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So Elisabeth Elliot is trending ...

An exhibit featuring Christian missionary Elisabeth Elliot at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., which runs from March 30, 2023 - January 28, 2024.
An exhibit featuring Christian missionary Elisabeth Elliot at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., which runs from March 30, 2023 - January 28, 2024. | Museum of the Bible

A few months ago, I got into hot water with a bunch of Christian abuse survivor advocates when I publicly disagreed with Sheila Wray Gregoire’s use of the word “prophet” to describe the late Rachel Held Evans.

While Rachel was a deeply insightful woman who rightly called out a lot of the abuse that goes unchecked in the American church, in my opinion, she was also pretty blasphemous, ultimately preaching forms of salvation outside surrender to the lordship of Christ, endorsing overtly heretical ideas such as trans ideology.

I took no pleasure in taking potshots at a dead woman. That wasn’t the point. The point is that when you set yourself up as a subject matter expert in Christian sexual ethics, and thousands and thousands of people look to you to guide them in the ways of Jesus, then you have to be really careful about the directions you give. And you can’t be willy-nilly calling people “prophets” when those people actively preached rebellion against God’s created sexual order.

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So I stuck my neck out on Twitter and said so.

Big mistake.

“How dare you????” came the immediate refrain. “She’s dead. She’s not even here to defend herself. Shame on you for your distorting her good name!” Lots and lots of women were angry at me that day, women who had previously shared my articles, sung my praises, and considered me an ally.

I had challenged an idol, and now I must pay.

Well, the same thing is happening in a different sector of the American church, only this time the darling in question is not a progressive; she’s the poster child of complementarianism: Elisabeth Elliot.

It’s a newly resurrected topic, thanks largely to a now-viral article penned by blogger Liz Charlotte Grant, exploring the lesser-known subject of Elliot’s abusive third marriage. Much of Christian Twitter is not ready for this conversation. They prefer their role models untarnished by scandal. But it’s a scandal that’s substantiated with ample evidence, namely in the biographies produced by writers Ellen Vaughn and Lucy R.S. Austen.

The question we are not supposed to ask is, “If the queen of complementarianism was trapped in an abusive marriage, what are the implications for the theology she espoused?” And further still, “What are the implications for women who follow her example?”

I cut my teeth on Elisabeth Elliot’s writing. Through Gates of Splendor was one of the very first books assigned to us as high school freshmen, where one of her husband’s famous quotes was framed and proudly displayed on the classroom wall: “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” I learned to write a five-paragraph essay by dissecting and explicating the book.

We spent entire youth group sessions dedicated to reading Passion and Purity out loud. I remember dozing off in the warm church basement as the youth pastor read us stories of her life, admonishing us to rigid, almost legalistic holiness standards of the Elisabeth Elliot variety. I remember one passage in particular striking me as a little bit extra in the holiness department. It was a passage where she talked about the immense guilt she experienced for allowing her fiancé to rest his head in her lap before they were married. “Good grief,” I remember thinking. “If that’s considered risque, I’m probably in trouble.” As a survivor of sexual abuse, I approached her prescribed holiness standards through much the same lens as I approached the prospect of being valedictorian — it’s a worthy pursuit for someone much better than me.

There was lesson after lesson about how women were made to be pursued. That was drilled into me pretty aggressively. “Don’t chase boys; make them come to you.” I won’t say it’s terrible advice; there’s wisdom in knowing your worth and all that, but that lesson wasn’t really about knowing your worth; it was about letting men lead in all things.

I bristled over stories like the one where Jim (her first husband) didn’t find her very attractive. It bothered me that she was expected to be pure as the driven snow but that he got to run off and kiss other girls during breaks in their courtship, and she just wrote it off by saying, “What more could I expect? Jim Elliot was a man. Men are sinners.”

Mixed into the celebration of all things Elisabeth Elliot was a sort of romanticization of martyrdom. I remember feeling guilty for not wanting to sign up for the same gig as her. I didn’t want to have to be widowed in a third-world country for God to accept me as a decent woman. I didn’t want to have to blindly follow whatever my husband dictated to me as though I needed guidance like a child. I thought it was pretty controlling for Jim to require her to learn a whole new language as a condition for marrying her. And I hated that Jim would leave her alone for months on end whenever he felt like it and that she seemed to believe she was acquiring holiness points by just submitting to his selfish, neglectful decisions. I mean, didn’t Paul write about how marriage would be a distraction from his missionary calling? Jim Elliot always seemed like a good candidate to follow in Paul’s footsteps in this capacity, but that was never something we would dare to say out loud.

Our reading was supplemented with excerpts from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, and the message was always pretty clear: To follow Christ is to sacrifice. And listen, there’s truth to be found here. And even if I didn’t really identify with Elisabeth’s perspective, I was always happy enough to give her the honor she had earned. She did her best to be obedient to the Gospel she understood, and I have to believe God blesses that. So I mostly just left it alone.

The problem, though, is that for thousands of young girls in the Christian church, Elisabeth Elliot has long been upheld as something of the gold standard for Christian womanhood, so the lies she believed, we believed, too, and they’re not without consequence.

One thing I appreciate about the Bible is that it tells the whole truth about its heroes- good, bad, and ugly. We know that David was a man after God’s own heart, but we also know that he was a murderer who wrestled long and hard against his own demons.

If the Bible tells the truth about its heroes, I think we should do the same with ours.

But I’m 40 years old, and I’m only just now discovering what this poor woman endured in her third marriage to Lars Gren.

As Liz Charlotte Grant summarized it, “Gren decided when she drank a cup of tea, took a bath, and when she slept. He frequently checked her car’s odometer, double-checking that she hadn’t made any unplanned stops. He controlled the house thermostat. He listened in on her phone conversations and had the final say on whether she visited her friends, often declining invitations for her at the last minute. When he grew angry with his wife, he would refuse to speak to her for days. And most painful for Elliot, Gren unpredictably denied her access to the daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren she loved.”

And she endured all this without fighting strictly BECAUSE she thought God required it as part of submitting to her husband. It was a design feature of her theology, the theology too many young women are still being encouraged to embrace without questioning in complementarian churches and homes: Submit no matter what. Submit unto death.

It’s an abusive message that keeps getting reiterated time and time and time again from pulpits all over the globe. We’ve heard it from Voddie Baucham who boldly declares that “abuse is not grounds for divorce.” We’ve heard it from John MacArthur who publicly excommunicated Eileen Gray for refusing to return to her violent predatory husband. We’ve heard it from John Piper, who told battered women to submit to “getting smacked around for a night” before turning to their church leaders for support. To Piper’s credit, when pressed on this subject, he later issued a clarifying statement, acknowledging the importance of immediately calling the police when domestic violence is present, but the fact of the matter is that no such clarification should be necessary. We should never hear a minister of the Gospel suggest getting smacked around for any period or under any circumstances.

We heard it from Paige Patterson, who counseled a battered woman to go home and pray for her husband, only to return a week later with two black eyes. We’re hearing it in new legislation in Oklahoma preventing women from leaving their alcoholic husbands until they have concrete proof of at least five years of substance abuse. Does anyone penning this legislation have any experience with marriage to an abusive alcoholic? Do they have any idea how dangerous this is? Do they understand that, for those of us with eyes to see the danger, it actually looks like they’re trying to get women killed?

Submit, woman. No matter what. It’s the message a lot of us heard growing up, and it’s the message Elisabeth Elliot sincerely believed was God’s desire for her own life.

Finally, all these years later, people are connecting the dots and saying, “Hold the phone. This is wrong. We cannot afford to teach our daughters that the gold standard of womanhood is to submit to abuse.”

I opened a discussion about this on my Facebook page yesterday, and Elisabeth’s granddaughter was gracious enough to chime in. She talked about how she’s still working to forgive Lars for keeping her grandmother from her. “She didn’t believe she was being abused,” she explained.

And that’s precisely the problem we are trying to address. If you don’t even know you’re being abused, how in heaven’s name will you ever be equipped to combat it? And if your church isn’t equipping you with this knowledge, how will anything ever improve?

So let me say this loudly and clearly for anyone who needs to hear it: You don’t need a broken bone to be abused. Coercive control is abuse. Restricting access to finances is abuse. Name-calling is abuse. Isolating you from your friends and family is abuse. Degrading you sexually is abuse. Mocking your body is abuse. Forcing you to have sex is abuse, even if you’re married, is abuse. (It’s actually called rape if you say “no,” and he still takes what he wants.) Stranding you in the home is abuse. Controlling your social calendar is abuse. Threatening you is abuse.

And you don’t have to tolerate or submit to any of it. God does not require it. (Message me for resources on this if you would benefit from them.)

Your first priority is to make sure you’re safe, but once you are, you are not spiritually required to enable sin. This is easy theology to defend, but we simply don’t see enough of the Elisabeth Elliot diehards preaching it. The question is why.

The theobros are coming undone by this broader conversation. It’s the same exact response I received when I questioned Rachel Held Evans: “How dare you disrespect the dead?” “Shame on you! Her husband is in a nursing home. She’s not here to defend herself!”

They’re framing the women who insist on talking about it as divisive Jezebellian feminists who are hellbent on destroying the church, when, in fact, it’s the idol, not the church, that’s under attack.

The defense of the illusion reveals the source of the idolatry.

Christian leaders must be held to unapologetically high standards. Do you think Elisabeth Elliot is up in Heaven wringing her hands about the preservation of her image here on Earth? I don’t. If anything, I have to believe she would enthusiastically say, “Go for it! Dissect the belief system. Keep the good. Discard the bad. Learn from my mistakes. Do better and point more people to Jesus!”

I think our daughters deserve better. I think Elisabeth did, too.

Kaeley Harms, co-founder of Hands Across the Aisle Women’s Coalition, is a Christian feminist who rarely fits into boxes. She is a truth teller, envelope pusher, Jesus follower, abuse survivor, writer, wife, mom, and lover of words aptly spoken.

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