Authority and submission in sex.

Yesterday, fab blogger Rachel Held Evans wrote a post (two, really) in response to a controversial post on the Gospel Coalition’s web site.

According to the site, the GC is “a fellowship of evangelical churches deeply committed to renewing our faith in the gospel of Christ and to reforming our ministry practices to conform fully to the Scriptures.” People who are part of the GC, or fans of it, tend (in my experience) to preach and practice complementarianism in marriage, as aligned with what John Piper, among others, calls biblical manhood and womanhood.


The Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) says the following:

Distinctions in masculine and feminine roles are ordained by God as part of the created order, and should find an echo in every human heart.”

“… husbands should forsake harsh or selfish leadership and grow in love and care for their wives; wives should forsake resistance to their husbands’ authority and grow in willing, joyful submission to their husbands’ leadership.”

(And) “…a denial or neglect of these principles will lead to increasingly destructive consequences in our families, our churches, and the culture at large.” 

The GC’s controversial post, called The Polluted Waters of Fifty Shades of Grey, etc., is ultimately an excerpt of a book called Fidelity: What it Means to be a One-Woman Man by Doug Wilson. GC-er Jared Wilson posted it as a response to bestselling erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey and other erotic media. In part, the excerpt says the following:

“When we quarrel with the way the world is, we find that the world has ways of getting back at us. In other words, however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts. This is of course offensive to all egalitarians, and so our culture has rebelled against the concept of authority and submission in marriage. This means that we have sought to suppress the concepts of authority and submission as they relate to the marriage bed. …

True authority and true submission are … an erotic necessity. When authority is honored according to the word of God it serves and protects — and gives enormous pleasure.”

I agree with Doug: what he writes is offensive.

Especially this line: “In other words, however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.”

“Penetrates” I can take, because it’s functional. But “colonizes” is gross and “conquers” crosses the line.


“Surrenders?” It depends. Sex requires a surrender of sorts (a surrender of inhibitions, for instance), but the surrender it requires is mutual. And conquer doesn’t exactly imply surrender.

What the excerpt implies, according to RHE, is that “sex is just another avenue through which a man must exert his authority over woman. As with everything else (in complementarianism), the man is the boss and the woman is the subordinate.”

Take, for instance, what complementarian Tim Challies wrote to women in a post on his blog:

You don’t have to believe in what (your husband) says and you don’t have to like what he says, but you do have to follow him.

You are (your husband’s) helper, which means your life is wrapped up in his. Whatever he longs to be, however he intends to use his gifts and passions and calling, you are to join him in that. His mission is your mission, his calling is your calling, his passion is your passion. So join him, serve him, love him, respect him and you will be your part in this portrait, this image of the real marriage.”

Or take what John Piper says when asked whether a wife should submit to an abusive husband:

“… in order to model godly submission, a woman may need to quietly ‘endure verbal abuse for a season’ or ‘getting smacked one night’ before ‘seeking help from the church.'” (as quoted on RHE’s blog)

That I disagree with Challies and Piper with all that is in me is not to say I don’t think it is good for a husband to complement his wife, or for a wife to complement her husband:

com·ple·men·ta·ry – Adj: “Combining in such a way as to enhance or emphasize each other’s qualities.”

I, like a lot of complementarians, think a man and a woman in a marriage should be complementary. Marriage should result in a unique, new unit that is greater than the sum of its parts.


But what we argue about (in part) is not whether we should enhance or emphasize each other’s qualities, but about what exactly those qualities should be.


According to the CBMW, there’s a set of “God-ordained” gender roles that make up the qualities. Roles that require each spouse to squeeze snugly into a pre-fab “wife” or “husband” box. And when the roles are denied, says the CBMW, the result is destructive consequences.


But when these roles result in the belief (and worse, in the practice) of the ideal that men are to exert authority and women are to surrender to men in sex is, in and of itself, a destructive consequence of adhering to the CBMW’s principles.

Which is what RHE and a slue of other bloggers have expressed in multiple ways in the days since the Doug Wilson excerpt appeared online. And to them, Jared Wilson wrote this, in a follow-up post on the GC website:

“… Douglas Wilson’s view of women is that they are to be cherished and protected and served humbly by men, even men in authority over them. This is the kind of authority the Bible prescribes, the kind that edifies and helps wives to flourish, not wither.”

To which I say this:

Even if the Bible did prescribe that kind of authority of men over women, what part does “conquering” play in humble service? How does it protect a woman to to require her to endure verbal and physical abuse (let alone to abuse her)? How does it edify a wife (“instruct especially so as to encourage intellectual, moral, or spiritual improvement“) to require her to adopt your “mission, calling and passion” at the expense (presumably) of her own? What part of your wife do you cherish when you require her to do what you say if she neither likes it nor believes it is right? How much does your wife flourish as a person when what she gets do has to depend on “whatever (her husband) longs to be?”

‘Cause this sounds like some shenanigans.

More to come on complementarianism. In the meantime…

– – – – –

UPDATE 7/21: As of July 20, 2012, Wilson’s original post and his follow up to it (both of which are clickable links below) have been removed from the GC site. In their stead, Wilson wrote this humble apology. I commend him.

Click here to read the original controversial post on the GC site.

Click here and here to read RHE’s first and second responses to it, respectively.

Click here to read the follow up post on the GC site, in which, for the record, Doug Wilson is quoted as having written the following in response to responses to the excerpt from his book: Anyone who believes that my writing disrespects women either has not read enough of my writing on the subject to say anything whatever about it or, if they still have that view after reading enough pages, they really need to retake their ESL class.” Where I live, an ESL class is a class for students whose second language is English. Which, as I gather, means Doug equates “English as a second language” with “unintelligent.” Which is incredibly offensive (even to I, whose sole language is English).


Click here to read the Challies post I quoted.


Click here to watch John Piper tell women to endure abuse.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Arleen! This is such a great post! You have every reason to be bothered (and offended) by these statements. I know we’ve talked about this a lot before, but I just want to let you know this post is really great.

    • Thanks so much, Tim! You’ll prob recognize some of what you’ll see in future posts on this topic. ‘Cause I’m totally going to copy/paste some of what I said in our conversations. Fired up.

  • SVB

    I picked up on the ESL thing when I read the comment originally, too. I kept wracking my brain to think of what else ESL could stand for other than, “English as a Second Language,” because I just couldn’t fathom that a Christian leader would make a comment THAT offensive. I kept thinking, “Wait, did he JUST diss the Hispanic/other foreign population(s)?”

    • I’m with you! And if he said “ESL” because he confuses it with special education classes, it’s disrespectful of people who have cognitive disabilities.

    • SVB

      Yeah, it’s just disrespectful all the way around. But Jared Wilson offered an apology on The Gospel Coalition’s website that was actually very thoughtful and humbling. So, kudos to him.

    • Fabulous apology, thanks for telling me about that. I hadn’t checked, but just read it. Will post the link to it shortly.