When stereotypes attack

A few years ago, Newsweek's Lisa Miller attempted to argue that the Bible didn't really have much to say on marriage, except that it should include same-sex partnerships. In the first paragraph of the theologically illiterate and snark-infested piece, she asked "Would any contemporary heterosexual married couple--who likely woke up on their wedding day harboring some optimistic and newfangled ideas about gender equality and romantic love--turn to the Bible as a how-to script?" That the question would be posed so smugly -- not to mention rhetorically -- says everything you need to know about how well Miller covered her subject. Of course, my husband and I are one of these contemporary married couples Miller has never heard of. We don't even think marriage is about gender equality, if you believe it. Passages such as this one from Ephesians 5 guide us every day:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle or any such thing, but that she should be holy and without blemish. So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church. For we are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones. "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh."

Now, it's true that when we started talking marriage, my husband did suggest that gender equality would be our guiding principle. I argued for the Biblical model. We went through pre-marital counseling and continue to study the issue, but we now agree and aim to follow the traditional Christian model of marriage. Of course, the massive responsibility placed on the male and the respect required from the female are difficult. We constantly ask each other and God to forgive us for our failures and we strive to improve.

I bring all this up because there's been a resurgence of interest in the Biblical model of marriage. The New York Times featured a lengthy article on the topic by Molly Worthen. It's about this model of marriage -- and not housewives -- but it's titled "Housewives of God." And it's actually a really interesting read. Whatever else might be said, Worthen is an elegant writer. But the error in the headline carries through the article. It's as if there's a fundamental stereotype about Christian marriages that can't be shaken, no matter what. Here's the lede:

Priscilla Shirer's marriage appears to be just the sort of enlightened partnership that would make feminists cheer. On an average morning in their house in suburban Dallas, Shirer and her husband, Jerry, are up around 6:30, fixing breakfast for their three small boys. While Priscilla, 35, settles in to work at home and care for their 2-year-old, Jerry, 42, shuttles the older two children to school and heads to his office. He spends much of the day negotiating her speaking invitations and her book contracts. In the afternoon it's often Jerry who collects the boys from school. Back home, Priscilla and Jerry divide chores and child care equally. "He will most often jump in and do the dinner dishes," Priscilla says. "We don't have, 'these are wife tasks and these are husband tasks.' ... Kids are not a wife-mommy thing."

Yet Shirer avoids using words like "feminist" or "career woman" to describe herself. She is an evangelical Bible teacher who makes her living by guiding thousands of women through the study of Scripture in her books, videos and weekend conferences -- in which she stresses that in a biblical home and church, the man is the head and the woman must submit. She steers women away from the "feminist activists" who tell women to "do your own thing, make your own decisions and never let a man slow you down," as she puts it. "Satan will do everything in his power to get us to take the lead in our homes," she wrote in her book "A Jewel in His Crown: Rediscovering Your Value as a Woman of Excellence." "He wants to make us resent our husband's position of authority so that we will begin to usurp it. . . . Women need to pray for God to renew a spirit of submission in their hearts."

We all know that when husbands head households, they force you to do 100 percent of the dishes and handle all ferrying of children, right? Perhaps we should ask ourselves why we're so hung up on that stereotype and what it says about us. Is it reality based? I don't know. I mean, I'm Lutheran and in my tradition we have Martin Luther not just supporting the Biblical model of marriage but also writing that fathers should not complain when they have to rock a baby, change his diaper, or care for the baby's mother, but instead should view each act as a holy blessing. That was 500 years ago. This isn't exactly news. Believing that the husband has the authority and responsibility to make sure everyone in the house is taken care of doesn't mean an automatic and exclusive assignment of diaper changing -- or any other household task -- to the wife. The point is that the husband and wife are supposed to model Christ and the church. The husband is supposed to sacrifice his life for the wife and she is to respond to that love and sacrifice as the church does to Christ -- with love and respect. Nappy changing isn't mentioned.

And yet . . . let's look at another passage:

Priscilla now accepts about 20 out of some 300 speaking invitations each year, and she publishes a stream of Bible studies, workbooks and corresponding DVDs intended for women to read and watch with their girlfriends from church. Jerry does his share of housework and child care so that Priscilla can study and write. He travels with his wife everywhere. Whenever possible, they take their sons along on her speaking trips, but they often deposit the boys with Jerry's mother.

Despite this routine, Priscilla insists that she submits to Jerry -- especially in the family's bigger decisions.

I am now hitting my head slowly against my desk. "Despite" this routine? "Despite" this routine? What in the world does this routine have to do with whether or not Priscilla submits to Jerry? This sounds like a version of my marriage. I accept speaking invitations, publish various things, share housework and child care with my husband, travel with my family, even -- gasp! -- hire child care regularly. Somehow my husband still manages to head our household.

I would say there's much more to the piece but I don't want to belabor the point. I'll just note that it has an excessively narrow view of what types of Christians embrace this model (hint: more than just evangelicals) and carries at least a hint of disdain for the whole arrangement throughout the piece. Of course, that's usually the price you have to pay to get a feature published there about conservative or traditional Christian views.

I just hope that next time someone writes about this model of marriage, they check their stereotypes at the door. Then we wouldn't have to deal with the shock and awe that women aren't locked up barefoot and pregnant in Christian marriages where the husband is the head of the household.

Please respect our Commenting Policy