Define Submission

Donatello, "The Penitent Magdalene", c. 1453-55,  ]

Donatello, "The Penitent Magdalene", c. 1453-55, ]

Earlier this week a friend started reading to me an article entitled “10 Women Christian Men Should Not Marry.”  I became more and more incredulous as the article condemned marrying older women and even said God created [woman] to be subject and obedient to her husband. And then he gave justification for why he was saying that woman was created for man and I was stopped in my tracks. He cited the Bible itself, specifically 1 Corinthians 11:8-9: “For man was not made from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man.” A sentence that I had thought was just another ignorant statement from a misguided sexist was actually a Bible verse. This bothered me, and I didn’t know what to do with it. In fact, I am still struggling through understanding this verse and others like it.

I certainly understand why it is important for teaching in chapel and classes to focus on the central tenets of our faith (justification, grace, etc.). I believe, however, that talking about the practical implications of the Bible’s teaching on gender roles is essential to upholding godly Christian community. It’s hard to hear people say that the role of the husband as the head of a marriage is a beautiful picture of how Christ loves the church when I have seen husbands use that power to justify abuse and selfishness. Though I could use this article to elaborate on the deep pain caused by the way male headship has been used to validate violence, I won’t because I think the atrocity of these situations is self-evident. Instead I want to focus on the more subtle misapplication of male headship within our own community.

Just this week one of my guy friends told me that he was the leader of our friendship on account of his gender. This bothered me not only because I could find no practical reason for him to say this, but also because I could find no biblical reason. As far as I can find, the biblical teaching of male headship is only applicable in marriage relationships. If this problematic viewpoint was expressed by a well-meaning friend doing his best to understand my struggle (he later apologized), I fear that similarly unhealthy viewpoints may be held by the general population who have not thought to work through what the Bible says about gender dynamics.

I hope that we can open up the conversation to talk about what submission really means. Unfortunately, I believe that a lot of people believe this means that wives should unquestioningly obey whatever their husbands tell them and that the man always gets the final say in whatever decisions are made. I often get the feeling that this assumption has led to an underlying feeling that men are somehow superior to women. This damages the church as a whole because it leads to disregarding the gifts of half of the body of Christ. Additionally, women may come to be viewed as temptresses to whom the only response is callous rebuttal or dominating control. This objectification is not in line with viewing women as fellow image bearers.

I don’t want to deny that the Bible has some hard passages when it comes to the role of women. It’s hard to read these verses without coming to the conclusion that the Bible has a low view of women. However, if you look at the stories of women throughout the Bible, they are not helpless, incompetent people. There are the well-known stories of bravery from Esther and Rahab and Ruth (who incidentally does not seem to think that pursuing a relationship is exclusive to males).

Some of the stories that really intrigue me are a little less known. In 1 Samuel 25, David asks for provisions from a man named Nabal who refuses him. But Nabal is married to a woman named Abigail who has the wisdom to see that what her husband is doing is a terrible idea. (Incidentally, the meaning of Nabal’s name is “fool.”) In a move that seems contrary to the traditional interpretation of submission, she intercepts David on his way to bring vengeance and tells him to disregard her husband and deal with her instead. She provides generously for David and he explicitly blesses her and her discretion, leading me to believe that the Bible is indeed condoning her actions.

Our Covenant education has taught us nothing if not that Scripture should interpret Scripture, and I believe before we try to practically apply those previously cited verses, we must look at them in the context of a biblical narrative rich with women who display not only godliness, but also intelligence, strength, and bravery.

However, even in light of these stories, it is still hard to come to terms with verses that say it is a disgrace for a woman to speak in church. I have been told to focus instead on the things women are allowed to do, but to me this answer is deeply unsatisfying. It seems to be skirting around an ugly issue that I believe must be reckoned with.

I fully intend on further pursuing a biblical answer to my questions, but for now one passage has stood out as a comfort to me. Although Job 19 has nothing to say about gender roles, it expresses the lament I feel as I am wrestling through this issue. Glib thoughtlessness will help nothing, so I hope more people will join me in this place of pain before seeking to practically apply the biblical teachings on gender roles.