A few years ago:
I saunter up to an apartment building and a man rings me in. Inside, the apartment door is open; shoes lie scattered in a wood-paneled entryway. A large woman sits on the sofa, and a short one introduces herself. Amy* then follows her infant son around the room, patiently picking up blocks as he scatters them. I serve myself tea and chat with the women, smile at their toddlers, nod to the married men with wives back in their home country. There are just two single women here: myself and Carrie.
We sing a few songs. And then Lorence* starts the bible study:
“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord…”
His text is Ephesians 5:22-33, a contentious, 2000-year-old divine word that puts men above women. Most churches now soften the text, but Lor makes it harder. He insists that God has placed men over women, and women should submit. “Submission,” he says, “is about recognizing authority. This is for the good of the team. A Christian is like a soldier… our duty is to Submit.”
Is Lor, with his close-cropped hair, a soldier? I idly wonder. Where did he come from?
As Lor speaks, Matt* catches his eye. “But–but God isn’t male!” Matt says, quoting how both are made in God’s image:
“So God created man in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:27).
“God is a man,” Lor counters.
“He isn’t male or female, he’s above male and female,” Matt says.
“Whoah-whoah, ok, let’s not get New Age!” Lor interrupts. “Man came first, God created man first.”
This starts a conversation among the twenty people seated around a low coffee table. But not everyone is happy; Amy curves her arms around her young son.
Suddenly, Lor intervenes, saying again, “let’s not get New-Age-Hindu around here!” He reminds us that God has authority. Men, being like God, are also in authority. He quotes the disciples, who said, “even the demons obey us!” (Luke 10:17).
Wait, I jerk to attention. Did he just compare women to demons?
“We’re free in Christ, not in anarchy,” Lor corrects us. “Free from bondage, from rituals, from religion.”
Sam speaks up and suggests that “perhaps it’s hard for women to submit, and hard for men to fully love and sacrifice. So God gives us hard things to each.” This supports complimentarianism, the idea that men and women have separate roles. A compromise; the women exhale.
Lor resists this, clearly uncomfortable. “You know, these are very good points, but I don’t know that women love more than men.”
“In Germany we learned this lesson—” Dieter quietly lifts his voice. He says that the experience with the Nazis warns him against submitting his own conscience to any outside authority. “I submit only to God,” Dieter firmly says.
“Yes, that’s what the Bible tells us,” Lor nods.
“So how can I ask my wife to do otherwise?” Dieter goes on.
“But—“ Lor looks startled “—women should still submit to their husbands…”
I’m unclear if Lor has a wife. I suspect I shouldn’t offer. And I watch, astonished, as Lor shoots down each moderate voice. We fall silent. The conservatives must not agree, but they let Lor’s voice harden and prevail. I breathe lightly; the women around me are still. Sam rubs his wife’s back, her soft palm nestled in the crook of his arm. People touch nervously, stilled beneath Lor’s ardent gaze.
“Perhaps society was more hierarchical then, but it’s just… like, flattened out now,” I suggest. Maybe the historical context of ancient Ephesus affects what was taught to the men and women of the ancient church.
“It has nothing to do with one being lesser,” Lor replies. “It’s about submission.”
So we nod. We bow. We submit.
And then we break for coffee.
Shi–, I’m thinking. Is this how it goes? Do we all get quiet so easily? Surely some disagreed, but none of us would stand up for it.
And even now, I’m startled at the power of that moment, at how easy one voice can overrule them all. Perhaps Dieter was right—it can happen again, in small ways, small spaces. It’s hard to stand up to anger in the guise of Truth. Something in us submits—not to the group, or even to God, but to allowing one man to hold temporary power.
Two years later.
I’m reminded of this again when Nen calls. She mentions that her church discussed marriage this week. Pastor Bob* started with creation:
“And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman… And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man. Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife…” (Genesis 2:22-24)
In the ancient story, God makes man (“adam”) and then reaches in and yanks out a rib, making woman (“eve”). “…and Adam was so humble, he named Eve after himself,” as Nen wryly notes. She finds the story odd, as this parentless couple are proof of why we leave our parents to marry.
But in calling a woman man’s “helper” (Gen. 2:18), the pastor also highlights how God is a helper (ezer) to his people (Exodus 18:4). This suggests that even traditional women can be powerful, and come alongside men in important ways.
But then Pastor Bob reads Ephesians 5:22-33, as Lor did:
Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the savior of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it… So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies… (Ephesians 5:22-23)
The tone is gentler, but the message the same: wives should ‘submit’ to their husbands, and husbands ‘sacrifice’ to their wives.
“Those terms bother me a lot,” Nen says. “In actual action the two are pretty darn similar. And Bob says there’s no hierarchy, but then he uses these loaded terms. Why do we translate it as submission for women, and then spend so much time trying to tell people how it’s not really submission?”
“Well, there used to be a hierarchy, wasn’t there?” I respond. “So that was submission, and that’s why we’ve got all these hierarchical words.”
“Anyhow, if man is created in the image of God,” Nen wants to ask, “why are women created in the image of… the church?”
She quickly assures me that she doesn’t want to “be a feminist,” but wants to talk about it, especially because others won’t talk about it. Nen says her married friends had a lot to say, but the singles were silent. Pastor Bob had lectured everyone to stop being selfish and get married.
“What about Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (7:8), where he says to stay single if you can possibly stand it?” I ask.
Nen laughs. “Pastor Bob didn’t raise that point.”
She’s silent for a moment. “I guess I don’t like giving away moral rights. When it’s not morally right, then if it’s important enough you can rebel. But if someone in authority has a moral right [to your submission]… then you can’t say no.”
It’s interesting how Nen echoes Dieter, without ever having heard him. Like him, she argues that forced authority can distort our freedom to choose the right path. She suggests that both women and men can reflect something of God, of authority, and of a good helper. I may be putting words in her mouth here, but I hope this is what we can experience together as brothers and sisters in Christ.
[[*Note. I’ve been cautious in writing this because of how many of my friends in America and in Central Asian see religion as dangerous. There is danger in Lor’s words, but that’s not my usual experience. In Pastor Bob, we hear a traditional evangelical perspective. And in Sam and Dieter and Nen, we see people working out what gender means in the modern world. All four are deeply religious, and I don’t think we can say that religion *is* one person or the other.]]