Ever since Michele Bachmann was asked in a GOP presidential debate whether she would "submit to her husband" based on her previous comments, and ever since she responded that to her, submission "means respect," the media has taken a sudden interest in this strand of conservative Christian theology -- an interest unseen since the Southern Baptist Convention added such a notion to its Faith and Message in 1998.
The first reactions were predictable. Conservative allies of Bachmann criticized the question as sexist. But for most of us, the theology of wifely submission is itself sexist, so asking Bachmann to defend it hardly seems so. Nonetheless, many have gone out of their way to defend the notion of wifely submission in much the same way Bachmann did -- by suggesting that the media and others were misconstruing their family theology to make it sound like they treated women like slaves. The latest volley into this discussion comes from The Tennessean, which featured Jeremy and Jill Rose, one of whom is a pastor (guess which?), and who follow said rules on submission.
"Men and women are created equally," the newspaper quotes Jill Rose. “People have this stigma of the male chauvinist domineering over the wife, and that’s not what the biblical perspective is at all.”
That sounds reassuring. But is she right?
As much as I'd love to lodge another entry into the complementarian/egalitarian debate (spoiler alert: I side with the latter), I have instead been surprised at where -- or where not -- this issue has been focused. While much has been written about the linguistic gymnastics that would turn the English word "submit" into the more benign "respect," what I haven't heard anyone do is look to the source: the original Greek of the New Testament writings informing this view.
This requires a very basic, philological investigation of the word, which of course starts (but does not end) with looking it up in a good Greek lexicon -- one that does not merely list definitions but gives authors and citations for the word and how it is used. What many people don't understand about language in general but especially those with the distance of antiquity, is that vocabulary is not just a matter of looking up an English equivalent and plugging it into a translation. The same word can mean different things in different contexts, so what we might look for is whether those different contexts are all roughly similar. Such appears to be the case with ὑποτάσσω, the word immediately preceding Ephesians 5:22, which suggests that wives be subordinate to their husbands.
The first thing we notice when looking up this word is that its attestation in the more canonical works of antiquity (those from the classical and Hellenistic periods) appears to be slim. In fact, in the most widely used (English) lexicon, H.G. Liddell and George Scott's Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford), most of the authors cited are much later -- contemporary with the New Testament (first and second centuries C.E.). And what do we find when we get there? Does ὑποτάσσω mean "respect," much less "mutual respect"? Hardly. We'll find that aside from the New Testament provisions about wives submitting to husbands, this word is most often used with respect to slavery and military subordination.
The base meaning of the word itself includes a notion of hierarchy. The ὑπο- prefix is a preposition that means "under," and it's a direct cognate of the Latin sub, making submit and be subject to pretty good translations. So the very literal meaning of this word is to "place or arrange under." Of course, when one places himself or herself under another, that's submission.
Plutarch (first-second century C.E.) uses this word in his biography of the Roman military and political leader Pompey (64.3), remarking that Brutus, whose father Pompey had killed, nonetheless placed himself under Pompey's authority (ὑπέταξεν ἑαυτόν). A bit earlier than Plutarch, in the first century B.C.E., another Roman commander (and elegist), Gaius Cornelius Gallus, subdued a Theban revolt in 29 B.C.E. and then erected a monument in Philae, Egypt (where he was prefect), which recorded that accomplishment, using this word to note that he had "subdued" the Thebans in fifteen days.
Meanwhile, two authors not only contemporary with the New Testament but quite often studied in conjunction with the Apostle Paul, Epictetus and Philodemus, use this term with respect to slavery (as does the New Testament, as we shall see).
The Epicurean Philodemus wrote a number of treatises, but his On Household Management appears to refer to "subordinates" (ὑποτετεγμένοι) alongside contracts and possessions when referring to the accounts of the house (his work is on fragmentary papyrus, most of which has not been professionally translated yet). Meanwhile, Arrian, the pupil of Epictetus who wrote down his teachings, explicitly connects it with slavery. A stoic urging his students to turn away from things that entrap one, Epictetus notes that otherwise, "whatever way you turn, you are a slave, you are subjected, you are hindered, you are compelled, you are entirely in the power of others," making the connection between "being a slave" (ἐδούλευσας) and being "subjected" (ὑπετάγης) quite clear.
And we haven't even gotten to the New Testament yet!
The verse cited by the Roses and often by others is Ephesians 5:22, where the author, continuing his talk on submission from the previous verse, urges wives to "submit to their own husbands." This recurs throughout the New Testament. Using nearly identical language to Ephesians, Titus 2:5 also says that women should be taught to be submissive to their own husbands (ὑποτασσομένας τοῖς ἰδίοις ἀνδράσιν). Likewise, 1 Peter 3:1 urges wives to be in submission to their own husbands (γυναῖκες ὑποτασσόμεναι τοῖς ἰδίοις ἀνδράσιν), again using identical language. And again, in 1 Timothy 2:11, the author urges women to be submissive while learning in quiet or rest: Γυνὴ ἐν ἡσυχίᾳ μανθανέτω ἐν πάσῃ ὑποταγῇ. One more: in Colossians 3:18, wives are again told to be submissive to their husbands (Αἱ γυναῖκες, ὑποτάσσεσθε τοῖς ἀνδράσιν). Of course, there are other places where this same sense is written, but we'll limit ourselves to the use of ὑποτάσσω.
But where else does this word show up? Plenty of places. It occurs some 45 times in the New Testament, often in respect to being submissive to God. When it speaks of human relationships aside from marital ones, it's used to speak of slavery and submission to government authorities. 1 Peter, where one of our wifely submission passages occurred above, just one chapter earlier uses it in both senses. In 1 Peter 2:13 the author urges readers to "submit to every authority of man" (Ὑποτάγητε πάσῃ ἀνθρωπίνῃ κτίσει) whether they be kings or governors (cf. Romans 13:1), and then in verse 18 urges slaves to submit in all fear to their masters (Οἱ οἰκέται ὑποτασσόμενοι ἐν παντὶ φόβῳ τοῖς δεσπόταις). This is similar to an injunction given by the author of Ephesians just one chapter after the wifely submission of 5:22. In 6:5, using a different word, ὑποκούω, which means literally to give ear to, and therefore to obey (note the same ὑπο- prefix), he tells slaves to be obedient to their masters in fear and trembling (Οἱ δοῦλοι, ὑπακούετε τοῖς κατὰ σάρκα κυρίοις μετὰ φόβου καὶ τρόμου).
If you're wondering to yourself how the same New Testament that proclaims there is neither slave nor free, male nor female (Galatians 3:28), also has such harsh words for women and slaves, many scholars have an explanation. You'll note that above I never referenced the author of Ephesians as Paul, because Paul probably didn't write it. Only seven of the epistles under Paul's name are undisputed as to his authorship, and Galatians (just cited) is one of them. Scholars like John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg, as well as others, have noted by a study of the language and theology that the undisputed Paul is much more radical and subversive, even as psuedo-Pauline writers and editors are much more conformist, while the pastoral epistles (like 1 Timothy and Titus cited above) as well as others (like 1 Peter), are much more likely to enforce the traditional, imperial ideology of the time.
So what does all this mean? Well, for a good number of practicing Christians it doesn't really mean anything. That's because most mainline Protestant denominations accepted a long time ago that the Bible is not "inerrant" but a collection of writings that should be studied in light of the context in which they were written. This gives heed to a very basic creed in classical and Biblical studies and indeed in the study of all history, summed up well in a recorded lecture I recently heard by Hebrew Bible Prof. Amy Jill Levine: "The ancient world is not our world."
Unfortunately, the failure to acknowledge the context of the Bible has led throughout history to its (ab)use by those simply looking to reinforce their own ideologies. In just this way, the passages above were used in the Old South to argue for the legitimacy of slavery. In fact, a denomination born for precisely this reason, the Southern Baptist Convention, has taken the lead on the theology of wifely submission by adding it explicitly to its Faith and Message, as noted above. The realities of slavery were whitewashed in the South with the same sort of rhetoric as we have seen recently by those defending wifely submission -- yes, we hold slaves, but we treat them really nice. Just search the SBC's African-American resolutions and you'll find several antebellum resolutions to just this effect.
But of course, to the SBC's credit, it officially apologized in 1995 for its racist past, 150 years after it was born to oppose abolition. Which means the current SBC understands that slavery is immoral and the New Testament's approval of it should be understood simply as a product of its time.
So if conservative churches are willing to do such a thing with respect to slavery, why not patriarchal marriage? The marriages of the ancients were in no way similar to the companionship-driven unions of today, where no-fault divorce has empowered women to leave marriages if they feel they are not being treated the way they wish. The law of the land in the United States, regardless of how well this plays out culturally, suggests that the sexes are equal in marriages, and that's how most people (at least publicly) believe. Even Jill Rose, who told the Tennessean that men and women are equal.
Indeed, she may want to believe that the "Biblical perspective" does not allow for men to be "domineering" over their wives, but that's quite literally the comparison we have, since "domineering" comes from the Latin word for a master (dominus). But so many people are squeamish about what the Bible (really) says about wifely submission that conservative Christians holding to this view have bent over backwards to make ὑποτάσσω mean something it most certainly did not in the first and second centuries. It meant then what it clearly meant with respect to slaves under masters, residents under government authority, and soldiers under military command. It meant "under," as its form literally conveys, and not "respect." It did not mean friendly negotiation and banter and mutual camaraderie. That is what modern marriage is. So conservative Christians try to make "submission" look as much like that as they can, and in so doing, depart violently from the text they claim to follow uncompromisingly. They do this because they firmly believe the Bible is an answer book to all of life's facets, modern and ancient alike, and so they have to in essence change the text to suit modern sensibilities.
So I guess my ultimate question is: do the rest of us get to do that? Liberal Christians are derided for departing from the "original intent" of Scripture (as though that's known with certainty) and for developing contemporary theologies, based on the teachings of the Bible, that speak to people today. But they are at least honest that they are doing just that: reinterpreting it for the modern age. They are then implicitly criticized by their conservative brethren, who call their own churches and their own Christianities "Biblical," to distinguish themselves from those heathen Methodists down the street who largely accept the principles of textual criticism.
If conservative Christians want to reinterpret the original text of Scripture to suit modern, contemporary ends, I do not fault them for it. I applaud them. I just wish they would be honest about doing it, and then maybe consider extending such courtesies to some of their other steadfast beliefs rapidly becoming alienated from general society: their views on homosexuality, on secular governance, on women serving as clergy, and on interfaith efforts -- views that, were they honest, probably start first with their traditional ideology (like they did with slavery), and find support in their reading of the Bible second, not the other way around.
But don't hold your breath. We may be waiting another 150 years.