Yesterday was international women’s day.
While the day has been commemorated since 1975, it does feel as though things have seismically shifted over the past 12 months in a way that has surprised many people including me.
It has been interesting to hear my daughters responding to the avalanche of abuse claims coming out after the #metoo movement gathered steam.
My girls are strong, beautiful and intelligent and they are very sensitive to anything that looks like injustice based on gender. On one occasion my youngest daughter was feeling tired and she burst into tears because she had suddenly internalised the data about the wages gap between men and women and told me “I am going to get paid 20% less than men for doing the same work and it’s not fair.”
As I have written elsewhere, the #metoo movement has rightly challenged the way men have seen and treated women and particularly demands that we learn to manage our sexuality differently. While most people agree with this sentiment, there are precious few people pointing out how this might be possible
On this day after International Women’s Day, I want to suggest that we rediscover the implications of a passage of the bible that many find troubling because it sounds sexist, but nonetheless a passage I believe that points to a model of a healthy relationship between the sexes, at least in terms of healthy sexual relationships.
I am talking about the Apostle Paul’s instructions to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5. I know that in saying this I have already lost some of my readers because they find this passage offensive.
While there is no doubt that what Paul writes does challenge our modern assumptions about relationships, this passage has often been misunderstood and abused, particularly by men.
I believe that the message of Ephesians 5:21-33, if we lived it out, would radically empower women and eliminate the need for a #metoo movement.
In order to read this passage properly, we need to acknowledge three things that are assumed by Paul but not commonly assumed in the Western world in 2018.
1) Men and Women are different.
Sadly in an effort to address the abuse and power imbalance that has existed between men and women through much of history, there has been a move to avoid the recognition of gender differences.
#MeToo reminds us that women have been inappropriately used and abused by men, and in doing so makes clear that it is important to be conscious of the differences between us.
In my favourite love song, Bono sings about “the mysterious distance between a man and a woman,” and I think he captures an important idea.
There have been lots of attempts to name the differences between men and women. John Gray is probably the most recent author to make a lot of money exploring this in his massive bestseller “Men are from Mars Women are from Venus.”
While books like this have attempted to make the gender differences simple, they very rarely are. There is no such thing as “the typical man” or the “the typical woman.”
Some men are very in touch with their emotions and some women love football. Despite this, however, there is a difference and it is a mysterious thing that can’t be glossed over.
Even the Sydney Morning Herald article that proclaimed “Men aren’t from Mars and Women aren’t from Venus“, quoting research that said the differences were not as obvious as previously thought, had to admit that “gender differences on average are not under dispute.”
In providing a framework for marriage that recognised the fact that men and women are different, the Apostle Paul acknowledges what Bono sings. The differences between two people somehow being melded into one relationship is “a profound mystery” (Ephesians 5:32.)
2) Marriage is the safest place for the complexity of the power dynamics inherent in a sexual relationship.
Part of the challenge that has been presented by #metoo is that we have that when sex and power get mixed, people get badly damaged.
The Apostle Paul understands that a sexual relationship is a vulnerable relationship and lays out the groundwork for a way of managing the power dynamics inside a long-term commitment.
Paul calls for a healthy marriage where both partners are giving and not grasping for their own needs to be met. Both partners are instructed to give up their rights for the sake of the other.
As we have moved away from the long-term commitment of marriage we have fallen into relationships that are more susceptible to the power imbalances that produce the need for #metoo.
It is important to note that Paul does not order every woman to submit to every man, but only wives to husbands. In fact, Paul made it clear that any kind of discrimination in power between men and women generally was anti-Christian.
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)
By providing a framework of mutual giving in relationships, the Apostle Paul provides an antidote to the culture of abuse that has become normalised in the Western world.
The more we move away from this marriage model, the more we can expect a culture of abuse to be normalised as the only rationale we have left for relationship is satisfaction of needs.
3) Women are free to choose their own responses to life. What many people who read this section of the bible usually fail to realise is that the language Paul is using assumes that women are free to make their own choices.
Paul was writing to a church that found itself in the context of a culture that saw women as property of men. It is interesting then, that Paul wrote first to the women and, after saying that everyone should submit to one another, Paul instructs wives to submit “to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.”
Often people stop at the word submit and are so frustrated by that, they don’t realise how revolutionary Paul’s words are. This is the only example of writings from this period that is addressed to wives as moral agents. Many others (including Aristotle) gave instructions for households that only addressed the men.
In telling women that they are to submit to their husbands, Paul assumes that women are able to make their own decisions and that the husband “belongs” to the wife just as much as the reverse. This is a reflection of what he had previously written to the Corinthians:
The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife. (1 Corinthians 7:4)
As Peter O’Brien, the author of the Pillar commentary on Ephesians says:
Paul’s admonition to wives is an appeal to free and responsible persons which can only be heeded voluntarily, never by the elimination or breaking of the human will, much less by means of a servile submissiveness.
The #metoo movement is a right response to a cultural blindness that has allowed men to treat women as objects in order to fulfil their own needs.
#MeToo has rightly pushed back at instances where men have abused women, and nothing about Paul’s instructed submission gives any room for abuse by men. As Peter O’Brien pointed out:
It goes without saying that wives are not to be subordinate in matters that are sinful or contrary to God’s commands (cf. Acts 5:29).
The Apostle Paul makes it clear that Women are to be treated as individuals with a right to choose their own actions. #MeToo has shown us how far we still have to go for that to be true.
4) Men don’t have a right to force their will on their partners: One of the ways that this section of the Bible has been misused in the past is by men who want to insist that their wives submit to them. Nothing about what Paul writes allows for this abuse of power.
While Paul calls on wives to submit to their husbands, he nowhere tells husbands to lead, direct, instruct or in any way dominate their wives. His command to husbands is to love their wives and give themselves up for their wives in the same way Christ gave himself up for the church.
#MeToo would not have been necessary if men realised they have no right to force their will on anyone, but rather demonstrate what love looks like by being willing to give up their needs for those they care about.
So as we reflect on this past year, and I think about the kind of partners I hope my daughters find, I hope we can rediscover the truth of Paul’s words written almost 2000 years ago.