On Love and Submission

SPOILER: This is not a post about Fifty Shades of Grey. Sorry.

The Anglican church in Sydney are adding a new, controversial vow to their marriage services. In it, the bride will promise to ‘submit’ to her husband.

Submit – The act of submission. To accept or yield to a superior force or to the will or authority of another person.

Though the husband is not asked to make the same pledge, Sydney’s Anglican church says the vow to submit is not ‘sexist’.

Bishop Forsyth told the ABC, “We’re happy with this version, where the husband promised to serve his wife, to love his wife, and to protect her and she promises to love and serve and to submit,” he said. “The goal is we want men to give leadership in loving and protecting their wives…”

Though the man promises many things, and in the version above, husband and wife both promise to ‘serve’ each other in their marriage, it is never suggested that a husband obey his wife or submit to her will. The man’s role is one of leadership and his right to authority is made evident by the fact that he is, well, male.

Notably, the new vows were written by the liturgical panel of the church’s Sydney diocese, the same one that supports all-male leadership doctrine and opposes the full ordination of women – something Anglican women have been fighting for years. It is one of few dioceses to refuse to adopt national church law allowing women priests. One supporter of the full ordination of women, Reverend Chris Albany, of South Hurstville told SMH in 2006, ‘I believe the New Testament shows Jesus accepting the full and equal place of women within society…I believe a clear and informed reading of scripture … shows there is no obstacle to that full and equal role of women.’

Unfortunately, women’s submission to men is a loaded issue with a long and ugly history, within – but by no means limited to – marriage which was originally a contract of ownership between a groom and the patriarch of a household, hence the ‘handing over’ of a bride from father to groom during the traditional ceremony. The idea of marriage has changed dramatically since biblical times, and it is now widely accepted that women can work, vote, take an equal place in society, and are perfectly capable of making their own decisions whether they are single or married. This is especially true in places like Australia, where we have anti-discrimination laws, our first female Prime Minister, our first female Attorney-General and capable women on boards and in leadership positions across the country.

Kevin Giles, a New Testament scholar in Melbourne, was interviewed by SMH about the new vow, and said the subordination of women made for bad theology in 2012. ”Jesus not once mentions the subordination of woman and says much in contradiction to this,” he said. “Paul’s comments over the subordination of women fit into the patriarchal culture of the day and are not the biblical ideal. The truth is that happy marriages today are fully equal, and unhappy marriages are ones where one or the other party is controlling.”

In the same SMH piece, Muriel Porter, a Melbourne academic who writes on Anglican Church issues, points out that the term ‘submit’ is a more derogatory word than obey and had ‘connotations of slavery’. ”Frankly I’m horrified,” she told SMH. ”It is a very dangerous concept, especially in terms of society’s propensity for domestic violence.”

Indeed.

Submission sets a potentially dangerous framework for marriage. It is worth remembering that until 1976 it was legal in all states of Australia for a husband to force himself on his wife and marital rape remains legal in a number of countries around the world, even in circumstances where the couple are separated.

One wonders why, in 2012 in Australia, this problematic new vow would be introduced. Though brides can choose to have the promise to submit taken out of their vows, as many have routinely done with the promise to ‘obey’, it nonetheless creates further pressure on women to submit to the authority of men by establishing their willing submission as the proper and expected thing. Unlike brides, grooms preparing for their wedding day will not need to justify to their fiancée, family or church the reasons why they will refuse a solemn vow to ‘submit to’ or ‘obey’ their spouse because the pledge is only in the bride’s vows and not the groom’s.

Some like the vow. In the words of one Mrs Judd, 26, ‘to submit to that kind of love is not oppressive, but is actually a joy and a great freedom.’ Her husband, who is studying to be a minister, told SMH that marriage was akin to dancing: ”The male always leads, even if he’s not necessarily the best dancer.’

To use the dance metaphor, I can’t help but see this as a step backwards.

Over to you…

21 Comments

  1. It’s a massive step backwards, and I hope most couples would think twice about the implications of agreeing to those terms.

    Me, I would never want a partner who would submit to me as rule of marriage. Marriage should be the celebration of a couple as equals in love and life, not master and servant.

  2. Ephesians chapter 5, from verse 21, is the go-to text for this:

    ===

    21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

    22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

    25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

    ===

    It’s important to understand the concept of submission in Christian marriage as carried throughout this WHOLE passage. Often, Christian men quote the first bit in order to take advantage of their wives (as you quite rightly note — and of course I agree that this is reprehensible). Opponents of Christianity (and/or "obey/submit" in wedding vows :P) similarly focus exclusively on the first bit, which does seem pretty mysogenistic when read in isolation. And EVERYONE seems to miss verse 21, which talks about mutual submission 😉

    But most importantly, in the terms of this passage, the husband’s job encompasses a lot more than submission, i.e. if anything, more self-sacrifice is expected of him as he cares for the needs of his wife. You could say the wife’s submission to the husband is to operate within the context of the husband putting her needs and desires ahead of his own. At NO stage, of course, are husbands told it’s OK to extract submission from their wives!

    When my wife and I got married, she willingly used the word "obey" in her vows, while I very seriously vowed to love her selflessly, putting her interests ahead of mine. Neither of us do either of these things perfectly, but we certainly try, and it’s proved to be a great foundation for our marriage. Certainly much more potent than approaching our marriage determined to selfishly carry our individual ambitions alone 😉

    So, if couples have a well-rounded view of what THEY mean when they make their vows, and are WILLING to use the word "submit", what is the problem?

  3. My first reaction when I read about this was "our society can’t do that".

    We have a problem in today’s society in that we’ve forgotten how to turn children into adults. It is particularly bad for males. They have too few older men being role models (e.g. too few male school teachers) whilst they growing up and most of those they associate with are the same age which just exercerbates the problem. It means we get the man-child effect. We’ve lived like that long enough that "submit" now means a demeaning pose. Which is why it doesn’t work. Sometimes it’s qualified, usually as "loving submission" which doesn’t really work either.

  4. I should add that for Christians, this has nothing to do with equality. Differences in roles are quite separate to distinctions in status.

    Also, not all Christians are keen to force these views on the wider community. I’m certainly not, and I don’t see anyone forcing couples to get married in Anglican churches in Sydney either 😉

  5. Luke, thank you for making the point about the whole text. Taken in context, the exhortation is also for husbands to love as Christ loved and he talked a lot more about service to others than he ever did about power and domination. It’s something often ignored in the glaring light of the hot-button language of the first part of the passage.

    HOWEVER, I have to say that I think it is most often ignored by those who should know it and understand it best and that is Christians. You are the first modern Christian I have ‘met’ who supports the use of those words in the marriage vows, who is not attempting to use dodgy theology to support outdated and potentially damaging power dynamics in marriage.

    Please note, it is not YOUR theology that I am calling dodgy, but that of so many who use a few lines in Ephesians to justify a social construct of male domination while conveniently ignoring almost everything that Jesus himself said and did that encouraged equality and service.

    I agree that when it comes to the vows people choose to take it is a private matter between the two of them. And certainly it’s true that no-one is forcing anyone to get married in the Anglican church in Sydney.

    But I have to ask, why this, and why now? Why, in 2012, would they go out of their way to add something which is so readily intepreted as being about power? Because with the best will in the world, it’s hard not to interpret this as being about power – the power of men over women, the clergy over the laity and the establishment over the humble faithful.

  6. All fair points, Imelda.

    It’s also worth asking why Sydney Anglicans consider it necessary to prescribe particular vows at all. My wife and I personalised our vows, and from my experience as a wedding photographer, I’d say most couples do.

    Prescribing such things is pretty stodgy these days 😉

  7. Kim Wilkins

    Christianity is so past its use-by date. Every time something annoys me in the media lately, it seems there’s a Christian behind it. I need to ask: why would anybody still subscribe to this set of beliefs? It seems the modern lot of being a Christian is making excuses for other members of your faith.

  8. Maria Delaney

    Luke no one knows your interests better than yourself.. the idea that I submit to my husband so he can fulfil my best interests is a crock.. like putting women on a pedestal curtails their freedom. Preserves their virginity.. commodifies and owns them.. Enough glorifying submission

  9. Frankly, it beggars belief that this one small part of the wider Anglican Church have elected to take such a massively backward step. I would be quite surprised if this step even reflected the views of members of the faith in the parish/synod/whatever.

    Too ridiculous for words so I shall cease trying.

  10. Melinda McJames

    Luke, it is disingenuous to claim that the official SydAng view is not about equality but roles. There is no restriction on the role that men may undertake in the church -they may preach, wash-up, teach Sunday School, play music or do whatever, whilst women may not "lead men" which includes a prohibition on women being ordained as well as preaching or teaching any group that includes men. The SydAng view is all about "headship" and men leading women. That is not about different roles it’s about men having a position of authority or leadership over women.

    As a women who is also a Sydney Anglican-believe me it’s all about power. Women are being driven out of any position of teaching or leading in the church. The marriage vow is just one small part of the subjugation of women within the Anglican church in Sydney.

    Jesus actually chose woman as the first teachers of Christianity-it was the Samaritan woman at the well who was the first Evangelist and Mary Magdalene and 2 or 3 other women were the first witnesses of the resurrection and told the male disciples that Jesus had risen.

    Of course Jesus was at pains to point out that it is the pagans who go about worrying about who is greatest. If men are so keen to lead, they should be at pains to put themselves last and sorry to tell you guys, insisting on keeping women in their places isn’t what it’s about.

  11. I know Sydney Anglican women who do not find the notion of men in leadership onerous or oppressive, but simply a straightforward application of 1 Timothy 2 (if memory serves). Clearly you are not one of those women, Melinda; so why are you still a Sydney Anglican? (Incidentally, I don’t have a strong opinion either way on this issue.)

    Kim, people have been saying Christianity’s past its use-by date for centuries, but it continues to attract people from all walks of life. Make of that what you will, but I would respectfully suggest there’s more substance to it than the loud-mouthed douchebags of modern Christianity (e.g. Fred Nile, the ACL, etc.) would have you believe.

    Maria, it’s been my observation that marriages based on selfishness are most likely to fail – because ultimately our spouse is going to fail to please us in one way or another. If our marriage is about what we can get out of our spouse, rather than what we can give them, it’s bound to fail. When Christian submission is properly understood, this is all it means, but feel free to insist otherwise 😉

  12. Melinda McJames

    Luke, last time I checked there was nothing in my baptismal or confirmation vows or the 39 Articles that insisted members of the Anglican church in Sydney or elsewhere subscribe to your application of 1 Timothy 2. I remain a Sydney Anglican committed to sharing the Good News.

    When Sydney Anglicans stick to "straightforward" applications of Matt 19:21 and 1 Cor 11:5(just to name a couple of verses that SydANgs don’t take seriously, by their own definition) I might start to see their claims about the biblical role of woman as something more than misogyny.

  13. To clarify: it’s not my application of 1 Timothy 2, but I do respect [some] of those who apply it that way — especially when they’re women 😉

    I’m sorry for not understanding your loyalty to your denomination — I’ve never had nor desired such loyalty myself.

  14. Simon Collins

    It was great to see that Tara’s article did actually consider biblical teaching. If the Bible is ‘God’s Word’ then it must be taken seriously when it speaks about men and women. Those who oppose Sydney Anglican conclusions must either attack the principle of biblical authority or argue (as some have above) that the bible has a different view – and I would encourage people to look at the text for themselves.

    It is not enough to argue that submission is ‘out of date’. That is putting society’s ‘progress’ as the highest authority. Society can get ‘progress’ wrong.

    From observation, those marriages I know in which both members of the couple hold to the Sydney Anglican biblical interpretation are immensely happy and their relationships are great for mum, dad and kids. The responsibility of the husband to lead and protect the family is immense and inspiring.

  15. Will the congregation numbers of the Anglican Church in Sydney change as a result of this amended vow? If so, how? Australians are fortunate to be able to choose among many churches in which to celebrate their religious rites…and the freedom to discuss those choices.

  16. Matt Sykes

    Just a couple of points to add greater context to the above.

    The first is that the changed vows remove the notion of the woman being married ‘obeying’ her husband – which is at face value the same as submit, but in the theological context that Luke helpfully gave above, I would suggest more offensive.

    The second is that while the ‘standard’ vow is being changed – people are free to chose to use it or something else should they wish. It is up to the individual minister if he is prepared, before God, to marry them with that vow – but that is an entirely different notion to it being forced on anyone who wants to be married in an Anglican church.

  17. Melinda

    “It is not enough to argue that submission is ‘out of date’. That is putting society’s ‘progress’ as the highest authority. Society can get ‘progress’ wrong.”

    True, but it is just as true that the church often gets its interpretation of God’s laws wrong too. In the recent past the church condoned slavery and racial segregation, a bit further back and we’ve got torture and murder for minor theological differences being condoned. Based on the past, the church has no right to claim any special authority in determining moral behaviour, they’ve got it “wrong” on too many occasions.

  18. Simone

    Luke I like so much of what you say, but I was concerned to read what you wrote about Fred Nile. Do you know him? Personal assaults rather than assaulting the actions of a person can be a bit harsh.
    Anyway, this discussion is always tough and always worthwhile. Ephesians has so much to say. However to isolate Scripture and then use it as a weapon and license for DV and abuse is extremely common. Far from God’s intent for marriage. Yet this happens so much it is staggering.
    Jesus definately elevated women and unfortunately too many times men in power have taken a misogynistic bent rather than the self sacrificing one (“as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her”) implored in Ephesians.
    When this passge is twisted, the hell on earth is indescribable. When used correctly, the joy and freedom is evident. The Anglican church I am sure is aiming for the latter yet the concern instantly arises at such a charged word, “submit” as there are too many cases of only one party playing their part. The woman submits and the man controls. Rather than the woman submit to a man who puts her first. And of course as Luke raised, the entire passsage BEGINS with “submit to one another.”

  19. It is purely a biblical principal.
    If you don’t believe in God nor live according to the bible the whole idea of submission brings up all kinds of worldly paranoia and misunderstanding. I notice that comments in response to those very simple vows contain ugly words like obey, subordination, control, marital rape, ownership and discrimination.
    I try daily to live as a submitted wife but by no means am I my husband’s subordinate, nor do I ever have to even consider that my husband would seek to control me, own me, rape me or discriminate against me. Lastly, I am not submissive!
    I agree 100% with Mrs Judd.
    Submitting to your husband and being loved and served by him is not something to be afraid of. It means your marriage will be all that God intended it to be.
    These are things you will only know about, accept and not fear if you are a bible believing Christian. If you’re not, then leave that bit out if you don’t like it.
    There is a lot more depth, meaning and power to making this promise to your husband, in the presence of God, than most people would understand.

  20. Melinda

    Megan, I think you need to work on your grammar, “submitted wife” is grammatically and/or semantically incorrect unless your husband submitted (in the sense of submitting an assignment) you somewhere. If you submit to your husband then you are a submissive wife.

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