When a Gospel of Servanthood and Suffering Stands in the Way of Equality and Justice

When a Gospel of Servanthood and Suffering Stands in the Way of Equality and Justice April 28, 2013

[image eaten by the internet]


Question: What if the wife is the victim of the husband’s hostility?

Answer: There is no “victim” if we understand that we are called to suffer for righteousness. “For even hereunto were you called: because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps.” I Peter 2:21 Christ was not a victim! He willingly gave His life for us. “By whose stripes you were healed . . . likewise you wives . . . ” I Peter 2:24; 3:1 Christ’s life teaches us how to suffer.

While I couldn’t find a firm citation for the image above, I’m fairly certain it comes from Bill Gothard’s material (let me know if you know otherwise). With that out of the way, let’s look at some context for the verses cited here:

I Peter 2: 18—3:7

18 Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh. 19 For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God. 20 But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. 21 To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps.

22 “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.”

23 When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. 24 “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” 25 For “you were like sheep going astray,” but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.

3 Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives, 2 when they see the purity and reverence of your lives. 3 Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. 4 Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. 5 For this is the way the holy women of the past who put their hope in God used to adorn themselves. They submitted themselves to their own husbands, 6 like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham and called him her lord. You are her daughters if you do what is right and do not give way to fear.

7 Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.

When I saw this image and looked up the text to refresh my memory on it, I thought of a recent article in Prodigal magazine. It was called “The Lost Art of Servanthood (A Letter to My Feminist Sisters),” and it hit on all of these same points, literally arguing that if Christ calls his followers to be servants, fighting for equality should be out of the picture. And thinking about this, I realized that there are two Christian doctrines that can easily stand in the way of any attempt to reach equality or justice—servanthood, and suffering.

The Bible over and over extols its readers to be servants, and proclaimed that the man who is least in this world is greatest in the next, and that the person who is greatest is the one who makes himself the servant of all. The Bible also praises Christ’s suffering and declares that his followers will suffer for their faith—and that they should rejoice for it. Further, some verses talk about becoming pure through suffering. The passage above is a perfect example of all of this.

And don’t think that this interpretation is limited to Gothard or the Prodigal article. Sure, these ideas aren’t usually taken as far as Gothard takes them, but they’re extremely prevalent in Christianity, especially in evangelicalism and fundamentalism. Here’s another example from a recent post on another Christian blog:

Satan doesn’t want you to take up your cross daily and follow Jesus. He wants you to have your crowns now, your best life now. He wants you to have the promotion now,after all, you deserve it. He wants you to have the biggest and best of everything – after all, it’s all about you! . . . Good crowns come to those who wait. Exaltation comes to those who are humiliated, first.

The entire article that the above quote comes from is about a woman who gave up her dreams of stardom—she was a very good singer and could have gone professional, at least from the way she tells it—to become a pastor’s wife, something she had long loathed the idea of. In her piece she doesn’t say she has found that she loves being a pastor’s wife—far from it!—but rather that she has realized that her place is to serve, and to take up her cross and accept humiliation, and to wait till the next life for happiness and fulfillment.

When calls to be willing to suffer and to take the role of a servant are aimed at those who are in charge, those who are privileged, the possibilities are revolutionary. But it’s something else entirely when those same calls are aimed at those who are not in charge, to the underprivileged and the marginalized. I grew up in an extremely conservative environment where the elevation of servanthood was spoken of as revolutionary, but in terms of “servant leadership,” not in terms of the privileged abdicating their power; similarly, “traditional” gender roles were preached as handed down by God and the gospel of servanthood and suffering was used to enforce these roles—to inform women that their role serving their husbands was actually the greater role, and the more valued.

As I see it, the trouble with making ideas like servanthood and suffering revolutionary is that in the Bible these ideas were not only aimed at the powerful, but at those without power as well. Notice that the passage quoted at length above calls slaves to be obedient to their masters, even to those who are harsh and beat them without cause. Sure, Philemon is called to treat his slave Onesimus as a brother in Christ—whether that meant to free him is something I’ve heard debated—but Onesimus was also commanded to obey and serve his master regardless and without condition.

Another thing I noticed growing up in a conservative Christian environment is that this doctrine of servanthood and suffering allows Christian leaders to conceal the significance of their positions of power by giving them a way to symbolically point to the lowest in the hierarchy and say “those are the greatest in the kingdom of God” without actually doing anything to correct the power imbalances and inequalities. In some situations, the idea that those who suffer and are of lowly status are noble and close to God can actually take the edge off of the need to help correct inequality and bring justice to the suffering, both here and elsewhere. While it is an extreme example, this is well illustrated in the image with which this post began, stating that there is no such thing as being a “victim” because suffering is what we are called to.

The more I think about it the harder I am finding it to find anything good at all in the emphasis and value Christianity places on servanthood and suffering. Sure, it can make the marginalized feel that their marginalization will pay off the long run, but it seems to me that these ideas are naturally set up to defend the status quo and against radical movements to obtain things like equality and justice. And I see that as a very, very bad thing.

Of course, I’m coming at this from the perceptive of a young adult who no longer believes in God but grew up in an conservative evangelical home. If I still considered myself a Christian, I would probably be spending time right now with some books and a concordance, trying to find an eloquent way to challenge these narratives from the inside and create a doctrine of servanthood and suffering subversive after all. And so I will put the question to you, my readers: If you consider yourself a Christian and a feminist, what do you do with servanthood and suffering? 

The rest of you are more than welcome to snark at the image up top.

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