I’ve been struggling to come up with anything halfway intelligent to say to the reader whose husband is an elder in an extremely legalistic Church of Christ. The readers have pitched in with some thoughtful ideas, but there’s no emerging consensus. It’s a tough one.
So this is a draft, thinking-out-loud kind of thing. Please don’t hesitate to correct me. I’m not at all sure that I’m right.
As I do with my clients, let’s make a list of the considerations and see if we can find a path through the issues.
First, there’s the fact that she is her husband’s wife. As a number of readers have pointed out, under even an egalitarian interpretation of the scriptures (which is my own interpretation), a wife is to be a “suitable complement” to her husband, and this involves, at the least, not bringing shame on him. This is the gist of many of the key “role of women” passages.
Of course, this is not universal. For example, a wife’s becoming a Christian often brought shame to her Jewish or pagan husband in the First Century. Her obligations to Jesus supersede her obligations to her husband.
On the other hand, modern notions of autonomy and such don’t apply either. Peter is quite clear that Christian wives married to pagan husbands are to be submissive to them — but, of course, this submission is subordinate to submission to Jesus.
(1 Pet 3 ESV)1Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, 2when they see your respectful and pure conduct. 3 Do not let your adorning be external — the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear — 4but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.
Thus, my reader must submit to her husband to the extent she can do so without violating God’s commands and her faith in Jesus.
Second, legalism is a huge sin. I discuss this at length in my book, posted elsewhere on this site, Do We Teach Another Gospel? As she says that her church is even more legalistic than the church that disfellowshipped the women in the earlier series of posts, well, that’s a church that teaches another gospel — that is, the church is seeking a works justification, which is a deadly sin.
Legalism of this sort destroys souls. It’s obvious, however, that she has managed to overcome her situation and realize the errors of her congregation.
May she leave her husband? Clearly, no.
May she attend church elsewhere instead of her current church? If her husband doesn’t object, sure. But he’s an elder and will certainly object. In fact, refusing to attend with him would surely cost him his eldership. (Not that he has an absolute right to this post. I’m just saying he’s not going to agree and will feel very strongly on the subject.)
So does she attend elsewhere over his objection? If this were a pagan religion, yes. Attending would violate countless commands. But this is not. They are worshipping Jesus — just with very bad doctrine.
Would a First Century Jewish wife attend synagogue with her husband, even though the Jews in the synagogue deny Jesus? I think clearly she would have. Paul attended synagogue. For centuries, many Christians attended synagogue with Jews. After all, they all worshipped God, even though the Jews worshipped in serious error. (See In the Shadow of the Temple, a fascinating book on the Jewishness of the early church — but not light reading.)
So I think God wants her to attend church with her husband. On the other hand, I think God wants her to teach the gospel to him and to others as she has opportunity and as God has gifted her. Just as the First Century Jewish wife would have attended synagogue as a Christ-follower, respectfully teaching Jesus, my reader should attend church with her husband as an apostle of grace.
Now, this may well create an untenable situation for her husband. And in fairness to him, she should be very upfront with him about her beliefs. If he has any business at all being a leader in the church — and if he’s a halfway decent husband — he has to hear her out.
Not everyone is gifted to argue the case for the true gospel to a legalist. I’d recommend the following books —
- Todd Deaver’s Facing Our Failure.
- My own The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace and Do We Teach Another Gospel? Both of these can be downloaded for free on this site.
I just can’t see going to church with people who are being denied the joy of their salvation and being silent. Indeed, as to the leaders of that church at least, I worry about their salvation, as explained in Do We Teach Another Gospel?
And so, teaching the grace of Jesus — in a modest and respectful way — trumps her husband’s pride in his office. He may actually be more embarrassed to have her teaching the grace of God than attending another church — but at least grace will be taught — which I think must happen at any price.
Now, in a legalistic church the opportunities for a woman to teach are greatly limited. But they exist. Not everyone is gifted to teach a class or debate the preacher, but whatever gifts she has are Jesus’ to be used for his glory.
Okay. A third consideration is the egalitarian thing: what if this was a husband married to a legalistic wife? Would I give the same advice?
It’s tough because the New Testament was written to a radically different culture and husbands aren’t called to be help meets. Rather, in Ephesians 5, they are called to die for their wives as Jesus died for the church. That’s a pretty strict standard, I think.
Imagine a woman employed by a very legalistic church as a children’s minister (except they’d call her something else). She loves her position and the service she feels called to. And she teaches the children her legalistic theology.
Now suppose that her husband discovers the beauty of God’s grace but is unable to convince his wife. She loves her position, and perhaps this blinds her to his teaching. Or maybe he’s just not good at explaining things.
Should he leave her? No. Should he insist that she leave? How? By threatening divorce? I don’t think so.
Should he attend elsewhere? Let’s suppose his doing so would get her fired. Does he make such a bold move? I don’t think so. I’m not much of a marriage counselor, but manipulating things so that she loses her job (which is how she’ll see it) seems a definite mistake.
And so he continues to attend with her. But he teaches the true gospel as he has opportunity. He downloads or buys some books and urges her to study them with him. He tries to get her to join him on a shared spiritual journey, or show him where he’s wrong.
If he goes to another church, then like most couples that do this, they’ll just keep doing that forever. Rarely do split couples ever find common ground.
Now, if he becomes an apostle of the gospel to his friends, and shares his beliefs in class and in the hallways, the elders may tell him to stop. But I think he has to keep on teaching — respectfully, offering to study with them as he’s offered to study with his wife.
Most legalistic elderships have no interest in being studied with, and so they may eventually kick him out. Just so, in the case of the woman who wrote the question, she may well be kicked out, too.
If so, they should handle it as we considered as to the first email — without resentment or retaliation, turning the other cheek at every opportunity, and teaching the truth at every opportunity.
Ironically, a likely result is for my reader to be disfellowshipped by the church in which her husband is an elder. Strange, huh? And I’m not entirely comfortable with that outcome. I just can’t find another one.
Now. it likely seems odd that I, an elder, would counsel rebellion against an eldership. And on most issues, I certainly would not. But it’s better to obey God rather than man. And God wants the true gospel taught, not jusification by works. Legalism is intolerable and damns. That’s what makes this different. Read Galatians and notice the intensity of Paul’s feelings on this issue. He even challenged Peter to his face.
In the mean time, as suggested by some of the readers, she should most definitely seek out a support group among Jesus-filled women. Other churches have classes during the week she could join. There are often neighborhood Bible studies she could participate in. Or another church’s small group. It shouldn’t be hard to find the encouragement and support she surely needs.
She might even a mixed group she could invite her husband to.
Now, as I said, I’m not entirely satisfied with this result. Personalities and circumstances can be highly variable, and there are just all sorts of possibilities that might suggest other ideas or warn against these. I’m certainly not being doctrinnaire here.
And as I’ve said, I’m quite open to other ideas. This is a tough one.