Behind the media brouhaha about the word “submission”, lies a clash of world views. It is a clash that feels difficult because of the heat of debate, but one that exposes something of the difference the gospel makes – not just in theory but also in practice.
The presenting issue of this clash is the word “submission”. This is rather unhelpful as words are notoriously open to different understandings and feelings. They change meaning over time, they carry different connotations for different people, they mean different things in different sub-cultures, and they function as tribal shibboleths of political correctness. It is very hard for Bible believing Christians to understand what feminist readers of the current top selling female porn novel feel about a word like “submission”. Misunderstanding about the meaning and nuances of words can therefore easily sidetrack the discussion.
The Liturgical Panel is not creating new vows that require submission. In revising the present wedding service they are recommending a change from the present vow of “obey”, to “submit”. “Submit” is a superior word on several counts. “Obey” is a word of command and performance whereas “submit” is a word of relationship. While they often go together, the appropriate word to draw from the New Testament usage is “submission” (Ephesians 5:21f, Colossians 3:18). Nowhere in the New Testament is the wife commanded to “obey”. Interestingly nobody seems to be arguing that the present word “obey” is better – just that “submit” is wrong.
However the debate is about more than words. The words just act as the trigger for the more profound debate about the nature of marriage, of human relationships and of humanity itself.
It is commonplace to observe that marriage is in confusion in our society today. Sadly, it is families that bear the painful brunt of this confusion, for marriage is at the foundation of each new family and the continued expansion of our society of families. Children may be brought into the world by sex but they are nurtured and cared for by families. Destabilising marriage destabilises family life to the cost and detriment of all concerned – children in particular, but ultimately, the whole of society.
From a Christian perspective, this destabilisation comes from individual sinfulness. Yet we would also argue that society’s devaluation of marriage has impacted individual marriages and families as well. While all political parties claim to support the family, and Australians see ‘the family’ as the most important value in life, the cultural reality is that changes to marriage have made it more difficult to maintain family life. Society has undermined families through legislation by making divorce easy and giving equivalent legal standing to cohabitation. It also undermines marriage by the media’s constant glorification of sexual activity without relational consequences, and by the educational authorities’ ‘non-judgemental’ teaching on sexuality. The redefinition of marriage to include same-sex marriage is just another step in weakening this basic building block of families.
The issue of the wedding vows highlights the difference between the wedding of two people and the wedding of a man and a woman. If the marriage is simply between two people then there is no reason to have differentiated vows. Each could make identical vows. However, in the marriage of a man and a woman, the vows should quite appropriately reflect the differences of a wife and a husband – for the experience of marriage is different for a man and a woman. Marriages will be helped by wedding vows that reflect and articulate not only the common commitment to each other but also the differing commitment to each other.
Some people confuse sameness with equality. To say that “All men are created equal”, is not to say that all are the same. The differences between people’s height, weight, intelligence, strength, wealth, beauty are massive. Equality is found in being created in the image of God and so treated equally. But even that equal treatment may mean different treatment – e.g. giving extra assistance to the blind, the deaf, the lame, the child and the aged.
Men and women are equally human, equally created by God in his image, and so should be treated with equal rights before the law. But men and women are different. And this difference is quite significant in the creation of a family. The activity of mothering is not the same as fathering. It is an unrealistic naivety to ignore the asymmetrical nature of family life. The feminist journalist Adele Horin wrote last year, “I had silly ideas. I was one of those arguing 20 years ago there was no difference between little boys and little girls. I have had to eat my words. I learnt you do not inject sensitivity into boys by making them play with dolls or by crushing their boisterousness. What were we thinking?” (SMH 27/8/11). Similarly Elizabeth Farrelly wrote about “a reigning myth of our time that truth is something we make”, that we can “pretend that women are just men with breasts” and concluded “in truth, if women were like men, Barbie wouldn’t exist.” (SMH 17/3/11). The difference between men and women in marriage and family life is exhibited in the wedding attire of every bridal party. We do not simply marry ‘partners’ but husbands and wives.
It is at this point that the difference the Christian worldview makes becomes most acute. Modern secularist culture is uncertain about what difference there should be between husband and wife – for “biology is not destiny”. The Western pursuit of freedom has developed into personal autonomy and sovereignty. Where there is no higher power than yourself, the most we can hope for is being “true to yourself”. Where freedom is found in personal autonomy, relationships will be conducted on the basis of power and self-interest, and the most we can hope for justice to deliver is an equal distribution of power. To such a worldview, submission is “yielding to a superior force” and thus an acceptance of inferiority or even violence. To those who seek justice the very notion of submitting to another person is anathema.
Whereas, Christianity is based upon the Creator, who has made us for his purpose and has built relationships into our very nature. These relationships are built on justice and grace, on mercy, atonement and service. The Christian world is where God has appointed all human authority, and society is ordered in peace by submission to his appointments. It is where Christ the king is a servant, laying down his life for his people who receive his sacrifice with joyful submission to him. It is the world where Christ the king did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself to became a servant and die in submissive obedience to his father’s will (Philippians 2:5-10, Mark 14:36, Hebrews 10:5-7). He who created the universe even submitted himself to his human parents (Luke 2:51). For the Christian, freedom is found in service, and submission is the work of the Holy Spirit changing us – a desirable goal, not a curse to be avoided (Ephesians 5:17-21). It’s a world where the husband lays down his life for his bride as she accepts his offered sacrifice with willing submission.
It is not easy for people living in such different worlds to understand each other. The secularist and the Christian co-exist happily enough in a society like Australia where the dominant culture is a Christianised secularism or a secularised Christianity. But every now and then a word – like submission – draws attention to how different our worlds really are.
The clash is more than the horror of a bride submitting herself to a monster (or a groom sacrificing his life for a shrew). That is the horror of a bad marriage, not of marriage itself. No, the clash is over the very concept of submitting yourself to anybody or laying down your life for anybody. That is what is so foreign and alien to the materialism, hedonism and individualism that our Western culture values. But a society built on those values will not make for happy families. We will not make stable families when we “try before we buy”, or make prenuptial agreements on how to dissolve the relationship before we start it, or pretend that men and women are the same and that their experience, expectations and outcomes in marriage will be identical.
Because marriage is built on the purpose of our Creator in making us as males and females in his image, Christians know how good marriage is. We may have a bad marriage because of human sinfulness, but that doesn’t nullify the good of marriage itself. For Christian marriage is to be an expression of living faithfully in the sacrificial service and willing submission of grace and forgiveness.