I recently reviewed the Evangelical movie, “Fireproof” and some people shared their reactions to the film. One woman commented that she didn’t care for the flick, that she thought it was full of conservative Christian propaganda about wives having to submit to their husbands. She admitted that perhaps her perspective was a bit shaded by some unfortunate experiences she had earlier with Evangelical misogyny.
Then a friend of mine criticized the movie for exactly the opposite reason; he felt the film had a very feminist perspective, that the husband was painted as a stereotypical bad guy. He thought there was too much talk of the husband having to make sacrifices for his wife, with little or no reward in sight, when she should have been submitting to him as well. After all, the Bible (specifically Paul’s letter to the Ephesians) does say women should submit to their husbands. It was obvious to my friend that since they no longer do so they have made a complete hash out of today’s marriages. He also admitted to possibly being influenced by some personal relationship issues.
Paul was a first century Jew with a first century masculine perspective. He was addressing people, mostly men, who were part of a patriarchal society in which there was no question that woman were subordinate to men. It was only natural for him to talk of wives submitting to husbands. (Before we too quickly condemn this culture it might help to remember that this is how we would have described America up until just a few years ago.) I find it interesting that Paul was unmarried and celibate, like today’s modern Roman Catholic priests. A priest friend of mine once said that his lifestyle made him a poor choice as a pastoral marriage counselor so he sent troubled couples to see the married Protestant minister down the road. I would imagine Paul’s celibacy would also have disqualified him as an expert on marriage. And yet he is often given the last word on this subject.
Most of today’s Christians see the trouble with this idea of telling today’s wives to be subordinate to their husbands and they get around this by talking of something called ‘mutual submission’. But is this idea even possible? I suggest that what we have here is an oxymoron. A better word than ‘submit’ might be ‘sacrifice’ – an understanding that, like Christ, we will want to sacrifice our own wants, needs and comforts for those of others, particularly those we have made a lifetime commitment to love.
How would this relationship based upon sacrifice look? Would it be the case in which one spouse agrees to submit to the other in one particular area while taking the lead in another? Would there be some sort of articulated formal arrangement of quid pro quo? Should any marriages even try to fit the exalted template that so many Christian counselors are proposing in books, on radio and at marriage conferences?
I’ve seen plenty of couples torture themselves needlessly in their attempts to squeeze their 21st century marriages into Paul’s 1st century paradigm. A good marriage based upon mutual sacrifice consists of constant compromise – surrendering what is believed to be the high ground because we should be more interested in serving our partner than leading them.