The Miseducation of Whitney Houston

Bad theology kept her in an unhealthy marriage, but good theology got her out.

DANGEROUS LOVE: Whitney Houston in 1997 with then-husband Bobby Brown. (Photo: Kathy Hutchins/Newscom)

Over the past week, we have been riveted by the tragedy of Whitney Houston’s untimely death. Accounts of drug use and a fallen icon have flooded the media. Yet, little has been said about how her self-professed faith may have contributed to both her downfall and eventual escape from an unhealthy marriage relationship.

In her last major interview with Oprah Winfrey in 2009, Whitney states that she stayed in the marriage, endured abuse and humiliation, and engaged in self-destructive behaviors in her effort to be a “good” Christian wife. No matter what happened, she felt she had to remain because as she quotes, “What God has brought together, let no man put asunder.”

Yet, Whitney’s statements about letting, indeed inviting, her husband “to take control of her life,” and that a wife must do whatever her husband says is not a new concept. In fact, the concept of women being required, as a matter of faith and faithfulness, “to submit” to their husbands in all things is the pervasive normative gospel preached in churches across racial, denominational, and geographical lines. Ephesians 5:22-24, which outlines a wife’s duty to submit, is often taught without context or nuance.  Rarely is the verse above it, which says to “submit to one another,” discussed. Moreover, the last verses of the chapter, which make it clear that a man wouldn’t hate or hurt his own body, do not get much airplay in the church either.

This kind of uncritical, a-contextual acceptance of a half-developed theology leads many women to unconditional obedience to a man regardless of how he treats her, much like Whitney Houston. It rebuffs and chastises women who critically analyze its meaning much like slaves were chastised for questioning the ever popular scripture of slave masters, “slaves obey your masters,” (Col. 3:22). Both the Ephesians 5:22-24 and Colossians 3:22 texts are biblical since they do appear in the Bible. But both have the potential to be misused to oppress and disenfranchise whole groups of people. They’ve also been used to maintain the status quo of unjust power structures in society.

Moreover, in 2011, CBS News reported on a Glamour/Harris poll that found that “30 percent of women who have been in a relationship have been abused. Of that 30 percent, 62 percent were hit, 33 percent were choked or strangled, and 11 percent feared their partner would kill them. Even more shocking, another 30 percent of the women said they had experienced behaviors by their partners that can be categorized as abusive, whether they be emotional or physical.”

With this kind of data, it seems incomprehensible that the church would continue to simply preach the gospel of female submission without critical reflection and further context. It is also sad that we do not give equal attention to stressing that violence has no place in any dating or marital relationship. Finally, since 83 percent of Americans categorize themselves as Christians, according to ABCNEWS/Beliefnet, this is relevant to a huge portion of our population.

Yet, Whitney’s is not just a cautionary tale of how one’s theological premise can lead them to accept abuse, disrespect, humiliation, infidelity, and neglect. In the end, it was her faith that gave her the strength to finally realize that the God she believed in did not want her to continually make herself and her talent small, so that her husband could feel big.

AMAZING GRACE: Houston was baptized in the River Jordan near the Sea of Galilee during a Holy Land pilgrimage in May 2003. (Photo: Ygal Levi/Newscom)

Whitney recounts her mother’s prodding her, telling her that the life she was living with drugs, abuse, and chaos with then-husband Bobby Brown was not God’s best for her. According to Houston, her mother, a strong Christian, reminded her of God’s presence and power to bring her out. Whitney says in the 2009 interview, “I began to pray.  I said, ‘God, if you will give me one day of strength, I will leave [this house and marriage].” And one day, she did. Much like Tina Turner left her husband, Ike Turner, with only the clothes on her back, Whitney Houston left her home and husband with only a change of clothing.

The transformative power of her faith can be seen in her public discussions. When asked by Diane Sawyer in 2002 what she was addicted to, Whitney rattled off a number of drugs and added that she was “addicted to making love [to Bobby Brown].” But when Oprah asked Whitney in 2009 who she loved, the singer said, “I love the Lord!” And it was that part of her faith that had her on the way to a professional comeback and personal redemption.

In the end, Whitney Houston did not conquer every challenge that haunted her. And none of this excuses the decisions she ultimately made for her life. She owned that. But to understand her life, it is critical that we analyze the thinking and theology that animated her decision-making and helped lead her to such a tragic place.

In the Christian tradition, good theology illuminates, liberates, and pushes us to be our best selves. Bad theology takes bits and pieces of scripture out of context and threatens any who has the audacity to ask questions or to critically analyze the paradigm put forth by those in power.

Whitney’s story is the story of millions of women. It is a cautionary tale that reiterates the importance of thinking critically even about matters of faith. It also invites remembrance of the core tenant of the faith, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life,” (John 3:16). A God who does not want anyone to perish in the afterlife surely does not condone them perishing at the hands of another in this one.

About the author, Frances Cudjoe Waters

Frances Cudjoe Waters is a minister, wife, preacher, teacher, mother, education consultant, media watcher, and woman on a mission. A graduate of Stanford University and Harvard Law School. She resides in northern Texas and blogs at BTransformed.com.
  1. Though I agree with most of your article, I would love to see the statistics that show that:
    “…. Ephesians 5:22-24, which outlines a wife’s duty to submit, is often taught without context or nuance. RARELY is the verse above it, which says to “submit to one another,” discussed. Moreover, the last verses of the chapter, which make it clear that a man wouldn’t hate or hurt his own body, do not get much airplay in the church either…”

    How can you make this assertion that these teaching “do not get much airplay”? It’s unfair, untrue, arrogant and bigoted. It’s the times we live in that lumps all Christian people together in a nasty backward group. The church are the people, and we all arent emotional slaves of bad theology. These types of assertions are no different than what racist politics is doing right now.

    This lumping and generalizing are very dangerous for the church – as we can see from all the attacks, especially against the black church. Believe it or not, we church folks are not as vacant as many would have you to believe.
    The truth is that the black church is born out of social justice. It’s still based in social justice. I find it disturbing that our young black intellectuals are throwing the black church under the bus – the same church that birthed the social justice movement of the 1960s. I think its important that young intellectuals such as yourself go back into our black history and learn of the intricacies of the struggles we waged. Too many of you all are too eager to throw away the baby with the bathwater concerning the church. You focus all your attention on where the media tells you to, i.e. “The Mega Church”, and forget all about those other churches that are struggling to uphold the banner of Christ. If you dont already I’d suggest you seek out social justice based churches and ally with them. Start with my church, Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland California.

    As for Whitney, I would say that she told Diane what she wanted to hear. Diane wanted to hear negativity. She told Oprah what she wanted to hear, that she was done with Bobby. Whitney wasnt a victim the way we like to believe. She was an intelligent woman caught in the hell of superstardom.
    I agree with you when you state that women have to be willing to think critically about all things. That’s why it important that we dont follow the lead of the mass media, and even certain Conservative Christian colleges in their assessments of the church, especially the black church. We as black people must make the effort to learn the truth of our Christian history for ourselves and from our own perspectives. Soon the story of the black church will be only Eddie Long and Creflo Dollar, and this would be tragic. I urge you to learn your black Christian history. Look up Rev Dr. J. Alfred Smith Sr, who is a repository of our black tradition of social justice and reconciliation of the genders and races. Hes not the only one either .

    • Although she didn’t give any statistics, I think the article may have a point when it comes to the passage in Ephesians. “Submission” in Church culture, especially Black Church culture, has for many years carried with it negative connotations. Another social movement, the feminist/woman’s empowerment movement was partially because women felt oppressed in the house of God. In fact, several denominations still have issues with women in leadership/ministry roles. And part of it is couched in biblical rhetoric surrounding the passage in Ephesians and other Pauline texts.

      The same church that born out of social justice also had issues with women in leadership positions. My wife is a personal example of this, as she stopped the ordination process with one denomination because of its views on women. And this was as recently as 2008, while we were enrolled in Seminary.

      Speaking of, I know Dr. Smith. LOVE HIM! He taught a class one summer at my school and his heart and passion for ministry and the church are part of what fuel me today. He speaks to the heart of two things near and dear to me: social justice and racial reconciliation.

      I’m with you on having the story of the Black Church revolve around folks like J.A. Smith and not other “mega” pastors. Tough time doing that with the media’s desire for controversy and a “compelling story”.

  2. Shocking revelation about whitneys death
    Feb 9. Whitney interrupts interview with Clive, Monica and Brandy.
    Clive mentions he will pay tribute to her(Whitney) but never mentions
    her throughout the interview.
    Feb 10 Piers Morgan interview with? Clive and Jennifer Hudson –
    Clives replaces Whitney saying Jennifer hudson is the New Whitney!!

    Feb 11 Disturbing photos emerge with Whitney leaving club with blood dripping down leg.
    Feb 11 Whitney DIES! Clive continues with party with Whitneys body still in hotel
    and Bobbi Kris hyperventilating in the hallway to see her mother.
    In 2001 Whitney Signed a 100 mil record contract to produce 6 albums
    she was only able to produce 1 that wasnt? a flop. Whitney knew she was going to die.
    Something is not right here do you agree?

  3. Pingback: The Mis-Education of Whitney Houston « BTransformed

  4. Thank you. That was an amazing read. Blessings -peace Regina

  5. Thank you. Would love to see this on the new stands