Thursday, July 06, 2006

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.
- Eph. 5:22-24

But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.
- 1 Cor. 11:3

Man is the head of woman … what does that mean? I don’t mean, “What does the Bible mean by submission?” which is a fairly rich topic in itself and one that perhaps does deserve a blog post at some later time. But that topic has gotten a fair amount of play already in various sources. What I’d like to discuss today is a topic that I feel has gotten significantly less play: when is man the head of woman? Or, more specifically, when should a woman submit to a man?

Hitherto I have generally held a vague and uncritical belief that because a wife should submit to a husband in all things (and, therefore, because a husband should lead a wife in all things), it follows that a boyfriend should lead a girlfriend somewhat less, and that any given adult male should lead any given adult female in lesser degrees according to their specific relational context; I would bear a greater leadership responsibility with respect to Blue Rose than I would with respect to a female attorney at work, to whom I would bear a greater leadership responsibility than I would with respect to a woman I met on the street. There is something kind of pleasingly intuitive to this kind of move, which tends to see male-female relationships on a more or less unbroken continuum of intimacy with “strangers” at one end and “married” at the other.

However, it is a move, an exegetical maneuver. Nowhere does Scripture inform me in so many words that I must lead my girlfriend somewhat less than I must lead my wife, and that I must lead my girl friends somewhat less than that. And while the move is somewhat pleasingly intuitive, it becomes less so if one considers certain scenarios. Rose is dating a man now, for instance – does the Bible envision her submitting somewhat more to him than she does to me, but submitting nonetheless to both of us? What about my own mother? One might suppose she falls closer on the intimacy scale than any of my female friends, but it is not at all intuitive to me that my mother should submit to me more than they should. The move from “wives should submit to their husbands” to “women should submit to men” has a fairly good pedigree, but it’s not the only position out there with a good pedigree, and I’d like to discuss whether that’s what Scripture actually teaches.

To begin with, then, it’s worth pointing out that Koine Greek has no distinct word for husband or wife. Once upon a time Greek did have such words, but by the first century those words had long fallen out of general use and surfaced only occasionally as archaisms in poetry. Koine expresses the concept of husband by using the word man in a way that makes the distinction clear from context, and similarly for the concept of wife being expressed by the word woman.

If you think about it, this is not especially strange unless you live in a culture with an appreciable number of single adults. Unfortunately, since we do live in such a culture, it presents certain interpretive difficulties for us. The key texts to consider, I think, are 1 Cor. 11:3 and Eph. 5:23. If you take a look at the Ephesians verse in context, I think you will agree with me that we are justified in translating the words man and woman in that passage as husband and wife. Without spinning a philological argument here, notice that Paul speaks of a man loving his own woman and a woman loving her own man in verses 22 and 28. He clearly meant husband and wife in those verses, and since he had to rely on context to make the distinction clear in the first place, it seems unlikely that Paul would suddenly switch back to meaning man and woman in verse 23. For the same reason, it seems rather unjustified to translate 1 Cor. 11:3 as meaning husband and wife. If you look at the rest of the passage, Paul doesn’t seem to give any linguistic clues that he means a specific man (i.e., a husband) or a specific woman (i.e., a wife). And the point he’s making is about propriety in worship, which certainly doesn’t seem like the sort of topic that’s unique to the husband-wife relationship.

And there, I think, is the rub: it is in 1 Corinthians that Paul says man, generally, is the head of woman. But he does not go on to elaborate what he means by that, except that it has some sort of implications for modesty. It is in Ephesians where he talks about submission, and he never says that women should submit to men. He only says that women should submit to their own men - and this despite apparently believing that man, generally, is the head of woman, generally. Whatever that means.

I admit the case is not airtight, but I see no explicit Scriptural warrant for the proposition that girlfriends should submit to boyfriends, and so on down the continuum of intimacy. I don’t see any explicit Scriptural rejection of that proposition either, but as Archimedes said, you’ll have to walk me through the argument. So far I can’t think of an argument that is more convincing than the plain reading that the only man a woman must submit to is her own. And since the idea that men should lead woman is implicit in the concept of submission in Ephesians, it follows then that the only woman a man must lead is his own.

This is not, of course, to say that these are the only men and women a man or woman can lead. Principles of leadership and submission are, I think, absolutely inescapable in social groupings. A supervising female attorney does bear a responsibility to lead me, and I do bear a responsibility to submit to her. But I submit that that responsibility is contractual, as it were, and not an ineluctable fact about the universe. If I want that responsibility to terminate, all I have to do is not be under her supervision. Nothing will terminate my responsibility to lead my wife. And when it comes to boyfriends and girlfriends, this isn’t to say that it’s not a good idea for a girlfriend to submit to her boyfriend in some limited capacity, and for a boyfriend to lead his girlfriend in some limited capacity. The entire boyfriend-girlfriend relationship is socially invented, after all, and if we’re going to defend it I think it has to be on the basis of preparing the dating couple for marriage. If that’s our justification, then it certainly makes sense for the two to start practicing leadership and submission to one another while it’s still voluntary. But that’s just good sense. Nor am I proposing that it is bad for people to relate that way if they are inclined to do so and they can do so without causing anybody else to stumble.

Why, then, is this relevant at all? I think it’s a question of expectations and demands. If it’s true that women generally are to submit in all things to men generally, then there’s something wrong when that doesn’t happen. Every woman I know ought to demand that I lead in our relationship; egalitarianism is not an option. And of course since every woman I know ought to demand that every man they know lead in their relationship, we will in all likelihood have to develop an elaborate and extra-Biblical system to govern who submits to whom in what circumstances. Now of course you can do that, and to a certain extent I think people already have. But if women are to submit to men generally, then it’s wrong if we haven’t. I mean, is that really what we’re called to? I’m inclined to think not.

Having left out the discussion of what it means to submit to a husband in all things, I think I have skipped over some of the nuances here – obviously there is a sense in which women are supposed to submit to men, inasmuch as we are called to submit to each other. But I think you get what I mean, and I’m curious as to what you think about the matter. I can’t promise to respond to everything (I’m not necessarily looking to get into a debate here), but I would like your opinions. And more importantly your Scriptural interpretations.


Lisa said...

The only time I’ve had to write this has been the precious few moments I’m not needed in the lobby or backstage, so it’s probably not the most coherent statement ever in history, but it is a response...

I generally agree with you in that women should submit to their husbands – generally, there are a handful of circumstances where I take a hard-and-fast position that is 180 degrees the other way – but I think if we are to read this as, “the only man a woman must submit to is her own,” I guess the context outside of, or even beyond, her husband depends on just who she grants that title to in her life. Boyfriends and friendboys alike. (I realize I tend to come at things from a more emotional point of view than you, we go... *smile*)

I mean, don’t we say, “My boyfriend...” or, “My friend...” when we mention people close to us? We certainly wouldn’t say, “My acquaintance...” and intend the “my” to have any more weight to it than grammar, right? But I feel when we talk about people active in our lives the “my” we include when we speak about them carries more with it than proper methods of sentence structure and grammatically correct speech. When you are close to someone your physical and, I would hope, spiritual lives overlap, and you connect; the “my” gets at the fact that in some capacity you belong to each other.

Belonging to each other is a thread woven throughout the Bible, not just as a guideline but as a gift of God’s love for us. He cannot physically be here to comfort us and so He recognizes that need by surrounding us with those that can be. But in that gift He expects us to take care of each other and, at times, be mini-representatives of His court: friends, family, boyfriends, husbands, fellowships, small groups. Even if we don’t look outside of Ephesians, 4:29 & 25, respectively tell us, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen,” (we should give advice and support [lead] to the best of our abilities so that we can build up those around us as people and in Christ...) , and “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all members of one body,” ([emphasis added] ...because we all belong to each other.). If we are to accept that as a truth, then we should submit in our relationships outside of marriage or dating because, to some degree, we are all one.

I realize that doesn’t seem to say much for when we should submit, but I think if you read between the lines you find that it actually does. Actually, I think you can read this two ways. (1) If we are all members of one body then women should submit to all men – I would propose, as you say, on a sliding continuum of intimacy. Or, with a dose of commonsense applied, (2) in hearing the counsel of those around us, we will/should choose the most sound advice that helps us accomplish our goal in the most godly way (not accomplish a goal if that purpose is ultimately determined to be ungodly), and in so doing we choose (or are compelled by God) to submit. (It is also important to note the times where God trumps the scale of relationships. If the patriarchs of my family feel it is in my best interest to go to law school but I feel that I have been given information from God to do otherwise and this is backed by males lower on the totem pole but who have information similar to my own, what then?) I also realize this argument is not necessarily based on gender, but it could be depending on the gender balance of one’s inner circle.

As for your second-to-last paragraph, I think your thought process is out of order. It’s not wrong if women don’t submit to men in a general sense, because not all men have sound advice, let alone sound Biblical advice. Let us not forget that humans make mistakes in interpreting scripture, situations, and life. Thus, I take issue with your first sentence coming, well, first. Before I continue I’m also going to conveniently ignore the bit about egalitarianism because that’s just being ridiculous and entirely cutting out commonsense. Since you later concede the nuance of women submitting only insofar as we are supposed to submit to each other I am going to assume you didn’t *really* mean the egalitarianism thing. That said...

Women should not look to men to lead in a relationship, as they should not be entirely dependent upon another person, male or female; rather, knowing that we fail and loving despite that, women should look to men to try to lead in a relationship. *Now* we can get to your first sentence – there is something generally wrong when a woman looks to a man and he doesn’t take the lead. There is *also* something wrong if he does lead and without an incredibly compelling reason not to follow she does something completely different then he guides her to.

>...we will in all likelihood have to develop an elaborate and extra-Biblical system to govern who >submits to whom in what circumstances.

*raises eyebrow*

We cannot go around inventing Biblical constructs under the pretense of creating holy structure here on Earth, or just because it makes you feel better...a la some sort of safety net or security blanket. That is not what we are meant to do as Christians, and I am surprised that you would even propose the idea when we cannot even *really* discern what exactly is meant by a few passages of the Bible itself It is the taking of matters into our own hands and creating methods of self-rule outside of God’s words that has tripped up humans since their very creation. What God gives us to work with might seem slight, ambiguous, or even contradictory, but that is only because we need to see that we are to trust in Him for guidance within that.

I don’t want to go too deeply into this, since I plan on writing about it in Aria within the next week, but since you are looking for opinions...

One of my favorite teachings from hosting the Core Group dinners was the idea that God purposely didn’t give us detailed requirements for how to live all of the details of our lives. (You’ll have to catch me elsewhere for more details if you’re interested in where Brad went with that.) Doing the best I can with what I am given, I look to the men of my life to lead in their tangible representations of the aspects of God that are rational, pragmatic and protective. (As opposed to looking to a female for the aspects of God which are more nurturing and supportive. I feel the Wild at Heart/Captivating set does a decent job of separating these gender roles in a way that isn’t offensive and gets to the point here.) Nine times out of ten, when *I* am being emotional and am lost in being girlish I don’t necessary want someone else to be all empathetic and hold my hand or cry with me; instead, I’d *much* rather have someone to be a little sympathetic, give me a hug, and talk me through whatever I’m dealing with. Then again, I prefer to fight my battles alone (perhaps with good advice for a battle plan, but it is ultra-rare when I actually ask others to take up arms), so perhaps I am not a good authority on women with problems...

Nonetheless, I cannot have all of the answers for my being. No one can, I realize that, but together we can put the jigsaw pieces of our experiences together to create an entire picture of what is godly and what is not. Sometimes a single entity can be enough, but other times you need more than what one person can give, and it is in these situations where we are called to lead & submit outside of the husband/wife or boyfriend/girlfriend (read as mini-husband & mini-wife) relationships. I expect the men in my life not only to lend me their pieces so that I can see a proper path, but to want to do so.

Really, the only way to fail me here is to not take partial responsibility for me and my life/welfare. Failure is inaction. Failure is not lending his strength to solve a problem – turning away. It is entirely possible for a man to simply not have the proper experience I need to fill a gap in my own circumstances; if he tries but lacks wisdom in the requisite area(s), although it might initially feel like it to him, but this is not failure. Leading here is to guide more deeply, to help find a source that can be of direct assistance, while creating an environment that reminds me of God’s grace, wisdom, and love. For a man to stop leading after an initial interaction is to fail a woman in his life, and to be too timid to risk having the wrong information is to fail before he has even begun.

But all of this talk assumes that he is, in fact, a man. That he wants to lead and is earnestly willing to learn what is it to love and appreciate a girl as a woman. Sure, I can come to you for help or advice, someone to lean on, but if you aren’t going to fight for me, if you are too shy to take the lead, or are content to back away slowly, what good is that? And why, in the grand scale of the relationship/submission continuum, should I listen to what you have to say or submit to your words? (You in general, not necessarily you in particular.)

Besides, married or not, the only entity whom we are ultimately meant to submit is God. Right?

Natalie said...

Let me begin by saying that the entire second-to-last paragraph is counterfactual. Everything in there - the elimination of egalitarianism and the elaborate social structure of submission - is absurd. But as far as I can tell, if all women are called to submit to all men in the same way that they are called to submit to their husbands, the elimination of egalitarianism and this elaborate social structure are necessarily entailed. Which I think is silly. And that is one of the reasons I conclude that all women are not called to submit to all men as they are called to submit to their husbands.

What you say about submission in general is true, I think. Besides the verses you've quoted, I would add that just before he starts talking about husbands and wives, Paul says we should all submit to one another. I think that is a general, overarching principle that should govern relationships between believers. And as you say, in the ultimate sense we're only answerable to God.

So let me restate my position as it stands thus far:

1. All believers are called to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 5:21)
2. Wives are called to submit to their own husbands (Eph. 5:22). I think this is a different sort of submission than the submission that governs Christian relationships generally.
3. Husbands are called to love their wives as Christ loves the church. I think this entails leading of some sort, as it seems to be the converse of submission.
4. Women are only called to submit in this different way to their own husbands, and men are only called to love//lead their wives in this different way. That is all that Scripture makes mandatory.
5. If a man and a woman other than a husband and wife want to, they can institute this special sort of submission/leadership between themselves, or institute a weaker version of it. If they do so they do not sin; if they do not do so they do not sin. I think that boyfriends and girlfriends should do this, even though I don't think Scripture actually commands it.

More on your thoughts about manhood and womanhood, and what I think this special relationship actually is, to come.