Submission and the Clash of Cultures

[This post is courtesy of Phillip Jensen, Dean of St Andrew’s Cathedral in Sydney.]

Behind the media brouhaha about the word “submission”, lies a clash of world views. It is a clash that feels difficult because of the heat of debate, but one that exposes something of the difference the gospel makes—not just in theory but also in practice.

The presenting issue of this clash is the word “submission”. This is rather unhelpful as words are notoriously open to different understandings and feelings. They change meaning over time, they carry different connotations for different people, they mean different things in different sub-cultures, and they function as tribal shibboleths of political correctness. It is very hard for Bible believing Christians to understand what feminist readers of the current top selling female porn novel feel about a word like “submission”. Misunderstanding about the meaning and nuances of words can therefore easily sidetrack the discussion.

The Liturgical Panel is not creating new vows that require submission. In revising the present wedding service they are recommending a change from the present vow of “obey”, to “submit”. “Submit” is a superior word on several counts. “Obey” is a word of command and performance whereas “submit” is a word of relationship. While they often go together, the appropriate word to draw from the New Testament usage is “submission” (Ephesians 5:21ff., Colossians 3:18). Nowhere in the New Testament is the wife commanded to “obey”. Interestingly nobody seems to be arguing that the present word “obey” is better—just that “submit” is wrong.

However the debate is about more than words. The words just act as the trigger for the more profound debate about the nature of marriage, of human relationships and of humanity itself.

It is commonplace to observe that marriage is in confusion in our society today. Sadly, it is families that bear the painful brunt of this confusion, for marriage is at the foundation of each new family and the continued expansion of our society of families. Children may be brought into the world by sex but they are nurtured and cared for by families. Destabilizing marriage destabilizes family life to the cost and detriment of all concerned—children in particular, but ultimately, the whole of society.

From a Christian perspective, this destabilization comes from individual sinfulness. Yet we would also argue that society’s devaluation of marriage has impacted individual marriages and families as well. While all political parties claim to support the family, and Australians see ‘the family’ as the most important value in life, the cultural reality is that changes to marriage have made it more difficult to maintain family life. Society has undermined families through legislation by making divorce easy and giving equivalent legal standing to cohabitation. It also undermines marriage by the media’s constant glorification of sexual activity without relational consequences, and by the educational authorities’ ‘non-judgemental’ teaching on sexuality. The redefinition of marriage to include same-sex marriage is just another step in weakening this basic building block of families.

The issue of the wedding vows highlights the difference between the wedding of two people and the wedding of a man and a woman. If the marriage is simply between two people then there is no reason to have differentiated vows. Each could make identical vows. However, in the marriage of a man and a woman, the vows should quite appropriately reflect the differences of a wife and a husband—for the experience of marriage is different for a man and a woman. Marriages will be helped by wedding vows that reflect and articulate not only the common commitment to each other but also the differing commitment to each other.

Some people confuse sameness with equality. To say that “All men are created equal”, is not to say that all are the same. The differences between people’s height, weight, intelligence, strength, wealth, beauty are massive. Equality is found in being created in the image of God and so treated equally. But even that equal treatment may mean different treatment—e.g. giving extra assistance to the blind, the deaf, the lame, the child and the aged.

Men and women are equally human, equally created by God in his image, and so should be treated with equal rights before the law. But men and women are different. And this difference is quite significant in the creation of a family. The activity of mothering is not the same as fathering. It is an unrealistic naivety to ignore the asymmetrical nature of family life. The feminist journalist Adele Horin wrote last year, “I had silly ideas. I was one of those arguing 20 years ago there was no difference between little boys and little girls. I have had to eat my words. I learnt you do not inject sensitivity into boys by making them play with dolls or by crushing their boisterousness. What were we thinking?” (SMH 27/8/11). Similarly Elizabeth Farrelly wrote about “a reigning myth of our time that truth is something we make”, that we can “pretend that women are just men with breasts” and concluded “in truth, if women were like men, Barbie wouldn’t exist.” (SMH 17/3/11). The difference between men and women in marriage and family life is exhibited in the wedding attire of every bridal party. We do not simply marry ‘partners’ but husbands and wives.

It is at this point that the difference the Christian worldview makes becomes most acute. Modern secularist culture is uncertain about what difference there should be between husband and wife—for “biology is not destiny”. The Western pursuit of freedom has developed into personal autonomy and sovereignty. Where there is no higher power than yourself, the most we can hope for is being “true to yourself”. Where freedom is found in personal autonomy, relationships will be conducted on the basis of power and self-interest, and the most we can hope for justice to deliver is an equal distribution of power. To such a worldview, submission is “yielding to a superior force” and thus an acceptance of inferiority or even violence. To those who seek justice the very notion of submitting to another person is anathema.

Whereas, Christianity is based upon the creator, who has made us for his purpose and has built relationships into our very nature. These relationships are built on justice and grace, on mercy, atonement and service. The Christian world is where God has appointed all human authority, and society is ordered in peace by submission to his appointments. It is where Christ the king is a servant, laying down his life for his people who receive his sacrifice with joyful submission to him. It is the world where Christ the king did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself to became a servant and die in submissive obedience to his father’s will (Philippians 2:5-10, Mark 14:36, Hebrews 10:5-7). He who created the universe even submitted himself to his human parents (Luke 2:51). For the Christian, freedom is found in service, and submission is the work of the Holy Spirit changing us—a desirable goal, not a curse to be avoided (Ephesians 5:17-21). It’s a world where the husband lays down his life for his bride as she accepts his offered sacrifice with willing submission.

It is not easy for people living in such different worlds to understand each other. The secularist and the Christian co-exist happily enough in a society like Australia where the dominant culture is a Christianized secularism or a secularized Christianity. But every now and then a word—like submission—draws attention to how different our worlds really are.

The clash is more than the horror of a bride submitting herself to a monster (or a groom sacrificing his life for a shrew). That is the horror of a bad marriage, not of marriage itself. No, the clash is over the very concept of submitting yourself to anybody or laying down your life for anybody. That is what is so foreign and alien to the materialism, hedonism and individualism that our Western culture values. But a society built on those values will not make for happy families. We will not make stable families when we “try before we buy”, or make prenuptial agreements on how to dissolve the relationship before we start it, or pretend that men and women are the same and that their experience, expectations and outcomes in marriage will be identical.

Because marriage is built on the purpose of our creator in making us as males and females in his image, Christians know how good marriage is. We may have a bad marriage because of human sinfulness, but that doesn’t nullify the good of marriage itself. For Christian marriage is to be an expression of living faithfully in the sacrificial service and willing submission of grace and forgiveness.

46 thoughts on “Submission and the Clash of Cultures

  1. Attending a church where the minister was from Sydney for 15 years, a woman was in a violent marriage. She had vowe to obey and was held to this by her husband, and physically harmed when she did not. She was told by her husband that she did not have permission to go for counselling on this issue. For 15 years she attended church and listened to sermons on submission. Not once was there an offer of shelter for abused women. In fact, the mininster and his wife did not offer any resources or counselling for this circumstance.

    Finally, after involvement from the police, the woman did leave and started life over again.

    She came back and talked to the minister who was naturally shocked and sympathetic. One thing he assured her was that he did not believe that a woman should have to vow to obey. He did not mention a vow to submit.

    I want readers to know that for 20 years this woman was hit routinely, and as he hit her, this husband said to her “you vowed to obey.” For 20 years, week in and week out, he hit her and shouted at her that she had vowed to obey. She was told that she did not have permission for counselling, or to talk privately with her family or counsellor or clergy. She was a very rebellious woman in that she sometimes sneezed or coughed when she was asked not to.

    She never knew what it was like to vote for the candidate of her choice, or to leave the house without permission or to talk privately on the phone.

    This was her life under the ministry of Sydney. The horror is not the concept of submission, but the reality of submission. For some this is the reality. But my sense is that some women are a throw away, that Christianity is for the lucky.

    What I have seen is that some of my friends are married to atheists, and they have been in loyal, faituful, stable relationships without violence. No, submission will not make a happy marriage.

    • Suzanne,

      That is a truly awful story. It’s shocking, and I have no reason to doubt it. That husband has sinfully distorted the picture of marriage to something that is very far from what the Bible pictures; it sounds as if he has seriously failed in his role as a husband.

      I suggest though that your story speaks against abusive relationships rather than the vows they made (as does Phillip in his article above: “That is the horror of a bad marriage, not of marriage itself”). It wasn’t the teaching of the church they were in that created the situation, it was the twisted version of authority and obedience held by the husband that was the problem.

      For a complete reversal of that picture, look through the comments on Lionel’s piece on what sacrificial love looks like.

  2. My wife promised to obey, and did so very gladly. I did not promise to make her obey me, and that of course would have been a monstrous thing to do or attitude to have. It is glad, loving, voluntary obedioence and submission that is in view.

    The dreadful stories we hear of people abusing relationships and being blatantly unbiblical and unchristian must not be allowed to stop us trying to be biblical.

    Even though I have been taken to task before on these comment boards for daring to express an opinion on the matter, I believe that a woman (or man) who is being abused physically or mentally has every right to leave the abusive spouse and maybe in some cases should be advised to.

  3. A few of the problems are that submission to any kind of abuse, increases the abuse. This is the logical progression.

    Next, women have the right to vote for whoever they like. They have the right to earn money, to borrow money and to save money. This is their legal right. They also have a legal responsibility for the health and welfare of their children, for their own retirement, and for any debts and contracts.

    Will the clergy read to the wife her rights when she marries?

    • Suzanne,

      A few of the problems are that submission to any kind of abuse, increases the abuse. This is the logical progression.

      If you take it as read that any authority or leadership is a form of abuse, I guess that’s a logical progression. That’s not an assumption we share though.

      As for the remainder of your comment, I’m afraid I don’t follow you.

      • Sam,

        Regarding authority and leadership, there are checks and balances, because of abuse. Tim Keller writes in his paper on women the following,

        “In summary, the pattern of rule-and-submission is greatly muted in society because of sin. People abuse authority, so politically, all authority must be elected authority—and all individuals must have access to places of authority.”

        Now Keller believes in the pattern of rule and submission in the home. But is there not sin in the home?

        In society, we seek checks and balances, we seek forms of democracy and responsible government. We seek a government that is responsible to the people. In Keller’s terms, “all individuals must have access to places of authority.”

        This then should apply also to women. Women should also be protected from abuse. Why is it only men that want protection from abuse? Why do men seek something that they deny women?

        All men want to vote, they want a say, they want a republic or a democracy. No man wants to be the subject of an absolute monarch. Why not? Because of sin. If a monarch was a perfect human being, then the subject would be perfectly happy.. But all monarchs are sinful human beings. And the same in marriage. All husbands are simply human beings. So women need participatory government.

        Most men naturally act on this in marriage. But some men will use the “vow to submit” as an instrument to seek their own end. And this is abuse. Any submission to this abuse, will increase the abuse. So teaching a woman to make this vow, necessarily means that for some women, they will suffer more abuse than they might otherwise.

        But if during the marriage ceremony, the cleric tells the wife in public, that if she is abused she may leave the marriage, then that would be a great help. That is the necessary corollary.

        And, yes, I do wonder whether a “submitting wife” has the right to vote for herself, or only for whoever her husband tells her to vote for. It is an honest question.

        • This comment is so brilliant and spot on. If these folks agree with the likes of complementarian preachers like John Piper, Mark Driscoll and Albert Mohler, they actually preach that keeping a quiet spirit and better submission is part of the solution. Divorce is on the table as a last result. Freeing women from abuse is not their prerogative or a high priority in comparison to keeping a marriage alive, which has horrifying implications for women. It’s a disgrace to the modern world.

          There is no real transparency and no checks and balances for this male authority. He can tell the pastors w/e he wants and he can tell God whatever he wants and interpret God’s word in any way he wants. The Church has not lowered abuse statistics in any way. The Church as an authority is not a good enough checks and balances system.

          Sam, you wrote “If you take it as read that any authority or leadership is a form of abuse, I guess that’s a logical progression. ”

          No no you don’t understand. We are saying that when abuse exists, the fact that the abuser has authority and leadership and the fact that the victim is called to submit can only increase the abuse. End of story.

          Now if you admit that men aren’t perfect and that abuse will indeed go on, then this also has horrifying implications. We know from how abuse works that submitting and remaining in the environment DOES increase the abuse and the likelihood of its future occurrence. You ignore all these realities for the sake of your specific faith and interpretation of a Holy Book, while half your population is at risk of paying the price.

  4. David,

    I think you have made some good points. Teaching a woman to make a vow to submit must be accompanied, each and every time, by instruction to that woman to leave the marriage if she is abused.

    This is what I am trying to say. The church should think about how to prevent violence. The vow to submit does not prevent violence, on the contrary it means that in the case where violence occurs, the wife has no resources for resistance, since she has vowed to submit.

  5. Presumably the aim here was to talk up the differences between the Christian worldview and the Secularist worldview and not to focus on other aspects, for instance domestic violence and its causes. That seems fair enough if the intent is to speak to those particular matters, for what they’re worth.

    It doesn’t however seem to follow that there is any direct express encouragement of physical abuse in any marriage vow, when the whole ceremony is ostensibly about the parties loving one another. At best surely it could only be implied by the different treatment of the woman and the man.

    Such a contention though depends doesn’t it on a presupposition that the individual, whether husband or wife, is in some sense handing over their personal responsibilities to the church they attend. So they need someone to tell them directly that physical or emotional abuse and domestic violence is wrong. Thus if they don’t get told, the church organization is somehow responsible for the abuse, notwithstanding all of the other factors (like the direct responsibility of the perpetrator).

    That seems rather unfair, as it appears to be untrue. The gestation of domestic violence whether emotional or physical surely must be more complex than simply the wedding vows or what the clergy might say. Fair enough it may have some unquantifiable influence, but you could hardly argue with much credibility that it was a determining factor. Put it another way, there is no defence to the crime of assault based on the failure of someone else to tell me not to do it.

    I myself would prefer more practical demonstrations from the clergy of good conduct in those arenas that they like to go on about while pointing the accusing finger at those with the other ‘world view’. I know that would be much harder. But in my view it would be more likely to influence people, rather than the endless carry on about some perfect ideal concept of Christianity without regard for practical reality, the differences between men and women, the evil of the age, gay marriage, the death rate of homosexuals blah blah.

    It is hard (no impossible) to see how this approach will make any difference one way or another, but to cement the divide. Presumably then, the point is not to make a difference. Maybe it is just to beat the drum, talk up the differences, so the faithful get a little thrill from how good they all are.

  6. Thanks for your comments, Tom. I appreciate them given you don’t always agree with the ‘house opinions’ here.

    Suzanne, and much as we disagree on how we read some Scriptural texts and so on, I hope you don’t mind me saying I admire your passionate commitment to the protection and empowerment of women, and also your dogged engagement on exegetical and related matters (over on other threads).

    I am sure that the pastoral practices of various clergy have varied over the years and have sometimes been flawed by omission or by the accretion of current culture on top of (what I consider) scriptural bedrock. It is probably pretty likely that egalitarian and feminist concerns have led to some of us ‘conservatives’ to realise our failures to instruct clearly on this matter in the past, and hopefully to better practice now.

    I am with David, Sam and you in abhorring all domestic violence and verbal abuse and emotional manipulation against women etc.

    I agree that some complementarian positions (inadequately articulated and safeguarded against abuse) may have given false comfort to abusers. Maybe it still does, although I think it is a wilful perversion.

    But I also think the fundamental problem is sin, and that can occur regardless of worldview, as Lionel’s story about the abuse his wife received from an egalitarian Anglican priest demonstrates. Sadly I am sure abuse occurs in egalitarian marriages, as well as in complementarian marriages, and in relationships where none of this stuff is even thought about much by the parties.

    No doubt you are concerned to minimise risks of abuse even when you cannot persuade complementarians to change their views on Scripture. So can I share my pretty consistent approach in marriage preparation around this area, for your feedback, please?

    Now these comments cannot help but sound self-serving, or defensive, but are offered in a genuine spirit that says I do not think my approach is that uncommon now. That is, I am no better than most of my peers. Or rather I think a lot of them would say this sort of stuff too.

    So I do read Ephesians 5 with most couples (and we get lots at St Michael’s) both church-going and unchurched. Among others things, I always indicate that the Scriptures never say: husbands, make your wives submit. I look the man in the eye and say that there is no excuse ever, anywhere in the Bible, for a man to be physically or verbally abusive or aggressive towards his wife, and that domestic violence is always wrong.

    I have said this in some sermons too in this area.

    In discussing this, I also try to avoid baptising social conservatism with the Bible, and to puncture false stereotypes about what submission is. I mostly also mention that in regards to sexual activity, the Bible’s standard is mutual consent (1 Cor 7:3-5) and that the woman is not the property of the man any more than he is the property of the woman. Yet there are other things I say which I think reflect a nuanced complementarian understanding and still make the distinctions I see in Scripture meaningful, though I am not exploring them here.

    If asked in marriage counselling or more generally about a woman facing domestic violence, I always say it is wise and right to move to a place of safety if she is afraid for her safety, and all the more so, if children are being exposed directly or indirectly to violence. I indicate that one can legitimately remain separate in such a situation. Although Christianly, (thinking of 1 Corinthians 7), I think it is good to explore reconciliation, I warn against a woman exploring it in ways that leave the woman exposed again to danger. Sometimes, very sadly, that is an unrealistic problem with a man with an entrenched violence problem.

    I have discussed these sort of things with a respected female counsellor, in my congregation, who has some concerns about complementarianism, and yet, she thinks these are reasonable things to be saying as protections, given my reading of Scripture.

    Do you have suggestions for improvements?

  7. That is totally abhorrent Suzanne, and I feel very deeply for your friend experience – though could not imagine being in that myself.

    However, I feel it very unfair to portray the Sydney Anglican, or even the complementarian position, to be one that encourages abuse within marriage – even one that tolerates it! The wife’s vow is a promise to Submit to the Husband as he upholds his promise – to love her as Christ loved the church, to nurture her as he would his own flesh, to present her ‘spotless’ before the throne. An abusive husband has broken his vow, and she has no obligation to submit to that. The bible does not say wives submit to even the harshest of husbands.

    Removing or ignoring submission from the bible and the way we understand marriage does not remove the potential of those men who in their sinfulness are abusive. Please don’t hear that as an excuse for men who are abusive, I just don’t think ‘submission’ is the monster on view.

    I think I have understood what you mentioned earlier re: a woman’s rights, but please correct me if I am wrong. I do not think submission in the bible regards a woman’s autonomy or her function. I.e, when she enters a marriage she does not negate her rights to do ____ in society. Even within marriage this is not the case. In 1 Corinthians 7 we see that the husband must submit his body to the wife for her sexual rights, and vice versa. It is not about who is better at _____, or that the wife is the subject, but that God calls both husband and wife to fulfill 2 distinct but complementary roles, which will reflect the relationship between Jesus and us. Did I understand that part correctly?

    • Oops! Sorry if this seems to be repetition, I was actually writing in the cross over before Sandy’s comment!

  8. Thank you for your kindly responses. I write here because the sermons and the ministry and the clergy that I am familiar with all came from Sidney. Here is an excerpt from a sermon. I was not at it, but was able to listen to a recording. The woman who told me about it, stood up and walked out in the middle. Here is some of it,

    “In Gen. 1 God said, Let us make mankind in our image. To be made in the likeness of God is to be made in relationship where, just as the son submits to the father, we have a couple, a head and a helper.

    Wives, submit to the husband as the head – he is in charge. God solved the argument before it started, he said, I have to choose someone, okay, husbands, you are in charge. I hold you responsible.

    Now what does it look like? If you are married to a good husband, who … you will find a very happy wife, … if however, you are a wife who is married to a lousy husband, just line up over here and we can discuss this in a therapy group afterward. [laughingly] Its not easy.

    I want to point out something that is very important. In our culture we decide that if something doesn’t work we change it. But God designed humanity. God designed the world and gave it order. We submit to all authorities because God has put them there. Never in the Bible do you see God saying plan B is if it is not working, swap. You never hear, wives command your husbands, and husbands submit.”

    This minister also made it clear that he abhorred violence, and said that domestic abuse was horribly wrong. So how does this encourage abuse?

    First, no actual therapy was offered. This was a joke. The abused wife is the butt of jokes, because the minister seems to think “who in this day and age would remain in a relationship where they are raped and beaten?” The facts are that one in ten women suffer significant violence in marriage, although many say one in four. But I prefer the lower number. This is regardless of religious affiliation in the western countries.

    So, in this church, with about a thousand members, there will be plenty of abused wives, and perhaps some abused husbands also. I don’t doubt that.

    But there were no actual resources or offers of help. The minister’s wife didn’t think that there were any cases of abuse in that church. This shows an enormous lack of training on the part of the clergy. Here are the problems.

    1) Sometimes clergy laugh when they mention the abuse of wives. After all, John Piper also laughs about this topic. Its a human reaction.

    2) Clergy don’t offer help because they don’t want to admit that the problem exists.

    3) Clergy imply that you can’t get a divorce unless the husband hits really hard. But that time, the husband has exerted control, not allowing the wife permission to have private conversations. A combination of lack of opportunity, lack of funds, shame and misery will keep a woman from telling the whole story.

    4) Some preachers, like Bruce Ware, who taught our clergy, make the claim that men are abusive when the wife is rebellious. This makes the wife feel that she can change the situation by being more submissive. The facts are otherwise. When the wife submits, the husband gets want he wants. He is gratified. The next time he wants something, he expects to be gratified. His desire to get his own way is reinforced. If it worked one time, it will work again, so his demands escalate. He knows it is wrong, but he is an addict just as any other addict.

    An example of ridiculous demands, is when a woman told John Piper that her husband expected her to ask permission every time she went from one room to another, even the bathroom.

    5) Clergy can’t actually imagine what it would mean to be raped or smacked around in front of your little children. Or limited in bathroom rights, or not allowed to take a deep breath, because it sounds like a disrespectful sigh.

    6) People think that women who endure this are weak and deserve what they get. But many women endure this, and only a few, about 30% actually are able to leave. Some just go direct from abuse to senility, as the mother of a friend of mine recently did. And after a life of being smacked around, she died. The strong ones leave, but not because any sermon told them to. Perhaps the police or a non-Christian neighbour may help.

    Further comments:

    I have never been told by a minister whether a wife can vote for whoever she wants, or enter and leave her house without permission, or seek wage employment without permission. This is the law, but how many women are told in church that they can’t work outside the home unless the husband gives them permission? Quite a few.

    Some blogs I have read say that the husband can decide how many pregnancies the wife has to endure. He can decide where to send the children to school and he can override the husband in making decisions about medical treatment for the children.

    Also can a wife go back to university without the permission of her husband?

    All these areas seem to be confused. Can the husband deprive the wife of any legal right that an adult has. And since I was in the same congregation as Sidney clergy and other famous complementarians for 15 years, why is it that I am so confused about all these rights? Why did I not experience what it means to be an adult human being until I left the complementarian church altogether, and completely.

    I am writing here, because some of the cases I mention happened under the naive and God-loving ministry of men trained in this diocese.

  9. Suzanne- I have known a situation where a husband orders his wife how to vote. Wives of political animals like me sometimes ask me how I think we should vote- even other women ask me- but
    a husband demanding it is possibly breaking the law and is certainly not behaving like a good husband. I don’t see how people abusing a concept makes that concept wrong or one that should not be taught.

    • Ah see this is the problem. We are saying that the nature of the structure of the relationship (based on what we know factually about abuse) quantifiably increases its likelihood and persistence. In other words, you cannot separate the abuse and how its played out from the teachings you are making.

      For instance how would someone be able to use egalitarianism to coerce or manipulate someone? How could you use someone’s own equality to manipulate them? Abuse can exist within an egalitarian relationship but the cause could not be traced back to that aspect of the structure. With complementarianism it can because power dynamics, and a lack of equality within those dynamics makes abuse more prevalent. This is literally true of all forms of abuse.


  10. Yes, we restrict practices all the time because of abuse. Luther wanted the restriction of church power because of abuse, and reformers restricted the power of the monarch because of abuse. And slavery ended, and the power of the employer is subjected to many laws – because of abuse.

    I am not suggesting that marriage should be done away with, but rather that the clergy should focus on treating women as equals rather than as subordinates.

    • Hi Suzanne,

      I don’t think anyone here is suggesting than a husband and wife are unequal… in an objective (ie, from God’s perspective) and ontological sense they are equal, with an equal standing before or relationship with God, of equivalent worth (ie, none) and loved equivalently (so much that Jesus died.)

      As a category I think we would all agree that women are equal with men. The issue is not women as a category, but the nature of the relationship between a particular husband and wife.

      I believe that it is possible, and good, for the relationship between and husband and a wife to be asymmetrical, while the category of women retains equal status with the category of men.

      It is right to restrict practices to try to prevent abuse. But all marriages are already subject to law, whether the couple considers their relationship to be symmetrical or asymmetrical. I think we need to help women use our countries’ laws to their full advantage to stop abuse, not restrict marriages to symmetrical relationships, because if there is a violent husband he won’t care if his marriage vows were symmetrical.

      • Yes, you are right about the laws. However, experienced sociologists report that a sense of entitlement encuorages abuse. So, if the wife vows to submit, the husband thinks that he is entitled to his wife submitting. That is just life. Its not difficult to understand how that would happen.

      • ” because if there is a violent husband he won’t care if his marriage vows were symmetrical.”

        If there is a violent husband it means their RELATIONSHIP is not symmetrical regardless of his vows. And the abuse cannot be traced back to the vows he made.

        You define equality by the “objective” eyes of your God but it does not manifest itself in any way on the planet earth. You cannot just call something equal then magically it is so. Equality is defined by distributions of power and authority within a societal context. What you are saying does not coincide with reality. We use distributions of power to define equality because exploitation is more likely in an environment where one person has authority over one other person.

        A marriage is not a system with many participants. It is TWO people. A top to bottom system of authority and submission. Abuse is more likely to occur.

        To put it simply. If you are in an abusive relationship it is FAR MORE LIKELY you will stay within that relationship if you are constantly told that you need to submit to the person whom is abusing you. Is it really that hard to understand? It is far more likely that a victim will not seek help when they are told their immediate authority is their husband (regardless if their true authority is God).

  11. And yes I have often thought that marriage as I have heard it taught is against the law.

    • Suzanne,

      I agree with statements by others supporting your concern for women, particularly those in awful situations. Thanks for the way you’ve brought some of those issues to the table.

      As you do so, please keep your comments respectful, relevant to the issue at hand, and refrain from twisting others comments to make a point.

  12. Sam, I hope you won’t mind if I express my sincere appreciation for the times when you get all authoritative. It gives me a little tingle, and in that special moment I think I recognize just faintly what it means to be a true Anglican man.

  13. Sam,

    I was responding to Sandy in a completely open and straightforward way. I always respect his way of interacting. I don’t understand your point.

    • Suzanne,

      And yes I have often thought that marriage as I have heard it taught is against the law.

      David Morrison mentioned above that a husband dictating how his wife must vote is possibly breaking the law; he certainly made no indication that teaching about marriage, let alone marriage itself was against the law; to agree in the way you did casts him in a position that he does not hold.

  14. I apologize to David. I did not intentionally “twist” his words. It is true that I said “yes” but I did not actually cite him as saying something he did not say. I simply recorded my own thoughts, as they followed up on his. That is not “twisting” as you say.

    I do think that it is problematic when the wife has made a vow to submit, and then she has the vote. It can be as if the husband has two votes, one more than an egalitarian man.

    Also, when a couple part ways, as they must if there is abuse, women may get left with debts and investment decisions that they were allowed no part in.

    There is also the question of responsibility for the children. If the wife sees a danger, or health issue, but must submit anyway, and something negative happens, the wife is nonetheless responsible in law for the welfare of her children. There is no legal case to say that the husband has “primary” responsibility, because there is no case where legally the wife has only “secondary” responsibility for her own children. She is in law equally responsible, so the concept of “primary” and “secondary” responsibility, does not line up with the law. She must always put legal, financial, health and family concerns ahead of the vow to submit. But, it may have only been an error in my background that I did not fully understand this earlier.

    I feel that I was not clearly taught on these issues. Now, when I read that the husband has “primary” responsibility, I realize that this would not hold up in law.

    However, I don’t attribute any of this thinking to David. His comment prompted me to think of these things – that is all.

    I do feel that the main issue, whether a wife should vow to submit, needs more attention, regarding the equal responsibilities of the wife in law, in matters of childcare, medical issues, providing for the children, safety, banking, etc. I think a lawyer should be consulted, and a basic framework could be worked out so that other women would not be lead into thinking that they did not have certain legal rights, as I was.

    So, questions –

    1) Does the vow to submit increase the violence a few women will suffer? I think it does. And I think that the physical safety of those few women actually does matter. Violence in the home is an ugly thing.

    2) Does the vow to submit override any legal and civil responsibility that an adult woman has vis a vis property, money or her children? I don’t think that it does.

    3) Are women informed that the vow to submit NEVER overrides the necessary authority that they have as adults and parents in any of the above areas?

    4) Are husbands advised of this before the marriage takes place?

    If these steps were taken then the church would be seen as upholding and defending the law. As is stands now, there appear to me to be some problems.

    • OK, we’re clear. No harm done.

      For what it’s worth, my wife is more of a political animal than I am, and I wouldn’t dream of instructing her how to vote. That said, we discuss things regularly, and I seek to humbly lead in those conversations by bringing us to what the Scriptures say, and so on.

      I think Peter Jensen expressed himself more clearly than I can the answers to some of your questions regarding the limitations on what a woman is called to submit to when he was on ABC’s Q & A last Monday night. If you didn’t watch it you can watch it or read the transcript on the ABC site, or read this run-down by Nathan Campbell.

      Two responses Peter gave are worth highlighting I think (emphasis mine):

      PETER JENSEN: If submission is in view, it is because a husband has made certain key promises. This is more about men than it is about women and it is about a concern that men are not being men in the community. What men bring to marriage, what men bring to anything, is that sort of physical strength, if you like, a certain degree of arrogance, a certain degree of determination to be bossy, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. What men are being asked – they were asked something before the women say anything. What men are being asked is will you live towards your wife like Jesus Christ who gave his life for his bride. Will you do that? And if the man says yes to that and only then, otherwise I would not recommend it, if a man says yes to that and so commits himself, then I believe it’s right for a woman, if she chooses to, to say I submit to that in the sense that I recognise it, I respect it, and I’m going to give you space in our marriage – I’m going to give you space in our marriage to be a man.

      And later in response to a question:

      BRONWYN FRASER: Hi. I work with Christian cultures – women in Christian cultures overseas who do have this biblical wife submission approach to marriage and they also report some of the highest levels of domestic violence and sexually-based violence. Up to 60% of the women have experienced this. Could it be that this sort of inequality in marriage can lead to domestic and sexually-based violence and, as a Christian, how does this actually represent what Jesus stood for?

      TONY JONES: Peter Jensen?

      PETER JENSEN: Yep. I believe this, again, gets to the heart of issues that are very important and can I say I utterly abominate the whole idea of domestic violence. I think it’s a wicked thing and any person – particularly any man who lays his hand on his wife is, to my mind, committing a grave sin. So that is what I believe. Now, is my view contributing to that end? I trust not because, properly understood, my view is saying that no man could ever do that, that it’s really he is to behave towards his wife as Jesus Christ behaved towards the Church.

      I think that captures pretty well the approach outlined by Phillip, Sandy, David, and others.

      In my experience, like Sandy says above, the general practice of wedding prep does talk in some detail about the nitty-gritty of relationships, expectations, and so on. This may be a relatively new development, but as far as I’m aware it’s the usual practice these days.

  15. Clearly, Peter Jensen abhors violences But he seems to have no interest investigating how to lessen the violence. This is a very serious situation. I don’t see how his response would help even one women in physical distress.

  16. “my view is saying that no man could ever do that, that it’s really he is to behave towards his wife as Jesus Christ behaved towards the Church”

    Since he has just been told that men do “do that”, I know this, and the woman who asked the question knows this, we all know this. So the response is incredibly inadequate. Actually unbelievable! This is perhaps the most disturbing thing that I have read yet in this thread. Women are being whacked and pushed down, stepped over, and kicked, and this is all he has to say!

  17. Suzanne, thanks again for your comments and after the last but one comment, I feel I now have a better understanding of the sort of things you would like complementarians to speak about both in public and in personal marriage preparation etc. Things like actually saying help is available for women in situations of abuse and knowing where that help is in practice, and encouraging women to access it. Things like making men and women aware that our obligation to submit to the civil authorities would ‘trump’ any voluntary obligation a woman has to submit to her husband in the case of illegal or dangerous behaviour. Though unpersuaded to drop complementarian theology, I want to keep developing in this area, and like Sam said, I think many other ministers are similar.

    So I have not minded the vigorous advocacy for your position in particular, nor for the welfare of women in general.

    Where I am not so happy to continue the conversation is with the element of ad hominem comments of a very sweeping generalised accusations being directed to third parties by name and without any detailed evidence. And I am not sure that transcripts of sermons by themselves will necessarily improve things too much, in that it is very hard to tell – both without context, and without a lot of further research – whether comments judged as poor or wrong are typical, or atypical, and so on.

    Inevitably such things are part of the evidence for such matters. In that case, I preferred your anonymous citation of the transcript of a sermon you found disappointing, not the brief allegations about named men.

    For example, because of the positions I serve in I have some idea of what Peter Jensen does in terms of reducing the risk of abuse in various types of relationships that exist within church communities. Some of it is public commentary and preaching, of which the transcript above is a very small sample size. Some of it is policy. Some of it is leadership in upholding or reforming culture (as needed). Some of it is very personal and private, and therefore mostly unknown, certainly in any detail, in the public or even just denominational arena.

    I don’t think he is perfect in this regard. For example, I think he could have said explicitly the other night on Q&A that we condemn any violence or bullying of homosexual people, even though we disagree with the morality of their conduct. But it is hard to say everything you could think of in the ease of a post mortem when you are under pressure of a live, multi-directional discussion on national TV under some considerable hostility from some other panellists and members of the audience.

    In addition, I and others keep asking some hard questions of ourselves (that is, the churches and organisations he leads, because a diocese is far more than its bishop) about professional standards in our diocese in various governance forums.

    My point is that your sweeping generalisation that he seems to have no interest in investigating what can be done to lessen violence is close to slanderous.

    I realise avoiding such personal remarks may not be your preference. But I would prefer to focus more on the issues and policies, not the individual personalities. Play the ball, not the man, as they say.

  18. I just noticed that I omitted a word in my comment of Sept 11 at 5:41- the little word “not” should be between “have” and “known”. Careless me.

  19. I must say that I am getting a bit distrubed at the way Suzanne is commenting now, so I’ll calm down and make this my last comment. The biblical teaching on the relationship of husbands and wives is clear and there is no excuse for suggesting that it should not be taught and acted on. The sinful behaviour of men and women in all kinds of situations is another question. Questions of abuse are not going to be addressed by denying what the Bible says, but that is not to deny that they must be dealt with.

    Let’s be sensible.

    There. I’ve calmed down.

    • Being sensible would be truly doubting that how we should act should be entirely dependent on what the Bible says when there are clear instances (like that of submission) where a structure perpetuates and increases the likelihood of abuse. If you want to call on us to be sensible, stop ignoring the reality of abuse and how obvious it is that a structure of leadership and submission between two human beings in an intimate relationship makes abuse more likely. You are essentially blatantly ignoring the quantifiable suffering of others so that you can protect your specific faith at all costs. This is absolutely not sensible. Equality has and never will mean that you call something equal or say that God views something as equal in a philosophical way. On planet earth equality is defined by distributions of power and how possible exploitation is within the context of a certain structure.

      When I ask for doubt, I’m not asking for the kind that can be settled or the kind that can go away when your faith is reinforced. Doubt should not be something you have to “struggle with”, it should be welcomed for the sake of humanity and the sheer fact that eventually you are going to have absolute faith in something that is clearly hurting others. If you truly doubted then you would never feel comfortable preaching in such an absolute manner that leaves no room for challenging whether your strong faith is even a good thing in this instance, especially when our opposition is founded in suffering at the hands of others, not our faith itself.

    • Your call to be sensible implies closing off the most important and powerful conversation to be had about this. It is a bullying move. It is the easiest and cheapest way to end an argument. It is a move that allows dogma to move ahead unchallenged. I don’t understand how anybody can feel so comfortable (especially people whose ideology revolves around the imperfection of humanity) preaching so absolutely to the masses about something, even when it is obvious and clear that there is a direct connection between what you are preaching and the suffering of others. You have not addressed any of the arguments that tie the structure of submission to abuse because you can’t. Your rock paper scissors infinity grade school argument that we should not even begin to question the foundation of this belief does not allow for you to address the argument because it would imply admitting our argument does indeed have a basis in reality. A reality that consists of true suffering and inequality no less. These are the arguments Suzanne and I have made that you refuse to address because those are the ones that happen to clash directly with your specific and absolute faith. It is not coincidence that our most powerful and sensible arguments are the ones that you deem non sensible. They are the ones that actually challenge your being.

    • In your own words, these are the arguments that “disturb you”. It just drives me insane that people will put their refusal to be disturbed in relation to their beliefs when so much is at stake. I am too fearful that I harm others on a daily basis by personal decision and action or participation in certain societal structures to push away disturbance. To put it simply, if you don’t welcome that disturbance you feel you WILL hurt others unnecessarily. You WILL support inequality for the sake of keeping yourself undisturbed. You WILL support abuse for the sheer fact that you refuse to combat an obvious cause and perpetuation of it, simply because it challenges you. That is not even limited to this issue. This true for all people whom never welcome disturbance, unless you are the first human being in the history of the world whose dogma is absent of inequality and injustice.

      • *It just drives me insane that people will put their refusal to be disturbed in relation to their beliefs when so much is at stake above the suffering of others in terms of priority.

    • Welcoming doubt and countering culture in other aspects of your life and beliefs does not fix this problem. Everything has to be on the table. It is in those things that are not on the table where this inevitable defense of injustice and inequality will occur.

  20. Sandy,

    I do feel that many of your suggestions are excellent. Regarding Peter Jensen, I did say “seems to have” – but think of the violence that he was informed of, and then think of his response! Of course, he was not prepared. But why aren’t all the staff and clergy of the diocese prepared to take concrete steps to prevent abuse? This is exactly my point. There is no preventive plan in place.

    And if I have mentioned something that you want a first person citation for, I can provide that. The story about John Piper and the woman who had to get bathroom permission is on youtube, I think he put it up there himself. It is not hearsay. I use this example because Piper has graciously allowed it to enter public domain, and it matches closely the cases of abuse that I have witnessed.

    This is the problem. Piper says that he abhors violence and coercion. He asked the woman how her husband came to take on this kind of control, and she said that this was from his understanding of John Piper’s sermon.

    I know it sounds ridiculous, but if you are going to ask a woman to make a vow to submit, you also have to hand the couple a list of things that she is allowed to do,

    This would include going to the bathroom, getting the food that suits her diet, going to the gym, listening to her own music, sneezing and coughing when she needs to, leaving the house to head out to the drugstore, etc. etc. `all this without permission, just as a matter of course, because she is an adult.

    I know this sounds ridiculous, but experience has demonstrated that these are the kinds of things that women are deprived of when they are coerced by some powerful mental control.

    I think there needs to be public instruction in sermons that women are not to be coerced, that the husband must have no expectation of obedience EVER, that there is a safe shelter, that there will be encouragement for the wife to divorce, that nobody will ever snicker at the woman who divulges that she did not dare go to the bathroom without permission and so on.

    And, I do think that men are also abused, and can be abused by women who use some other form of spiritual teaching to coerce them into certain things. It works a little differently, but I did have a woman come to me recently, whose brother was seriously abused psychologically be his wife.

    The problem is that allowing abuse to go on until it gets bad, and then helping the wife leave, is the most damaging and dangerous, really dangerous and distressing to both parties.

    I know one woman who explained to me how to never be abused. During the first month of marriage, her husband made a negative remark about the dinner, so she picked up his plate and threw it in the garbage. That couple have remained happily married.

    Perhaps aassertiveness training for women is needed. A real course in asserting oneself, and not allowing oneself to be abused. A woman who has been trained to take on responsibility like an adult, and exercise agency, should be able to resist an abusive relationship. it would also be helpful to identify for both men and women what abuse looks like, and let them know that this is a very real possibility.

    Some women come from an abusive home, and are abused in marriage. Other women have never in their life seen or imagined violence in the Christian home until they are knocked to the floor that first time. It is hard to shift gears, to learn to protect oneself, to secretly plan to contact a counsellor, to assemble funds, to confess to another person the deep shame that one experiences in allowing oneself to be abused. it is easier to just put on make up and go out to the bible study with the other married women, and smile and pretend. That is so much easier.

    These are some of the things that need to be assessed. However, I do think, Sandy, that you have the right idea.

    • “But why aren’t all the staff and clergy of the diocese prepared to take concrete steps to prevent abuse? This is exactly my point. There is no preventive plan in place.”

      I don’t know that there is no preventive plan in place. But in my experience, over 50 years under complementarian leadership and trained in Sydney, I was told, when I asked that “there was not need” for a plan because there were no abused wives in our congregation. This comment of mine reflects my experience in several complementarian congregations.

      Perhaps Peter Jensen does have a plan, but could not put it into words. I understand that.

  21. Here is a link to Piper’s sermon on bathroom rights,

    I use this example because this is very similar to many of the things that I have seen. In this case, the woman was not hit, but she was coerced. I would like to see concrete preventive measures, and concrete appropriate responsive measures for women, and men, if need be, who have lived for years under such a regime because they heard the minister say that they must submit.

    I would not stress this so much, if I had not seen some very difficult things, some lives ruined.

    Why are we discussing bathroom rights anyway? I think women should be encouraged to be theologians, and do everything that men do. Women should be treated as equals, treated as those who can create and contribute in the way men do. But here I am pleading for bathroom rights, and there is no sarcasm intended. I have seen some things similar to this. It is so hard to explain to someone else what it feels like to be deprived of normal human rights.

  22. Suzanne, thanks again for commenting. I am going to leave it here, since in addressing this important topic, we have strayed someway from the original article.

    My undertaking, however, is to speak to some trusted, female counsellors, local to my area, and to find out more about the prevalence of domestic violence, and also what I could be doing to prevent domestic violence and abuse in practice, and also to seek advice as to what else could be said publicly to avoid what I think (along with other commenters) is an obvious and egregious perversion of biblical complementarianism.

  23. Thank you, Sandy, I really appreciate this. It is hard to know the actual prevalence of abuse, since it is often hidden, but I do think that counsellors can give helpful advice.

    It is my experience that the vow to submit can be used to coerce and torment and that is why I commented here. Thanks for listening.

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