Should Wives Submit to Husbands? Church Takes More Nuanced Approach

SALT LAKE CITY—For the past several years, the annual conventions of the Southern Baptists, America's largest Protestant denomination, could be counted on to issue declarations on social and family issues guaranteed to drive many of the nation's opinion makers wild.

This year was no exception.

The 10,000 delegates, or “messengers,” to the 141st annual Southern Baptist convention, held June 9-11 in Salt Lake City, Utah, overwhelmingly approved a resolution stating that the Bible calls for wives to “graciously submit” to their husbands.

“A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the Church willingly submits to the headship of Christ,” the 250-word addition to the Baptist Faith and Message Statement affirmed, along with declarations supporting marriage as a heterosexual union of “one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime.”

Husbands, the resolution said, have “the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead [the] family.” (Other more policy-oriented resolutions against affirmative action remedies for homosexuals, an end to training women in the military for combat, and a halt to public financing of PBS and the National Endowment for the Arts were also voted in by the Convention.)

“I think the Southern Baptist Convention can either be viewed as a bunch of Southern yahoos who just don't know the proprieties of modern feminist protocol and the sensibilities of our cultural mandarins,” observed Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor-in-chief of First Things, “or as people possessed of a refreshing insouciance who feel perfectly free to thumb their noses at the sometimes stifling restrictions our culture imposes on real debate.”

“I suspect,” he told the Register, “that there's some truth in both perceptions.”

While past convention resolutions calling for a boycott of entertainment giant Disney Co. due to the company's perceived pro-homosexual bias, and 1996's launch of a controversial campaign to evangelize Jews drew sharp criticism, this year's announcement on gender roles in the family was greeted by most commentators with quiet amusement.

When President Bill Clinton, a Southern Baptist, was asked June 10 about the vote, for example, he joked, according to White House press spokesman Mike McCurry, about “how he might call it to the attention of the First Lady,” Hillary Rodham Clinton.

(Later on, Clinton narrowly escaped a move on the part of his confreres to call on his home Church, Immanuel Baptist Church of Little Rock, Ark., to discipline the president if he refuses to rescind a recent executive order banning discrimination against homosexual federal employees, a measure the Convention opposes.)

The Southern Baptist declaration was, naturally, the subject of much “can-you-believe-it” analysis on television. Bill Maher's irreverent TV roundtable “Politically Incorrect” devoted a whole segment to it at the time of the convention.

But, sniggering aside, the Southern Baptist statement on pecking order in the family is another significant indicator of where the 16-million member denomination may be headed.

In contrast to past convention resolutions, the statement was voted in as part of the denomination's basic “creed,” the first such addition to the now 18-article Baptist Faith and Message Statement since 1963. (The Statement itself hails from 1925, a product of the pitched battles that took place in most American Protestant denominations between “liberals” and fundamentalists about biblical interpretation.) Adopted by an overwhelming margin, the amendment easily survived an attempt on the part of a group of delegates to soften the statement's language in favor of mutual submission of husband and wife.

While Southern Baptists generally are not required to subscribe to the document — they do not consider themselves to be a “creedal” Church — it still figures as the denomination's official policy statement, informing Church teaching materials and, often enough, seminary and ministerial appointments. Politically, it's one more piece of evidence that the Church's traditional wing is calling the shots — a growing trend since the late 1970s when a less literal-ist mentality was in evidence in leading Southern Baptist seminary circles. That point was also brought home by the fact that one of the leaders of the effort to reassert traditional Southern Baptist values, Paige Patterson, president of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in North Carolina, ran unop-posed as the new president of the Southern Baptist Convention, and, not surprisingly, won.

Though a strong supporter of the notion of biblical inerrancy — the idea that the Bible is free of any and all error — Patterson has long supported the denomination's 30-year dialogue with the Catholic Church, a “conversation” officially endorsed by delegates to the 1994 Southern Baptist Convention.

More importantly, the statement, in the face of high divorce rates, absentee fathers, and teen violence, underlines the high priority that the restoration of traditional family life is becoming for large numbers of American Christians.

Patterson, 55, the denomination's newly elected leader, indicated as much in a recent interview. The amendment, he said, was a response to “a time of growing crisis in the family.”

Not that the position the Southern Baptists adopted on men's and women's roles in the family is particularly unique in the world of evangelical Christianity. Based on a number of New Testament passages, but laid out most eloquently in Paul's Letter to the Ephesians (5:21-33), the notion that gender roles in marriage, conceived after the model of humble service, are part of a “divine order” in the Christian family would come as little surprise to many conservative Protestants, as well as to movements like the Promise Keepers, the fast-growing Christian men's group.

“There's nothing new here,” said Brother Jeffrey Gros, a noted Catholic ecumenist, and director of ecumenical and inter-religious affairs for the National Council of Catholic Bishops (NCCB).

“The reason for [the statement] is also not hard to fathom,” he pointed out. “There's a breakdown of the family in the culture. There's a women's movement challenging older views of women's roles in the family and society. This is their strategy for dealing with it.”

In this sense, the conservative evangelical approach is the mirror-image of the feminist one. While many modern feminist scholars, both in and outside the Church, dismiss the Pauline directives on male headship of the home as an outmoded concession to first-century mores, conservative evangelicals highlight its relevance — both as a nod to biblical inerrancy, and as a practical strategy for reinvigorating male involvement in contemporary family life.

Even so, some non-Southern Baptist conservatives have moved in recent years toward an understanding of male headship within the family that includes a strong dose of mutual consultation between husband and wife and common discernment about God's will for the family.

The Catholic Church's approach to this area tends to be more sophisticated and, finally, less focused on gender roles than the position outlined by the Southern Baptist plank.

“The Church certainly doesn't deny [St. Paul's] very powerful analogies between Christ and the Church and the husband and wife,” said Father Neuhaus. “But what it underlines is not the ‘dominance’ issue,” he told the Register, “but the call to both husband and wife to mutually submit to Christ.”

Christ's role, he stressed, is always that of the servant-lord.

“He came not to be served, but to serve.”

In that sense, said Father Neuhaus, the Church's position [on the passage from Ephesians] is more radically counter-cultural than the Baptists' one, which can too easily be understood “as a statement about who's boss.”

The Church has never denied that there might be role differences in marriage. Pope Pius XI's 1930 encyclical Casti Connubii (On Christian Marriage) is eloquent on that point (see sidebar).

But what is even more important than roles is the marital goal of creating a community of persons. Pope John Paul II has written extensively on the topic.

For example, the Pope puts the Apostle's admonitions of spousal love and respect in the context of “the sincere gift of self” in marriage.

In his 1994 Letter to Families, he writes: “It is because of this love that husband and wife become a mutual gift. Love contains the acknowledgment of the personal dignity of the other and of his or her absolute uniqueness.”

And, perhaps most strikingly, the Pontiff, in his pioneering 1988 apostolic letter on the dignity and vocation of women, Mulieris Dignitatem, sees that the husband's self-sacrificing love and the wife's divinely motivated subjection “is to be understood and carried out in a new way: as a ‘mutual subjection out of reverence for Christ’ (cf. Ep 5:21).”

Only in the context of this mutual submission out of reverence for Christ do the rest of the passage's admonitions make sense.

The special subjection of wives, the Pope writes, is the “old” reality that the New Testament author saw as “profoundly rooted in the customs of religious tradition of the time.” By contrast, the call to mutual subjection is “something new,” an “innovation of the Gospel.”

The U.S. bishops made a similar point in their 1994 Pastoral Message to Families.

“There is a real difference here,” said Brother Gros. The Southern Baptist position argues for a hierarchical remedy to the family's ills. “The Pope's exegesis [of Ephesians] is that mutual submission to Christ is the answer.”

But few would argue, no matter what one thinks about who's supposed to submit to whom in the New Testament's daunting vision of Christian marriage, that contemporary American society has an even more fundamental “bone to pick” with the Letter to the Ephesians.

As New York Times religion writer Peter Steinfels wryly observed in a June 13 article on the latest Southern Baptist controversy: “What all these Christians, from the Southern Baptists to the Pope, might agree upon is that in contemporary society, nobody wants to be subject to anyone, mutually or not.”

Gabriel Meyer writes from Los Angeles.

Who are the Southern Baptists?

Southern Baptists make up the largest non-Catholic Church body in America. They claim more than 38,000 churches and more than 15,000,000 members.

While Southern Baptists were not formally organized until 1845, they played an important role in early American religious life. In 1639, Roger Williams founded the first Baptist Church in America, in Providence, R.I.

Baptists migrated South in the mid-1770s, stressing their characteristic doctrines of adult baptism, evangelism, and revival. In 1845, the denomination split into Northern (American Baptist) and Southern branches when Northerners resisted the appointment of slaveholders as missionaries. At last year's Southern Baptist Convention, delegates asked forgiveness of African-Americans for the denomination's past support for slavery.

— Gabriel Meyer