Thursday, May 30, 2019

Review: "The Good Wife as the Help-Mate" (The Good Wife, Part 1)

The creation of Eve

This is Part 1 of my review of “The Good Wife,” a 5-part lecture series by the influential American Orthodox priest Fr. Josiah Trenham. You can read my introduction post here. The first lecture, “The Good Wife as the Help-Mate,” focuses on the role of a wife as a subordinate helper to her husband. This is the only lecture in the series you can hear for free.

In this lecture, Fr. Trenham* offers a theological justification for male supremacy—to use his preferred terms, male "primacy" or "headship." He then outlines practical ways that the God-ordained gender hierarchy manifests itself in a good Christian marriage.

The doctrine of male headship is inescapable in Orthodoxy; after all, the Church only ordains men to the priesthood. Still, Fr. Trenham's extreme views on gender roles go far beyond the current norms of Orthodox Christian belief and practice.

Fr. Trenham begins his lecture by examining the Genesis 2 account of the creation of Adam and Eve. The origin of man and woman, he argues, is the basis for the hierarchical relationship between them (For those following along with the recording, I’ll cite the start time of each excerpt in parentheses):

(6:40) Here in the creation of primordial man and woman, according to the account of our most fundamental sacred text, we see the primacy of man, of the male sex, in the created order. We see the origin of the man and the origin of woman: man first and from the earth, woman second and from the rib of man. Here we see the fundamental realities of marriage and the relationship of man and woman in marriage. Adam was primary. He was created first, and Eve second. Man was not created for Eve, but rather Eve was created for Adam [. . .] Woman is not man’s vocation. Man already had received his vocation: to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the Earth, and to rule it, and to subdue it. Woman was created to be the one and unique means of Man accomplishing his vocation, the one and unique helper in Man's work, the Help-Mate.

Man’s purpose preceded and is independent of woman, while woman's purpose exists only in relation to man. Fr. Trenham appears to forget that God gave the command “Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it” to both Adam and Eve (Genesis 1:28).

He continues his argument for male primacy based on creational order, quoting from St. Paul’s letters:

(7:50) And this primacy of man in creation is something that St. Paul appeals to several times in his letters. He writes in his first letter to the Corinthians, “Man is the head of woman, and God is the head of Christ. Man does not originate from woman, but woman from man. For indeed, man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake.”

(8:39) This order in creation also provides an order for interaction between the sexes in chronological time. For instance, St. Paul writes in his first letter to Timothy, “I do not allow a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man, but to remain quiet, for it was Adam who was first created, and then Eve.” Here the creational order is what lies behind the fact that in marriage the husband is the head of the family.

Fr. Trenham then gives a practical application of man’s headship, describing with surprising explicitness the proper sexual dynamic between husbands and wives:

(9:20) The man shows his headship in courtship by taking the initiative to leave his father and mother and to cleave to his wife. He takes initiative in conjugal union by joining himself to the woman to become one flesh with her. He is her pursuer. He exercises his headship in marriage by being a leader, and the corresponding reality for the woman, who St. Paul says is the “glory of man,” is to be the one and only unique help-mate of the man, the one to register and receive his pursuits, to be his final earthly destination after he has left his parents, the one to receive the august embraces in conjugal union, to partner with and enable and facilitate man in his vocation so that the new reality of their union in the governance of the earth is “very good.” [Emphasis mine.]

Translation: No topping, ladies.

In Fr. Trenham’s view, the act of intercourse is an expression of woman’s subordination to man. Paradoxically, this view places him in the company of radical feminists like Andrea Dworkin. The key difference is that Fr. Trenham believes the sexual subordination of women to be proper and good. A good wife, per his definition, yields to her husband’s passion. It is not her place to initiate sex (and in a later lecture, “The Good Wife as the Lover and the Healing Potent Drug," he will argue that it is not her place to resist her husband's advances, either).

Fr. Trenham compares the authority of a husband to that of a monarch:

(19:37) St. John Chrysostom says, “There is no democracy in the Christian home.” In general, the Holy Fathers were not fans of democracy. Rather the Christian home must, in John Chrysostom’s words, be a “benevolent monarchy,” a monarkhia, quote, “in order that the one might be subject and the other rule, for equality is oftentimes the mother of strife.”

If the husband rules as a monarch, are there any limits to his authority over his wife? Fr. Trenham assures his female listeners that “no domestic violence is tolerated by Christ” (23:01), but he undercuts this assurance by repeatedly asserting that a wife must obey her husband regardless of his behavior:

(25:14) Listen to the words of St. Peter in his first epistle: “You wives, be submissive to your own husbands so that if any of them are disobedient to the Word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior.”

Wow! That’s 1 Peter 3. Here, besides the universal apostolic call to wives to obey their husbands, St. Peter posits the immense power of wifely obedience. The obedience of the wife is so powerful that it’s actually able to win a disobedient husband to obedience to God without speech. This is the power of the feminine submissive spirit that is so influential over men.
Men don’t care about fighting women. Men like to fight. Men are used to blood, men are used to fights. If their woman becomes a man by fighting with him, it means nothing to him. But a woman enduring him, exercising holy patience and submission, can absolutely change his life. This is what St. Peter says. That’s how powerful a woman’s obedience is, that it triumphs over a bad husband’s disobedience and alters him, literally alters him.
(27:37) This wifely obedience and powerful virtue is especially tested and demonstrated when the husband tempts the wife by his own arrogance, by his pride, or by a tyrannical spirit, or sometimes by his own irresponsibility or even radical incompetence which might even threaten the safety of the family, or the well-being of the family in various ways. We men can do all of these things fairly easily. It’s at times like that when the good wife manifests her character by refusing to act in the face of her husband’s craziness, by refusing to act as her husband’s head, or as his teacher and judge. The good wife does not fight with her husband, she does not raise her voice against him, as though she is his head, or as though they’re co-heads. There are no co-heads. To do so is a sure and certain and certain way to cause the husband to react even worse, and to disdain whatever of importance the wife may be attempting to communicate to him.
(31:00) For a husband to unjustly yell at his wife is horrible, no doubt. But, sisters, it’s not as horrible as a wife yelling at her husband. Those are not equal acts. It is a much more serious thing for a wife to yell at her husband, especially if there are children, because the very structure and the very order of the home is completely overturned in the latter case. The good wife must seek to win her husband by her gentle and quiet spirit and without words. [Emphasis mine. Perhaps it is not horrible for a husband to yell at his wife justly?]

(34:32) The good wife obeys and submits to her husband at all times. This is where her true power and her influence lies. And it takes a lot of courage and a lot of trust in God to do this.

There is no check against a husband’s abuse of power, except the hope that his wife’s silent obedience will somehow change his behavior. It’s not clear at what point, if any, domestic abuse becomes severe enough to justify a wife’s leaving her husband. Indeed, submission to a “tyrannical” husband is, according to Fr. Trenham, the greatest demonstration of feminine power and virtue. Surely a faithful Christian woman would not run from such an opportunity to “manifest her character” as a good wife and to display her “courage” and “trust in God.”

Fr. Trenham continues, offering a breathtaking litany of the practical duties of a good wife:

(38:09) The good wife is the helper of her husband. She enhances him, she strengthens him, she nourishes him, she feeds him—this is one of the central functions of a wife, and how she can save her husband, is that she lovingly feeds him so that he doesn’t destroy himself by not eating, or by eating too much, or the wrong things, because he’s not even thinking about what he’s eating.

She adds value to his life. She contributes value to his work. Her presence energizes him, her presence comforts him. She’s at his side at important moments when he absolutely needs her. She dignifies him, she encourages him, she delights him, she cheers him, she sobers him, she calms him. She clothes him, she oversees his health, she ensures his sleep. She tames him sexually. She teaches him fidelity. She becomes involved and interested in his vocation. She helps him to find and fulfill new vocations [. . .] She counsels him. She listens to him. She calls him by such beautiful and powerful wifeliness to become a good man and a devoted husband and father.

(40:31) She also is the mother of his children [. . .] Yes, motherhood is at the heart of this help-mate role, for sure, since multiplication is the fundamental vocation of Adam. But it is not first. Being a wife is first.

(41:18) The wife also practically helps him by managing not just his children, but the whole household. She is the steward of the home.

Joan put it more succinctly in the first episode of Mad Men: "Most of the time they're looking for something between a mother and a waitress. And the rest of the time, well..."

Joan Harris, Orthodox theologian

Fr. Trenham's Good Wife is one who submits her entire self to her husband. Her purpose is to support his purpose. She is utterly secondary.

There are also things a Good Wife never does, Fr. Trenham instructs us:

(41:27) And she doesn’t shame her husband. Women can be smarter, they can be more pious, they can be more talented, they can be more able in every way, they can even be better at doing the very job their husband does outside the home [. . .] None of these are in any way inconsistent with a wife being a help-mate or in any way justify stealing a man’s role as the leader and head of his home. Just because the wife could do it better doesn’t mean she should do it. Just because she’s smarter doesn’t mean she should always be showing him that.

I wonder how Fr. Trenham squares this opinion with the Parable of the Talents, in which Jesus warns of the dire consequences awaiting those who neglect to use their God-given abilities.

He concludes his lecture with a diatribe against feminism and the evils it has brought upon society, including contraception, lesbianism, daycare, and shoulder pads.

Look what you've done, feminists. Look. What. You've. Done.

On a slightly less humorous note, he also asserts that "The whole date rape thing is very much the fruit of the feminist advance," because promiscuous women have caused men to lose control of their sexual aggression (58:13).

You may wonder how Fr. Trenham’s worldview ever appealed to someone like me, a college-educated millennial woman steeped in feminist theory. In short, here’s how: Fr. Trenham acknowledged all of the nagging fears that lay buried at the root of my feminism. Why had men dominated the arts, the sciences, politics, and every other field of intellectual achievement in almost every culture since the beginning of history? Why was it still so hard to achieve gender equality after decades of feminist progress? And the most disturbing and personal question of all: why did sex feel like humiliation? That feeling was not always predominant in my mind, but I had a vague and persistent sense that sex was a power struggle I was biologically destined to lose. Feminism, particularly radical feminism, answered all of those questions, but its answers left me in a state of hopeless rage. Fr. Trenham (and other conservative Orthodox thinkers) gave me an alternative explanation: women's historical and current subjugation was inevitable, natural, and good. Our position as men's subordinates was our divinely ordained rank in the cosmological hierarchy. I could embrace a submissive gender role without shame, knowing I was fulfilling my God-given vocation to be a help-mate. Instead of being a perpetually enraged feminist, I could be a saint.

St. Keela the Vanquisher of Feminism

It sort of worked for a while. I felt less angry. I got a bit obsessed with wearing headscarves to Church and even wore them outside of Church for a while. The Christian rationale for female head covering, according to St. Paul, is to symbolize man's authority over woman (1 Corinthians 11:2-16). I think I believed that if I embraced the symbol hard enough, I would eventually grow comfortable with the meaning behind it. I threw myself into the all-consuming work of a stay-at-home mother and felt very satisfied with the coherence between my lifestyle and my belief system. Whatever frustrations I felt with my role I attributed to sinful pride and the lingering influence of feminism.

But the relative peace of soul didn’t last, because I could never quite shake the shame I felt at the idea that God created women inherently inferior to men—inferior, in the sense synonymous with subordinate, "of a lower station or rank." I also suspected that the other sense of inferior applied: "less important, valuable, or worthy." Proponents of male headship try very hard to deny that the first sense implies the second. They argue that women are in some abstract, metaphysical sense equal in value to men, even though they say women were created for the express purpose of serving as men's assistants. Adam was the pinnacle of God's creation; Eve was the helper to the pinnacle of God's creation. Am I supposed to believe those two roles are of equal worth?

Congratulations, you've been awarded the position of Assistant to the Regional Manager for all time.

None of this was my husband’s fault, by the way. It was I, not he, who embraced Fr. Trenham’s reactionary version of Orthodoxy. Nevertheless, I made him into an authority figure he never asked to be, and it was tempting to blame him when I chafed against my self-imposed bonds. My effort to become a Good Wife backfired, straining my marriage instead of strengthening it. As it turns out, silent submission is NOT a great way to influence your husband's behavior, but it is a pretty good way to build up resentment. If none of my other objections to Fr. Trenham's arguments stick, the simple fact that his principles did not work in practice ought to cast doubt on them.

As you might have noticed, I have not addressed the question of whether Fr. Trenham's views on male primacy represent "True Orthodoxy." It will be clear to anyone within the Church that his views do not represent the common practice of Orthodox Christians, but that's not really the same thing. Most Orthodox Christians don't follow the fasting rules or show up on time to Liturgy, either. The truth is, I'm not prepared to say what is or is not "True Orthodoxy." All I can say is that if Fr. Trenham's arguments in this lecture are legitimately Orthodox, there's no path for me back to the Church.

*It is common in the Orthodox Church to address priests by the title "Father" and their first names. The usual form of address felt too familiar for the purposes of this review, so I instead refer to Fr. Josiah Trenham as Fr. Trenham.


  1. But the relative peace of soul didn’t last, because I could never quite shake the shame I felt at the idea that God created women inherently inferior to men—inferior, in the sense synonymous with subordinate, "of a lower station or rank."

    You can say these things are synonymous all you like, that doesn't make them synonymous. I am subordinate to my Priest, in the sense that I see him as higher up in the church hierarchy than I am, but not for one second do I think that this makes him superior to me in some metaphysical sense. All human beings are equal in worth, in value. This doesn't make hierarchy illegitimate!
    Clearly husband and wife are intended to be fellow pilgrims on the path of the Christian life, operating towards a shared goal: a life continuously moving towards Christ.
    As an aside, the conception of the husband as "King" can be hard to swallow given all of the anti-monarchy rhetoric we hear living in America. It's important to remember that a husband as "King" is supposed to exemplify the best of Kingship: being loving, caring, wise in decision making, willing to lay down his life for his people, etc. When we expect our husbands to model their Kingship after, say, Louis XIV, we have some severe severe problems. Better models exist, like King Alfred the Great, or Vladimir the Great.

  2. So sorry you fell for this creep's repulsive ideas. They are not particularly Christian or even biblical--how is a MAN going to "be fruitful and multiply"? This is biologically possible only for women.

    I stopped reading at that point.

  3. I did read the entire thing. This individual's views are not biblical. They are just an excuse for a abusive individual to domineer and treat his wife like dirt.

  4. First a note: A priest at my parish recently gave a talk on the sacraments. During this talk, he related that primordial Adam was not male, but neither male nor female. Genderless. According to this actual-and-for-real-priest, primordial Adam was without gender and only became male when Eve was created female. Male and female were created at the same time. For each other. Marriage is therefore the reassembling of the male and female aspects of humanity who mirror primordial Adam when unified. So there goes that whole man came first thing....

    Anyway, as an Orthodox woman who was emotionally abused by a boyfriend who was exposed to Father Trenham's brand of gender theory during his convert phase, I feel your pain. Ideologies like this not only commit the sin of making no f#$%*&^ sense (seriously, they fall apart when subjected to even the slightest intellectual rigor, and given that one of the things I have always loved about Orthodoxy is that it actually makes sense, I find garbage that doesn't make sense appropriating the "mystery" defense to be deeply offensive... moving on) they are extremely damaging because they take a woman's safe harbor, her relationship with Christ, and twist it into a nightmare in which she is made to feel deviant just for being a fully fledged person in her own right, complete with opinions and interests and vocations and talents that deserve to be cultivated and explored. You know, for being a completely normal person who wants to do completely normal person things. It's extremely cruel and extremely damaging, and any woman who has been on the receiving end of that kind of spiritual violence knows exactly what I am talking about. Just know that you're not alone, there are more of us than there should be. I'll always have a complicated relationship with Orthodoxy, I think, and I had to take some time away from it. When I did come back, my new priest reaffirmed to me that teachings such as Father Trenham's are not in line with Orthodox Tradition. Please keep writing! It's important for the health of the Church that these abberant ideologies are challenged because they are causing real harm. I look forward to reading the rest of your reviews, and your picture captions made my night!

  5. I am an Orthodox priest (with a PhD in Patristics, no less), and I disagree entirely with Fr Josiah's anthropology. And no, I'm not a progressive liberal or someone trying to convert Orthodoxy into Episcopalianism with incense. I am rooted in the Patristic reading of the Scriptures, and abhor fundamentalist readings of the text.

    It is possible to say that man and woman are created equal, though different, without implying any of the current political baggage, and without the Protestant fundamentalist baggage of male primacy. But what does the Bible really say about male-female relationships, and how do the Fathers interpret this?

    Using Ephesians 5 as a model for marriage (since it is one of the official readings of every Orthodox wedding), we come to understand that any view of male "headship" is merely spiritual headship. It does not mean that women cannot work outside the house (what would say of St Lydia?); or that women cannot be fiery and strong (what about Deborah the Judge of Israel?).

    So what does "spiritual headship" mean? The husband is supposed to lead by example, by becoming like Christ, and by constantly dying to himself for the sake of his wife. This example is responded to by the wife who likewise lives selflessly for her husband. In such a way, marriage becomes a mutual giving of self to the other. Following the schema of St Maximos the Confessor, when male and female enter into harmony, they overcome their differences and unite human nature in themselves.

    But St Paul's image leads to another implication. If a man forsakes this calling, through his selfishness, there is no reason to expect that his wife will show him respect, or that she'll be motivated to live selflessly for him. She can choose to anyway (as an inspired act of humility), just as a husband can choose to stay with a wife who is unfaithful to him. But we shouldn't set this ideal as the standard. If Christ's self-sacrificial example is the example of male, and the Church's selfless offering to Christ the example of female, then it is certainly a two-way street. And if the husband does not live up to this calling, why would we expect his spouse to put up with him?

    1. This is very insightful. I also like the fact the fact the verse in Ephesians from right before the marriage reading says to all Christians in general, "submit to one another..." Apparently, humbling ourselves before each other is for everybody in the Church, not just us ladies.

    2. Can you please elaborate on what of Fr. Josiah's anthropology you disagree with? Asking for my own musings on complementarianism vs. egalitarianism/et al.

    3. Fr bless,

      With a PHD in patristics, you should know better than to attack some straw man of Fr. Josiahs anthropology. You dont quote him, and your response reveals you have neither listened to the Good Wife or the Good Husband lectures.

      "And if the husband does not live up to this calling, why would we expect his spouse to put up with him?"

      Because St. Paul tells us that is the will of God, and St John Chrysostom tells us that God wills the man to do the same when the wife does not live up to her calling.

    4. I'm not sure you understand what the term straw-man means. And actually, I have listened to his lectures and read his books all the way back to his articles in Divine Ascent magazine, which I'm guessing is probably longer than you've been orthodox. But why would I waste my time writing a detailed critique of his works in a simple comment on a blog post?

    5. You do not need an in depth analysis in order to avoid the straw man, You merely need to address what he has actually said and written. Since you have read his extensive works and listened to his lectures, you surely know he has taught on Righteous Deborah and St Lydia. Why ask the question, when you can quote what he has actually said?

      And you have not responded to my pointing out that St. John Chrysostom (of which it is obvious that Fr. Josiah draws greatly from) does not treat St. Pauls illustration as a two way street. He rebukes men to endure all manner of abuse from their wives as Christ endured all manner of abuse for our sake and called it love.

    6. He also calls men to love even if their wives aren’t obedient.

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. Is this secret obsession comment SPAM? Perhaps it should be reviewed?

  8. Hello, just wanted to mention that I really appreciate reading your thoughts and posts! I've been Orthodox for fifteen years, and I definitely struggle with these issues and attitudes in the Church as well. My family and I are in a good parish with a good priest now, but our previous one were big fans of Fr. Josiah and his approach, and it was extremely challenging and depressing for us. I also know from experience how hard it is the write about this stuff and maintain any semblance of a healthy spiritual state, and I admire you for doing it. Best wishes!

  9. I think you are seeing and hearing things in Father Josiah Trenham's teaching which are simply not there. I have looked through your article trying to understand what it is exactly that offends you so much, and I just cannot make the same logical connections as you have. In other words your conclusions following his quotes are far stretched and you are not objectively hearing what he is actually saying. You probably have past traumas that color your perception and make you misunderstand what you hear. Anyway, I would be careful criticizing a priest. The Bible says judge not, but you are judging and reading far more into it than is actually there. And you are making other people conflicted, you are making others judge Fr Josiah, and in short your lengthy and time consuming posts are not edifying.

    PHILIPPIANS 4:8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things.

    If you have the correct focus, you could learn something from any lecture. Even if there is something wrong in a teacher's understanding, you can overlook that .1% to benefit from the 99.9% of that which is helpful and edifying. But if you only look for mistakes and things that offend you, you will get nothing except that which you look for. When you are offended and your emotions are stirred up, you can look into yourself and try to understand why - what is the root cause? Because it's something much deeper in your case than Fr Josiah's words.

    1. Agreed. Women who do not have pious and biblical husbands tend to fall into this feminist trap of seeing every biblical teaching of gender roles as "anti-feminist". Sister, I know, I have been there. I was married to a man who was not biblical, though neither was I. I met my husband, who AFTER our marriage identified as Orthodox and converted me, through my love or him, and his for me. What this ALL lacks is "equal footing". If you both don't start out as pious, biblical people, things will seem unfair when you try to apply these teachings. I don't disagree! If you'd read this to me three years ago I would have run screaming. Husband as head ALSO means husband bears the brunt and takes ALL responsibility. This makes the wife's job infinitely less worrisome and stressful. If this is not the case, HUSBAND is doing it wrong, not wife. However, when women are unhappy, they like to blame the men and not themselves. It may not be our responsibility to ne head but it IS our responsibility to be guide. And we have to gude well, with persuasion. Generally, women are smarter and more patient. We have to use that to GUIDE our husbands. Just like they use their strength and stability to protect and support us. It's all mutual. Separate but EQUAL. Until we let go of this feminist (pardon the phrase) butthurt, we'll never be what God calls us to be as women. If YOU picked a man who doesn't heed God's calling... that's YOUR failing, it doesn't give you the right, as an Orthodox woman, to question the teachings of God. Perhaps you should have chosen a better husband.

    2. I must commend you sister on having the strength and courage to be a woman as our lord God calls you all to be. Not letting all the feminist rot we have all been inundated with compromise your faith! Thank you for sharing your perspective.

  10. Seems like you're making an idol of your feminist ideal and your idea of "equality", and you're putting it over God. You're not willing to accept the bibles clear teachings on gender roles because it goes against what you hold more dearly.

    1. Sorry so I realize I didn't recognize the good in what you attempted here. So I must commend you for trying to live up to the scriptures to the best of your abilities. When John the Baptist called for repentance, the word in greek means to change ones mind or to turn around. I stand by my initial comment, but it sounds like maybe you tried to turn around without fully changing your mind. Ask God to show you the truth and you will find it.