PODCAST: Perceived Autonomy vs. Actual Autonomy

by | Nov 30, 2023 | Podcasts | 22 comments

Perceived Autonomy vs. Actual Autonomy Podcast

How much control does your church exert over you?

As we’re winding down 2023, and heading into the last few podcasts of the year, we want to talk about how to get in healthy church spaces, and how to get out of unhealthy church spaces.

Healthy ones exist! But often when we’re in an unhealthy one, we feel like we can’t leave, and we feel like that church is our whole life (and it very well may be).

Today’s podcast is based on an email that Rebecca sent to our email list of 45,000, talking about perceived autonomy vs. actual autonomy. 

Here’s the issue: the church used to exert a lot of control over people’s lives, but today it really doesn’t. It’s a voluntary affiliation, and you are free to leave.

But as church has become less influential and less relevant, many individual churches have gone out of their way to become even more authoritarian, to convince people they can’t leave or they have no choice but to listen to toxic pastors. So let’s talk about the difference between perceived autonomy and actual autonomy!

Or, as always, you can watch on YouTube:

Timeline of the Podcast

0:10 Newsletters & Surveys!

2:45 Perceived Autonomy vs Actual Autonomy

7:20 The church and their perceived autonomy

22:10 Small group red flags

27:05 Recognizing good leadership

33:00 Biblical couseling

42:00 Steps when taking autonomy back

45:30 “Husbands can be saviors to their wives”?!

How do church spaces limit our perceived autonomy?

Often our perceived autonomy is different from our actual autonomy. We feel like we can’t leave, we can’t speak up, we can’t complain, when actually, we’re totally able to do all these things (understanding that past trauma can limit such abilities). There are no laws or ways that we can actually be prevented from disagreeing with leadership or going against leadership.

Yet we often feel as if we can’t, and in this podcast we talk about several ways that certain evangelical churches exert control, such as:

  • Forced disclosures in small groups, including forced financial disclosures, forced sin confessions, forbidding people from moving or taking certain jobs if leadership doesn’t agree, etc.
  • Membership covenants that tell church members they can be put under church discipline for leaving or for disagreeing with leadership and telling others about it
  • Biblical counseling where you are told you must attend to deal with sin or marriage issues, while biblical counseling provides no guarantees of privacy, and you have to sign a waiver allowing your biblical counselor to talk to the pastor or elders about you.

I had no idea such things were actually normal in many church circles (especially 9Marks or Acts 29 churches), but they are, and we need to talk about it. I think this is more of an issue in the American church than in other English speaking countries, but church does not have to be this way.

Why is John MacArthur talking about husbands being their wives’ saviors?

Then Keith and I dissected this horrible quote from John MacArthur:

You have to look at yourself in the way that Paul described marriage in Ephesians 5. He basically says that a husband is like a savior to his wife. That’s essentially what it says. And I think the burden really lies with men to see themselves as those who rescue women from loneliness, who rescue women from being in an unfulfilled—being in a place where they aren’t protected, they aren’t provided for, they aren’t cared for, they aren’t loved, they aren’t given the opportunity to have children. So from what I would experience in our society, it’s the men that have to step up. And I honestly do not know what in the world they are waiting for. I have threatened many times to line up all the single women on one side, all the single men on the other side, and assign you a wife.

But instead of looking for someone who is some kind of trophy, you need to look to someone who loves Christ, that you can be a savior to that person and a protector and a provider and a lover, and be what Christ is to His church—because that’s the picture. And I’d strongly exhort young men to find a wife, because in that finding is God’s greatest gift in this world. And it allows you to raise up children who know and love the Lord; that’s the purpose of marriage: to procreate. And to do so in Christ is the highest calling in life.

John MacArthur

Bible Questions and Answers Part 77

Here’s another example of a toxic church culture that it’s best to avoid! Keith and I dissected MacArthur’s quote here, and it’s a doozy.

Also, John MacArthur’s church is one of the main supporters of biblical counseling, so all of this stuff often goes together. Remember: it’s okay to say no! Healthy churches are out there, but you won’t find them if you stay in these places.

Our Marriage Survey is Open!

We’re looking for couples especially to take our new marriage survey. Spouses take it separately on different devices, and you aren’t shown each other’s responses. Even if your spouse won’t take it, you’re still welcome to (as long as you’re married), but we’re hoping for lots of couples so we can do analysis of matched pairs.

Fill it out here!

Things Mentioned in the Podcast

Bare Marriage Podcast episode 216 on Perceived vs. Actual Autonomy

Have you ever been in a small group like that or signed a membership covenant? What do you think of John MacArthur’s words? Let’s talk in the comments!


Sheila: Welcome to the Bare Marriage podcast.  I’m Sheila Wray Gregoire from baremarriage.com where we like to talk about healthy, evidence-based, biblical advice for your sex life and your marriage.  So do you have perceived autonomy or actual autonomy?

Rebecca: Well, you have both.  

Sheila: And how do those things interact with each other, and how do they determine what we do with our lives?  I am joined today by my daughter, Rebecca Lindenbach.

Rebecca: That’s me.

Sheila: Every Friday we send out an email to—I don’t know how many people.  About 45,000 people who are signed up to our email list.  And Rebecca writes those emails.  And when I used to write the email, we had about a 20% open rate.     

Rebecca: Which was really good for the industry.  

Sheila: Yeah.  For our industry.  Now that Rebecca writes it we have a 50% open rate.

Rebecca: I will say.  Thank you to everyone who reads them every week.  It actually is such an encouragement that people seem to enjoy what I have to write.  And I love the replies that I get too. 

Sheila: Yeah.  They’re longer than blog posts often.  They’re really in depth, and they’re really thoughtful especially about faith issues that we’re going through.  And so we want to talk about one of her recent articles, one of her recent emails, that she sent because I think it’s a really important one as we transition into a couple of podcasts the next few weeks that are going to be looking at church hurt and how we navigate church hurt.  Before we do that, for something completely different but also totally on brand, now is the time, people.  We have our survey open.  We are collecting survey responses for our new matched pair marriage survey.  And matched pair means that both of you in the couple take the survey.  Not together.  It’s still totally anonymous.  You don’t know what your spouse is saying, but we’re able to link you in a certain way.  It’s really kind of nifty.  And then we can make some awesome comparisons and do some studies we haven’t been able to do when we just survey men or just survey women.  So that survey is open to anyone who is currently married, to any couple where at least one of you is a Christian.  And the link is in the podcast notes.  It’s going to be open for—I don’t know.  We’ll probably keep it open until Christmas or something, but please take it.  We need you so much.  We really appreciate all of your help.  It’s because of you that we can write the books that we’re writing.    

Rebecca: Exactly.

Sheila: And this one is a new marriage book that Keith and I have been writing.  And please share the link in your Facebook groups, in your church mom group, wherever you go because the more people who take it the better.  And we’d love to get this disseminated as widely as possible.  So please check that out, and we really appreciate it.  We already have ethics approval through Queens University in Kingston, Ontario with Dr. Keith Gregoire, my husband, as the main researcher on it.  So very excited about that.  Okay, Becca.  Would you like to explain what you were talking about in that email?      

Rebecca: Yeah.  So I was talking about the concept of autonomy being broken up into two different groupings.    

Sheila: And let’s actually define autonomy first before you even talk about the two different groups.  

Rebecca: Autonomy means how much agency you have over your own actions, our life, your body.  It’s, in essence, your power, right?  So it’s another word for independence.  We talk a lot about toddlers having a very high need for autonomy.  That’s the, “No.  I do it.  I do it.  I do it,” stage, right?  “I do it myself.  I do it self.”  The concept of autonomy is the idea that we have control over which direction our ship is heading.  Okay?  At any given moment, we have our actual true level of autonomy and our perceived level of autonomy.  So we have how much we actually have control over and how much we feel like we have control over.    

Sheila: Right.

Rebecca: And these often don’t match up.  

Sheila: Yes.  Yes.  And they also influence each other.  

Rebecca: And they do influence each other.  So you tend to—you will act under the assumption that your perceived autonomy is your actual autonomy.   So however much you feel like you have control over, that’s generally how you’ll act.  Now in the past, the church has had a lot of actual autonomy over us.  It has reduced people’s actual autonomy quite a bit.  Look at the witch trials in Salem, right?  “I saw her casting a spell in the middle of the night when I was just walking, and she turned a newt into a horse and into a newt again.”  And then burned at the stake, right?  That is actual autonomy.  They could kill women just for saying the wrong words.  Okay?  Or even think about how recently women were considered the property of their husbands where they could be beaten.  They could be mistreated in all sorts of horrible ways, and it was—there was literally no legal recourse.  That is actual autonomy being taken away.  Right?  Think about even in American history how—and Canadian history too—how recently women have been able to get credit cards and loans in their own names if they are married or if they’re unmarried, right?  These are all things that are issues of actual autonomy.  How much power do you actually have?  Recently, that’s actually been leveling out a lot better than it ever has in history.  Do I think that we are doing very well overall?  We still have a long way to go.  But it is, I do think, intellectually dishonest to pretend that it’s just as bad as it’s ever been.

Sheila: Right.  Yes.  No.  It definitely is not.  I have it a lot better than my mom.  My mom had it better than her mom, et cetera.  Yes.

Rebecca: Yeah.  And there’s a lot of issues with sexism, with racism.  There’s all sorts of different kinds of discrimination that do reduce actual autonomy of individuals.  

Sheila: Yes.  Especially if you’re less likely to be able to get a job or to get housing because of discrimination.  Yeah.  All of those things definitely play a role.  

Rebecca: There’s all sorts of things.  Exactly.

Sheila: And that can be systemic too because certain people have just more money and more opportunity than others because of—yeah.  Absolutely.

Rebecca: Exactly.  Because of history.  Yeah.

Sheila: And there’s generational wealth that was passed on.  

Rebecca: Because of history.

Sheila: Yes.  There definitely are.  And, of course, age plays a huge role because children do not have actual autonomy.

Rebecca: Exactly.  Yeah.  So there’s a lot of things going here.  But we’re talking about this level of how much power do I actually have over my life versus how much power do I feel like I do.  And what’s interesting is the church has continuously lost its actual power over its congregants.  But as a result, it seems to have amped up its desire to reduce their congregants perceived autonomy.  So as the congregants gain actual autonomy like, “Hey, you can’t burn us at the stake anymore, dudes,”—

Sheila: And also I’m allowed to leave the church.  I can just walk out and never come back, and nobody can do anything to me.  

Rebecca: Yeah.  The more secular that the world became the less people’s jobs were tied up to the local parish.  The less people’s livelihood could be influenced by the church.  That actually is something that increases the average congregant’s actual autonomy quite a bit because you can—again, we left multiple churches.  

Sheila: Well, we make it sound like it’s so many.  We left two.  We left two.

Rebecca: Yeah.  We left two churches, but that is multiple.  But yeah.  Two churches.  Had two big times leaving churches.  Dad suddenly didn’t lose his job as a doctor, right?  Because separation of church and state, right?  This whole situation.  That actually increases the autonomy.  But you have a lot of churches that have worked really, really hard to make people feel like they don’t have a choice but to stay.  Think about in marriage.  We talk about this all the time.  I mean yeah.  You can explain the submission teachings.

Sheila: Well, let’s take marriage for a minute too.  About autonomy in marriage.  So a lot of people feel like, “Well, I can’t leave my husband even if he’s abusive,” whatever.  And let’s say that there’s—in many cases, there actually isn’t autonomy in the sense that if you leave that’s the time when the risk of violence goes up.  And that’s the time that she is most likely to be killed or her kids most likely to be killed.  There’s been some horrible news stories about that.  Even most mass shootings that occur are linked ultimately to domestic violence in the beginning.  So in many cases in abusive situations, there actually isn’t autonomy.

Rebecca: Yes.  That’s an issue of actual autonomy.

Sheila: That’s an issue of actual autonomy.  But in some cases, it’s not abusive.  It’s just a bad marriage, right?  Maybe he’s cheating on you.  He’s perpetually using porn.  He’s gambling all the money away.  Or she’s doing it.

Rebecca: By not abusive, we mean no domestic violence.  There’s not a domestic violence threat.  We’re not saying that multiple affairs isn’t a form of emotional abuse.  That’s not what we’re saying.  You used the word abuse.  What we meant is domestic violence in a physical form.  

Sheila: Yes.  Yes.  I did.  Yeah.  So there’s no physical risk to you being hurt or killed or your children being hurt or killed.  But there is an ability to leave a marriage legally in a way today that there wasn’t in 1940, 1930, 1920 because we do have no fault divorce.

Rebecca: Again, because the church—yeah.  Because the church used to be in charge of marriage, right?  And they said, “No.  You can’t leave.”  

Sheila: Yes.  And so now we actually can.  So we actually have—but what was the church done?  It’s told women, especially, but women and men you can’t leave no matter what is happening even in abusive situations.  Let’s remember that Focus on the Family—their official stance is still that you cannot divorce for abuse.  That you can separate but the goal needs to always be working towards reconciliation.  They don’t advertise that that much, but you can see that on their position papers on divorce and marriage that the only actual reason for divorce is adultery or abandonment.  So not abuse.  And many denominations, many pastors, still say that to their congregants.  And so you go for help to your community that you really love and that has a lot of influence over you, and your community says you’re not allowed to leave or else God is going to be angry at you.  And God is going to not forgive you.

Rebecca: Yeah.  Exactly.  Because the church does not have actual autonomy over people anymore in the same way.  And so they have to convince people to hand their autonomy over to them.  That’s what’s so tricky.  Again, we used to be in a position where the church had actual autonomy over people.  Think about how many lots of land were owned by the church and had peasants working on them, right?  And now churches have power over us because we choose to give it to them.  That’s not the same thing as saying that it’s all your fault.  That’s not what we’re saying.  But what we are saying is we have to recognize that our society has put in so many safeguards in place.  It genuinely has.  They might not be perfect, but they are there.  That it is possible to live life not under the control of a church.  So we get messages from a lot of people all of the time.  And we got a message from a woman, who was saying that her church was calling her in to be disciplined in front of the elders’ board.  And she was just so stressed, and she just didn’t want to go.  And she didn’t know what to do.  And she was trying to prepare and saying, “You could just not go.  You are allowed to just not go and not be disciplined.”  And that was just a thought that had never occurred.

Sheila: Yeah.  We talked about this on the podcast with Naghmeh Panahi actually when we were talking about how the church bullied her and how Franklin Graham was making a lot of demands on her to reconcile with her abusive husband.  That podcast was earlier in November.  Or no.  It was the last one for domestic violence awareness month in October.  But she figured out that, “Okay.  I don’t have to do everything that Franklin Graham is telling me to do even though he is this super important person in the evangelical church.  I actually don’t have to listen to him.”  

Rebecca: No.  He only has power because we think he’s important.  If we don’t think he’s important, he loses all power.  That’s not actual power, guys.  That’s perceived power. 

Sheila: That is perceived power.  

Rebecca: And that’s what I want people to understand is there is so much freedom when you realize you don’t have to care what an abusive pastor thinks about you.  You don’t have to care what people think about you.  These things don’t actually have to have real physical power over you.  Now there are a lot of people who because of spiritual abuse of—spiritually abusive tactics because of this manipulation.  God told me that you’re supposed to take this job kind of language.  Have ended up giving over a lot of their actual autonomy to the church.  People whose jobs are tied up in the church.  There’s a lot of situations where the husband and the wife are both fully employed by a ministry that then they realize is abusive and they have to get out of.  Or it’s just not even abusive.  Just toxic and they don’t agree with but now they’re stuck, right?  And maybe all of your social circles in the church because you’ve listened to everyone telling you that you should really only invest in your church community.  And you shouldn’t make best friends with people who aren’t Christian because then they’ll—  

Sheila: They’ll lead you astray.

Rebecca: Or you shouldn’t talk to those kinds of Christians because they have the wrong theology.  And slowly, slowly, bit by bit, your perceived autonomy goes down because you believe all these things that other people say.  And so you’ve made choices that have actually lowered your actual autonomy.

Sheila: Yeah.  Because you only went to Bible college, so you have a degree that doesn’t really count necessarily—

Rebecca: In the real world.  

Sheila: – in the wider circles.  You and your spouse are both employed in the church.  Your whole social group belongs to the church.  Maybe your family belongs to the church.  And now you realize the church isn’t a safe place.  But what do you do?  That’s your entire life and your entire livelihood.

Rebecca: Mm-hmm.  And so what I wish people could understand more because I know that this was very freeing when I realized it.  And, of course, when you find something that helps you, you want everyone else to know about it too, right?  That’s natural.  I just wish people understood more that you are allowed to take back that autonomy.  I am so—and I know that people probably think I talk about this too much.  But I think it’s important.  I’m just so grateful that I had the gift—and this is going to sound really bad, guys.  But work with me through it.  I had the gift of learning to mistrust leadership when I was only 10 years old.  That was a gift that I’m going to give my kids.  No.  But it is truly a gift because I was in a youth group with very spiritually abusive leaders.  I have no problem saying that.  And yeah.  I won’t name them but very, very high levels of spiritual abuse going on in the youth group that I grew up in.  I know many people who are victims of it.  I never gave two craps what those people thought about me.  And so they didn’t have power over me.  And I wish that I had had the wherewithal when I was 14, 15 years old to talk about that with my friends because, instead, I thought like, “Well, they respect the pastor, and that’s all good.  And I’ll get out of their way.”  And I wish I had gotten in their way a little bit more.  Because I think if someone had just told them, “You don’t have to care what he thinks about you,” his words would not have damaged them so much.  If someone else had given them permission—and I was in a position to be able to do that.  And I was a child, so I’m not actually that hard on myself about it.  But slowly, slowly, piece by piece, your actual autonomy can be taken away from you because we give it up.  And that’s what’s so tricky.  And so if you’re in a situation where stuff is bad, you’re like, “I don’t feel safe in this church anymore,” but your whole employment is wrapped up in stuff and all your social group is wrapped up in this, can I just gently say, “It might be wise to try to get your autonomy back before you give it to them”?  Because there’s a lot of people who can speak to this stuff, but they do it before they’ve got a backing.  Naghmeh went into the meeting with the Franklin Graham with advocates.  She didn’t go in alone.  When we talk about this idea of autonomy, you can get your autonomy back.  You absolutely can.  It might take awhile.  But you absolutely can.  Our society is set up for it.

Sheila: Can I give you a story about this?  

Rebecca: Yeah.  Sure. 

Sheila: Okay.  This was 2015 at The Village Church, which is run by Matt Chandler.  I think it’s in Texas, but I’m blanking on it right now.  But sorry.  My Canadian brain doesn’t always remember all of these things.  But Matt Chandler is a mega church pastor at Village Church.  Very large church.  And there was a missionary couple.  I forget what the husband’s name was.  But Karen Hinkley was the wife.    

Rebecca: That’s good.  Remember her name.  We don’t remember his.

Sheila: Yes.  And they were on the mission field.  They had been married for six years, and she discovered that he had been using child sexual abuse materials, a.k.a child porn.  I prefer calling it child sexual abuse materials.  The Brits have been doing this for years.  I love watching Brit crime shows.  They’re so much better than American crime shows.  I’m totally a BritBox girl.  And I first started hearing them say this a couple years ago on shows.  And I’m like, “What is child sexual abuse material?”  So then you realize it’s child porn.  And slowly, America is changing too because it is a better term for it.  So anyway, her husband had been using child sexual abuse materials.  She comes home from the mission field and just wants to annul the marriage because she says that this had been going on for years.  And nobody had disclosed it to her, so she got married under false pretences, right?  And so she left the church.  And The Village Church was allowing the husband to go to church as long as he was accompanied by someone and was telling her that she had to go for marriage counseling to go towards reconciliation.  Now the tricky thing is that they had signed a membership covenant.  And a membership covenant—for those of you who have signed it, I want you to know most churches do not have this.  And I never even knew what it was.

Rebecca: No.  These are creepy and weird and cult like.  

Sheila: Yeah.  I never even knew what it was until I read the Karen Hinkley story.  That was actually the first time I had ever heard of a membership covenant.  But since then I’ve heard of so many.  And in our patron group, somebody sent one and said, “Should I sign this?”  We were all like, “No.”  

Rebecca: Run.  Run as fast as you can.

Sheila: But the membership covenants—what they often do is they tell the parishioners that if the church leadership has a problem with you, you need to listen to the elders or you face church discipline.  And the things that you can face church discipline for are determined by the elders.

Rebecca: Yeah.  They say things like unrepentant sin, but they don’t have a long list of exactly what that what would mean.

Sheila: And often it can be gossiping or disparaging the church, which just means saying anything negative about leaders like you covered up sexual abuse.  Right?  

Rebecca: Yeah.  What the freak, guys?  

Sheila: So in her case, the elders were telling her you need to go to marriage counseling.  Matt Chandler was telling her.  And she was saying no.  So she leaves the church, goes somewhere else, and they pursue her.  They send emails.  They tell the entire church what she has done.  So this hits national news.  There are stories about it in several big papers.  And eventually, Matt Chandler had to apologize and said that he hadn’t handled it properly.  

Rebecca: Yeah.  No duh, Sherlock. 

Sheila: But membership covenants—if you have one at a church and you read it, you will realize that it is putting you at a major disadvantage.  It’s saying that if you have a problem with the church you promise that you won’t bring in outside sources but that you will seek a mediator that the church approves of.  Or you will listen to the church.  It doesn’t tell you how you can leaders accountable.  It only tells you how the leaders can hold you accountable, what they can do to you.  And a membership covenant is a legal document.  Now you can get out of them.  I will put a link in the podcast notes from Dee at The Wartburg Watch who has written a lot on membership covenants.  And she has a sample letter that you can send to your church, and they must listen to you.  This has been established in courts now because people have taken churches to court and vice versa over this because often people will be pursued.  So they’ll leave the church.  And because in the membership covenant, you promise that you won’t leave the church too or that you say this is the body that I now belong to.  This is my church fellowship.  And so if you leave, they can pursue you.  They can go talk to your employer about you.  And this isn’t actually legal.  If you say, “No.  I do not want to be a part of this anymore,” they have to listen to that.  A lot of churches have not.  But then you can hold them accountable, and you can sue them.  So we will put a link to that.  But that’s one example.  So Karen Hinkley left.  They didn’t let her leave.  They pursued her.  And then they actually did have to apologize.

Rebecca: And so why would people sign these things, right?  A lot of it is because you want community.  You want to do what God wants you to do.  But I will just say, first of all, if you’re at a church with a membership covenant I have not heard of a single healthy church with a membership covenant.  

Sheila: No.  Most Acts 29 churches have them.  A lot of SBC churches.  Yeah.

Rebecca: No.  But do not sign a membership covenant because even churches that have membership covenants you’re often allowed to attend.  Even if you really desperately want to go to the church with the really creepy, culty membership covenant, you can still go to church.  You can still get to know the people.  What are they actually going to do?  Are they going to bar the doors?  Again, going back to perceived autonomy versus actual autonomy.   What are they actually going to do?  

Sheila: Yeah.  They might tell you, “Well, you’re not allowed to serve in certain ministries.”

Rebecca: It’s like, “Okay.  I’m not allowed to volunteer.  You mean I can use the volunteer services, but I can’t actually volunteer.  Okay.”  You’re really dying on this hill.  You want me to send my six kids downstairs to Sunday School every single week, and you want me to not serve.  That doesn’t sound like a bad deal to me.  Again, what are they actually going to do?  Right?  Like oh, well, you can’t bring things to the potluck.  Can I eat at the potluck?  Whatever it is.  And some of this sounds ridiculous, but this is actually what it is because they hold things over your head that don’t actually matter.  Like oh, but you want the gift—the ability to serve.  Why?  If they’re going to make you sign away rights to do it, why?  Don’t give up your actual autonomy because your perceived autonomy is too low.  Don’t.  And in marriages, we do this all the time.  We hear from women who said, “Well, I didn’t think I could say anything.”  Why?  You live in a nation where you—your voice matters just as much as his.  It’s because the church convinces so many people, and especially women, that your voice matters less.  You don’t get to speak up.  It’s like we talked about in the past week.  The whole thing like you aren’t allowed to have emotions because you’re a woman.  You’re supposed to surrender because you’re a woman.  Why?  Is that true?  Or is that simply lowering our perceived autonomy so that we allow people to have more control over us?  Because no one can have control over you that we don’t give them in the vast majority of cases.  And so what happens if you are in a situation where you’ve given over control?

Sheila: Let me give you another example.  Can I do that?

Rebecca: Yeah.  Okay.  Sure.  

Sheila: Okay.  So this is common.  Watermark Churches do this.  Harvest Bible Chapel did this.  A lot of these big nondenominational churches do things with small groups that—

Rebecca: Oh, small groups are weird sometimes in these places.

Sheila: – really lower autonomy.  Now I love the idea of small groups.

Rebecca: I’m in a small group.

Sheila: I think small groups are really—can be really healthy.  

Rebecca: They’re fantastic.

Sheila: I think getting to know people—like a smaller group of people that you’re really connected with and that you do life with is a really good thing.  I think it’s very biblical.  I’m totally in favor of small groups.  But some churches take it to such an extent that in order—that you’re required to belong to a small group if you want to go to the church.  Often the church assigns you to a small group.  And then in that small group, you’re required to hand over your tax returns, to show your income slips.  You’re not allowed to buy a house or make a job decision unless the small group agrees.  Things that are said in the small group can be reported by the leaders to the pastor if they think that you’re a problem.  

Rebecca: What isn’t but feels lesser note often it’s where you’re encouraged to undergo confessionals and talk about all of the sins that you’ve ever done or your worst sin.  And it’s talked about in a lot of spiritual ways like you need to confess your sins to let go of any footholds that the devil might have over you.  These kinds of things.

Sheila: And often it’s that the leaders don’t do the confessing.  The leaders of the small group don’t, but they require the people to quite frequently.  There’s some really weird dynamics.

Rebecca: It can be really weird, guys.

Sheila: And I’ll put a link.  There’s a blog called No Eden Elsewhere that has done a lot of work on the Watermark, in particular.  But it isn’t just Watermark.  I’d encourage you to read it.  Not to learn more about Watermark but just to recognize this stuff because it isn’t only in Watermark.  It’s in a number of churches the way they handle small groups.  So if you’re in a small group where they require you to confess sins every week—

Rebecca: Or to bring in tax forms or employee—or what’s the—pay stubs and stuff like that.

Sheila: Pay stubs.  And then to show how much you’re actually tithing or giving.  

Rebecca: I know that some Harvest Bible Chapels in Canada even have done that.    

Sheila: Yeah.  Yeah.  And I know some Harvest Bible small groups where they divide into men and women at the beginning, and you’re supposed to confess your sins for the week.  And it’s all done in the name of accountability.  I don’t have a problem with having a small group where confession is a big part of it.  But it should flow naturally out of the community you have already built.  

Rebecca: And it shouldn’t be a power hierarchy.

Sheila: Yeah.  No.  But it should not be forced.  This is the thing.  Accountability and vulnerability are things that grow naturally out of safe relationships.  You cannot force vulnerability and accountability onto relationships that have not been properly formed yet.  And so when small groups grow because people have learned to trust each other and we’ve been safe for each other and then you’ve been going for a couple of months and you’re like, “You know what?  I’m having this real issue.  And it’s just a recurrent sin that I can’t get over, and I really need some help.  And, guys, let me tell you about it.  Can you pray with me?”  That’s a good thing.  But bringing people in the very first week and say, “What is the one big sin you’re struggling with right now?  You need to tell everybody,” that is a control move.  That is not for accountability.  

Rebecca: And I think a lot of this comes down to peer pressure.  We think peer pressure is an adolescent issue.  And it’s definitely a stronger influencer in adolescence.  But peer pressure gets us in adulthood.  That’s why it’s so important to understand the difference between actual and perceived autonomy because once you do you recognize peer pressure where it is.  It’s like this isn’t actually—I don’t—I actually do have power here.  I’m just experiencing peer pressure.  I don’t have to tell, Natalie, how much porn you watched over the last week even if you watched none.  You don’t need to tell her that you watched none.  She doesn’t deserve to know any of it.  But that’s what happens in these small groups.  You don’t need to give Brad your pay stub and your monthly budget to make sure that there’s enough going to the church.  You don’t have to do that.  This is all peer pressure that people are using to be able to chip away slowly at that autonomy.    

Sheila: You were saying that you wanted to teach your kids how not to trust church leadership, right?

Rebecca: Yeah.  

Sheila: But the thing is your pastor in the church that you are currently in is also teaching your kids that because your pastor is so invested in making sure that he doesn’t have power and control.  And so this is something that I really want people to understand is when we’re talking about the stuff that churches do not all churches do this, and we need to start filling the pews of the churches that are healthy.

Rebecca: I want to tell a story of meeting my first pastor that was just mine when I went to University of Ottawa.  And a funny thing is I know he reads my newsletters, so I know he probably heard this lovely thing that I said about him.  Like I said, I grew up in a very—in a lot of churches that had very high control tendencies.  They wanted to make sure people obeyed them.  All that kind of stuff.  I was a thorn in everyone’s side.  No one liked me.  It was fine.  It was good for me in the long term.  But then I got to university, and, of course, it’s really tricky because I was like I want to find a good church, right?  I felt like I was leaving the small town that didn’t have healthy churches as far as I knew, and now I was in this big city.  I had a chance to find a church that was actually good.  And so I start going to this small little church downtown.  And I talk to the pastor, and he asks me if I want to join the worship team because I had been going for a little bit.  And I said, “I think I’d like, but I really want to make sure this church is something that fits with me first.  So can we chat?”  And he said, “Oh, yeah.  I’d love.  Let’s grab coffee.”  So we did.  And I grilled the man for an hour and a half on so many things.  I grilled him on women in leadership, on views of old versus new earth, on everything.  And there were a lot of things that he—first of all, he was the first person who ever—who was a pastor who had ever actually looked at me and told me that he believed that women were made just as much in the image of God as men were and that women of—and for him, it was kind of like this is a no brainer.  Of course, women can be pastors.  He was like, “Yeah.  The person who was pastor before me was a woman.  That’s fine.”  He actually looked at me like, “Yeah.  That’s not that big of an issue,” because it was just such a given that women would be respected.  And that held up in that church.  But a lot of them he either said, “I don’t really care that much what you believe about that.”  Or else it was like, “I don’t know.  I don’t really have that much of a formed opinion on that incredibly niche tertiary issue that your Baptist church thought was the end of the world.”  Right?  You know what I mean?  And that was so freeing because you know what that said to me.  You don’t need to think exactly like me to be welcome here.  You don’t need to agree with everything that I say.  I’m not looking for blind obedience.  I’m not looking for you to see me as some all knowing charismatic leader.  He was perfectly happy, and I had only known him a couple of weeks.  And he was trying to get me to join the volunteer group at his church.  And he was like, “Yeah.  I don’t know.”  That is so healthy and not one of those feigned humility like, “None of us will know the truths of God, but I’m pretty darn close.”  It wasn’t like that.  It was like a, “No.  These things don’t matter to me as much as the overarching message of Christ.”  And that was such an amazing experience.  And then I held that forever.  He ended up marrying—he did the ceremony for me and Connor.  He baptized Connor.  It was just a really important pastor in my life.  And then my church that we’re in now there’s so much—there are so many safeguards to make sure that the pastor doesn’t know who is giving what.  There is accountability in place, and everything is very open.  And it’s just—when you’re in a church that’s healthy, they will want to—they will want to help your perceived autonomy match you’re actual autonomy.  They won’t be trying to take away your perceived autonomy.  Right?  They will be trying to empower you, not to disempower you.  They won’t be trying to convince you to give your power to them.  They want you to use your power for what God wants you to do with it.  And the biggest thing is they’re not going to be afraid of you just not agreeing with them 100%.  They’re not going to be afraid of you having an opinion.  They’re not going to be afraid with you bringing stuff up.  It’s such a fundamentally different experience.  And I hope that this conversation about how much power do you actually have can be illuminating because even within marriage how many people have was talked to whose husbands didn’t realize that their wives were trying to submit.  Right?  And they just thought they could speak up, and their husbands, frankly, weren’t going to the men’s retreats and weren’t reading the book studies.  They were just kind of dudes who went to church.  And she’s getting all this material from reading Love and Respect and reading For Women Only.  All these books that he’s not reading.  And we hear this so often.  Women say, “Yeah.  I just started speaking up, and he was fine with it.”  And then everything kind of got better because their perceived autonomy was bottom of the floor.  But their actual autonomy was way up here.  And I just want to encourage you to actually sit back and don’t ask, “What do I feel will happen?  Or how much power do I feel I have?”  But actually step back and say, “Wait.  What actually would happen?  And how can I get ahead of those.”  Okay.  Say you’re both employed at a church, and you’ve been working through all these toxic teachings.  Maybe you’ve read The Great Sex Rescue and She Deserves Better and a bunch of other books.  And you’re like, “This is not good.  We need to change things.”  But you’re still tied up employment wise.  Can you work on finding another job?  How can we get our autonomy back?  Right?  How can we remove ourselves and take our power back?  Because legally, you are protected to do those things.  Nothing is stopping you from quitting that job and finding another one.  

Sheila: It feels scary.  

Rebecca: It feels scary.

Sheila: It feels like you’re not allowed to because everybody would be mad at you.  But there actually isn’t anything that’s stopping you.

Rebecca: Well, I mean, look at us.  We got threatened with lawsuits multiple times.  A bunch of people tried to sue us.  Like, “Oh, I’m going to sue you.  I’m going to sue you for this.  I’m going to sue you for that.”  We’re like, “Okay.  But are you actually going to?”

Sheila: Yeah.  Because you have no standing.  

Rebecca: You have no standing.  You can’t.  And it was all—nothing ever came from it because all we so is quote people’s own books.  Right?  Does that mean that it wasn’t scary to go through?  Does that mean that it wasn’t a really hard, stressful, slightly traumatic experience?  Absolutely not.  It still was.  But that’s the difference is we didn’t act based on our perceive autonomy in that moment.  We acted based on our actual autonomy.  And our actual autonomy is the law is on our side.

Sheila: Yep.  Exactly.  Okay.  I have another example.  Are you ready?  Okay.  Here is another example where people’s perceived autonomy often goes really, really low.  Biblical counseling.

Rebecca: Oh my word.  Don’t even get me started on that one.  You do it.  You do it.  You do it.  I’m just going to sit back.  I’m just going to sit back.

Sheila: So there’s a difference between biblical counselors and licensed counselors.  So biblical counselors—it’s a form of counseling.  It doesn’t mean someone who believes the Bible who counsels.  There are lots and lots of people who are Christian, who believe the Bible, who use the Bible—who are willing to use the Bible in their counseling, but they’re trained.  And they’re licensed.  And they’re trained in evidence-based therapies, and they are licensed by state or provincial accrediting boards.  So you have your licensed marriage and family therapists.  You have your psychologists.  You have your licensed social workers, clinical social workers.  You have lots of people with licensure.  That’s one type of counseling.  Then you have biblical counselors, who don’t have licenses.  And they are taught and educated in a field where they tend to be—they tend to see everything in terms of sin or lack of faith.

Rebecca: Well, because they’re taught that the Bible is the basis for everything that you need.

Sheila: Right.  And so it’s not about mental health.  And they often come from a very patriarchal way of looking at marriage too.  And so the focus is going to be on submission.  And I’ve written a ton about this.  I have an example of a handout of 98 ways you can sin against your husband which was given to a woman whose husband was committing adultery.  And she was told to take this home and fill it out at Harvest Bible Chapel in Chicago, and that was still there.  Biblical counseling is a huge problem.  When you go in to biblical counseling in a church because lots of churches that offer counseling only offer biblical counseling, what people may not know is that you are signing away your right to privacy.   

Rebecca: And this is what makes me so bad.  On the autonomy discussion.  In psychology, you have to take an ethics course every single year.  They get boring because you have to take the same course.  It just gets slightly more complicated every single year.  You know what psychology is constantly worried about?  Maintaining the autonomy of the client.  We are constantly taught about how there is—there are massive issues of power here because you have someone who is coming in to divulge their life secrets to you.  And you are not reciprocating that.  You’re not supposed to because that makes it really inappropriate.  There is a massive power imbalance here.  They are supremely vulnerable.  They’re sitting there.  You are the person that, again, you’re supposed to fix the most inner, deepest, personal, intimate parts of themselves.  They’re supposed to show this to you.  And in biblical counseling, it’s the complete opposite.  It’s how can I make sure that I remove enough of your autonomy that you have to keep coming back to me.  You look at the contracts in biblical counselors, and I know we always get some people being like, “I’m a biblical counselor, and I’m healthy.”  I’m like, “Okay.  Then get licensed.”  I’m sorry.  I don’t have time for this anymore.  And I know I’m really, really harsh about this, but I studied for four years all the ways that this can go wrong.  And then I stopped university, and I got into this field.  And I studied for 10 years.  I guess 8 years now how many ways that this can go wrong.  It’s just bizarrely—I can’t tell you enough the difference between the ethical conversations that we have even as first year undergrads.  And within the first paragraph of these biblical counseling documents, they would just tear to shreds so many of the ethical laws that licensed practitioners have to abide by.  The idea that you should be able to go to someone else who is not in that counseling situation and tell them about a persistent sin even if you are counseling—a patient client asks you not to—is horrific.  It’s horrific.  

Sheila: And that is what’s happening.  In a biblical counseling situation when you sign that form, you’re saying that your counselor can talk to your pastor, can talk to previous counselors, can talk to basically church leadership about whatever you’ve done.  And there’s so many instances when this has been done.  So I have an article that goes through one of the biblical counseling forms that you have to sign and some of the problems with it.  And I will put a link to that. 

Rebecca: And, again, culturally speaking, they do not have that autonomy over you unless you give it to them.  That’s what we’re trying to get at here.  They do not have the ability to do that unless you let them.

Sheila: Because what often happens is a person goes to the pastor in crisis, whether it’s a marital crisis or a mental health crisis or a crisis with their kids, whatever kind of crisis it is, and the pastor says, “Okay.  You need to go to this biblical counselor.”  And they are actually requiring you to go to the biblical counselor or else you’ll come under church discipline.

Rebecca: And, again, we have to ask what does requiring mean.  Are they going to have elders yell at you?  Can you just not show up?  They’re not going to sue you for that. 

Sheila: Yeah.  And if they try to take it out on you because of this membership covenant that you signed, you can just write a letter and get out of it.  And if they come after you, then they’re now breaking the law.

Rebecca: Yeah.  Exactly.  These are all the things.  They use these really big words like they require you to go under discipline.  You are obligated due to your contract.  Don’t accept the words.  If you are in the North America—because I don’t know the laws in other countries very well.  But if you are in North America, there are so many legal safeguards.  They don’t want people to not be able to get out of a cult, guys.  It’s bad for the government, if you can’t get out of a cult.  They want you to be able to get out.  Okay?  So there are safeguards there.  If someone is threatening you because they have convinced you through spiritual abuse, through manipulating the Word of God to give your autonomy over to them and they’re trying to now punish you, and they have the ability to punish you because of power that you have handed over to them under false pretenses, take it back.  Take it back.  You can.  

Sheila: Yeah.  You can say to that pastor, “Okay.  I will see a counselor, but I am only going to see a counselor that I choose.  And they have to be licensed.”  And if the pastor doesn’t like that, that’s a sign that the church isn’t safe.  And I think this is where—this is actually the crux of it for so many people is that they feel like they can’t do anything or they can’t make decisions for themselves because it would mean admitting that your church isn’t a safe place and admitting that your social group at church may not be healthy for you.  And because that is so hard to admit and to live with, you tell yourself, “Well, I don’t have a choice.”  But the actual fact is legally and every way you do—now I do want put a big caveat in here which is that when people have been victims of trauma, when people have been victims of religious abuse, when people have been victims of abuse in any form stemming from your childhood, stemming from your teenage life, whenever, that really does wear, I think, both at your perceived and your actual autonomy because sometimes we don’t have the psychological wherewithal or emotional strength or whatever to come out on our own.  And that’s where we need help.  And that’s what I want people to understand is if you actually feel like your real autonomy, your actual autonomy, is lower than it should be because you really do feel like, “No.  I am not able to make decisions on my own.  I am not able to stand up on my own because I just don’t have the strength.  I don’t have the resources,” whatever it might be, please see a licensed therapist because sometimes we actually don’t have a lot of autonomy because it was taken from us in abusive situations.  Legally, we have autonomy.  In all of those ways, we have autonomy.  But we, actually, don’t have the psychological, the emotional.  We’ve been really beaten down.  And that’s where we need to help people get their perceived autonomy back up.  And that might mean working on your own inner resilience so that your perceived autonomy can actually match your actual autonomy and so that your actual autonomy comes back up.  Because sometimes yeah.  Physically, emotionally, psychologically, our autonomy is lower because we, ourselves, can’t handle because of the trauma that we have.

Rebecca: Yeah.  Yeah.  No.  Exactly.  But that’s just a conversation we’ve been wanting to have for awhile.  And the reason we wanted to have it here even though we typically don’t talk about things like church abuse or spiritual manipulation that much is that we do talk about toxic teachings.  And what happens when we talk about toxic teachings?  People realize that the toxic teachings come from toxic churches.  And then people are in toxic churches.  They’re like, “Oh my goodness.  My husband is a pastor, and I am the assistant at the church.  And now we have to speak out against this church.  What on earth do we do?”  And it’s like yeah.  What we’re saying is please—the unfortunate message that I want to give you.  Please do not underestimate the lengths that people will go to keep you under control.  So please take away any leverage that they have as soon as you can.  If you’re employed by a church that you’re concerned about, try to find a different job immediately because you can just keep going under the radar until you find one even if it takes months. And then once you’re safe—Sarah McDugal has this great three-step process that she talks women through from abusive relationships where you first have to work on safety.  Right?  You don’t even worry about anything else until you’re just actually safe.  Right?  And then you work on security.  So I’m now physically safe, and now I’m working on rebuilding and getting the floor back underneath of me.  Right?  And then you can work on strength and how do I become strong again.  It’s a fantastic—check out Wilderness to Wild, if you’re someone who has dealt with trauma especially from past relationships.  She’s got some amazing stuff there.  But I think the same applies here.  A lot of times we ask people to be strong before they’ve even had a chance to be safe.  And so if you’re in a situation where you’re autonomy has been chipped away at and you’ve been convinced and beguiled and tricked into giving bits of your power over to an unsafe organization or unsafe people or whatever it is, safety first.  Work on getting those back.  Get financially stable outside of them.  Maybe reconnect with some old friends from past social lives that you’ve kind of abandoned a bit.  Lots of people reach out again 10 years after the fact, and they pick up right where they left off.  Join a hobby that’s outside of the church so you can build up social supports again.  Those kinds of things.  Start reaching that out so that you can get to that safety and stability.  So that then when you have to be strong you have a firm foundation to stand on, and they can’t actually do anything to you because you’ve taken your power back.  

Sheila: Yeah.  And I just want to reiterate.  Leaving your church is really traumatic.  Leaving a marriage is infinitely more so.  But leaving your church—especially if your parents go there, if your family has gone there, if this has been your church home.  And a lot of us are feeling called out from the church.  And you’re allowed to leave.  They don’t own you.  They can’t control you.  And a lot of us feel like they do, but they actually don’t.  And you can leave.  And you can find somewhere healthy.  And that’s what we’re going to be talking about in the next few podcasts leading up to Christmas is some of the ways that church has hurt us but also a vision for what church can look like when it’s healthy and some of the reasons the church has really gone off the rails.  We’ve got Andrew Whitehead coming on next week.  We’ve got Laura Anderson coming on with her book, When Religion Hurts You.  We’ve got Scot McKnight and Laura Barringer coming on with their new book, Pivot, about Tov churches.  So yeah.  I want to talk about how we can get healthier.  But just remember you’re allowed to leave unhealthy places.  But also please remember there are healthy ones out there.  And if we can flood the healthy churches, the healthy churches will grow.  And then they’ll have the great youth programs too.  And they’ll have the great kids’ programs.  Hopefully, they won’t have the smoke machines at worship.  

Rebecca: No one needs the smoke machines.

Sheila: No one needs the smoke machines at worship.  But they can have the good programs too if they get enough bodies.  And so we don’t need to fill up the toxic places.  So that’s what I want to share.  I’m going to bring your dad on to talk about one toxic place, in particular, super quick.  I have brought my husband, Keith, onto the podcast.

Keith: Hey, everybody.  

Sheila: And we have been talking about high control churches and churches that are sometimes toxic spaces.  And we had a great conversation with Becca.  What I want to do with you is have you listen to something that you have not been prepped for.

Keith: I know.  This is the thing.  Usually, I know what you’ve talked about in the first part of the podcast.  But I’ve been working on our book all day.  And so I have no idea what has transpired.  So I feel—

Sheila: Yes.  Because we are sketching out the marriage book.  We’re so excited to have the data once you guys all take the survey.  Link in podcast notes to take that survey.  So we have been working on that.  And now I have something that I want you to listen to.

Keith: Okay.  Sounds good. 

Sheila: So this is from John MacArthur.  And I saw this quote go quite viral on social media where he is talking about how husbands can be the savior of their wives and how and why.  

Keith: What?

Sheila: Oh yes.  Oh yes.  It’s so much fun.  So are you ready?

Keith: Okay.  Let me see.  Let’s hear it.

John MacArthur: – way that Paul described marriage in Ephesians 5.  He basically says that a husband is like a savior to his wife.  That’s essentially what it says.  And I think the burden really lies with men to see themselves as those who rescue women from loneliness, who rescue women from being in an unfulfilled life, being in a place where they aren’t protected.  They aren’t provided for.  They aren’t cared for.  They aren’t loved.  They aren’t given the opportunity to have children.  So from what I would experience in our society, it’s the men that have to step up.  And I honestly do not know what in the world they are waiting for.  I have threatened many times to line up all the single women on one side, all the single men on the other side, and assign you a wife.  Instead of looking for someone who is some kind of trophy, you need to look to someone who loves Christ.  That you can be a savior to that person and a protector and a provider and a lover and be what Christ is to His church because that’s the picture.  And I strongly exhort young men to find a wife because in that finding is God’s greatest gift in this world, and it allows you to raise up children, who know and love the Lord.  That’s the purpose of marriage.  To procreate and to do so in Christ is the highest calling in life.  

Keith: Well, that’s a take.  

Sheila: So much to say.  I want to say one thing first, and then I’ll get your feedback.  But John MacArthur is actually making one of the big mistakes when it comes to interpreting Scripture right here which is when you give—when there’s a metaphor, the metaphor is being used for a specific purpose.  And it doesn’t mean that absolutely everything that applies to A also applies to B.    

Keith: Yes.  Exactly.

Sheila: So in the metaphor of Christ—

Keith: The whole time he was talking I was thinking holy eisegesis, Batman.

Sheila: Exactly.  When Paul is saying that Christ is to the church as husband is to the wife, he doesn’t mean that the husband is to the wife everything that Christ is to the church.  He’s using the analogy in a particular sense, which is that Christ served and sacrificed for the church.  And there is unity.  And that brought about unity.  And so men should serve and sacrifice for their wives to bring about unity.  

Keith: Absolutely.  He’s not saying, for instance, that husbands are sinless like Christ.  Or that husbands have all power like Christ.  

Sheila: Or the husbands are the savior.

Keith: Or the husbands are the—I mean that’s the first—I was thinking did I hear that correctly.  And then he said it two or three times.

Sheila: Yeah.  He says, “Men, find a wife you can marry that you can be a savior to,” which is like oh wow.  Okay.  But—

Keith: And the thing is just—I mean the thing I was thinking when I heard that was—as soon as he started talking about the husband being the savior, the first thing I thought about was Genesis 3 because that is the deal.  You will be like God.  That is the ultimate sin.  That we want to be like God.  And here is this guy teaching you’re like God to your wife.  Are you kidding me?  This is the ultimate sin.  

Sheila: I know.  

Keith: It doesn’t make any sense.

Sheila: It really is quite blasphemous.  Okay.  But the other reason I wanted to look at this is there is another huge, huge logical fallacy.  

Keith: Oh yeah.  The whole thing is completely ridiculous.  

Sheila: Yeah.  But let’s see what he—  

Keith: Theologically.  Philosophically.  Sociologically.  Philosophically.  Sociologically.  Everyology.

Sheila: I want to deal with this sociologically.  Sociologically is the one that I find so funny here.  So what he’s saying is that it is the man’s role to rescue the woman.  You need to rescue women from loneliness, from having an unfulfilled life, from being in a place where they aren’t protected, where they aren’t provided for, where they aren’t cared for, where they aren’t loved, where they aren’t given the opportunity to have children.

Keith: Yeah.  Exactly.  Because the biggest thing in having children is the man.  When a couple gets together to make a child and bring it into the world, the one who gives the most there is the man.  Are you kidding me?  

Sheila: I mean a man is necessary.  And I think that is what he’s saying. 

Keith: No.  It’s like to say that he’s giving her something by making her pregnant.  But she’s not giving him anything by having a child and going through one of the most dangerous things that a human being can go through throughout human history.

Sheila: He does say later that you should get married so that you can raise children together.  So he does say that to the men.

Keith: Okay.  So he does have some mutuality there.  Okay.

Sheila: But look at what he’s saying.  So what he’s saying is that the condition of women, the reason that women need to be saved and rescued and protected, is because a single woman has a life of loneliness.  She’s living an unfulfilled life.  She’s not protected.  She’s not provided for.  She’s not care for.  She’s not loved.  She’s not given the opportunity to have children.  And so men need to rescue women from this.  

Keith: Right.

Sheila: What about men?  What about single—why is it that women need rescuing from being single but men do not need rescuing from being single?  Because to compare a husband saving his wife in this way means that she is worse off in her current condition than he is in his current condition.  He does not need rescuing because he is the rescuer.  He does not need saving because he is the savior.  She needs saving from this unfulfilled, lonely, unlovable, unloving life.  Right?  That doesn’t hold water if you look sociologically at the studies.

Keith: It’s just not true.  I mean when a man dies and leaves a widow how much longer does she live without him than when a woman dies and the widower is left.  He’s gone pretty quick.  Scientifically, we need women more than women need men.  That’s just been shown to be true.   

Sheila: Mm-hmm.  And in today’s culture where women can work and earn a living, we do not need to be provided for in the same way at all.

Keith: And to me, this is one of the things that I hate about this whole mentality.  It’s like the man is the provider sort of thing.  I get that.  I understand that.  But it’s like when you put all of your masculinity in being the provider and that is what it means for you to be a man, what happens when your wife makes more than you?  How do you deal with that?  We have to have a Christian view of masculinity that goes beyond stereotypes and stuff that was out of date 40 years ago.  We just can’t keep doing this. 

Sheila: Yeah.  It’s just so toxic this idea that women need to be rescued when you actually look at the data, men do worse as a single man than a woman does as a single woman.  Right?  Men’s health hugely benefitted by marriage.  More than women’s health is benefitted by marriage even in good marriages.  Right?  Men’s happiness—men are—women are happier single than men are single.  We talked about that study last year on a podcast.  How there is a rise in single, lonely men because single men do not do as well as single women.  He isn’t saying anything that has any basis in reality.  And what are the only reasons that he gives that a man might want to get married?  That a man might benefit from marriage?  The only thing he says is that, “I would strongly exhort young men to find a wife because in finding—this is God’s greatest gift in the world.”  Okay.  So it’s God’s greatest gift.  He doesn’t explain why, but marriage is God’s greatest gift because it allows you to raise up children who know and love the Lord.  And that’s the purpose of marriage.  To procreate.  And to do so is the highest calling in life.  So men are supposed to marry because the highest calling in life is to procreate, and that’s the purpose of marriage.  

Keith: Somebody should tell Paul.

Sheila: 1 Corinthians 7 does not say that marriage and having kids is the highest calling in life.  He says that singleness is.  And yet, John—  

Keith: Yeah.  “To the unmarried and the widows, I saw this,” right?  I mean that’s Scripture.

Sheila: Yeah.  So once again, what John MacArthur is saying has no basis in Scripture.  It has no basis in current trends, social trends.  It has no basis in anything except his own view of gender relations, which is that men are over women.  And that men need to go in and save women.

Keith: And what I find real interesting is he is frustrating that men aren’t stepping up to the challenge, right?  He’s talking about how he chastises men, and he’s like men aren’t stepping up to the challenge.  But he’s not introspective enough to think why is that.  He’s not curious enough to ask the question.  Why are men feeling that they’re okay single when they aren’t?  Well, because we’ve taught men you don’t need anyone else.  You’re the center of the universe.  Right?  Get a wife and add her on to you because that’s what—that’s the important thing. We don’t teach men to be interdependent.  We teach women to be interdependent.  That’s why women live longer.  That’s why women have better health long term because we, as humans, are designed to connect.  We are relational fundamentally.  And places like this church take that natural thing that God built into humans and we separate it.  We pull it out of men, and we say, “That’s not for you.  Don’t be relational.  Don’t be like that.  You stand on your own two feet and be separate.”  And it’s crazy.  And then we wonder why men act like this when we’ve taught them to be like that.  It’s just ridiculous.

Sheila: Yeah.  And so as we bring this podcast to a close, there’s just a reminder that not every church is healthy.  Not every church is healthy.  But there are churches that are.  And so we’re trying to help you recognize the unhealthy stuff so that you can find places that actually do say, “Hey, it’s okay to have emotions.  Hey, relationships are good.  Hey, it’s okay to show vulnerability.  Hey, it’s okay to not want to save and lord over your wife.”  

Keith: Mm-hmm.  And that men and women are both human, and it’s okay that we’re more similar than we are different.  

Sheila: Yeah.  Exactly.  So thank you for joining us on the Bare Marriage podcast.  And over the next few weeks as we continue to look at what it looks like to create a healthy church environment and to get rid of some of this toxic stuff, I hope that leading up to Christmas as we welcome Emmanuel, God with us, and what that looks like that we can start to think about how we can have healthier church communities that don’t spew this kind of nonsense.  So remember.  You have autonomy.  You may have more autonomy than you even think you have.  But you do have more autonomy.  Go out and find it.  Do the work to help your perceived autonomy match your actual autonomy, and flee from people who say such nonsense like this and who abuse the Bible and who don’t understand any social trends.  So thanks for joining us.  Remember to take our survey.  The link is in the podcast notes.  And we will see you again next week on the Bare Marriage podcast.

Keith: Bye. 

Sheila: Bye-bye.  

Written by

Sheila Wray Gregoire


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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Lisa Johns

    John MacArthur is a bloviator. And why isn’t EVERYBODY calling out quotes like these?!

  2. Jo R


    If men’s highest purpose is procreation in marriage, then doesn’t that mean that men shouldn’t be engaging in any sexual activity AT ALL except when the couple is trying to conceive? And that hand jobs and blow jobs are completely off limits? 😏 And should a man find himself in one of the approximately 10 percent of couples that are infertile, then does he never get any kind of sex, ever? And when the wife hits menopause, or is already pregnant, such that she is now permanently, or temporarily, infertile, then does the man need to forego his orgasms during those times? 😏 😏 😏 🤣 🤣 🤣 Maybe Johnny Mac needs to rethink that idea before the rest of the theobros come after him with pitchforks.

    If a husband tells his wife that he’s her savior, she immediately needs to ask him what he wants tonight: abstinence or crucifixion, because those are two things her REAL savior did.

    If it’s women who need rescuing from loneliness, then why did God create the WOMAN to stave off the MAN’S loneliness when the man lived in a perfect environment and had God Himself for a companion? (Oh, I can already see the backpedaling on how we should translate “ha’adam” to be a generic “the human” instead of gender-specifically as “the man.” Nice try, fellas. You made that translation-decision bed, now you get to lie in it. And without near as many orgasms as you thought you were entitled to, too.)

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Great point on creation! Yes, women were created to help MEN with their loneliness!

  3. Angharad

    Before I married, I was a very happy single woman, living in a safe, protective community, running my own business which provided me with a good living and feeling very cared for and loved by those around me. Oh, and I already knew I couldn’t have children. I’m now wondering what the point of my marriage is, since according to John MacArthur I don’t fulfil any of his ‘criteria’ for being ‘rescued’!

    It does illustrate how dangerous a lie is when you mix it with a little truth though…because he takes the bits from the Bible about husbands loving their wives as Christ loved the church, and the comment about the importance of finding a wife who loves Jesus rather than one who will be a ‘trophy wife’ which is good and mixes it in with a load of garbage.

    It makes me mad too how churches are taking things that used to have a good meaning and are twisting them into bad things. Over here, a lot of churches have a ‘covenant’ service every year where members recommit themselves to following Jesus wherever He leads. Membership covenant is very much a personal commitment between the member and God and is a really moving and special service. And has nothing whatsoever to do with the kind of ‘membership covenant’ that is a legal document. And ‘Biblical counselling’ used to mean just being given counsel that’s in line with the Bible instead of conflicting with it, instead of this whole weird controlling ‘movement’.

    It’s the same with ‘evangelical’. I grew up in ‘evangelical’ churches (over here, you will find loads of small churches, especially in rural areas, are called ‘[Village Name] Evangelical Church’) but I was talking with a couple of Christian friends this week, and we were saying that although we still regard ourselves as ‘evangelical’ in our heads (based on the meaning it used to have over here), we no longer feel we can describe ourselves that way because the word is now tainted by the way it’s been politicised in the States. (Ironically, non believers in the UK still refer to themselves as being ‘evangelical’ about climate change, world peace or caring for the environment, using it in very much the same way that churches used to.)

    I wish the American church (in the broadest sense, not getting at individual churches) would stop messing with our ‘Christian dictionary’ and give us our words back!!!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Great point! Yes, we have taken perfectly good words and then applied them to some ugly practices. “Biblical counseling” is the one that gets me the most.

    • Lisa Johns

      The whole politicizing of everything in sight just really infuriates me. You can’t step out your front door any more without every move being taken as a political statement, and I long for the days when we could just live our lives in peace minding our own business. Alas, no more.

    • Nessie

      I’m American and I wish we would stop distorting and reassigning the meaning of words, too.

      You mentioned recommittment services. I know several churches which do something they consider similar yet are much different. “We kick everyone out and they must resign a covenant. This is so you can make sure you are loyal to Christ and putting Him first.” Right… some meant loyal to the church, well, the pastor, really. They didn’t want people attending that would cause any sort of pushback. Their carefully crafted lies and illusions might be brought to light if anything was pointed out as suspect. Of course the impression was given that those who didn’t re-sign must have spiritual struggles.

      I know of one that had the gall to ask for free help as well as monetary donations later on from people that were not allowed to participate in any activities outside of Sunday morning worship (where attendance counted). Absolutely appalling.

      I share that to say that some churches demand loyalty by clinging and threatening if you dare think about leaving. Others demand loyalty by threatening exile if you don’t toe the line.

      • Angharad

        Over here, Covenant services are usually the first Sunday in January, and those who are willing are asked to join in a covenant prayer. You’re given the words in advance to think and pray about whether you are willing to do it, and there is no pressure and no one checking whether you do or don’t. I think it has its roots in Methodism, and the Methodist Covenant Prayer is the one most commonly used. It’s not an easy prayer to pray, and I always find a Covenant Service challenging, but only because it’s challenging me to think about how committed I am to Jesus, not because someone is standing over me with a big stick, ready to chuck me out of the church if I don’t comply!

        These are the words of the Methodist Covenant Prayer (it should be noted that the phrase about ‘put me to suffering’ is not ASKING to go through suffering for its own sake, but is accepting that if I NEED to go through suffering – e.g. as in the case of those in other countries who face imprisonment or death rather than deny Christ – then I am willing):

        I am no longer my own but yours.
        Put me to what you will,
        rank me with whom you will;
        put me to doing,
        put me to suffering;
        let me be employed for you,
        or laid aside for you,
        exalted for you,
        or brought low for you;
        let me be full,
        let me be empty,
        let me have all things,
        let me have nothing:
        I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
        to your pleasure and disposal.
        And now, glorious and blessed God,
        Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
        you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
        And the covenant now made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven.’

  4. Melinda

    I’m concerned about your firm comments on membership covenants. My church has a membership agreement which is needed legally to perform church discipline. If people do not sign it, the church can be sued for performing church discipline on an actual abuser, adulterer, ect. I completely understand the misuse of them, but doesn’t it prohibit healthy churches from publically condemning those who actually need to be condemned? We have a couple in our church who got divorced because he is an abuser but the elders cannot make statements regarding it because he was not a member. I would like to hear your thoughts on this aspect.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      No, it doesn’t. People can speak the truth. Can he sue? Sure. But he wouldn’t win if they were merely saying what he had done.

      Yet membership covenants have been used to silence people and put them under discipline for speaking up AGAINST abuse.

      I have never, ever been in a church with a membership covenant that you had to sign. This is actually a fringe movement, started by groups like 9Marks and Acts 29. It is not normal or usual, and churches have existed for years without them, and most churches still do. The danger to people with membership covenants is far too great for me to ever consider signing one.

  5. Codec

    Trying to live stomistically as an island is absolutely insane.

  6. Anna

    I had a couple of thoughts about the end discussion of the e podcast.
    I haven’t read the previous comments, forgive me if this is repetitive.

    1) in the garden of eden didn’t god create woman because it was not good for the MAN to be alone? I’m not sure if “man” refers to males or humanity, but at the very least it is mutual companionship.
    2) if I was a man at J MacArthur church I wouldn’t want to take on a wife like he describes either. She sounds like a delicate high maintenance house plant. Sounds exhausting.

    • Anna

      Turns out I had a third thought.

      3) where does this idea come from that all women’s worst fear is to be single? Perhaps some projecting going on?

      And the more mocking conservative pages will often pair this with cat ownership. Are cats symbolic of something deeper that I’m not grasping?

      • Shari Smith

        These are great thoughts! He really does seem to dehumanize or “otherize” women with these comments – as if we were some fragile and frail things that would wither away and die without the love of a man.

        I think it fits in well with a strictly complementarian view of women and marriage. There’s not much room for a woman to be single (let alone enjoy singleness) if a woman is thought to be the responsibility of her father first and then her husband. She’s simply unable to exist as a single entity all to herself.

        So if a woman is single, there’s something very wrong with that picture and some man needs to step up and care for her.

  7. Shaye

    John MacArthur thinks he’s God’s gift to the Holy Spirit.

  8. Laura

    Just about everything John MacArthur said in this clip is very troubling. He makes it sound like women cannot handle being single:

    “rescue women from loneliness, who rescue women from being in an unfulfilled—being in a place where they aren’t protected, they aren’t provided for, they aren’t cared for, they aren’t loved, they aren’t given the opportunity to have children.”

    I had been single most of my adult life and sure, I went through seasons of wishing I had someone, but I never felt that I needed someone to protect me, provide for me, or give me children. My dad (rest his soul) had told me that I was independent and capable of taking care of myself; that I did not need a man. No, I do not need a man, but I am grateful that I finally found myself a great one at 47. We may not have children and that is okay. Procreation is not the only reason or the main reason to get married, but it is part of many marriages.

    I have never heard of membership covenants or even giving your financial information to small group leaders. That sounds so cultish to me. Years ago, I attended an Assemblies of God (AoG) church where the leaders seemed to want to keep tabs on me. If I did not attend a Bible study or missed a church service one week, I got a phone call asking if I was all right. I felt like my space was invaded and after being there for several months I quit attending this church. I have attended other AoG churches who were more respectful of my space and autonomy.

    While I think small groups are great and you can lean on each other for support, maybe hold each other accountable, but I just do not like people getting too much into my business. I believe there are people who mean well and want to see others stay on track, but it should be acceptable to set boundaries.

  9. Jim

    While it is important to note that there are unhealthy churches out there and always need to be on the look out for unBiblical and unhealthy teachings, this seems to be extremely heavy handed against the Church.

    Has as been noted in other posts, if you have to give a lists of caveats, the message might be lost.

    • Rebecca Lindenbach

      We are very anti-harmful churches, yes, and won’t apologize for that. We also equip people with the tools they need to find healthy ones. But they won’t be able to find healthy ones unless they are adequately warned against the harmful ones. It’s unfortunate that the number of dangerous and toxic churches is so high that we have to be quite firm and harsh in our warnings, but I am hoping that someday that will change.

      But it will only change when we empty the pews of the dangerous spaces.

  10. Kristy

    Two and a half years ago, I began attending my local church. (I’m in a rural area.) All I knew about it was that it was non-denominational. (I now realize it is evangelical and complementarian, and I have redirected my tithes to another church, which I attend frequently, though I still attend the local church on occasion because I’m wondering whether God wants me to be a force for change there. But I digress.) One of the first things I did was to volunteer to take my turn providing child care for the Wednesday night prayer meetings, and I had to fill out a form giving them permission to do a criminal record check on me. This, I feel, is necessary and right in order to protect children, and I had no problem signing it, but there was also a paragraph stating that I agreed to obey the elders if they felt my life somehow or other didn’t meet their standards (I forget how it was worded). Well, I crossed out that paragraph and wrote in by hand,”I will not promise to obey anyone but God, and certainly not a group of people whom I have never met and know nothing about,” and then I signed it. I had never heard of membership covenants, and this appeared to be a straightforward permission form, but I would caution people to read carefully ANYTHING that your church asks you to sign to make sure you can live with and are really in agreement with everything in it, and if you are not, either alter it, as I did, or don’t sign it.

  11. Corrie

    My husband & I just took the latest Bare Marriage survey. [Editor note: we are not allowing comments about survey contents until the survey is closed, but don’t worry, we saw your comment and we had already planned for this in our protocols! 🙂 ]

  12. Nathan

    “No man comes to the Father but by me, and no woman comes to the Father but by her husband”.

    I can’t recall Jesus every saying this.

    • JG

      Thanks, Nathan, made me laugh. Jesus is the only one who brings salvation, and I am thankful for that.😁


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