The Servant Gender

Service: for complementarians, servanthood defines femininity. We are helpmeets, subject to our husbands and, by extension, to God himself. It is a role that we’re expected to enjoy due to our innate sensibilities. Moreover, we’re expected to accept it without question.  The consequences of this attitude is perfectly embodied by a new piece by Emily Wierenga, and since it’s addressed to her ‘feminist sisters’ I’ve decided it could do with a feminist response. Wierenga’s piece is difficult to follow, not least because it constructs an almost totally incoherent narrative, yet I believe it merits a response due to its troubling implications for abused women.

Wierenga begins her piece with a personal anecdote:

“The other day my husband asked me to make nachos with him. To stand at the counter and cut onions for him, while he prepared the cheese and the chips and I was picking up books our children had strewn across the floor and I snapped. ‘I am not your servant!’ I cried.

To Wierenga, this response is evidence of her fallen nature. She’s defied her husband, and this failure to submit is a source of shame to her. She segues directly from this anecdote to another. This one concerns her mother, and something her mother said to her long ago: that she’ll “find it hard to get married” because of that defiant nature. More on the mother later, but for now, let’s examine this first anecdote. Wierenga totally absorbs the blame. She never questions her husband’s behavior. There’s no acknowledgement, for example, that perhaps her husband could have been more considerate. He didn’t actually require her help. Even if he made the request for help simply because he wanted her company in the kitchen, he could have acknowledged that the request was ill-timed. Wierenga was busy elsewhere, maintaining their shared home.

But no. As she explains it, the blame is hers. The responsibility to communicate, to behave sensitively, is hers alone. It isn’t necessary to be a feminist to understand this is an unhealthy, unbalanced version of an adult relationship. And the dysfunction continues as Wierenga describes the relationship between her parents. She strongly criticizes her mother for occupying a dominant position in the home, and directly attributes her own lack of respect for her father to her mother’s dominance. It’s a neat trick, actually, this ability to place the blame so squarely on the female sex in every domestic situation, while simultaneously refusing to assign any responsibility at all to the men concerned.

Case in point: Wierenga describes her father as an emotionally abusive man. She doesn’t elaborate about this emotional abuse, and while she certainly isn’t obligated to do so, it’s a strange juxtaposition to her willingness to describe, in detail, her mother’s domestic faults. In perhaps the most absurd section of her piece, she attributes her grandmother’s divorce and subsequent suicide to this inherited rebellious streak. Even in death, women shoulder the blame.

She transitions, awkwardly, from criticizing her dead grandmother to expressing sympathy for abused women around the globe, with a brief stop in between to explain that the Hebrew word for female means ‘punctured, bored through.’ In the comment section, Christian commentator Preston Yancey takes issue with her interpretation of the word; if I could link directly to his comment, I would, but since I can’t, I advise people to look for it. Wierenga’s definition, located as it is in between the tale of a woman literally killed by her defiance and stories of domestic abuse, seems specifically intended to impress upon her audience that they are defined by their servitude. She describes the story of an abused friend:

“I know about my friend in Lebanon whose husband broke her teeth when she became a Christian. (And how she stayed with him, anyway, and how he became a Christian because of the way she continued to serve him.)”

What is the point of this anecdote, if not to illustrate that women have a responsibility to serve their husbands, regardless of abuse? It’s difficult to isolate an overarching theme from these disjointed, disturbing anecdotes, but if one exists it appears to be ‘obedience.’ Wierenga states that she fears women have become too angry to serve. No acknowledgement that perhaps, at times, this anger might be justified, that an abusive husband has no right to expect anything but anger from his partner. No realization that anger might even save lives, in the right situation, if it spurs a woman to leave a dangerous home.

There’s no nuance in the world portrayed by Wierenga. In yet another anecdote, she describes her mother’s battle with brain cancer (defiance must always be punished, it seems). Wierenga’s father supports his partner in this most brutal of struggles. This is exactly what I would expect from any partner of an ailing person and yet here it is noteworthy. Wierenga states that he ‘delighted in being needed,’ as if his neediness is her mother’s fault. Her mother had to face death in order for her husband to truly support her, and yet, the message Wierenga states that we’re meant to glean from this is that really, her mother ought to have facilitated this neediness long before her illness.

And then there’s this gem:

“When we stop being afraid of what men can do to us, or angry about what they have done, and start serving the God whose image they are made in, then men will start filling our church pews again.”

In an update to her post Wierenga asserts that she did not intend to condone abuse in her post. Yet this quote is very clear: women are responsible for male behavior. We are responsible for their reactions to our anger. We are even responsible for their church attendance. This is, at best, unbelievably tone deaf. At worst it directly condones toxic, perhaps even abusive, behavior toward women.

Wierenga says she celebrates women. But this post doesn’t celebrate women. Rather, it uniformly condemns them. This post celebrates men. It celebrates patriarchy. It celebrates one-sided, unhealthy relationships and poor communications skills. It celebrates the punishment of rebellious women. It celebrates men at the expense of women, specifically, and in this it takes complementarianism to its logical, and incredibly disturbing, conclusion.

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