I’ve been making my way through the Old Testament now for months (though not as steadily as I should) and today I got to Judges chapters 4 and 5. It was a story that I loved as a teenager because it’s only Biblical tale of female warriors. Come on, it’s awesome. If you don’t know the story, in Judges the Israelites are constantly messing things up with God and getting into battles with their neighbors because of it. Every time, God raised up a judge to help deliver and conquer and every time the judge died, they went back to screwing up royal. One of the judges was Deborah, a prophetess who was even more renowned for her wisdom and foresight than her husband. One day someone comes to her and asks for her help in defeating an army. She gives her advice but they ask her to ride with them into battle. In response, she goes with them but with a prophecy that the credit for victory will belong to a woman. When it’s clear that the Israelites are winning the battle, their leaders retreat and flee. One in particular takes solace in the tent of a family he’s made peace with. Jael, the woman of the house, invites him in and even serves him milk (a rare commodity in those days). She covers him with a blanket and lets him just enter the REM cycle when she rams a tent stake through his skull. Ah, good times.
Anyway, normally I would be giving golf claps after reading that but as I glanced over, I got to see some editorial input. I have a student Bible so there’s lots of it and this aside went like this:
“In our day, we emphasize women’s rights, but the Bible spoke of the vital importance of the role of women centuries before the women’s rights movement was ever conceived. The Biblical perspective on women’s rights is different from the world’s. It recognizes that God created men and women differently and with unique callings. In addition, the Bible calls both men and women to take their divinely ordered place in a marriage relationship. For example, wives are to submit to their husbands as to the Lord (Eph. 5:22,23)…”
Reading over that gave me mixed feelings. One, I don’t like the differentiation between the Bible’s version of women’s rights and the world’s because that narrative in the Bible is not solid. There are verses in the Jewish law about a woman’s rights in divorce and there were laws in Jewish society that protected women, widows especially. In the New Testament, Jesus becomes the first Biblical figure to treat women equally to men. However, there are also a lot of…un-shiny bits and so there’s not really a stable grounds for saying the Bible addresses women’s rights at all. The term is really more political than religious. Two, I don’t like the constant reminder that wives are to be submissive to their husbands but I’m about to get into that. Three, in the entire caption, the word “equal” is not used. Different and unique, yes. Equal? No. I know it’s a choice of rhetoric but if you’re going to talk about women’s rights at all, you should know that’s the only word we really care about. “Different and unique” are words you use when your pre-schooler comes home with a macaroni art project that looks like a bad impression of a Pollock painting. It’s a consolation prize.
BUT the real reason I wanted to bring this up is because the scripture the caption used is the one I wanted to talk about today. Ephesians 5:22-23, arguably the scripture used most when advocating for men as leaders of the family:
“Wives submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as also Christ is the head of the church and He is the Savior of the body.”
Most people have heard this passage brought up in jest or maybe even seriously in a sermon or message. The truth is, deep down, it probably makes all women uncomfortable and maybe even a good amount of men. In our culture, this scripture is not politically correct and it’s mostly because of all the years that it was used in terrible ways. Women were oppressed for many centuries, and sometimes because of this specific passage. So let’s look at it in context.
First thing you have to know is that this is a book written by Paul who was single and celibate for as long as anyone knows. He gave a lot of attention to sexual immorality and at one point he even wrote:
“Now concerning the matters about which you wrote. It is well for a man not to touch a woman. But because of the temptation to immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not rule over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not rule over his own body, but the wife does. Do not refuse one another except perhaps by agreement for a season, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, lest Satan tempt you through lack of self-control. I say this by way of concession, not of command. Wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own special gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” (1 Corinthians 7:1-7)
Paul had a small tendency to glorify being celibate over being married and in the above scripture he implied that people only get married to avoid sex out of wedlock. Now maybe he was having a bad day but it doesn’t appear that he holds marriage to a high esteem.
Now for the historical bit. In the times of the New Testament, women were definitely second class citizens. If they were permitted to attend sermons in the temple, they were not allowed to speak or ask questions. Instead, they would have to ask the man of the family once they were home. They were asked to cover their hair and abstain from wearing jewelry or anything expensive. A rabbi could not address a woman in public–not his mother or his wife or sisters. They certainly weren’t allowed to teach or minister. They also weren’t educated, not even at home by their fathers. Scripture backs up much of this, unfortunately. When Paul confirmed (as he went through the trouble of doing many times) that men were chosen to reflect God in the church and in the family, women lost any hope of having a voice in the church all over again. (1 Timothy 11-12) They HAD to submit to their husbands because men had the benefit of education and access to knowledge.
Now here’s the hard and interesting thing. Women these days aren’t held to many of these teachings. Most churches allow women to wear jewelry and nice clothes, we’re allowed to teach and to speak in church, we can show our hair, and even be seen speaking to a preacher. It seems that we’ve disregarded a lot of scripture as old-fashioned and yet we haven’t quite gotten around to having honest and open unrest with Ephesians 5:22-23. Somehow, the church has been picking and choosing which scriptures are out-dated for decades now based on our progression as a culture but for some reason this scripture in particular has been protected.
When I think about why this is, I think it’s because we’re simply re-defining what this scripture portrays. If you were to ask someone in the depression-era what this scripture looked like, they would probably respond with a much more extreme example than we would today. A century ago, women were just beginning to experience equality. They were receiving some level of education and being allowed to have voices for the first time…pretty much ever. Then we won the right to vote and we grew stronger. We won the rights to equal pay and we grew stronger. Today, most people know that equality for women is politically correct and so the teaching surrounding wives submitting to their husbands is changing to reflect that. Instead of submission being defined as subjugation, it’s now commonly defined as looking to our husbands for guidance and allowing them greater authority in making decisions.
Still, for a lot of us, this redefining process hasn’t quite caught up to the reality of our lives. I can only use my life as an example, but I can tell you that although I talk things over a lot with my husband, I generally know exactly what I’m going to do without needing any guidance or leadership. The boy is the same way. We don’t really ask each other for permission to do things unless we’re making big ticket purchases and even then, if we know the money’s there and it won’t hurt anything, we do tend to surprise each other. I also have more education than my husband currently does (mostly because my job calls for it but also because I just genuinely like being in school) and it will probably always be so. There’s a distinct possibility that I could one day make more money than my husband does. I’m the planner and the organizer and I also take care of our house and monitor our finances. I’m the spider-squasher too. Will tends to be the cook and the assurance-giver when I’m freaking out (as I often do). When something slips through the cracks or is too scary for me to tackle, he takes over. He’s the spender and the cuddler and when I really need some enthusiasm, he’s usually the best hype man there is. He fixes things (everything) when I’m busy crying and stressing out and he keeps me sane with laughter. We’re not an extremely traditional couple but we’re damn happy.
We define our relationship as a completely equal partnership. No matter who does the breadwinning or the housework, we give each other equal credit and what I’ve found is that our roles are perfectly fluid and complementary to each other. When I’m tired, he generally has more energy to do what needs to be done. When he’s stressed, I have peace for the both of us. God seems to have made us in such a way as to always have in abundance what the other person lacks at the moment. Neither of us consider ourselves the leader and I would be extremely unhappy if either us had to. The scripture just doesn’t line up with what we have, though, and I know it’s uncomfortable for more people than just us. What about all the career women with stay-at-home husbands? What about the independent couples who work in separate states? Are they not following God’s plan when they feel happy and fulfilled or just doing what they have to to get by?
I’m curious about how submitting to your husbands plays out for others or if it’s not exactly true at all. In terms of your partnership, is there a leader?
Oh, and here’s a fun article if you want more to get you thinking about this: