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.

“Women’s Cultures” Reminds Us that the Catholic Church Is Still Out of Touch with Women
Fifty Shades of Evangelical Justifications for Patriarchy
If We Can’t Come to Grips with the Past, How Are We to Grapple with the Present?
The unBiblical Tea Party Christian
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.

  • Ibis3

    Not to mention that the whole thing is equated with the relationship between Christ and the Church. Women must submit to men as they do to God. Men are to love their wives as God loves the Church. How can one ever argue that women are really equal to God, even if they must obey him? And surely God can “love” the Church any way he wants, even if that means grinding it into dust beneath his feet (or destroying it in a flood, or sending it into captivity in a foreign land, or sending it to eternal torture on a whim). There’s no doubt that this complementarianism is just slavery with a pretty bow. In fact, I’ve heard these same Christians defend the condonation of slavery in the bible with the exact same language and logic (yes, it’s called slavery, but it was nice slavery which isn’t the same as bad slavery).

    • OneSmallStep

      I’ve also used this argument on an evangelical friend of mine — the comparison is that man is Jesus, and the woman is the church. Yet evangelical theology is very clear that Jesus is the head of the church, and the church isn’t equal to Jesus. So there is no way that man and woman are considered equal.

      Then it gets even more “fun” when you start realizing all the rationalizations Christians make for bad stuff — God has the right to chastise you, punish you, hurt you … all in the name of love and making you better prepared for Heaven.

    • Judy

      I so agree. Slavery is alive and well in the good ole USA

  • ScottInOH

    This is one of the things I’ve been thinking about with the Wilson dust-up. They say things like “conquer” and “submit,” but then they say the husband should be really nice to his wife (“not devour” her, etc.) and argue that that makes it all OK.

    Even assuming we take them at face value, the best they can hope for is a benevolent dictatorship in the household–a monarch with all the power but who cares for his subjects. Much more likely is a monarch with all the power who runs amok because he is unchecked. In a patriarchal relationship, all the formal and informal rules are stacked against a woman who is being mistreated.

  • Petticoat Philosopher

    I had a very similar argument with a former classmate of mind who became an IFB wacko some time after high school (he spent most of high school smoking copious amounts of weed in the parking lot and creeping on girls, including me, before finding both Jesus, and a wee little submissive wifey.). It all happened after a liberal Catholic friend of mine posted a facebook status about bible sexism, I commented in support, and he dumped a bunch of unsolicited Ephesians 5 stuff all over both of us. SURE the husband is the head of the wife but GOD is the head of the husband so it’s not like he can just do anything he wants!

    My response was to bring up the problem of enforcement. I know that evangelical Protestants are all about having a personal relationship with God and think they talk to Jesus all day etc. but it’s not REALLY the same thing as him physically being there to enforce his will on the husband, now is it? A man basically gets to decide what God wants him to do, whereas there’s not much ambiguity involved in a woman figuring out what her husband wants her to do–he’s right there to tell her, and possibly back up his authority with emotional and physical violence. No matter what men say about Jesus being their head, he’s never going to be standing over them while they wash the dishes and maybe smacking them if they don’t do them according to his exact preference.

    Ditto with the “love” vs. “obey” thing. Obedience is a very straightforward concept. Love, as you say, not so much and plenty of people have excused their abuse or bad treatment of others by wrapping up their actions in the language of love.

    “Obey” God? “Love” your wife? All the things the men have to do are, by their nature, subjective. Not so with what women are supposed to do. It’s no accident.

    Old Classmate responded to both of us with a lot of passive-aggressive, misogynist insults tempered with professions of “loving us,” as seems to be standard for Christians of his type. Then he de-friended both of us and presumably everyone that called him on his crap and wasn’t in the bubble with him. I’m sure that was because he loved us too! lol

  • Judy L.

    All I can think of is the way Christian Patriarchists talk about love when they recognize it as a transitive verb, as in loving your children by breaking their wills and training them to be submissive. As we learn from the story of Abraham and Isaac, and from the teachings of Michael Pearl, there is No Greater Joy than forcing others to submit to your will and getting them to do whatever you order them to do because they fear you.

    The whole game of religion is about dominance and submission and exacting obedience through fear and coercion rather than through a relation of trust between the person and the authority that is requesting their obedience. No dictator can be benevolent, and no one can truly love or trust who they fear.

  • Sophie

    not to mention the fact that Christian wives of non-Christian men have the commandment to submit while their non-Christian husband may happily ignore the commandment to love.

  • Stony

    What always cracked me up is that every sermon I’ve heard on this — and there have been plenty– have focused on the wife’s portion, then, as the pastor runs out of time, it sounds like: Husbandsloveyourwives, justasChristlovedthechurchandgavehimselfupforher. Okay, altar call!

    It was given bare lip service, and this was clear even when I was a butt-in-pew Baptist.

  • smrnda

    You’ve hit it right; the problem with giving two people a set of obligations/rules to follow is that unless they are close to being equal or symmetric, one person is clearly less restrained by their obligations to the other because the nature of the roles they have are different. There really is no enforcement mechanism to force a husband to truly act benevolently towards his wife, and she’s stuck having to submit no matter what. I’ve also read men who support this idea say things like “well, we’ d be fools not to listen to our wives” but it almost sounds like it’s a courtesy they’ve extended and not a duty.

    Another problem is if you teach someone that they should submit, you’re also teaching them not to criticize whoever they submit to, not just openly but internally as well. A woman raised this was is being taught not to have her own opinions not just on what to do, but on how things are going.

  • Kacy

    As one of my Sociology of Religion professors once said, “Soft Patriarchy is STILL patriarchy.”

    Yes, indeed.

  • Me

    Why is it always ignored to whom Paul was referring.
    The Greek word – means to obey in that the ‘self’ in this case the woman does the action – but in no way does Paul say – husbands make your wives submit. Or take control – no the Greek word is submit through self – the woman does so to please God – by being pleasing to her husband. It creates balance out of chaos.
    BUT – so we are very clear – Paul also tells us love does NOT insist on it’s own way – so we know if a man is insisting it is his way – then he is not acting according to the prescription of Paul’s definition of love.

  • Sophie


    Instead of insisiting his wife does things HIS way, he can claim that it’s actually GOD’s way. That God has spoken to him and would have it done a certain way.

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  • Mia Moore

    So true, the definition of LOVE is spelled out CLEARLY in 1 Corinthians 13. In addition, no matter what excuse a man gives for barking out orders, if his wife doesn’t feel that he’s being loving then he is not. Any man who has the guts to give an order to his wife, does not deserve any kind of respect. If she does not do as he asks, she is well within her rights to do so. We are not to worship anyone except our Lord, who would NEVER mistreat us. A wife is NOT a child to be told what to do or for a man to make sure she walks a straight line. A husband is NOT is wife’s savior. His job is to make sure is kids are on the right path, not his wife. She is to help him and they are to work together.

    • Mia Moore

      Grammar correction: A husband is NOT “his” wife’s savior. His job is to make sure “his” kids are on the right path, not his wife.
      see more

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