I am honored to be a contributor to a new collection of essays called Talking Taboo: American Christian Women Get Frank About Faith. I wrote my essay about the question of male "headship" in marriage. Also in the collection, you'll find reflections on motherhood by Micha Boyett, on women as pastors by Marlena Proper-Groves and Sharon Hotte Miller, on male/female friendship by Enuma Okoro, on choosing to remain childless (child free?) in marriage by Erin Lane, and much more. Today I'm sharing an excerpt from my essay. Next week we'll have an interview with Enuma Okoro and Erin Lane, the editors of this compilation.
We got married young, at 22, three weeks after my husband graduated from college. It was a beautiful day, with the sun peeking out from behind pale gray clouds. The pews were filled with beautiful people, many of them churchgoers, from every point on the spectrum of Christian belief. There was my mother-in-law and her cohort from New Orleans who had come of age in the 1960s and asserted a woman's right to choose whatever she wanted for her body, who used gender-neutral language to refer to God, who worried that Peter and I were too conservative with our Bible studies and evangelicalism. There were our friends from Christian fellowship groups in college, who volunteered for Young Life and passed along Passion and Purity and challenged us when we slept in the same bed during weekends together throughout our long distance courtship. Many of their faces looked alike, but the theology underneath spanned divides of history and culture and practice.
And then there was the service itself. On the one hand, we were wed by a female pastor in an unspoken but public affirmation of the potential for women to lead within the church. At the same time, we asked one of my roommates from college to read Ephesians 5:21-28, the longest passage in the New Testament about the relationship between husbands and wives. Although it begins with the conciliatory, "Submit to one another out of reverence to Christ," it also contains the controversial lines, "Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord, for the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church." But we weren't thinking about headship that day. We chose the passage for its description of the relationship between husband and wife, a relationship of mutual love and respect, of giving and receiving to and from one another. We chose the passage because it taught us about marriage as both a source of great joy and a hard path to walk. And we chose it because it assumed an indelible link between the covenantal vow of a husband and wife and the covenantal relationship between Christ and his church.
Before that day, I had wrestled with the roles Scripture allowed for women, within the church and within society. I wanted to be able to trumpet the egalitarian ethos of my faith, to explain the ways in which Jesus' ministry subverted social norms, including those surrounding women. And yet I also believe that Scripture is the authoritative Word of God, and my own cultural norms and personal feelings do not, must not, trump Scriptural truth. So Paul's words that "women should remain silent in the churches" troubled me. I learned that scholars disagree about his meaning, and that there is a contextual possibility that his admonition was directed towards a specific group of women who disrupted church services. And when the woman who married us offered a gentle defense of her ministry, with stories from Deborah and Esther to Mary Magdalene and Priscilla, I became convinced that a faithful reading of Scripture could affirm women's leadership in every aspect of church life. I memorized Galatians 3:28: "In Christ there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
I came to a firm conclusion about women in the pulpit. And yet I hadn't wrestled with the roles of men and women within marriage itself. Even though we chose Ephesians 5 for our wedding service, I have avoided the question of male headship within marriage since the day we wed. It pops into my mind every so often—when a friend makes a comment about understanding herself as a member of "the weaker sex," when I see children wander away from the faith as adolescents and notice that their dads didn't participate much in church life and wonder whether Peter needs to be the spiritual leader in our household for our kids to embrace our faith, when I wonder if it makes a difference if Peter or I sit, literally, at the head of our dining room table. But it's not something I talk about, and I've started to wonder why . . .