In a previous post (July 6) I submitted that Scripture says there is a unique headship/submission relationship between husband and wife, and that that relationship is mandatory, but that it does not extend beyond marriage. That is, every husband is the head of his wife, whether the two of them like it or not—that’s inherent in the meaning of husband. But it does not follow that every boyfriend is the miniature head of his girlfriend whether the two of them like it or not; that is not inherent in the meaning of boyfriend (or if it is, Scripture has declined to inform of us this fact). I think you can see added support for this in the Biblical conception of courtship—essentially, there is no Biblical conception of courtship. The Bible seems perfectly okay with total strangers getting married, no evaluation period and no practice for headship/submission. If that’s true, then it seems to me that it must also be true that even though our society has instituted this evaluation and practice period we call dating, it must be okay to have a dating relationship without treating it like a miniature marriage. Dating is not a miniature marriage; that’s the whole point. Let me hasten to add a caveat: I think that a boyfriend and girlfriend can and should covenant to form a miniature headship relationship. I don’t think Scripture commands it, but I still think it’s a good idea. Sure, a man can go from boyfriend to husband and start being head then with no practice. A woman can go from not submitting at all to her boyfriend’s headship and start submitting to her husband’s headship cold turkey. But that just seems like making things a lot harder on both people than it has to be.
Such, at any rate, is my understanding of the Scriptural order of things as it stands right now. But in my last post I glossed over the question of what exactly we mean when we say that a wife should submit to her husband in all things and that a husband is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the church. It is a question I find perplexing despite much modeling and much teaching, but I think it deserves to be addressed.
Let me start by observing (as did Thayet, if you go back and read the comments) that this is a very specific subset of human relationships. The general rule for relating to people, which I think is much more important, is to love your neighbor and be humble. Among Christians specifically, that means submitting to one another (Eph. 5:21). These things are far more important when it comes to how we ought to relate to one another than observations about husbands and wives—and, significantly, they apply to husbands and wives just as much as they apply to total strangers. A Christian husband is the head of his wife, to be sure. But he is still called to submit to her.
So let’s start with husbands. The husband, Paul tells us, is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, and is to relate to her as such. He goes on to discuss Christ’s death on behalf of the church and the fact that the husband and wife are (if I can follow C.S. Lewis in putting it this way) a single organism.
I hope that it is clear from what has been said so far that this is not an authoritarian picture, but in case it isn’t let me say so explicitly: this is not an authoritarian picture. Yes, Christ has complete authority over the church. But the analogy between Christ and husband will break down if we push it too far, just like any analogy, and Paul does not focus on Christ’s authority. He focuses on Christ’s sacrifice. That is the take-home point of the analogy. Husbands sacrifice for their wives. Husbands love their wives—they love their wives so much that they should place their very bodies, if need be, between their wives’ sin and their wives.
At the same time, Scripture commands wives to submit to their husbands “in all things.” Let me be the first to admit that this is a troubling passage. My goddesses are not damsels in distress. They are Alanna the Lioness, Cimorene, Honor Harrington, and Keladry of Mindelan—strong, independent, dangerous women who lead, inspire, kick ass and take names. And I still think that is what a woman should be: valiant, magnificent, and wise (I know I’ve mentioned this before and have still failed to elaborate. Maybe I will at some point in the future). Of course, at the end of the day my concern is not what I think should be. My concern is what Scripture says is.
At the same time, I think my opinion is consistent with the Scriptural picture. So here is what I think is going on here. I do think that Scripture is being literal when it says that a wife submits to her husband in all things. I don’t think we’re talking about submission in merely spiritual things. That would be silly if husband and wife are really as fully joined as Scripture says. If they’re joined for all purposes—and that, I think, is crystal clear—then there’s no basis for not taking Paul at his word when he says “in all things.” But I think translating hupotassô as “submit” may get us into trouble here. It’s not a bad translation, but in the marriage context specifically the English word “submit” carries a lot of baggage. Perhaps it would be helpful if I observed that hupotassô literally means “to arrange under.” And then let us remember that while the wife is to “arrange all things” under her husband, her husband is to sacrifice his last breath for his wife.
To me, this makes things clearer. I do not think the picture here is of a wife asking her husband’s permission every time she wants to go out, or buy gas, or go shopping. Indeed, the very concept of asking permission seems out of place to me. The church does not ask Christ’s permission to do things. Christ liberates the church; he doesn’t restrict it—and so, I submit, it should be between husband and wife. Now of course at the same time the picture is not of a wife doing whatever she pleases without regard to her husband. This too is like the church: Christ liberates us, yes, but the church does what Christ likes because we love Christ (and if you don’t think that’s liberating … well, you’re wrong). The wife is the central [earthly] fact of the husband’s existence just as the husband is the central [earthly] fact of the wife’s existence.
I think this picture also clears up for me the troubling hypotheticals. One might ask, for instance, what a wife is supposed to do if her husband is abusing her—or abusing their children, perhaps. Let’s make the hypothetical even sharper: suppose a husband orders his wife to come over to him so he can abuse her. What then? Is she to obey, on the theory that she is to submit to her husband in all things? Or suppose that a wife is abusing her husband—is he to walk over, on the theory that he is to sacrifice everything for his wife? By no means! Mê genoito!
Now, let me make it clear that I do not think these relationships are conditional. A husband does not stop being the head of his wife because she refuses to arrange all things beneath him. A wife is not freed of that obligation because her husband refuses to sacrifice for her as he should. Scripture does not say that a husband is head of his wife if she submits to him, nor that a wife is to submit to her husband if he is her head. But I do think that what it means to submit—or to be head—changes as the other spouse’s behavior changes.
In the case above, for instance, I think the abused spouse should follow all of the usual procedures. The last thing s/he should do is walk over like a lamb to the slaughter, and I really have no problem with employing physical force in the protection of endangered children, if the situation should call for that. In fact, I would applaud the use of physical force in the protection of endangered children. That’s what physical force is for. But the husband should not give up on his wife, nor the wife on her husband. And (while keeping herself/himself safe, of course, and removing herself/himself from the abusive situation) s/he should do everything in his/her power to bring his/her spouse back. Maybe things are so bad that s/he can’t do anything but pray. The point is, whatever her husband is doing, she finds a way to arrange her life “under” him. Whatever his wife is doing, he finds a way to sacrifice, to interpose. The rebellious spouse remains the central [earthly] fact of the other’s life, even if common sense requires that they be separated.
This “central [earthly] fact of the other’s life” is, I’m pretty sure, the most important thing about how marriage is different from other relationships. As Paul says in 1 Cor. 7:32-33: “The unmarried man is concerned with the things of the Lord, how he may please the Lord—but the married man is concerned with the things of the world, how he may please his wife; and he is divided.” And he goes on to say the same thing about the married woman and the unmarried. The centrality of the spouse’s existence in the other’s life can be seen by remembering the unmarried man is called to love all people as Christ loves them and to submit to all believers. And evidently Paul thinks the spousal relationship is significantly stronger than that. So we have centrality. I think that’s the most important thing. But there are two other things that I think deserve to be mentioned: authority and initiative.
First question: leadership. We might well wonder, does the husband have any unique authority in marriage? I don’t mean cultural authority; I mean Scriptural authority. Does the husband have any unique authority over his wife regardless of his culture’s conception of marriage?
I think the answer is a qualified yes. I’m willing to admit that authority is to some extent inherent in the concept of “head.” I mean, after all, it’s a pretty evocative word to use to describe the husband’s role. So yes, I think that at the end of the day the husband’s vote is deciding. But I think it is important to remember that even as the husband has this “authority,” he is first called to serve his wife, and is still called to submit to his wife as his sister in Christ. So the picture I get from that is still not authoritarian. It’s a little bit like a lieutenant who has a very close relationship with his platoon sergeant—sure, technically the LT is in charge, and yes, that does mean something, but a lot less than you might think if you’d never seen them work together. And along the same lines (lest we have any would-be chauvinist dictators out there), there may come a time when the sergeant will refuse a command—not in a spirit of insubordination, but out of love for the lieutenant and respect for the chain of command.
Second question: initiative. Do husbands have a God-given responsibility to take the initiative? I don’t mean occasionally; I think it’s perfectly plain that both spouses (indeed, all people) are going to have to take the initiative at least occasionally. The question is, does the husband have a responsibility to take the initiative most of the time? And if so, in what ways? Praying at dinner? Conversations about the family’s spiritual life? Planning dates? Maintaining the household? Initiating sex?
Again, I think the answer is a qualified yes. It is true, of course, that Christ took the initiative for us spiritually—that he died while we were yet sinners; that he loved us before we loved him. It is also true that in a sense Christ took the initiative for us with respect to our entire lives—because he took the initiative spiritually, our whole lives are changed. And to some extent, as we know, every action we undertake is a spiritual one.
But if you push that line of reasoning too far I think your claims start sounding absurd. Because Christ took the initiative spiritually, a husband must plan most of the dates with his wife? That seems rather silly. Because Christ loved us before we loved him, it is spiritually wrong for a wife to initiate sex most of the time? Come on.
I’m willing to grant you that a husband bears primary responsibility for taking the initiative when it comes to the family’s spiritual life. I think that flows pretty naturally from the analogy between Christ and husband. Most other things (including, in my opinion, who prays most often) are governed by the principle of loving one another. I think who plans what proportion of dates, or who does what proportion of household chores, and all things of that nature, should be determined by what is most loving. If a wife is best loved by her husband planning most of the dates, I think he should do that. If a husband is most loved by her doing most of the household economics, I think she should do that. And if their two preferences conflict, I think they should resolve them in a spirit of love and humility.