I woke up angry this morning.
I feel like everyone has had this experience. You wake up under the cloud of a prevailing emotion and, whether you like it or not, it provides the theme for the day. It can ruin or brighten an entire 24 hours – sometimes for no reason that you can think of.
That wasn’t the case for me today, though it took a few cups of coffee to figure it out.
A few nights ago, my husband and I sat on the couch together to watch a 7.30 report on clergy wives who have experienced domestic abuse at the hands of their husbands. It was full to the brim with truly horrifying stories, and unsatisfying answers from several senior members of church leadership.
I have done a lot of reading and thinking about domestic violence and rape, in particular while I was studying law at university, but I still found it uniquely distressing in a way I still haven’t quite processed. In part, because I was afraid of what would come next.
All through yesterday I waited for the posts to reach my Facebook feed – the angry ones, about how the ABC, and Julia Baird in particular, had it out for Christians and were always mean to us and about how other religions have this problem too and sometimes people make false accusations.
I waited and waited. But they didn’t come.
There was silence. There was nothing. Women had gone on TV and spoken about their experiences and the church had admitted it had only committed $5,000 to tackling the problem and…nothing. Suddenly everyone was very quiet. Nobody had anything to say.
It was worse than the noise.
Domestic violence and the church have been on my mind ever since Julia Baird published her first article on the topic earlier this year. Some of the responses to her article were truly distressing to me. So many senior leaders and well-known figures in the Anglican church came out speaking about potential inaccuracies in her reporting, about interviews left on the cutting room floor, and about how the ABC are a bunch of pushbike-riding, latte-swilling small-l liberals. Even if all that is true, terrifying domestic violence was found to be occurring in the Sydney Anglican Church, justified by our teaching from God’s word, and nothing has been done.
I keep waiting for a big announcement, for Moore College to run talks on the subject – but all that seems to have been produced is this unsatisfying booklet. My own small church in a liberal part of Sydney has alluded to the topic in a few sermons, but there’s been no sweeping change at the diocese level.
Given the amount of money, resources and vigour that the diocese has pushed into issues like (but not exclusively) the same-sex marriage debate this year, this is very disappointing and very hurtful. Whether or not the intention of the diocese is to ignore victims, to be defensive and to push their stories aside, this is what it appears to be doing. It is essentially saying to victims either “you are not a credible witness to your own experience” or “you are not worth enough to warrant a change in behaviour.”
I wonder how many of them have heard similar things from their violent husbands.
There are so many things I want to say about this situation and about the church. I want to talk about the way that women’s voices are silenced in the church, about the many people who tell us we should pipe down – about how we should not scar our other more selfless and more feminine “good work” for God by, for example, speaking out on the internet. I want to talk about being Christian in a church that tells me men are allowed to be loud and wrong and angry, and calls it being on fire for the Lord, but calls women with opinions selfish and proud.
I want to talk about the time when I was in a relationship in which I was subtly controlled at times, the memory of which seems to live in the middle of a hall of mirrors. What was going on? How did I allow myself to be so manipulated? Why did nobody around me notice? Where would it have gone if it had been allowed to continue?
I want to talk about the time a friend came to me and told me that a good friend of mine had behaved toward her in a way that was, for want of a better term, rapey. I want to talk about how I didn’t believe her. “That’s not my experience of him,” I told her. I want to talk about my regret that I didn’t stand beside her. I want to talk about all his friends beside me who brushed her off. I want to talk about how strange it is to be told someone you trusted has betrayed someone in this way. More than that I want to talk about the incredible scepticism that women – and seemingly, especially Christian women – are met with when they say that a man has behaved inappropriately.
I want to talk about toxic masculinity and the way it has perverted the church, about Jesus as the ultimate man, and a man who was never cruel, was never self-serving, who never stood on his rights or acted as tyrant – even to the point of death.
I want to talk about the way in which married people in churches are firstly presumed to have no problems, and secondly discouraged from discussing any relationship issues at every turn by a church culture that holds up marriage as a sacred cow, and sees complaints – even very serious ones – as private matters that should be handled in-house.
I want to talk about the stories I have heard, whispered in quiet corners at parties and hinted at in the cold silence after a divorce and openly spoken of among clusters of women who know, who “get it” who have been there or who know someone who’ve been there. Who are safe.
I want to talk about why men are presumed to be well-intentioned, even when they may not be. About the concern over false reports and the lack of concern over real ones.
But you know what? Me going off about any of those things is not going to help the young Christians girls who are all over my Facebook feed.
It’s wedding season, and while at 28 I’m a little old for the first rush of younger couples rushing down the aisle and a little too young for the second “we’re 30 let’s get it done” round of pair-ups, Facebook friends of varying ages are gearing up to wed.
Many of them are very young. I got married at 23, and I looked like an old maid next to some of these rosy-cheeked, slender nymphs. Doubtless many of them are hard-nosed and vivacious, and will go on to have fabulous, rewarding marriages – my own is one example of how everything can, with a bit of luck and hard work, get along pretty well.
But they look so vulnerable, and I fear for them.
So instead of endlessly kneading my own past and staunchly defending my very right to type, I want to talk about submission – because this is the doctrine dirtbags most often manipulate to ruin their wives’ lives.
For the uninitiated, submission is a doctrine Paul talks about several times in his letters with regard to Christian, heterosexual marriage. Marriage, he says, is supposed to mirror the relationship of Christ and the church, and thus men and women have different roles. Men are to take on the loving, self-sacrificial role of Christ, and women are to “submit” to this love, as the church submits to Christ.
Not all Christians subscribe to this doctrine, and not all Christians think about it in the same way. When it works, I have seen the love/submission doctrine be a beautiful paradigm for a marriage, albeit a thorny one unlikely to be popular in the age of the angry feminist.* But it’s equally easy to see how this doctrine could very easily be perverted by a dirtbag. When I get to heaven Paul and I are gonna have a long talk about effective communications strategy.
This is not to say, of course, that all Christian husbands are bad and mean, or that Christian wives are walking into some kind of trap. As Julia Baird did legitimately fail to mention in her first round of reporting, studies show that the more seriously a Christian man takes his faith, the less likely he is to be abusive – after all, there are far more bible passages about kindness, generosity and love than about complementarianism. #notallChristianmen**.
I don’t think the problem on this issue is the bible’s teaching. I think the problem is a refusal at the church level to speak about or clarify the teaching, and to address the ways things can go wrong.
The fact is that the bible is full of strange topics like this one that are spoken about fully and well in the church, clearing up any confusion and setting relationships back on the rails. But while I’ve sat through plenty of talks and electives about the “role of men and women in the bible” – often, unfortunately, targeted toward women and about how we can avoid hurting men’s egos (not a biblical mandate) – I’ve heard very few practical, example-driven situations of how submission looks in a marriage.***
So it’s worth having a chat, girl to girl, especially to women getting married, about what submission actually means. It’s so amusing to me that we do this with other issues (like sex) which you can learn about anywhere, but fail to do it with submission, which is so niche and potentially even more difficult to talk about.
Let’s start with the basics. They’re shocking I know, but history has taught me we need to go there.
Submission never means your husband can deny you basic rights, like the right to sleep in your own bed, or the right to food and water, or the right to be in contact with the people that you love.
Submission doesn’t mean you have to do everything your husband asks you to do. It doesn’t mean you can’t argue with him or yell at him. It doesn’t mean that your wants and needs are less important than his.
Submission doesn’t mean your husband has sole control over the household’s money. It doesn’t mean that you don’t get to have a say in how money is managed, even if he, as the one in the workforce “earns it” or “earns more of it”.
Submission never means rape.
Submission never means putting up with shitty sexual behaviour that isn’t rape. It doesn’t mean that once you’re married, your husband has permission to do whatever he wants with and to you. It doesn’t mean you have to have violent sex, or a kind of sex you didn’t want to have that day, or that you need to try things you don’t want to try (all of which are rape, if he forces you to take part against your will). Your husband did not marry a sex robot. Neither of you is given 24/7 access to the other’s body.
Submission doesn’t mean traditional gender roles. It doesn’t mean that the man “loves” by going to work and the woman “submits” by staying home. There are many parts of the bible that exort all Christians to work hard, and many parts that acknowledge the reality that looking after children will comprise a big part of many women’s lives. But there are also many examples of women being entrepreneurs, and of men showing love and care to children. Certainly, Jesus did not consider menial tasks below himself, or below anybody else.
Submission does not mean that your husband has an objective view of the way things are in your relationship, and yours is somehow mired in “women crazy” and invalid. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a Christian woman say something like “I really think my husband should do more housework, but I’m just being harsh and should cut him more slack,” I would have enough dollars to be able to buy a billboard that says “THE MALE REALITY IS NOT THE OBJECTIVE REALITY.” It’s not harsh to want things, and cutting slack should not be your full time job. Your partner should take your wants and needs seriously.****
So then, what is submission? What does it look like in a real-life marriage?
My favourite picture of submission was explained to me by an old bible study leader. He considered that the idea of submission was only about submitting to love.
He used to use the example of his wife, who had two small children, and was constantly working. She struggled to stop, even if she was unwell. Her acts of submission, he said, usually looked like letting him run the house for a few hours, and to have a lie down.
In this picture, true sacrifice is hardly ever required of a wife, because the husband puts her needs before his own in all things. The only time a wife need submit is if a husband decides something is generally in the best interest of a family and his wife.
Imagine a wife and her husband are trying to decide between two equally good things – for example, deciding which car or couch to buy. They go back and forward for months on the issue – they don’t agree and are slowly becoming more and more angry with each other. In 30 years the outcome of this conversation will not matter, but the damage to their relationship might. So, if the husband will not give in out of love and take his wife’s side, the wife might give in. She may say, “fine, I submit.” She shouldn’t have to be the one to give in all the time. She probably gives in in situations where the outcome rarely matters a few months from the moment she gives up.
And this is the key. The wife chooses to give in – she is never made to. If women are made in the image of God, submission will always mean choosing to freely give up something to improve your relationship and show love and respect to the other person – not having something taken away, and not being bullied into surrendering it. Submission only works when two people have equal value and equal worth. Performed otherwise, it is a kind of spiritual slavery that the God I worship would never demand of anyone.
Not to mention that, when looked at this way, submission is not an idea exclusive to the bible. Every relationship requires compromise, requires letting your partner do things to take care of you, requires that one person say on occasion “ok, it’s your funeral,” and pay the price of their partner’s poor decision. The bible simply gives husbands and wives a specific framework for how this should happen.
But it’s difficult for submission to look that way when submission is only a conversation had between women, and when women are constantly being told to bite their tongue in all things, and when men are consistently told that they are built for leadership and their wives are not.
If we are serious about stamping out domestic violence, conversations about submission – and crucially, conversations about being a loving, sacrificial spouse – should happen often, and especially between engaged couples and some other right-minded party in the lead up to their marriage. Husbands and wives need to be double-checking that they understand this doctrine in the same way, and the church needs to be double-checking that people understand this doctrine for what it is.
If 2017 has taught us anything, it’s that some men are hideous jerkmonsters and they are almost always very, very good at hiding that fact from other men.
Those hiding in the church need to be hunted out. Women will not put up with being prey any more.
What the church is saying by refusing to have this conversation is that men’s feelings are more important than women’s lives.
*Which I should clarify, I think is a fantastic age.
***This lack of clarity is a goldmine for dirtbags, abusers and terrible husbands – whether they are Christian, or have Christian wives. If a woman is not sure what submission actually looks like, day to day, it’s easy for a bad husband to have her believe it looks like giving him whatever he wants, whenever he wants it. If the couple further believes, as some do, that a husband should be her ultimate authority on what scripture means on any one subject – including submission – the potential for disaster only deepens.
This is why good preaching on the topic is so crucial, and unfortunately, one of the reasons it doesn’t seem to happen is because men just don’t seem to understand or believe that there is a problem. Why would they? They are doing the right thing and so, it appears to them, are the other men in their lives. It is unusual for Christian men to have female friends, it is unusual for dirtbags to be dumb enough to slip up and be caught out by a fellow man, and it’s odd for women to bother to explain to men the small dangers that seem so obvious to us.
It still shocks me how often I have to teach such things to my husband (who only has brothers) which seem obvious to me (who only has sisters). I don’t want to take my large dog walking at night for his general health and wellbeing, I want to take him for the protection he appears to offer to anyone who might wish to harm me. But I have gotten off track again.
Swirling amongst this vortex of secular things, Christian things, and so much sin everywhere, is the Christian propensity to see speaking about your marriage (especially its negative or disappointing aspects) to anyone but your spouse, and easily misunderstood bible passages about a husband and wife being “one flesh”, and you have a scenario ripe for abuse. A power dynamic already tipped, and silence bought and paid for.
****just as women are taught to do for oh, I don’t know, every man on the damn earth.