In my previous article ‘Thou Shall Not Submit – Christianity, Marriage and Dissent‘ I talked about the way that Biblical texts authorise the subjugation of women through the theology of submission. In this extended commentary I would like to answer to some objections and then focus on the idea of submission independent from Paul’s teachings in Ephesians 5, paying more attention to the meaningful ways we can practice submission to achieve love.
I don’t believe that there are no Christians participating and working hard on thriving marriages, of course there are. My true concern is how feminist Christians position themselves in marriage, and in this respect, I do not think that the ‘success’ of marriage between gender conscious partners is as a result of the teachings in the theology of Christian marriage. To the contrary, I think the New Testament teachings are rather threatening to this type of union. One of the first objections Christians have is that there is a ‘complimentary’ command:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
Ephesians 5:25-28 NIV
The reality of this text is that the dominance of man over woman is preserved in the command that he love her as Christ loves the church; the church symbolically undeserving objects of God’s love and subject to his obvious deity in Christian doctrine. This scripture does not pretend to assert any equality into the marriage contract. The identity of the wife is subsumed into that of her husband as the comparison relies on his love for his body and himself. Theologian Albert Barnes in arguing for the validity of this passage in Christian marriage states: ‘While Christianity is designed to elevate the character of the wife, and to make her a fit companion of an intelligent and pious husband, it did not intend to destroy all subordination and authority.’ I am glad that we can have consensus on this from either side of the religious camp.
The second most popular retort is that there is a Greek root word that would transform our understanding of the Biblical text. I have two responses to this, the first being that the sensible thing for us to do is accept that we are engaging with the ideas produced by a patriarchal society. This is an absolute. Secondly, it is problematic for adherents of Christian thought to engage with the faith in a language and culture dissimilar to their own. As Frantz Fanon wrote ‘To speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization‘. Therefore when we engage with this question of Greek root words we are attempting to revive the Jewish culture of classical antiquity. Christianity then becomes much less than a spiritually transforming faith but a tool of cultural imperialism. Since marriage has been practised in every culture and pre-dates our own recording of history why are we essentialist about framing marriage within mock-Judaism? Surely in the history of the world there have been accounts, ideas and experiences of marriage that can rival (if not make obsolete) the writings of the highly educated social elite apostle Paul, and there will continue to be.
The most valuable Christian teachings are not about marriage but about the supremacy of love. If we are going to start to think about the vitality of marriage outside of Christianity then we should consider how love transcends (hetero)sexual relationships and what implications this has for submission. As far as popular discussion goes loving practice – as opposed to feeling good which usually culminates in the politics of sex – is very low on the agenda. We are very interested in the euphoria and romanticism of love but little is said of its work and spirit.
My (Christian) belief that God is love (1 John 4) gives me peace about its mysticism. There are many things I do not know about love but I do know that love is work and the job is commitment. The notion of commitment transcends the boundaries of our emotions so that we practise love – that is, we act lovingly – even when our personal will objects selfishly. Without digressing too far into a philosophy of love I think it is important to state that love of others should not prevent love (and I mean love here not indulgence) of self – those are conditions for abuse. My focus is on inter-personal relationships which are dependent on commitment and sustained by submission.
Out of my study of love and relationships I developed an understanding of the ‘image of God’ in humanity which is creativity. I am not speaking of the arts though they are important but a particular spiritual expression. Being of African descent and raised in the pentecostal tradition I was spiritually comprehensive quite early, but religion aside it was my experience of sex (especially seeing a man ejaculate) that made me think about spiritual paradigms. In Christian culture there is a concept of soul ties which in summary describes the spiritual fixation of one person to another, but the focus on binding stops short.
I believe when two people share themselves intimately (whether between one friend to another, parent and child, or two lovers) not only do they join themselves (sometimes publicly, through titles, in marriage, or such as ‘best friend’) but their communion gives life to something outside of themselves. I first began to contemplate this when I read somewhere (I can’t quite recall where but I would like to give intellectual credit where it is due) that marriage is an end in itself. That as well as being a tool for the betterment of two individuals it is something sacred which they create outside themselves. I noticed the motifs of grief and death when myself or my peers went through relationship (sexual and platonic) break downs. Of course there was no physical death all parties were alive and free to love. But it was then I came to understand that the mysterious creation is something typical of all intimate relationships and this was the death we were all speaking of. The death of the ‘thing’ we had jointly given life.
It is to this creation of communion that I believe we are to submit to. Not one human to another, but to the sanctity of what we jointly create – this can be love, or a shade of it in loyalty, trust etc. This means that when I disagree with a friend to whom I am committed to loving, I do not submit to them. I do not yield myself to their will or relinquish my power or agency to them. Rather I submit to the creation, the friendship, the experience that I believe is worth saving. I put pride aside, I seek reconciliation or resolution without regard to hierarchy. I submit to my belief in love which becomes God between us.