Jordan Peterson Doesn’t Understand Marital Submission

The famous Canadian psychologist Dr Jordan B. Peterson has given many public lectures on biblical interpretation and has become something of a pseudo-spiritual mentor to many men in the western world, including Christian men. One could argue that it is Christians who are most interested in what he has to say about cultural issues. However, Peterson’s psychoanalytical musings betray his lack of understanding of Christian tradition and the Bible itself.

In a recent public appearance, available on YouTube under the title ‘You Should Submit to Your Spouse,’ Peterson’s wife read him a question on stage from an audience member: “Why is the idea of submission of a woman to a man, in the context of marriage, socially repulsive?” It’s an excellent and important question. Peterson, assuming the role of theologian and expert on Catholicism, replied:

“The Christian sacralisation of marriage is predicated on the idea that the woman… offers opportunity for the emergence of something like the spirit of the Logos… what that means is that a dynamic can be set up between the participants in the relationship, and that dynamic is something like the truthful exchange of redemptive information aimed at maximising the quality of the relationship… each of you should jointly submit to the spirit that makes your relationship redemptive and dynamic… so there’s an element of submission in some sense that’s involved but it’s not unidirectional and it’s never been conceptualised that way in classic thought, not by people who thought deeply about such things… [emphasis added]”

Let’s ignore the mumbo-jumbo about the Logos. According to Peterson, both husbands and wives must mutually submit to “the spirit that makes [their] relationship redemptive and dynamic.” What is that spirit? Who defines what is redemptive and dynamic? What happens when there is a conflict between the husband and wife – who makes the decision then? The answer is unclear – Peterson’s words only have as much meaning as the listener brings to them.

Peterson then claims that the idea of marital submission being “unidirectional” (i.e., wives having to obey their husbands, but husbands not having to obey their wives) has “never been conceptualised that way in classic thought, not by people who thought deeply about such things,” which implies that Peterson has studied the subject of what classical thinkers had to say about marital submission a great deal. If that is the case, he would be familiar with what St Paul says about marital submission in Ephesians 5: 21-30 (which he doesn’t mention in this video), as St Paul has certainly contributed in no small measure to “classic thought”:

“Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body.”

In verse 21, St Paul instructs the Ephesian church to “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,” and proceeds to clarify what this means by explaining the distinct duties of wives and husbands respectively. A husband’s subjection to his wife is akin to Christ laying down his life for his Church. It is not an obligation to obey one’s wife, as Christ is not obligated to obey His Church, but a call to lead one’s wife unselfishly, offering one’s life as a sacrifice “that he might sanctify her.”

St Paul could not have been clearer about the fact that husbands are in authority over their wives and that, consequently, wives are obliged to obey their husbands “in everything.” Simply put, “mutual subjection” means each spouse is to live out their divinely ordained marital roles faithfully and consider the good of their spouse before themselves.

According to St Paul, husbands are to rule and love their wives as Christ rules and loves the Church, and wives are to submit to and obey their husbands as the Church does her Lord. Perhaps Peterson is not as acquainted with “classic thought” as he presumes.

In his commentary on Ephesians 5:21, the Protestant reformer John Calvin wrote: “Submit yourselves. God has bound us so strongly to each other, that no man ought to endeavor to avoid subjection; and where love reigns, mutual services will be rendered…”

For Calvin, a husband is not a tyrant. Love must reign in marriage and “mutual services will be rendered.” It must be noted that Ephesians 5:21 is also likely a call for all Christians to submit to one another in love (hence the ESV places the verse at the end of the section of Ephesians titled ‘Walk in Love,’ rather than at the beginning of the section titled ‘Wives and Husbands’. Calvin continues:

“[St Paul] begins with wives, whom he enjoins to be subject to their husbands, in the same manner as to Christ, – as to the Lord. Not that the authority is equal, but wives cannot obey Christ without yielding obedience to their husbands.”

A wife is to obey her husband “in the same manner as to Christ,” and “yield obedience.” Did Calvin teach that husbands must obey their wives? No. He continues:

“For the husband is the head of the wife. This is the reason assigned why wives should be obedient. Christ has appointed the same relation to exist between a husband and a wife, as between himself and his church. This comparison ought to produce a stronger impression on their minds, than the mere declaration that such is the appointment of God. Two things are here stated. God has given to the husband authority over the wife; and a resemblance of this authority is found in Christ, who is the head of the church, as the husband is of the wife.”

Calvin reinforces a husband’s authority over his wife. So, on what basis does Jordan Peterson claim that wifely submission has “never been conceptualised that way in classic thought, not by people who thought deeply about such things”? Either Peterson doesn’t believe Calvin thought deeply about marital submission, or he has never read Calvin’s thoughts on the matter.

Of course, many people have not read Calvin, but Peterson is the one lecturing people, including Christians, on biblical interpretation and the ideas that “the Christian sacralisation of marriage is predicated on.”

Exploring Catholic teaching further illustrates the point that Peterson is not an expert on “classic thought” regarding this topic. The 1880 papal encyclical titled Arcanum by Pope Leo XIII explains:

“The husband is the chief of the family and the head of the wife. The woman, because she is flesh of his flesh, and bone of his bone, must be subject to her husband and obey him; not, indeed, as a servant, but as a companion, so that her obedience shall be wanting in neither honor nor dignity. Since the husband represents Christ, and since the wife represents the Church, let there always be, both in him who commands and in her who obeys, a heaven-born love guiding both in their respective duties.”

Pope Leo XIII, drawing on St Paul, paints a picture of a wife obeying her husband as though he were Christ, and a husband loving his wife the way Christ loves his Church. The husband is “the chief of the family” – he takes on much responsibility (hence he is subject to his wife in some sense) but possesses legitimate authority that his wife must submit to.

Furthermore, Pope Pius XI, in his 1930 encyclical Casti Connubi, tells us:

“This subjection [of the wife to her husband] however, does not deny or take away the liberty which fully belongs to the woman both in view of her dignity as a human person… nor does it bid her obey her husband’s every request if not in harmony with right reason or with the dignity due to wife… But it forbids that exaggerated liberty which cares not for the good of the family… For if the man is the head, the woman is the heart, and as he occupies the chief place in ruling, so she may and ought to claim herself the chief place in love… this false liberty and unnatural equality with the husband is to the detriment of the woman herself… [emphasis added]”

Notice that a wife is not obliged to obey her husband’s every request “if not in harmony with right reason or with the dignity due to wife,” which suggests that wives must obey their husbands “in everything” (as St Paul says) provided that doing so does not violate reason or her dignity. Of course, what constitutes such a violation deserves to be explored, but suffice it to say that Jordan Peterson’s notion that submission, or obedience, is not “unidirectional” is incorrect. Husbands are not obligated to obey their wives, but wives are obligated to obey their husbands.

In case the Catholic position has not been made clear enough, the Catholic Catechism of the Council of Trent of 1566 outlines the Catholic Church’s position on the duties of husbands and wives. It reads:

“Let wives be subject to their husbands… The wife should love to remain at home, unless compelled by necessity to go out; and she should never presume to leave home without her husband’s consent… let wives never forget that next to God they are to love their husbands, to esteem them above all others, yielding to them in all things not inconsistent with Christian piety, a willing and ready obedience [emphasis added].”

According to Trent, the wife’s duty is to obey her husband “in all things not inconsistent with Christian piety,” echoing the Apostle’s instruction that “wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” The husband’s instructions must be consistent with Christian piety, another way of saying that he cannot force his wife to disobey God and he cannot violate his wife’s dignity, but Trent assumes that the husband has the legitimate authority to tell his wife what to do. Note that she even requires his consent to leave the home. As for husbands, the Catechism reads:

“It is the duty of the husband to treat his wife generously and honorably. It should not be forgotten that Eve was called by Adam his companion… she was not formed from his head, in order to give her to understand that it was not hers to command but to obey her husband. The husband should also be constantly occupied in some honest pursuit with a view to provide necessaries for the support of his family and to avoid idleness, the root of almost every vice. He is also to keep his family in order, to correct their morals, and see that they faithfully discharge their duties.”

One can’t help but notice that even in the section on the husband’s duties, the authors took the trouble to make clear the fact that the wife’s duty is “to obey her husband.” Meanwhile, the husband is “to treat his wife generously and honorably.” He is to be kind rather than harsh, hard-working rather than lazy, and rule his household well. I suppose Jordan Peterson thinks the authors of the Catechism of the Council of Trent, one of the most important documents in the Catholic Church, also didn’t think deeply about marital submission.

Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter titled Mulieris Dignitatem (On the Dignity and Vocation of Women) contextualises the dynamic of marriage with these words:

“The husband is called the ‘head’ of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church; he is so in order to give “himself up for her” (Eph 5:25), and giving himself up for her means giving up even his own life. However, whereas in the relationship between Christ and the Church the subjection is only on the part of the Church, in the relationship between husband and wife the ‘subjection’ is not one-sided but mutual.”

While some progressive Catholics eagerly imagine that the phrase “mutual subjection” means husbands and wives must obey each other (which obviously does not make sense, and obviously contradicts prior Church teaching), it simply means that a husband’s subjection is akin to Christ’s laying his life down for his Church, as explained earlier. After all, the Catechism of Trent places a high demand on husbands that they cannot meet by being selfish. We see, then, how the concepts of mutual subjection and male headship are harmonious, not contradictory.

Considering these examples of historic Christian teaching, one is forced to conclude either that St Paul, John Calvin, at least two popes, and the authors of the Catechism of the Council of Trent, whom it is fair to say have contributed in some measure to “classic thought,” did not think deeply about marital submission, or that Jordan Peterson is not qualified to lecture on these matters.

Peterson’s view implies an adversarial dynamic that is not present in Catholic thought. In an older video, he even said “What do you want from your partner? Bliss? No, no, no, you don’t. You want periods of peace punctuated by a good fight.” On the contrary, husbands and wives are not meant to be competitors and marriage is not meant to be painful. Christian marriage is a splendid, ordered, peaceful reality with spouses living as harmonious partners with distinct and complementary roles – the wife emulating the Church in her submission and the husband emulating Christ as a loving ruler.

Hopefully, Christians will stop looking to Jordan Peterson for guidance and look instead to God’s truth.