Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Piper on domestic abuse

A few years ago, John Piper answered a question about domestic abuse that’s gone viral on the Internet:

i) I’m going to comment on his answer. Keep in mind that Piper recently took a sabbatical to have more time with his wife, so it’s not as if he’s an ogre.

ii) I’ve only read a few of Piper’s books. I don’t listen to his sermons. So I’m not that familiar with the details of Piper’s theology. Others could offer a more informed assessment.

He has discussed the issue of submission on several occasions. For instance:

Fuller statements like that supply a larger context for his brief answer in the YouTube clip.

iii) Some people come to the YouTube clip loaded for bear. They stereotype complementarians (or “fundamentalists”), and they project that onto Piper’s answer. They don’t really listen to the answer. They blow past the qualifications. They only hear what they want to hear, what they expect to hear. They listen to have their stereotype confirmed.

iv) I think Piper’s answer has some good elements. But overall I find his answer unsatisfactory.

v) For one thing, in dealing with a question that highly charged, it’s best to give a written response rather than answering off-the-cuff. You need to choose your words very carefully.

Piper should anticipate that this type of question invites controversy. He should anticipate the fact that there are people gunning for him.

vi) Likewise, he’s trying to cover too much ground in too little time. In a question with so many permutations, that’s not something you can do justice to in a few minutes.

vii) Piper makes a good point about the fact that wifely submission is not an absolute. A wife has a higher allegiance to Christ. Both husband and wife are under the authority of Christ. In case of conflict, submission to Christ takes precedence.

Piper also makes a good point about different kinds of “abuse,” but he needs to spend more time on that.

We should distinguish between verbal or emotional abuse and physical abuse. We should also distinguish between the intensity of the abuse and the extensivity of the abuse–especially in the case of verbal/emotional abuse. Likewise, we should distinguish between intentional and unintentional (emotional) harm.

To take examples of each, people may say things in the heat of anger that they don’t really mean. Things they regret saying after they cool off.

Needless to say, this isn’t unique to marriage. It’s commonplace in social relationships generally. Between parents and children. Siblings. Friends.

Conversely, it’s possible for two people who know each other quite well to target each other’s vulnerabilities. They know our soft spots. Some abusive comments are more hurtful than others. And that can be calculated for maximum effect.

Likewise, does verbal abuse take place weekly? Daily? Does it only occur when the spouse is under a lot of pressure?

viii) Up to a point, I think verbal abuse is tolerable in a way that physical abuse is not.

ix) The weakest part of Piper’s answer is his statement that “she endures perhaps being smacked one night, and then she seeks help from the church.”

This sounds as if domestic violence should be dealt with internally. Don’t go to the authorities. And there are Christian groups like the Amish who believe that.

The answer is also reminiscent of how the Roman Church dealt with clerical abuse. Keep it to ourselves.

But there are obvious problems with that response. Domestic violence isn’t just a sin–it’s a crime. Church elders only have moral authority. There’s nothing they can really do to restrain a physically abusive husband.

Moreover, it’s not as if churches have a uniform policy. A battered wife could get very bad advice from the elders.

In my opinion, she should call the police, not call the elders.

Now I’d like to touch on some other considerations:

x) Hostile opponents of complementarianism think complementarianism is conducive to domestic abuse. But traditionally, complementarianism espouses a chivalric code in which the husband’s role is protective. The husband puts his wife’s best interests ahead of his own. That’s the polar opposite of an abusive relationship.

xi) Theoretically, there’s a distinction between separation and divorce. For instance, if a spouse is emotionally abusive on a regular basis, it might be a good idea for the couple to separate for a while

One issue is whether the Bible allows for that distinction.

xii) Another issue is whether or not the couple has kids. Traditionally, many couples stayed together for the good of the children even if the marriage was rocky. I’m not talking about physical abuse or philandering. Just unpleasantness.

There are situations where separation or divorce would be more harmful to the kids than holding the marriage together, even if there’s a lot of tension between husband and wife. That’s sometimes the best bad option.

xiii) Traditionally, Protestants acknowledge two grounds for divorce: infidelity and desertion. I think that’s correct as far as it goes.

However, there may be other grounds for divorce. Biblical case law is illustrative or paradigmatic rather than exhaustive. It doesn’t address every conceivable situation. That’s not possible.

I think domestic violence would be grounds for divorce. Emotional abuse is a gray area.

xiv) Finally, I’d like to consider the alternative. Some folks think the kind of answer Piper gave is an argument for feminism or egalitarianism. Some folks think it’s a reason to chuck the Christian faith entirely.

xv) Keep in mind that the question was one-sided. Piper was asked a question about an abusive husband. Some people took offense. But what if we turned the question around. Instead of asking a complementarian about an abusive husband, suppose we ask an egalitarian (or feminist) about an abusive wife?

Or to put this another way, suppose you asked Piper that question, and he said “I think the husband should put up with verbal abuse for a season, or maybe be smacked one night, and then he should seeks intervention from the church”–would that answer have gone viral on the internet? Would that answer be greeted with the same blistering outrage? Or do we have critics who are blinded by their own lopsided prejudice?

Do egalitarians think a husband should divorce his wife if she’s verbally and/or emotionally abusive? Or do they think the couple should pursue marital counseling? Are they measuring each spouse by the same yardstick?

xvi) Likewise, suppose the wife is physically abusive. Suppose it’s the first time. Do egalitarians and feminists think the wife should be handcuffed and carted off to jail? Do they think he should summarily divorce his wife?

Or would they inquire about mitigating circumstances? Would they ask if the husband did something to provoke his wife?

I’m just wondering if those who wax indignant at Piper’s answer make any effort to be consistent.

xvii) Perhaps they’d say that’s different. Because a man is stronger, he can do more damage. He can hospitalize his wife.

The problem with that answer is that feminists think women should be cops, combatants, and firefighters. They don’t buy the argument that a man’s upper body strength should exclude women from the same jobs.

Do feminists and egalitarians hold men and women to different standards?

xviii) Finally, for critics who use this as a pretext to reject Christianity altogether, keep in mind that if atheism is true, then women have no inherent rights. If, moreover, we look to evolutionary ethics for moral guidance, males are typically dominant in the animal kingdom.


  1. But what if we turned the question around. Instead of asking a complementarian about an abusive husband, suppose we ask an egalitarian (or feminist) about an abusive wife?

    I know that we're discussing "CHRISTIAN" Feminists, but feminists (whether professing Christians or non-Christians) can often be hypocritical (and having double standards).

    Cases in point:

    Feminist Hypocrisy And a Chopped Off Penis

    It's Only Sexist When Men Do It
    [Foul language WARNING]

  2. What is your basis for saying domestic violence would be grounds for divorce? And why the distinction between verbal and physical abuse? Neither is mentioned in the bible as reasons for divorce.

  3. In regards to this topic Dr. Steven Tracy of Phoenix Seminary has done some good work. When I preached on the topic of domestic violence I used his materials extensively.

  4. "I don’t listen to his sermons."

    Whose sermons do you listen to, or whose sermons do you recommend?