Now that Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court is official, leftists everywhere are casting aspersions at the wall to see what sticks. A few early favorites include condemning her for adopting children or expressing outrage that Republicans would push for a nomination when Democrats don’t control the outcome.
The most interesting smear, however, regards feminine submission — an apparent teaching of Barrett’s faith group, People of Praise. It’s silly to suggest that submission holds back women when your example is being considered for one of the highest offices in the United States. But silly or not, it does reveal the need for a broader conversation on the subject.
I’d like to say it’s just those darned pagan liberals who hate the biblical teaching that wives are to submit to their husbands. But the fact is, feminism has finished its long march through the institutions, and most conservatives have been indoctrinated to hate this teaching as well.
No matter where one falls on the political spectrum if your cultural roots are shallow, “handmaid” is going to make you think of “Handmaid’s Tale” becoming a reality rather than the Blessed Virgin Mary submissively identifying herself as the handmaiden of the Lord at the Annunciation.
Getting to the Heart of the Matter
This controversy is about something bigger than the People of Praise or Barrett . Rather, it requires us to defend the most hated Bible verses in America — the very ones that trigger so many of us who grew up indoctrinated with an irrational fear of masculine authority:
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. (Eph. 5:22-24)
Contrary to the way some Christians try to dissemble, these verses mean exactly what they say. They are not controversial because they are difficult to understand, but because they are simple. The key is Paul’s comparison to the church’s submission to Christ — a comparison so important that he makes it three distinct times in three sentences.
How then do Christians submit to Christ? Not as mindless automatons, but as people with agency and intellect who align ourselves with our Lord’s purpose. We do not bury our talents, but creatively devote them to his Kingdom, according to his instruction, and with the gifts with which God has equipped us. That is precisely how wives are to submit to husbands.
That profoundly transgresses America’s feminist inclinations, but it’s nothing to be afraid of. These words from God — repeated by Paul in his letter to the Colossians and by Peter in his first epistle — are meant for the good of women and men alike. Controversial or not, the common objections against submission are less compelling than we might think — at least once we pause to consider them instead of reflexively protesting.
Fulfilling Our God-designed Purpose
The specter of domestic abuse is frequently raised in response to these verses, which, indeed, is a real issue with real victims. Nevertheless, complaining that biblical submission primes women for abuse makes about as much sense as complaining that “honor thy father and thy mother” primes children for abuse.
The possibility that authority may be abused does not negate that authority. Rather than dismantling authorities like these that are inherent in human nature, we need to teach the responsibilities for which they were ordained (and hold accountable those who reject them).
Going back to the Bible, the responsibilities of a husband immediately follow the previous verses that establish his authority:
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her… In the same way, husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the Church. (Eph 5:25, 28-29)
The husband has a responsibility to patiently care for his wife’s needs and to help her to grow into what God ordained her to be. Some men may do a poor job of it, but nobody bats an eye when the Bible tells men to die for their wives. Tellingly, it is only when it instructs women to submit to their husbands that everyone loses their minds.
Created Equally in God’s Image
We react that way because it is not male sacrifice, but female submission that offends one of America’s most prominent idols: equality. But the truth is, most of our appeals to equality are empty platitudes that fail to point us to anything meaningful. After all, we seldom ask ourselves “equal in what sense” or “equal according to what measurements?”
Biblically speaking, we can say that men and women alike are equally made in the image of God and that both are equally forgiven on account of Christ. But we don’t say that both have equal authority in the household or in the church, any more than we say that both are equally tall or equally equipped to nurse children. Neither should we expect rigid across-the-board equality in those social institutions that are meant to support and protect families. When appealing to equality, context matters.
When we do seriously consider context, we find that equality is a useful tool that has served humanity well in some respects. Nevertheless, treating it as a moral absolute and forcing it into areas of life where it doesn’t belong transforms that servant into a brutal master.
Blessings of Following Scripture
Whereas demands for equality destroy the spirit of love and good-will upon which a loving marriage depends, submission primes the pump of loving-kindness. Let us then consider two of the many blessings submission provides to a couple.
The first such blessing is romance. It may not be the foundation of marriage as some are tempted to think, but it certainly makes marriage more joyful. Consider the classic romantic metaphors: “Falling in love.” “Swept off your feet.” “Head-over-heels in love.” “Under his spell.” They all have one thing in common, and it certainly isn’t equality. On the contrary, all of these metaphors imply a considerable measure of submission.
These metaphors are not coincidental, for romance and equality are antithetical to each other. As C.S. Lewis observed in “That Hideous Strength”: “Courtship knows nothing of [equality]; nor does fruition… Obedience — humility — is an erotic necessity. You are putting equality just where it ought not be.”
Submission isn’t an erotic necessity because of the evil patriarchy. It’s an erotic necessity because male submission is fundamentally ugly to women. Women are typically attracted to a man’s confidence and initiative in the face of risk — and therefore not to a man she can lead by the nose because he fears causing a fuss.
The woman who desires romance is therefore left with two options. She can hook up with a series of bad boys who confidently take the initiative because they don’t care about her. Or she can submit to a good man who is willing and able to commit to confidently leading her in sacrificial love. Considering how hookup culture has proven to be the death of romance for those who remain in it, the choice there should be clear.
Submission also brings the blessing of peace into marriage by uniting a couple in common purpose. There are innumerable times a husband and wife must act as one: choosing how to raise their children, where to live, how to divide the household labor, and so forth.
Good husbands and good wives listen to one another and appreciate the other’s unique talents and insights in every situation. Nevertheless, even the happiest couples have times when they disagree — when they want to go in different directions.
Mutual Love and Respect
During such times, equality introduces more conflict than it resolves, for it cannot be implemented in a marriage. In the political realm, our commitment to equality leads us to adopt democracy. But voting is of no value in a two-person system, for in the event of a conflict, there is never a majority. So how can each spouse receive equal say?
Although it is sometimes wise to wait for a consensus, it’s not always possible. Many decisions are required in the context of a particular time and place. Waiting until the choice has passed only means that the most obstinate spouse always gets his or her way.
How can they take turns on important decisions without already agreeing on how important each decision is? How can they simply turn it over to the most qualified individual unless they already agree on who is most qualified in each case? Even if one could create a complex logical flowchart in which importance and qualifications are given values that are kept in constant balance, that would describe the relationship between two computers rather than a husband and wife. Nobody wants that.
Equality simply does not exist in marital decision making. Mutual love and respect need to exist, but equality cannot create these things. What demanding incoherent equality does create is a strong sense of entitlement. If equality is simultaneously expected and impossible, it leads only to meaningless blame games. Demanding marital equality merely stokes the fires of resentment. And as the Book of Proverbs also warns men and women alike, “It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife.”
Even in marriage, the buck must stop with someone. Considering how much contempt women tend to have for men they dominate, there’s very little genuine desire for the buck to stop with the wife.