This post will examine that element of power abuse in an unhealthy fringe church which is seen in the treatment of women and marriage. Several Scripture passages come to mind: Proverbs 31:10-31; 1 Corinthians 14:34-37; Ephesians 5:22-33; 1 Timothy 2:11-15; and 1 Timothy 3:1-7. I will say right up front that I affirm that these passages declare God's will for men and women, and that they are to be obeyed by those who call themselves Christians. But proper obedience depends on proper understanding of what these passages mean. Abusive fringe churches (at least those run by males) tend to screw up the practical application of these passages, just as they distort the rest of Scripture, in order to satisfy the craving of the leaders for hierarchy and domination.
1 Timothy 3 speaks of the qualifications of a church elder, one of which is that he rules his house well. And Ephesians 5 teaches that the marriage relationship is a picture of Christ and His Church, in which the husband is head of the wife even as Christ is Head of the Church. Well and good. But in the Geftakys assemblies, George and his lieutenants used this passage to teach that husbands are to exercise absolute authority and oversight of every aspect of the lives of their women. This included a wife's weight, hairstyle, clothing, diet and daily schedule. Ephesians 5 says that the wife is to submit to her husband, but the husband is to love his wife. The Geftakys assemblies redefined husbandly “love” by twisting Eph. 5:25-27. That passage says that Christ gave Himself up for the Church in order to sanctify it, cleansing it by the washing of water with the Word, in order to present the Church to Himself without imperfection. Thus the husband's love for his wife was defined as his applying the Word to his wife, as a means of rooting out the imperfection in her. Frequently in meetings, I would hear ambitious “brothers” preach of love to wives exclusively in these terms.
The Geftakys assemblies taught that God's will in the world is expressed through godly men, and that the role of their wives was solely to be a help to the ministry of the men. The ministry of the men was defined as leading out the Church in its mission, and the role of the wife was to order the home in such a way that the man had maximal time and energy to fulfill his ministry. Proverbs 31:10-31 was often cited as a model for women to follow. Now, there are many elements of virtuous womanhood described in Proverbs 31. But the one aspect that was chiefly emphasized in this passage was that a wife should be a hard worker. One man taught that it was wrong for a woman to ask her husband's help in fulfilling her duties, and that such a woman should be rebuked. Another man preached that women should be rebuked for using pregnancy as an excuse for not fulfilling their domestic duties.
Because the role of a woman was supposed to be to support her man in his ministry, the communal “training homes” which were occupied by single women focused on training them in domestic skills and the art of being a “good wife.” This also extended to homes of families with daughters. In some homes, older sisters were forbidden to give any kind of direction to their younger brothers.
As far as the meetings of the Church, women were taught to be silent unless they were praying. Thus, in our times of worship, “midweek prayer meetings,” and “pre-prayer,” women could pray aloud. Otherwise, they were to be completely quiet. If during the request-gathering time of the prayer meetings, a woman had a prayer request, she was to write it down on a card or piece of paper and give it to the “brothers” to read. I must say, however, that the prohibition against women speaking aloud in meetings was suspended when we had our midweek Bible studies, since those were supposed to be “outreaches” to the community.
So how did this work out for a typical woman? First of all, the Assembly was not very romantic, since romance was considered to be “fleshly.” If you were a young woman and you saw a guy (oops, I mean “brother”) that you liked, you just had to hope that both you and he had a similar “calling”, a similar “burden” to “co-labor in the work.” If it turned out that this was so – that you both were involved in the same ministry together – and if it turned out that he took an interest in you, then he would talk to the “leading brothers” about you. They in turn would tell him all about you, including any faults that the leaders had noticed in you, and would determine whether or not it was permissible for him to pursue a relationship with you. If they gave the green light, then you both would move on to “spending time” together.
“Spending time” was Assembly-speak for their system of managed “courtship.” It was supposed to prevent immorality and “broken hearts,” although it did not prevent the latter. During the “spending time” phase, whether you knew it or not, you were often being evaluated by the “brother” in much the same way that people in olden times used to evaluate horses or slaves before buying them. “Is she zealous enough? Is she enough of a servant? Does she complain a lot? How does she respond when I inconvenience her?” Assuming that you passed the test and that you and he continued to receive “promises from the Lord,” you both would move on to the engagement phase, then to marriage.
What did marriage look like? If you had a career, you were expected to end it in order to be a “keeper at home.” Your husband had the unrestricted right to command you in every aspect of your life. Since the men were supposed to be the breadwinners and to “come exercised” and ready to preach or speak at every Assembly meeting, your man usually didn't have a lot of time for you during the week. You were supposed to do everything necessary to run the house smoothly so that he would have maximal time to spend preparing messages to preach. If you had children, your duties extended to making sure that they were ready for every meeting and taking care of them during the meetings. If you were married to one man I know, and a cockroach showed up in the kitchen, you were the one to kill it; he couldn't be bothered. Or (speaking of the same man) if you were pregnant and not feeling good, you were still expected to work hard at running the house. Need help moving something? Don't ask him; that would be telling him what to do!
If the husband decided as part of his ministry to have visitors over for dinner unannounced, it was your job to accommodate them cheerfully without complaint, at a moment's notice, no matter what you had been doing up to that point. Now, hospitality and availability to minister to strangers are both good. Yet when one is in a high-demand, fringe, totalist religious group, the group's demands leave very little energy for dealing with “surprises.” Oh, and if you failed in your responsibilities to your husband, he was free to rebuke you and to give you “consequences” for your failure – whether in private, in front of your children, or even in front of strangers visiting your home. This was part of his duty to “wash you with the water of the Word.”
The heavy and distorted emphasis on the man's “headship” in marriage led to conditions that were ripe for spousal abuse. But headship was taught in this way in order to legitimize the dysfunctional home life of George and Betty Geftakys, and of one of their sons, a wife-beater who was promoted to a position of leadership by George. That family was not the only abusive family, by the way. I know one man (the guy who refused to kill a cockroach for his wife), who also used to say to her, “Come here, woman! Let me wipe my hands off on you.” This was his way of testing her “submission.” Later in their marriage, when they began to host teen girls in their home as part of the yearly “Teen Teams,” he made his twelve-year-old son the “head steward” of these (high school aged!) girls, responsible for telling them what to do, and for giving them “consequences” when they failed to do what they were told. Another guy dumped a handful of cold water in his wife's face because she wouldn't go to bed right when he told her to. Yet another man brought his wife and newborn baby in to work, along with his other school-aged children, to show her and the new baby off to his co-workers – less than a week after she had given birth, and was still not fully recovered!
Yet I must tell you once again that such practices were not unique to the Geftakys assemblies. Indeed, there is a movement toward this sort of unbridled male authority within the more conservative elements of American evangelicalism. I was recently made aware of an outfit called “Vision Forum,” run by a gentleman named Doug Phillips, who advocates a return to what he calls “Biblical patriarchy.” He also pastors a church whose practices are very similar to what was done in the Geftakys assemblies. He teaches that women should not go to college, that women should remain in the houses of their fathers until marriage, that women should not vote, and that women should be silent in the church in the same way that this silence was taught in the Geftakys assemblies – except that I don't believe he even allows women to pray aloud in church. (Sources: http://www.newsweek.com/id/109737/output/print; http://www.visionforumministries.org/home/about/biblical_patriarchy.aspx; http://www.visionforumministries.org/issues/family/biblical_patriarchy_and_the_do.aspx)
A quick perusal of the Vision Forum website and of some of their activities shows that they have made large inroads into the homeschooling movement, and offer a complete curriculum which embodies their philosophy. Some of the books sold by them as “children's literature” are quite disturbing, because they are books written by southern white apologists for slavery which actively teach and promote racism – books by authors such as G.A. Henty and Col. John Eidsmoe. (Sources: http://racistchurches.wordpress.com/2007/06/13/ga-henty/; http://www.visionforum.com/booksandmedia/; http://jensgems.wordpress.com) One other thing is the way in which Doug Phillips and Vision Forum vehemently attack those who disagree with them, going so far as to call their opponents pagans and idolaters for not agreeing with the rigid, narrow, authoritarian patriarchal family structure taught by Vision Forum.
So what does the Bible really teach about male authority and the marriage relationship? Maybe you're asking the wrong guy, since I don't (yet) have a wedding ring. But here's my take. 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 clearly teach that women are not to be leaders over the church. When the Church lifts its prophetic voice, that voice is to be expressed through the men. That's why I won't go to a church with a woman pastor. But I firmly believe that both men and women have an equal voice in choosing who their church leaders are. Women are free to vote oafs and boors out of office. I believe that women are supposed to submit to their husbands. But I believe that the husband's love to his wife must extend beyond correcting her. Help her out. Help her get the lid off the jar. Help her reach the top bookshelf. Is she pregnant? Help her around the house! How would you like it if you had to do a bunch of housework without help while feeling like you were about to throw up for three months straight? Bring her breakfast in bed! Bring her flowers... 1 Peter 4 says that women are equal heirs with men of the grace of life.
I leave you with three examples of couples that have been good examples to me, albeit in a limited way, since I have never met them personally. There is a band I like, whose name is CAVU, led by a couple named Ken and Peg Balcom. Their music is rather quirky and offbeat, and they will probably never be famous. But they seem to really enjoy what they do, and they seem (at least from the pictures I've seen of them) to really enjoy each other. They both write, and they both sing. Ken hasn't duct-taped his wife's mouth shut! Also, there is the Innocence Mission and Vesper Stamper. The Innocence Mission is a band focused around Karen Peris, whose husband helps her out in her music, as a gift to her, as does Ben Stamper, Vesper Stamper's husband. All three of these couples seem to have a good time, even though I'm sure the husbands are Biblical husbands. All three husbands have released the wives to be true Proverbs 31 women – confident, competent and capable, and not lobotomized slaves of some “patriarch.”