Divine Command Theory

This post is a follow-up to the series on partriarchy, headship, and submission. See this index.

In “The Context of Genesis 3:16” we discussed the evidence of headship in Ephesians 5 and 1 Peter by examining the claims of thedeti.


After writing that post, thedeti replied with the following rebuttal:

“Mutual submission” has nothing to do with the husband-wife relationship. It has to do with the body of believers’ relationships to each other individually and corporately. Feminists, complementarians, and others like to lump “mutual submission” in with the husband wife relationship because they just don’t like wife submission to imperfect men. [..] There is no clearer evidence of the “curse of Eve” than women’s seething, spitting hatred for submission to a man
comment by thedeti @ SigmaFrame, “The Tennant Authority Structure”

This is illustrative.

First, thedeti cites the claim that women despise submission and asserts from this that it is evidence of the “curse of Eve” in Genesis 3:16. This type of reasoning is known as confirmation bias: “the tendency to interpret new evidence as confirmation of one’s existing beliefs or theories.” There are a variety of alternative explanations for women’s behavior. It is well worth noting again that even among people who share his conclusions there is not a uniformity of opinion on the meaning of Genesis 3:16.

Second, thedeti is imputing motives upon those he disagrees with. Of course he is able to make whatever claims he wants, but if and when they are shown to be untrue, it makes him a liar and only serves to hurt his claims. Peter commands both the submission of wives to imperfect husbands and the husbands to imperfect wives (in the same way as male/female slaves/masters). It is a logical contradiction to state that submission is distasteful because it means wives must submit to imperfect husbands while simultaneously arguing that wives must submit to imperfect husbands. Mutual submission opposes a strict hierarchical, unidirectional, non-mutual authority structure, not submission itself. Thedeti’s claim makes no sense. The most reasonable explanation for why anyone would hate non-mutual submission is because it isn’t biblical.

Third, the claim that mutual submission has nothing to do with the husband-wife relationship is simply incorrect, or at the very least debatable. This has been established in the last article, so I’ll merely summarize: Paul’s and Peter’s use of elided verbs, participles, connecting phrases, and synonyms militates strongly against thedeti’s claim that it has nothing to do with husband-wife relationship. Even if it isn’t equivalent in everything, it clearly has something to do with it, and we do right not to dismiss it.

Fourth, thedeti’s concept of submission conflicts with Peter’s. The reason men and women submit to their ungodly spouses has nothing to do with inherent authority. The reasons given for submission and humility are honor, holiness, sanctification, and glory. Paraphrased as evangelical language, it is to be a good witness.

Fifth, thedeti’s hermeneutical method discards Divine Command Theory, undermining his own position.

Divine Command Theory

Anabapatist Brother Lynn Martin has recently posted an important work in his ongoing discussion on the doctrine of nonresistance. In it, he explains what Divine Command Theory is:

Divine Command Theory is the view that morality consists in obedience to divine commands. What we should do is what God commands us to do; what we shouldn’t do is what God forbids us to do.
— Lynn Martin @ Anabaptist Faith, “Divine Command Theory: What if Jesus didn’t really mean that?

If Christians can agree on this much, then we can agree that if God tells us to do (or not to do) something, then we must obey. Martin states:

I showed that the New Testament prohibits Christians from doing violence in any situation, and that there are no passages in the New Testament that permit Christians to do violence. I also showed that the early church consistently agreed that violence is never appropriate for Christians. However, most Christians today don’t believe that violence is always wrong.

Therein lies the problem. How can one claim obedience to God while doing the opposite of what he commands—and what the early church practiced—because your own beliefs, traditions, and worldview take priority? Martin uses the example of prayer in response to the threat of violence (e.g. “What would you do if an assailant came to kill your family?”):

For example, if you’ve replied to their hypothetical situation by saying, “I would pray,” they might respond, “But what if the prayer doesn’t work? Would you use a gun against the attacker?” What the defensivist probably doesn’t realize is that they are unfairly assuming their worldview. If they are going to assume that our weapons (such as prayer) don’t work, but that their weapons (such as guns) do work, they are simply begging the question—assuming that nonresistant methods are inferior to violent methods.

I suspect almost every reader to this article will take the defensivist position. But the defensivist position, for all that it feels right, is unbelief and a lack of faith: that neither God’s command not to do violence nor prayer is enough. The defensivist is likely to cite their own ethical tradition to make such a claim.


Some may find Divine Command Theory insufficient. Many dogmas steeped in traditions and experience—such as headship or the doctrines of Mary—cannot be easily forced upon scripture alone. For Roman Catholic John C. Wright, tradition is a necessary and obvious part of being a Christian. A hard hierarchy of leadership is required.

A Christian has to choose whether they accept the Word of God as it is—whether or not they understand it[1] or agree with it—or whether it is acceptable to decide when and where it doesn’t have to be followed and what can be added. It is not a matter of whether or not one can incorporate tradition into one’s religious practices. The church has long embraced various divergent traditions. It is whether or not those traditions rise to or above the commands of the divine. That is a matter of unbelief.

“And you simply cannot get away from tradition about scripture. For example, where is the strict grammatico-historic hermeneutic found in the text itself? Pouring over the original texts, and parsing the verbs, pronouns, adjectives and so on, while taking such extreme care to learn about historical and cultural contextual clues, paying attention to things like what the author believed at the time, and all the rest of it is in itself a tradition that is not found in the text as a clear commandment about how to handle that very text <— as a path to salvation.”
— comment by The Eye of Sauron, Sigma Frame, “The Tennant Authority Structure”

The word of God is self-evident.[2] It is truth because it is God’s Word. It needs no tradition.

In the early church there was no need for a strict grammatical-historical hermeneutic method. They had “The Original Source Material.” The hearers and readers were natives who understood what was said about as readily as you can understand what anyone writes in your native language right now.

When Roman Catholicism was founded in the late-4th century, the words of Christ were almost as old as the words of Shakespeare are to us.  It takes a truly special kind of person to understand Shakespeare untrained. I’ve never seen anyone complain that taking a course on Shakespeare may be required to understand what it means (“It’s not fair!”). Nor have I ever seen anyone argue that students shouldn’t have to think about what the language in Shakespeare’s plays mean in courses on Shakespeare. “Why shouldn’t the professor just tell us what it means so we don’t have to think about it?” Courses on Shakespeare are a lot of work for good reason.

Shakespeare was roughly 400 years ago. Another four times that long has past since the founding of Roman Catholicism, through countless subtle and non-subtle changes of language, culture, politics, and religious movements. The scriptures have been translated through one to three different languages since (along with numerous textual variants), to arrive at what we have now, with dozens of different translations available in English alone. Understanding what God wants for you can be challenging, and the reasons for this are obvious.

But the traditions themselves are subject to the same problems that Shakespeare is subject to. Traditions are built upon traditions are built upon traditions. Tradition is insufficient.


The real issue is the elevation of tradition to dogma. There is nothing wrong with tradition, where it doesn’t conflict with scripture. But tradition is readily and easily raised to the level of dogma. In the case of Roman Catholicism, as shown in “No Early Evidence for Roman Catholic Doctrine“, this began in the late 4th century and has continued to this day. We can examine the historical record and see that the interpretation of Scripture changed.

Consider the belief that Christ was raised in fleshly form from the dead, from his own original body, and that this flesh ascended into heaven:

“The official Christian view concerning the resurrection of the dead was that it is the same flesh that rises again, although in a state of glory and eternal. The Christian writers who held this opinion did not approach their conception in a philosophic way; in other words they were not interested whether their argumentation was pertinent in a philosophic-logical way. The exceptions to this doctrine, Origen and Philoponus, seem to be both influenced by philosophical doctrines, and both of them professed a change according to matter, but not according to the eidos, so as to preserve a logical, philosophically speaking, identity of the previous human being with the risen one. They were most probably influenced by the neo-Platonic doctrine of the “subtle body of the soul” which they combined with the “spiritual body” mentioned by the Apostle Paul, and, at the same time, they adopted Aristotelian logic. Thus, in the teaching of both Origen and ­Philoponus we find a fusion of the philosophy of their time and of Christian doctrine.
— Kakavelaki, “The Resurrected Body, Will it Be of Flesh or Spiritual”

You can read the Bible today and come to this very obvious conclusion by reading the words of Jesus in Luke 24:39. But some tradition rose up in the later church and reinterpreted 1 Corinthians 15:35-46 to mean that Christ went into heaven as a purely spiritual being. It’s obviously not true, but that hasn’t stopped people from embracing the view as dogma. It is simply false to claim that we cannot know the original meaning of scripture and are thus forced to trust in tradition.

The most impressive part about all this is that the original church was not all that concerned over it. They didn’t need to pour over source material or make novel arguments about it. It wasn’t until the introduction of a new tradition that everything became complicated. Now there were multiple competing views and detailed arguments over who was right and who was wrong. The fault lies squarely with those who pushed for new tradition and elevating it as dogma, those who, perhaps, rejected divine command theory.

A church that elevates tradition to the level of dogma is not automatically damned. But there are a number of denominations that have placed their idea of salvation on traditional, non-biblical views. These denominations are lost. They cannot be recovered and one should avoid these at any and all cost.

We can and must do as the Bereans did: examine the claims made and verify them against what the scriptures say.


[1] It is better to try and fail to understand the truth than to not try at all.

[2] See 1 Kings 13

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