To love, cherish….and obey?

I, (name), take you, (name)
to be my wife/husband,
to have and to hold
from this day forward;
for better, for worse,
for richer, for poorer,
in sickness and in health,
to love and to cherish, [and obey]
till death us do part,
according to God’s holy law.
In the presence of God I make this vow.
from The Marriage Service, Common Worship (Church of England) 

I got married a few weeks ago, and we opted to go for the more traditional wording of the vows. While the man says “to love and to cherish”, the woman’s vows say “to love, cherish and obey”. It’s funny how a single word can cause so much angst, but this one does. Not particularly because it is in there, but because, while the rest of the vows are the same for men and women, only the woman ‘obeys’.

I am sure that, if they noticed it, some of my feminist friends will have gasped (internally- I didn’t hear any out loud gasping, so well done) at the inherent inequality of it. But it wasn’t a mistake, I haven’t lost my mind, and it wasn’t a decision I took lightly. This blog is an attempt to explain to those who find it surprising my rationale behind making that decision. You may well not agree with me at the end of it, but at least you will hopefully understand more why I chose that route. (It will also act as a reminder for me on the days I am feeling disobedient why I made the promises I did.)

Firstly, and very importantly, it was my choice. Part of my understanding of the importance and role of feminism, is that it gives women the power to make choices in decisions that impact them, rather than decisions being made on their behalf. Of course, I discussed it, at length, with Husband and I was aware of his preference. Of course that influenced my decision; the opinions of those we love always do. But Husband was also clear that it was entirely my choice as to the final decision. These are vows that we have made before God and each other, and we intend to take those promises very seriously. Husband certainly didn’t want to  make me promise something that I didn’t agree with and didn’t intend to stick to.

We set out the boundaries in our discussions. In saying that I will obey Husband, that doesn’t mean anything he says I have to do. It is not a case that he clicks his fingers and I jump. In promising to obey, I have not surrendered my ability to discuss, disagree or express my opinion! For us, this bit of the vows is particularly pertinent to big decisions that we come across in life; for example, a decision on where any children we have go to school, not the colour of the curtains. We are taking about situations where a decision has to be made, but after discussing it, both listening to the other’s point of view, praying about it, discussing and praying some more, we still have different ideas of the best course of action.  A democracy of 2 simply can get stuck. In those situations, someone needs the casting vote. I guess this is my pragmatic side coming through in making this choice. We’ve decided that our default is for Husband to have that casting vote. Sometimes it might be me, depending on the situation. An obvious example is my work. Obviously Husband doesn’t have jurisdiction over my work decisions,  but it may well be that with other decisions we decide that it makes sense for me to have the final decision.

While we are talking about work, there was another aspect I had not considered before Husband raised it. He reminded me that in my future line of work (being a vicar), I am likely to be responsible for making a lot of decisions, every day. We cannot always predict the outcome of our decisions, but we all carry the weight of responsibility for the decisions we make. In a profession such as the priesthood (but also many other careers such as social work, teaching, nursing etc.), our decisions can have profound long term impacts on people’s lives, for good or ill. That’s a lot of responsibility. Husband’s job, on the other hand, while it involves decision making as all life does, doesn’t involve the same type of decisions. By taking on the role of lead decision maker in the family, he is also taking on the responsibility that carries, and taking it off me. He is not doing this to gain power over me, but to love and help me. (This again doesn’t mean that I am passive in decision making, nor does it mean I won’t take ownership of decisions we reach, nor that if it goes wrong I will ascribe blame to Husband, but he will still carry more weight of responsibility simply by having made the decision).

We would be foolish if we didn’t acknowledge that by me vowing to obey, I have handed power over to Husband. Not complete power, but there is still the possibility that he could abuse his position, demanding I obey in every decision, or make decisions that are in his interest, not ours as a family. In spite of all the other reasons above, this was the crux of it for me: Do I trust Husband? Do I trust him to make good decisions on our behalf, decisions which I can get behind and support because I know that they are made with love and thought and care? Do I trust him not to abuse this power? Yes, I do. If I couldn’t say yes to this, I couldn’t marry him at all.

The final part to my thinking, and possibly the most controversial, is that we want our marriage to model (as imperfectly as it may be) the relationship between Jesus Christ, and His bride, the Church. There is a really difficult and awkward passage in the New Testament which reads “21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy” (Ephesians 5:21-25. New International Version).

I don’t have space to unpack this passage fully now*. I find this a really uncomfortable passage, and it has been misused to cause great harm to many women down the centuries (specifically verse 22 “Wives submit yourselves to your own husbands”- those who misuse it tend to ignore the previous verse which is abundantly clear “Submit to one another” and verse 25). I might rail against the patriarchical society that first wrote it, but I can’t get away from it saying the wife should submit to the husband in the same way the Church submits to Christ. Admittedly, the Church (which is all Christians, not just specific denominations or groups meeting in a particular building), is in many ways terrible at submitting to (i.e. obeying) Christ Jesus. The list of ways in which the Church doesn’t follow Jesus’ teaching is shamefully long. But, for all its failings, the Church at its very core is trying to follow Jesus and be obedient.

I know that some of you will still be choking on verse 22-24, as do I (especially that “in everything” phrase). But remember the mutuality of verse 21 “Submit to one another”- the give and take of relationships, and when I keep reading I reach “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her”. Too often we never reach this verse, but quite frankly, having read this, I think I have the better deal. My Husband is meant to love me in the same way that Christ loved the Church: i.e. he is meant to show me the same self-sacrificing, costly love that led Jesus to set aside His own desires, comfort and well-being, and led Him to the cross. If Husband is making decisions with that attitude and approach, they are likely to be decisions which are in our best interests, and easy for me to agree with (though not necessarily easy to enact). I think husbands have the harder task in this passage.

When I started writing this blog, I didn’t expect to end up writing about Ephesians 5. I probably wouldn’t have started writing it if I had. Promising to obey is controversial these days, and talk of submission even more so. I expect may who read this will still disagree with my decision, but it is done, and though he will not always get it right, I trust Husband to love me well.

 

* Here are some blogs which look at this passage/the idea of submission in more depth. The first is from a writer whose book ‘A Year of Biblical Womanhood’ was one of the most liberating things I’ve read. The other two are written from a queer theology perspective.

Rachel Held Evans – Humility without Hierarchy

Queer Ephesians 5:21-6:9 – Guest Post Ben Allison

Queer Ephesians 5:21-33 – Wives be Subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord

 

Advertisements

6 thoughts on “To love, cherish….and obey?

  1. My Father's Child Post author

    The following comments were made on facebook (particularly from friends I tagged because I knew they may have differing views), and are reproduced with permission here:
    Tom – Its interesting. And I need to ponder more. Partly because I am not convinced (as one who has immense respect for you!!!) that one can promise to obey and yet inhabit a different “gender universe” as it were when it comes to ministry and other things. I feel we need to have a pint on this one! And we should bill it to college as formational expenses. 🙂

    Reply
  2. My Father's Child Post author

    Ben – Thanks for linking me, Caroline. I don’t really have anything else to say on the biblical front, but what I would say on a practical front, and purely from my own experience, there doesn’t need to be a default casting vote. I would even go so far to say there shouldn’t be one. Having such a thing makes it much easier to duck out of the nearly impossible but ultimately vital part of marriage which is constant loving discernment. What that discernment often looks like is the discernment of who is Jesus and who is the church in that situation. Who is called to minister and who is called to be ministered to. This gives a much more nuanced and beautiful view of Christ’s relationship with the church.

    Reply
  3. My Father's Child Post author

    El – Thanks for tagging me Caz – I did see your blog post yesterday morning and read it with interest. I think it will come as no surprise to you that I have a lot of trouble with the whole ‘obey’ thing, but you’re a clever and thoughtful person, and I knew that you wouldn’t have taken the decision to say it lightly. I also appreciate that you’ve tagged people here who you think may have conflicting views, and I really respect that you’re keen to seek alternative views.

    First of all, I think that it’s very difficult to fully get away from the oppressive weight of history here. The notion of ‘obeying’ has long been used to oppress and belittle women through the ages and although the links at the bottom of the page are interesting in reappraising the role of ‘husband’ and ‘wife’, it’s still meaningful (to me) that you (the woman) chose to obey your husband (the man). You also say in your post that you were aware of his preference, and I assume from the way this is worded that he was for ‘obey’. I see the rationale behind affording him more responsibility/power in terms of making home-life decisions, particularly in the light of the decision-making you’ll have to do as part of your job – but can you honestly say that, had your life circumstances been different, you guys could have conceived of a marriage ceremony in which he chose to obey but you didn’t? If the answer to that is no, I feel like your argument is on shaky ground.

    I cannot for one moment imagine that yours and your husband’s relationship is anything other than loving and understanding, and that you guys will always consciously try to make decisions that are in the interests of your Team as a collective – in which case, I also don’t get the rationale behind a pre-agreement to have a party that’s allowed the power of veto. Decision-making occurs in lots of different ways in relationships, certainly in mine and P’s. Sometimes one person cares more than the other, in which case we may decide that that person’s view is given more weight. Sometimes it’s a case of splitting the labour and trusting the other person to make the right decision about mundane, householdy things. Sometimes we disagree, and it’s hard to come to a compromise, but we make a list of pros and cons and talk it through some more until we come to a place that’s acceptable to both. I can’t imagine ever having pre-committed to an arbitrary one of us getting to have the final say, because the circumstances surrounding any decision are many and varied. I take your point about the democracy of two possibly getting stuck, but you got married because presumably you’re in accord on all the major things and feel you have the tools to hand to work out the rest, in which case I don’t see why either of you should ever need a casting vote.

    Ultimately, from what you’ve said I think that ‘obey’ in your ceremony actually meant something equating to you having chosen to give a bit more responsibility to him for decisions concerning your home life because your work is likely to take up a lot of your headspace, which seems perfectly reasonable. Even though you’ve outlined all the ways it pretty much won’t come to that, ‘obey’ has a literal and historical meaning I personally don’t feel has any place in modern married life. Actually, just in modern life.

    Just my view of course, and I respect that you’ve given it so much thought to come to your decision. And sorry that my post turned out to be quite so long! Hope you guys are well. xx

    Reply
    1. My Father's Child Post author

      Phil- I’d say that El, very eloquently, sums up my feelings about using the word ‘obey’ in marriage vows.

      I could never agree to obey my partner, as the foundation of our relationship is equality. Therefore, the literal meaning of ‘obey’ makes it impossible for me to consider including it in my own marriage vows. I don’t for a minute think that your relationship in unequal, I just think that the word ‘obey’ has connotations that make it unsuitable for modern relationships.

      I can’t imagine ever being in a situation where H and I would disagree about something to the extent that it would be necessary to give one of us the ‘final say’. As El said, it sounds more like you’ve decided that Husband will have more responsibility in certain areas of your life, and that makes total sense. However, for me, using the word ‘obey’ wouldn’t cover the nuances of that agreement/arrangement. By agreeing to obey someone, you might have to submit to their wishes over your own. That’s never a position I’d want to be in – I’m a firm believer in compromise and talking through problems until a mutuality palatable solution can be found. Giving my partner – in all situations – the ultimate trump card would make me incredibly unhappy.

      Like El, I really admire the fact that you’re interested in the opinions of those that might differ from your own, Caroline. Sorry if my thoughts aren’t what you were looking for xxx

      Reply
  4. My Father's Child Post author

    Soph – Thank you for tagging me, and thank you for engaging in this debate – more level headed discussions like these need to happen!

    Its interesting coming from a Catholic (RC) point of view, because the current English Catholic vows in the Rite of Marriage do not have ‘obey’ in them. In fact, the vows each spouse makes to one another are equal. You submit to one another as you submit to the Lord. So I did not have to choose whether to ‘obey’ the Mr. It’s interesting to notice the difference here between the RC church and the CofE, particularly given the many other numerous differences that we all know about (that’s a different chestnut for another time).

    What did happen which in some ways was similar was the selection of our readings during our Nuptial Mass. In the RC church in England and Wales, there is a selection from which you choose (in fact, this selection has just recently been expanded). The Mr and I went through the choices available to us at the time, and decided not to use any that conveyed subservience of one sex to the other. My reasoning was due to my feminist beliefs, and my husband’s were that he didn’t feel comfortable having readings which conveyed my subservience to him, where it was not reciprocated.

    Our inner historians (and Classicist and Archaeologist) had to recognise the fact that the Bible is a historical document, conveying the social norms and customs of the time in which it was written and passed down (whilst it will always remain our holy scripture). I couldn’t ignore (nor could my husband) the feeling that our marriage in this day and age should stand on equal footing, equal deference, compassion and always love. We personally felt that the notion of subservience in those readings didn’t fit in with what we wanted for our marriage with one another (spiritually, practically and romantically).

    In our wedding with our family and friends present, we wanted to convey the love and strength of our relationship with one another, and celebrate this and our commitment to one another and to the Lord whilst saying ours vows. We didn’t want this focus being taken away with mention of subservience to one another.

    My beliefs and feelings on this matter are a mix of my upbringing, my hopes and expectations of being a woman in 21st century British society, as well as my Faith. It is probably far removed from many others viewpoints in the RC church (I came to the Church quite late as an adult).

    As you stated in the opening of your blog, feminism is the right to be able to choose, and I commend you for doing that, and making open to scrutiny your reasoning. Its a brave thing to do, and I think it will serve you greatly in your studies and in your future in the Ministry. 🙂

    Reply
    1. My Father's Child Post author

      Isabelle- I don’t think I have anything particular to add to the already clear arguments that have been put forward here. Sophie and I hashed it out quite a lot over lunch on Monday (thank you for the interesting lunch time topic!).

      I would not feel comfortable vowing to ‘obey’, mainly because I would not feel that was equal or fair, from a feminist standpoint. I also don’t feel that it is something I would wish to include anyway as I don’t feel that obedience is necessary in a relationship. We do not obey each other, we make mutual decisions as a team.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s