Understanding Michele Bachmann’s “Submission”

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“Submission” is not a word common to presidential politics. But in last week’s presidential debate, it became a hot topic because of Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.

In 2006, Bachmann told a story about her career path. “My husband said, ‘Now you need to go and get a post-doctorate degree in tax law,’” Bachmann said. “Tax law! I hate taxes. Why should I go and do something like that? But the Lord says, ‘Be submissive, wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands.’” (Actually, she was mistaken—Paul and Peter said that, not the Lord.) When asked at the Fox News debate Aug. 11 whether she would be submissive to her husband as president, Bachmann responded, “What submission means to us, it means respect. I respect my husband. He’s a wonderful godly man and great father.”

Some say Bachmann’s answer gracefully addressed an ungracious question. But many evangelical voters heard in Bachmann’s comments a familiar debate among Christian believers over the biblical rules of marriage. And Bachmann’s answer failed to clarify where exactly she stands.

The quotes about wifely submission appear in two main places in the New Testament, and neither come from Jesus’ mouth. The first time occurs in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:

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, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word.

The second is found in 1 Peter:

Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behavior of their wives […] Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.

As scandalous as these two passages may sound to the secular ear, they are of relatively minor importance. The Bible gives far more examples of women standing as equals to men in power instead of merely respecting them from the sidelines. Rahab challenged the invading Israelite armies to spare her family’s life. Pharaoh’s daughter saved baby Moses from her father’s command to kill all infant Hebrew males. A teenage Queen Esther challenged the king to protect the Jewish nation. Mary challenged Jesus to save her brother Lazarus from death. Jesus himself even praises a woman for besting him in a debate and consequently heals her daughter (Matt. 15:21-28).

Evangelicals are divided into roughly two camps when it comes to the meaning of “submission.” “Complementarian” theology advocates that women and men are equals but have different societal roles. Men head the households and pastor the churches, while a woman’s place is basically any other area, following a basic “separate but equal” logic. The Old Guard Evangelicalism of the Jerry Falwells, Pat Robertsons, and James Dobsons falls in this complementarian camp. The chief complementarian champion, theologian Wayne Grudem, once criticized egalitarians for redefining submission “to mean something like ‘considerateness, thoughtfulness, an attitude of love toward one another, putting the other person’s interests above your own.”

“Egalitarian” theology on the other hand says that men and women are wholly equals, in the home, the church and the public sphere. These adherents tend to explain the submission passages by arguing that context is queen, and Peter and Paul’s patriarchal worlds vastly differ from today’s. (The difficulty of the submission passages may have been clearer had Peter’s full teaching been quoted in the debate to identify women as “the weaker partner” (1 Peter 3:7).) Many egalitarians go even father to say that Jesus subverted his day’s gender norms by asking Mary and Martha to sit as his feet during teachings, a spot usually only reserved for male students.

Yet in a culture that demands women and men be equals, women are often the primary bread-winners, lead Sunday School classes and prayer groups, serve communion, and organize the vast bulk of church activities. It seems that Bachmann even has functionally egalitarian qualities, given that her husband, Marcus, travels with her and supports her career ambitions. In Bachmann’s telling, mutual submission, or respect, could be seen as a soft egalitarian position. The chief champion of complementarian school, theologian Wayne Grudem, once criticized egalitarians for redefining submission “to mean something like ‘considerateness, thoughtfulness, an attitude of love toward one another, putting the other person’s interests above your own.” Bachmann’s “respect” comments may have earned Grudem’s ire.

But Bachmann’s position remains confusing. She shows all signs of clinging hard to the old complementarian guard. Of the 103 Iowan pastors and Christian leaders who signed a letter supporting Bachmann, not one reverend on the list was a woman. And she more than flirts with “dominionism,” a term for a conservative Christian belief that it’s God’s will they take the government’s helm until Christ returns to earth. Her hard-line position, as Ryan Lizza pointed out, finds support in evangelical activist Francis Schaeffer’s “A Christian Manifesto,” an essay that “argues for the violent overthrow of the government if Roe v. Wade isn’t reversed.”

For now, Bachmann appears to be keeping her cards close to the chest. On NBC’s Meet The Press last Sunday, David Gregory continued to press her on the submission question, she appeared to close up.

MR. GREGORY: Right. Congresswoman, I didn’t even have to check with my wife and I know those two things aren’t, aren’t equal.

REP. BACHMANN: What’s that?

GREGORY: Submission and respect.

REP. BACHMANN: Well, in our house it is.

But given the firestorm that this round of submission has stirred up, undoubtedly we will have more opportunities to learn what Bachmann’s submission really means.

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