When my mom and dad got married, like many here, the old version of the vows were used which made the woman vow to love and obey her husband. My mom and dad have often joked about the day of their wedding when the old Salvation Army officer got my mom to say her vows, when she repeated them back, she somehow left out the word ‘obey’, not as a conscious decision, she said it just happened. But she was quite pleased afterwards! It left the Salvation Army Officer conducting the wedding a little flummoxed at first, raising his eyebrow, he regained his composure and continued with the service.
Last week’s sermon examined the question from 1 Corinthians 14 over whether women should remain silent in church and by implication whether women should be allowed to preach. I won’t go into the detail of the argument but I suggested that a mis-translation of a small Greek word potentially changes the whole passage making Paul a supporter of women preachers and leaders rather than a misogynist who has been responsible for the oppression of women.
Today I want to pick up on one little line in last week's passage which reads as follows: “Women should remain in submission, as the law says.”
As I said in last weeks sermon, there is no law that says women should remain in submission.
But the law in Judaism was in fact more than just a list of individual dos and don’ts. The law, or the Torah in Judaism was a word that could also refer to the entirety of the first 5 books of the Bible. Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. Collectively they were called the Torah, which in our English Bibles is most often translated as law.
Now in the Torah, in Genesis, we do read a verse that speaks of women being in submission to men. But it is not written as a law.
The context of the verse is the so-called fall of humanity. In the Genesis story, the man and the woman have been told not to eat of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil. They have disobeyed the command. In in response, the God voice in the passage begins to outline the consequences of their actions… One of the consequences is that the women is told she will be in submission to her husband.
In other words, according to this Genesis story, the submission of woman to men is a sign and a consequence of human sin. When humanity is out of sync with the spirit of God, hierarchies of begin to form and one of the hierarchies is the domination of men over women and the submission of women to men.
Genesis 2 is very clear therefore that this is not the way God had intended it from the beginning. Rather it begins to be expressed in human relations as a result of disobedience and sin. To put it bluntly, it is an expression of sin and not the way of God.
That is quite revolutionary because somewhere along the line religious people got this wrong. Religious people began to take this sinful pattern of dominant and submissive hierarchies of male and female relationships and asserted that it is the divine order of things.
In some cultures today, women have less authority and status than young boys. But before we look down on such cultures, it should be acknowledged that this would have been true of Western European culture a few hundred years ago too. The general attitude that women should be submissive to men is still deeply ingrained in our modern western psyche, despite a century of the women’s liberation movement.
But in the mythical garden of Eden of Genesis 2, we discover, male dominance over women was not originally part of the Divine order of things. It comes according to the story in Genesis 3, as an expression of and a consequence of a humanity which is out of sync with the way and the spirit of God.
Now many modern day Churches continue to preach and teach that within a marriage, the wife should submit to the husband. Such preachers would appeal to the Apostle Paul in the book of Ephesians where it states in Ephesians 5:22 “Wives submit to your husbands as to the Lord”. But unfortunately, those preachers ignore the other verses around it. Firstly in verse 21, Paul begins this section by saying very clearly “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
The NIV Bible however puts a heading break in between these words and verse 22, separating two verses that originally in Paul’s letter belonged together.
Paul’s advice to married couples begins in verse 21 with the words “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Only then does he go on to say: Women submit to your husbands.
But what we forget is the instruction to the husband: “Husbands love your wives as Christ loved the church?”
And how did Christ love the church one might ask? By becoming a servant, and the least of all. Kneeling down as John describes washing his disciples feet.
This reinforces verse 21 which suggests that what Paul is actually calling for is a mutual submission from both the wife and the husband.
He is taking the curse of submission in Genesis 3 and he is turning it upside down, turning it inside out. He is taking the culturally accepted Jewish norm of women submitting themselves to husbands and now extending that submission into mutual submission between both the woman and the man.
Marriages become sacred and holy when both partners are able to humble themselves before each other. When both partners treat the other with equal dignity. When both partners are willing to step down from the throne of their own selfhood to love one another with Christ-like love.
By reading verse 22 about woman submitting to their husbands without taking into consideration verse 21 where Paul clearly states his true position of mutual submission, and without consideration for the instruction to the man in verse 25, Paul’s real teaching on marriage is lost, and we find ourselves back in Genesis 3 where the woman and the man have been expelled from the garden and are now living out of harmony with God and each other.
It is a reminder when interpreting the Bible, not to latch onto a verse without placing that verse in the wider context from which it comes. It is like a tabloid newspaper taking one line of a politician’s speech and turning it into a headline to make it mean the very opposite of what it was intended to mean.
Reading the Bible requires that we love God not only with our hearts, but also our minds. We are invited to bring our critical faculties with us.
In all our relationships, may we learn the way of Christ-like humility and submission that enables real tenderness, love and intimacy in a relationship. But just as Christ asserted himself sometimes as well, may we also assert ourselves when it is appropriate to do so. Mutual submission and mutual assertion together help to create the rhythm of a healthy relationship of love. Amen.