Women, Men and the Bible
by Virginia Ramey Mollenkott
The Crossroad Publishing Company, New York, 1989; republished on our website with permission of the author. The book is at present out of print, but autographed copies may be obtained at a discount by sending a check for $ 10.00 US (includes p&h) to Dr. V.R.Mollenkott, 11 Yearling Trail, Hewitt, NJ 07421, USA.
Chapter 2: The Patriarchal Way of Relating
As we have seen, the New Testament teaches that the Christian way of relating is through mutual submission and mutual and voluntary loving service. But as somebody once quipped: “Who ever said that Christianity hasn’t worked? It’s never even been tried yet!” Certainly the history of male-female relations through the centuries demonstrates that Jesus’ teachings concerning mutual submission have at best received only lip service, and at worst have been converted into a cruel parody of themselves. Christlike submission has been taught to wives but not to husbands. Instead of giving themselves up for their wives as Jesus gave self up for the church, husbands have been encouraged to assume that their wives are supposed to make all the sacrifices.
This is hardly the place for a history of the oppression of women through the centuries. That sad story is told in such books as The Subordinate Sex: A History of Attitudes Toward Women, and The First Sex.’ But the Christian reader of such books should be prepared to confront some angry and often unfair attacks on the Bible. The authors see the Bible as a repressive book, unconcerned with human justice, because that is the way it has been used by organized religion through the years.
There can be no serious question that Christianity as an organized religion has in many ways departed from the teachings of its own Scriptures. And nowhere has it departed more radically than by building up tremendous power structures. Overtly in Roman Catholicism there is an enormous hierarchy in which the basic relational pattern is the patriarchal pattern of dominance and submission rather than the Christlike pattern of voluntary mutual service. But many Protestant churches have also lent their support to patriarchal dominance and repressive authoritarianism. The more I study the history of the churches as opposed to the actual teachings of Scripture, the weaker grow my objections to an angry accusation made by novelist Leo Tolstoy in 1893: “The Christian churches and Christianity have nothing in common save in name: they are utterly hostile opposites. The churches are arrogance, violence, usurpation, rigidity, death; Christianity is humility, penitence, submissiveness, progress, life.”
What this means is that we must constantly guard against taking our interpretations of the Bible at second hand. Even at first hand we must diligently study to be sure we are understanding the spirit of the Book as it speaks to us and our contemporaries. In order to come to an accurate understanding of scriptural meaning, it is important for us to study the cultural background out of which sprang the various books of the Bible and to learn as much as we can from the generations of Bible scholars who have gone before us. Although, of course, one lifetime is too short to learn all we should know about the Bible, it is vital that we approach this most difficult and significant of books with humility and with all the background study we can muster. As theologian Bernard Ramm says, “Although the claim to by-pass mere human books and go right to the Bible itself sounds devout and spiritual, it is a veiled egotism..”2
Nowhere are the dangers of interpreting the Bible without adequate scholarship and careful concern for context more evident than in the dozens of books recently being published concerning male-female relationships in Christian churches and homes. Such books have become really big business, so that secular publishers are snatching at Christian titles. For instance, during the first year after Revell published Marabel Morgan’s book The Total Woman, it sold 370,000 hardbound copies. Pocket Books bought the paperback rights for a cool 750,000 dollars, so that the book became available in almost any supermarket or drug store across the country. That would be cause for great rejoicing if The Total Womanportrayed a Christian way of relating. Unfortunately, what it portrays is the patriarchal power-game of dominance and submission carried into the most intimate of human relationships. The woman is told that for her own happiness, not only must she accept Jesus as Savior, but she must totally subordinate herself to her husband’s pleasure. She must never resist his decision. She must wear various costumes and flimsy negligees to give him variety. She must call him at the office to tell him she craves his body. She must play dumb and weak to give him a sense of power. And she is told that all this is the will of God as revealed in the Bible. Courses in Total Womanhood are taught in hundreds of Christian churches all over America!
Marriage is not the only form of relating between Christian men and women; there are also male-female relationships within the church and the professional and business worlds. But because the family remains a central concern for the church and society and because attitudes concerning family structure set the tone for other male-female relationships, it is worth our while to concentrate on the kind of marital advice which has recently been offered to Christian husbands and wives under the guise of God’s revealed will for the human race.
If my analysis of the Christian way of relating has been accurate-and I urge you to study the New Testament and to check every reference and context for yourself-and if what Christ and the apostles teach really is mutual submissive love and concern, then we may expect to find that human experience shows that this is indeed the healthiest, most adult, most positive form of marital relating. If, on the other hand, the Bible really does teach that Christian wives must submit to their husbands with the husbands responsible before God to rule over the family unit, we may expect to find that marriages based on dominance and submission are healthier, more mature, and more positive than marriages based on mutual submission.
In Men, Women, and Change, an excellent sociological study of marriage and the family, Letha and John Scanzoni point out that there are four types of marital power-structure: the owner-property type, in which the husband has absolute power and the wife has none; the head-complement type, in which the husband has the vast majority of power and the wife has just a little; the senior-junior partnership type, in which the husband has most of the power but the wife shares a significant percentage of it; and the equal-partnership marriage, in which the power is fluid and is shared equally. The Scanzonis point out that the owner-property type of marriage was almost universal until this century, explaining that “a person’s power over another person depends on the resources he or she holds out to that person, how dependent that second person is on these resources, and whether or not that second person can find alternate sources for the benefits elsewhere;" 3 Therefore, it is because women now have the option of enter ing the work force that most modern marriages have shifted from the owner-property type to either the head-complement model or the senior partner-junior partner model, with the wives assuming more responsibility but still subordinating their careers to their husbands’. Very recently, however, there has been a move toward increasing numbers of equal-partnership marriages (p. 251).
Of course, marriage is a very individual matter, and, after all is said and done, a successful marriage can only be defined as one which satisfies and fulfills both partners. The remarkable thing about the Christian way of relating is that it can shed light and beauty within any one of these four marriage models. When society’s economic structure conferred absolute power on the male, as it did until this century, fortunate indeed was the family in which the male was a true follower of Christ who sought to die to his own will. Such a husband and father responded to his family’s dependency with self-giving love. Unfortunately, history reveals that such marriages were rare indeed and that absolute family power tended to corrupt absolutely.
Here in the twentieth century most Christian men and women are operating either under the head-complement or senior junior partner marital structures, and, of course, either of them can produce genuine Christian marriages if both partners are fully and deeply concerned about serving the best interests of the other person. But a serious problem has arisen because many evangelical and fundamentalist Christian leaders have taken the position that equal-partnership marriages are contrary to the Bible. These leaders are trying to convince young people that all attempts in the equal-partnership direction are doomed to failure because they violate the revealed will of God. We have seen, however, that the Christian way of relating is a way of mutual submission and mutual service. There is no reason this Christian way of relating cannot work in an equal-partnership marriage. As a matter of fact, the equal-partnership marriage, with its sharing of child-related and household tasks and its equal concern for the careers of both husband and wife, provides a perfect opportunity for the practice of mutual submission and mutual loving service.
Perhaps the most disturbing feature of the many attacks on equal-partnership marriage is the assumption that the success of the marriage is almost entirely the responsibility of the wife. To discover that the success or failure of any marriage depends upon the efforts of both partners, not simply one of them, we need go no further than the Ladies Home Journal which runs a monthly column about marital difficulties en titled “Can This Marriage Be Saved?” Inevitably the counseling described in the column involves new insights and new adjustments for both the wife and the husband.
Dr. O. Quentin Hyder, formerly a medical missionary and now a practicing Christian psychiatrist, points out that in his experience “marriage problems are impossible to help unless both partners desire improvement in their marital relationship and are willing to come regularly. If motivation for treatment is unilateral [that is, of serious concern to only one member], the marriage is usually doomed. ”4 According to this no-doubt-accurate observation, any self-help book about marriage would have to be addressed to both members of the relationship and would require concerned effort on the part of both. Yet most conservative Christian books lay the burden of marital success squarely on the shoulders of the woman, requiring all the psychological adjustments of her and blaming only her if success is not achieved.
In the process the husband is often lifted to the level of an absolute norm, as if he were God, while the wife is reduced to the worst kind of self-sacrificing idolatry. Selfsacrifice is beautiful when it is done as Christ did it: in absolute freedom as an expression of the deepest drives of the personality and without any interest in recompense. But the self-sacrifice now being urged upon the Christian wife is entirely diferent. It is not a choice freely made but rather a course of action so deeply ingrained by socialization and so connected with divine approval that the woman actually has no choice. When she begins to feel resentment about her own lack of fulfillment, unconsciously she begins to retaliate against her husband by “just happening” to burn his dinner or “just happening” to be perpetually too tired for sexual intercourse. And self-sacrifice for the children in the unconscious hope that they will in turn center their adult lives on their mother leads to either smother-love or a martyr complex or both.
Marabel Morgan wrote The Total Woman because she was desperate about her husband’s bossiness and was aware of the miserable quality of many other modern marriages. Unfortunately, her suggestion for curing modern woman’s cheated feelings is to deepen her sense of submission and self-sacrifice. For the moment, her solution seemed to work for many upper-middle-class women, because at least she made them feel better about sex. She made them feel that going ail out to be desirable and going all out in the enjoyment of sexual experience is all right for the Christian wife-and that’s a vast improvement over the Victorian prudery which formerly governed the attitudes of many Christians. But what is to become of unattractive women or poor women? The purchase of sexy negligees may spark the marriages of women as young, beautiful, and rich as Marabel Morgan, but that solution is hardly satisfactory for families living below the poverty line or for women who would simply look ridiculous in nothing but a garter belt and black stockings.,
Even more serious is the fact that what Marabel Morgan taught is nothing short of idolatry, the worship of the husband. She wrote, “It is only when a woman surrenders her life to her husband, reveres and worships him, and is willing to serve him, that she becomes really beautiful to him. ”5 Clearly this is religious language. It is to God alone that we are to surrender our lives. God alone should be revered and worshiped.
It would be hard to say which member of the marriage would be more damaged by following Total Woman advice. Since I Peter 3:7 warns that a man’s prayers will be hindered if he fails to give proper respect to his wife, the husband who allows his wife to worship him lives on the edge of a spiritual precipice: Sooner or later he will forget his own human limitations. On the other hand, his wife has vastly oversimplified her relationship to God. All she must do to please God is to please her husband. Her life is rendered very neat. Her husband must assume all moral responsibility, and if all goes well she will never need to doubt or struggle concerning
God’s will for her life. Her husband’s will is God’s will. As far as moral and spiritual decisions are concerned, she can stay in a perpetual childhood-but it will be a fun childhood, since sex is not only permitted but encouraged!
As a matter of fact, so much did the apostle Paul disapprove of the idea that men and women might seek to please each other rather than concentrate on pleasing God that he expressed his personal preference that Christians should remain unmarried.
I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the [Sovereign’s] affairs-how he can please [God]. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world-how he can please his wife-and his interests are divided. An unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about [the Sovereign’s] affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the [Sovereign] in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world-how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you. I want you to live in a right way in undivided attention to the [Sovereign God]. (I Corinthians 7:3235 NIV)
It is interesting to notice that the apostle Paul assumes that married men, far from sitting back and allowing their wives to sacrifice their own interests in worship of the male, will be just as eager to please their wives as their wives are eager to please them! Here as elsewhere, Paul assumes a basically egalitarian relationship through mutual submission and service (see also I Corinthians 7:4). I quote the passage not in order to encourage singleness, although that certainly is a Christian life-style which ought to be more highly respected than it has previously been. Instead, I quote the passage as a reminder of how far we have departed from the Christian way of relating if and when we make husband-pleasing the be-all and end-all o£ a Christian wife’s existence. By implication, of course, we encourage the husband to please nobody but himself.
Other fundamentalist books have gone even beyond Mrs. Morgan’s in the direction of idolatry. For instance, Judith M. Miles recently wrote a book entitled The Feminine Principle: A Woman’s Discovery of the Key to Total Fulfillment. In this book “the feminine principle” turns out to be a “pleasure principle.” Says Mrs. Miles, “God has equipped me for pleasing in unique ways, and . . . many of my capacities for pleasing are clustered in the traits that we call feminine.” Women, she argues, are “incarnate models of submission and loyalty.” Without women to submit to them, males will never be able to understand “how to submit themselves to the mastery of God. ”6
Every time a baby girl is born, Mrs. Miles tells us, “a new incarnate picture of the human soul and of the human race is begun.” If this baby girl grows up to be submissive and loyal to men, she will properly symbolize the bride of Christ. If instead she seeks her own fulfillment, she will symbolize “the harlot of Babylon” (p. 151). Mrs. Miles does not confront the inevitable conclusion to this line of reasoning: if girl babies picture the human soul that must learn to submit to God, then boy babies must picture divinity itself ‘
Although she does not really believe that men are gods, for all practical purposes within the marriage relationship they might as well be. Mrs. Miles tells us that “even though a male may be thoroughly corrupted from his potential to image God, a godly woman may still submit to him and mirror her part the submission of a soul to God” (p. 152).
How all this works out in her own marriage is described in a revealing passage:
'One day this familiar verse acquired a heightened meaning for me, “Wives be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord” (Eph. 5:22). It could not mean that! Not as to the Lord! But there it was. I was to treat my own human husband as though he were the Lord, resident in our own humble home. This was truly revelatory to me. Would I ask Jesus a basically maternal question such as “How are things at the office?” Would I remind the Lord that he was not driving prudently? Would I ever be in judgment over my Lord, over His taste, His opinions, or His actions? I was stunned-stunned into a new kind of submission (p.44).'
Here we have a first-class illustration of the danger of reading the Bible without attention to context. Taking Ephesians 5 out of its carefully controlled context of mutual submission and mutual loving service, Mrs. Miles views her husband as God incarnate. She can no longer ask him about his daily work. If he should happen to drive rapidly toward a cliff, she may not comment but must submit to his judgment. If he should happen to be color-blind, she cannot assist him in choosing more tasteful color combinations. And, of course, she can never ask her husband for help with the housework or the children. But judging from Christ’s behavior as recorded in the gospels, Mrs. Miles would not have had to ask Jesus to help around the house. He would have seen what help she needed and would have volunteered his assistance!
Many other books also teach that it is biblical and proper for Christian marriages to be structured on the patriarchal principle of dominance and submission. Very popular is Helen B. Andelin’s Fascinating Womanhood Although some Christian churches shy away from Fascinating Womanhood because of Andelin’s Mormon background, there is an unacknowledged spin-off from the book, a course entitled “The Philosophy of Christian Womanhood,” which has found acceptance in many churches.
Another very popular book that teaches the dominance-submission model is Larry Christenson’s The Christian Family. So completely does Christenson place responsibility for the marriage on the woman that he even blames her for being energetic, bright, or spiritual if her husband happens to be less so than she!
'To be active, clever, or religious are noble qualities in a woman; but the energetic woman who holds down her husband in inactivity; the clever one who silences him and by the brilliancy of her conversation makes a show of his dull insignificance; and lastly, the religious one, who allows others to remark that her husband is less enlightened or awakened than herself, are three disgusting characters'.8
Reading this, the poor Christian wife can only conclude that she had better stifle herself since she is responsible not only for the kind of person she is but for the kind of person her husband is and also for what other people think or say about them both. Christenson’s book has been enthusiastically recommended by Dr. and Mrs. Billy Graham.
Other books which teach that the dominance-submission model is the only biblical form of marriage include You Can Be the Wife of a Happy Husband, To Have and To Hold: The Feminine Mystique in a Happy Marriage, and Anita Bryant ‘s Bless This House .9 Not one of these books is based on a careful study of the New Testament against its cultural background, and not one of them pays attention to the context of the passages concerning mutual submission.
Many of the books urging female submission to male headship are written by people whose common sense tells them that human beings who love each other ought to relate as friends and equals. Yet they feel torn because they think the Bible insists on a hierarchy in which the male is closer to God than the female and therefore, must rule the relationship. It is natural that such a basic conflict should cause a good deal of double-talk. For instance, in A Woman’s Worth, Elaine Stedman admits that “only God has prior claim to every person” yet goes right on to argue that the female person must submit to the male person and that she must do so without “resentment or open hostility, pussycat manipulation, and powerplays, either overt or subtle.”10 And in Ms. Means Myself, Gladys Hunt recognizes that happy marriage is based on “mutuality,” on a “oneness that reflects the character of God,” yet insists that “the home must have order; there must be a leader”-and, of course, that the leader must be male." I wonder: Has Gladys Hunt never experienced a healthy friendship in which two people work out their differences without anyone’s domination, anyone’s submission?
An attractive but disheartening book is Maxine Hancock’s Love, Honor and Be Free. Hancock rightly argues for the necessity of free and open discussion: “Any marriage which is based on anything but full and free discussion of ideas, with mutual respect and mutual submission, would be quite unsatisfactory.” But the only route for the woman who continues to disagree with her husband’s assessment of a situation is “pleasant acquiescence,” because his judgment is the absolute norm. She explains: “We do not submit to our husbands because they are gentle and kind, or good, or godly. But because they are our husbands.”12 Here again the male is absolutized into a god who need not be aware of his own sinful limitations since his wife is obliged to adjust herself to whatever may be his whim. It does not seem to occur to Mrs. Hancock that it is impossible to have genuinely “full and free discussion of ideas, with mutual respect and mutual submission” when both parties to the discussion know in advance that the die is always cast in favor of the male.
Like most of the traditionalist authors, Hancock postulates a world in which the required and expected submission of the female is always viewed compassionately by the male who then voluntarily rushes to show Christlike submission in return. Unfortunately, that view is overly simple from the psy chological standpoint, besides being theologically unsound. As sociologist John Scanzoni has written:
'Power must always be tempered by justice or else it corrupts .... Who is to hold the husband accountable if not his wife? Who else can resist him when he is wrong? It is folly to assert “he is responsible to God.” Bitter experience has convinced us of what the theologians call “total depravity.” Kings, clergy and presidents with unchecked power become greedy and selfish and exploit others. The same is true of husbands with unchecked power.' 13
Fortunately, some Christian men are aware of the danger female subservience poses to their own spiritual growth and family happiness. Men like Paul Jewett, Wes Michaelson, and Donald Dayton are doing all they can to warn other males of the spiritual and emotional pitfalls of male supremacy. Glenn Peterson recently expressed his disgust at the dehumanizing disrespect hidden beneath Marabel Morgan’s flattering and manipulative techniques. He concluded: “The Morgans may have a happy marriage. I believe, however, that any marriage based on the principles espoused in The Total Woman is a fundamentally unhealthy relationship and is, finally, mutually destructive. ”14
In a recent article, Barbara G. Harrison points out that female obsequiousness is based on contempt for men and ambivalence and confusion concerning them. She concludes, “Both Mrs. Andelin [author of Fascinating Womanhood] and Mrs. Morgan [author of The Total Woman] are happiness merchants who teach us not to confront our human pain and suffering directly, but to learn, through self-deception, to rejoice in our bonds and fetters, and thus to escape the travail and confusion that are an inescapable part of the human condition.”15 It is tragic that manipulation and self-deceit are being presented to the world as biblical. One of the destructive results of these books will be reinforcement of the widespread image of the Bible as a repressive book which lends itself to support of social injustice.
Perhaps the cruelest blow of all is the denial of full humanity to Christian women. For instance, Christian wives are counseled that they should “give him his freedom and accept him the way he is,” even if the husband “stays out all night and gives . . . no reason. ”16 Repeatedly, married women are told that they do not relate to God directly but rather through the authority of their husbands and that the wife’s personal development is properly secondary to the husband’s.
Above all, the Christian woman is told that any anger she feels is only sinful selfishness which must be overcome. Although her husband’s anger and fear concerning what she has done are treated as normal reactions for which she is responsible, her own fear or anger concerning his actions can represent nothing but her own sinful selfishness. Thus, The Total Woman advises that if a woman feels offended and tells her husband so, “no matter what his reaction, your final step in dealing with the incident is to forgive your husband and forget the incident.” No matter what his reaction can only mean that the husband is free to act in any furious or cruel way he wishes, while the wife must forgive and forget. H. Norman Wright provides a worthy corrective to all this: “Ignoring anger and refusing to recognize its presence is NOT HEALTHY... Actually, ulcers, anxiety, headaches or depression are common results of repressing anger.”17
Unfortunately, Wright is one of the authors who falls into double-talk because of an inner conflict between his common sense and what he thinks the Bible teaches. He agrees with Dwight Small that “there can be no true oneness except as there is equal dignity and status for both partners” (p. 10); yet he feels compelled to advocate female submission. In spite of this fundamental doubletalk, however, Wright’s book is valu able for its emphasis on honest communication, including the creative communication of anger and resentment.
An evangelical minister recently told his congregation that since there is a limited supply of energy within the family and since the husband is likened to the Christ while the wife is likened only to the church, it makes sense to him that the wife must decrease so that the husband may increase. Because this is a paraphrase of what John the Baptist said about Jesus (John 3:30), the idolatry of the male is quite apparent. But even on the practical level, this is very poor advice. Any family counselor knows that in a one-to-one relationship the triumph of one person over the other brings about a loss of energy and intimacy in both of them. This fact is recognized in the common folk saying “Win an argument, lose a friend.” A continual pattern of dominance and submission eventually destroys all communication and saps most of the energy out of the family unit.
The quality of sexual experience is frequently a good index of the quality of the whole marriage, and a September, 1975, Redbook survey of 100,000 American women identified open communication as perhaps the most basic requirement for sexual satisfaction within marriage. In such marital communication, either both persons win or both persons lose. The evangelical minister who assumes that the wife must sacrifice her energy so that the husband’s energy may increase is teaching a patriarchal way of relating, a dominance and submission model that is antithetical to the teachings of the New Testament. Not surprisingly, he is also denying the realities of human experience.
Jesus taught us that the Christian way of relating is through mutual submission and mutual loving service. Such mutual concern calls for honest and creative communication, include ing the working out together of anger and hostility until the air is genuinely cleared. The equality that springs from love and mutual submission is an equality that does not sap energy from either partner but creates new and joyous energy in them both.
1. Vern L. Bullough (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1973); Elizabeth Gould Davis (New York: G. E Putnam’s Sons, 1971). Both books are now available in Penguin paperback.
2. Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Boston: W A. Wilde Co., 1956), p. 17.
3. (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., 1976), pp. 245, 214.
4. The Christian’s Handbook of Psychiatry (Old Tappan, N.J.: Fleming H. Revell, 1971), p. 162. Much of the material in the remainder of this chapter was first published in my article entitled “The Total Submission Woman,” Christian Herald, 98 (November, 1975), 26-30.
5. The Total Woman (Old Tappan, N. J.: Fleming H. Revell, 1973), p. 80.
6. (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1975), pp. 51, 151.
7. (Palo Alto, Calif: Pacific Press, 1965). Now available in Bantam paperback.
8. (St. Louis: Bethany Press, 1970), p. 51.
9. Darien B. Cooper (Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1975); Jill Renich (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975); (Old Tappan, N. J.: Fleming H. Revell, 1972).
10. (Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1975).
11. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1959), p. 100; (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1972), p. 96.
12. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1975), pp. 33, 38.
13. A Christian View of Men’s and Women’s Roles in a Changing World (Family ‘76 Incorporated, 1975), p. 20.
14. The Banner (June 20, 1975), p. 11.
15. McCalls, 102 (June, 1975), 116.
16. Renich, You Can Be the Wife of a Happy Husband, p. 19.
17. Total Woman, p. 144; Wright, Communication: The Key to Your Marriage (Glendale, California: Regal, 1974), p. 90.
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