Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, December 03, 2010

What Does "Wives, Be Submissive" Mean?

A while back, Brett Salkeld asked the question, Does the Injunction that Wives Submit to Their Husbands Have any Content?
I am not so progressive that I am opposed in principle to the idea that there might be something of value in this claim. In other words, I do not presume that Paul’s teaching on this matter can be dismissed simply as a function of his era. Of course, investigation may determine that his teaching is not central to the Christian understanding of marriage and is simply the result of his writing at a particular time and place, but that is not my presumption. Such claims, for me, must be demonstrated, not presumed. I am conservative enough to insist that they are are not self-evident.

I have found myself frustrated, however, by those authors and commentators within the church who insist that wives must in fact submit to their husbands—that men are, necessarily, the “head of the household.” Such an insistence is typically followed by numerous qualifications and caveats indicating precisely what such a claim does not mean in the concrete. Men are not to be tyrants. They are not to make every decision independently. They are to provide space for the development and self-expression of their wives. All well and good, of course. Who would disagree with any of these? But as easy as it is to highlight what not to do in the concrete, it seems to me that this teaching will have no purchase on the reality of contemporary marriage if no one can articulate what it actually does mean in the concrete.
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Is it essential to the Christian understanding of marriage that men be the “head of the household”? Does Paul’s insistence that wives submit to their husbands belong to the deposit of faith, or is it merely a historical accretion on the gospel? Finally, and this is what interests me the most, if this injunction is essential to Christian marriage, what does it actually mean? What does it look like in the day-to-day lives of married people?
To be honest, this is the sort of thing which doesn't really bother me. It makes sense and seems true to me, and yet I can't think of specific rules as to what "headship" means in our household, much less formulate some sort of universally applicable principle which must apply in all circumstances.

Having the biological bent that I do, I would perhaps go a little far by modern standards by saying that, overall, marriage relationships will work better when the male is more in the "provider" role and the female in the "nurturer" role. This doesn't mean it's "wrong" for women to work, or for a woman to be the primary provider in a household, but I think that in most cases this will introduce certain tensions that will have to be worked out between the couple. Humans are a sexually dimorphic species, meaning that males tend to be larger and physically stronger than females, and with that come a number of deep-seated instincts about how men and women interact. While, on the one hand, I am very far from endorsing the kind of "women should know their place" thinking that goes on in some fundamentalist circles, assuming that these differences simply do not exist is equally mistaken.

Perhaps part of the difficulty in addressing this question is deciding at how "high" a level we, as Christians, should address marriage as a concept. On the one hand, we have a very "high" idea of marriage in that the relationship between Christ and the Church is analogized to marriage. On the other hand, marriage is something of this world, Christ said that there would be no marriage in heaven, and so to some extent marriage is, while a blessed relationship, also "just" a biological one, a mated pair among a species which reproduces through mating.

So when Paul says that wives should be submissive to their husbands while husbands should love their wives, is he describing a "high" ideal, or is he saying something alone the lines of: Given that marriage is a relationship between a male and a female, and given that males tend to be the dominant sex physically and culturally, women should seek virtue in marriage through willingly submitting to their husbands, and husbands should seek virtue in marriage by loving their wives rather than simply dominating them.

Given those general thoughts, it occurs to me that the DarwinCatholic network includes a number of very thoughful married woman bloggers -- not least among them my own wife. So I'd like to specifically ask her, Bearing, Betty, Jennifer, Dorian, and Pentimento if they would be open to posting (or commenting) on the topic. (Any other commentary is, of course, welcome as well.) If this shameless attempt at tagging proves successful, I may go so far as to post a round-up follow-up post.

16 comments:

bearing said...

One of my favorite topics. I'll get on it, so don't forget me, but probably not till after the school day!

Kate said...

I did a round up post on this verse years ago on my old blog. http://ceitagh.blogspot.com/2005/06/ephesians-5-challenge.html

I'm sure my thinking on this has evolved a bit since then, I'm looking forward to see what others have to say!

BettyDuffy said...

THis sounds like fun--and actually--has been on my mind, as every so often, I remember my dangling grad school credits and think about what might have been on a cold and lonely night.

bearing said...

I have a first-part post up. here it is

Kathleen said...

Paul is a good psychologist. Guys already know how to submit: they learn from their sports coaches and military superiors. They need to make an effort to love. Gals already know about love, but tend toward subtle, even devious independent problem-solving. We need to be conscious about being direct, and about being part of a team.

As it happens, the same day that I submitted my discovery about sump-pump innovations to my husband, I heard an unhappily-married woman complain, "I could have TOLD him!" She had not submitted her insights, and the marriage suffered. Part of loving, on the guy's part, is respecting his wife's submissions.

Dorian Speed said...

Wow - that is some serious flattery, but this is one of my LEAST favorite topics. You had no idea, of course. And I never turn down an opportunity to spout forth pseudowisdom. Just have to mull this over a bit.

I am flattered, though.

Dorian Speed said...

Despite having a blog, I'm actually a pretty private person about some things - marriage being one of them. But I want to make you feel even more guilty about moving away from Texas, so I have written a post.

Jennifer @ Conversion Diary said...

Ugh. I'm too sick to formulate any kind of coherent response. The best I can do it point you to a post I wrote that touches on the subject.

bearing said...

Just wanted to let you know I'm still working on part two. It's taking me a while but I'm on it. Don't give up.

Darwin said...

bearing,

No fears. I really liked your opening thoughts, BTW.

Jennifer,

I figured you were a long shot between the book and the pregnancy. Hope you get past the sickness part soon.

Dorian Speed said...

Oh, fine. I wrote some more. Now, begone, before I taunt you a third time.

Darwin said...

What, I thought it was being gone that was our original offense...?

Darwin said...

Thanks, though. :-)

Didn't mean to tag you on an aggravating topic.

Dorian Speed said...

No, it's okay. As you can see, I have plenty of thoughts on the matter.

bearing said...

ok, I'm up with part two, which is much more disorganized than the really good post that I accidentally deleted.

Looking forward to the roundup. And since you started it, please do us all a favor and write a post about it, not just a bunch of links. V. interested to see it all churned back through your head.

Erin said...

Newbie here...
Unasked, I have some thoughts:

1) I had a Spanish priest as a professor in a Scripture course in grad school. When addressing this issue, in his lovely accent that made you want to nod in assent to whatEVER he said ("Ah yes so wise!"), he reminded us that to submit is to be "under" (sub) the "mission" (misio)of your husband. And what is his mission? To love me as Christ loved the Church. A big part of submission is to receive the gift my husband offers, the gift of his self.

Sound too facile to be Paul's meaning? Is it always easy to activel receive the love my spouse offers? Not in my opinion. I see this as partly a call to trust, to trust in my husband's love and ultimately in God's love since it is Love, the Spirit, which seals and guarantees the perduring nature of the marital union. As a woman, this call to trust in love is one thing that is at once the most-desired and most-avoided (out of fear) undertaking - for me, anyway. So, I am saying that to receive the love of my husband (to trust)is in some sense the major content of this injunction.

2)A quibble, though important one: marriage is not "just" biological. We know this but I wanted to just say it. Our biology is revelatory of our spiritual nature as sons and daughters of God. So a simply biological relationship, is never just that. It is through the physical that the sacrament communicates its grace. And being a sacrament, we are consecrated to Christ THROUGH marriage. So how we figure this ideal of submission out has big implications.

Thanks for a fabulous post!