My heart hurts when I hear stories of what happens when women (or children or men, for that matter) are made powerless.
(I know on Mondays I publish Reader Questions, but I really wanted to write this post last night. The reader question will come on Thursday!)
I’m on a road trip this week speaking in Alberta and Manitoba, and one of the nice things for me about flying is that I finally get to read a novel. I don’t read many novels at home; when I start a book I can’t put it down until it’s done, and that doesn’t bode well for finishing up stuff. So I tend to reserve my reading for airline flights.
I cracked open Luther and Katharina, a historical novel about the romance between Martin Luther, the leader of the Reformation, and former nun Katharina von Bora.
It was riveting. Jody Hedlund made the characters come alive, and the magnitude of the issues that Luther was facing, and the weight that was on his shoulders, was immense.
But what really stayed with me was the story of Katharina’s experiences in the abbey.
In the Middle Ages it was common practice for noble families to “abandon” their daughters at convents when they were very young–5, 6, or 7. They’d give a large donation to the convent, and then the girl would be basically imprisoned there for the rest of her life. She couldn’t leave.
Daughters, you see, were expensive. They needed dowries. Much easier to give them over to the church and earn spiritual brownie points in the process.
So think of these poor little girls, torn from their families, sent to a convent from which they will never leave. Never the choice to marry. Never the choice to do anything.
But worst of all, what happens when a young woman with no outside protection lives in a place where unrelated men have full power? Priests and bishops would visit, and would often abuse the girls and the nuns. It was commonplace.
My heart is torn in two.
I can’t fathom such evil, and yet I know that this is the story of history. Whenever girls or women have no recourse and no power, sexual abuse runs rampant. But it’s true in other realms as well. When people live in abject poverty, they are often forced into virtual (or real) slavery, and beaten at will. The quest for freedom in Europe, and later in North America and throughout the world, was really a quest for justice–that the nobility and the clergy couldn’t beat, kill, rape, or steal from those in their power at will. That people could live in safety, and could have the assurance that if wrong was done to them, they had legal recourse.
And God’s heart is with the powerless. Just read the Old Testament prophets to see! The most common accusation he lays at the feet of those being judged is that they oppressed the poor and powerless. God doesn’t take this lightly, and He knows how rampant it is.
Whenever people have power without checks, then the powerless are abused.
It’s been said that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
I agree with this to a certain extent. I think that there can be good and godly leaders who have major power. I believe that there were godly priests and bishops in the Middle Ages. I believe that there were even godly kings and queens, though they may have been few and far between.
But here’s the funny thing about power: those who have an urge to dominate and subjugate others will naturally gravitate to positions where they have power over others. Most people don’t actually enjoy controlling others. Those who do often deliberately aim for it. Did joining the SS in Nazi Germany make one evil, or did evil people gravitate towards the SS because of the power the SS provided? I’m inclined to think it’s a combination of both, but that the second is likely more important. Evil gravitates to opportunities to do evil.
On the other hand, where such opportunities are much harder to come by, those who may naturally be tempted to go in that direction may never even act on that temptation.That’s why good civil government, good church structure, and good family structure matters. When we set up these institutions so that leaders have checks, balances, and accountability, and those at the bottom of the totem pole have the ability to stop something bad from happening (or at least punishing it when it does happen), then far fewer people do bad things.
Unfortunately, though, power over others is intoxicating.
Look at all those who are flocking to ISIS largely because it promises to let them unleash brutality and crush people under their feet. While most rightly find this abhorrent, within humanity is the drive to hurt and dominate. We see it in Nigeria where Boko Haram kidnaps Christian girls. We see it in North Korea where the peasants starve on the whim of a megalomaniac leader. We saw it in Nazi Germany, in the slave trade, in the aboriginal schools in Canada where so many children were sexually abused. Where people have power over others, the powerless suffer immensely.
Having Power over Others Has No Place in the Kingdom of God
What scares me is that I have noticed lately that there are strands of Christianity, especially in North America, that seem to be trying to define faith in terms of “power”–that leaders (or shepherds) have power over sheep.
I believe that Matthew 20:25-28 contradicts this view:
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Many churches now require membership covenants, where upon membership you agree to be under church discipline, even if that discipline is ill-defined. Some churches have made headlines by enforcing church discipline when women try to leave abusive husbands–or leave husbands who have been charged with viewing child porn. Other churches are set up so that the pastor can’t really be questioned or removed, and some high profile pastors have had to step down in scandal lately because of their domineering management style.
It should hardly be surprising that many leaders of Christian movements who operated in a domineering, centralized power structure have recently fallen due to sexual sin, like Bill Gothard, the now disgraced leader of a major homeschooling movement. When you set up an organization with one person at the head who cannot be questioned, is it any surprise if that person ends up abusing others?
Christianity is about servanthood. It is not about power.
I loved this tweet I saw this week:
Us: Jesus says to be LEADERS!
Jesus: I said “servant”.
Us: OK, then Jesus says to be SERVANT-LEADERS!
Jesus: I said “servant”.
— Brant Hansen (@branthansen) April 13, 2016
When Christian leaders attempt to consolidate power, and then say that if people oppose them they are opposing God, that is a major red flag. Christian organizations must get away from a power structure which cannot be questioned and instead move to a model of authority with accountability where servanthood is the aim, not power.
But it doesn’t end there.
What does this have to do with marriage?
Christians differ on the issue of authority in marriage. Some say that God has given the husband authority over the wife, while others say that God has called both men and women to serve each other and work to each other’s best.
I hope that we can all agree, though, that power has no place in marriage.
Power always leads to abuse. Always. When we give people power over another person while denying that person the ability or opportunity to get help or to get justice, then we open the doors for abuses of that power.
I spoke last Saturday at a one-day marriage conference with my husband and with speaker Gary Thomas. During the Q&A panel, we were asked if it is okay for an abused woman to divorce her husband, or if that is breaking a covenant.
I replied that if a woman is abused, the husband has already broken the covenant. She is not the one doing so by leaving. Gary agreed with me.
Later on a woman came up to me with tears in her eyes and thanked me for saying that. She had left an abusive marriage a decade earlier, and was now seeing a wonderful man who wanted to marry her. But she couldn’t stop the thought that she would be wrong to do so, since she was likely wrong to divorce her ex-husband. She had gone to seek marriage counseling with her mother when the abuse was at its worst, and the female counselor had told her to figure out what she was doing to provoke him, and then to stop doing that, because God took marriage vows seriously. Her mother stood up, told the counselor that they would no longer be needing her services, and dragged her daughter out of there.
I thought we had won this battle years ago, but we haven’t.
Women are still being told that they must submit to abuse, or, like Debi Pearl says, try not to provoke an angry husband, as if the abuse is her fault.
But even if a church doesn’t condone abuse, when a church says that a woman must obey her husband and must never question him, then that church is putting the husband in a place that only Jesus should have. We must all submit to Jesus’ authority, and that means that none of us should ever impose our will on another, especially another who has no way of getting justice should injustice be done.
Please, if you’re in a denomination that tells you that women must blindly follow their husbands without speaking up, remember: this may work for your marriage. You may be married to a good man. But what if your sister is not? What if your daughter marries someone who is harsh? What of the other women in your church? Let’s be clear: Power has no place in a Jesus-following church or in a Jesus-centered marriage. Power says, “my will be done”, not “Thy will be done”. And whenever we follow human’s will rather than God’s will, injustice ensues.
If a leader can’t ever be questioned, he’s not a leader. He’s a bully who just happens to have a job. @edstetzer
— Burk Parsons (@BurkParsons) April 17, 2016
For the sake of the Chibok girls in Nigeria; for the memories of raped slaves in the South; for the girls who are sold on the streets in Cambodia; for the children who were raped by priests; for the young girls who were assaulted by homeschooling idols; for the girls who are married off in polygamous cults; for the young boys who are used as slaves in India; for the young women who are kept as sex slaves in the Middle East; for the beaten women and children in the West who were told to “submit”; for the memories of the women who were raped in Nanking or used as prostitutes by the Nazi army–please. Please.
Let’s not create the conditions for any of this to happen again, especially in the name of Jesus.
We have the authority, as part of the priesthood of believers, to say no. Use that authority. Stop the power abuses. No more.
In my newest book, 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage, I talk about how an unhealthy view of submission can lead to this kind of power imbalance. If you have always been taught that submission means that husbands have power, THERE IS A BETTER, more godly way of seeing those verses. Please read it. I think it will help you develop a Jesus-centered view of how we should relate to each other in servanthood and love.