Just whose wife am I anyway?
"I think one of the reasons...to learn from our own husbands at home (in a good marriage) is because that's the one person who loves us most and is most willing to protect us."On came the lights. "Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord." (Eph. 5:22, all emphasis mine.)
Now, let me put on the brakes for a moment, for the sake of anyone who may happen across these words who is either not a Christian, or else one not from a fundamentalist background, who will no doubt think this is nutty, turn-of-the-twentieth-century, backwoods talk, and clarify that I am speaking as a Christian person who has spent many years within the world of fundamentalism and is these days, for a number of reasons, taking a fresh look at what Christianity really does and does not require of its women. If you don't mind bearing with me, perhaps you can gain some understanding into our little world. As you are likely aware, our book of Scripture was written in a different time, in a different culture with different mores: a middle-eastern, tribal, patriarchal culture. As a result, it is important for us to understand what principles underlie the instructions given all those years ago, what they would have represented to the original recipients, and how to appropriately apply them in our own cultural context. For example, what is the first thing you think of when you see a woman with a head scarf: 'Oh look, there goes a married, chaste, devout woman?' Likely not. In fact, such a head covering represents something vastly different to westerners these days. Here and now, what used to be represented by a headscarf is conveyed by a wedding ring on a woman who is modestly attired - meaning: not in an ostentatious, or sexually provocative manner.
Now, when we come to the word "submit", if your knee jerks, it's okay. Mine does, too. I understand. That word has been so abused for so long that it's to be expected. And here is where we can begin to loop back around to my point. (Yes, I do have one.) Let me begin with a wildly popular verse that never did exist in the Bible: "Husbands, make your wives submit." That's right, I said that is NOT Scripture. Men are never given that command, or that responsibility. In fact, according to Jesus, no Christian with any degree of authority is to use it to lord over anyone.
"But Jesus called them to him and said, "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mt. 20:25-28)And the same, we are told, clearly applies in the husband/wife relationship: "Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her..." (see Eph. 5:25-29) And, just in case that is too heady a concept, husbands are further told to love their wives as much as their own bodies, which, I assure you, is a LOT. (Go ahead, take a minute to think about the devotion men have to their bodies....That's a whole lotta love! And a lot of nurturing and respect.) So, while the Christian man is living that love out on his wife, the wife is told, by the Scripture, to respect that man and submit to his care.
That man. Not some other man. Not some woman. Not some "Bible teacher" - man or woman.
When the lights came on, I realized that I've been taking my cues on what it means to be a "good" wife, a Christian wife, just about everywhere but from my husband. I've read books, and listened to sermons, lectures, and the advice of fellow Christians. I've taken it all in and, over the years, internalized it, along with all my other cultural idealizations of "the perfect wife".
To the right is a diagram of complementary angles.
"The adjective complementary is from Latin complementum, associated with the verb complere, "to fill up". An acute angle is 'filled up' by its complement to form a right angle."
"Why are Complementary Colors Important in Color Theory?
When placed next to each other, complementary colors make each other appear brighter, more intense. The shadow of an object will also contain its complementary color, for example the shadow of a green apple will contain some red."
The dictionary defines the word "complementary" this way:
1. Forming or serving as a complement; completing.
2. Supplying mutual needs or offsetting mutual lacks.
If we're truthful we have to admit that the Scripture gives precious little practical advice about being a "perfect wife". All it gives are a few over-arching principles. And suddenly this makes perfect sense to me. I am to be subject to my own husband, and to learn what it means to be his wife from him. After all, every man is different. Every woman is different. Every marriage is different. That's the way God intended it. We are not clones but uniquely gifted individuals. Not only that, but every culture is different and so is every age. The Scripture is meant to be versatile and timeless, valuable to every person in every era. In the old days, and I mean very old days, God created man and announced, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him." (Gen. 2:18) And the man was delighted with her. She was just what he needed. She was his "help" - his support in weakness. Together they were one. That's were this idea of "complementarianism" we hear so much about these days comes from, and, based upon the definitions and illustrations above, I think that is a perfect description of what the marriage relationship is meant to be. But here's where I see that the idea has taken a wrong turn. Instead of treating each man and each wife as individuals complementing each others' own strengths and weaknesses, encouraging them to fill in and support each other as needed, whatever that may look like, many influential church leaders have chosen one single example from from the host of possible complementary relationship styles and set it up as a pre-fab model for all Christian men and women, expecting them all, no matter how different they may be, to conform to it. So, by way of example, instead of having a wide range of pairs of complementary angles, we are all required to be 60 and 30 degrees. Instead of a spectrum of colors, we are only allowed violet and yellow. Not only is that boring, it's wrong. God created the spectrum. We are all different. When we try to be what we are not, we cannot be what God created us to be. We spend all our energies trying to make ourselves into someone else's image, squeeze ourselves into someone else's ideal.
My husband is an intellectual and very creative man. As it happens, he would rather I write poems than clean the house. He'd prefer I paint canvasses than do laundry - really. My husband would like to cook meals once in a while. My husband would rather I sit and talk with him on the unmade bed than get up and make it. He would rather I giggle, dance, and cry than be the picture of cool, staid contentment. There are dozens of things just like this that would delight Paul which, until a couple of days ago, I would not do. Why? Because cooking, cleaning, organizing, and maintaining decorum were all the things "good wives" do, and they took up all my time. In this and so many other, deeper ways I would not submit to my husband. I would read articles for Christian wives and feel so wrong. When I would tell Paul how I felt, he'd say, in no uncertain terms, "I don't want that kind of wife! I married you!" Then I would secretly think, well, this person, this Bible teacher is so godly - perhaps Paul is wrong... and I'd go ahead and follow or fret over the advice anyway. That, my friends, is NOT submission.
So, whose wife am I anyway? Paul's wife, that's who. He's yellow-orange and he fell in love with my blue-violet, because something in his soul told him that was just what was needed to complete him, to make him shine brighter and with more intensity. I agreed to be his wife because I felt the same way. So why am I not writing poems? Why am I not painting? Why am I not dancing, laughing, and letting Paul cook dinner? I'm done taking my cues on what kind of wife I should be from anyone but him. I'm determined to honor the unique man that he is. From here on out I submit myself to my own husband. When it comes to what it means to be a good wife to him, beyond the Scripture, no one but he has a right to inform me. I will learn from him at home.
[You will find a follow-up to this post here.]