Generally, we view rules as universal – the apply completely and equally to everyone. We expect everyone to ‘play the game by the rules’ so that everything is fair. Everyone plays by the same rules so that there is no confusion. So I wanted to look at the ‘rules’ of one of Christianity’s biggest teachings as they are applied to specific situations to see how well they hold up. First, the ‘rule’ is that men and women are created equally with different functions, the role of the husband (male) is to be a servant-leader and the role of his wife (female) is to submit.
The underlying assumptions of the rule include: they are both believers in Christianity. 1 Corinthians 7 speaks to this situation, suggesting that so long as a believer and an unbeliever are willing to remain together, they should. But if their spouse was unwilling to remain together, divorce was permissible. There is no mention is given as to who ought to fulfill which role in what way. After all, how could a believing husband hold ‘spiritual authority’ over a spouse who does not believe as he does? How could a believing wife ‘submit unto the spiritual authority’ of her husband who does not believe as she does? What if he does not believe that he holds any spiritual authority at all? What if she recognizes that he belongs to another faith whose spiritual authority is defined by his belief in his god whom she does not recognize?
Another underlying assumption is that: both the man and the woman are completely sound and healthy individuals capable of carrying out their obligations. Humanity doesn’t always have that luxury. I’ve been watching Ninja warrior, one of the contestants knows that it is a matter of time before his wife’s disease claims her life. There are days when she cannot walk and can barely breathe. Because she cannot fulfill the obligations of a Proverbs 31 woman, he’s the one that usually picks up the slack and does the things that were assigned to her because she is a woman. It’s not uncommon for people to have accidents that injure them severely – sometimes a traumatic brain injury changes their personality and alter a person in a way where their leadership ability is compromised. Some people are born with conditions that limit their ability to function in society. In all of these cases, gender-based roles are all but impossible to maintain in the real world. Even as people age, their bodies often weaken and sometimes they fall victim to Alzheimer’s. In this circumstance, a husband becomes the caregiver to his wife or a wife becomes the caregiver to her husband, taking over their gender responsibilities.
This is followed by the “sufficiently wealthy” assumption: the assumption that the husband makes sufficient funds for the wife to remain at home. The poorer societies of the world often find themselves in situations where it’s entirely normal for both the husband and wife to find work wherever they can. When both work, then there is much less time for the woman to fulfill her ‘home’ obligations by herself. Either her husband will help with her obligations and lighten her load, or he will not and effectively double her load. But in wealthier corners of the world, women sometimes make the greater fortune, allowing men to be stay at home dads – a complete role reversal!
Then there’s the ‘one size fits all’ assumption: “all men are leaders” “all women are followers” “all men are supposed to be husbands and have a wife” “all women are supposed to be wives and have a husband” “all men are supposed to financially support their families” “all women are supposed to be homemakers” “all women will have children” “all women are supposed to raise their children at home” “all pastors, elders, and deacons must be male”. It ignores the reality of the world around us: (1.) marriage isn’t for everyone. Some people really should not be pressured into getting married. (2.) not everyone is capable of having children. People who spend thousands of dollars on IVF (in-vitro fertilization) and often cannot afford to adopt children – it’s one or the other and sometimes neither. (3.) we cannot map out every detail of a person’s entire existence because of their gender. We’re not omniscient enough to be able to say “that woman cannot discover radioactivity because she’s a female and can only be a homemaker.”
There’s the assumption that divorce doesn’t play a factor, but the Bible also speaks to that in quite a few places. It would prefer that a divorced couple would reconcile their differences. The Bible says things like “he who divorces his wife for any reason (except unfaithfulness) and marries another commits adultery”. This was partially a condemnation against the major teachings of the day. The teachers of the law said that it was permissible for a man to divorce his wife if: she burnt dinner, left home without a head covering, insulted him, had no children, or for almost any reason they felt was justifiable. Husbands could divorce their wives, but they were not obligated to carry through a divorce should the wife ask for one. In this day and age, divorce and remarriage are quite common. I happen to believe that if a wife has an abusive and violent husband, she is justified in getting divorced from him. Some Christians are more concerned that the marriage ‘looks’ like what the Bible says than whether or not it ‘acts’ as the Bible teaches. They would tell a woman to submit more to her husband, but they would not do enough homework to know that submission to violence often emboldens the guilty party to be even more violent to evoke some sort of response.
But people who are really into these teachings tell me that it applies to the unmarried as well: the single men and women who were never married and the widow or widower. Generally, the Bible expected younger widows to marry again to a believer. Older widows were often put on a list to receive food and support from their churches which also taught that it was the responsibility of family members to take care of their widowed relatives. This was because in their society, women couldn’t just hold down a job as that was usually the domain of men. Paul advocated for singleness because these believers were not distracted as married believers were. This confuses me most: single believers do not have the same distractions, still have to live according to complementarian teachings which are designed around being distracted in a way that glorifies God? What this looks like in practice is that: men lead the church. Whereas fathers need mothers as their counterpart to raise their own family, pastors need no female counterpart to raise God’s family. Why is this? Even Paul recognized women as co-workers, who complemented his ministry to the men by leading the women’s ministry in their gender-segregated society. Remember the widows? They weren’t just getting hand-outs from the church, but lived in a patron/client relationship – they were expected to do whatever was needed in return for being taken care of by the church. The early church even established ‘the Order of the Widows’ who served in a leadership capacity of some sort. Even these ancient believers recognized that one cannot keep a rule without all of it’s components – an unmarried man has no one to lead and an unmarried woman has no one to follow. But that doesn’t stop them from taking a new male believer and putting him in a position of authority as a teacher over women because he’s male. The tell women that their ‘head’ is their father; assuming he’s a believer and that he’s alive. Her gender role usually relegates her to the nursery, kitchen, or cleaning duties; but other than that, she’s a spectator to the main event where all the players are men.
What about the exceptions to the rule? The perfectly healthy and sound couple who are believers whom God called to live in complete equality and sharing all responsibilities based on gifting? Or a woman who God knew would one day be the best pastor a church had ever known? Or a guy who is supposed to married to his ministry? What about Phoebe? Junia? Lydia? What about their modern counterparts?
For a rule that applies equally to everyone, everywhere, for all time – there are a whole lot of people that it just doesn’t fit. Since ‘God doesn’t know what He’s doing’ is not a viable explanation – then we have to consider that people took something that doesn’t belong as a ‘one size fits all’ belief and teach it as if it is God’s universal design for all families. But they’re losing people who know they just don’t fit. They lose people who have been burnt by the rules themselves or people who cared more about the rules than their well-being. They lose people by their insistence on their teaching being biblically correct and that everyone who doesn’t fit it, doesn’t try to fit it, or something are somehow not true believers in Christianity as they define it. But who would want to attempt to conform to such an ill-fitting system? Certainly not me.