“Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church.”
– Ephesians 5:22-23
First, for the record: I really like men. All my life, my closest friends have been men, and I tend to assume most men are nice people. That’s why I’ve never felt comfortable calling myself a “feminist:” a certain percentage of women really do seem to believe that all men are assholes. I’m not one of them.
I start with that disclaimer because today’s topic is Biblical submission in marriage as defined in Ephesians 5:22-23. We’ve all heard this verse a million times, while curiously, Ephesians 5:25 (which commands that a husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church) is often forgotten. But there are enough other Bible verses to make a strong Biblical case for women’s subservience to men, especially for Bible literalists.
The reactionary wing of Christianity, in cranking back the clock, advocates women’s return to secondary status as the cure to modern societal woes – especially divorce, which many see as the biggest woe of all (after The Gays, of course). Marriage and motherhood are seen as the ultimate destination for all women, and the secret to an enduring marriage is the wife’s complete submission to the husband.
And I don’t mean “submission” in a kinky, sexy “Fifty Shades of Grey” kind of way. No, I’m talking about a “Help Meet” – the assertion that in EVERY Christian marriage, the husband is to have ultimate control and his wife is to cheerfully defer to him (whether or not it makes logical sense) regarding everything from the household budget to the way she should wear her hair. The only reason we women exist at all, they say, is to be helpers (or “Help Meets”) to our husbands (Genesis 2:18) and to squeeze out “quiverfuls” of children (Psalm 127:5) who will be warriors in "God’s army" (yipes).
Now, I realize that any given modern, American marriage, a couple has the prerogative to choose what sort of relationship they will have. That some couples agree that the husband will be the firm head of household is not a problem for me. But what I find alarming are those fundamentalist or evangelical Christian sects that make this system absolutely mandatory for all "truly Christian" couples, regardless of their personal dynamic and psychological makeup. And I find it terrifying that the teaching is seeping from the outer fringes of Christiandom to “mainstream” preachers, publishers and megachurches.
Author Elizabeth Rice Handford writes in “Me? Obey Him?” that a woman who won’t obey her husband is actually rebelling against God. This is true, she says, even when the husband is an “unbeliever,” and even if he’s ordering her to do something immoral or dangerous. “The Scriptures say a woman must ignore her ‘feelings’ about the will of God, and do what her husband says,” she writes. “When her husband speaks, as if God had spoken audibly from Heaven!” (Explanation point hers.)
Of course, the wife is not supposed to work outside the home under any circumstances. The husband is to be the sole provider (which can be a challenge, since many in the Help Meet movement have huge families). If the husband can’t – or even simply won’t – support the family, the faithful wife is advised to simply trust God:
“You think you have to go to work because he won’t get a job? If he gets hungry, he will probably work! You feel you have to take charge of the finances because he is irresponsible with money? He may go bankrupt. But that may be exactly what it takes for God to get his attention and change his character…Ultimately, your security is not in your husband but in a sovereign God who is not going to fail you,” says Nancy Leigh DeMoss, in “Lies Women Believe.” (Because clearly, there are no Christians who are hungry or homeless.) (Oh, wait.)
Debi Pearl and her creepy husband Michael, of No Greater Joy ministries, are already infamous for advocating corporal punishment of children as young as 6 months old, and for the role of their “child training methods” in the deaths of at least three children (so far). But little kids aren’t the only victims of the Pearls’ nauseating teachings. Debi’s book, “Created to be his Help Meet,” is wildly popular among certain Fundamentalist Christian circles. The book has been a bestseller in Christian bookstores for years, and thousands of women credit it with saving their marriages.
But I am not sure that all of these marriages were meant to be saved. Is your husband beating the shit out of you? Well, praise the Lord! “When God puts you in subjection to a man whom he knows is going to cause you to suffer,” Debi writes, “it is with the understanding that you are obeying God by enduring the wrongful suffering.”(!!!) (Exclamation points mine.)
And even in a marriage that’s not overtly abusive, the husband is expected to get what he wants without concern for the wife. Debi’s admonition to a woman suffering from painful intercourse? “Don’t talk to me about how uncomfortable or painful (sex) is for you. Do you think your body is special and has special needs? Do you know who created you, and do you know he is the same God who expects you to freely give sex to your husband? Stop the excuses!”
So much for marital sex being a joyful experience of mutual love between two people. So much for a husband and wife, cooperating as a team, to solve a medical or psychological problem so that both can enjoy the intimacy married couples deserve. No. Lay back and think of England.
You might wonder if a husband can simply be a tie-breaker in major decisions when an agreement can’t be reached; that seems reasonable. But the Help Meet is expected to be hypervigilant about every word she utters, and how she utters it. “Have you ever handed your husband something and said, ‘Here, you hold this while I get such and such,’ or, ‘Honey, the baby needs changing – get me a diaper,’ or, ‘I need for you to cut Johnny's meat while I get the rolls buttered’(?)” asks Maranatha Chapman. “We need to ask, not tell (command). No one bosses around anyone they look up to and respect.”
Really? Are men so fragile that their sensitive constitutions cannot handle imperative sentences?
Even with the word “honey” in them?
Maranatha, of Kindling Publications, has a particularly peculiar past. The bizarre story of her so-called betrothal to her husband Matthew – and her father’s disturbing, borderline incestuous involvement in preparing his young daughter for marriage – is so icky, it defies belief. But the Chapmans’ eldest daughter Lauren is following in mom’s footsteps. “Instead of focusing on what we need and want,” Lauren writes in her “Wearing His Purity” blog, “we should lift up our eyes from looking at ourselves and look for ways to serve our sweet husbands.”
Even some comparatively “liberal” evangelicals are jumping on the submission bandwagon. Saddleback Church attracts 20,000 worshipers any given Sunday, many of whom have fled from churches they found legalistic. Pastor Rick Warren’s “The Purpose-Driven Life” is one of the most popular spiritual books of all time. Rick Warren delivered the invocation at President Barack Obama's inauguration.
But the megachurch’s view of divorce – even in cases of abuse – is right out of the Dark Ages. Saddleback’s teaching pastor Tom Holladay describes its stance this way: “I wish there were a third in Scripture having been involved as a pastor with situations of abuse. There is something in me that wishes there were.” When asked to define abuse, Holladay says, “(It is) making a habit of literally beating you – regularly.”
Well, he defines abuse ("literally" beating). But he does not define "regularly."
Above all, the Help Meet movement seems to value peace in the family, peace at any price, and peace as the responsibility of the wife alone. “Instead of two people butting heads, you should submit to your husband,” says “A Sister of Christ,” who creates YouTube videos about Christian family life. “Submit, and you will have shalom in your home!”
So what happens when a wife submits, totally and completely, to her husband? Well, in many families, there WOULD be shalom in the home. But in others, the situation would be abusive on its face.
And for some women, trust that asks no questions will result in a fragile state of mind that is easily shattered, because one’s identity is entirely dependent on another. When someone (male or female) has spent their entire adult life acquiescing to another (male or female), being obsequious to the point of loss of self, they have no emotional reserves to tap into when something goes wrong.
At age 20, Ashley was a college student, wife and already a mother of three (hoping for more). She regarded herself as a “Help Meet in Training” and kept a blog about her experiences with cooking, cleaning, being a mom and – most importantly – devoting herself to Justin, her husband.
Justin worked long days, often into the night, to support his family, and even though he often arrived home too tired to have much to do with her, Ashley often wrote about him with great adoration:
I was just thinking about my husband and how incredibly incredible (Justin) is.
I thank the Lord that He blessed me with such a patient and understanding man.
Hearing about other men makes me appreciate my Sweet Love all the more because … he is really quite nearly a saint!
My husband buys me flowers once every week or so. He just wants to do something nice for me and to see me smile.
Anyways, I love him and I think he rocks so I thought I'd blog about him :)
Then on their fourth wedding anniversary, Justin left his cell phone out while he took a shower. Ashley happened to glance at it and see what was unmistakably a sex-text from a friend of the family. In shock, she confronted Justin, and he admitted a long time affair.
Ashley’s world splintered into a million pieces. She wrote:
“And so after a short confrontation I lost it. I hit him and I hit him until he fell over. And then I kicked him too until I saw the water running down the drain was red.
"And then of course I felt awful and insane and I laid down on the floor and cried for a long time. I don't condone domestic violence in any situation and I can only be grateful that he didn't retaliate or call the police.
“I feel so bad for the children. Here I am thinking about what blessings children are and wanting to bring more into the world. Well, it turns out the world is a living hell and I feel so sorry that I got them into this. I've never wanted anything but happiness for them and now I've failed at that too.”
The Bible "says" a lot of things. It says that children who disrespect their parents should be stoned to death. It says that rapists must marry their victims. And it says that women are to be subservient to men.
Do men want this? Do women want this? Does God?