EDITOR’S UPDATE: As of April 26, 2015, Piper’s former church, Bethlehem Baptist, has admitted they have not handled the problems of abuse in their church well. Read a break down of their current pastor’s sermon beginning to make a reversal in Piper’s culture.
All evil begins with a lie. Theological lies are just like any other kind of lie: they permit a wide range of abuse. I asked Savvy, who was indoctrinated in John Piper’s theology from a young age, to share a concern she has with Piper’s theology as it relates to domestic abuse. She succinctly lays out issues that should give every Christian leader pause. Not everything that is said to be “biblical” is biblical. Notice how spiritual abuse leads to these ugly ends.
by Savvy Wolfson
In 2009, John Piper, an influential celebrity pastor, was asked a question. “What should a wife’s submission to her husband look like if he is an abuser?”
Desiring God Ministries filmed the answer and uploaded it to their website as usual. Piper’s answer started off with a giggle and continued on to explain that a wife should remain submissive to her abusive husband. After receiving criticism, Desiring God removed the video.
But nothing is truly forgotten in the internet age, so almost 4 years later, Piper wrote a post to clarify his Q&A. He did not regret being insensitive or putting women (and children) at risk. He simply felt that he needed to expound for the masses that had misunderstood him. Possibly fearing legal consequences, he stated that women might need to go to the police. But there are at least three things that Piper must correct if he wants to answer the question with truth.
The first thing he needs is empathy. Empathy would never use the words, “Is he simply hurting her or…?” Empathy would remember that women who have abusive husbands may also have children who witness their mother being tormented. Empathy would wonder if those children are additional targets. Empathy would understand that the soul and the body are connected, and that the wounds of emotional abuse are just as much reality as any other wound. Empathy would be grieved.
The second element that Piper lacks is knowledge of domestic abuse. He should know that abusive men will be drawn to churches where pastors will help them keep their wives “in line,” and because of this, he should be proactive in instructing women never to tolerate abuse. Instead, he gives advice that cannot even be applied by anyone in an abusive relationship. The examples of his inexperience are many in his video, but let’s look at one: If a woman spoke up to her abuser and used Piper’s words, “Honey, I want so much to follow you…” she might not even get through Piper’s whole speech before her punishment followed. Abusers don’t care if you use gentle words. And especially as faithful Piper followers, doesn’t he think these women and children have already tried being timidly vocal? Not only does Piper empower the abuser but he is asking the woman to disempower herself. He tells her that God wants her to be slapped around for his glory. He tells her that God, in his sovereignty, wants her to be abused.
Piper does not know that a woman who lives in a home like this becomes swallowed by her abuser. She walks on eggshells. She lives in fear of the next explosion. Gradually, she is brainwashed into believing that she causes these tragedies to happen, and that it’s her job to fix her husband. She becomes a shadow of herself. Abusers take away pieces of your personhood. That’s why it’s so insulting that Piper reduces emotional abuse to “verbal unkindness.” This is more than interpersonal conflict. This is a human being wasting away.
Finally, John Piper has a degrading view of humankind. It is his very theology that enables abusers. Piper’s sermons are filled with the idea that at the core of our humanity, we are only evil. He teaches that God detests humanity and implies that we are not valuable. He says that we should respond to suffering with gratitude, because we deserve so much worse. He teaches everyone, but women especially, that they must shrink for the sake of the Gospel. It’s like he’s constantly putting “kick me” signs on the backs of all his listeners. Thus, it’s a moral obligation for women in violent homes to stay for the sake of proselytizing their partners. In actuality, Scripture tells us that we are all too valuable to be abused. Though we cannot earn our own salvation, this doesn’t make us worthless to God. We best reflect God when we are who God created us to be—unique, vibrant, alive, and whole. But nobody overshadowed by an abuser can show the world that they were made in God’s image, because they’re becoming bent into the image of their abuser. What is more, God condemns abuse and calls us, all of us, to seek justice. No abused woman should be required to stand between two bad options: abused and alone or being branded an ungodly rebel by her community.
As a leader in the Neo-Reformed and “biblical manhood and womanhood” movement and the one (with others) who coined the term “complementarian” in the 1980s, John Piper should be heading up the resistance against abuse of any kind. He could start by issuing a correction and apology for his statements regarding domestic abuse, and replacing his own abusive ideas with theology that demonstrates the inherent value of humankind. But as it stand now, he’s enabling abusive husbands with God’s approval while ignoring and disempowering vulnerable wives and children.
Savvy Wolfson is a FreedomBuilder and an emphasizing, tree-hugging, lucky in love, play-at-home mom to two under two.