I thought ‘Black and White Bible, Black and Blue Wife’ was a memoir of the abuse Ruth Tucker endured at the hands of her ex-husband, and her subsequent escape from him. However it is more like a polemic for mutual submission, using elements of the author’s story as well as others. And gosh, it’s a terrible story. Tucker is pretty circumspect on the details of the abuse but those she does include and the excerpts from her journals are devastating.
For any Christian reading ‘Black and White Bible’, the most horrifying thing is how her husband used Bible verses and Christian language to justify and motivate his abuse of her, specifically the command to a wife to submit to her husband. That’s what Tucker takes aim at here. In her view, a doctrine of male headship might be a valid reading of the Bible, but it’s not the most faithful.
Tucker argues that Calvinism’s assertion that God is supreme is played out in a theology of headship that mandates the supremacy of the husband and submission of his wife. In her life and many others this resulted in monstrous abuse of power by the husband, and no theological reason for a wife to consider escape. Tucker here offers what she sees as that necessary theological resource: she argues persuasively for mutual submission as the most biblically faithful form of Christian marriage. She also tears apart theology of headship and submission in marriage by providing example after example of how this has been bad for women.
My blood boiled as I read them. There are historical injustices, like a man having the right to commit his wife to insane asylums without evidence because she disagreed with him. Then there are quotes and theologies from more recent times. Some just seem like a bad caricature — for instance, the real life incident of Tucker’s colleague who when asked how his headship manifested on a daily basis said that he could overrule his wife and kids to make sure they went to the fast food restaurant of his choice, and he wasn’t cracking a joke. Others are insulting — like John Piper’s script for how to approach your husband with a request to change his mind in a way that would not “drive her husband into passive silence or active anger.” These culminate in Bruce Ware’s claim that women victims of domestic violence are to blame because they were failing to submit to their husband’s authority, propped up by Doug Wilson’s denial of sex being about mutual pleasure because “a man penetrates, conquers, colonises, plants. A woman receives, surrenders, accepts.”
Tucker gives almost no attention to whether these views are largely representative of all proponents of male headship, or whether this is the only way to understand male headship; after all these men are the self-appointed leaders of this teaching, and this is the way she and countless others have experienced the doctrine. And yet, I wonder whether entertaining a version of male headship which calls out the wrongs of domestic violence would enrich the discussion, and be of help to those experiencing domestic violence.
Tucker’s argument against male headship is compelling, but the question arises: how do women actually go about changing their theology, especially such deep-seated ideas as these? Some women are committed to headship and submission, whether by theology or background. Others may not trust their intellectual instincts, having been belittled and controlled. Others may come around, but that requires time and space - luxuries that women in danger often do not have. What of these women? Is there a less drastic theological gear-shift which they might be able to adopt? If indeed male headship is a valid way of reading the Bible, as Tucker herself says, is there a good and life-giving way to enact it? One that might give these women a reason to escape abusive situations without first having to undo a whole theology of marriage?
One thing Tucker does well is to highlight that her ex-husband’s abuse of her was about his control: not that he ‘lost control’ because she had been so infuriating as is so often the excuse, but that he desired to control her, and when he felt or imagined that control slipping, used violence as a means to attempt to control her further. Control is the issue, and Tucker is right to argue against male control of women.
However, I’m not convinced that mutual submission, as she offers it, is an adequate antidote, because it fails to transcend discussions of power and control. In Tucker’s second marriage which is one of mutual submission, who is the ‘head’ alternates according to merit. This carries an element of infantilising at times - she is the boss of chocolates because her husband has a weakness for them - and chaos at others, like how they have no agreement about when to keep receipts and when to recycle them, resulting in important documentation being lost. Marriage is still conceived of as needing one person to make commands and one person to obey, it’s just that who is which can change from issue to issue. My preference is to drive the dynamics of marriage away from power and control (‘headship’ and ‘submission’) and towards unity and cooperation and mutual flourishing, so that pursuit of the other becomes the goal, rather than a question of ‘who decides what’. The language of mutual submission does not equip us to do this, at least in Tucker’s usage.
We need a plurality of arguments against abuse and for protecting women, and Tucker’s is one voice in what I hope will become a multivocality. This is a wonderful start, but we must see it as only a beginning, and push this conversation in multiple other directions as well.
If you are experiencing Domestic Violence and are afraid for your safety, seek help from a trusted friend or counsellor, or call the National Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence Counselling Service on 1800 RESPECT.
Visit our Resources page for further help.
If you are in danger in your home, please call 000 (if in Australia).
Tamie comes from Adelaide and lives in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania with her husband and two sons. In partnership with CMS Australia, they work with the Tanzanian Fellowship of Evangelical Students (TAFES). She and her husband blog here