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the author(ity) of the word

August 20, 2011

At the Republican debate last week, Michele Bachmann was asked to clarify her vow to submit to her husband. Her response was that submission, to her, means respect. I was baffled by this answer, not only because submission does not mean respect, but also because to deny the real meaning of wifely submission is to deny a fundamental tenet of Evangelical thinking regarding women.

When justifying the submission of wives to husbands as a necessary part of Christianity, people usually focus on the New Testament verses Ephesians 22 (“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord”) and Colossians 18 (“Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord”). These books, like all of those in the New Testament other than the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and Revelations, are letters, or epistles, written to early Christian communities by leaders of a burgeoning faith. They attempt to address very specific questions, rooted in the culture and time of their recipients, about how to live based on a belief system that was still largely undefined. In that context, this oft-overlooked verse from Titus, a letter to an early church organizer of that name, is very telling:

4 Urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.

According to Titus, being submissive is not simply a private matter concerning how you function domestically, it is about the public impression your marriage creates. When Evangelical women submit, or so the thinking goes, they are representing for the Lord. So it seems to me that aside from defying the English language, from an Evangelical point of view, Bachmann’s denial of the meaning of submission maligns the word of God.

But as with most of the New Testament’s restrictions on women, this advice was offered not by Jesus, but by Paul. Bart Ehrman, James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (go heels), and author of Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, illustrates the way Paul (or worse, men pretending to be Paul) used their religious authority to stifle women’s contributions to the early Church:

In his book, the author of 1 Timothy used Paul’s name and authority to address a problem that he saw in the church. Women were speaking out, exercising authority and teaching men. That had to stop. The author told women to be silent and submissive, and reminded his readers about what happened the first time a woman was allowed to exercise authority over a man, in that little incident in the garden of Eden. No, the author argued, if women wanted to be saved, they were to have babies (1 Tim. 2:11-15).

Supported by research like Ehrman’s showing that women disciples were prominent in the early Church until they were erased from the text by scribes (copyists who changed the originals as they went), and forced to submit by men like Titus and Timothy, Christian feminists are able to argue that the Bible actually supports equality; others go so far as to support reproductive choice on religious grounds.

Jesus himself was remarkably democratic in his view of human relations. He dined with unmarried women, saved an adulterous woman from stoning on the grounds that her sins were no greater than anyone else’s, and had the tax collector over for lunch. Christian women can and do argue that Jesus does not want wives to submit. They need not try to make submit mean something it doesn’t.

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