In these days of two career families, with working mothers in some cases bringing home an income equal to if not greater than their husbands’, the idea that a wives should “submit graciously” to their husbands sounds a trifle quaint and repressive. It also seems to miss the reality of today. Most husbands and wives share equally in the day-to-day operations of their household. Those conservative Baptists who promoted this new submissiveness doctrine in the Southern Baptist Conference point to the literal interpretation of the Bible as proof that this is what God wanted. They rely on the concept of the verbal inerrancy of the Bible. After all it is written so in Paul’s instructions in his letter to the Ephesians: “Wives should be submissive to their husbands as if to the Lord because the husband is head of his wife as Christ is head of his body, the church, as well as its savior. As the church submits to Christ, so wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”
Is this wifely submissiveness going to wrong the ills that have plagued the marriage covenant and sky-rocketed the divorce rate to nearly half of the Christian marriages, too, ending in divorce? I don’t think so. In the Christian tradition, the fact is that few women are submissive to their husband in all things or in some things and for many, in any thing. Nor should they be.
An ideal marriage is an interdependent relationship of fundamental unity—a covenant that is symbolized in the marriage of Christ and his Church. They are not slaves to one another. As God loves us and we love God by loving one another in the way God loves us, so the marriage covenant is the agreeing to a love of giving and receiving without reservation.
To say the least, many Southern Baptists have been troubled by this new wifely submission creed and also by other directives by the fundamentalist leaders of their Church. They have caused turmoil. For example, former President Jimmy Carter recently severed his ties to the Southern Baptist Convention because of its “increasingly rigid” creed. The Texas State Convention of the Southern Baptists recently voted to withdraw $5 million in funding to the National Convention on the grounds that the national denomination is becoming too conservative. The Rev. Charles Wade, executive director of the Texas convention, told the meeting: “Jesus took his stand against religious authoritarianism, moral judgmentalism and dogmatic fundamentalism.” The convention took theirs by cutting funding.
In the Catholic tradition, Sacred Scripture is interpreted by being attentive to what the authors truly wanted to affirm and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words (Catechism 102 ff.). “In order to discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture,” which is not taken into consideration in the literal Bible interpretation used by many conservative Protestant religions.
Let us not lose sight of the historical fact that Paul came out of a patriarchal religious tradition and that may have clouded his vision of the marriage covenant for future generations. Paul was simply reiterating the wisdom of the day when it came to a man and woman’s role in marriage. Women were considered little more than chattel. The better portion of Paul’s advice is simply to defer to one another and to love one another--unless, of course, you enjoy turmoil in your life.
If turmoil is not your thing, and you are married, consider the advice I give couples about to be married. In your married life, use this response as often as possible: “Yes, dear. Whatever you want.”
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