Last week at the “On Faith” blog of the Washington Post, Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, professor of theology at Chicago Theological Seminary, wrote an article called “God’s Batterers: When Religion Subordinates Women, Violence Follows” which addressed the issue of violence done to women in the name of religion. She opened by writing,
“Wives should submit to their husbands in everything,” writes Paul to the Ephesians about how they should order their domestic lives. Mary Slessor, 19th century Scottish missionary and early feminist wrote in her Bible next to this text, “Nay, nay, Paul laddie. This will na do.” Mary Slessor was right. Religious women need to challenge such religious justifications of domestic violence. Their lives can depend on it.
After this opening, she simply gave a number of examples of men battering women and being given a free pass by their (Christian) religious leaders. But she doesn’t again engage the text which she uses to open her arguments, instead simply encouraging us to ignore Paul’s advice.
As a professor of theology, I would think that Thistlethwaite would at least make an attempt to understand the biblical text, rather than simply dismissing it without a second thought. If she had, she might have realized that Paul’s admonitions, while not politically correct by modern standards, actually are the ideal for a mutually loving husband-wife relationship.
Here is the passage in context. I have highlighted some key texts:
Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church; however, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. (Ephesians 5:21-32)
Note first how Paul begins his discussion of a harmonious marriage: “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ”. Even though there is a natural hierarchy within marriage, Paul makes it clear that both the husband and wife are to “be subject” to the other. What this means is that neither can put themselves and their own desires ahead of the good of their spouse. Instead, they must subordinate themselves to the good of their spouses out of love.
After Paul gives his advice that wives submit to their husbands, he then states, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Think for a minute what husbands are called to do: they are to imitate our Lord in his passion and death for the sake of their wives! As a husband for almost 14 years now, I can tell you that this embracing of the cross is a daily event: it involves the sacrifice of self for the good of the wife and the family. Any husband will tell you that this is a literally impossible task -without the grace of Christ. But Paul is telling the husband that this is exactly what he must do out of love for his wife – give himself up completely for her sake.
If a husband were to follow the advice of Paul, the idea of battering his wife would be unthinkable. Every decision would be made in light of “giving himself up” for his wife, not for selfish gain. Thistlethwaite recommends that we ignore Paul to end wife-battering. I recommend that we more fully embrace the Apostle’s teachings so that all marriages – even those that do not involve abuse – might be strengthened and might more fully reflect the relationship between Christ and his Church.