Kathy Keller defines “submission” so much it no longer means submission. Which is just the point. Jesus did too. (But I have to say that when that word submission is defined this way one has to wonder if the term no longer has value.) It was beyond wise for the Kellers, in their book The Meaning of Marriage, to assign the marriage roles chapter to Kathy, not the least of which reasons is because when males define roles the game goes downhill fast.
You won’t be surprised if I have some questions about this chapter because of its content and focus, but before we get there, a few observations about the substance of “Embracing the Other.” I begin here: this is simply the best discussion of the roles of a married couple I have read. A robust theology — christology and trinitarian thinking — is every where and it avoids simplicities that seem to find their way into discussions of roles. So here are some points from the chapter:
1. Every marriage, or close to that, discovers that men and women are different, and this is not only a statement about bodies. Defining that difference is complicated and often resorts to eye-rolling sighs. The reason this difference is important is because it is inherent to who we are to be gendered. (She disagrees that gender roles are simply social constructs.) And the woman was created according to Genesis 2 to be a “strong helper” (ezer kenedgo). This means each sex/gender is created to contribute to the other.
2. The paradigm for these roles is Christ — in Philippians 2:5-11. The equal person surrenders for the glory of the other, and that leads to the “submitter” to be glorified in turn. Christ’s voluntary servanthood is the model for women. Women, she says, are called — as are men — to the “Jesus role.” Men as servant leaders and women as servant helpers. There are her designations of roles: leader and helper.
3. Christ’s role is also seen in John 13:1-17, the towel and basin. This is the model. Her point is the big one for me: “Jesus redefined all authority as servant-authority” (177-178). “All authoritarianism of authority laid to rest” (178). This so redefines submission so radically that everything changes, and makes me wonder if the word “leader” ever works when submission is so redefined.
4. Her most controversial — at least for some — statements will be how she defines the gifts of women vs. the gifts of men. She sees — “using all the qualifiers in the world” — the woman as gifted with interdependence and men gifted with independence. Women sinfully chase clinging dependence or individualism while men chase alpha male individualism or dependence. Postmodernity, she says, emphasizes particularities and she sees these roles as something postmodernity ought to consider.
5. This otherness that is gendered is often incomprehensible to one spouse. But Christ embraced the other and that embrace is the model for marriage and for learning to love the incomprehensible. The home is the safe place to learn how to love the other, and there are very few details in the Bible on what this looks like (more below), and the details are not culturally shaped ideas that have prevailed in the West or in the Christian West or in the 50s.
Here are my hesitations.
1. There is a noticeable lack of use of the Song of Solomon, a love manual if ever there was one, for understanding the biblical view of marriage and what some concrete details look like. The Kellers focus on Genesis 1-2 (Genesis 3 was not discussed in this chp) and Ephesians 5. Those are two very important texts, but Song of Songs is perhaps even more important. I wonder aloud now: I have read two books on marriage from the Gospel Coalition folks — Piper and Keller — and I fault both for ignoring Song of Songs. Is there a reason why this book is ignored?
2. Any discussion of marriage that spends too much time on roles gets things out of order. Frankly, I don’t have much problem with her beliefs that independence and interdependence are features of our genders but those must be swallowed up again and again by discussing them as dimensions of love or arenas in which our love plays out. Well, I don’t want to suggest that Kathy Keller does not talk about love, for she does — and I think she talks about it well. In fact, when she’s talking about roles she sees them as ways to love one another. I’d like that to be more prominent. I don’t think God gave us roles so much as he created us to love and he made us in gender and loving the other gender works itself out in differing ways, and that I see as the “role.” Most of the time.
3. I often wonder — and I’m wondering aloud here — if we are all overdoing ezer kenegdo in Genesis 2. It deserves a place a the table, but the term is never used again for the wife. It is never used — or its equivalent — in the NT, where other terms are used.