Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Submission Is Not Obedience

One of the problems with understanding difficult things like submission is that we want exhaustive definitions where God only gives us general guidelines and descriptions. This means we have to work harder to figure out what submission is, as well as what it isn’t. It means we have to use the basic guidelines of Scripture as our starting point, and humbly submit to the Lord while He teaches us in the midst of doing it. It means we have to confront the sin that clouds our thinking. Because misunderstanding submission has enormous implications for the gospel.

Scripture is clear that submission and obedience are not the same thing, and yet there are movements within the church that proclaim the opposite, either directly through teaching or through practice. There are movements in our culture as well that believe submission and obedience are the same, the difference being how much they despise both. We have conflated these two ideas more than we’d like to admit, and history continues to testify to this. It’s not that old habits die hard, but it takes a long time to work ideas out in a culture.

One of the biggest difficulties to communicating clearly how submission and obedience are different is that they do bear some resemblance. For instance, a disciplined person’s submission can look very much like obedience. Submission and obedience also both assume that there are appropriate responses to a person in authority. But they are not the same kind of response. They exist, to use my husband’s helpful term, on a different axis.

Obedience is a response to rule. In our earthly relationships, a person under authority obeys because the rule is the focus, and the person in authority is expected to judge according to the rule. Children obey parents, soldiers their commanders, drivers the police officers, and so on. This is simply a reflection of God’s rule over His creation, and explains why parents, for example, cannot be the focus of their children’s obedience. God’s rules stand over us all.

Submission, on the other hand, is not a response to rules. Of course, it assumes that an order of authority exists because otherwise submission would be meaningless. But the focus is different. In our earthly relationships, a person under authority submits because the love of the person in authority is the focus. Wives submit to their own husbands, congregants submit to their elders, the needy submit to those who give, and so on, with love in view. It is a fine distinction, but an important one. This is a reflection of God’s love for His creation, especially of Christ’s love for the church. Christ leads the church into submission by loving and giving Himself up for her. She, in return, submits to His loving and sacrificial leadership. The focus is not on the rule of His authority—although it is necessarily there—but on the love in his authority.

The book of Ephesians tells wives to submit to their husbands, and husbands to love their wives, because in sin we forget that this has been God’s design for marriage from the beginning. Instead, because of the curse, we are more inclined to expect husbands to rule and wives to obey. What’s more, we are prone to establishing laws and cultural standards that expect men to lead by ruling, and women to obey by compulsion. The implications of this confusion are enormous, and we have ample evidence from history that it is still being worked out.

In the ancient world women were considered to be like children, ruled entirely in all things by men. Roman husbands had the legal right to beat their wives as punishment for disobedience, and in ancient Greece women were not even considered fully human. Wives in both cultures had no legal rights over their children, and especially in Greece, no authority in training them. But even the spread of Christianity didn’t fully improve things. Many of the Patristic Fathers, for example, taught that women were the root of evil, and that the Bible shows male superiority. The church learned to reject these teachings, but the curse was not removed so easily.

The belief that society functions best when men rule and women obey unfortunately lives in modern history as well. Until the 19th century, women were excluded from universities because of widespread fear that women with a college education would be unfit for marriage and motherhood. And until the 1970s, in many states in the U.S. even a wife with a source of income could not sign with her husband for a home loan, which left her without property protection if he abandoned the family. A man’s rule (not his income) was the guiding factor. And since we still bear the curse, I don’t think we should assume we have it all right today either.

The reality is, cultural patterns speak very loudly to a watching world. This is especially true when those patterns are established and modeled in the church, or in a gospel-informed culture. I am not suggesting that history is a timeline of men oppressing women, or even that we should always concern ourselves with the ranting of unbelievers about oppression. But I am suggesting that the gospel needs to more deeply permeate our thinking about submission and authority in our marriages, in the church, and in our culture.

This is why it’s not simply about our stated positions, but how we live them out. I have heard many within the patriarchy mention a husband’s love, but not nearly as often as I hear them call for men to rule their homes, the church, and every other area of society. The patriarchy can’t help it—this is what patriarchy (father-rule) means, after all. But it’s the curse that tells us that men rule and women obey, and as Christians we are called instead to live in the light of the gospel. We must send a redeemed message about the heart of authority, especially to those who are called to submit to it. And we must send a redeemed message to a culture continually attempting to remove the curse apart from Christ. This is the only way to prove the loveliness of God’s created order, to show how vibrant marriages and strong cultures can endure. We can’t do this if we’re not continually taking our thoughts about submission and authority captive to the obedience of Christ.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

On a Personal Note

I was a young woman just out of college, with no moorings except the new gift of eternal life, when a friend invited me to visit her family in Brooklyn. I had met her through a Christian website dedicated to talking about courtship. The Lord had used her pastor father’s writings to bring me to Christ months before, so I was naturally thrilled with gratitude and affection. And although I was a complete stranger to them, they welcomed me in as one of their own. I needed that welcome.

Family life in their home was so radically different than anything I could have imagined. It was often loud and busy, cramped with evidence of constant, never-stopping living. Piles of papers, news clippings taped to cabinets, music, whether played or recorded, seeping out of rooms, racks of clothing moving in and out of hands, food leaving the refrigerator almost as soon as it got in. People yelled, and squabbled, laughed, and danced. The aroma was quick, brisk and sure.

My friend and her younger sisters argued about clothes, hair, makeup, rides, friends. Sometimes a lot. Her pastor father and his wife (whom I admire more than any other woman I know) even argued once or twice in front of me (gasp!). I was shocked, but not by the arguments. I was shocked by the love. Never once did anyone in the family respond bitterly or with hostility toward one another. Sometimes they apologized with words, sometimes with actions, but even when they didn’t it was always graciously assumed. Even when they still disagreed. I had never seen a powerful love like this before. And I remember thinking to myself that when I had a family, this is what I wanted too. No, not the conflicts, but the grace that never pretended.

This was—and still is—the home of Steve and Jeanne Schlissel. It was a home in which grace ruled because nobody attempted to hide sin, and nobody used it as an excuse for sin (please don’t read that into this). It wasn’t a home where niceness and politeness had replaced true peace, but where Christians (and non-Christians too) were welcome to see themselves in the redeemed mess of life. The context of Ephesians chapter 2 reminds us that peace comes through grace, meaning that it assumes there will always be conflict that needs to be worked through. The Schlissel family worked hard at living this out.

I am telling this story first as a demonstration of my enduring love for the Schlissels. Because there are some who might read Quivering Daughters and, knowing my friendship with them, wonder whether my commitment to the book means I let my love grow cold. In the “Special Feature” article author Rachel Ramer calls Steve Schlissel an “isolationist,” and on page 58 his daughter and my friend, now Sarah Faith Hodges, is quoted as evidence that patriarchalists have gone too far with courtship. I understand the raised eyebrows, so I want to explain how I can be both passionately committed to Quivering Daughters and maintain my love for the Schlissels that I just described.

Actually, it’s quite easy. I know Steve’s and Sarah Faith’s positions have been misunderstood and taken out of context by both sides. (As have R.J. Rushdoony’s writings, also briefly mentioned in Ramer’s article). I know the Schlissel family intimately and am sorry that Ms. Ramer’s lack of familiarity with Steve Schlissel led her to call him an “isolationist.” No doubt, anybody who knows Steve and his tireless ministries over the years in things like providing counseling for abused women and ESL classes through Bible reading for immigrants, or his support of professional dance and fashion opportunities for his daughters, will laugh at the label too. And I also know that Sarah Faith’s views on courtship have changed over the years, marriage and children doing wonders for one’s perspective on life. However, though they’ve been misunderstood to be authoritarian patriarchalists, the reality is that some Christians have used Steve’s and Sarah Faith’s statements to support their own unbiblical views of authority, and this is why I did not object to their presence in Quivering Daughters. However misguided I think Ms. Ramer is on some points, her article makes many tremendously good points about patriarchal assumptions that more Christians would do well to consider instead of dismiss because of certain faults. The larger concern for Quivering Daughters is the practices of the patriarchal culture, not disputes over the theology of Christ and culture.

I am also telling this story as sort of a lecture to myself. I need to remind myself how the Schlissels taught me as a young Christian to work through disagreements with the grace of Christ. How they taught me to have a fervent love for others. Even for those who disagree with me about how dangerous the patriarchy is, and for those who have accused me of being a manipulator, a feminist, or worse because I am voicing my concerns.

I realize nobody knows exactly how many women and children are living demeaned and hopeless lives, separated from the love of God because of the abuse they suffer in the name of God. But the evidence strongly suggests that these are not isolated cases, and this can be hard to accept. We expect this type of culture of Muslims, but not of Christians. More importantly, though, I think we fear confronting sin when it might be in our own back yards. But it is hard for me to bear when the stories of these women and children are dismissed or diminished in favor of upholding a questionable Christian sub-culture. And so, I must preach myself the gospel through it. Just as Christ’s grace shows these victims how not to respond with bitterness toward their abusers, so it shows me how to offer grace through this conflict over the patriarchy. The grace of Christ still slowly, painfully, and eternally covers. This was the grace I learned how to practice from the Schlissels. And I must practice it, no matter how frustrated I get or how tense the conflict.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Complementarianism, not Patriarchy

Even a casual read of the blogosphere proves that the debate over God’s order for the family is a hot one. On one side of the debate are complementarians, who argue that while men and women are entirely equal before God, this equality is expressed in different, complementary roles within marriage. Passages instructing wives to submit to their husbands, and husbands to lead their wives with respect (1 Pet. 3:7) are not simply binding, but defining of a marriage. On the other side of the debate are egalitarians, who argue that full equality in Christ means husbands and wives participate in mutual submission (Eph. 5:21), and fulfill roles within the home and church according to particular giftings. The battle rages.

However, even within each view there is not always agreement. Complementarians, for example, are known to disagree about whether the passages addressing women in worship prohibit them from leading any part of corporate worship, or simply from being elders (1 Cor. 11:5 and 14:34-36). And yet both of these views still manage to remain complementarian because the cultural implications keep its integrity intact. But what happens when other cultural implications present a threat?

Steven Tracy, in his fantastic article I Corinthians 11:3: A Corrective to Distortions and Abuses of Male Headship, argues that while complementarianism supports a patriarchal view, there are enormous problems with the patriarchal culture that in fact deny biblical complementarianism. Quoting Donald Bloesch, Tracy notes that “a very real danger in the patriarchal family is tyranny in which the husband uses his power to hold his wife and children in servile dependence and submission.” And yet Tracy only tries to snatch the term “patriarchy” out of the lion’s mouth. The problem is, I believe, the lion has already devoured it. And the lion is threatening to devour complementarianism too.

The reality, whether justifiable or not, is that patriarchy has become synonymous in our culture with its corruptions. Patriarchy no longer refers to a biblical system in which the father is the loving head of his household, but to a whole host of theological and cultural oddities and abuses. Feminism is enormously to blame for this, of course. But it is not solely to blame. Ask most people—Christians and non-Christians alike—what patriarchy is, and the descriptions are nearly universal: male domination, authoritarian parenting, withdrawal from the world, spiritual manipulation, etc. Again, this is not simply because we have adopted feminist definitions. These stereotypes exist because they are no longer exceptions to the rule. Families and churches in which these abuses occur are becoming more and more common, and the common definitions now carry more weight and have more effect on our culture.

This is an enormous problem for complementarians. Because patriarchy, in its common form, is thoroughly unbiblical, it is a stain on the biblical complementarian view. Andreas Kostenberger in God, Marriage, and Family has suggested that “patriarchy” does not capture the emphasis or full meaning of the biblical idea of covenant headship, but there is also nothing in the word that requires us to use it. And I am concerned that if complementarians fail to recognize the problems that patriarchy—either as a label or as a worldview—presents and distance themselves from it, there will be a host of terrible consequences. The most devastating consequence being that those abused by the patriarchy will have no biblical protection or refuge. As Tracy woundingly notes, complementarians “have been extremely slow to address specific issues of male abuse in a detailed fashion,” and this is a tragedy we cannot ignore.

There. I have tipped my hand. I am indeed a complementarian. But that is materially beside the point. What is more to the point is that I think patriarchalism is a serious enough threat to the church and does enough damage to individuals that we need to call its bluff. Women and children (and some also argue men) are being victimized in numerous ways (as Quivering Daughters illustrates) in the name of patriarchy, and we need to be courageous enough to stand up to sin and administer healing grace. The glory of God requires it.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Why This Matters

At the request of my husband--a very wise request, I might add--I have begun this blog as a forum for clarifying my views on the things I speak passionately about. Last week Quivering Daughters came out, a book that has caused more than a few sharp intakes of breath in my circles. And my name is printed demurely, but assertively, as the editor on the front cover. I know it is a controversial book for some. I know I have friends and acquaintances who lovingly question my judgement being involved in this project. I know also, sadly, that I now have former friends who were once friends, because I chose to edit this book. But I must praise this book for its courage to speak openly about sin, and to administer grace to hurting women by the power of the gospel.

I have publicly proclaimed my distaste for much of what patriarchalism does in the name of Christ, and do not regret it. But it not an easy thing for me, considering how I courted patriarchalism in varying degrees of my own free will for many years. And it is not a simple thing either, since I do not consider myself to have changed theologically one iota in the process. Rather, I believe I have come to understand more fully my gospel calling as a Christian woman, and also as a wife, mother, friend, daughter, and neighbor. I have learned to love the Lord with a depth and passion I simply never knew before.

In the posts that follow I will attempt to clarify what I, Megan, actually believe about specific themes and issues raised in the book. I will not attempt to clarify what others--including the author of Quivering Daughters, Hillary McFarland--believe. I could never do them justice, and would in fact I'm sure do the opposite. I pray that the Lord not only allows me to calm fears that I have gone off the deep end, but also to submit graciously to the sanctifcation of public scrutiny.

I do not know where the Lord will take this rather one-sided discussion, but I welcome any questions or concerns about the book or my views on the matters contained. Just as I have made a public declaration, I must now make a public record and take full responsibility, for my sake, for the sake of my family, and for the honor and glory of the Lord Jesus Christ.