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.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.
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.
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?
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.