It will come as absolutely no surprise to anyone to find that I am a feminist. And I’m Christian. Yes, really. Even with all that patriarchal business mixed in. The cultural patriarchy of the Bible is, I think, a challenging to work with in modern Christianity, specifically, for many in this day and age it’s difficult to wrap their heads and their theologies around is the idea of female submission to male authority. I have always had trouble with this idea, personally speaking. Even though I’m not married, it’s always been in the back of my mind that one day I would need to figure out what those verses mean to me. It seemed as though single women were somehow free from the requirement to be submissive to a man– without the ring, I am equal, but once married, I am less than. As though married women have an identity first as a wife, and then as a person. I know that’s not necessarily true for all married women, but it’s always seemed that way in my mind. It always makes me cringe to hear “Oh, she’s so-and-so’s wife” used as a descriptive characteristic of a woman.
The fact that everyone expects married women to change their last name really doesn’t help. There’s just something proprietary about re-naming someone. God does it a few times, but He’s God, so it seems OK when he does it.
My last name is very important to me and I’ve always wanted to keep it forever because it’s a really awesome name and besides, it’s part of who I am, fundamentally. I identify with it; it reminds me of where I come from. Any other last name wouldn’t seem right somehow. I don’t know if I can define that any further, other than to just admit to the blogosphere at large that one of my primary motivational forces to actually complete my PhD was the prospect of keeping my name forever unchanged. Take that as you will; I’m just not feeling the name change.
These days, it just seems overly complicated to change one’s name legally. Have you checked out how many places your name appears on record? Too many places. Is it really worthwhile? And for what?
But regardless, many women change their names when they get married. Why?
Because of culture. Our culture shapes our society. We do the same things we have done for centuries, long after the significance of why we do them fades away. People crave love and companionship, but beyond that, I think marriage was and can still be purposeful, even if it’s not a proprietary arrangement between two men, or a monetary arrangement between 2 families, even if it’s only a covenant arrangement between 2 people and the Supreme Deity they put their faith in. But only if both parties involved are equal parties, since it’s pretty common knowledge these days that the only differences between men and women are physical, and have nothing to do with intellect.
Back in the day, a young woman was a commodity. She was purchased with a bride price and came with a dowry– basically accessories, fully loaded. She kept her thoughts and opinions to herself and was not asked who she wanted to marry or whether she’d rather spend the rest of her life doing something other than being the wife of somebody. The Bible was written in times where customs like these were common among certain portions of the society. Wealthy upper portions, usually, and this was the culture and audience toward which these New Testament household code verses were written.
The main verses in question are Ephesians 5:21-6:9, Colossians 3:12-4:6, and 1 Peter 2:11-3:22. These sections of scripture are commonly known as the household codes and they contain some of the most frustrating pieces of teaching known to womankind. Are these scriptures meant to provide specific instruction to men and women as to how they should relate to each other? Are they telling us that God placed women below men, as subjects?
I don’t think so.
Here’s why: take a look at the verses immediately before each passage. Ephesians 5:15-21 is a collection of basic guidelines for living; “do not be foolish…be filled with the spirit, always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” They boil down to verse 21, “and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” Then the text launches into the household codes.
Preceding the codes in Colossians, the text from verse 3:5 to 11 has another set of guidelines, “put them all aside: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive speech from your mouth…” concluding with “a renewal in which there is no distinction between Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and freeman, but Christ is all and in all.”
And in 1 Peter, the beginning of Chapter 2 leading up to the passage in question gives us these guidelines again, and tells us that we are a “Holy nation, a people for God’s own possession…for you once were not a people, but now you are the people of God.”
What does all this mean?
Well, these are unifying verses. They tell us how to relate to each other. They also tell us that we are subject to one another and that there is no distinction between those things that our cultures tell us should distinguish one from another. Things like race and sex. That’s where I think God stands on this whole “submission” issue. We should be submitting to each other, mutually, no matter who the “other” is. A woman submits to a man, but a man also submits to a woman.
Why do we even need to go over this?
Have you heard the leaders of our day stumble over how to interpret these household code verses, trying to squeeze them into our culture? They try to say that a woman should respect her husband and that he should be the final decision-maker. Or they say that these are culturally applicable to the author’s time period, but irrelevant in our own.
In the recent past, there’s been a trend toward interpreting the Bible in a pseudo-literal way. I suppose the idea was to make scripture culturally relevant in a way that most people could get on board with. There are 2 big problems with this strategy: first off, you don’t find droves of Greek scholars around to help us overcome the limitations of English–which are many. So the problem with trying to modernize these particular verses to suit this culture is acknowledging the fact that the verses don’t actually say “respect,” they say “submit” or “be subordinate to.” Respect and subordination are not the same thing, and if you try to force these verses into our context, you’ll end up corrupting their actual meaning for the sake of trying to uphold some kind of “literal” interpretation of the Bible, and that’s the second big problem with pseudo-literalism. Understanding their culture is key to understanding how it relates to ours.
On the other hand, if we’re not supposed to interpret these verses literally within our own culture, how do we relate to them? You can’t really throw them out, but in order to not dismiss them entirely, you need to understand a whole bunch of historical context, not just culturally, but legally as well. If you tried to explain it aloud in a sermon, you’d end up with a history lecture instead. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just not going to be a hit with everyone.
Now, there are many good articles presenting a case for interpreting these verses in context, with proper translations for the original Greek texts, and all of them are collectively better than this one, so you can read them, if you want. (like this one, or this, or how about this, and so on, and so forth)
All I want to contribute is this food for thought: Speaking in general terms, the verses preceding and following all of these household code sections are all related in some way to unity, right thinking, and presenting a good witness to the world. In the culture of our time, where it often seems that the individual’s needs are above the needs of the community, how can we best represent Christ to the world?
When we submit, one to another, and we are all thinking with the mindset of Christ, with the influence of the Holy Spirit, the only individual whose needs will be placed above the rest will be that of Jesus.