OK, I admit it. I used Michelle Bachmann’s name in the title of my blog post to get more hits. But her response to the question about whether she would submit to her husband if she became president reveals what an enormous shift that conservative Christianity has undergone in my lifetime. If you didn’t see the quote, here’s what she said:
Marcus and I will be married for 33 years this September 10th. I’m in love with him. I’m so proud of him. And both he and I — what submission means to us, if that’s what your question is, it means respect. I respect my husband. He’s a wonderful, godly man, and a great father. And he respects me as his wife.
Not long ago, this would have been a cataclysmic thing for a conservative Christian woman to say! I wonder if we’re reaching the point where outside of a few holdouts like Mark Driscoll, gender hierarchy has disappeared as a viable ideology much the same way that segregationism quietly disappeared as an open political ideology in the early 1970’s.
When I was a kid growing up in the Texas Baptist subculture of the Reagan years, it was highly controversial for women to work outside of the home. We had a lady in our school carpool who not only had an office job, but she let her daughter get a haircut like a boy. Nobody ever told me that there was anything wrong with her, but I remember thinking, wow, she’s such a liberal. It was a time when there were articles in news magazines about “latchkey kids” who didn’t have a mom to greet them when they came home from school and thus apparently turned to gangs and drugs and premarital sex. Daycare was a big controversy also. It was seen as an inherently Soviet institution, the “state” playing nanny to your children, completely un-American. Of course, it’s interesting how the concept of daycare has evolved, as the last twenty years have seen so many churches take it up as an outreach program for young families.
I do have to give major props to my mother for staying home to raise my sister and me and for being part of the cadre of volunteers who used to provide the church with most of its labor force. I can’t imagine what my growing-up years would have been like if my mom had had a job. Particularly in middle school, I needed her to be there when I got home after a day of bullying. My mother has also been one of the most important and under-appreciated lay ministers at every church she’s been a part of. Now that I’m a pastor, I’m really noticing the way that the rug has gotten pulled out from under us in the local church as our volunteer pool disappears with the vast majority of women working full-time.
Of course, the major economic shift that probably forced the ideological shift on the question of women in the workforce is the way that it’s become impossible to support a middle-class household with a single wage-earner. It’s awkward to argue against raising minimum wage if you’re also going to argue that households should only have one bread-winner. So I guess in this case the ideological commitment to laissez-faire capitalism trumped the ideological commitment to the Victorian household.
I’m curious as to whether Michelle Bachmann’s reinterpretation of Ephesians 5:22-32 is a harbinger of a revisionist vanishing of gender hierarchy that may be taking place in conservative Christian circles. I don’t expect to see any criticism of her from her right flank (partly because being to the right of Michelle Bachmann is like being south of Antarctica). Perhaps her perspective will quietly become the position that conservative Christians claim to have held all along.
When my wife and I got married, we preached a sermon together on this passage from Ephesians. We alternated washing each other’s feet while the other one read the sermon from a manuscript. Our argument was that Christian servanthood makes any kind of hierarchy a meaningless concept. If I am supposed to “lead” my wife, I would do that in a Christlike way by empowering and encouraging her to discover her gifts and her calling, which necessarily involves submitting to her as a servant. If she were the only one who submitted in the relationship, I would be disempowered of the experience of discipleship to which Christ calls us when He says that we are to follow His example of being servants to all. We preached about the way that Simon Peter vehemently refused to let Jesus submit to him and wash his feet, wondering if his strong response was to the shameful disempowerment of being served by another person.
This is what people like Mark Driscoll have backwards. If my wife were to let me be the macho, chest-thumping head of household, then she would get to have the experience of Christian discipleship and the cultivation of spiritual fruits that comes from a basic posture of humility while I continued to languish in ridiculous self-aggrandizement. Being encouraged to swagger along and boss your family around might attract certain types of men to church, but how are they going to get anywhere in their walks with Christ if they never learn how to submit? How do you learn how to submit to God if you’re not willing to listen and yield to the partner God has given you to be your lifelong coach, critic, and cheerleader? I suspect that the reason so many good Christian women have gone along with gender hierarchy for so many years is because it allowed them to be Christlike. But this was a major disservice to their husbands, who were robbed of learning true servanthood, which means so much more than doing nice things for other people. Being a servant to others means submitting to them and being so acutely attentive to their needs that they come before your own needs.
In any case, I don’t agree with everything Michelle Bachmann has to say, but she gave a beautiful response to a very snarky question. I really hope that regarding gender, perspectives like hers quietly become the new norm for the right end of the spectrum in American Christianity.