Interview with

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Audio Transcript

This is an important and too-common theme in our inbox: men belittling women as inferior, perhaps in the name of complementarity even. I see this too often in the inbox and we haven’t covered it yet. I wish we didn’t have to address it, but we do.

“Dear Pastor John, my husband and I have been married for nearly thirty years. He’s grown convinced that there is something wrong with me. I’m a Christian and have been since I was 10 years old. He is also convinced that God sees me as subservient to him, and in every way. Tonight, I asked him if he believes women are subservient to men in creation, and he answered without a hesitation, ‘Yes.’ He has always treated me like he is superior to me in every way. The way he treats me is very hurtful, and I don’t think I can continue to go on with his angry, aggressive spirit. When he gets angry with me about anything, he locks me out of the bedroom and out of our house. I literally want to run away. I despise this life. Please help encourage wives who are treated as inferior!”

Perhaps it will be of some help — I hope so — if I explain from a biblical standpoint five sinful, damaging mistakes this man is making, and which he should be held accountable for. She doesn’t say if he claims to be a Christian or not. He certainly is not acting like one. But some man or men need to step into his life and call him to account for these five sins.

Self at the Center

Now, before I mention the five sinful and damaging mistakes he’s making, let me go behind them to something deeper, because there’s always something deeper than the principles from which we behave. He clearly has some principles from which he is behaving, and it is clear that behind them is something deeper; namely, he is in significant bondage to the root sin of selfishness and pride. He himself occupies such a central place in his own preferences that he cannot see or feel the beauty of getting outside himself and finding joy in living for the good and gladness of another person.

Now, there’s a fancy name for this today; it’s called narcissism. He is so fixated on himself, and his pleasures, and his privileges, and his rights, that counting another person more significant than himself is literally inconceivable. Philippians 2:3 says we are to “count others more significant than yourselves.” If you were to speak those words to him, they would be like a foreign language. They would not even connect. They would be like wind blowing in the curtains.

So, there’s the root. The biblical word is sin, not narcissism. That’s the new, fancy word. It may or may not be helpful. But the biblical words are solid and forever: sin and pride and self-exaltation. Until God breaks in and reveals to this man the deep ugliness of his soul, so that he weeps and weeps with conviction and contrition that are not intended to manipulate anything or anybody, these five sinful traits that I’m going to talk about probably won’t change. That’s the miracle that we have to pray toward. Every Christian has experienced this miracle. It’s called the new birth, and God can cause it in the worst of sinners. So, that’s the direction I pray for.

Here are my five sinful, damaging mistakes he’s making.

1. Women are not subservient to men.

He thinks there is, in creation — that is, the way the world is made — a built-in subservience for women. She says, “Tonight I asked him if he believes women are subservient to men in creation, and he answered without hesitation, ‘Yes.’”

Now, I am assuming from the word subservient and from the fruit of this man’s conviction that what he sees in creation is very different from what creation actually teaches. If we go to Genesis 2–3 and watch creation unfold sequentially after the foundational statement in Genesis 1:27, that men and women are created equally in God’s image, here is what we see. (And there are more. I’m just summing up a few.)

1. Man was created first and given the instructions for life in the garden, so that by God’s design, he has a kind of unique responsibility that will be unlike his wife’s responsibility.

2. God says in Genesis 2:18, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” So, woman is created — unlike the animals — from Adam’s side: “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23). Man and woman are deeply alike, and yet so wonderfully different. Woman is called “a helper fit for him” — that is, suitable, completing, complementing. That is, by the way, where the word complementarian originated: from that word fit or suitable or complementary in Genesis 2.

3. The tempter came, and the man failed to take the responsibility God had given him. You can see that in Genesis 3:6: “The woman . . . took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.” These are crucial words in verse 6: “. . . who was with her, and he ate.” In other words, he was there falling right into line with the devil’s assault on God’s wise and good order by being silent when the enemy was attacking his wife.

4. Sin ravages the beautiful relationship that God has created, this complementary relationship. Sin ravages that relationship, and you see it because the man blames the woman and says, “Look, if you’re going to punish somebody, punish her because you gave her to me and she tempted me” (see Genesis 3:12). In other words, God is really the problem here. It’s a devastating description of the ravages of the fall in human relationships and divine relationships.

So, what creation teaches is that man was designed to be thrilled by his partner-helper. Paul calls her man’s “glory” in 1 Corinthians 11:7. The man gladly bears a unique responsibility to take a special initiative to protect her. Who was superior to whom and on what counts was irrelevant for the central issue of love and protection. They were in God’s image and perfectly suited to each other’s fruitfulness and joy. They were naked and not ashamed. They did not shame each other. The fact that they were profoundly the same and wonderfully different in God’s design caused no shame. So, this husband that we were just being asked about has deeply misread creation. That’s sinful mistake number one.

2. Differences do not downgrade value.

His second sinful mistake is to infer from creation a built-in superior-inferior relationship. She says, “He has always treated me like he is superior to me in every way.” He is saying that men are superior; women are inferior. And she says this is “in every way.” There are two kinds of mistakes here, and they’re both serious.

One is to fail to distinguish whether the words superior and inferior refer to greater or lesser value. He doesn’t even address that. Does he even have such a thing in mind?

And the other is to fail to distinguish capacities and competencies in which women are, in general, superior to men, and competencies and capacities in which men are, in general, superior to women. And those differences do not imply greater or lesser value in personhood — who you are in God’s image. So, this husband is sinfully inferring an undifferentiated superiority for men — for himself in particular — that does not exist.

3. The Bible calls husbands to honor their wives, not demean them.

The third sinful mistake he makes is by inferring from his superior-inferior paradigm for men and women that he may therefore rightly treat his wife in demeaning ways. So, he moves from misreading creation to misconceiving the meaning of superiority and inferiority to justifying demeaning behavior. This is evil at several levels. I’ll just mention one.

In 1 Peter 3:7, Peter says, “Husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way [literally: according to knowledge], showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life.”

And here’s the point this man is totally missing: even when one focuses on an area where women are weaker, the biblical, Christian response of a husband is not demeaning, but honoring. There’s the catch. This is a deep, profound, serious thing he’s blind to. In the way 1 Peter 3:7 is structured, you have the central term, “showing honor,” and on one side of it is “woman as the weaker vessel,” and on the other side is woman as “heirs with you of the grace of life.” Which means that this man is utterly oblivious to this: Whether you focus on any particular weakness or on the fact that both men and women are destined for glory, the call is the same: honor, honor, honor — not shame, shame, shame. The call is to honor, not demean, and he can’t see it.

4. Anger and aggression contradict God’s design.

His fourth sinful mistake is that he lives now with anger and aggressiveness. This is his prison cell. Given what he sees and feels, anger is inevitable. He’s living outside of God’s good design, and the inevitable dissonance causes continual aggravation.

James says something that applies to everyone, including this husband: “Let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (James 1:19–20). Oh, my goodness — what an important text for marriage.

5. God will not tolerate bullies.

The result of living in the bondage of sin and delusion is acting like a jailer. Let me just make sure you heard the paradox there: the result of being in bondage to sin makes him act like a jailer, to hide the fact that he’s in jail. He has become a childish bully, locking her out of the bedroom and the house.

This is pathetic. It’s like a child throwing a tantrum, only he’s bigger now, so instead of running into his bedroom and slamming the door against his parents, he can run in and lock her out.

Seek Help

Now, she didn’t ask me for any counsel; she just wanted me to say something that might be helpful in general when women are dealing with a man like this. But let me go ahead and say what I think. I’m assuming there hasn’t been physical abuse. She didn’t say that. And the reason I’m telling you that is because what I’m about to say would be different if there were. In other words, if he is brutalizing her, then she is, I think, obliged — rightly and legally — to go to the police and to the ways that the arm of our government has set for helping women or men deal with that kind of brutality.

But short of that, she should be stepping forward — and I do hope she’s in a church where this is possible. I hope she can go to trusted elders, tell them her situation, and ask for them to intervene. I think it’s part of the elders’ job at a church to step into the lives of the sheep — men and women — and to be a part of their protective shield, and to give them guidance and wisdom for how to move forward.