I've been putting this post off for some time in the hopes that at some point I would get really inspired and write these ideas perfectly. Well, the other day I wrote an e-mail to a fellow on one of the Yahoo! Groups I'm a member of and I thought I laid it out pretty well. Maybe not perfectly, but well enough to get started. Well enough that I got to the end and said, "Whew! I really don't want to re-write that for a ruddy blog post!" So, here you have it, in all its copied and pasted glory.
Gender roles are a big deal among many Christians, but thy are an especially big deal among Christians who practice D/s and BDSM. The cause for this is that, whist frantically searching the pages of their Bibles for Scriptural "justification" for being interested in these things, what should leap first to the eyes of well-intentioned believers but, "Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands as to the Lord." And on the eleventh day, the Lord said, "Let religious misogyny and bigotry flow forth from every corner of the Church!"
I think not.
I will talk more (probably much more) about the pitfalls and problems in the "Christian BDSM" and "Christian Domestic Discipline" subcultures in the future. Right now, let's stick to a little thing I like to call (to gank a book title) "reading the Bible for all it's worth." That is to say, I feel that far too many people - Christian and otherwise - read Bible passages purely at face value. This either causes them to say, "Well, that makes no sense!" and throw the book away or to say, "Well, gee...if God says that's the way it is, that's the way it is." and throw reason away.
There is another way.
Now, many people will go to the original Hebrew and Greek and seek meaning by trying to understand the nuances of those languages (or by just pointing to paricular definitions that suit their ends). This is not sufficient in itself either. When seeking to understand the Bible, I need to ask "Who wrote this? Who were they writing to? In what historical and cultural epoch were they writing? What was their intent?" and "What principles can be derrived here that most accurately reflect how the passage's intended meaning has impact in today's context?"
Do I always do this? No. But the following is one ongoing effort to understand. The passage I'll be discussing runs from the end of Ephesians 5 into the beginning of Ephesians 6. This is one of the most commonly quoted "Wives, submit..." passages. This is also just my opinion - what I think I see happening in the text and what makes the most logical sense to me. I reserve the right to be completely wrong. If you disagree, I still love you. :)
First, here's the text, taken from one of my favourite translations, the NET Bible.
5:22 31 Wives, submit 32 to your husbands as to the Lord, 5:23 because the husband is the head of the wife as also Christ is the head of the church – he himself being the savior of the body. 5:24 But as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 5:25 Husbands, love your 33 wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her 5:26 to sanctify her by cleansing her 34 with the washing of the water by the word, 5:27 so that he 35 may present the church to himself as glorious – not having a stain or wrinkle, or any such blemish, but holy and blameless. 36 5:28 In the same way 37 husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 5:29 For no one has ever hated his own body 38 but he feeds it and takes care of it, just as Christ also does the church, 5:30 for we are members of his body. 39 5:31 For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be joined to his wife, and the two will become 40 one flesh. 41 5:32 This mystery is great – but I am actually 42 speaking with reference to Christ and the church. 5:33 Nevertheless, 43 each one of you must also love his own wife as he loves himself, 44 and the wife must 45 respect 46 her husband.
6:1 Children, 1 obey your parents in the Lord 2 for this is right. 6:2 “Honor your father and mother,” 3 which is the first commandment accompanied by a promise, namely, 6:3 “that it may go 4 well with you and that you will live 5 a long time on the earth.” 6
6:5 Slaves, 9 obey your human masters 10 with fear and trembling, in the sincerity of your heart as to Christ, 6:6 not like those who do their work only when someone is watching 11 – as people-pleasers – but as slaves of Christ doing the will of God from the heart. 12 6:7 Obey 13 with enthusiasm, as though serving the Lord 14 and not people, 6:8 because you know that each person, whether slave or free, if he does something good, this 15 will be rewarded by the Lord.
Much of the talk about this passage centers around the Greek word (hupotasso, if memory serves) that is usually translated as "submit" or "obey." Everyone talks about that word. I really don't care to. I don't think it's the point of the passage at all. I think Paul is interested in re-contextualizing existing Dominant/submissive structures. Look at Ephesians 5&6.
5:22 is the "Wives, submit..." that everyone loves to quote. But 5:21 talks about "submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ." The passages before are discussing how we live as Christians - not as unwise but as wise (5:15), as children of the Light (5:8).
So, after Paul says Christians should submit to one another in 5:21, in 5:22 he begins listing examples of what submitting to one another looks like. He does this through examples based in everyday authority structures, specifically the authority structures in the home. This makes sense because a statement like "submit to one another" is pretty radical in a society that is so strongly defined by hierarchy.
His examples seem to follow this pattern: "Here's a common authority structure. Now, here's how to live in that structure in Christ." It doesn't stop at the end of Chapter 5. Everyone gets to the end of the chapter and says, "Well, that's all he had to say about marriage!" But chapter breaks are arbitrary structures added to the original text by later editors. Connect the wives and husbands passage with the two following: 6:1-4 talks to parents and children and 6:5-9 addresses slaves and masters. Each passage moves further out from the center of the home and family - the marriage.
It's clear to me that these are three points connected by the same theme - a new understanding of authority and leadership in Christ. These passages are not dictating who is to be in charge, but describing how each member of an extant Dominant/submissive dynamic is to conduct themselves. Let's look at the sections in reverse.
First, "Slaves, obey your masters" (6:5-9). Everyone says the "Wives, submit" section establishes God's plan for marriage. So, is this God's plan for slavery? Modern scholars and pastors usually say, "Well, we don't have slavery in our society, but we can extrapolate this to employer/employee relationships or some such model." No one ever says, "We don't have strictly patriarchal marriages in this society, but we can extrapolate this to a matriarchal or egalitarian marriage model." Why is that? Why treat these two passages so differently? One is God's stamp of approval on marriage, but the other is not God ordaining slavery? It makes no sense.
Secondly, does God need Paul to tell us that slaves are to obey their masters? Is this some new Divine command? Of course not! In Paul's day, slavery was common and slaves were of course expected to obey. Since in Christ there is now neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, early Christians might expect these social structures to need total upheaval. Paul says, however, that Earthly authority structures are a part of the way we live, but as Christians, we can now view authority differently.
This is because God condescended to become human in that Christ, being of one nature with God, did not see equality with God as something to be attained. Rather, he humbled himself and took on the very nature of a slave. He became submissive even unto death on a cross and because of this God has given him a name that is above every name. (I'm here slightly paraphrasing Philippians 2:5-11.)
If Jesus shows that he is Lord of all creation by humbling himself and becoming like a slave, then our understanding of authority must change drastically. As Jesus says in Matthew 20, beginning in verse 25, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions use their authority over them. It must not be this way among you! Instead whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave just as the did not come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Gee, I've seen that on the front page of a blog somewhere...)
Now let's look at the next passage up in , verses 1-4. Does anyone question that children need to obey their parents? Of course not. It's how they survive and learn. In the same way, no one in Paul's day would have questioned whether wives should obey their husbands. This was their expected cultural role both inside and outside the Jewish world. None of these passages describes a Dominant/submissive dynamic that is unique to Christians or even to the Bible. All of these were commonplace in Paul's day. What's important is the next section of each passage, where Paul sets common assumptions about authority on their heads.
To me, this section follows a pattern of "Description and Prescription." That is, a description of a common authority structure from daily life is given, followed by a prescription for how that structure should look under Christ. To my mind, this is not God commanding all women in every marriage for all time to submit to their husbands. This is God through Paul telling us that Dominant/submissive relationships involve both parties putting the others' needs before their own, regardless of where such a structure is to be found.
So, to paraphrase: "Wives, submit to your husbands. That is understood. It's how a wife is expected to honour her husband in our culture. But now you are in Christ, so your submission should be as unto the Lord, for you honour and worship the Lord by loving your husband well in a way that brings him respect. But husbands, you are not to be domineering and disrespectful to your wives as so many in our world are prone to do. Do not abuse your authority. Rather reconize that no one has authority on Earth except that God allows him to have it and you are under Christ's authority. You must indeed love your wives, as is expected, but you must do so as Christ loves us. He gave himself completely for us, surrendered himself to death for us. He is our Lord because he knelt to wash his disciples' feet. You too should follow his example and honour him by loving your wives well."
In today's culture, the passage might read differently. Instead of laying the idea of the submissive wife over universally into all modern marriages, we should recognize that the point of this passage and indeed this whole section is back in verse 5:21: "submit to one another." It seems that this passage is talking about a way of serving one another that supercedes, yet is translated through whatever relational structure we find ourselves in - even those that have a definite hierarchy and authority structure.
Reading this verse today, we might ask, "How does a wife honour her husband in today's culture? How does a husband honour his wife? What does this look like in my marriage relationship and what can I do to love my husbsband or wife well in a way that is relevant for me like this structure was relevant in Paul's day?"
You may find yourself saying, "Well, my husband is my slave," or "My wife is submissive to me." Or you may see other structures evident. All of these can be encompassed by the values espoused here.
The truth is, no two relationships are alike. We function according to certain parameters and negotiations of dominance and submission in every relationship (check out my blog post "D/s - Fixed, Flexible and Fundamental" for more on this) and these parameters and negotiations are as different as the people in each relationship. Even in strongly patriarchal societies - Jewish, Greek, etc. - in many cases, the women are so often the real movers and shakers in the family. They have just worked out the art of getting their way and setting the agenda, making all the decisions and letting the husband believe it was his idea!
In human relationships, different Dominant/submissive structures work best for different people - otherwise we wouldn't still be discussing these things today. The bottom line, though, is love. Whether we are Dominant or submissive, without this we have nothing.