Sunday, March 3, 2013

Mark Driscoll on Infantilizing Male "Headship" (UPDATED)

Mark Driscoll is founder and pastor of Mars Hill Church in Seattle, Washington, an emergent church with a controversial reputation for how it has reportedly treated congregants (as former members will attest at the Mars Hill Refuge blog). Driscoll advocates for traditional gender roles and male "headship" over wives and children, a position labeled complimentarianism by some and outright misogyny by others. A 2013 marriage book he co-authored with his wife Grace, Real Marriage: The Truth About Sex, Friendship, and Life Together, has received scathing reviews from commentators across the political spectrum due to its statements about gender and sexuality. Knowing Driscoll's controversial reputation, when I learned about his Real Marriage sermon series, I had to give it a listen.

In a January 29th lecture entitled "Real Marriage: Men and Marriage", Driscoll elaborates on male "headship", defending it as a Biblical command and sugar-coating it as beneficial for the family. Driscoll began his talk by talking about the responsibilities of people in charge as allegories for the responsibilities of husbands and fathers. At the 0:27 mark, he had this to say.
"When a company struggles or fails, who ultimately has to take responsibility? The CEO. When a nation struggles or fails, who ultimately has to take responsibility? The president, the king, whoever's in charge ... Let's say there's a military unit, heads out to war and struggles and or fails. Who ultimately takes responsibility? Well, it's going to be the highest ranking officer. Why is that? Because they're the head. Others under their authority may bear some responsibility, but because they're in the highest authority, they bear the most responsibility."
I find this analogy troubling. The role of a father and husband is not analogous to that of a king, president, or CEO, because the function of a family is not analogous to that of a kingdom, country, or corporation. It establishes wives as subjects or employees to be ruled over rather than partners with whom husbands should collaborate. My making this analogy, Driscoll has already established marriage and family as patriarchal and rigidly hierarchical, rather than egalitarian.

Driscoll insists that men are responsible for their families, using Adam in the Garden of Eden as an early example at the 1:28 mark.
"When our first father and his wife, our first mother, were in the Garden of Eden, who sinned first, Eve or Adam? Eve did. Eve partook [of the forbidden fruit], and he observed, and then God comes in Genesis 3, and who does he call out for? Adam. He calls out to Adam, "Where are you?". Why does he do that? Is it that he did not hold her responsible for her sin? No ... But God held the man primarily responsible because he's the head of his family ... Wives are responsible for their sin, but their husbands in addition also bear responsibility."
"The well-being for our wife is our responsibility," Driscoll asserts, warning that men will give an account for their wives, children, and all others under their authority when they meet God. In my opinion, the idea that men must take responsibility for their wives is unhealthy for both sexes. It infantilizes women by refusing to acknowledge them as autonomous, accountable adults, and it makes men responsible for the actions of other people who they cannot and should not control. For men, this sounds like a recipe for burnout or control freak tendencies.

At the 4:09 mark, Driscoll claims that a man shares the blame as head of the family if wives or children fail to grow in their faith. The idea that a particular man might not be the best person to direct others' spiritual growth, that a wife's spiritual journey is her business, or that household members' spiritual paths might look completely different is not considered.
"If your wife struggles or fails to grow in godliness, if your children struggle or fail to grow in godliness, it is your responsibility in the sight of God, in addition to their responsibility, but it is your responsibility as well, and that's what the Bible means when it uses the word 'head'."
Citing Ephesians 5:22-27, Driscoll provided a sugar-coated defense of male headship that I've heard many times before: that scripture commands wives to submit to husbands and husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church. He urged men to adopt a "covenental" rather than a "contractual" approach to marriage, in which "servant" husbands give up of themselves for the well-being of their wives. Still, no matter how much conservative Christians like Driscoll sugar-coat it, the "headship" model of marriage is still incredibly sexist. They can talk about love and "servant leadership" all they want, but the fact remains that this model of marriage still disempowers wives by silencing their voices and giving husbands arbitrary power over them. Driscoll tried to paint male dominance over the family as somehow beneficial for the parties involved.
"You are the covenant head ... Your understanding of marriage has to be covenental, not contractual ... Covenant is about me giving myself to you for your well-being. It's servanthood. Covenant is about your benefit. Contract is about my benefit."
At the 12:43 mark, Driscoll insisted that a man isn't a boss over their wives like a supervisor in the workplace, having just compared the role of a husband to that of a CEO just a few minutes before.
"We're not the boss. We're the head. We're not to be a boss like a boss at work, just sort of deligating duties to our wife and to our children. Instead, we are to be the head like Jesus, and that in every way, the relationship between Jesus and the church is to be for us a pattern of covenant relationship."
Later, however, Driscoll does tell men to boss around their families, using church selection as an example. At the 38:19 mark, Driscoll urges listeners to find good churches for their families, but insists that men choose the churches based on whether they respect the church leaders, not on the wife's input. So much for servanthood!
"Men should pick the church. Husbands, fathers should pick the church. Too often, the wife picks the church. She says,'Great women's ministry, great children's ministry!' Guy walks in and says [sucks in breath] 'Doesn't really work for me', because the number one reason a man chooses a church is he looks at the senior leader or leaders and says 'I'll follow him'."
Hilariously, Driscoll insisted that male headship over the family doesn't mean that "men are over women", only that one husband has authority over one wife to "lead her". The fact that this arrangement is still sexist escapes him. At the 16:12 mark, he had this to say.
"What this doesn't mean, Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3 and 1 Peter 3 and 1 Corinthians 11 ... What it doesn't mean when it says that the husband is the head of the wife, it doesn't mean that men are over women. God forbid that would happen. I have two daughters. The scariest thing I can think of is that men in general were in authority over them. This does not mean that men are over women. This means one man, one woman, husband and wife in the covenant of marriage, that the man is the head. He takes responsibility and burden before God to lovingly, humbly lead her."
Naturally, Driscoll rejects the idea of even debating the merits of egalitarian versus patriarchal relationships. Predictably, he looks askance at feminism, higher education, and any other forces that might lead others to question sexism at the 18:15 mark.
"Now, what it also doesn't say is that maybe perhaps if you think it's culturally appropriate after you've gone to college and read a few books and been raised on feminism and women's magazines and sitcoms that make fun of men, if after all of that, you think it's a good idea because you and your friends voted, then perhaps maybe perchance the man could theoretically be the head of the household. That's not what it says. It says that the man IS, the husband IS the head of the wife ... Men, you ARE the head of your home. The husband IS the head of the wife. We get into a lot of trouble when God says we ARE something, and then we debate as to whether or not we should be."
Of course, when observers criticize male headship, Driscoll interprets it as a personal attack by people who don't understand the Bible. Driscoll refuses to consider that his sexism might be the problem. At the 32:21 mark, he had this to say.
"When it comes to men, as I teach this, it always gets misunderstood. Every, I think, media interview I've ever done, I get whacked like a pinata on this issue. Marc's a chauvinist, he's a misogynist -- I don't even know how to give a massage -- and all these horrible things get said about me ... What happens is it gets completely misinterpreted because outside of Biblical thinking, the culture has no categories for what the Bible teaches."
In the most baffling part of the sermon, Driscoll claimed that a husband's headship over his wife and children actually protects them from predatory men in the outside world. At the 17:02 mark, he had this to say.
"This is to protect women from other relationships. Let's say for example there's a daughter, and she's got a close relationship with her covenant-head, Christian dad. That headship protects her from other boys who want to come along and be here head, tell her what to do, set an identity for her, abuse her, endanger her. It protects her from other young men who would come to take that place of headship in her life. Similarly with a wife, if the husband loves her like Christ loves the church, and he takes responsibility for her, that protects her from bad men, bosses, men who have ill intent or those who are perverted. It protects her. It puts her in the context where she is lovingly cared for and protected. And in our day when one in three women is sexually abused, and women are mistreated and maligned and taken advantage of, it's good to know that God's intent is that men would be the head."
Driscoll never elaborates on exactly how a man's dominance over his family supposedly protects wives and daughters from sexual harassment or unscrupulous boyfriends. Still, this toxic passage say volumes. First, Driscoll sets up an adversarial relationship between households and men outside the households, demonizing male friends, lovers, and bosses as sexual predators. Such an attitude may serve to isolate wives and daughters from the outside world, instilling them with fear of outsiders and a false sense of security if they submit to a husband or father's dominance. I can see such illusions strengthening a controlling husband or father's grip on his family, making for very unhealthy family life.

Second, Driscoll ignores women's capacity for autonomy and self-awareness. Wives and daughters are depicted as passive objects who must be led by one man, lest they be manipulated by other men. The idea that girls and women are capable of making their own decisions or forging their own identities is never considered. I'm not saying that husbands shouldn't stand by their wives, or that fathers shouldn't guide their children; I'm saying that they should do so in a way that doesn't infantilize the parties involved.

Third, Driscoll incorrectly associates male dominance in the family with female safety. Those one in three women who are physically assaulted or sexually abused? Many of them are victimized by husbands, fathers, and step-fathers. Driscoll incorrectly assumes that male violence against women is committed by perpetrators outside the home, ignoring the fact that intrafamilial violence is all too common. Men who victimize their girlfriends, wives, and children often do so with an attitude of male entitlement and misogyny. The answer to male violence against women, one would think, would be to teach men and boys to abandon sexism and embrace egalitarian forms of masculinity, but Driscoll does not do this. How does Driscoll expect to combat male dominance with more male dominance?

Driscoll conflates hierarchy with security, but they are NOT synonymous. Whether Driscoll wants to admit it or not, male dominance over families doesn't protect anyone from victimization. Responsible communities do. Good police officers and service providers do. Sound workplace polices do. Evidence-informed laws do. Know what else does too? Teaching men to respect women as equals instead of dominate and infantilize them. By encouraging men to see women and girls as passive and vulnerable, he unwittingly feeds the very attitudes that contribute to a culture of violence.

To be fair, Driscoll disparages men who physically abuse women, telling his audience, "Masculinity is about taking responsibility ... There are guys right now who drive trucks, shoot guns, and beat women. That's not a man." Nevertheless, he fails to make the connection between patriarchy and male violence, celebrating the former but oblivious as to how it feeds the latter.

In short, Driscoll's family advice is fraught with sexism, placing excessive burdens on men and disempowering wives and daughters. Neither husbands nor wives are given room to be human, having been shoehorned into rigid master and servant roles. Wives' input and needs are devalued, while husbands' cannot call on collaboration or help from their wives. Daughters are reduced to passive objects. Feel-good rhetoric about love, servanthood, and protection doesn't change the fact that such rigidly hierarchical relationships are unhealthy.

3/9/13 UPDATE: Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism has penned a hard-hitting critique of Driscoll's vision of patriarchy. She points out the flaws of Driscoll's male headship model, observing that it not only shoehorns men into unrealistic boxes, but creates situations where abuse of women and girls can erupt.
"The picture Driscoll paints here of men in general—from teenage boyfriends to male bosses—is incredibly negative, and yet he somehow exempts himself and whatever future husbands he may find for his daughters from this category and argues that women should protect themselves by placing themselves under male authority and headship. Men are violent and dangerous, he says, so trust your future to them. I’m sorry, what? Driscoll manages this by creating a dichotomy of “nice, protective Christian men” and “dangerous, violent non-Christian men.” Except that in the real world, it doesn’t work like this ... In the end, Driscoll’s Christian man good/non-Christian man bad dichotomy, when combined with his call for women to be under the authority of their male heads, creates a situation ripe for abuse."
She criticizes Driscoll for failing to understand that an egalitarian world would protect women from harm far better than the patriarchy he endorses.
"And do you know the problem here? The problem is that when a woman trusts to a given man to protect her from other man, she is only as safe as that man can make her—or as safe as he chooses to make her ... Driscoll thinks he can make this situation sound appealing by comparing it to an imaginary straw-patriarchy that never existed where all women must submit to all men, but the very real alternative is the world we live in now, a world in which women not only don’t have to submit to all men but rather a world where women don’t have to submit to any men.

Driscoll wants to see girls protected from boyfriends who might tell them what to do or abuse them, and wants to see women protected from bosses and men with ill intentions towards them. But what he seems utterly incapable of grasping is that by arguing that the solution is that girls should be protected by their fathers and women should be protected by their husbands he is arguing that women should be protected from men by men ... If Driscoll is relieved that, in a world where one in three women faces sexual abuse, God intended for men to be “the head,” who in the in the world does he think is out there sexually abusing and mistreating women? Other women? Driscoll’s inability to grasp that sometimes it is fathers and husbands who are the abusers blows my mind. I can only wonder what he would tell women in these situations."
For more information on Mark Driscoll, visit marshill[dot]com/pastors/mark-driscoll

For additional commentary on Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church, visit the following links.

Bitch Magazine: Life on Mars (Hill)

Slate: A Shunning in Seattle

Dianna E. Anderson: Marc Driscoll, Violence Against Women, and Missing the Point


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Girl from the Ville -- It's definitely strange to see religious leaders shoehorn people into rigid gender roles based on the Adam and Eve story. Leaders like Driscoll get so hung up on stereotypical gender roles that they forget that people are unique HUMAN BEINGS, first and foremost. Driscoll's interpretation of the Garden of Eden story is revealing.

  2. "When a company struggles or fails, who ultimately has to take responsibility? The CEO. When a nation struggles or fails, who ultimately has to take responsibility? The president, the king, whoever's in charge ... Let's say there's a military unit, heads out to war and struggles and or fails. Who ultimately takes responsibility? Well, it's going to be the highest ranking officer. "

    Um, wrong Driscoll. If the company fails, the CEO gets a golden parachute and will blame the underlings and lay off workers. Leaders are in a position to take credit for good things happening and for avoiding blame when things go wrong because in any unequal relationship, the person in charge isn't going to face the heat.

    1. Anonymous -- I suspect this takes place more often than not in the patriarchal relationships Driscoll advocates. Why take responsibility for a souring relationship when it's easier to blame the wife and kids you have under your thumb?

  3. Anonymous, that happens very blatantly. If a marriage ever gets so bad as to end in divorce, who is blamed? The woman for not submitting. Mark himself blames the women for reading women's magazines and being more concerned with a safe community for their children than whether her husband feels cowed by the church leader.
    I had to skip all of Mark's words as they were really triggering for me. I was raised to take that sort of talk as godly wisdom. Thanks Ahab for an excellent dissection.

    1. PN -- It must be crushing for women to live like that, and for children to see their mothers squelched and then blamed when things go wrong. WHO does this arrangement benefit, exactly, except immature control freak men?

  4. It sure doesn't benefit the men who sincerely want the best for their families. They do get burned out and feel alone in the responsibility for their families. One of the side-effects is that the more gentle men get not-so-subtle messages from their wives, books and sermons that they aren't man enough or taking enough responsibility. "XX's husband always initiates family prayers, but here I have to do it. Sigh." "If only you made enough money so I could stay at home where I belong." "You're asking your wife permission to come out? I just tell mine."

    1. PN -- I second that blech. What a mangled vision of masculinity!

      It still blows my mind that there are fundamentalist women who have been taught so much self-hatred that they EXPECT the men in their lives to exert dominance over them. Yeek!

  5. eerrrr, this makes me so bad (at conservative thinking)

  6. From Libby Anne's article:

    "Men are violent and dangerous, he says, so trust your future to them. I’m sorry, what? Driscoll manages this by creating a dichotomy of “nice, protective Christian men” and “dangerous, violent non-Christian men.” Except that in the real world, it doesn’t work like this."

    He lives under the common fundie illusion that only Christians can be moral people, and non-Christians are complete degenerates with no morals.If he encounters a Christian who is an evil person, then his tactic would be to pull a No True Scotsman, or as blogger Heretic Husband puts it, No True Complemntarian:

    1. Sheldon -- You'd think with all the evidence to the contrary, conservative Christians would realize that goodness and faith are not synonymous. Ugh.

      Thanks for the link. I'll check it out.


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