To love and submit?!

This weekend the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Sydney Anglican churches have a new marriage liturgy in which the bride promises to ‘submit’ to her husband. This reflects a conviction that the Bible sees leadership in church and home as gendered, and that while bible writers may have applied this in culturally particular ways, the underlying pattern is ordained by God for all cultures and all times.

It’s somewhat ironic that I came to reject this view while studying at Moore Theological College, the flagship educational institution of Sydney Anglicans. I entered theological college believing leadership was male and left committed to the notion that both men and women should serve as leaders in the church and that my marriage should be a partnership where Sandy and I make decisions together as equals.

I was challenged to reconsider my view when I met women studying at Moore who believed they were called to pastoral leadership. Rather than seeking to shore up my view, I decided to try to destroy it. If my view was truly biblical it would withstand rigorous examination. It didn’t. The more I studied the more the gaping holes became apparent.

First, there were the women in the bible who led with the blessing of God – Deborah the judge, Huldah the prophet, Junias the apostle, Paul’s ‘co-workers’ Euodia, Syntyche, Priscilla. It struck me that people with a leadership is male approach tried all sorts of interpretive gymnastics to evade the force of these texts.

Second, there was the logic of a gospel which declared that in Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female. It seemed to me incredulous that this did not have social implications, that just as this gospel undermined cultural division and the institution of slavery it subverted patriarchal models of marriage.

Third, my male headship view was built on the idea that this was something God instituted at creation. I understood this was the point in 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2 where the Adam-Eve story is used in discussion of gender roles, definitive proof that different gender roles are inherent to how we are created and not merely cultural. Yet as I studied these somewhat cryptic verses I couldn’t find a convincing explanation of what they mean. It became far less apparent that these verses were laying out a creation hierarchy.

Finally, texts that did teach male leadership made sense as applied love. The first century world was dominated by men. Husbands were the undisputed masters of the home and public life was controlled by men. The New Testament writers call Christians to infuse these relationships with love, grace and servanthood. Husbands are to use their authority to love and serve their wives and wives are to lovingly serve their husbands and gracefully submit to their leadership. When Ephesians 5 anchors this in the relationship between Christ and the church the point is not that the Christ-church relationship is the model for gender roles within marriage but for love and service in relationships where status and authority varies between the parties.

Thus the New Testament points us toward a world where cultural divisions, gender hierarchies and social status hierarchies are eliminated, while at the same time providing pastoral advice as to how gospel values of love and grace could be worked out in a highly patriarchal culture.

On this basis it doesn’t make sense to me that we try to perpetuate male leadership in church and home. This privileges an oppressive first century culture rather than the liberating message of Christ.

Of course, there are those who will read the texts differently, many of them fine biblical scholars. I recognise this is a fraught issue and that at the end of the day we may well agree to differ. But my journey has brought me to a place where I cannot endorse the idea that leadership of church and home belongs in the hands of men. I think it is unbiblical and detrimental to healthy community,-

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