The Tragic Implications of Purity Culture and Headship Theology
by Lindsey Abston Painter | 26 November 2021 |
If you’ve been following Adventist Today’s reporting or just about any other Adventist news source, social media, or even the Washington Post, you have heard the saga of Burnett Robinson, until this week pastor of the Grand Concourse church in the Bronx. But in case you have been hiding in a blanket cave this week: Robinson was filmed a few Sabbaths ago preaching about women’s subjugation to their husbands. “Ladies,” he said, “once you get married you are no longer your own. You are your husband’s.”
That’s bad enough. The next line was much, much worse. Referencing a news story of a woman who sued her husband for rape he said, “I would say to you, gentlemen, the best person to rape is your wife.”
When his comments became public, people were outraged. Robinson was put on leave, and later resigned. And rightly so. What a horrible thing to say, and a horrible thing to believe! Consent matters whether you are married or not. A person who preaches that should not be allowed in the pulpit ever again.
Yet I am left feeling unsatisfied by how this controversy ended. Because Burnett Robinson isn’t an outlier here. He’s not one random guy whose beliefs fell out of the clear blue sky. His views represent the implications of purity culture and headship theology, both of which are officially upheld by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
As a woman raised in this purity culture, I was taught that being married meant that I belong to my husband. My body is not my own. I was taught, either explicitly or implicitly, that if my husband had an affair or strayed into pornography, it was my fault—because it is my job as his wife to keep him sexually satisfied and the only reason he would use pornography or have an affair is if he is not sexually satisfied by me. I was taught that sex was meant for men’s pleasure, and that women’s pleasure was a secondary, optional goal. I was taught that sex begins when a penis enters a vagina and ends with male orgasm. Everything else is foreplay, which is optional.
I apologize for being so graphic in my descriptions—but we are talking about sex here, and this teaching is one that is sexually harmful to women in Christian marriages. Women are taught that their virginity is their shining gift to give to their husbands. If they have lost their virginity, they no longer have anything of worth to offer a husband. They are like a chewed piece of gum, a dirty rag, a nose-blown-into tissue—something that used to have value but now is fit only for the trash.
This applies, it seems, whether the woman lost her virginity consensually or not. A raped woman, an abused daughter, is still a used-up worthless thing, as the chewed piece of gum analogy strongly suggests.
And what if a man has lost his virginity? What of his gift to his wife?
That doesn’t matter as much. Boys will be boys, after all. Essentially a man has worth even if he has made the “mistake” of losing his virginity. In fact, it is not unknown in Christian cultures for fathers to be proud of their sons for bedding young women—“That’s my boy!” In a purity culture, men have inherent value that cannot be taken away regardless of their sexual status, while women do not have inherent value aside from possessing an unentered vagina.
When broken down in such terms, how ridiculous this teaching appears! Do men actually marry a woman for the prize of taking her virginity on their wedding night? I should hope not! I would hope that even in a toxic purity culture, men would recognize that their wives bring a lot more to the relationship than virginity.
Yet it is no wonder so many men undervalue women’s minds and abilities! No wonder some rely on their Biblical “leadership” role in relationships with women, rather than treating women as partners in marriage, church, or workplace!
Headship theology says that the husband is the head of the household. (In some formulations it goes as far as to say that every man is always the “head” over every woman, in all situations, whether at home or in the wider world.) The idea is based on, among other passages, 1 Corinthians 11:3.
But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.
The argument for headship theology is that God made men and women different, though their roles are equally important.
But you’re delusional if you think the role assigned to women (domestic tasks, raising children, keeping house) is granted the same level of importance by society as the role of men (working to support a family, making decisions, leadership, freedom in the wider world). In any authoritarian structure, no matter what level, the leader holds more power, and therefore has more importance. This is a setup ripe for abusive behavior.
Furthermore, these roles do not always fit well. Some women are better leaders than their husbands. Some men are not suited—indeed, do not desire—to lead. Which is why a better model is one in which men and women share responsibilities and decision making, based on factors such as ability, availability, and interest.
Burnett Robinson’s advocating of spousal rape follows from headship theology. The man is the boss. He makes the decisions, and his authority over his wife (or maybe over all women) is absolute. A woman belongs to her husband—she is his property. He can do with his property what he likes, when he likes. The woman’s thoughts on the matter need not enter into it.
So while what Burnett Robinson said isn’t taught by the church, it is not an enormous departure from headship theology to say, as does Burnett Robinson, that by being married you have given the rights to your body to your husband. And some insecure men then take the next step: that forced sex isn’t rape, because it (not “she”) belongs to you. If consent is theologically required in marriage then, according to this line of thinking, just by being married you have given your consent to your husband to do whatever he wants to do to you.
Burnett Robinson is very, very wrong. But he is just taking what the church already teaches to a logical conclusion, and voicing aloud the nasty implications of it.
No, he’s not an outlier
I am not sorry that Burnett Robinson has resigned. People should not be led by him. He should not be preaching. In his bio on the church website he called himself a “marriage counselor”; but no one should ever be counseled by this man.
Yet removing Burnett Robinson from the pulpit isn’t enough. We need to root out these horrible ideas from inside the church itself.
I resent it being put out there now, even by the official church, that Robinson doesn’t reflect what the Seventh-day Adventist Church teaches. No, our church doesn’t advocate spousal rape. But in fact this man’s conclusion about the right to rape one’s wife is the outgrowth of purity culture and headship theology, both of which the church does teach.
Women are telling me that it hurts when people say, “This man does not represent my church!” Because in some sense, he reflects how the church thinks about women. How many women do you know who have seen their abusive husbands lauded by the church while the woman was rejected for seeking a divorce? How many of us know of a pastor who was inappropriate with congregants, or even children, who was not prosecuted or fired, but simply moved to a new conference? How many of us have come to our pastor to receive advice when our husbands were abusing us and were told to be more submissive? To just offer sex more? How many women have struggled, unsupported, to raise children alone while neglectful fathers were fully accepted as leaders in their church family? Women make up the majority of church congregations. They pay most of the tithe. They hold most of the leadership positions (usually the less important ones like leading the children’s sabbath schools). And yet women are continually dismissed, degraded, denied, and devalued by the church from the General Conference down to local congregations.
Of course, not every Adventist has Robinson’s hateful prejudices! Most don’t. And those who believe what Burnett Robinson believes aren’t as obvious about it. They are more subtle. What Robinson said is merely implied, not spoken aloud.
But as long as the church continues to endorse purity culture and headship theology, people like Burnett Robinson will arise among us.
So yes, I’m glad Burnett Robinson resigned. But the misogyny, the lack of respect for women as human beings and for their bodily autonomy, and the shaming and repression of women’s sexuality that he represents, is not gone. And it will never be gone until we drag it out into the light of day. Please, church. Start thinking this through more carefully. This is where your gender theology takes us, and why it shouldn’t surprise us when people like Burnett Robinson say things like he said.
Lindsey Abston Painter is a mental health trainer living in Northern California. She is passionate about feminism, social justice, and sci-fi. She is a proud parent, and has way too many cats and one goofy dog.