Against soft comp: authority and consent

Following on from my previous article, against all forms of gender caste system but specifically in regards to soft complementarianism, I want to address one of the most often used words in the soft comp book: authority.

The parallel of Jesus’ authority over the church is insufficient argument for husband’s authority over wife.

Ephesians 5 is often cited as the final argument for egalitarian-everywhere-but-complementarian-at-home. “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ: wives, to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” This is male trying to retain authority over female by claiming that the mandate to lay down his life for his wife, as Christ did for the church, somehow gives him an innate gender right.

It’s not a right. It’s not a God-ordained authority. It’s a sinful tendency to grasp power and control over other people.

My author and pastor friend, Nikki, put this very well. “There is a myth in complementarian churches that husbands are to wives as Jesus is in heaven to the church on earth. And in reality, husbands are to wives and wives are to husbands as Jesus was on earth to the church. Men don’t suddenly become God because they got married. They stay striving to be like Jesus as they were before they got married. Jesus on earth picking up his cross. Jesus on earth leaving all of his rights behind him and serving unto death. Jesus on earth putting himself below us, looking to our interests as his own. Not Jesus in heaven rightly receiving power and glory and praise.”

Authority (the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience) either remains so long as consent for it remains, or it turns into a dictatorship. Authority without threat either dissolves when it is not obeyed, or it is enforced in such a way to override the lack of consent that threatens it’s dissolution.

Consider this. Romantic or sexual relationships within the US military are forbidden between persons where one is in authority over another. It is viewed that the person under authority, for example a private under the authority of their superior officer, cannot have given consent because their job is to obey the authority of their superior officer. The authority of the job must be set aside in order for consent to be considered as valid and not coerced.

Plenty of job situations do not maintain this rule against mingling between ranks. When you start delving further, however, the more hierarchical the system, the more this is either enforced…or abused. Work place systems with little to no hierarchy do not require this rule for the healthy function of everyone’s consent and autonomy.

On the other hand, the presence of consent from one party to another absolves the second party from whole or sole liability. Full disclosure is also required for consent to be truly engaged.

Consider this. A man and woman are on their wedding day. The service is interrupted by an objection: the man is already married. He has simply been removing his wedding ring when spending time with his intended new bride. She did not consent to polygamy and is not liable. She gave consent to marry a person who in fact does not exist, and she is considered to be a casualty of circumstances, owed restoration, but is not held accountable to the authority of the law which forbids polygamy in her country.

If, however, she was under full disclosure to his already-married state, she is held accountable for her part in attempt of polygamy.

Now consider this. The issue of consent in the course of sado-masochistic sexual activity was considered in R v Stein [2007] VSCA 300, a case in which a participant died as a result of being gagged. The court held that, even if the victim had consented to being restrained and gagged, his consent was invalid because there was no way for him to communicate its withdrawal once the gag was in his mouth.

Consent must remain ongoing in order to be considered valid. If consent cannot continue, it is no longer consent for the actions following, and the roles revert to positions of authority and subordinate, not of consenting equal persons.

When a soft comp Christian wife is told she has a choice, that she can give consent to things, but that if the choice she makes is not the same as her husband’s choice she is then sinning… Well, that’s coercion. She is threatened with the judgement of disobedient, sinning wife if she does not hold his God-given authority to be correct in an area. This is the mental and emotional equivalent to a gag in her mouth. Soft comp places the gag, she can no longer communicate it’s withdrawal, and her consent is therefore stripped.

It might seem more honest to just head on over to hard comp practice and admit that a wife’s gender is a lifelong gag within this teaching, and stop trying to pretend that men are doing women a kindness by gagging them. And this is what gets me most mad about soft complementarian teaching — this lack of honesty, this pretence of holier than thou male superiority that is said to protect women, with their consent and God’s sanction, when all the while it’s just guilt-laden, nonconsensual mental abuse.

Christian men and women must each retain their ability to consent on a continual basis for equal submission and humility to one another to really be submission and humility, not coersion, nor decision based in fear. 

We see the true nature of consent in Philippians 2:
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing…”

Jesus maintained his ability to consent throughout. This is what makes our salvation spectacular. It is not that God made himself not God. Jesus was and is God. If he had not been God, his death and resurrection would not be able to provide redemption. Because Jesus was and is God, and because he never lost his consent to take on our sins by being crucified as a human, his death and resurrection are more than sufficient to provide our redemption.

We get hung up on that word, equality, when we look at Philippians 2. It is not that Jesus disowned his equality with God. Jesus remained God throughout. Jesus did not use his own God-self-ness as validation for removing his consent to die for our sins.

And the take away? My husband and I give mutual, repeated, and self-authorising consent to each other in various areas of life, to work, to study, to call each other out, to initiate sex, to do the laundry, to raise our son, to basically just be equal adult human beings. Because God made us to be equal, because Jesus reinforced our gender equality, and because we both practice a marriage that seeks selflessness.

I urge you to research more on these concepts and decide for yourself, not fleetingly but after thorough consideration. It is a sad, sad thing to see men and women limiting themselves, both personally and in wider relationships, in ways God does not limit  because they have not listened to Him but to self.

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