I know, I know. The word “toxic” is overused these days. But sometimes there’s just no better description. And spiritual leaders who use their pulpit and platform, and their very lungs and voice boxes, purchased by the blood of Jesus, to preach ideas antithetical to that sacrifice of love, are simply toxic.
As a young person, I survived abuse under such leadership, and, when the smoke of my confusion cleared, I found myself vowing to do what I could to protect others. This is why I work with an abuse prevention and response ministry called Project Safe Church. This is why I just today sent to a conference official a report of a sexual assault that occurred in the context of a youth ministry.
And this is why I’m writing this article.
The tangible forms of sexual violence—assaults, harassment, abuse—begin with violent ideas. These seeds break open in fertile ground to bear poison fruit in the form of physical acts. State law and church discipline attempt to penalize these acts, but until the ideas that birthed them are rooted out, this will be about as effective as a game of whack-a-mole. So I’m going for ideas in this article. Let’s nip the ideas that give life to their acts of violence in the bud. More specifically, let’s wrestle with the bad theology that makes abuse appear in our midst.
The first four chapters of Genesis provide an interpretive key to the rest of Scripture, and offer us a means of understanding biblical teaching regarding the subjugation of womankind. In Genesis 3:16 God speaks to the woman of the consequences of her sin. He tells her, among other things, that her husband will “rule over” her. This verse has often been combined with some New Testament passages to create a distorted view of the role of women.
The Scriptures do not distort, but their interpreters often do. And distortions are never more harmful than when they create the culture of dominance and control that underpins much of the abuse we see in Christian circles. I speak of theology that essentially gives men license to become despots in their homes and churches. I speak of teaching that condones such crimes as domestic violence and marital rape; teaching that, in the church, leads to the exclusion of females from leadership, preventing the “male and female” image of God from shining fully. I speak of teaching that deprives women congregants of female leadership support needed for handling highly personal matters.
Fortunately, such theology is not officially condoned in Adventist teaching and never has been. Nevertheless, in order for us to see where such thinking departs from present truth, let’s look at its basic tenets.
Scripture does teach that men play a protective, servant-leader role in the family. Paul uses the word “head” to describe this role (1 Cor. 11:3). Looking at the grand arc of Scripture, this role metaphorizes Jesus’ servant leader role with His bride, the church. Our Lord sacrificed everything to raise His bride up to her highest possible station, ultimately inviting us to share His throne (Rev. 3:21). Likewise, servant leader husbands sacrifice themselves to lift their wives up to the highest possible position, which is God’s pre-Fall design of full equality in the home. The subjugation of women we read about in Genesis 3:16 is designed by God as a temporary measure designed to call men toward loving sacrifice. In biblical headship, power ultimately serves love.
In headship theology (HT), by contrast, power becomes an end in itself. Based on the claim that the subjugation of women preceded the fall, HT idealizes this subjugation as something possessing innate spiritual virtue. It says, “God designed women to follow men” and regards the “rule over” as God’s formula for marital success. Rather than strive for the Edenic ideal, HT places women in unending and inflexible subjugation to their husbands.
Depending upon the particular form of HT, this may even extend to the idea that men must generally rule over women—in other words, all women must be subjugated to all men. Who will deny that such ideas open the floodgates to abuse by clergy, because women must, as a matter of spiritual propriety, yield to church leaders! The removal of the ultimate goal of love from the power-love equation leads to power obsession, and ultimately power abuse.
This emphasis on headship appeared in American Christianity in the 1970s and 1980s through the efforts of a group of Reformed theologians, including John Piper and Wayne Grudem, who formed an organization called the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood1. The group drafted the Danvers Statement in 19872, and the Nashville Statement from 2017,3 proposing that:
These concepts were also popularized through Calvinist professor Bill Gothard. Gothard taught the “chain of command,” which emphasized the authoritarian role of the father and husband over wife and children. This emphasis led to phenomena such as the “stay-at-home daughter movement,” which proposes that young, unmarried women must live with their parents until marriage because they must always be under a man’s headship.
Although these concepts have been embraced by some Adventists, the theological basis for them cannot be found in official documents such as the Seventh-day Adventist Fundamental Beliefs, the General Conference Working Policy, or the Seventh-day Adventist Church Manual. Rather, a number of conservative Adventist homeschool ministries and other special-interest groups, plus Adventist scholar Samuele Bacchiocchi’s book Women in the Church,4 have been a conduit of these teachings into Adventism. It is worth noting that this version of male headship says that women may never lead in a home or church context. This idea, carried to its logical conclusion, would dismiss Ellen White’s role many times over.
I rejoice that this idea has not taken widespread root in Adventism. As a young convert from a feminist background, I appreciated the balanced view of women I saw in our church. Once, I became confused and thought I’d said something offensive when a group of conservative Evangelical men stood up and left the room in the middle of a health lecture. I learned later that because I’d read a Bible verse, which constituted spiritual leadership, they felt compelled to leave. Thankfully, Adventism has not been broadly influenced by ideas this extreme.
It is easy to see, though, how Calvinism, which emphasizes God’s authority to the point of absolute control, would lead to the dictation theory of inspiration, and, more relevant to our discussion, a dictatorial style of leadership at home. Headship proponents often say, “Women should submit unless the husband tells her to sin.” But if her husband dictates her every move, telling her what to eat, wear, and say, God is offended even though none of those things are innately sinful. God the Son died to restore our individual moral freedom. Any form of mind control over another violates the spirit of His sacrifice. As we see in high relief in the prophecies of Revelation, mind control and coercion characterize God’s enemy, the beast.
Headship theology stands or falls on the one main teaching that God created Eve subservient to Adam. If this is true, we must permanently restore female subservience as a means of glorifying God. In HT thinking, women submitting to men has an almost mystical power. It would seem that to its adherents, the end of attaining to this power would justify the means of reaching it. And that is, in fact, exactly what has happened. Several harmful ideas and practices have developed from it. Let’s examine a few:
“Women just want control.” Genesis 3:16 says, “Your desire shall be toward your husband, and he shall rule over you” (NKJV).5 Some have thought this to mean a desire for control. But “desire,” the Hebrew teshuqah, means longing. The word appears two other times; once in Genesis 4:7 describing sin as desiring Cain, and once in Song of Solomon 7:10, referring to the male lover’s desire of the Shulamite. None of these contexts mandate the word meaning a desire for control. In fact, Richard Davidson posits that Genesis 3:16 and Song of Solomon 7:10 indicate a wholesome desire for married intimacy. Moreover, while Genesis mentions the desire of the woman for the man, Song of Solomon mentions the desire of man for the woman, possibly hinting at a reversal of the curse.
“Men must make sure their wives submit.” The texts counseling wives to submit are addressed to wives (see Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18). Biblical submission in this context is always a voluntary act of trust. True heart submission cannot be forced any more than its fraternal twin, love. Assuming the burden of the wife’s submission, men become dictators, circumventing the very submission they seek. The submission resulting from coercion and control is a mere instrumental, functional one, designed to protect oneself rather than express honor for the other. Men regulating their wives’ submission destroys any true love and respect the couple could enjoy. This notion also fragilizes the husband’s ego, making his success contingent upon his wife’s subservience.
“Women cannot lead men.” When the idea of women submitting extends to a church context, not only do wives submit to husbands, but women submit to men generally, and we turn the corner toward maximum toxicity. Again, biblical submission is a response to sacrifice made. I trust myself with someone who has invested in me and has proved to have my best good in mind. This may be true in a healthy marriage. But if I must submit to all men, the submission is based on maleness rather than on the sacrifice made. This makes for ugly theology. It also makes for very difficult reasoning for Seventh-day Adventists whose central church figure is a woman, Ellen White. The assumption that women cannot lead men segues easily into all women submitting to all men. There is perhaps no teaching that more effectively contributes to sexual abuse by clergy. Women believe, based on this false view of authority, that they cannot say no to a man, particularly a “man of God.”
“Wives bear responsibility for husbands’ sexuality.” While the Bible commands that married partners satisfy each other’s sexual hunger (1 Cor. 7:5), the male sex drive, through HT’s twisted thinking, has taken center stage in married sexuality. Wives have become its gatekeepers. “Underperforming” wives have been made to bear guilt for their husbands’ sexual expression outside the marriage. The wife has become the instrument of the husband, reducing her to something less than a person. Some have even implied that since the wife exists to satisfy her husband, marital rape doesn’t exist.
What does God say to these ideas? Let’s revisit some relevant biblical and inspired passages to help guide us into all truth.
In the message of the three angels of Revelation so cherished by Seventh-day Adventists, we see a face-off between coercion and love. The beast and its image are nothing more than the human lust for dominance and control in global institutional form. We see, juxtaposed against the looming power of the beast, the Lamb of God, the one who had a right to a crown but instead surrendered it to the cross, and on the basis of that cross again received the crown (see Phil. 2). In Jesus, the Servant of servants, God established His kingdom on a foundation of sacrificial love. He has won our trust, and so we obey Him.
God uses the servant leadership of husbands in the home as a metaphor of that love. The submission of wives to servant husbands comes out of a wellspring of trust inspired by sacrifice. Women can, with safety, honor those who have invested so deeply in them. Even the unfortunate consequences of the Fall God can upcycle into blessings in the context of a Spirit-led marriage.
Since sin, the world has become a dangerous place. One in three women globally has been beaten, raped, or coerced into sex. Women are the primary victims of the sex trade, domestic violence, rape, sexual abuse, and systemic poverty. Globally, women suffer educational, financial, and political disadvantages. Men perpetrate most of the sufferings of women in the world today. This type of male dominance bears the signature of Satan and should have no places in our homes or churches. When God said husbands love and wives submit, He meant something entirely different than women being crushed under the boot of lustful, violent men. This “headship” is a headship from hell and has no place in the family of God.
God’s modern-day prophet has spoken of what kind of husband not to be:
“The Lord Jesus has not been correctly represented in His relation to the church by many husbands in their relation to their wives, for they do not keep the way of the Lord. They declare that their wives must be subject to them in everything. But it was not the design of God that the husband should have control, as head of the house, when he himself does not submit to Christ. He must be under the rule of Christ that he may represent the relation of Christ to the church. If he is a coarse, rough, boisterous, egotistical, harsh, and overbearing man, let him never utter the word that the husband is the head of the wife, and that she must submit to him in everything; for he is not the Lord, he is not the husband in the true significance of the term.”6
Again: “Your life would be much happier if you did not feel that absolute authority is vested in you because you are a husband and father. Your practice shows that you misinterpret your position—house-band. . . . What you need is more, far more, of love, of forbearance, and less of a determination to have your way both in word and in deed. In the course you are now pursuing, instead of being a house-band, you will be as a vise to compress and distress others.”7
And there’s more: “You dictate and assume authority. This displeases Heaven and grieves the pitying angels. You have conducted yourself in your family as though you alone were capable of self-government. It has offended you that your wife should venture to oppose your opinion or question your decisions.”8
“Brother B should soften; he should cultivate refinement and courtesy. He should be very tender and gentle toward his wife, who is his equal in every respect; he should not utter a word that would cast a shadow upon her heart. He should begin the work of reformation at home; he should cultivate affection and overcome the coarse, harsh, unfeeling, and ungenerous traits of his disposition.”9
“You have not encouraged respect for your wife yourself nor educated your children to respect her judgment. You have not made her your equal, but have rather taken the reins of government and control into your own hands and held them with a firm grasp. You have not an affectionate, sympathetic disposition. These traits of character you need to cultivate if you want to be an overcomer and if you want the blessing of God in your family.”10
And finally: “If the husband is tyrannical, exacting, critical of the actions of his wife, he cannot hold her respect and affection, and the marriage relation will become odious to her. She will not love her husband, because he does not try to make himself lovable.”11
Seventh-day Adventists have a unique message, the lovely center of which is the Servant of servants, Jesus Christ. Headship theology distorts the message of biblical headship based on sacrificial love into a headship of dominance and control. This doctrine of dominance strikes at the heart of our message like a venomous snake, and its toxicity will destroy us unless we apply the gospel remedy. Babylonish heresies attractive to fallen nature will appear on the left hand and on the right. We should resist them because we have something better.
Jennifer Jill Schwirzer, author, counselor, musician, directs the Abide Counseling Network out of her home office in Orlando, Florida, where she lives with her husband, Michael.