If we took the word “submit” out and substituted the word “trust,” that would be faulty exegesis, but it might shine a light on the central problem: you can’t submit to someone you don’t trust. Most black church women I know tend to be brassy and pushy, clearly wearing the pants in the family. These women, who tend to embarrass and upstage their men, usually leading their men around by the nose and treating them like children, are completely out of order with the bible, with this scripture. It’s easy to beat up women with these scriptures, but the fact is, for things to work, both parties must embrace their roles in the matter.

Was Paul Anti-Marriage?

In I Corinthians 7, he admonishes men to remain single. Then, in his letter to Timothy, he is harshly critical of women. In his letter to the Ephesians, he is condescending to women, referring to them in much the same way I might refer to a favorite cat or cocker spaniel. Now, if I were a woman, and realized all the avenues to ministry that would close should I choose to marry, why would I ever do that? Why would I sign up for the bondage Paul advocates throughout his writings? Paul paints a bleak picture of marriage as something of a nuisance [I Cor 7], and seems relentlessly oppressive of women. However, unmarried women and widows he seems to all but ignore, which suggests the oppression of women begins at the marriage altar. In our black church tradition, our public position seems to be that all women—married or not—must submit to all men. That men, regardless of their qualities as a person or qualifications to lead, are simply superior to women and must lead. This is a pathetically ignorant distortion of scripture, but it is the most commonly accepted biblical Old Wives Tale: men are everything, women are nothing. In practice, though, the women of the church do, literally, everything. And, while the men strut around like peacocks mangling scripture and putting women in their place, it is an open secret that most of these men are henpecked husbands owned by their brassy, loud, pushy wives who are the true shot-callers both at home and at the church. The continuing oppression of women in the black church is, therefore, almost completely symbolic; Sunday morning bluster which evaporates against the accepted norm of women running everything and calling all the shots. Which makes liars of us all.

The fact is, I know of almost no one who does this. I know a lot of Christian women who give lip service to the idea of submitting to their husbands, but the evidence and testimony of their lives is, more often than not, a loud, aggressive, emotional, pushy, easily offended and quickly angered person whose choices are driven mostly by how she feels about something. The bigger problem is uninformed, uneducated or lazy pastors who misinterpret scripture. Paul’s admonition, “…I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man…” from I Timothy is usually taken out of context. Paul’s use of the pronoun “I” suggests a personal choice moreso than a commandment. But, even if it were a commandment, the context of Paul’s first letter to Timothy suggests a specific set of circumstances Paul was addressing, rather than a universal mandate. Paul himself cautions against teaching his personal preferences as God’s law, “But I speak this by permission, and not of commandment. 7 For I would that all men were even as I myself. But every man hath his proper gift of God, one after this manner, and another after that.” [I Corinthians 7]

Paul’s writings are critical to forming sound doctrine, but his letters are not an unambiguous or universal narrative the way, say, the Ten Commandments are. Yet the church routinely implements Paul as though Paul were Moses and as if Paul intended for his writings to be canonized as scripture. Paul was writing to specific people at specific times in specific places and about specific things. And, while there is certainly a universal application for Paul’s commentary and pastoral advice, it is critical for the seeker to understand the man himself and the age and circumstances in which these letters were written. What we do instead is flip through Paul’s letters like they’re the Yellow Pages or something, using what we want (women be silent), discarding what we choose to ignore (slaves obey your masters).

As a result, the words of Paul are almost routinely misapplied, and are almost universally used to oppress women and deny them their very humanity, which I hardly believe is the point of scripture. Scripture should free us, not enslave us. Should enlighten us, not leave us ignorant and in bondage.

As I wrote in an earlier essay:
It is important the seeker understand Paul almost never spoke universally: he was usually speaking to somebody about something. His teaching is God-inspired, God-breathed and useful for God's church, but we simply must take the time to understand who Paul was talking to and what was going on in that place at that time so we can put an end to our tradition of misusing the Pauline epistles by insisting on a Ten Commandments-style universality those letters never intended to have. By trying to make Paul's letters be more than what they were, we actually diminish what they are. As Bishop Shelby Spong said, “To treat the words of Paul as if they were the inerrant Word of God... presents us with far more problems than it solves. Such a claim suggests that to be a Christian requires the abdication of the mind to cultural patterns long since abandoned.” He continues: “Because I believe those words to be in touch with something eternal, transcendent, and holy, I want to rescue them from the hands of those who by claiming too much will finally accomplish too little. If the words of Paul cannot be broken loose from the cultural accretions and presuppositions of a first-century mindset, they will never speak to this generation.” This Paul-as-God business is the bedrock of some of the church's more oppressive dogma, including the continuing oppression of women and the black church's romance with the year 1965. Elevating the words of Paul to the Word of God is incredibly bad doctrine.

Born Into Slavery? Third-class citizens: Submit to whom? Anybody with a penis.

Paul As Moses

The most common thinking among black male clergy and laymen is that women should submit. Submit to whom? Everybody. Anybody with a penis. She should not lead any ministry that has men in it. She surely must not pastor. This is sublimely ignorant mangling of scripture, and it has absolutely no basis in the ministry of Jesus Christ Himself. There’s absolutely no reason I can imagine that an unmarried woman should have to submit herself to every man she passes at a bus stop. Paul's admonition to wives to be subject to their husbands is part of his larger command for us to be subject one to another [Eph 5:21]—which suggests we be responsible to each other, regardless of gender. By presenting Paul-as-Moses (presenting Paul's teaching out of context and in sweeping absolutes), we make Paul seem anti-marriage. The message Paul seems to be sending is, "Girls, stay home with your parents." We all submit to our parents. Independent women were all but unheard of in Paul's day, which is a historical consequence we rarely factor into his teaching. Thus, Paul did not address the single, independent, professional woman. Such a concept would likely be alien to him. But, by applying his teaching, out of context, in this modern age, what Paul seems to be suggesting is (1) marriage is an awful state to be in, and, (2) the minute a woman marries she gives up all rights to her own identity. Her judgment is of no value, and she should just burn her master's degree and sit in the corner saying, "Yassuh" to her bone-head spouse as he heads out to the nudie bar. With Paul-as-Moses, the bible becomes a bleak and oppressive document for women, who find only bondage and repression under Paul's dogmatic teaching. Under Mosaic Law, she is lumped into the middle of the tenth commandment, after your neighbor's house and before his male or female slave, or ox, or donkey.

Subsequently, most Christian women I’ve known have quietly rejected Paul’s teaching, adding his dictates regarding women to our cafeteria menu of Pauline doctrine we do not embrace. Most women I've known have not appreciated the word "obey" in their marriage vows ("be subject to", applied to both parties, seems, to me, more doctrinally accurate). Paul’s writings are tinged with misogyny and Paul himself comes across as deeply conflicted when it comes to women, He seems, at best, asexual, which has led many biblical scholars to suspect Paul’s admitted “thorn in the flesh” might, in fact, be homosexuality—Paul as an either repressed or celibate homosexual. Paul usually refers to women as objects, as children, often like pets—cats and dogs to be cared for and loved in a condescending fashion.

Hypocritically, most black Christian husbands I know allow their wives to treat them like children, the wives ostensibly calling the shots in the family. I know of no black Christian husbands who don’t check with their wives before deciding whether or not to hang out. And this is not a check-in out of courtesy or even concern for her welfare—it’s fear, for he knows there’ll be hell to pay if he doesn’t. She’s his mommy. He’s allowed her to become his mommy. He doesn’t know where anything is. He doesn’t know how to make a peanut butter sandwich. Mommy, can I have a peanut butter sandwich? He’s helpless. His socks wouldn’t match if she didn’t dress him. For many of these men, their wives are far more than their help-meet, they are their literal masters. Many of these men feel oppressed and in bondage and suffer quietly because they’re too humiliated to reach out for help. These men are in abusive relationships run by these pushy, aggressive, nasty mommy-types. It is usually a situation borne out of the man's own cowardice and laziness, but the fact is many if not most married couples, yes, even the pastor and the deacons and the blusterous shot-callers at your church, are living a lie. They come down to church and thump on the pulpit and holler and strut, but these men are owned by slave masters. They have dumped all responsibility and all labor, all sacrifice and all duty involved in their family life onto their wives, a crushing weight she suffers under. Her waning sexual attraction—a blow to her self-esteem—is only compounded by his diminishing interest in her. She hardens into a drill sergeant, a taskmaster. Stressed, worn out, and, ultimately, lonely. She gets his attention any way she can, which usually means negative stimuli as he fails to respond to her passion and her needs increasingly go unaddressed. She treats him like a child. He treats her like mommy. These husbands and wives are living lives completely out of dimension with God’s plan.

There are churches all over the country led by women. I hardly suppose gender alone should dictate who leads a church—God, ultimately, should make that choice, and many of these female pastors are, indeed, both anointed and quite capable. My problem with women preachers is not that they are women but that too many of them, to my acquaintance, are leading by their emotions rather than by the Holy Spirit. They are mommies, and we are all treated like children. They are histrionic and, many of them, overly masculine, feeling, perhaps, they have to show muscle and teeth in order to be taken seriously. But a woman behaving like a man runs contrary to God’s intent. A woman pastor should ideally be, first and foremost, a woman. Which isn’t to say she should be soft and a pushover, but in her manner, in her comport, she should not strive to emulate masculine behavior for the sake of appearances. The most successful women pastors I’ve known have all been obviously and unapologetically feminine. They don’t emulate the behavior of male ministers because they’re not so wounded that they feel a need to.

Women ministers who behave like men send the signal that they are not ready. That they are wounded and broken and are, perhaps, immersing themselves in ministry as a balm for that wound. Rather than dealing with their insecurities, they create this veneer of strength by emulating masculine behavior. By being pushy and aggressive—usually borrowing the worst traits of black pastors, as Jesus never asked us to be pushy or aggressive. One female pastor here decorated her sanctuary in mauve and pink and delightful hues of blue. For her anniversary, the congregation dedicated the morning service to her, singing songs about her to her and wheeling in a multi-tiered wedding cake, decorated in pink, which they set in the place of the communion table.

That, beloved, is witchcraft. And I don’t care if it’s a woman or a man: when you place yourself at the center of worship—where only God belongs—you are embracing that which is antichrist. A Matriarchal system is antichrist. It is against nature and against God’s plan. Which is not to say God did not call women—He obviously did. And God uses women, yes as pastors, for His divine purpose. But when you see any pastor, male or female, going so obviously off the rails and say nothing about it, when the very church is so feminine it feels hostile to men, when the woman preacher’s message is always and relentlessly, unbearably, about how men done her wrong and whining on and on about how tough it is to be a woman pastor—this is somebody working through deep-seated insecurities and problems and calling that “pastoring.” Pastoring is a denial of self. Pastoring is pouring yourself into the lives of your flock. Giving yourself over to the work of the ministry. It’s not about you. It’s *never* about you.

A lot of my pastor friends preach a conditional acceptance of women preachers in the sense that it’s all right with them so long as God has not raised up a man willing to lead. In other words, that view is that women pastors are called when no men are available. Which makes God either stupid or desperate, when He is neither. God could make pastors out of banana peels and shoeboxes—don’t kid yourself. God has placed specific people at specific places at specific times and in specific situations for specific purposes. The real diviner between a woman who is called to lead and one who is not is the fruit she bears. If she’s the hardass tyrant, all bluster and full of threat, that’s not God. And that applies to men even more so. If her church environment is secretive and hostile toward men, that’s not God. If all she does is whine about How She Been Done wrong, that’s not God.

I am not Anti-Woman Preacher but I am leery of women preachers. I am watchful of women preachers. Female ministers have a unique calling. The problem is, too many of our pastors groom women ministers along with the men, as if their ministerial bench was one-size-fits-all. Women ministers need to prove their work in different ways: to prove theirs is an act of submission and not rebellion.

Of the dozen or so women ministers I’ve met here in Ourtown, there has been one—exactly one—whom I trusted was genuinely submitted to God. Who’s not necessarily out to prove anything, but is simply submitting to God’s will. The rest may indeed be called by God, but listening to their sermons, there’s always this inherent layer of bitterness, the preacher venting about their trouble finding acceptance.

Sisters: if you feel a call on your life, by all means explore that call. But demand of your pastor, your mentor, a deeper sensitivity to the call of women pastors. Don’t let him bring you along in a generic manner, along with the boys. You’re not a boy. And you must learn, first and foremost, if you are whole enough, complete enough, healed enough, to contribute to the ministry. Or, if you’re just using the ministry to vent your frustration and work out your emotional stuff.

In the best example of female ministry we find Mary Magdalene, a woman of debatable repute, anointing the feet of Jesus with her hair [John 12]. Mary used her dowry—a year’s worth of wages—to purchase the expensive perfume. Judas Iscariot, as a typical church deacon, scoffed at her and complained about what a waste of money the gesture was. But this was something only a woman would be uniquely qualified for. Had a man attempted that, he’d likely have been dragged out and beaten. As is, the men missed the point of her sacrifice and, being men, tried to win favor with Jesus by complaining about her and trying to stop her. Those guys missed the point. This was an act of sacrifice. Of submission. This was an undeniably and uniquely feminine act, one no man could perform. And that, in essence, is what women ministers should be about: doing the work suited uniquely for them. Not pretending to be men or emulating men but being who they are, embracing it, rejoicing in it. Such women become irreplaceable in ministry. My pastoral friends’ opinions notwithstanding, you could not just bring in a man to push Mary Magdalene out of the way and perform her ministry. It was a work suited uniquely for her.

And that’s the litmus test for women in ministry. That they know what they’re doing and why they are doing it. That they are not acting out of emotion or need or insecurity, and that they are performing a work suited uniquely for them. In that view, such women are indispensible. Irreplaceable. And more than welcome to lead.

If we took the word “submit” out and substituted the word “trust,” that would be faulty exegesis, but it might shine a light on the central problem: You can’t submit to someone you don’t trust. As a pastor and designer, I spend most of my day all but begging people to trust me. Most of these folks are like children and I remember, as a child, my mother giving me perfectly sound advice that I routinely ignored, resulting in my making things much harder for myself.

It’s easy to beat up women with these scriptures, but the fact is, for things to work as smoothly as Paul advocates, both parties must embrace their roles in the matter. It can’t be just about her submitting. Many guys are simply idiots who make poor choices. I wouldn’t submit to someone who was a bad leader. Who is a 40-year old child. Many of these men are out of fellowship with God. Their decisions are self-serving and unwise, so she takes over. And he likes it because it gives him more time to play WII. She’s ignoring these scriptures, he’s ignoring these scriptures. And this is, more or less the norm.

No-Win Scenario: She ignores my advice because I'm a man, then blames me when things go wrong.

The No-Win Scenario

Husbands: if you want your wives to submit to you, first understand what submission is and why Paul advocated it. Jesus never spoke about any of this—this is Paul creating a seemingly oppressive environment for women. Only, is it really?

What if we substituted that word—trust? I wasn’t so interested in gaining my wife’s submission as I was invested in winning her trust. The fact was, she never trusted me, not from day one. Even though I routinely deferred to her on matters she was more experienced with. I mean, I actually said it: “You know more about this than I do, I'll just follow your lead.” I trusted her advice to get us through, but she never trusted mine. Ever. Not on anything. Which is a large part of the reason we’re divorced.

All she saw was a man telling her what to do, and she wouldn’t stand for it. Lots of times I’d tell her, “Y’know, if one of your sisters told you this, you’d accept it.” It wasn’t about me giving bad advice, it was about my lack of ovaries. It was about her working through whatever issues she had with her dad or old boyfriends or circus clowns or what have you, and she’d drag all of that crap into a simple “A—B” decision. Every choice became a power struggle because she’d feel oppressed. “Please trust me,” I was begging her. “I've been through this before, I know the way, please allow me to lead.” But she likely heard, “Do what I say because I’m the man.” She'd stubbornly refuse my advice and then blame me when things went wrong. She'd hear me saying, “I told you so,” when I never, ever did; she just heard it in her head and deeply resented me for, I suppose, offering advice she refused to follow.

This is why slinging Paul’s letters around is such a dangerous business. Paul’s letters require study and analysis, and most churches do neither. They just read out the verses and start oppressing people, women most especially. And that’s why I don’t much like Paul. Not that what he wrote was necessarily “bad,” but that we handle it badly. We take it at face value, out of context, not understanding who he was walking to or why, and we use it to oppress people.

Bottom line, fellas, if you want your woman to trust you, you need to present yourself as trustworthy. Sometime she’s carrying around emotional baggage, as my wife was. Sometimes you’re just a child and she doesn’t respect you. A woman doesn’t respect a man who has to ask her permission to have a sandwich. Oh, she’ll try bullying you and will test limits, but most women are deeply troubled by weak men. Which isn’t to say you should slap her around and give her a hard time, but that, ideally, in any marriage, the husband should be A MAN. Be responsible. Reliable. Trustworthy. He should be present. She shouldn’t have to ask you to be home at a decent hour. She shouldn’t have to try and limit your contact with your friends or police your actions. Your gift, to her, is yourself. Bodily. If you are not wise, pray to God for wisdom. Be reliable. Be thoughtful. Earn her trust and she’ll gladly trust you.

Or you can run around like an ass and demand she “submit.” She might submit her skillet to your skull. Which, yes, is wrong, but Paul lays out real duties and responsibilities for the MEN as well. Marriage is a covenant between three persons: the husband, the wife and God. You can’t hold her to Paul’s stringent rules while you’re out all night drinking and chasing skirts. You can’t lay off all responsibility for childrearing and managing the house on her and then expect her to trust you. And if she doesn’t trust you, you can hardly expect her to submit to your authority.

Christopher J. Priest
24 May 2009

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