Thursday, July 19, 2012

Jared Wilson, Sex, and Male-Female Authority Structures

When I first read the post yesterday afternoon, I was left — somewhat uncharacteristically — temporarily speechless.  After thinking about it all night while working my shift at Donnelley, I was angry ... and embarrassed.  I am speaking, as some of you are no doubt surmising, of a post by Jared Wilson on the supposedly respectable Gospel Coalition website ostensibly criticising the 2011 erotic novel, 50 Shades of Grey.  It is not Wilson's criticism of the novel that bothers me.  Rather, it is his diagnosis of the pathology of rape and understanding of the proper dynamics of marital sexual relations that is more than a little disturbing.  Central to Wilson's post is the following quotation from Doug Wilson's book, Fidelity: What It Means To Be a One-Woman Man:

A final aspect of rape that should be briefly mentioned is perhaps closer to home. Because we have forgotten the biblical concepts of true authority and submission, or more accurately, have rebelled against them, we have created a climate in which caricatures of authority and submission intrude upon our lives with violence.

When we quarrel with the way the world is, we find that the world has ways of getting back at us. In other words, however we try, the sexual act cannot be made into an egalitarian pleasuring party. A man penetrates, conquers, colonizes, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts. This is of course offensive to all egalitarians, and so our culture has rebelled against the concept of authority and submission in marriage. This means that we have sought to suppress the concepts of authority and submission as they relate to the marriage bed. ...

True authority and true submission are therefore an erotic necessity. When authority is honored according to the word of God it serves and protects — and gives enormous pleasure. When it is denied, the result is not “no authority,” but an authority which devours.
It is explicit quotations like these that lay bare the disingenuity of the oh-so-pious moniker "complementarianism" to label what is, in reality, a base form of patriarchal hierarchicalism.  Perhaps Wilson actually believes that the radical feminists were right after all: heterosexual sex really is about the exercise of domination and power — er, "authority."  Fantasies of rape are just the response of men who are societally disallowed from expressing such "God-given" authority because of the nefarious ideology of egalitarianism which supposedly reduces sexual expression to an "egalitarian pleasuring party."

Response to Wilson's post has been swift, decisive, and devastating (see the valuable posts by Scot McKnight, Mike Bird, and especially Daniel Kirk and Rachel Held Evans).  As a result, the unrepentant Wilson has posted a response in which he decries the "shades of outrage" over the post and accuses his critics of "misunderstanding" what he was saying.  Well, his "clarification" reads as follows:
The Bible lays out complementary roles for men and women in covenant contexts, in which men are meant to be the heads of the household and the church and women are meant to be their helpers. Because of the fall, this authority/submission design has become perverted. It has even become perverted in the arena of sexuality when authority/submission becomes about violent rape and even “rape fantasies” as found in role playing by kinky husbands and wives or in popular pornography for women.
Note to Wilson: we got the point the first time, and we still don't agree with you.  It all boils down to divinely-designed, transtemporal "gender roles" and "patterns of authority" that make their way into the marital bedroom.  The debate over hierarchy versus mutuality isn't going anywhere because of fundamentally different hermeneutical programs.  Reading the Bible salvation-historically and/or narratologically clearly is difficult for some strands of Reformed theology (i.e., those not fundamentally influenced by the writings of Geerhardus Vos and Herman Ridderbos).  Wilson, like many others, apparently reads the complementarity and "helper" texts in the second creation account in light of an assumed hierarchical authority structure.  He also fails to take into account that male authority over the female in the "home" is tied to the curse of Genesis 3 ("your desire will be for [i.e., to dominate] your husband, but he will rule over you") and neglects the way the "authority" of the husband over the wife is deconstructed in the context of mutual submission and imitation of Jesus' teaching and example of how authority is properly exercised (Eph 5).

But one need not be an "egalitarian" to recognize that, in one area at least, mutuality is the apostolically-commanded order of the day: marital sex.  St. Paul wrote the following (quoting the complementarians' favorite translation, the ESV):
The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband.  For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does.  Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. (1 Corinthians 7:3-4)
Notions of male sexual dominance may have been the order of the day in the Greco-Roman world (Kirk nicely reminds us that Roman art often depicts conquered peoples as ravished women and notes that homosexuality was fondly embraced so long as the "penetrated party" was the social inferior of the penetrator), but they have no place in a Christian understanding of the marital bedroom.  Rape is all about power.  Marital sex emphatically is not, and even to suggest that rape is the fallout from metaphorical egalitarian "emasculation" is worse than offensive, not to mention historically and psychologically inane.

One also wonders if Wilson has recently read the Song of Songs lately.  Describing mutuality in the marriage bed as an "egalitarian pleasuring party" is emotionally driven and deliberately distorting.  Nevertheless, one could indeed articulate its descriptions of the sexual relationship between the king and his bride in these terms.  The  lengthy descriptions of the physical virtues of the lovers are culturally expressed, but what they clearly manifest is the utter delight both took in the other and the inestimable value they placed on the other's God-given attributes.  And it was not only the man who took the lead.  Note, for example, the following invitation from the girl to her beloved:
Come, my beloved,
let us go out into the fields
and lodge in the villages;
let us go out early to the vineyards
and see whether the vines have budded,
whether the grape blossoms have opened
and the pomegranates are in bloom.
There I will give you my love. (Song of Solomon 8:11-12)
This is no mere garden variety theological quibble.  St. Paul once said that he conducted himself at all times "for the sake of the gospel" (dia tou euangelion, 1 Cor 9:23).  Later he spoke of the need to "adorn" (kosmeō) the teaching about God through how one lives so as to make it attractive to those who most need the message (Tit 2:10).  One thing I can say with confidence: such viewpoints as Wilson expresses adorn the gospel with the ugly garments of male aggrievement over perceived loss of rightful authority.  And it is not only godless feminists who will consequently turn away from the message of the gospel because of the weight of such illegitimate excrescences added by such preachers as Wilson who, despite good intentions, know not what they are doing.

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