"Submitting" - What Does The Recent Southern Baptist Resolution Really Mean?

by Carolyn Gargaro
Published in Spin Tech

In June of 1998 the Southern Baptist Convention issued a newly revised declaration, the Baptist Faith and Message, that included a special section on marriage and family life. The short phrase stating that a wife should "submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband" was the one phrase that was extracted from the message and trumpeted all over the media as their proof of the Southern Baptist's desire to keep women "in their place" and subservient.

Before giving my own opinion, let's look at the whole paragraph. Unlike many media outlets, I will quote the entire paragraph, rather than extracting selected portions:

"The husband and wife are of equal worth before God. Both bear God's Image but each in differing ways. The marriage relationship models the way God relates to His people. A husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He has the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect and to lead his family. A wife is to submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband even as the church willingly submits to the headship of Christ. She, being "in the image of God" as is her husband and thus equal to him, has the God-given responsibility to respect her husband and to serve as his "helper" in managing their household and nurturing the next generation."

First, I want to clarify something before I continue. I am not a Southern Baptist, and I am far from a submissive woman. Thus, this piece is not written by a timid, man-fearing, uneducated, weak woman, and the following commentary might surprise some people. One can "submit" to someone without being "submissive" and without giving up any rights, or agreeing to a lower, or "less equal" status.

The portion of the declaration quoted above is based on the Letter to the Ephesians attributed to St. Paul. In the New Jerusalem Bible the pertinent passage says:

"Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives should be subject to their husbands as to the Lord, since as Christ is head of the Church and saves the whole body, so is a husband the head of his wife; and as the Church is subject to Christ, so should wives be to their husbands, in everything. Husbands should love their wives, just as Christ loved the church and sacrificed himself for her." (Ephesians 5: 22-23)

Notice that the above passage begins by admonishing Christians to "submit to one another out of reverence for Christ." This is mutual submission, and applies to both husbands and wives. The reference to the husband as "head" does not refer to authority, but rather to life-giving support and nurture, which is one of the meanings of this term in ancient Greek.

Various press accounts described this portion of the declaration as redefining women's role in marriage, as a "hard right" stand on marriage and family life. But a careful reading of the report shows an effort to be fair, objective and understanding. How often do people focus on the portion which states, "The husband and wife are of equal worth before God" or "She, being 'in the image of God' as is her husband and thus equal to him" ? They don't, because if they did, they wouldn't be able to claim the Baptists want to lord over women and keep them "in their place."

But isn't the Bible, something that supports the submission of women in general? Well, not quite. Throughout the Bible, we find women in positions of leadership and authority. For example, Deborah ruled the nation of Israel, women were prophets in ancient Israel and in the early church, and Priscilla was a teacher and leader in the New Testament church.

I am tired of people equating the excerpt from the Baptist declaration with women submitting when they are being beaten or when the husband is treating them unfairly, harshly, or in any way contrary to the resolution. This smacks of a knee-jerk reaction, and shows that these people have not bothered to read the resolution in full and study the context in which it refers to women, "graciously submitting". The woman is not supposed to submit if the husband does not uphold his end of the bargain. The man must "love his wife as Christ loved the church" and he has "the God-given responsibility to provide for, to protect, and to lead his family." In other words - men are supposed to treat their wives with respect and love - if they do not, then the wife does not have to "submit graciously to the servant leadership of her husband." No one is suggesting that women put up with abusive or disrespectful men. In fact, I am surprised more women aren't pleased men are being instructed to treat women with respect! Isn't that what women want? And isn't that a problem today - some men disrespecting women, and treating them shabbily?

In addition, the quote from the resolution is often not stated in full, and I will admit, that a partial quote, taken out of context, can sound demeaning to women. But I have to ask - why is everyone taking this out of context? Why are people using only partial quotes? Is it because taking the quote in full would not conjure up the image of the evil, oppressive male that critics of this resolution so desperately want people to envision? Could it be that people want an excuse to blast the Southern Baptists because they don't agree with their religious beliefs?

The Southern Baptist resolution is not dogma, and it is not a creed. The resolution is the convention's interpretation to provide guidance rather than something to dictate how Southern Baptists must live. It is a suggestion The Southern Baptists voted overwhelming for this - who are we to tell them they do not have the right to interpret the Bible this way? If no one's human rights are being violated, if the woman is happy, if the husband is treating is wife the way he is supposed to according to the resolution, then what is the problem? If the Southern Baptists stated the same thing except that the man must submit to the woman, would people be so up in arms?

While the resolution was overwhelming supported by the Southern Baptists, there was some dissent and equivocation. The White House made it clear that President Clinton, a Southern Baptist, did not agree with this latest statement from his Church. Women may cheer that President Clinton does not agree with the statement but I wonder - is he against it because he is for women's "empowerment" or because he doesn't feel like upholding his end of the bargain? One must admit that Clinton's treatment of women isn't exactly respectful. Which would a woman rather have - a man who cheats on her and lies, or a man who honors her?

Obviously, those who do not agree with the Bible or the teachings of the Southern Baptists may not favor the Baptist's resolution. And that's fine - no one is saying that everyone must follow the Southern Baptist religion! This is the Southern Baptists' CHOICE. No one is suggesting that people of other religions adhere to this standard, and as I stated earlier, even the Southern Baptists themselves consider this a guideline rather than a dictate. Did President Clinton get kicked out of the church because he disagreed with the declaration? No, he didn't. The Baptists are following something which they see as adhering to Biblical standards as well as being beneficial to the husband, the wife, and the family.

With the current problems facing us today - in a society where women are abused, raped, coerced into abortion, or made to feel inferior if they find themselves pregnant out of wedlock, I have to wonder why people are picking on a statement in the Southern Baptists' resolution where they actually say that the male must honor, love, and protect his wife? I have seen more outrage about the Southern Baptist resolution than about China's forced abortion and sterilization policies!!

Lastly, some may say "Ah - but you are not married. You don't understand the inner workings of marriage or how dangerous this statement actually is, etc." Well, let's take a look at the views of a female family member of mine who IS married, and let's she what she has to say on the issue. Below is her statement on this situation:

Why I "graciously submitted" to my husband!

First, in light of all the recent controversy regarding the Southern Baptist Convention's declaration, it is important for the reader to know that I am not Southern Baptist, and am a member of a Christian Church that has decidedly more liberal leanings.

When I decided to marry, I assumed that I wanted a marriage that roughly conformed to the biblical standard of a monogamous relationship where the man and woman had a lifetime commitment to one another, second only to their commitment to God. I also chose to marry a man who respected me as an individual, and who agreed that I could be employed or not, depending on my wishes at the time. At the time of the marriage, we were employed in roughly equal jobs, with equal career advancement opportunities. We agreed, to live on my salary and save his toward a house, etc. We also agreed that if I decided to remain at home, he would take on the responsibility of being the sole provider, a responsibility I had no interest in assuming, and one he would gladly assume.

After several years of marriage, I became pregnant with our first child, and was ready to try full time homemaker status. I enjoyed the freedom of "being my own boss" and "making my own schedule." But I did "graciously submit" to having dinner ready in the evening when my husband got home.

Where is this leading? Well, about the time our first child was born, my husband decided that as provider, it would be a smart idea to accept a temporary job he had been offered. This would require our moving out of the country for one to two years, and then returning to this country - but to a state hundreds of miles from friends and family. I was not pleased - and initially made that fact known loud and clear. Once I realized he was serious about this move, I remembered that he was the provider, and that it would be best for me to let him make the choice in this area of our lives. He chose, we moved, I had a ball for 18 months in the other country (new faces, new friends, and visits galore from family and old friends), he was "less than thrilled" with the move, he decided to return to the town we had previously lived in, I returned as a more independent person, and we had enough money from the wage differential to buy the home that I wanted. Turns out submitting "a little less than graciously" was one of the better decisions I've made.

Questions or comments regarding the above 4 paragraphs should be directed to lida38@aol.com

This article is copyright © 1998 Carolyn C. Gargaro. All rights reserved. It may not be reproduced with out specific consent of the author.