DANGEROUS LOVE: Whitney Houston in 1997 with then-husband Bobby Brown. (Photo: Kathy Hutchins/Newscom)
Over the past week, we have been riveted by the tragedy of Whitney Houston’s untimely death. Accounts of drug use and a fallen icon have flooded the media. Yet, little has been said about how her self-professed faith may have contributed to both her downfall and eventual escape from an unhealthy marriage relationship.
In her last major interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2009, Whitney states that she stayed in the marriage, endured abuse and humiliation, and engaged in self-destructive behaviors in her effort to be a “good” Christian wife. No matter what happened, she felt she had to remain because as she quotes, “What God has brought together, let no man put asunder.”
Yet, Whitney’s statements about letting, indeed inviting, her husband “to take control of her life,” and that a wife must do whatever her husband says is not a new concept. In fact, the concept of women being required, as a matter of faith and faithfulness, “to submit” to their husbands in all things is the pervasive normative gospel preached in churches across racial, denominational, and geographical lines. Ephesians 5:22-24, which outlines a wife’s duty to submit, is often taught without context or nuance. Rarely is the verse above it, which says to “submit to one another,” discussed. Moreover, the last verses of the chapter, which make it clear that a man wouldn’t hate or hurt his own body, do not get much airplay in the church either.
This kind of uncritical, a-contextual acceptance of a half-developed theology leads many women to unconditional obedience to a man regardless of how he treats her, much like Whitney Houston. It rebuffs and chastises women who critically analyze its meaning much like slaves were chastised for questioning the ever popular scripture of slave masters, “slaves obey your masters,” (Col. 3:22). Both the Ephesians 5:22-24 and Colossians 3:22 texts are biblical since they do appear in the Bible. But both have the potential to be misused to oppress and disenfranchise whole groups of people. They’ve also been used to maintain the status quo of unjust power structures in society.
Moreover, in 2011, CBS News reported on a Glamour/Harris poll that found that “30 percent of women who have been in a relationship have been abused. Of that 30 percent, 62 percent were hit, 33 percent were choked or strangled, and 11 percent feared their partner would kill them. Even more shocking, another 30 percent of the women said they had experienced behaviors by their partners that can be categorized as abusive, whether they be emotional or physical.”
With this kind of data, it seems incomprehensible that the church would continue to simply preach the gospel of female submission without critical reflection and further context. It is also sad that we do not give equal attention to stressing that violence has no place in any dating or marital relationship. Finally, since 83 percent of Americans categorize themselves as Christians, according to ABCNEWS/Beliefnet, this is relevant to a huge portion of our population.
Yet, Whitney’s is not just a cautionary tale of how one’s theological premise can lead them to accept abuse, disrespect, humiliation, infidelity, and neglect. In the end, it was her faith that gave her the strength to finally realize that the God she believed in did not want her to continually make herself and her talent small, so that her husband could feel big.
AMAZING GRACE: Houston was baptized in the River Jordan near the Sea of Galilee during a Holy Land pilgrimage in May 2003. (Photo: Ygal Levi/Newscom)
Whitney recounts her mother’s prodding her, telling her that the life she was living with drugs, abuse, and chaos with then-husband Bobby Brown was not God’s best for her. According to Houston, her mother, a strong Christian, reminded her of God’s presence and power to bring her out. Whitney says in the 2009 interview, “I began to pray. I said, ‘God, if you will give me one day of strength, I will leave [this house and marriage].” And one day, she did. Much like Tina Turner left her husband, Ike Turner, with only the clothes on her back, Whitney Houston left her home and husband with only a change of clothing.
The transformative power of her faith can be seen in her public discussions. When asked by Diane Sawyer in 2002 what she was addicted to, Whitney rattled off a number of drugs and added that she was “addicted to making love [to Bobby Brown].” But when Oprah asked Whitney in 2009 who she loved, the singer said, “I love the Lord!” And it was that part of her faith that had her on the way to a professional comeback and personal redemption.
In the end, Whitney Houston did not conquer every challenge that haunted her. And none of this excuses the decisions she ultimately made for her life. She owned that. But to understand her life, it is critical that we analyze the thinking and theology that animated her decision-making and helped lead her to such a tragic place.
In the Christian tradition, good theology illuminates, liberates, and pushes us to be our best selves. Bad theology takes bits and pieces of scripture out of context and threatens any who has the audacity to ask questions or to critically analyze the paradigm put forth by those in power.
Whitney’s story is the story of millions of women. It is a cautionary tale that reiterates the importance of thinking critically even about matters of faith. It also invites remembrance of the core tenant of the faith, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life,” (John 3:16). A God who does not want anyone to perish in the afterlife surely does not condone them perishing at the hands of another in this one.
Are you willing to obey or, more aptly put, submitto your spouse until death do you part? As Priscilla Shirer shares, there are some things a Christian couple needs to know. Shirer, the daughter of well-known preacher Tony Evans, is a gifted teacher and speaker in her own right. As the founder of Going Beyond Ministries, she reaches a diverse audience of women with “the uncompromising truths of God’s Word.”
In her latest book, Life Interrupted: Navigating the Unexpected, Shirer analyzes the story of Jonah for clues about submitting to God’s will, even when it interrupts our carefully laid plans. The book is not a marriage manual, per se, but within its pages readers can find helpful direction for making their marriage flourish and thrive in spite of life’s curveballs. UrbanFaith contributor Wanda Thomas Littles spoke to Shirer about Life Interrupted and what it means for a married couple to practice biblical submission. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
URBAN FAITH: Newlyweds face many challenges, including life interruptions. What is a “life interruption”?
PRISCILLA SHIRER: A life interruption is something that takes place in your life that causes you to have to adjust the plans that you’ve made and is often God’s way of steering you away from what you want to do, to what He has planned for you to do for His Kingdom which is far better than what you planned. So a life interruption is God’s divine intervention.
Bunny Wilson, who wrote a great book called Liberated Through Submission, had a life interruption when as a new Christian she read a passage of scripture that caused her to ask, “God, now why would you ruin a perfectly good book by putting that a wife has to submit to her husband in it?” What would you say to woman who needs to learn the life-interrupting concept of submission?
Submission is a gift given to us by God so that we can relate to His established authority properly. It is the voluntary yielding of one to another. This is not just about marriage; this is about every aspect of your life. Everybody has to be obedient. And when people, male or female, step outside that chain of leadership they have to answer for that and they cause disaster and destruction along the way.
There are many men that are seeing destruction and chaos and lack of peace and passion in their marriages, and in their homes, and it is largely due to the fact that they have not responded in obedience to the Lord, and responded to Him as their head.
If, as a married woman, you choose to be submissive to the man that God has given you, then what you are doing is basically ducking so that God can hit your husband. Your husband has to answer to God in terms of the leading of your family, and you’re trusting that God is going to steer your husband. Even when your husband goes against your preferences, even when the choices he makes aren’t the choices you would make, as you submit to your husband you are in essence submitting as unto the Lord. In doing so you’ll find that the blessings rain down not only on you, but on your husband, and your children as well.
For many people, the term submit carries with it the stigma of subservience.
It is unfortunate that submission has really been given a bad rap. There is nothing that is supposed to be subservient, “doormat-ish” so to speak, or abusive about this word and its meaning. In Ephesians when the Lord began to describe submission in the family dynamic, the majority of the chapter was used to tell husbands how they were supposed to lead, not to tell women how they were to submit. If men do it the right way, if they are the kind of leaders described by God, then it will be the joy of the wife to submit to a husband like that.
What about the husband who has the wrong view of submission and is, in essence, a tyrant?
It is never the woman’s role to submit to a man who is leading her to sin, or if he is in any way being abusive to her whether emotionally or physically. In those cases, she should get away to safety. Submission has long been a ploy to get vulnerable women to stay with a guy who is not treating them appropriately. In its purest meaning, it is a gift given to a woman who does have a man that is seeking to lead in the way the Bible describes.
What about the man who is content to take a backseat in guiding his wife and family, or who truly has no leadership skills?
I would encourage a wife to ask herself, When we were dating, did he take the backseat? If the answer is no and he showed initiative and drive and leadership when you were dating, then the reality probably is that you have, over time, usurped his authority. And in those cases, I want you to know that what has been done can be undone. Prayerfully give him back the reigns.
For the woman whose mate just doesn’t have leadership skills, I want to suggest two things: Number one, if she is not yet married to this man and she is very clear that he does not yet have leadership capabilities, if that disturbs her in any way now, it is going to be exponentially disturbing once they get married and there are lifetime decisions to make and he’s supposed to be guiding the family. You should question whether this is someone you should be building a life with.
Secondly, if this is a man who you see leadership character in, then the question you have to ask yourself before you get married is, Is this man accountable to someone else? If you know that this man is accountable to other men and allows them to tell him the truth and can help him to get it together, then you’re on the road to a really great marriage.
What are some reactions women have when you explain the concept of submission?
I think that deep down most women would love to be in a relationship with a great man — they might not call it submission, but when you think about the dynamics of it we love to be in a relationship when a man has taken charge. When you water down submission to the bare parts, most women desire that. But there is a fear that has been instilled in us predominantly by the feminist movement. The feminist movement has given us many things, but one thing it has stolen from us is the right not to feel like we’ve lost our dignity when we choose to submit to the leading of a good guy.
Do you have any other thoughts on submission?
To a young couple, or even to an older couple, I would say, before you say I do, would you please make sure that you are going into this relationship with a servant’s attitude? As a wife, you want to do whatever you can so that when this man meets Jesus face to face, he gets to hear from the Lord, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” He’s going to hear that if you’re the right helper that you should be. And husbands, she is going to hear that if you are washing her with the water of the Word of God and sanctifying her by being the leader to her that God has called you to be. That does not happen by stifling her, causing her to submit in a way that is not healthy. That happens when you encourage her gifts, her skills, talents. … When you help her to hone those talents to see how she can use them for the kingdom of God and in the service of her family, which is our primary and privileged ministry. To submit or not submit becomes the framework from which to build either a good, balanced, strong marriage, or a bad, lopsided, weak marriage.
For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll assume I’m talking to the fellas on this one. (But the ladies are welcome to eavesdrop.)
Have you ever had the urge to hit a woman? Most of us were raised with a mental line in our behavior code. Hitting females is over that line. But truth be told, the notion lurks stealthily beneath the surface. The mental picture that forms in a man’s head just before the cowardly deed tends to bubble up in times of stress. When a man feels powerless, he can always fall back on physical force, like a scared dictator with armies at his disposal.