Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Wifely Subordination

Here we have an argument, an argument that assumes the perfect inerrancy of Scripture on all matters moral, for wifely subordination to her husband. I've explained why I have little patience for Biblical inerrantism. My reasons were of a general sort and had to do with the nature of interpretation of texts and justification of belief. But before us is an example of its pernicious consequences.

Wives, we are to assume, are to defer to their husbands on all matters that pertain to the family. If husband and wife disagree on such a matter, the husband has the authority to make the decision he thinks best and enforce this decision upon is wife (and his children).

This is a divine right, it is said, a right bestowed upon the man by God.

Now, I wish to ask, what is the reason that God would make the man ruler over his wife? A reason must exist, for God does nothing without reason.

I assume that it is not a greater competence, a greater ability to rule the family well. For plain experience teaches that some wives excel in this ability over their husbands. Do husbands perhaps in general excel their wives in this ability? I can think of perhaps two dozen families that I know well enough to form some judgment about the respective leadership abilities of husband and wife; and it seems to me in each that the husband does not excel the wife. Indeed I'd give the women the edge here. Now of course this kind of antedoctal evidence cannot prove a thesis that concerns many billions of people. But I do find it curious that in my experience I can find no evidence at all of the putative leadership superiority of men.

Moreover, if men are in general better able to lead their families, they are better able as well to lead outside the family; and if women should defer to them in the home, they should defer to them outside the home as well. But this seems to me to mean that women never should have been given the vote. For if they fall so far short of men in matters of political discernment (and this, after all, is what has been said) that they should defer to men if ever they disagree with them, they cannot be allowed an independent voice that can possibly serve to counteract to male wishes. But this is precisely what is allowed when women are enfranchised. In sum: if women should defer to men in the home, they shouldn't have the vote.

But this is pernicious sexism. Women should most certainly have the vote, and thus should defer to men neither in the public nor the private sphere.

I have heard said that women must bow to men's leadership for the simple reason that a family must have a leader. I have two replies. (i) Even if we assume that a family must have a leader, what gives us reason to hold that it must be the man in all cases? Why not give that role to the one best suited to play it? In some cases, this is the woman. (ii) Why should we believe that the family must have a leader, a leader with a kind of absolute veto power over all others within it? Why not have co-leaders who negotiate all matters of contention and reach, either by compromise or change of mind, consensus about what must be done? Certain political entities work in this way. Why not the family? Indeed it seems to me that this is the ideal after which we should strive.

Conclusion: women should not defer to men; and the bit of Scriptural exegesis that purports to show that they should serves only to undermine a dogged adherence to Biblical inerrancy.


Michael said...

Thanks for the post. But your statements appear rather irrelevant. When it comes to inerrancy, you might not believe in it, but Cheung has argued for it in his books, so without refuting that, your statements are only hypothetically valid (they need the Bible to be errant). Also, the arguments that you mentioned for female submission are not the ones that Cheung uses. For example, you cited one that amounts to a pragmatic argument, but Cheung is against ALL pragmatic arguments. So although you have made your opinion clear, you have not shown that you are right and that he is wrong.

Franklin Mason said...

There is another prior post about Biblical inerrancy.

I did not mean to recapitulate Cheung's arguments but rather, with what measure of insight I possess, to consider the possible reasons that might justify wifely subordination. They all seem to me to fail.

I suppose that I'd argue in this way (I shorten a bit):

If Biblical inerracy, then wifely subordination.
But if wifely subordination, then denial of the vote to women.
But women must of course have the vote, thus Biblical inerracy false.

I suppose that Cheung would argue in this way (indeed this seems to be just what he does):

Biblical inerrancy true.
Bible dictates wifely subordination. Thus wives must submit.

For what it's worth, this seems to me an abdication of that God-given ability to discern the morally repugnant. In Cheung's attempt to stay true to the letter of the law, he has abandoned its spirit.

C Grace said...

I respect your position on Biblical inerrancy and understand that for you the inner moral sense is a higher guide but I don't think your argument about women is a valid way to discredit the moral authority of scripture.

You ask "Now, I wish to ask, what is the reason that God would make the man ruler over his wife?"

As far as my understanding goes it is because in it's ideal form the husband wife relationship is supposed to be a living metaphor of God's relationship with his people. This is seen over and over in the prophets. In fact I don't think there is a single prophetic book that doesn't use this metaphor. Also Paul mentions it in Ephesians 5. God is the authority, the protector, the pursuer in the relationship. We recieve what he has to give. We submit to His leadership. We are the beloved not the lover. In fact I belive one of the reasons God created masculinity and femininity in the first place was so that we could have experiential grounds on which to understand our relationship with God. He could have made men and women similar in nature and still be able to have children. But we are not the same- Men are from Mars and women are from Venus.

That said what do I think this biblical principle should look like played out in our culture?

I do not think that this understanding of a man's authority in any way would lead to taking the vote away from women. If God is our authority and yet loves us enough to give us our freedom to choose how to live our life then how can the scriptural mandate that husbands have authority over their wives mean that men take away their wife's right to vote even if that means voting differently then their husbands?

Also, I do not think we should be using the OT legal code, as it is written, to determine modern laws. That was given to Israel at a specific time in history for a specific purpose. At the time the laws that God gave the Israelites were fairly progressive in the protection they gave to women and children compared to the cultures around them.

I do not think these laws prove the Bible is morally in error. I can see though why you would have problems with people who interpret it the way Cheung does.

Ariel said...

Just some questions for thought on the post.

1) What do the texts say regarding the regarding the reason for the command?

2) Even for an inerrantist (as such I am), could it really be extrapolated to general submission of women to men (as opposed to only in a marital context)? It seemed like the final statement tended toward that, but I could be wrong.

Franklin Mason said...


I did mean to say that submission in the home does seem to require submission outside the home, for it seems to me that whatever reason might exist that requires women to submit in private would be applicable in the public domain as well.

Franklin Mason said...


I have a very simple question in response: Given that the family should mirror the relation of God to humanity and thus should have one who leads and the others to follow, why should it be the man who in all cases leads?

C Grace said...


Going from the ideal to what's practical in a fallen world is always a messy business. Should it be the man in ALL cases who leads? Well, even in the OT Debra was a judge. Barak was only her "heavy" so to speak. She was the real leader at the time.

Before I go any farther - Do you believe that men and women are fundamentally different in their natures? Because if you don't we probably can't usefully continue the discussion.

Franklin Mason said...


I'm not sure what to say about the natures of men and women. I know what some say about the difference in the way the groups think, the way the two form and maintain relationships, etc. But for my own part? I'm unsure.

But my contention is this: women are no less able than to men to assume, and successfully carry out, positions of leadership.

blestwithsons said...

Your view of biblical submission is..well...wrong for lack of a better word. We're a military family - the best analogy I can think of is that my husband is the C.O. of the family - I'm the X.O. (commading officer; executive officer) By contrast - I am not a PFC! To follow the biblical model there is to be mutual submission. My husband's listening to my views and even following my suggestions is not precluded. As a matter of fact, one of the verses I frequently tease him with is Genesis 21:12 when God tells Abraham "listen to your wife and do what she tells you". God never contradicts Himself or commands someone to sin - therefore listening to your wife is O-tay! (grin)

Franklin Mason said...

When I look again at the passages that delineate a woman's obligations in the home and in the church, it seems to me that she is required to submit. I do not deny that if read charitably, they advise the man to listen to and respect the opinion of his wife. But the authority is his, and if he wishes to override his wife, he is within his rights to do so. This for me is the reason I am so deeply skeptical. For it seems to me that plain experience teaches that, in general, women are no less able to make and implement decisions that impact the family and the church than are men. But if that is so, it is plainly arbitrary and prejudical to require that a wife to submit to her husband.

Scripture seems quite clear on the issue. Men and woman are not of equal ability, or of equal status. This seems to me no better than racism. They are of a sort.

I don't mean to be dogmatic about this. Perhaps I've failed to make some crucial distinction. But this is how it seems to me at present.

C Grace said...


"Scripture seems quite clear on the issue. Men and woman are not of equal ability, or of equal status."

Can you tell me where scripture says that women are not equal in ability?

I think the distinction you fail to make is in separating ability and status. It seems to me you are interpreting the Bible to say that women do not have equal status because they do not have equal ability. I believe that the the reason for the status difference has nothing to do with ability.

Franklin Mason said...


You're right about that. I had no basis on which to make a claim about difference in status. But a difference in ability does seem present, or at least presupposed. My point again is that, experientially, I find this claim suspect.