Christianity prevents women from being free from men's oppression.
This is the second post on our short series on Christianity and Freedom.
by Kirsty Birkett.
Christianity prevents women from being free from man's oppression. I have been asked to respond to this statement; it is certainly a common theme that I have heard for years, from within the church and outside it, from those who reject Christianity or those who reject a Christianity that remains faithful to the Bible’s teaching on men and women. I imagine it refers to (mainly) Ephesians 5:22 ‘Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord’. This teaching on marriage is, in our postmodern liberal age, seen as unbearably unfair, an open invitation to abuse, even inevitably leading to it.
Libraries could be filled with the accumulated commentary and discussion of the issue, but in this short blog I would just make a few points.
No human being on earth is free from men’s oppression. That is the case for every individual, male or female, regardless of culture or personal philosophy. Every government everywhere involves men in power at some level, and almost always at the very top level. All men are sinful, and all men will at some stage give in to their sinful nature and oppress those beneath them. It is a universal human problem, condemned in the Bible from the beginning. (Incidentally, this is true of women in power, as well.) Christianity at least offers all sinful people a new nature, and the power of the Holy Spirit for personal transformation – although no person will be sinless this side of glory. This is not an excuse for oppression; it is a recognition of the state of our world. Not being Christian guarantees no one freedom from oppression.
Christian marriage never involves or automatically leads to oppression: indeed, it explicitly forbids it. The Christian husbands to whom Christian wives are asked to submit in Ephesians chapter 5 are told ‘love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’ – the greatest love ever evidenced in human history. Moreover, this point is driven home to anyone who might try to twist this in an oppressive way: ‘husbands should love their wives as their own bodies’; ie ‘nourishing and cherishing’. This is the love that romance novels and vampire-obsessed teenagers dream of. And remember, in the same apostle’s words, ‘love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful’. There is nothing in this teaching that justifies oppression, abuse, or any other wrong treatment.
If, however, you think that submission to a husband must necessarily be oppressive, well, I think you are wrong, but remember also that you don’t have to get married! To remain single is a perfectly good Christian option. Indeed, we are told in 1 Corinthians 7 (another chapter that rejects oppression within marriage) that to remain single is better. For there is a kind of freedom in singleness that is not found in marriage; not freedom from oppression, but freedom from the cares of love. Intimate love for an exclusive partner is wonderful, but it will inevitably bring worry; for the other’s safety, for their care, for their wellbeing. This applies for both men and women. ‘I want you to be free from anxieties’, the apostle writes; there is a possibility for single-minded devotion to God outside marriage that is a huge, huge blessing. Male or female, if you feel marriage would be oppressive for any reason, then you are free to live without it. (And if you feel that living without a sexual partner is itself oppressive, whose fault is that? It is our intensely censorious, sexualised culture that insists everyone be sexually active. That is not freedom.)
What kind of freedom do we want, anyway? I have recently been reading the German Jew Erich Fromm’s Escape from Freedom, written in 1941 in an effort to understand how on earth ordinary people voted for and even enthusiastically embraced an oppressive regimes. He argues that modern liberal democracy, for all its strengths, also created the ‘burden’ of freedom; a kind of demand for absolute independence and individualism that most people cannot cope with. He has a point. We were not created for, and in fact cannot ever be, entirely free in the sense of being without ties to any other, or being self-determining and self-defining - and to try to be that is to make oneself less than human. Be like Christ instead, who submitted willingly to his Father. That’s a much better example to follow.