On Submission

Any woman who rejects her God-ordained role as a submissive wife diminishes the glory of God because her clear divine calling of a wife is to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership and to carry through on his direction. To do any less than this or to doubt this is God’s designed plan is to reject the notion of womanhood and also to disobey not only to her husband but, by extension, God.

Gender differences and roles are not peripheral aspects of faithful living but are instead essential in the life of a good Christian because without a wife duly submitting to her husband the sacrificial love of Christ for the church is not appropriately conveyed. It is only through the perfect model of a Christian marriage that God’s honor is reflected and Jesus’ sacrifice is clearly understood.

You see, this is critical stuff. Most likely the continuation of Christianity as we know depends almost entirely on how well women submit to their men and given the devil’s successful campaign against biblical womanhood waged through the secular feminist movement, all truly Christian women need to return to their own Edens (homes) eager to repair the damaging work Eve started.

This is the argument put forward by Nancy Leigh DeMoss and Mary Kassian in their True Womanhood conferences and materials and of John Piper of Desiring God, not to mention a host of others ranging from Mark Driscoll to those associated with Focus on the Family and Vision Forum.

There is no doubt about it: the Bible in a few select passages seems to indicate a preference for male leadership and authority and these passages are found primarily in what are called the pastoral epistles (or letters). Nevertheless, the presence of such “problematic” passages does not necessarily mean these are attitudes or ideas reflective of God. And here is precisely where we need to have some serious conversation, just at the place most Christians who promote patriarchy refuse to engage with much depth.

Before we begin the difficult work of interpretation we need to come to terms with what the Bible is. I imagine almost all Christians would agree the Bible is the Word of God, but what does that mean? For some it means the literal translation of God’s word: that God somehow dictated each word whether audibly or through the authors’ writing process. Yet most would admit this view leaves no room for human participation, an over-ride of one’s free will. In this case, the understanding is that there is a divine dance where the authors wrote out of their own experiences of God and yet their writings reveal as well their own thoughts, ideas, and assumptions. God’s message, then, is revealed through layers of human observation, interpretation, and explanation. To take seriously the combination of revelation and human participation is to admit that the Bible itself is a messy product, one exposing not only God’s dream for humanity but also humanity’s frailty and failure to embrace the dream revealed in the Bible.

If we are able to understand the Bible as a combination of divine revelation and human participation, we can be on a journey of not only deep reverence for the spiritual insight found within its many pages, we also are freed to engage the Bible with all of the critical skills required to understand it more honestly.

So, here is my challenge for readers who are willing to make this faithful leap into better Bible reading:

1)      Put yourself in the shoes of the early Christians who had heard something about Jesus and were subsequently motivated to embrace his ethic of justice and compassion.

2)      Study the gospels looking for anything that might suggest Jesus treated women as subordinate to men, telling them they needed to be submissive to their husbands. Be diligent and thorough. I think you might be surprised to find little in the life of Jesus to defend a position of patriarchal preference.

3)      Study the Apostle Paul’s writings (the ones scholars agree were definitely written by him which include 1 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, Philemon, and Philippians). Again, search these materials of Paul to see if he endorses a patriarchal position as somehow reflecting a divine plan. As a side note, there are at minimum three good reasons to be suspicious of claims that Ephesians, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus were not written by Paul: the vocabulary, sentence structure, and theology at many points are very different from what occurs in established Pauline letters.

4)      Study Greek writings (including Philo and Aristotle) from earlier time periods and those current with Paul’s dates to determine if you can find a pattern similar to the household codes in Colossians 3.18-4.1, Ephesians 5.21-6.9, Titus 2.1-10 and 3.1, 1 Peter 2.18-3.7, and 1 Timothy 2.8-15; 5.1-2; 6.1-2.

5)      Step back from your biblical investigation and see if you can discern a movement away from Jesus’ teachings to Paul’s teaching to the teachings in the pastoral epistles. Ask yourself what this movement might indicate both for the early Christian movement and for all subsequent interpretations.

My belief is that anyone who truly wants to understand the early Christians will see that in an attempt to satisfy the Roman Empire because they were under threat of their lives and indeed their entire movement, they adopted Roman views of the household that were at odds with Jesus’ radical equality.

And, so what do we do with these passages purporting male leadership and female submission? We realize why they were written and included in the canon and we use them to help us identify our own willingness to capitulate to society today. They illustrate the path of societal accommodation. What would the path look like if they had instead maintained Jesus’ conviction that all are equal? What would our churches be like today if we had chosen a different way, one not so quick to endorse nationality but one solidly on the side of the poor and the oppressed?

Studying what one scholar calls the “drag of normalcy,” the constant pull that lures us back into our complacencies and places of easy accommodation, might enable us to see not only the failures of patriarchy (regardless of whether one cloaks it in terms like submission or womanhood or anything else) but it also propels us to choose the better road, the one marked by justice and equality not for some, but for all.

So, you see, submission is critical, but not in the ways you’ve been told to believe.