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Carmen J. Bryant
Interpreting the Role of Women in Scriptures
"Wives should submit to their husbands in everything." So says Paul in his instructions to the Ephesians when outlining several examples of Christian submission in society.
Evangelical denominations today do not suggest that all things would include actions that violate specific laws of God. Nevertheless, many women in evangelical churches live in constant turmoil of conscience because they have been taught they should always obey their husbands, regardless of how sinful or abusive the husband's orders may be. Going against their husband's wishes, they are told, is going against God. The husband, as God's designated head of the wife, is accountable for the results of his commands and so his wife, even though she is technically disobeying God, does not bear the guilt of the sin.
Such views persist among some evangelicals because the scriptural teaching is being sabotaged by individual ministers, organizations, and churches within Christendom who all label their distorted views as Christian submission. A husband who buys into this extreme view is in danger-at the very least-of spiritually abusing his wife by setting himself up as a god to whom complete honor and submission are due. The wife who willingly practices such submission is guilty of idolatry.
Out of the Garden
Those within the Christian culture who teach absolute submission claim to take their instructions from the Bible. What they don't admit is how much tradition, culture, and the sinful nature have influenced the way they interpret Scripture's teachings on submission and authority. Nor do they recognize that their very insistence on wives' submitting to their husbands instead of God is a reenactment of Eden's tragic drama.
It is claimed that woman's fate and man's responsibility were determined in the curse of Gen. 3:16: "Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you." Tradition has interpreted this to mean that wives will desire their husbands and husbands will not only have the right but also the responsibility to govern their wives. All other scriptural passages regarding husband-wife relationships are then interpreted in light of this one statement. The concept is so much a part of Christian culture that few stop to ask: "If this is a command for Adam, why is God giving it to Eve?" The idea that God would give instructions to a man through a woman is normally unacceptable to total submissionists.
What they fail to understand is that God is simply stating the way things are going to be, not giving commands. In other words, "You have disobeyed; now here are the consequences." Both the context of Gen. 3:16 and the Hebrew words point toward issues of control. The woman's sinful desire to conquer her husband and the husband's sinful domination of his wife are indicators of relational changes that destroyed the divinely designed headship and submission of the previously perfect couple. Neither aspect of this curse is intended for God's redeemed.
War between the sexes
Even though we still live in a cursed world, the Christian's responsibility is to live out the freedom that redemption paid for. However, instead of seeking the peaceful relationships of Paradise, some Christians prefer to maintain the battlefield that began in Eden. They make marriage analogous to a military hierarchy. Submission [u&potavssw] in Eph. 5, it is said, demands complete obedience. Even as a soldier must submit to the authority of his commanding officer, so the wife must submit to the authority of her husband in everything. An enlisted man is not allowed to question authority or deviate from his orders. In the same way, the wife is not to question her husband's right to rule her or the wisdom of his decisions since his right to command her has come from God.
This argument is spurious, however. The use of u&potavssw to portray military relationships is irrelevant. A word's ultimate meaning is determined by its context, and the military is only one context of several in the New Testament in which u&potavssw is found. Even a precursory look at the context of Eph. 5:24 shows the inappropriateness of making marriage parallel to the military. When has the military ever been known for the humility of mutual submission (Eph. 5:21) or for an exhibition of love (5:25, 28)? A husband's taking on the role of commanding officer over his wife is not a display of Christ's love but an exhibition of the curse from Gen. 3:16.
Deification of man
When a husband demands that his wife obey him regardless of what he asks, even to the point of sin, he is forcing her to ignore her position in Christ and her responsibility to worship God alone. Claiming to stand in the place of God or Christ, he actually represents neither, for "God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone." Instead of caring for his wife's spiritual well-being as a godly husband should, he is turning her into an idolater while raising himself up as a mini-god. The tragedy of Eden being reenacted here is not the curse but the actions that brought about the curse-succumbing to the Serpent's lure to become gods.
How much more relevant is the biblical picture of the believing husband and wife as joint-heirs of Christ, running the race together toward the heavenly city! Both are to fix their eyes on Jesus. The total submissionist, however, would have the wife fix her eyes instead on her husband. In this system, the wife who resists such complete control is labeled as unspiritual and unsubmissive. Forced between the natural desire to please her husband and the greater desire to please God, she must decide: Will she obey her husband in order to gain some temporary peace at home, or will she obey God and take an emotional pounding from the man who batters her with the Bible in order to get her to submit?
Or is she perhaps wrong and her husband right? Does she indeed need to be more submissive? Many women live from day to day hearing the conflicting messages that demand answers, but where do they go for help? If a woman is fortunate, she will find assistance from a pastor or counselor who is wise enough to know that submission must have limits, and that increasing submission in a spiritually abusive situation only creates more difficulties.
Not many are that fortunate, however. Instead of receiving help that will stop the abuse, they only hear that their difficulties would disappear if they would submit more wholeheartedly.
When she musters up the courage to go public with "her" problem (very likely to her pastor or a church member), what little human dignity she has retained can soon be "trampled underfoot" with comments like: "What have you done to provoke him?" "Well, you've got to understand that your husband is under a lot of pressure right now," or "How would Jesus want you to act? Just submit and it won't happen again."
The most common advice is "Go home and submit."
Even where wise pastors exist, many abused women are reluctant to go to them. For one reason, evangelical pastors are usually male. A woman who is already being abused by her husband will normally be reluctant to open up to another male. Second, she is suspicious that she will only hear the "S" word again. Third, she often is afraid of what her husband will do if he finds out because, after all, he thinks he represents Christ. How could it be possible for an outsider to give better advice than his own?
As a result, women turn to outside help. They listen to the radio, they watch TV, and they read. The privileged ones will find truth and be enabled to act upon it. The rest will become further victimized by the saboteurs of submission.
The Saboteurs of Submission
Since the fundamental problem lies in the curse upon the entire human race, we can expect that in every generation teachers will arise who insist upon the inferior status of women and the right of men to do whatever it takes to control them. In the 21st century, at least in the West, it is not politically correct to suggest that women might be inferior, so the concept is reworded to suggest an essential equality that only has role differences. Actions, however, still betray the ancient belief that a woman needs a man to interpret spiritual reality and to lead (or force) her into submission in all aspects of life. Such actions deny the doctrine of the priesthood of every believer and the individual presence of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Who are some of the saboteurs that have affected families in today's evangelical churches?
1. Our Fundamentalist cousins
Since Fundamentalists have deliberately disassociated themselves from evangelicals, evangelical churches sometimes assume that they can detach themselves from Fundamentalist teachings. Furthermore, since we share so many critical doctrines, the differences are sometimes thought of as only matters of preference or taste. Many people in the pew will refer to themselves as either evangelical or fundamentalist without being aware of some very real distinctions.
Former Fundamentalists often find their way into evangelical churches. In the freer environment, it is comparatively easy for them to discard extrabibilical rules concerning worldly amusements, cosmetics, and the length of a dress, but it is not as easy to abandon skewed interpretations of Scripture. Men and women indoctrinated with Fundamentalist views of patriarchy carry these beliefs over into their new environment. They hear the same words-"Husbands, love your wives; wives, submit to your husbands"-but the instructions are filtered through a grid already encrusted with the rough residue of legalism.
Fundamentalists also reach evangelicals through writings, radio, and TV. Elizabeth Rice Handford, daughter of deceased Fundamentalist leader Dr. John R. Rice, is typical of such writers. Her small book, Me, Obey Him?, has had an influence that far outweighs its size and price. Originally published in 1972 and revised in 1994, it has gone through several printings (600,000 copies).
Handford promotes total submission to a husband's will, right or wrong, without exception: "If you are intellectually honest," she says, "you have to admit that it is impossible to find a single loophole, a single exception, an 'if' or 'unless.' The Scriptures say, without qualification, that a woman ought to obey her husband." It does not matter whether the husband is a believer or unbeliever. The husband is the ruler, the wife is the helper.
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Development of Stroop Effect in Bilinguals | Subtlety, Mockery and Dharma in Shashi Tharoor's
The Great Indian Novel | Language Alternation Strategies in Nigerian Hip Hop and Rap Texts | Faithfulness and Adequacy in Translation - A Case Study of the Translation of a Poem Written by Bharathiar | Indianized English in Shashi Deshpande's That Long Silence | Naipaul's Perception of India | Teaching English Word Formation in Academic Writing - Analysis and Remedy | Sabotaged Submission - Interpreting the Role of Women in Scriptures | Socio-economic Profile of Women Prisoners | Study on the Levels of Living of Self-help Groups in Coimbatore District, with Particular Reference to Thondamuthur and Perianaicken Palayam Blocks | Agreement in Tamil and Telugu | Etymological Analysis for Some Words of Body Parts in Semitic Languages (Especially in Arabic & Hebrew) | HOME PAGE of February 2009 Issue | HOME PAGE | CONTACT EDITOR
Carmen J. Bryant, M.Th.
WorldLink Graduate Center
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