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Equality within marriage is biblical


Old Bible open to the Book of EphesiansTwo Sundays ago many Christians heard a passage from the Letter to the Ephesians which opens the door to the very different world in which the Church first emerged:

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Saviour. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands (Ephesians chapter 5 verses 21–24).

The Lectionary had proven surprisingly topical for Australians. The previous week, news had come that the Anglican Diocese of Sydney was proposing a marriage service in which wives would promise to 'submit' to their husbands, language which runs counter to the current liturgy authorised in most of the Anglican Church of Australia, where identical vows are offered by both bride and groom.

The framers of the Lectionary did not see fit to continue their selections from that ancient compendium of household advice into the following chapter, where children are urged to obey parents, and then this:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart (Ephesians chapter 6 verses 5–6).

The logic is identical, and in all these cases the writer (not the apostle Paul himself, in the view of most critical scholars, but an early follower) also makes demands of the figure to whom authority is given; husbands must love the wives, fathers should not provoke their children, and slave-owners are not to threaten their slaves.

In the ancient context, this was fairly enlightened stuff. The fundamental structures of ancient Greco-Roman society are accepted, but the Christians are urged to inhabit them with moderation and mutual consideration.

If we get past the myth of immediacy which suggests we can judge the author as though he had our own sensibilities, we can perhaps be sympathetic to the positions outlined, at least as a survival strategy for the emerging Christian movement in a potentially hostile world.

But the social institutions or hierarchies are not themselves being advocated or established here; rather the recipients of the letter are being advised to face what the world had given them with patience and charity.

To develop a theological sense of how power relations should be assessed, and supported or opposed or transformed, requires far more than a de-contexualised citation of such proof texts.

In this new debate however, as in those over the ordination of women, leading Sydney Anglicans have argued for a notion of male 'headship' derived from passages such as these, taking the ancient authors' advice about first century existence within a given social order as a prescription for the 21st century social order itself.

Most Australians, including those whose Bible knowledge may be less well-developed than their common sense, are rightly disturbed by such suggestions. They understand that we should not tolerate promotion of inequality between men and women, or slavery for that matter.

Most Christians, Anglicans included, think as much too, and have for many years. Although Archbishop Peter Jensen is reported as saying egalitarianism is a phenomenon of the last three to four decades, the 'obey' provision was being eased out of Anglican liturgy as long ago as 1928, when a revised Prayer Book was proposed for the hardly-radical Church of England.

This proposal then illustrates not the real meaning of scripture, but the idiosyncrasies of one part of Anglicanism.

Many will perceive dangers for women in these proposals. But there are dangers for the Churches too. If the Bible is seen as the preserve of a fundamentalism not so much genuinely conservative as creatively reactionary, the capacity of Christians to use scripture as a basis for seeking social relations characterised by mutuality, justice and love is compromised for all, not only for the fundamentalists. 


Andrew McGowanAssociate Professor Andrew McGowan is Warden of Trinity College, The University of Melbourne. He blogs at Andrew's Version and Royal Parade Diary

Topic tags: Andrew McGowan, marriage, subordination, Anglicanism



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Existing comments

The problem with only quoting a part of the passage that we heard Sunday two weeks ago is that Andrew is doing what he accuses the Sydney Anglicans of doing, using scripture to justify a particular ecclesial framework. Andrew forgot to also quote Ephesians 5 verses 25-32, in which husbands are challenged to "love your wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her" - verse 25 ESV translation. Andrew takes the risk arguing as he has done, neglecting to quote the full text, of having the Bible seen as fundamentalist, rather than those who selectively quote from the Bible being the real fundamentalist. St Paul is challenging, equally, in the text, men and women, husbands and wives, that in all things, it is the redemption won by Christ, even of our very bodies and the everyday lives we lead awaiting the glory, that should decide how we revere one another and image God, and the redemption to one another.

Fr Mick Mac Andrew | 02 September 2012  

What's news. The Sydney diocese has been led for the past two centuries by fundamentalist males whose common motto might well have been 'don't confuse me with facts, I've made up my mind'.

Ginger Meggs | 02 September 2012  

Excellent analysis. Thanks, Andrew. Just one question, re: "But the social institutions or hierarchies are not themselves being advocated or established here; rather the recipients of the letter are being advised to face what the world had given them with patience and charity." Should we apply this to the social institutions or hierarchies of the family only? Or also to those of the Church?

Alan Austin | 02 September 2012  

The word 'submit' is a deeply biblical one and, when used in marriage vows as the Sydney Anglicans propose, should apply equally to men and women. The Sydney Anglicans are only proposing to include this word in the woman's vows and therein is my problem with this proposal. A marriage where one partner is considered the 'head' of the union is, in my opinion, unbalanced. In this most important of relationships mutual acknowledgement of love, trust and respect is essential. I attend an Anglican church in the Sydney diocese and women are encouraged, and supported, in many forms of ministry but not permitted to 'lead' a congregation. This is a waste of leadership potential shown by committed Christian women.

Pam | 02 September 2012  

Excellent article, Andrew. I particularly liked your description of the Sydney diocese as "not so much genuinely conservative as creatively reactionary." Says it all, I think, and accurately describes elements in many Christian traditions, not only Anglican, who seem determined to recreate Christendom in the image of long-gone, unenlightened and oppressive incarnations. These things, too, will pass, I pray.

David Conolly | 02 September 2012  

The only thing that is Biblical regarding women is misogyny. The Bible regards women as chattels and makes it clear that they have less stature than men. To claim that the Bible supports equality in marriage is disingenuous at best, outright dishonest at worst.

Anthony Cameron | 02 September 2012  

It's a matter of balance. Any where the balance between the sexes is distorted or non-existent will generate problems. We can see this in large groups such as the armed forces, some religious orders and the hierarchy of the Church in general. Having a marriage vow that , I think, would increase this distortion isn't likely to promote healthy relationship (or healthy children, come to that).

Joan Seymour | 02 September 2012  

> a fundamentalism not so much genuinely conservative as creatively reactionary

. . . a thought-provoking phrase . . .

James E | 02 September 2012  

It's about time the term "fundamentalist" is reclaimed and its true meaning recognised. Rather than seeing fundamentalism as a wacky, literal and unbalanced interpretation of the Bible and how it informs teaching on morality, the term fundamentalism should be used to described a more faithful, rational and discerned reading of the Bible with correct emphasis on "the fundamentalsquot; or the teachings and moral guidelines of Jesus and the gospel writers.

With this in mind, every human relationship, including marriage would be guided by the fundamental, two most important commandments - Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbour as yourself.All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.
So "submit" in a marriage could mean persevering during difficult times, often against all odds, and taking the lifelong marriage vow seriously like my parents did.

AURELIUS | 02 September 2012  

Thank you, Andrew. As anyone will see who has read the thousand plus blogs appended to Peter Jensen’s article in the Age and Sydney Morning Herald last week, the common use of the word ‘submit’ in our society is about giving in to authority, taking a submissive and inferior place in a relationship, which in its most extreme form even condones masochistic subservience. The other main meaning is about handing in an assignment on time.

Submitting to Christ is of an entirely different order altogether, indeed is about becoming more Christ-like. This is its meaning, as I understand it with my little Greek, in Ephesians; the meaning that Robert Forsyth calls, in post-modern fashion, “nuanced”. Is the bride at the ceremony to say “I submit, in the nuanced sense of the word as used in Ephesians, to you”? Putting aside the theology, this is not the sense of the word that would first spring to the minds of most Australians at a wedding service today. It is irresponsible liturgy because ‘submit’ is not the first or common sense usage of the word. On a related subject in this debate,

I am often surprised by people’s belief that equality was thought up by some Frenchmen in the 18th century, when being created equal in God’s eyes and all having the opportunity to be equal in Christ are un-nuanced positions that go back a bit earlier than that.

PHILIP HARVEY | 02 September 2012  

We are used to seeing marriage in stereotypes both with Old Testament patriarchs and the early church. We often forget the more "romantic" aspects of the old Testament. The "Song of Songs" apparently read at the feast of the Passover is a love story where both partners are considered equal. Thomas Cranmer in his marriage service with the promises of the husband adds the words "With my body I Thee Worship" which seems very modern in its implications

john ozanne | 03 September 2012  

Some excellent commentary. I hope I don't muddy the waters with these reflections.
I regret to say that certain priests in Ireland, where I grew up, were alleged to tell married women that were bound under the marriage vows to "submit" to their husbands (drunk or sober) whenever they demanded their conjugal rights.
Anyone who can reduce the conjugal act to an exercise of conjugal rights shows absolutely no understanding of the intimacy of a beautiful sexual relationship between a man and woman.

Likewise they forbade wives to use atificial contraception where a husband demands his conjugal rights at a time when the wife is afraid (for good cause) of becoming pregnant. This shows no understanding of the pressures within married life and the raising of children.
These attitudes I submit stem from a hierachical philosophy where not only does father (the male partner) know best, but also Father (the parish priest), and eventtually the Holy Father.

To write as Andrew McGowan has would be to be assessed as a Moral (or Scriptural?) Relativist by these male supremacists.
I'd say, not that he needs my assessment, he is an Existential Realist.

Uncle Pat | 03 September 2012  

Hear, Hear, Anthony Cameron! Religious marriage, as with organised religion is never a good deal for any woman, no matter how this is creatively obfuscated.

Michelle Goldsmith | 03 September 2012  

Reading any ancient text, from Plato's Dialogues to Homer's Odyssey, one has to make constant allowances for the cultural context in which they were written. It is exactly the same with the Bible - we cannot transfer all words and phrases to a contemporary context without careful examination. Thank you Andrew for another insightful article.

Rodney Wetherell | 03 September 2012  

Next year's topic for discussion: 'Casting stones at the adulteress. Was Jesus too hasty in his opposition?' It is so funny that within a couple of hundred kilometres of this little Kingdom of the Sixteenth Century, there's a woman bishop in the diocese of Canberra and Goulburn.

Penelope | 03 September 2012  

Anthony Cameron obviously hasn’t spent much time reading the Bible if he thinks that “the only thing that is Biblical regarding women is misogyny.” This opinion is little more than Anthony’s own unexamined prejudice about the Bible. He should spend some time reading the Bible books, first. Likewise, Michelle Goldsmith’s assertion that “Religious marriage, as with organised religion is never a good deal for any woman,” is the sort of statement that should be laughed to scorn by generations of women and men. Again, Michelle’s view seems based on her prejudices against religion, not any reflection on the history of marriage, which is infinitely more complex and fine than her simplistic dismissal. It’s time we got beyond these silly putdowns and talked about religion and marriage with an appreciation of the depth and richness of their human reality.

TABULA RASA | 03 September 2012  

To Michelle Goldsmith, I agree with you on a sentiment level - but I get tired with the lazy ranting about the woes of "organised religion". Nothing wrong with it per se if the religion is good (ie the one founded on Jesus or Buddha or Mohomed) just the way we humans have organised it badly. Not much different to government and politics, only we should expect higher ideals from religion - but this also makes it easier to be obscure and able to be manipulated by the powers that be.

AURELIUS | 03 September 2012  

I wonder why the duty to wives wasn't mentioned, it is two way street you know. Most translations of scripture remind us of it. Ephesians 5:25.

L Newington | 03 September 2012  

Here's a radical thought: Maybe in biblical times - like many believe today - women were the ones wearing the pants, holding the purse strings and making the decisions - and the "submit" idea for wives was the stirrings of a men's liberation movement.
I know my Mum bas certainly the boss in my family and it was Dad who had to submit most of the time.

AURELIUS | 03 September 2012  

I'm sorry Mick, I didn't see that you had mentioned my quote, I should have expected another to have picked it up.
I"d like to make note of Pam's "submission".
I'd never thought much of the word before, but after seeing the pictures of African religious women laying postrate before the alter at their professing of vows and what they suffered at the hands of their clergy, Ive never forgotten it.
I could never imagine the nuns here submitting to such an extent!
Bless you Angela.

L Newington | 05 September 2012  

Perhaps the whole debate is so yesterday. Isn't it well past time we embraced new scriptures. Acknowledged the sanctity of contemporary inspirations. The inspirations (written, film, visual art) which counsel the church and capture the hearts and minds of all people with contemporary wisdoms ... Born from our evolving relationship with God ... and embracing the expanding truths/understandings of creation. Alain de Bouton steals this ground easily because the existing "church" doesn't have enough confidence in their own God to embrace an evolving scripture

Sue | 05 September 2012  

L Newington, Meaning of the word "submission": a willingness to yield or surrender to, or the act of doing so. This is a word that, used in its proper sense, can be deeply respectful in a relationship. It's a word that is also deeply biblical, as Philip Jensen has asserted. I wouldn't have any objections to its being used in marriage vows if it is part of both the man's and woman's vows. If the couple find this word unsuitable I can understand that too.

Pam | 05 September 2012  

Whether anyone is still reading this days later who knows, but in response to Sue in my view there is nothing simply ‘so yesterday’ about a debate over Scripture. We will be in constant conversation with Scripture and that conversation itself is part of contemporary inspiration. It always has been that way. The written history of Christianity is sometimes referred to as the third testament. In my experience this is the sum of all our todays. The third testament acknowledges the sanctity of contemporary inspirations and is of them. It has always been born from our evolving relationship with God and embraces the expanding truths and understandings of creation. Personally, I think Alain de Botton is beside the point. He can have his own thoughtful philosophy but one shouldn’t mistake that for what I mean by the third testament. But meanwhile we have, if we are talking Christianity, Scripture. There are intelligent and unintelligent ways of engaging with Scripture, but once you’re in there you are looking at things from inside, which is where a lot of these blogs are situated.

PHILIP HARVEY | 06 September 2012  

Slavery was never right and Jesus Christ, the man, and St.Paul or whoever wrote those scandalous words, should have known and acknowledged that.

Wrigley | 06 September 2012  

Dear Wrigley, slavery was a simple fact of life in the Roman Empire. The people to complain about are not Jesus and Paul, but the Emperors. Good luck! Jesus and Paul deal with the social reality of their times just as we deal with ours. Some would say that if it weren't for slavery we would never have heard of the Roman Empire. The serious challenge from Jesus and Paul was to see slaves as human. That was a challenge in itself to their society. There is neither free nor slave. Do you have any idea how confrontational that would have been to good-thinking people in the Roman Empire? Never mind the not-good-thinking people.

REPLY | 09 September 2012  

The views of Peter Jensen just go to show how out-of-touch churches in wealthy countries like Australia are with the struggles of the majority of people in the world. It's a non-issue - semantics. I honestly can't even guess what the agenda is here, apart from fluff and image. Is the world so just and orderly that church leaders have nothing more to debate on than some obscure interpretation of what "submit" means? In his TV interview Jensen spoke about men being "real men" and women being "real women". What does that actually mean. Obviously "real" is code for "the way the Anglican boys club sees it".

Maybe Sydney Anglican leaders should ask their Anglican colleagues in Africa what the real issues are - poverty, civil war, drought, corruption, violence, rape. Let;s get real.

AURELIUS | 09 September 2012  

If you disagree with what the bible says you are left with one option, change your mind. The bible is very clear on male headship. The biblical imperative for husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church addresses any perceived imbalance. Trying to argue against clear biblical instruction is futile. If you want to have a go at the Sydney Anglicans, pick a winner, in the fullness of time you might find one.

Alastair Robb | 09 September 2012  

I don't disagree with what the Bible says. I disagree with the invention of this artificial debate. Whatever male headship means, and Christ's example of headship, is fine - so what's the issue at stake? Jesus example of headship was obviously the ultimate sacrifice - relinquishing all power. But it's the political notion of headship that seems to be the focus here - not meaning to have a go at Sydney Anglicans (simply because they are the focus of attention in this current debate)

AURELIUS | 09 September 2012  

Andrew, With dew respect, the logic is not the same with the Slave-Master relationship as with the Husband-wife relationship in Ephesians 5. First, wives are NOT told to submit 'with fear and trembling'. Second, Masters are not called 'head' and Christ is not the analogy of headship, whereas for husbands both are stated. Third, Masters are nowhere told to love their slaves like Christ, which includes laying down their lives for their slaves, husbands are commanded these things. It's easy to caricature a position with which you disagree. But it helps no-one.

Jason Hobba | 11 September 2012  

Sydney Anglicans would completely segregate men and women if they could. The main problem with male headship is that it did and will lead to domestic violence and various forms of discrimination against women. The reason no one mentions the husband's commitments is that no one believes the Church will hold them accountable. Whilst they have a long history of discriminating and policing women and girls, they have invariably sought to blame the sins of boys and men on women. It isn't very far to go from ' we condemn violence against wives but oh he wouldn't have hit her if she had submitted.

' These kinds of teachings are actually very offensive to men. It implies that they are perpetual boys that have to be humoured on a daily basis rather than on the merits at play. I doubt that is what God intended.

Sam | 21 September 2012  

I doubt you can actually love someone when you have so little respect for them that you have to prop up your ego by the head of everything purely on the possession of your sex. It also provides very little guidance to those who are of indeterminate sex.

Sam | 21 September 2012  

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