I left my Google Reader unattended for several days and discovered something interesting when I came back to it: item after item on “wifely submission”. What drew all of the attention to this subject? Michele Bachmann’s presidential campaign. As someone who has devoted considerable energy to the biblical teachings on gender, I find this fascinating. It’s not every day that major news organizations are trying to exegete Ephesians chapter 5 – albeit with mixed success.
The backdrop for this discussion is a question posed to Bachmann in the Fox News GOP debate last week:
In 2006, when you were running for Congress, you described a moment in your life when your husband said you should study for a degree in tax law. You said you hated the idea, and then you explained: ‘But the Lord said, be submissive. Wives, you are to be submissive to your husband.’ As president, would you be submissive to your husband?
Here is Bachmann’s answer, in part:
Marcus and I will be married for 33 years this September 10th. I’m in love with him. I’m so proud of him. And both he and I — what submission means to us, if that’s what your question is, it means respect.
Byron York, the columnist who asked the question, was loudly booed then, and was widely criticized in the conservative press in the days that followed. I think the question was clumsily asked, but was it entirely inappropriate? My own thoughts on the subject are a bit conflicted. I’m not a fan of Michele Bachmann, but I think much of the press coverage on her is unfair. She’s a smart woman; successful, ambitious and not crazy, thank you very much. The press needs to engage her on what she says and not on the paranoid fantasies of the extreme left.
Having said that, I think the question regarding submission is legitimate, and I think many of the responses in the conservative press have been misguided at the very least, and more often disingenuous. They are soft-peddling the doctrine of wifely submission, much as Bachmann herself did: submission is simply “respect”; it is merely a method for dealing with the tough issues in marriage that require a “tie-breaker”. That certainly is one way of understanding biblical submission: it can mean almost anything, in practice. The concept of submission is very slippery and covers a wide spectrum of marriages, from rigid and oppressive patriarchy (which I think is rare) to equal partnerships covered with a thin veneer of male headship theology.
An emphasis on mutual submission is getting a lot of press from Bachmann’s defenders, as in this post by Bryan Fischer:
The first myth is that in a Christian marriage only the wife submits to her husband. But the first statement the apostle makes is this: Both husbands and wives are to “submit…to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21).
So a Christian marriage is to be one of mutual submission, not the domination of the husband over the wife. There is a profound sense in which a Christian husband submits to his wife as much as she submits herself to him. Submission takes a different form for the man than it does for the woman, but it is submission nonetheless.
But for some Christians there is far more to this doctrine than mutual submission. For them it is a chain-of-command issue, as expressed in this post by James McDonald:
The Bible is clear. God has established a polity—a government in the home. By God’s decree, the husband is to be the head of the wife, and by default, the ruling authority in the home (i.e., Genesis 2:18-25, 3:16; 1 Corinthians 11:3; Ephesians 5:23, 6:1; Colossians 3:20). It is clear that this polity was established during the time of Creation, before any secular culture had been formed. The polity of the home is by God’s appointment—by His decree and for His glory.
So if the practical application of biblical submission can vary so widely, isn’t it reasonable to ask a presidential candidate what she means when she uses the term, or how it might influence her political decision making? If a candidate acknowledges that anyone or anything besides the Constitution serves as an authority over them, it’s a legitimate area of inquiry for the electorate. One of the most troubling articles I saw on this subject came from Joseph Farah at World Net Daily. The point of his piece seemed to be that Michele Bachmann shouldn’t even bother trying to answer religious questions from the pagan rabble.
This question could only be asked by people for whom the teachings of the Bible are “silliness” – and anyone who follows them sincerely and devoutly sillier still….
When I listened to this perfectly reasonable answer from this perfectly reasonable and admirable candidate for the presidency, I was reminded of the words of Jesus in Matthew 7:6: “Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you.”
I’d like to point out that the “swine” in this analogy are other Americans who have a voice in our electoral government. I hope Michele Bachmann has less contempt for them than Farah. If she is elected, Bachmann won’t just be “our” president (speaking as a Christian), she will the president of the entire, religiously pluralistic United States. We all have a vested interest.
Here’s one thing that this conversation is making clear: Michele Bachmann may be a conservative evangelical, but she is not a fundamentalist (a label often applied to her). No right-thinking fundamentalist woman would be running for president. In that sector of the church, men and women have been given distinct jurisdictions by God, and the domain of the woman is the home – not the White House. Even in the evangelical world there are a lot of mixed messages about the role of women in society. Certainly sites like World Net Daily would prefer Michele Bachmann over Obama, but I suspect that much of the support Bachmann is receiving from the far right will evaporate if an evangelical male candidate seems to have a solid chance of winning.
Given her public career to this point, I tend to believe Bachmann when she says that in her marriage submission boils down to respect. You can’t go to a dictionary to understand how people actually live out this conviction. I don’t think we need to worry that we’ll be electing Marcus Bachmann by proxy if Michele wins the election. And I do think that some on the left are twisting Bachmann’s words and exaggerating the issue to whip up fear and/or make Bachmann’s religion seem extreme. For examples see this or this or this. The question was asked, reasonably, and answered with what is probably true of that one, particular marriage. Perhaps it’s time to focus on other issues (tax policies, health care, foreign policy, immigration…..)
One final thought. There was nothing essentially sexist in the question Byron York asked. It is certainly true that the question wouldn’t have been asked of a male candidate. But then, a male candidate wouldn’t have said in a stump speech that God told him to submit to his spouse. If that ever happens, by all means, someone needs to ask follow up questions.