John Piper, Spousal Abuse, and Empowerment
[trigger warning: abuse, abuse apology] Four years ago, John Piper was asked a question in a video series about husbands abusing their wives and what the response should be to that. His infamous reply was taken down from the Desiring God website, though it is – of course – still widely available elsewhere on the internet, thanks to people making copies and transcripts. In this original post, he said that wives should “endure abuse for a season” and compared their abuse to Christ’s sacrifice for the husband’s well-being.
Three and a half years later, Piper has offered some “clarification” for those remarks. I’m guessing that suggesting a wife who gets beat up by her drunk husband is a martyr for Christ hasn’t gone over too well with a lot of people, and he felt explaining himself would put that discussion to rest.
Sorry, Rev. There’s no way I’m dropping this one, especially since your clarification still left a lot of things to be desired.
Piper’s clarification goes over multiple points as to how and why a woman can seek outside help on an abusive relationship. The last three have to do with seeking help through the church, and the first few have to do with whether or not a woman is disobeying the authority of the husband by seeking outside help. [Note that he never actually says a woman may divorce her husband, but one could generously read that sentiment between the lines of his point on “fleeing.”]
But the meat of the discussion happens in his point about civil authorities. In order to keep his conception of headship intact – because if a man is the authority of the home, then bringing in outside sources would be usurping that authority and therefore sinning. Piper sees this logical end, and instead of saying that a husband has given up his “rightful” authority (though he slightly nods toward that direction), he says that, in a case of abuse, a woman can, “with a heavy and humble heart,” seek the rightful authority of government figures, as that is also a correct obedience to authority.
But recourse to civil authorities may be the right thing for an abused wife to do. Threatening or intentionally inflicting bodily harm against a spouse (or other family members) is a misdemeanor in Minnesota, punishable by fines, short-term imprisonment, or both. Which means that a husband who threatens and intentionally injures his wife is not only breaking God’s moral law, but also the state’s civil law. In expecting his wife to quietly accept his threats and injuries, he is asking her to participate in his breaking of both God’s moral law and the state’s civil law.
God himself has put law enforcement officers in place for the protection of the innocent. “If you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). A wife’s submission to the authority of civil law, for Christ’s sake, may, therefore, overrule her submission to a husband’s demand that she endure his injuries. This legitimate recourse to civil protection may be done in a spirit that does not contradict the spirit of love and submission to her husband, for a wife may take this recourse with a heavy and humble heart that longs for her husband’s repentance and the restoration of his nurturing leadership. [emphasis mine]
Nowhere, in Piper’s entire clarification, is the abused woman given the room or space to be a victim and to own the disenfranchisement and damage that abuse entails. Even when he is beating her, a woman’s heart and mind must be working toward the well-being of her husband, not herself. She must seek civil authorities (ie, the police) in a case of domestic abuse not because the abuse is prima facie wrong and she needs to escape, but because her husband is failing to correctly use his authority and seeking outside help is a last resort for the woman who cannot help her husband to be put back on the straight and narrow.
Even in cases of abuse, according to what Piper has told us here, a woman must place her husband’s heart and needs above her own.
Why else, if not because the man is the priority, would he counsel that women should return to their abusers once they have a “restored” heart? Why else would divorce not be an option?
The pain of the woman and the nature of the abusive relationship matter naught to Piper.
Piper’s theology here still centers the abuser. A woman must merely transfer her obedience to a separate authority – on a temporary basis – in the hopes that her abuser will see the light. But that simply opens the door for abusers to revictimize, as abusers are quite savvy at making it look like they’ve changed while still engaging in abusive behavior (cf. Hugo Schwyzer, who claims to be redeemed but engages in boundary-crossing tactics in his internet correspondence with abuse survivors).
One need only look at Piper’s section on “breaking the law” to see how much he centers the abuser: “In expecting his wife to quietly accept his threats and injuries, he is asking her to participate in his breaking of both God’s moral law and the state’s civil law" [emphasis mine].
“Asking to participate.” As though an abuser calmly requests his victim be his co-conspirator over tea and crumpets. Abusers do not ask, and it is impossible for an abuse victim to be complicit in the abuser’s actions. And yet Piper’s phrasing here implies that silence and cooperation with the abuser is, in itself, sin. Because complying with his desire to break the law by beating you means that you are also complicit. Sure. In case it isn't clear: this is victim-blaming.
There is no knowledge here of the power dynamics that go into an abusive relationship, no concept of empowerment of the victim to take back control of her own life, and zero taking away of power from the abuser. Indeed, Piper is adamantly and quite obviously refusing to examine the power structures that create such inequities, because it means he would have to turn a very harsh lens on his own theological precepts. And his utter reluctance to offer divorce as an option, instead suggesting that abuse victims should do everything in their power to make sure the abuser is set on a restorative path, reveal deep-seated antipathy toward anything that might challenge his gendered power structure. Piper's centering of the abuser, in a church life that should, always, center the abused, is anathema to healing grace and love. We cannot care for the marginalized and the abused if we continue to put the needs of their abuser above them.
His unwillingness to examine his own privilege and power structures means that he will continue to center the abuser, and women will continue to be harmed in the name of God.
Note: Abuse happens in all kinds of relationships, not just husband abusing wife. Piper’s response (both in 2009 and now) was about a husband beating a wife, and that is why I have framed the discussion in those terms because Piper’s rudimentary understanding of abuse is tied intimately to his understanding of gender roles within a marriage relationship. This, however, only serves to erase male victims of abuse on an even larger scale.