All right. So if we are to review this book properly, and with a requisite fairness of mind, we need to get one glaring thing addressed at the outset. And that is the fact that this whole thing appears to be personal. I did not know that when I started in on this book review, but I know it now.
“A pastor in Idaho doesn’t have authority over a random church member in Texas”
Okay. Given our past history of disagreement, given the fact that she quotes both my wife and me in various places in this book (with less than adequate enthusiasm), and given the fact that I live in Idaho and she in Texas, it would appear that I should be grateful that this statement wasn’t supplemented with a footnote that added the helpful contribution of neener neener.
There is a sense, of course, in which this statement of hers is quite correct. A pastor in Idaho does not have authority over a random Texas parishioner. But there is another sense in which it is not true at all, and that concerns the authority of right reason and argument.
If a Texas Christian publishes a book that contains manifest errors, and if an Idaho pastor points some of them out, then there is a modicum of authority being exercised, is there not? There would be enough authority to require a response from the Texas writer, would there not?
So let us say in a foreshadowing way that later on in this book it turns out that Miller cites me for having said something wrong, and it turns out that her representative quote that she took from my writing was a complete misrepresentation of my actual position. And let us say further that the fact that it was a complete distortion is, shall we say, demonstrable. Under such circumstances, would I have the authority to request a retraction and correction?
I should think that I would, and so I would also request that you all stay tuned. But for now, let us concentrate on just this chapter.
First, Some Broad Agreement
Rachel Miller says a number of good things in this initial chapter that are not controversial at all, at least not controversial among those who accept the authority of Scripture. In fact, one might say that the chapter is largely a collection of complementarian ho-hummery. Christ is our ultimate model for both authority and submission. In this fallen world, no human authority can be considered absolute. That said, the authority of Christ over Christians is absolute, and He will never abuse His prerogative. An unfortunate abuse of authority should not make us abandon a right understanding of authority. “God-honoring authority is a blessing, and faithful submission is beautiful” (Loc. 483).
Our understanding of all such things needs to be grounded in Scripture because the only alternative to such scriptural understanding is confusion.
“If we don’t have a clear picture of how Scripture defines authority and submission, then we can’t help but be confused”
So everything we embrace on this subject of authority and submission ought to be based on four-square exegesis, on what Turretin famously called a Bob’s-yer-uncle hermeneutic. Amen to all of that.
And yet, despite all the good things said in this chapter, there are a couple of flies in the ointment.
As we seek to live our lives as Christians, how are we supposed to understand the way in which we exercise authority or the way we practice submission? Rachel Miller asks this question, and she does get the general principle right. The answer is Jesus, literally, and that answer is correct, despite it being the anticipated Sunday School answer.
“What should servant leadership look like? Jesus”
We know that the authority Christ exercised was not a haughty or proud authority because He “washed His disciples’ feet” (Loc. 353). Yes, He did do that, and He expressly commanded His disciples to imitate Him in following this pattern. So it is certainly true that when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, this must be considered the crowning lesson of all the teaching He had given them over the course of the previous three years.
But please note how easy it was for us to pass by that phrase expressly commanded. He did that too. So washing feet was not the only thing Jesus did. It was not the only thing He taught, and it was not the only thing He modeled. So we can say one of the things that servant leadership does—if we must use that phrase—is take the lowest place, the place of a slave. True enough.
What else does it do? Servant leadership also rebukes fiercely (Matt. 16:23). Servant leadership expects prompt obedience (Luke 6:46). Servant leadership makes decisions that affect others (Luke 6:12ff). Servant leadership teaches with authority (Matt. 7:29). Servant leadership forgives with authority (Matt. 9:2). Servant leadership warns against false teachers (Matt. 16:6). Servant leadership receives honor (John 13:13). Servant leadership protects others by fighting off enemies (John 8:7). Servant leadership works until it is bone tired (Mk. 4:38-40). Servant leadership attacks abuses and corruption (Mk. 11:15). Servant leadership gets railroaded by the theological leadership of the day (Matt. 26:65). Servant leadership gets crucified (Luke 23:46).
And so as far as we are concerned, our imitation of this entire Christ is not to be an exercise in cherry picking. Christ is not a smorgasbord.
In anticipation of the counter-argument, “You’re not Jesus, pal,” let me hasten to add that I wasn’t Jesus when I was being told to wash the feet of others either.
Of course the imitation of Christ must contain a strong element of mutatis mutandis, which means that all the necessary adjustments must be made. We are commanded to imitate Christ, and at the same time we must remember that we are not the incarnate Messiah. We are to imitate the Son of God without ever once thinking we could be the Son of God. But still, at the same time, we are not supposed to imitate Christ piecemeal. That would simply get us a Jesus that lined up nicely with our own prejudices.
If someone says that we are supposed to imitate all the nice things Jesus said and did, and to assiduously avoid all the polemical and blunt things that He said and did, I would submit that this is how you wind up with that Victorian Jesus that I think Rachel Miller was trying to warn us against.
We are to imitate Christ when we love others, making all necessary adjustments, and we are to imitate Christ when we engage in controversy, making all necessary adjustments. And how are we to understand the way in which to make such necessary adjustments? Through careful study of the text of Scripture while relying on the convicting power of the Holy Spirit. That’s how.
Different Servants Do Different Things
At the undefined level, Rachel Miller commends the attitude that is “often referred to as ‘servant leadership’” (Loc. 348). “As Jesus taught His disciples, we are to lead by serving” (Loc. 344).
But just as there are different kinds of service, so also there are different kinds of servants. For example, a waiter in a restaurant is there to find out which entrée you would like to order, and he does not get to substitute one that he has come to believe would be better suited to you. He is supposed to fetch what you ordered, and he should do it with a servant’s heart. Now if you had to go in for some delicate brain surgery, I would want to argue that the brain surgeon should also have the same kind of servant’s heart that the waiter should have. But the brain surgeon should not agree to take orders from you, servant’s heart notwithstanding. The nature of his service is different, and he should give you what you needed, and not necessarily what you wished for. But the waiter should just give you what you asked for, and no back chat.
(I know that there are some waiters in some high-end restaurants who, if you tried to send the steak back for being under-done, would tell you that you are the one in error, and that the steak is perfect, as the chef was trained in a 2-star Michelin restaurant in Manhattan, but this is another subject for another time.)
“A servant leader isn’t so much a leader who learns to serve but a servant who learns to lead through service”
Yes. But what constitutes that service? Too often the servant leadership model that is commended to Christian husbands today is the restaurant model, where the waiter is to find out what the customer wants in order to give it to him. Christian husbands are to measure whether or not they are being a servant leader by whether or not their wife is currently pleased or displeased with the pinkish color of her steak.
But the world is not simple, at least not in that way. An officer in battle can order his men into the fray, knowing that he is sending some of them, and perhaps all of them, to their deaths, and he can do this with a servant’s heart. A brain surgeon can recommend the riskier procedure, and do so with a servant’s attitude. And after much discussion with his wife, husband can decide that they really do need to downsize their house, and he can do this over his wife’s worries and objections, and do it precisely because he is intensely aware of his responsibility to protect her and the kids, and provide for her and the kids. A man can, with a servant’s heart, make a decision that his wife believes is a huge mistake. She may be right. He may be right. But that is neither here nor there.
In short, a demeanor of servant leadership tells us precisely nothing about whether the submission to the decision made will be easy or hard. It should not be difficult for married couples to imagine a situation where a decision really must be made, and where the husband and wife are of two different minds about it. What happens then? If the husband decides to go in the direction opposite the one the wife preferred, this is where submission comes in. It could be very a difficult situation, but without authority and submission the difficult situation becomes the impossible situation.
Now I did use a military example above, and on this front it might appear that Rachel Miller is well ahead of me. She objects to this kind of illustration. “This kind of thinking comes from defining authority and submission in military terms” (Loc. 393).
“But families aren’t armies, and husbands and wives aren’t called to imitate military rank and order. Instead, they are to devote themselves to a relationship of love and service”
“Wives don’t owe their husbands obedience as if they were soldiers”
To which I would offer this reply. Of course a soldier and a wife occupy different callings, and so their respective obedience will likely look quite different. So I quite agree that husband and wife ought not to land on aircraft carriers, or conduct bombing runs. His neglect of this obvious principle is what makes Captain Von Trapp’s regimented handling of his kids a small tragicomic element in The Sound of Music. I agree that ordinarily a wife ought not to obey her husband as if she were a soldier.
Rather, she is to obey her husband as if she were a wife.
“That they may teach the young women to be sober, to love their husbands, to love their children, to be discreet, chaste, keepers at home, good, obedient to their own husbands, that the word of God be not blasphemed”
Titus 2:4-5 (KJV)
But now, having agreed that marriage is not the same thing as the military, and just to make this whole thing a bit more festive, I need to point out that the word translated as obedient here (hypotasso) was originally a military term. It is used in Scripture here and elsewhere to describe a wife’s demeanor toward her husband. It is the same word that is translated as submit in other places (Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18).
Hypotasso is a military term from the Greek, meaning “to arrange [troop divisions] in a military fashion under the command of a leader.” It also came to mean to submit, or to obey, or to subject oneself to in non-military settings. In short, a military term can have legitimate downstream applications to marriage, and in Scripture, does so.
Soldierly obedience and wifely obedience are different, but they are not entirely different — and we can learn about the latter from the former. I can be inspired by Trumpkin’s loyalty to Prince Caspian, and his obedience to orders he disagrees with, as I have been inspired, and not even be slowed down by the fact that I am not a dwarf.
“God-honoring authority protects, cares for, provides for, and promotes the well-being of others”
Yes, and amen. Authority protects, cares for, provides for, and promotes the well-being of others. Correct. But it does these things by doing what?
Rachel Miller began by objecting to the way in which we look at marriage through the “lens” of authority and submission. If this means anything, it means that whenever we bring up the subject of marriage, or the relationship between husbands and wives, we make sure to bring up the issues of authority and submission.
You know, like the New Testament does.
Whenever the New Testament writers address wives as wives, what are they told to remember? They are told to remember the very thing our generation is working so hard to forget. They are told to remember what Rachel Miller is trying to get “beyond.”
And she tries to get beyond it by presenting us with false dichotomies.
“Submission doesn’t mean mindlessly obeying reckless authority or sinful instructions. Having authority doesn’t mean riding roughshod over others, getting our own way, or being harsh and demanding. It’s about taking care of those who have been entrusted to us”
Agreed. Submission doesn’t mean submission to sinful commands. Authority doesn’t mean riding roughshod over others, demanding our own way, or being harsh. Nobody was maintaining that authority and submission did mean those things. Who thinks that?
But notice. What choice is presented to us here? Authority means “taking care” of those who have been entrusted to us. Yes, it does. But by doing what exactly?
Rachel Miller leaves the actual mechanism of marital decision-making completely undefined. And this means she can set up a false dichotomy between someone who is “harsh,” on the one hand, and someone who is “taking care” of his wife, on the other. The implication is that the guy who is charging around making decisions is the harsh one, while the guy taking care of his wife has sweet communion with her until they magically come to a point of agreement.
But what happens when they are both being Christian in their attitudes, they are both listening to the concerns of the other, they are both prayerfully seeking the Lord, and they are both acutely aware of the fact that the deadline for accepting or rejecting this latest job offer is noon tomorrow? And suppose they still don’t agree on it. Harshness is not in view. She understands that his heart’s desire is to “take care” of her. That is not the problem.
The problem is that they don’t agree about the job, and a decision still must be made.
The difficulty here is that Rachel Miller has constructed the scenario in such a way as to make it hard to believe that a husband could make an authoritative decision that his wife disagreed with, and be gracious in his demeanor while coming to that decision, and yet the nature of the decision required gracious submission on the part of his wife.
And in setting it up in this way, she is in effect side-stepping the whole issue. This is not beyond authority and submission. It is a parabolic curve away from authority and submission.