on what you have written here. Thanks again for your thoughtful work.

    +Nathan

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