Regular readers of my blog will have already guessed that as far as traditional Christian marriage roles are concerned, I’m not a ladylike, submissive Christian wife. Many of you will presume I’ve never tried to be. But you’d be wrong about that.
I wasn’t raised a Christian – I grew up in a middle-class, largely egalitarian family, where it was never suggested I could not become anything in life I imagined I could be. I have two brothers, and we kids were all raised exactly the same in terms of our educational and vocational aspirations. The only time I ever felt the slightest bit of gender prejudice from my parents was when my mother refused to buy me a skateboard when I was thirteen. I was disgusted. I suspected that she’d have happily bought my brothers one if they’d asked, and that her resistance was based on some puerile idea that girls don’t ride skateboards. I was furious for about a day, until I realised if I saved up my pocket money for two weeks, I could actually buy one for myself. So I did. I practiced hard and eventually taught myself to stay on the sucker, but better still, I learned that getting mad because something seemed unfair was ok for a while, but sooner or later I would just have to find a way to solve the problem for myself. It didn’t matter what people thought, or even if they actively opposed you, because if you thought you could do it you probably could, and would find a way. That was the way we did it at my house. It didn’t ever occur to me growing up that I was intrinsically inferior in some way because I was female – I felt that if I failed at or couldn’t do something it would be because I didn’t study, didn’t work hard enough at it or didn’t care enough to get involved in the first place.
Growing up in a house full of males, I learned very early that weakness, stupidity and foolishness are in reality in no way gender specific. Men can be as self-interested and tedious as the silliest female specimen. However, neither my father or my brothers ever told me I should act a certain way because I was a girl, or said it was my destiny to have babies, cook and wear dresses and never swear or argue. Arguing was actually an art form in my family. I had to learn to defend myself, not from physical blows, but from intellectual and verbal ones. We jousted enthusiastically with words at my house, and I learned very quickly I would never be allowed to simply run from the room whimpering, or use any excuse related to my gender to get out of a good argument. I was expected to step up and state my case on an issue, and be willing to defend it, sometimes for years at a time. This is why atheists don’t scare me. I was sparring regularly with four of the best of them way before I even bought my first bra.
Nor surprisingly, I made it to national level on the high school debating team.
I thank feminism for creating a society for me to grow up in where sexism and misogyny were largely absent – but then I went and became a Christian and started going to church. It was not my upbringing, my education or my socialisation that first presented me with the idea that women are weak, silly and not to be trusted. It wasn’t until I started going to church when I was thirteen I was presented with the startling concept that women should not speak. I had encountered many females in my time who didn’t speak, but I’d always believed it was only ever because it wasn’t convenient, they didn’t feel like it, or else they lived under a political regime where speaking generally was not tolerated. I did feel like it, often, and didn’t live under a regime, so speaking was actually one of the few things I became very good at.
I studied acting, because I didn’t have any trouble speaking in front of people, but when they actually expected me to pretend to be someone else doing it, I gave it up. I wanted to say what I thought. I wanted to tell people stories, and teach them things I had learned. I wanted to express all the poetry and the art inside me, and it never occurred to me that there would be people who wouldn’t let me. After all, I had always been told – at home, at work and in school – that I could be and do anything I dreamed of, and had been treated as if I had something worthwhile to contribute. Being a female was simply not an excuse I could use anywhere. Except church.
The church told me I could be anything I dreamed of too, and said this was God’s plan for me. From the time I first starting going to church, I wanted to become a pastor – to know many things about God and the Bible, and use my ability to speak in front of people and tell them about Him and help. God had never made me believe He was not willing to allow me to develop this gift, so I started seeking out opportunities in the church to do what I knew I was good at. I wanted to work in God’s house. Growing up the only theist in a house full of unbelievers is incredibly spiritually demoralising. I trusted my spiritual family would encourage me and support me in my gifts, perhaps even more than my biological one had.
The people at church found out I could sing, and as I fit the profile in other ways (female, blonde, safely married, attractive, a Christian for more than ten minutes), I became a worship leader. I started singing in church on Sundays and progressed to recording and writing songs for the church, then to singing at conferences and major events. My worship songs were sung and recorded internationally. I hoped one day I would be able to stop with the singing and start saying something. You’re the worship leader – not the preacher they would chide me, snatching the mic before I had a chance to blab any more of what was on my mind. It was hard not to be disheartened. I’d been a Christian a long time. I’d been though stuff in my life. I studied and received my Bible College qualification. I jumped through all their hoops. I believed God was calling me to speak. I felt called, but was told I was merely ambitious. I needed to check my attitude.
I watched as other worship leaders were shunted out to church plants – as pastors. In my less livid moments, I reflected on the differences between the ones who were supported to pursue their ministries and me. A demeanour not given to emotional displays was one. A supportive, complimentary wife, two. Oh – and a penis.
Submit, they said. You must submit. When you submit, all of God’s great plan for your life will unfold before you.
Maybe God wasn’t calling me to lead the church at all. Maybe it really was a submission problem. Maybe what I needed to do was get the order of things right in my own home. Maybe He was just calling me to lead the little flock I already had – my children. I could see ways I could improve on submission in my marriage. I approached my husband. I have this submission problem, I told Ben, and I want you to be the leader from now on, so I can submit to you. Er, ok then, he said. So, you just start leading anytime now, and I’ll just follow you and submit to you like a good Christian wife, all right? I said. Er, ok, Ben said. Anytime now. Off you go. Lead, lead, lead!
Ben just kind of blinked at me. Before this, we’d always kind of just worked things out as we went along, and decisions got made based on who had the most time available or who had the best idea of how to fix it. And it worked. When it came to our marriage, Ben had never wanted or needed to lead me, and I had never wanted or needed to follow him. When either of us had a spaz or did something dumb, we got someone in to help us with it or else just worked it through. But as far as I was concerned, my frustrations with my place in the church clearly indicated that we had an imbalance of power in our marriage, i.e.: I had too much power (and was therefore getting all these high-folutting ideas about leading in the church) and Ben had too little power (and was letting me get way out of hand). Things were clearly careening out of control at our house. Strangely, Ben hadn’t seemed to notice it.
I decided the best way to get me to spend more time in the house with my family – thus getting my mind off my lofty spiritual ambitions and back where they ought to be, concentrating on how to be submissive – was to get all the kids back home to keep my mind and hands occupied. I signed them out of school and ordered a homeschooling curriculum. I decided I needed to stop pretending I was a man, and threw out all my man clothes, replacing my jeans with long, flowy skirts. I grew my hair out long. I stopped worship leading and started a homeschoolers newsletter instead. I showed Ben all our financial accounts and said he could do them all from now on, because he was the boss now, and that’s what bosses do. I started a home-business to supplement our income, so I wouldn’t be out in society tempting other women’s husbands with my feminine wiles, or stealing a jobs from a man who needed to support his family. I set about being the very best wifey and mumma Jesus ever set breath into.
Despite my occassional fears that the wheels would fall off our family if I stopped making any of the decisions and gave all my brains away, nothing very bad happened to us. Well, nothing very bad anyone could see. I found being a submissive wife really, really difficult. Not because I didn’t want to submit to Ben, but because Ben wasn’t really that interested in doing to me whatever the opposite of submitting was. He found the drastic changes – the clothing and hair, the constantly deferring to his authority in everything, the insistence I had sometimes of wearing a headscarf to indicate my submission even when he insisted “take that do-rag off or you’re not going anywhere in public.” – were at best amusing, and at worst, baffling. I’m sure he wondered more than once if I was about to join, or perhaps start, a Christian female submission cult. He didn’t know what I did – there were already plenty of them around.
Just in case I wasn’t busy enough making my own preserves, homeschooling three children and running a home-business, we thought we’d liven things up a bit by moving into a caravan and doing a spot of travelling around the country. We’d been on the road only a couple of months when I fell pregnant with our fourth baby. I was delighted – we were well on our way to our quiverfull. But I knew my technical limitations were reaching their limit. We rented a house.
The birth of our fourth child when I was 33 was harder than I thought, and I didn’t bounce back as quickly as I expected. Several months later, I was diagnosed with post-natal depression. Whilst she wrote me a script for anti-depressants, my GP said, “Have you ever considered the possibility you may have a mood disorder?” No kidding. A visit to a psychologist got me officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder. However, reading through the list of symptoms was like reading the mail of an awful lot of submissive, very well-behaved Christian women I knew.
I started telling other women I was on medication. As it turned out, many of them had also been told they had mood disorders and depression, or were bipolar as well. How is it that a born-again, spirit-filled, Bible believing Christian woman, living as submissively and under the authority of the church and of her husband as she knows how and is physically and spiritually capable, actually presents as mentally ill?
I suspected I was not going to be able to maintain the status quo for much longer. I would spent hours lying in bed, imagining how messed up I might get if I jumped off our balcony, and if it was likely I’d die straight away or just be really, really hurt. Being really, really hurt seemed like a viable alternative to me to the way things were in my life. Something had to change, and seeing as it was me that did all the changing from when things were perfectly okay, I thought it was probably going to have to be me. I talked to Ben about putting the kids back in school, and about wearing jeans again. I had long ago taken back our finances – he just didn’t have a head for it. I told Ben I was thinking about going back to worship leading at church, and I might even do Bible College. “Thank God for that.” Ben said with relief. I got my hair cut that very day.
Look, everyone, I gave that church-manufactured model of submissive “Biblical” Christian womanhood a red hot go, I really did. Now, I know what many will say. They’ll say it didn’t work in making our marriage more successful and quenching my vile ambitions to lead because I was too extreme. But if you ask Ben why it didn’t work, he will tell you it was because there was nothing wrong with the way things were before. The changes I introduced were not our idea. They were someone else’s idea. Not my husbands idea – someone else’s husbands idea. Some other pastors wife’s husbands idea.
Ben and I are actually perfectly suited in nature to each other when we just be ourselves. I am a natural communicator. Ben is a natural thinker. I am passionate, impulsive and ambitious. Ben is deeply loyal, consistent and reliable. I am an initiator. He is a perfectionist. And strangely, since we stopped trying to fit to those other pastors wife’s husbands’ idea of how our marriage should work and the way we should behave – since I stopped trying to be something I am not, and make my husband lead me when he has no interest in doing it – I am no longer on depression medication, and my bipolar disorder has miraculously disappeared. And our marriage is great. Amazing.
I don’t want to pastor a church any more. Very much. Many women in this country do get to do it, although in other countries I believe it’s still quite difficult in some denominations for a woman to get an ordination and a congregation. When a woman doesn’t get to pastor, teach or preach, it’s often much more than merely a gender issue, and I appreciate many people have wrong motives for wanting to get into ministry or simply aren’t suited. But being a woman is not an intrinsic character flaw that ought disqualify her from leading or pastoring, any more than being a man is an intrinsic character strength that qualifies him to do it.
The way many Christian men talk about it, you’d think the submission of women was something awfully special the men were doing. Submission is a verb, describing the action of the one doing it – not the attributes of the one demanding it. The fact remains that we don’t have to follow any leader simply because they wish to lead us. And the leader who brags on the submission of others as if it were his right, or as if it was his strength and their weakness that necessitated it, that leader had better be careful he didn’t mean oppression instead. I believe that those who demand submission of others, requiring they diminish or extinguish some wonderful or fantastic thing they are or love or know in order to do it, effectively disqualify themselves from being worthy of benefiting by it. It actually takes incredible strength, wisdom and grace to submit. Maybe that’s why some men decide never to try it.
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