Command v. Suggestion: “Wives, submit!” and “Husbands, love!”

Any Christian Patriarchy advocate reading my post yesterday would surely have been shaking his or her head and saying “but it’s all about servant leadership, not a dictatorship!” or “women may be commanded to submit to their husbands, but God also commands men to love their wives!” These are the two go-to excuses made by defenders of Christian Patriarchy, who argue that those men who are dictatorial and domineering simply aren’t doing it right.

I recently read a post on Sober Second Look called Slippery Language: “Recommended” and “Obligatory” that led me to this argument further.

First, here are the go-to verses:

Ephesians 5: 22-30

22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himselfas a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body.

First there’s the obvious fact that just because each is required to do something does not mean that the two things they are required to do are in any way equal in difficulty or result. But that’s too easy; I want to address something more here. Let me start with an excerpt from the post on A Sober Second Look:

As I continue to sort through the bafflegab that (in my experience) surrounded the “mainstream” Sunni conservative discourses in North America that I was most often exposed to, one issue that comes up again and again is literature or sermons that imply equality or equivalence where frankly, it doesn’t exist.

One of the ways that this is done is to almost-but-not-entirely fudge the difference in Islamic law between something that is “obligatory” and something that is “recommended.” To phrase it in such a way that the average listener or reader—who is not likely to know much about Islamic law—will probably think that there’s little or no difference, but the knowledgeable listener or reader will see that the difference has been implied and so will probably not call the speaker or writer out on it.

For example: as we’ve discussed in previous posts, a wife is obliged in Islamic law to allow her husband sexual access. … A woman who does not do this is not only sinning, but her husband is not legally obliged to provide her with support (food, clothing, shelter, etc.).

… How to make this sound even half-way reasonable to contemporary Muslim North American audiences? Draw attention to the existence of the small number of hadiths in which the Prophet told husbands things such as “…your wife has a right on you” and that they should not “fall on their wives like beasts” without engaging first in foreplay. Or mention that the jurists stated that among the responsibilities of a husband is to keep his wife chaste. Then, you can kind of make it sound as though all these texts are saying is that husbands and wives should try their best to satisfy one another sexually… and who would argue with that?

Thing is, a legal obligation that has serious consequences attached to failure to fulfill it is different from a “recommended” practice such as foreplay. There is no equivalence between a wife’s obligation to allow her husband sexual access, and the recommendation that husbands be considerate in their manner of sexual approach. The husband’s choice to ignore this recommendation, or only follow it sometimes, has no legal penalty attached to it.

In other words, there’s a huge difference between commanding wives to obey their husbands and suggesting that husbands should be considerate to their wives. Command v. suggestion. But wait! The verses I’m talking about are both commands. Well yes. Yes, they are.

But it’s a hell of a lot easier to tell if a wife is not submitting to her husband than it is to tell if a husband isn’t loving his wife. The one is an action, the other is an emotion. If a man is being dictatorial to his wife and, say, ordering her to do this or that a certain way or believe this or that as he commands, well, he can say that he is acting out of love for her because his orders are all for her own good. He’s protecting her, keeping her safe, making sure she stays on the straight and narrow. Isn’t that what a loving person does? If a wife refuses to obey her husband, in contrast, it’s obvious. And there’s no escape gate.

A wife can’t say “I really am submitting to you even if it doesn’t look like it” the way the husband can say “I really do love you even if you don’t feel like I do right now.”

Now, some supporters of complementarianism (which is essentially Christian Patriarchy in a nicer wrapping) argue that for a man to be truly loving he must take his wife’s advice into account and ask for her views on issues and her help making decisions. Because of this argument, it is possible for many evangelical marriages to be functionally egalitarian while embracing complementarian language.

But the thing is, the teachings of the movement don’t technically require that a man take his wife’s advice into account or even ask her her input at all. “You are the head of the household and the final decisions on all important matters are yours to make” does not include a clause saying “but you have to listen to your wife’s input when you make those decisions.” In practice, then, the first is a requirement, the second is more of a suggestion.

And there you have it – yet one more reason why the commands “wives, submit to your husbands” and “husbands, love your wives” are in no ways equal or even equally applied.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.


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