Women in the Text: The Golden Rule

“Whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so unto them.” We have never yet found the man who longed to be ruled by the will of his wife. (Katharine Bushnell, God’s Word to Women, p. 51)

The slave owners of the antebellum South got around this verse, and I guess patriarchy supporters find a way to do it too.

Both marriage and slavery are authority structures that deny choice.

The master tells the slave what to do, and the slave is to submit to the master’s authority. There were quite a few kindly, Christian slave owners. But, they still denied freedom to another based on race. They did not put themselves in the slave’s subordinate position as Jesus called them to do, and “do unto the slaves” as they, no doubt, would wish it to be done to them if their positions were switched. “Lend me your eyes, I can change what you see.” Until those in authority stooped to use the slave’s eyes, they were blinded to the love action Jesus called them to.

In Patriarchy, the husband is in charge of the family. He decides what to do. He can get input from his wife, but patriarchy teaches he holds the decision-making authority. Men alone can access certain roles in the church. Patriarchy restricts women/wives to the male’s authority based on gender. It is not a “role” a woman chooses to play, it is position she is born into and can never leave (unless it is through rebellion). “Lend him your eyes, you can change what he sees.”

In this fashion, male authority and master authority are similar. It removes the choice to play the subordinate position (which is the calling of Christianity) by basing  the servile position and the authority position on race (or birth in the case of Roman slaves) and gender.

So based on Jesus’ entreaty of how to love others, would a husband be willing to have his wife be over him? To flip all the teaching and aim it toward the men? To have their abilities, talents and desires restricted? If not, why not? And is there danger in that based on Jesus’ terms of action to do unto others?

What does Jesus call us to do?

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22 thoughts on “Women in the Text: The Golden Rule

  1. Wow, I just don’t understand the comparison of marriage to slavery. Men ought to love their wives, and be loved by them. The expression of our love to them oftentimes comes in the form of respect, since most men equate respect with love. Katharine Bushnell may have been living in the era of “acceptable” male dominance, in which case she ought to have stood up for the rights of women, but we are not living in that age anymore. (well, I guess some freaky segments of Christianity and Mormonism and Islam) A proper understanding of submission is crucial – it is not blind obedience, it is not being lorded over, ruled or brow-beaten. If you get the definition wrong, it will wrongly shape your interpretation of many passages such as this one.

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  2. Christy, one of the reasons that the comparison is made is because, even in scripture, these institutions are listed close together. There is a reason for this.
    Back in the day they had household codes that all were to follow in the Patriarchal, Roman culture. It was all about the Patriarch and his wife, the Patriarch and his children, and the Patriarch and his slaves.
    Paul deals with those relationships very well in Ephesians 5 working to encourage people to live love, even in the social restrictions they live in.
    One of the arguments that the old plantation owners used against saying that slavery was breaking the law of love was the obvious conclusion (to them back then) that male the next step was to abolish husband rule in the home. And they all just knew that couldn’t be the case.
    The Golden Rule knocks the feet out from under slavery AND the husband being given authority and veto power over his wife until death do them part.
    I know this comparison offends people and I’m sorry for that. I just wish people could look past the offense and see the straight up logic of it.

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  3. Christy: In the slave-holding South, Christian slaveowners used to say that the problem wasn’t the institution of slavery itself– the problem was unkind masters. They said that if the masters treated their slaves with love and compassion, then slavery was a good thing. They said the Bible supported slavery as an institution; that the fact that Paul spoke of it in the Bible proved that it was God’s will. But they did not apply the Golden Rule– if you would not like to be enslaved, then don’t enslave someone else!

    Nowadays Christians say the same sorts of things about male authority in marriage. The problem isn’t the authority; it’s the misuse of authority. If husbands will treat their wives with love and compassion, the fact that he has the power to tell her what to do, every moment of every day for the rest of her life, and she’s supposed to do it (or be in rebellion against God) is still a good thing. They say that since male-authority marriage is in the Bible, that this proves it’s God’s will. But what about the Golden Rule? Would men like to marry into a situation where for the rest of their lives, even if their wife doesn’t often tell them what to do, she constantly has that power over them, and they must do whatever they are told whenever she chooses to use that power, or be considered to be in rebellion against God?

    What is the difference between being under a loving slaveowner’s power and being under a loving husband’s power? Is there a real difference, if you are duty-bound to obey in either case? Do you have real adult autonomy in either case? If you are born to slavery by virtue of having parents who are slaves, how is that different, qualitatively, from being born to male authority (first your father, then your husband) by virtue of being female?

    Paul wrote his letters to people who were irrevocably under the systems of their times, including slavery and male rule. He wrote in a way that challenged husbands and slave owners to curb the use of their power, by reminding them that they were to act sacrificially towards their wives and rememember that they and their slaves had the same Master in heaven. He was not saying that the power structures of his day were endorsed by God as God’s own plan. It is not an ungodly step to go from telling slaveowners to curb the use of their power, to declaring that slaveowning is to cease. Neither is it an ungodly step to go from telling husbands to curb the use of their power, to declaring that husband-authority is to cease. Such changes are merely an outgrowth of the Golden Rule.

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  4. Kristen, You are wrong about the core definition of submission. Here are some quotes from your reply that prove your misunderstanding.

    “the fact that he has the power to tell her what to do, every moment of every day for the rest of her life, and she’s supposed to do it (or be in rebellion against God) is still a good thing.”

    “they must do whatever they are told whenever she chooses to use that power, or be considered to be in rebellion against God”

    “duty-bound to obey”

    Submission is NOT obedience. It is a woman having all the same rights, talents, wisdom, and ability of her husband, and yet WILLINGLY placing herself under his authority. If it is forced by the husband, it is not submission, it is servitude, and THAT goes against the golden rule. Husbands do not have the “power to tell her what to do, every moment of every day for the rest of her life.”

    Kay, in your addendum, I think you’ve mis-defined submission as well.

    “Both marriage and slavery are authority structures that deny choice.” How so, if it is the wife’s choice to submit in crucial matters to her husband? She’s not being forced!

    “To have their abilities, talents and desires restricted”

    Now that’s just propaganda, Kay! When have you ever felt like your abilities, talents and desires have been restricted?? If I’ve ever felt this way, it is because of my choice to stay home with my kids, and not because my husband is somehow restricting me. If anything, he pushes me from my duty-bound brain to develop my talents, and pursue my passions.

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    1. I’m okay with your definition of submission (I don’t think its a common definition in conservative circles), but that isn’t what I’ve been addressing. What I’ve been addressing is that the patriarchal husband does not do to the wife, as he wants her to do to him. (Say that five times as fast as you can!) A patriarchal husband does not submit to his wife as the final say, but claims that authority himself. Some have called it the right to “the veto card.” He is the final authority. He is the one who decided the life’s direction. The wife doesn’t lead, he does. Now, am I saying the wife should be the final authority or the only leader? No. A unified decision should be, which usually takes the form of compromise or submission by one party. Neither one is in charge, but they partner in full equality and unity. This is doing unto each other, etc.

      When have you ever felt like your abilities, talents and desires have been restricted?

      What I was referring to was women being restricted from pastoral roles in the local church…or having to play games with their titles to make it seem like they have no “authority” so the folks with hierarchy issues aren’t offended. I wasn’t referring to personal issues. Again, the post is about men doing to women what they wish to be done to themselves. I believe if a man would sincerely seek to see hierarchy from a woman’s point of view, he would recognize how he himself would not be satisfied with hierarchical explanations of subordinating restrictions. I hope that makes sense.

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  5. You are absolutely right, Christy.
    Submission, when defined properly. is a beautiful thing.
    So beautiful that BOTH husband AND wife are called to do so and both stand to be incredibly blessed in the mutuality of it.
    The problem with much submission teaching is that it is lop-sided, off-balanced, and unilateral, something the Bible never teaches.

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  6. Christy, you said:

    Submission is NOT obedience. It is a woman having all the same rights, talents, wisdom, and ability of her husband, and yet WILLINGLY placing herself under his authority. If it is forced by the husband, it is not submission, it is servitude, and THAT goes against the golden rule. Husbands do not have the ‘power to tell her what to do, every moment of every day for the rest of her life.’

    Kay, in your addendum, I think you’ve mis-defined submission as well.

    ‘Both marriage and slavery are authority structures that deny choice.’ How so, if it is the wife’s choice to submit in crucial matters to her husband? She’s not being forced!”

    You say it is her choice and she is not forced. But– if she is told that to choose not to submit is to go against God Himself– what is the difference? Please consider this carefully. You say your husband does not have the power to tell you what to do. Does he not HAVE that power, or does he simply choose not to USE that power? What do you do if he says, “Dear, in this case I am going to make the final decision.” Do you really have a choice, if not to submit is the same as rebellion against God?

    And if in practical experience, you don’t have a choice, what is the difference between submission and obedience? Does it make a difference to women who are not blessed as you are with a husband who does not overuse his power?

    I believe that submission– voluntary yielding– in order to be submission and not obedience, has to be different in some practical sense from obedience. And that means that a woman can really and truly choose not to submit without it being held over her head that she’s in rebellion against God.

    Of course, that would mean the man doesn’t have a “trump card” of final decision power at all. He and his wife have to work it out to their mutual satisfaction. Which is the same as mutual submission, one to another, just as Eph. 5:21 says. And that means he is not “in authority” over her. It means they are both following God hand-in-hand with God as their sole authority.

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  7. Christy, I don’t want to come across as dismissive, but your arguments really appear incoherent and based on a visceral reaction to having your views challenged, rather than a legitimate disagreement about how to interpret Biblical and social issues. I may not agree with everything Kay has put forward in this series of posts, but she’s made the effort to be systematic and analyze scriptural references for each point. A few specific points:

    1. This post is talking about marriage in the context of patriarchy, specifically in ancient times. As other people have already said, it’s beyond dispute that in Roman and Jewish culture men had essentially unlimited control over their wives. Sure, there were social norms that helped protect women, but even in the American South pre-1865 there were limits as to how slaves could be treated. And in both cases the subordinate person could be put in that position without their consent, whether by being kidnapped in Africa or forced into a marriage.

    There’s a world of difference between ancient Jewish marriage and the Biblical command for BOTH husband and wife to submit to each other. We may not live in a patriarchal society, but plenty of extra-Biblical remnants have survived from those systems and that’s what Kay is rejecting.

    2. “A proper understanding of submission is crucial – it is not blind obedience, it is not being lorded over, ruled or brow-beaten.”
    I completely agree, but it’s not really relevant here. See my previous point – you’re talking about Biblical commands here, not patriarchy.

    But on the topic of Biblical commands, please explain to me where in the Bible we see unequivocal commands that God’s ideal includes male leadership and female submission in marriage – and that other models are somehow inconsistent with that ideal. In previous posts you’ve referenced a few isolated passages in the epistles. I’d like to point out again that those letters are written 1) in a different culture, 2) a different language, and 3) addressing a specific concern. It’s as absurd to view those statements by themselves as general commands as to think we’re breaking God’s law by not literally stoning false prophets today.

    You’re not explaining how the Bible, when understood as a whole and in proper context, supports your view. You’ve spent long enough assuming that your view on submission and leadership is correct that you’ve forgotten that you have to actually make arguments to convince others who don’t already agree with you. If the issue is as clear cut as you seem believe, then why do literally thousands of Biblical scholars disagree? That likely includes a plurality of Bible professors at CCC – Christian College Consortium, which is a pretty good sample of well-respected Christian schools. http://www.ccconsortium.org/member-institutions/

    3. “Submission is NOT obedience.”
    You do understand those words are synonyms, right? Now you’re just playing word games.

    4. “Now that’s just propaganda, Kay! When have you ever felt like your abilities, talents and desires have been restricted?? If I’ve ever felt this way, it is because of my choice to stay home with my kids, and not because my husband is somehow restricting me.”
    Part of social control includes setting norms and expectations. If you’ve spent your whole life being indoctrinated into a worldview then you’re unlikely to feel limited. Women in ancient Rome may not have felt restricted, but looking back from modern times we certainly think they were. A basic principle in anthropology is that we all have our own biases that cloud our judgment on social issues. Statements of personal opinion aren’t very helpful unless a person can adequately control for those biases.

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    1. John, I don’t want to come across as dismissive of Kay’s immense research into this topic. I respect her desire to get to the truth, and I will be the first to admit I haven’t done as much research as she has on this topic (or probably any other topic, for that matter). However, my “arguments” against hers are not “visceral reaction(s)”, but a desire to point out what I feel are emotive and unbiblical points. Just from a biblical standpoint, I still have not been convinced that there is not a specific and unique command for wives to submit to their husbands, yes from the Epistles (Eph. 5:22-33, Col. 3:18-19, I Pet. 3:1-7), but also from the creation account and a thorough, systematic understanding of scripture with concepts such as covenants, and federal headship. I have already responded (with what I thought were “coherent” arguments) to your view that we should discount the Epistles because they were written to a specific culture. (https://kbonikowsky.wordpress.com/2011/04/28/women-in-the-text-creation-order-4/ – scroll to the very bottom.)

      Now, I will respond to your points.

      1. I KNOW Kay is talking about ancient marriage and the abuses. That was exactly my point. “We’ve come a long way, baby”. I think the arguments about slavery are emotive, because marriage these days is not slavery! We have a choice whether to get married, who to marry, even whether to stay in a marriage. I still think we have farther to go, especially in certain segments of American Christianity, but to throw out the biblical commands is to go too far.

      2. Obedience and submission are different from each other. Here are the dictionary definitions of both. Obey: to comply with or follow the commands, restrictions, wishes, or instructions of. Submit: to give over or yield to the power or authority of another. In obedience, the law is laid, and you are expected to obey. This is what we expect of our children, right? (Notice in Paul’s instructions, he used the word “obey” for children, but not for wives.) Submission is not complying, it is yielding. There are no rules to obey, but a general battle plan to follow in order for things to run smoothly and effectively.

      As far as thousands of theologians who agree with you & Kay, I don’t doubt that. I’ve never thought her view was new or mavericky =). But just because lots of people interpret scripture that way doesn’t mean it’s the right way. Bandwagon fallacy. (But, I should point out that thousands of respected theologians are on the other side, too)

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      1. “Submission is not complying, it is yielding.”

        Complying IS yielding.

        There might seem to be a difference between submission and obedience, but as both are lived out… exactly the same thing. Exactly. The confusing area which might make you think there is a difference? The fact that husbands can’t spank their wives like they can spank their children. (Or give time out, or whatever.) However, under a complementarian view of the marriage, a wife not submitting is deserving of rebuke exactly as much as a child not obeying. But because it’s a disagreement between two adults, the punishment is handled differently. (Ie. spiritual manipulation, “you are disobeying God,” husband’s disappointment, breech of relationship, etc.) Especially in this society, husbands have to be more tactful in how they handle this. They can’t openly beat wives like they could a few hundred years ago. (Heck, even a few decades ago.) So usually punishment only involves spiritual manipulation and feelings of guilt. And I’m not saying it’s always the husbands’ fault. Often women inflict this on themselves, dole out their own punishment or punishment on other wives by “exhorting” them to be the Jesus to their God-The-Father husbands.

        What I’m saying is, it IS obedience because there is a punishment culture wrapped around it.

        “There are no rules to obey, but a general battle plan to follow in order for things to run smoothly and effectively.”

        Okay, maybe that’s the other confusing thing to you. The fact that a complementarian husband isn’t giving directives, not all the time anyway, makes it seem like his relationship with his wife is different than his relationship with his kids. But it’s not. Because in both relationships, he is the authority figure whom the other party is disobeying God by not obeying/following/submitting-to/whatever.

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    1. Christy, just to be clear, I don’t think anyone here is saying that making an informed decision to enter into a headship based marriage is wrong. From what I can tell, you and Brent have made that model work for you and unless clear abuse is going on that’s ultimately a choice to be made within the marriage. What I object to is any claim that male headship represents the *right* way or the only Biblical way. In addition to open coercion by the church, it sets a social norm that can potentially be harmful.

      As a point of comparison, I don’t wear dresses/skirts because of social norms,.even though there’s absolutely no Biblical reason not to. But not wearing certain types of clothing doesn’t potentially limit my God given talents as can be the can be the case in headship models of marriage and church leadership (again, the key word is potentially – some women really are drawn toward stereotypically female roles, while others don’t find those roles come as naturally).

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    1. I don’t believe all complementarian women are being abused, certainly not! And like Jaime, I think that if a husband and wife agree between them that they’re most comfortable with him leading most of the time, and her following, then by all means, let him lead! But we don’t see this as being a mandate that the husband must lead and the wife must follow, in every marriage.

      What Jaime and I are both saying is that this paradigm is open to potential abuse, if the husband decides not to act Christlike and the wife understands her submission to be unilateral and unconditional: that is, that she has no recourse (nor church backup) in confrontation of her husband according to Matthew 18.

      Paul wrote his words in a time when husbands had absolute authority over their wives. His instructions amount to a mitigation of this imbalanced situation by requesting both sides to voluntarily yield, and the one in power to sacrifice and lay down power rather than insisting on it. Paul’s words absolutely can work in a marriage where the husband has authority over the wife, if the husband will take the teaching seriously that he is not to insist on his own way but raise up his wife to be beside him rather than under his feet. Paul was working with the deck as it was dealt to married couples in that age. Does that mean the deck (husband authority/wife subordination) as dealt by first-century Greek and Roman culture was God’s deck, and that husband authority/wife subordination, however gentle, is God’s best plan for all ages? We don’t think so. We think there is less potential for abuse when husbands and wives don’t see themselves in an authority/subordinate relationship at all.

      But that doesn’t mean we think you, in your Christ-following marriage, are being abused. I hope that clarifies.

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  8. I don’t mean to dissect your words up, but this is pretty indicative, I think, of spiritually manipulative language. This is what I meant when I said women put the guilt/punishment on themselves:

    “There are no rules to obey, but a general battle plan to follow in order for things to run smoothly and effectively.”

    Ergo, a wife not in submission to her husband is the reason things aren’t running smoothly and effectively. Now, say a wife is in disagreement with her husband about his desire to up and move to Brazil to be missionaries. (This is a real-life example I’ve heard.) Obviously her husband is upset about this and so, punishment #1, their relationship is messed up because he thinks she’s sinning. And when the woman walks into church, she hears this kind of stuff, from other women, that she’s the reason the relationship with her husband is messy right now. Not the husbands’ desire to sudden move to Brazil to be a missionary. And so all this marital strife is the wife’s punishment and the husband’s cross to bear until she starts to obey/submit to him. Not to mention, in this particular situation, she will hear loads about how she’s hindering God’s work.

    And you think she has a choice to submit?

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  9. Interesting thought, Kay:

    Submission as a standalone concept only makes sense when it’s two-sided, two people submitting to each other. When it’s one-sided, submission is indistinguishable from obedience.

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  10. Jaimie,
    A marriage that runs smoothly and effectively assumes that BOTH husband and wife are obeying scriptural commands. Sometimes it doesn’t run smoothly because of her, and sometimes because of him.

    Thanks for bringing up a real-world example. In the case of a husband who says he’s called to Brazil, and his wife doesn’t agree, there are 2 factors to consider.

    1. His heart. A husband’s first priority is to his wife and family. This is why Paul said that it was better for him to remain single. His lifestyle would be too difficult on a marriage, and marriage would hinder his work. If he is not loving his wife by considering her needs, desires, dreams, even fears, his decision to move to Brazil would be a grave sin. (I’m sure you’ve read The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver – not a Christian, but a very accurate depiction of Christian marriage philosophy gone bad.) I think a husband who feels he’s called, but his wife has serious misgivings, should re-evaluate. His first calling is to his wife.

    2. Her heart. Discerning her heart motive for disagreeing with her husband is critical. If she loves God and has sought his guidance, she loves her husband, and does truly desire to please him (at the same time he is desiring to please her), and still cannot support her husband in this matter, then he should not uproot his family. However, if her heart motivation is full of fear, Peter is clear in his reference to Sarah & Abraham, that she should not give way to fear (I Pet. 3:6). There are other sinful reasons for resisting her husband, but fear is the biggie that came to my mind. However, in my opinion, even if his wife has a sinful motive for resisting, he should STILL not act until they achieve unity. That only worsens the gap, and causes resentment and bitterness.

    A godly wife who disagrees with her husband on an issue as big as this, and goes to the church leadership for direction should absolutely not receive the advice, “you just have to do what your husband wants, or you’re not obeying God.” Unfortunately, that is the advice she would get from some churches, but I do think the tide is turning.

    I actually liked Kay’s post awhile back when a friend asked for unity in her marriage. I think that is what we should all strive for. Most likely, if a husband and wife come to an impasse as huge as this, and are still butting heads, their marriage is flawed at a foundational level.

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