Candace Cameron Bure recently stirred up a bit of controversy when, in her new book, she wrote about her “submission” to her husband:
“My husband is a natural-born leader. I quickly learned that I had to find a way of honoring his take-charge personality and not get frustrated about his desire to have the final decision on just about everything. I am not a passive person, but I chose to fall into a more submissive role in our relationship because I wanted to do everything in my power to make my marriage and family work.” – (excerpted from “Balancing It All”)
Later, because of the resulting pushback to her words, she sought to clarify her position in an interview at HuffPost Live:
“The definition that I’m using with the word submissive is the biblical definition of that….I love that my man is a leader. I want him to lead and be the head of our family. And those major decisions do fall on him. It doesn’t mean I don’t voice my opinion. It doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion. I absolutely do. But it is very difficult to have two heads of authority….When you’re competing with two heads, that can pose a lot of problems or issues.”
I believe that Candace Cameron Bure is wrong here. Of course, even simply scientifically, we know that there are millions of egalitarian marriages that “work” very well. But also, biblically, there are problems with her words.
This method or strategy may well be how her marriage works – and if so, lovely – but it’s not necessarily biblical: in fact. The idea that a Man is the Head of the Home has its roots in secular ancient culture, not in the Word of God or the created order of humanity.
And the idea that, as a wife, I would need to “become passive” or smaller or somehow less in order to make my marriage work is damaging and wrong.
My marriage has instead brought out the best in me. I am stronger and more courageous. I am bolder. I am more loving. I am more of who I was meant to be because of the way that tall Nebraskan has loved me well. And I believe that I have done the same for him. It’s been fifteen years since we fell in love, thirteen since we were married: our marriage and our family works because we submit to one another. And because we make each other better at being ourselves, in all the fullness and glory and mess and truth.
But don’t get me wrong: I believe in submission.
I just don’t believe that our call to submission in marriage is restricted to me.
I submit to my husband. And he submits to me, too. And together, we submit to Jesus.
Like many Christians down through the centuries, we practice mutual submission. Patriarchy and hierarchy within marriage were consequences of the Fall (see Genesis 3:16).
In the church, people of Candace Cameron Bure’s doctrinal slant tend to point towards a few passages of Scripture (particularly Ephesians 5:22-24, Colossians 3:18-19, and 1 Peter 3:1-2) as justification for the the idea of a husband as absolute head of the home with his wife in submission to his leadership. She is not alone in adopting this as the standard of “biblical marriage.” (As an aside, I’ve never liked the phrase “biblical” as a descriptor. There are a lot of marriages in the Bible and I wouldn’t necessary identify most of them as the ideal or example to emulate.)
But those passages of Scripture are, in fact, a subversion of the Greco Roman household codes in effect at the time. The maintaining of total authority in the home was critical to the functioning of a society that relied on the total authority of the government and/or religion. At the time of these writings on marriage, the Greco-Roman Household Codes were part of Pax Romana, the laws keeping the peace of Roman. Peter and Paul worked within imperfect systems because any outright challenge to the law of the land would bring persecution down upon the Church in great number. In fact, the Apostles “advocated this system, not because God had revealed it as the divine will for Christian homes, but because it was the only stable and respectable system anyone knew about” at the time, according to Carol A. Newsom and Sharon H. Ringe of the Women’s Bible Commentary.
Paul and Peter used the codes, not because they were perspective or ideal, but because they were familiar and they were showing the church how to move within the world while not being of the world. In fact, incredibly, they placed demands on the assumed power of men by teaching them to be kind to their slaves, to be gentle with their children, to love their wives; they addressed the powerless within a patriarchal society.
There is a redemptive movement happening here in Scripture. “Here is what is, here is what I want for you, move closer to My purposes” and so we find God out ahead of us, always moving us further into his purposes.
(For instance, just because there are references and instructions about how to treat slaves in our Bibles does not meant that slavery is right and good. In fact, it’s precisely because of our great love for Scriture and respect for God’s created order that we know that slavery is evil and wrong, an absolute perversion of our humanity. Yet the writers of Scripture often tried to find a way to subvert the current culture and to move us further ahead on God’s arc of justice even within unjust systems. Eventually the Church moved to the forefront of abolition because we understood this truth: Just because the Bible contained instructions about how to treat slaves in a context and culture where it was acceptable to hold slaves does not mean slavery is a godly practice or part of God’s intended purpose for creation.)
The Greco Roman household codes were an unjust system: these teachings show us how to work within them as people committed to the ways of Jesus.
As I wrote in Jesus Feminist, “life in Christ is not meant to mirror life in a Greco-Roman culture. An ancient Middle Eastern culture is not our standard. We were not meant to adopt the world of Luther’s Reformation or the culture of the Great Awakening or even 1950s America as our standard for righteousness. The culture, past or present, isnt the point: Jesus and His Kingdom come, his will done, right now – that is the point.” (p. 77)
Not only is the idea that wives alone are to submit to their husbands poor exegesis, it is damaging.
It is damaging to the image of God carried in women and in men. A woman who is held back, minimized, or downplayed is not walking in the fullness God intended for her as an image bearer (for instance, take a look at Carolyn Custis James’ excellent discussion about being an “ezer kenegdo” in her book, “Half the Church.”) A man is most truly “helped” when women are walking in the fullness of her anointing and gifts and intelligence and strength, not when she reduces herself out of a misguided attempt at righteousness. This kind of doctrine has the potential to stifle and suffocate women, even resulting in abuse at times. And it doesn’t do men any favours either, often giving place to pride and individualism.
This is the danger of black and white thinking. We think that we only have two options when it comes to our marriages:
- Women submit to men, like in ancient secular patriarchal culture or,
- Nobody submits to anyone and we’re out for Number One, like in our modern individualist secular culture.
But instead here is the third way:
3. Submit to one another, mutually, as in the Kingdom of God.
This is a Kingdom of Love. Anyone who wants to be first must be last, and the greatest is the servant of all, said our Jesus (Mark 10:44). In the upside down Kingdom ushered in by Jesus, the least is the most honoured and the one who gives everything gains it all.
The marriage relationship isn’t exempt from the words of Jesus – and the teachings of the Church – about how we are to interact with one another and love one another.
We are all called to meekness. We are all called to love others. We are all called to bear with one another. We are all called to love, to care for one another, to forgive, to minister, and so on.
When Paul likened marriage to the relationship between Christ and the Church, it was an exhortation to crazy love and sacrificial giving, not power grabbing. Paul’s words remind us that Christ gave himself up for the Church, loved her.
“And so we discover the great paradox hidden within these hotly debated passages of Scripture, tragically misused to subject and berate and hold back, to demand and give place to pride – however benevolent the intention. If wives submit to their husbands as the Church submits to Christ, and if husbands love their wives as Christ loved the Church and gave himself up for her, and if both husbands and wives submit to one another as commanded, we enter a never-ending, life-giving circle of mutual submission and love.” (excerpted from Jesus Feminist)
There is a vast difference between mutual submission to one another out of an overflow of love and having submission demanded of you, one-sided, out of a misguided attempt at biblical marriage.
In a Christian marriage, Christ is meant to be the head of our homes, and within marriage, we are meant to submit to one another – even as Candace Cameron Bure rightly defines it, “so, it is meekness, it is not weakness. It is strength under control, it is bridled strength.”
Yes, yes, it is. For both men and women.
My husband and I submit to one another as we both submit to Christ. We learned that from our Bibles.
Photo courtesy of Tina Francis
Some portions of this post are quoted from my book, Jesus Feminist.