The Problems With John Piper’s Latest Marriage Advice to “Kelly”

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On January 11th of 2016, a woman named “Kelly” asked John Piper these questions:

“Hello Pastor John, my husband and I are still in the beginning stages of our marriage. Both of us were raised in Christian homes, but unfortunately both of us had fathers who failed to lead the family spiritually. Our mothers did that job. Now, I desire my husband to lead our home spiritually, but we both don’t know what that looks like. Does he lead prayer with me daily? Does he read the word with me daily? And what do you do with your family? What did this look like for you (Source)?”

John Piper first sort of scolds Kelly and her husband for the fact that Kelly is asking him these questions and not her husband, which makes sense because Piper goes on to charge Kelly’s husband to become the “initiator” in all things. My heart feels for Kelly and her husband because they are newlyweds who are simply trying to figure out how to have a good and godly marriage and it is obvious that Kelly is the spiritual initiator in the marriage (and perhaps frustrated by that).

I remember the days of trying to force my husband, Luke, to fit into the complementarian box, which is funny because I grew up in an egalitarian family.

In some ways Luke naturally fits the role complementarians want him to play. He has always been the breadwinner of our family, but that is mostly because I am a minister and have had a hard time finding a job in ministry, due to complementarian teachings spreading throughout the evangelical church.

Piper says that most women want their husbands to take initiative (leadership) and he is right. We do want our men to lead some things, plan some nice dates, make some decisions, and have our backs. What Piper fails to mention is that most men want women to do these same things. Marriage is a partnership and a young bride being encouraged to rely solely on her new young husband is unrealistic.

Piper is setting Kelly and her husband up for a lot of disappointment and maybe even a lot of fights.

As I say often, between Luke and me, I am more naturally the initiator. Risk-taking comes naturally to me and if I want something done, I do it. I have always been the spiritual leader in our family. Luke is a very spiritual guy who loves the Lord, but I was called to be a minister at 13 years old and have dedicated my whole life to this whole Jesus thing.

The truth is that many (if not most) wives are the “spiritual leaders” of their families, because women have generally been more attracted to Jesus and spirituality since the first century of the early church (Read “The Rise of Christianity” by Rodney Stark). Even in so called “complementarian homes,” women are often the true “spiritual leaders,” even though they don’t like to admit it. 

When we are told over and over that this is not right or “biblical,” we start pressuring our husbands to be someone they are not ready to be or may never be no matter how hard they try. We also deny our own leadership gifts instead of embracing them. Everyone in the marriage ends up losing. We all feel insecure and start taking it out on each other.

Luke has always assisted me in ministry and has honestly been like a manager to me. He keeps me focused, encourages me to stay on task, and often slows me down. I have never wanted him to take over my ministerial calling, but I have welcomed his voice and help.

I was a part-time youth pastor when Luke and I met. He was taking too long to ask me out on a date, even though I knew he liked me, so I invited him to come help me with my teens. Luke has told me that the number one thing that I have led him in through our 7 years of marriage is spirituality.

Nowadays, Luke and I operate more as a team in ministry and spirituality, rather than him assisting me.

Luke grew in his leadership skills and in his spirituality, and we are now planting a church together, along with 7 other men/women. However, Luke is never going to be the guy who runs out to the Christian bookstore to buy a devotional for us to do together. That’s just not him, and why would I want to force him to be someone he is not? Does he lead when we pray together? Well, if I want Luke to pray for us, he is happy to, but he normally won’t take leadership in this way.

Luke may not be the man who spiritually directs me with prayer and Bible study, but he is the guy who gets up early on a freezing cold morning to warm up my car and brush the snow off the windshield for me. He’s the guy that cooks and cleans for me all the time, without my even asking. He’s the guy that lets me pick what movie we will watch every time.

Luke naturally has a servant’s heart and would sacrifice anything for me. 

Kelly, may I offer you some woman-to-woman advice? Let your new husband be himself and continue to be yourself, even if you happen to be the spiritual leader of your home. In God’s timing, you will both flourish into who you are supposed to be, but don’t force it. It will cause you and your husband much frustration and pain if you try to change each other too much.

Of course, there are times when you will need to speak up and say, “Hey babe, I really need you to take leadership on this one,” but we should not expect men to take leadership on everything.

This is too much for any human being to bear. Sometimes the wife should have the final say and sometimes the husband should have the final say, but most of time, a husband and wife should BOTH have the final say – agreeing before moving forward on any major decisions.

Marriage is a slow dance of give and take, and no one’s dance will look exactly the same. Marriage works best when we accept one another as we are, as tough as this is at times. Sometimes the wife will take the lead and she is not being rebellious; she is being a grown-up. Sometimes the husband will follow, and he is not being a “man-child;” he is humbly submitting to the woman he loves and learning to trust her.

John Piper continues to apply too many rules to what “husband headship” means in Ephesians five. Firstly, linguistic studies of the original Greek do not seem to support “husband headship” meaning “leader” or “authority over.” Our modern understanding of the word “headship” is that of “leader,” but it is a mistake to apply modern language to ancient language. I write more about this here:

What does “Husband Headship” Really Mean?

Ephesians five is not a prescription on how to have a perfectly holy marriage – godly marriages do not all look the same.

Piper and friends have read into this Bible passage way too much, in hopes of continuing a patriarchal home and church. All Christians are to be like Christ, not just husbands. Likewise, all Christians are to BE the “bride of Christ,” not just wives.

It is not correct or just to “literally” compare husbands to Christ, who was perfect in all His ways, and then compare wives to the Church, who messes everything up and needs a Savior.

This teaching continues to perpetuate injustice towards women worldwide. God has called husbands and wives to mutually submit to one another (Eph. 5:21) and husbands to lay down their selfishness and love their wives unconditionally.

It’s this simple, and I would be willing to bet that “Kelly’s” husband is already being a great “head of the home” without even trying, because all “head of the home” means is to sacrificially love one’s bride.

For Biblical Evidence Read My Post:

Dismantling the Falsity that Complementarianism is “Clearly Biblical”

I believe strongly in the authority of the Bible and used it as my primary source in writing my master’s thesis on female leadership in the first and second centuries of the early church:

Masters Thesis

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35 Comments

  • Off topic but here’s my problem with Piper. He says it’s a sin to divorce. And when I asked my husband if he wanted a divorce he said no it’s a sin. So now I don’t know if he wants to stay with me because he loves me or he doesn’t want to sin. Of course he says it came out wrong.

    • Becky….whatever it was that caused you to ask the question in the first place—was it his sinful behavior? Example: Was he physically abusive? Was there another woman (or two or three)? If so, then you can settle the matter. If he’s just being a you-know-what, then you have to decide something else. At 70+, I have no patience with men (or anybody) acting like a 2-yr-old out of control, and I tend to treat them accordingly. Recently my husband exhibited a terrible road rage. I was both terrified and livid. I told him very calmly that he can’t do this with me, and it was not ok. The other driver could have easily had a gun, and I would have been in the middle in very close proximity. And it will definitely not happen again. My dear, speak up. He can’t read your mind. If whatever he has been doing, or not doing, is not ok, then get it out in the open. Too simple and naïve? Perhaps so, then keep things like they are if that’s ok with the both of you. You always have choices.

  • “Sometimes the wife will take the lead and she is not being rebellious; she is being a grown-up. ”
    Wow! You have such a gift of putting into words what so many of us coming out of patriarchy/complementarian circles have experienced! How many times have I said in frustration and defeat, “I just feel like one of the children” and how many times have I cringed when I heard , “You are such a controlling wife”. Lord, Help us! Bring Healing and wholeness to your church! Lord I pray that you would continue to anoint Jory to preach the Word of truth, in season and out, in order to set your children free (both men and women who are caught in the lies). Lord I ask that you bless and bring increase to this very integral role she has in the body of Christ. Jory you definitely have a ‘job’ ministering to the body of Christ! You may not be on a church payroll, but you most definitely have a JOB to do, and are doing it very faithfully! The Lord has called you and you are on His payroll. Bless you, my sister.

  • This is simply brilliant:

    “It is not correct or just to “literally” compare husbands to Christ, who was perfect in all His ways, and then compare wives to the Church, who messes everything up and needs a Savior.”

    Exactly!

  • Thanks Jory! Perfectly said, perfect advice. Newlyweds are trying to figure out a whole lot of things in the beginning. I had taken some of the ill-advice of John Piper and others and decided not to lead for a length of time. That is, until the Holy Spirit got a hold of me and compared it to a ship without a rudder…”You can either steer the ship in certain situations and seasons or not steer the ship, but if nobody is steering the ship it will run aground.”

  • Hi Jory,

    Thank you for this post. I really enjoyed reading of your personal experience and your insights on Piper’s thoughts.

    A question… If your husband Luke DID have a strong urge to lead in the same sort of capacity you do, how would things have worked then do you think? How would you work out who was the ‘spiritual head’ at that point (if there needs to be one)?

    If your husband has no problem with you leading, then the set up you’re suggesting works fine. What if he does? It would be great to hear your thoughts.

    Thank you and God bless your ministry, Jory!

    • My husband, Luke, does lead in the areas he is naturally gifted in and I respect that. In turn, I lead in the areas I am naturally gifted in, and he respects that.

      If Luke really wants to lead something, I normally trust him in that. Luke does not demand his way very often, so when he does, I tend to trust that he really knows what he is talking about.

      If I follow Luke in his way for years and it’s not working for us, I tend to step in to turn the boat around. He does the same for me.

      Sometimes this can be a battle of wills, just like any real relationship, but we move forward even in the mess.

      But, mutual submission means dying to self, not demanding our own way. This is hard for all humans (male or female), but this is the way of Christ. 🙂

      • Mutual submission is the key. You are right on. The scripture is clear about that “submit one to another.” I don’t know how some people read the Bible and overlook it.

  • I want to ask Kelly, if you both know your fathers failed to “lead spiritually” then what is it you think they failed to do that you would want in your marriage? A child may recognize a lazy father or one who squanders the family’s resources; however, can a child, even as an adult, discern how much responsibility a good-willed father *felt* towards the things Piper mentions, e.g. to be the initiator, to plan financially, etc.?

    All the things Piper provides as examples, save devotion and corporate worship, are things non-Christian, Muslim, atheist, etc. husbands can do and, in fact, do. Are those husbands spiritually leading? We would likely say they are being responsibly mature men. Most of what Piper is describing as “headship” is what I would call intentional living–being purposeful about relationships, responsibilities, ministry, etc. This is not the primary domain of men but is what mature men and women do.

    Piper writes: “She [a wife] ought not to have to feel that she is constantly doing the initiating, prodding to get this man to talk about things that need to be talked about, plan things that need to be planned, do things that need to be done.” If Piper is saying, this wife’s husband is an immature floater, I agree. A wife has a reasonable expectation her husband would share in responsibilities. However, a wife shouldn’t begrudge her sense of God-like responsibility, as Piper assumes she would, and she should not feel as though she is “prodding” but creatively invite her husband into the conversation or planning. Unlike Piper, I am optimistic men can be called to intentional living and grow in maturity without conferring on them authority and rank and diminishing a woman’s personal autonomy or sacrificing her sense of mature responsibility.

    • Wow, Angie! Here is what you said: “Unlike Piper, I am optimistic men can be called to intentional living and grow in maturity without conferring on them authority and rank and diminishing a woman’s personal autonomy or sacrificing her sense of mature responsibility.” That really sums up the complementarian/egalitarian debate. Christian husbands are called to sacrifice themselves, not their wives’ dignity.

  • Kelly is simply a byproduct of the teaching she’s been under or just came under. And I hope she heeds to this message more than to the other. I grew up with a very laid back father–he was a provider, he was not lazy, but he did not want to “lead”. He wanted to do life together with my Mom, who is a natural born leader and a businesswoman. She had the business brain, but he helped her to run it. Interestingly, that’s exactly how my and my husband’s relationship ended up being. He is happy-go-lucky, Jesus loving, people serving man, who tried to force himself to “lead”, as he heard it from so many “white” churches (have you noticed that African American churches do not have the same struggle with female leadership? My husband’s Mom was the pastor and Dad deacon, and they had no marital issues) And I am the go-getter, business owner, risk take, and planner. So, one day we just had enough of the outside voices, shut them out and decided that we will fill roles in our lives and our marriage as theycomes natural to us–we decide on a lot of things together, and then I lead some, he leads some. At the end of the day we only care about one thing–are we happy, are we fulfilled, and are things getting done. I guess, that is three things :).

    I’ve said it before, and happy to hear you saying it here too, Jory, we should not push all of the men through the same cookie cutter. If we do, everyone loses, and humanity is that much more at a disadvantage of growing forward.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your experience. So many men and women need to read/hear what you have said here, Elena! It is OK not to fit the mold! 🙂

  • I’m a new reader to these writings….and, I’m thinking I’m much older, at 64, than the average reader of these blogs. I find it refreshing to read the positions of the writers. Their expressions, often, present views that I was not raised with….but through several years of loving God, His word, and seeking Him, the His spirit has taught us much. My husband and I, for the last 42 years, have never “fit the mold”. God is good!

  • Hey Jory,

    Another great post. I love how you’ve explained this so lovingly and empoweringly to this girl who has so much disappointment ahead in her marriage if she and her husband take Piper’s advice. I hope she reads this post. The tenre of her letter to Piper implies someone who is deeply desirous of doing things God’s way, and their previous experience with their upbringing has caused them to falsely infer that the opposite must be the way to go. Hmmm.

    On another note, how awesome that you guys are starting a church together with a group… that is such good news. Rick is much like Luke, as I’ve mentioned before, and because we’ve led churches and organisations from the model you espouse, that culture has automatically become part of the organisations we led, meaning that long after we have gone, they continue to work from an egalitarian base.

    On

  • How can people miss God’s heart so much and people still listen to them?
    Keep bringing these things to Christian consciousness.
    Blessings.

  • Hi friend! I had to think on this for a while before commenting. I believe that Ephesians 5 IS the perfect equation for a successful and God-honoring marriage. A wife should submit and a husband should love. In both cases each person is bending their will for the sake of the other. Loving and submitting really seems to be 2 different words resulting in the same action. It is unfortunate that the husband being the “leader” is the take away for so many. Ephesians 5 is relational, not hierarchical. Furthermore, we stand before the Judgment seat of Christ as individuals to give account for what we did in our bodies (Romans 14; 2 Corinthians 5). I am responsible for my walk with God. Period.

  • Co-submission is how God teaches us to live in a marriage. I have had to learn that the hard way through the Holy Spirit being my teacher. I used to get so upset my husband wasn’t being the “spiritual leader” of the family. I was the one initiating family devotions and praying together, and getting resentful and bitter that he wasn’t doing it like he was “supposed” to. Years later I found out his thought was that I am called to ministry with an anointing in children’s ministry, so why would he step in and take it away from me in our own home? He has always been an incredible model of loving me unconditionally as Christ loves the church. THAT is what he is required to do in our marriage, and I am required to respect him. The rest is based on the giftings and personalities of the two individuals in the marriage. Being under the husband is part of the curse…we are not under the curse. My husband and are side-by-side. We submit to the Holy Spirit in each other. Okay, my speech is done. Obviously you sparked something I firmly believe in but seldom see or hear anyone teach this truth.

  • I love this blog i have found recently. Lots of the male female argument is too feminist for me but jory i feel you have the mind of the lord in this. My husband and i do not fit any mould and we have had to find ways of living with that. He is retired and i am in full time community project. Often i have felt frustrated thinking we have got the model wrong. I find your blogs enable me to rest in my calling and not put expectations on him that are unfair and just bring pressure to our relationship. Keep your spirit sweet and god bless you both.

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