When my wife was facing her greatest physical danger, I wasn’t able to help much at all. Her clenched teeth, groans and occasional screams told me how serious it was, but there was nothing I could do except hold her hand and pray as she delivered our babies.
With modern medical care, death in childbirth is very low (about one in 10,000), though this is still three times higher than the likelihood of being killed in a car crash during the same year. In the ancient world about a quarter of women died giving birth.
No wonder Genesis says that painful childbirth was one of two curses brought on women when Eve sinned. The other was submission to her husband (Genesis 3:16). Men were also cursed with painful labour of a different kind: weeds and poor soil turned farming into back-breaking toil (vs17-19).
We have been able to minimise three of these curses using analgesics, weed killer and tractors – surely something for which everyone would give God thanks. But what about the curse of wifely submission? Is it something that is still right to encourage?
In the Old Testament, being a perfect wife did not equate to being weak. Eve was called Adam’s ‘help’ (Hebrew ezer) – a word used elsewhere only of God and warriors who give protective ‘help’. And the perfect wife in Proverbs 31 was a successful entrepreneur, not a servile doormat.
Contrary to popular belief, Proverbs 31 wasn’t written by Solomon. By contrast, the proverbs attributed to Solomon include many warnings about women who are wicked, loud or nagging, such as: ‘A quarrelsome wife is like the dripping of a leaky roof in a rainstorm’ (27:15). But I wonder if this tells us more about the author than it does about gender.
The Romans regarded the ideal woman as submissive, demure and thrifty, but just before New Testament times there was a growing emancipation movement, and speeches from the time show how frightened men were of this! Wives had recently gained the legal right to spend money without their husband’s permission, and men complained that fortunes were disappearing on hairstyling and jewellery. By New Testament times, women were also enacting equality by taking lovers as men did.
Josephus, a Jewish historian, took the opportunity to commend Judaism to his Roman readership through his comments about women. While married to his third wife he wrote in Contra Apion that Jewish scripture said: ‘The woman is in all things inferior to the man’ (CA 2.24). This was a lie of course – there is no text like that in the Bible – but he knew his readers would love it. He then summarised the Law of Moses in a way that mirrored Roman household management. This was based on Aristotle’s three maxims: Wives should submit to husbands; children should submit to fathers; and slaves should submit to masters (CA 2.24- 30).
NEW TESTAMENT TEACHING
Paul and Peter also commended Aristotle’s three-fold submission, but for different reasons and with less enthusiasm. They agreed that slaves should submit, but added the caveat that masters should not misuse them. Likewise they agreed that children should submit but added that fathers should not debase them. And they agreed that wives should submit but that husbands should love them sacrificially (Ephesians 5:22 – 6:9; Colossians 3:18 – 4:1; 1 Timothy 2:9 – 3.7; 6:1-2; 1 Peter 2:18 – 3:7).
It was important for Paul and Peter to commend Aristotle’s rules (though with these caveats) because of the danger to the Christian message if they taught equality. They knew that encouraging a lack of submission in family life would be interpreted as immorality. If they taught equality, Christian wives would be regarded like the licentious Roman equal-rights women, so non-believers would ‘malign’ their religion (Titus 2:5). They therefore told Christians to submit even to cruel masters and unbelieving husbands in order to advance the Gospel (1 Peter 2:18-21; 3:1-2; 1 Timothy 6:1).
In the Old Testament, being a perfect wife did not equate to being weak
THE MARRIAGE SERVICE
But should Christian wives still submit to their husbands today? Well, what did you promise when you got married?
Traditional marriage vows reflect the language of Ephesians 5:21-29 where we are told that Christ loves, cherishes and nourishes his church, and this morphed into the language of ‘love, honour and keep’. At some point, the words ‘to obey’ were added. Presumably this also derives from Ephesians – ‘Wives, submit’ – even though this follows immediately after ‘Submit to one another’ (vs21- 22). This indicates an equal approach in the Christian world towards submission. This is also found in the Jewish world. In some surviving Jewish marriage certificates, the bride promises to obey her new husband, and in a small number the groom also says he will obey his wife.
The marriage service in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (1662) remained almost unchanged from 1085 when it already included ‘love, honour and keep’. The bride also promised ‘to be bonny and buxom in bed and at board’. ‘Bonny’ used to mean ‘good’, ‘buxom’ meant ‘obedient’, and ‘board’ referred to the ‘sideboard’ – the place where meals were served. So this meant: ‘be good and obedient, night and day’. Sadly this was replaced by the more prosaic language: ‘to obey’.
But the old marriage service does not only tell wives to submit. Traditional grooms say, ‘With my body I thee worship’. The old English ‘to worship’ means ‘to serve obediently’. We still use the term in court when we call the judge ‘your worship’.
This language of mutual submission survived even in the Alternative Service Book (1980). If the bride chose to say ‘love, cherish, and obey’, the groom had to reply with ‘love, cherish, and worship’. Only since the year 2000 can a bride now promise ‘to obey’ without her husband reciprocating with a promise of worshipful submission. One-sided obedience is a very recent phenomenon in wedding vows.
Submission by the wife alone was not available in traditional wedding vows before this millennium. They either omitted ‘obey’ or they both promised to submit to each other, as in Ephesians 5:21. I can’t help thinking that this latter promise is better than the modern emphasis on individual rights and self-determination. Two people committed to serving each other are much more likely to live harmoniously than two people both trying to be the boss.