Friday, August 1, 2008

Women in "Godly Marriages"

I was having a discussion once with a born-again Christian who was arguing passionately that it is best for women to be under the "loving headship" of a man, the way that the church is under the loving headship of Christ. The ideal marriage is not an egalitarian one, but one in which a man governs the woman based on his own consideration and love for her.

I did not see this as an ideal marriage, and have little interest in it. I'm one of those college-educated "women's libbers" who feels that I'm qualified to have my own means of economic support, and the same social and political autonomy as a man. Most importantly, I feel I'm better off this way.

My issue with taking the gender roles offered in the Bible at face value is that traditional heteronormative (if you'll forgive the jargon) marriage roles are upheld as "Biblical" (which is itself a largely-undefined term), but advocates are really just picking and choosing from what's in the Bible to support what they'd like.

Now, I know that "picking and choosing" is a trigger-phrase for a lot of people who are debating the Bible, and it's often used as a way to instantly condemn as "UnBiblical" whoever gets it applied to them. I feel it's appropriate here, though. There are a lot of aspects of the submissive-woman/leading-man arrangement that clearly came from the culture in which the Bible was written.

Levirate marriage is the best example of this I can think of. Because women in those times didn't have any economic power of their own (aside from prostitution, which is not exactly desirable), they had to be married to survive. If their husband died, it was his brother's duty to marry the widow (often in addition to his own wife) so that he could support her and give her the offspring that his late brother could not.

This came up in Matthew 22:23, and Christ doesn't deny the worth of this practice. He just says that in the world to come NO ONE will be married. If Christ had a problem with the practice, that was his chance to say something. He did not, and Matthew 22:23 is actually a better argument against romantic relationships overall than it is against Levirate marriage.

The reason I bring up Levirate marriage is that it's a practice that was assumed as normal in the time of Christ, and not condemned by him as adultery. The reason people don't practice it today is because we live in a different culture. "Oh, that's just what they did then," people say. "We know better now. Marriage is between one man and one woman, and these are the obligations each has to the other. The Bible says so (in the parts that we choose if we ignore the parts that we don't like)."

Marriage in the time of Christ (and in the early church of Christ) was a much more complex thing than it gets credit for, and if we can accept that Levirate marriage doesn't belong in our modern society, why are we blindly accepting all gender roles attributed to the Bible? To put it another way, if we can trace practices like Levirate marriage back to the culture of the Bible's authors and thus dismiss their applicability for us, but we ascribe divine sanctity and authority to the parts we DO like... how is that honest? At the very least I think it requires that we find another definition of what counts as "Biblical," since clearly "it's okay in the Bible" is not enough.

Of course, another alternative is to pay close attention to what the cultural atmosphere was like at the time the Bible was written. What did the authors take for granted? What was "normal" to them, and what was deplorable? It was normal and natural to them that a woman could not support herself without a man. It was normal and natural to them that if men are good, women will be supported. If men are not good, women are the ones who suffer. Oh well.

And that's my big problem with attempting to reinstate millenia-old cultural norms by encouraging women to be economically dependent on men. Sure, in an ideal world this'd all work out fine. But we don't live in an ideal world, and in the world where we live now... if anybody in this system fall short (which Christian theology teaches that they must) women suffer. Women will bear the brunt of their own failings AND the failings of the men on whom they are dependent.

That's why feminists don't like these gender roles. It's not that they hate men. It's that men have to be perfect in order for this system to work, and even Christian theology admits that this is a lost cause. Because feminists are concerned with women being able to survive in a world where humans are imperfect, they assert that women need to have their own social and economic viability. Feminists therefore take issue with the Christian "traditional" marriage. It assumes that it's important for women to be healthy, safe, and otherwise well off, but not important enough to build a system that will actually produce that end.

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