The widespread outrage when it is revealed that there are Christians who still believe in submission in marriage is fascinating to behold. It is, after all, a biblical requirement, and one that in living memory caused hardly a ripple of comment. Wives of previous generations – guided by the Book of Common Prayer – promised to “obey” their husbands. We husbands, in our turn, promised to “worship” our wives with our bodies and endow them with all our worldly goods. Submission and the husband’s self-surrender went together.
Of course we have the feminist revolution to thank for the change. But, in listening to people, I think that it goes to a rather deeper place, of which feminism is only one example. I think feminism has had such an impact because of this deeper commitment. It goes to the philosophy of egalitarianism, of equality.
As a well-known and inelligent journalist explained to me once, submission entails hierarchy in relationships and hierarchy is inconsistent with equality. Submission demeans your humanity.
The Reality of Equality
Let me say at once that equality reflects a biblical principle. As we are all, men and women, young and old, created in the image of God; so we are all, men and women, young and old, children of Adam and Eve and all equally precious.
We are also distinct from the animals. If you had to rush into a burning house and could only save the prize-winning pedigreed hound or the baby, I hope you would not hesitate for a single moment. You would know what to do.
Furthermore, we are equal before the law. One of the most fascinating insights of Scripture is that the poor man is not to be favoured in the law court above the rich man, since (I presume) the financial circumstances of the parties is irrelevant to the case at hand.
And yet, why are we so often told that God is biased toward the poor? I take it that this refers to the Lord’s compassion rather than his justice as such. Grace can’t be quantified in the same way as justice is. Otherwise, the Father in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal and his brother, would have set his erring son to work with the slaves in the field. Imagine the satisfaction of his elder brother.
But egalitarianism goes further than this by a long way. In modern cultures, it is expected that it all spheres of life such matters as class, sex, race and age are set aside so that what is accessible to one is accessible to all. There should be no discrimination which will disadvantage people. Accompanying this is a passionate anger against any perceived discrimination, an emotional zeal worthy of the followers of a cherished football club.
As my friend told me, hierarchy and equality cannot co-exist.
The problem is that this doctrine is both artificial and dangerous.
The Dangers of Equality
It’s artificial because we cannot exist in a world without hierarchy: there are those who command and those who obey in every walk of life and at every moment of life. We submit to police, to teachers, to parents, to bosses, to flight attendants; indeed we submit to each other constantly, unthinkingly, automatically. We do this, not because we are abandoning the idea of equality, but because there is a relevant difference which entitles one to obey and the other to submit, perhaps for long periods of time, even permanently.
Equality is artificial because we cannot exist in a world without hierarchy: there are those who command and those who obey in every walk of life and at every moment of life.
But does this submission mean inequality? Have we demeaned our humanity? Have we got a right to be treated the same in every circumstance? It is very dangerous to think this way.
Let me illustrate.
The Protection of Equality and Order
Large numbers of our fellow citizens are incarcerated. They are very much at the mercy of their guards and have to obey strict instructions with alacrity. The prison system is strictly hierarchical. If my journalist friend is to be believed, this submission so diminishes the prisoners that they can no longer be regarded as our equals. But according to biblical principle, they are very much our equals – and I hope you would have no hesitation in saving a prisoner rather than a pedigreed hound if the prison were on fire.
Indeed, unless prison guards take it for granted that even criminals have not lost their humanity and the true equality which goes with it, our prisons will be places of torture and horror. The recent spate of novels which exalt sado-masochism – and which are gladly commended by some of the very people who object to the biblical teaching on submission – shows what happens when the teaching on human dignity is rejected.
We’ve come a long way from the days when brides offered to obey, and husbands promised to worship and give everything to their wives. Nowadays wives try to protect themselves by holding on to their autonomy, and many men prefer not to marry because they don’t want to limit their freedom. But true submission, paired with the surrender of the self in service, means protecting each other. It’s a pattern that reflects the truth about the sexes and their distinct roles in marriage. It’s a biblical insight which guards our humanity. We need to argue for it, not cravenly abandon it.
Photo: Adam Conlon, flickr; inset, Robert Lincolne, freeimages.com