I hadn’t intended for the next entry in this series to take over a week longer to turn out than I’d said it would, but here we are. I thought I’d skip the dallying at the beginning and just get right into things, so we’ll start by going back to the origin today, to the original design of the woman as an independent unit.
Notice that I said “independent.” A separate entry later in this series will follow on woman in relation to man, what’s known as the principle of complimentarity. But in any discussion of gender, it’s also important to account for the differences between them and not only their roles in comparison with each other’s. When she was created, in other words, the woman had purpose beyond simply a vessel for her husband’s benefit, equal to the man in purpose, value, and utility if not in actual role. And here is where, at least in my experience, most discussions of Biblical womanhood hit a brick wall. Out of the next couple of lines in the text seem to emerge the justification for why the woman is supposed to submit to the man. But it’s bizarre—something about her having been formed from his rib gives him the right to be the leader? How in the world does that work?
As with mentoring on female perceptions of Christian womanhood, there’s something about the way this is taught that is very troubling to me. And it may be more cultural than Biblical. The word “submission” is almost a dirty word these days, one that makes most women I know flinch. It’s a word associated with servants and slaves, employees under the hand of inept bosses, losers in sports matches, and anything else we think of as weak. Like most other bastardizations of Biblical language or principles, this wasn’t what was meant by the word “submission” in the text. Nonetheless, it has a rich tradition in cultures across the world and has perpetuated the abuse of women in every form from sexism to foot binding to familial rape.
The church is not immune from this. It has struggled throughout its history with the challenge of being “in and not of”—in living in the world, in culture, among people, but still being different, still reflecting the spirit and design of God. The American church is not persecuted the way others are. Rather, reflecting the fact it is very slowly being taken over, the warped version of submission has worked its way into the church in the sense of limiting what we think of as acceptable legitimate lifestyles for them to a much greater extent than they are for men. I mentioned last time that there’s a certain level of expectation in the church that the “right thing” for women to do is to marry and become mothers—that legitimate deviation from this makes both men and women in the church uncomfortable, however, is evidence of cultural, not spiritual, subterfuge.
A look back at the original language of the text is enough to demonstrate that. The original meaning of the word most commonly translated as “helper” in reference to the woman’s role actually has a meaning closer to that of “warrior” than “helpmeet”—Carolyn Custis James has a great piece on that here, for those who are interested. But of course, that isn’t how we think of it. The normalization of women as basically domestic creatures is, after all, a two-way street, and oftentimes the most vigorous opponents of women in positions of influence are other women.
The potential impacts of this are substantial. What one does forms a part of a person’s identity that is so basic as to be the second question that follows in an introduction after the name. It impacts how we think of people—whether or not it should is beside the point. The feeling that people might be “doing the wrong thing” with their life eats at them the moment they begin to think about it. And sometimes the answer isn’t clear; sometimes the Lord brings together two people of substantially discrepant talents, and to declare that a more gifted person must spend his or her life not fulfilling potential is a waste of the Lord’s gift whether the person is male or female. And thus begins my questioning—is that really what submission entails?
It’s hard to believe that would be the case. It’s conceptually difficult for men and women to be equals if one is ordained to be the weaker of the two. And here, in their failure to account for this pervasive perception, arguments about the complementary functions of each lose their steam. One might argue that as many great teams are made up of a “brain” and a “brawn,” one is given the world of the public space (pastoring, leading business, military service, great scientific research, most classical heroes, etc) and the other the domestic space—but further reflection quickly reveals these to be unequal as well. One is clearly imbued with much more potential than the other, and this makes it difficult to reconcile with the idea of equality of purpose.
I’ve had several intriguing conversations about this over the two weeks since my last update, and they’ve all boiled down essentially to the same thing: there is a difference between submitting and being submissive. Submitting is the act of deference of the wife to her husband the Lord has ordained in marriage—while she as his equal has not only the right but the duty to contribute to their mutual decision-making, she in times of disagreement must defer to her husband’s leadership. Being submissive, on the other hand, is quite different. This is the concept that puts a bad taste in people’s mouths, a mutation of the Biblical idea of submission that arises from weakness, cowardice, and a lack of will. Nowhere does the text say, “women, submit to men”—no, it says, “wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” Women are not prohibited from holding positions of influence, to which many brilliant examples can attest. It was more that culture has not allowed it, and thus the main reason the true role of women is often misunderstood is brought to light.
The Lord designed the world, including men and women, to function a certain way, functioning that was warped in the fall and remains so today. Ironically, movements such as militant feminism have often done more harm than good toward rectifying this. Women who choose to be mothers face their own challenges, as I will discuss (to the best extent that I can) next time. But though culture would soon say otherwise, there is nothing morally wrong with a woman fulfilling her potential—so long as she does so in accordance with God’s will.