The “submit” controversy

At the risk of politicising this blog, I’d like to comment on a deeper aspect of the current “marraige vow” controversy being debated within the Anglican Church as well as publically in the Australian newspapers. To me, this debate is really the collision of two worlds — the sacred and the secular — with the not unexpected result that there are incompatibilities between them.

One branch of the Anglican Church wants to change wives “obey” to wives “submit” to their husband in an optional form of the marriage vow.  There are two ways to view this change, one religious and one political. The Anglicans are debating this based on  religious not political grounds; the public at large is debating it based on political not religious grounds. Let me briefly cover each.

Submission of wives to husbands based on religious grounds

The basic religious point, it seems to me, is one of being faithful to one’s beliefs. One side of the Anglican church is being faithful to Paul’s analogy of marriage and Christ’s relationship with the church. By giving couples this option to consciously choose to elevate the seriousness of their vow into a higher level of conformance with the sacred mystery of Christ / Church, that branch of the Anglican Church is pursuing a higher level of religious faithfulness to Paul’s ideal.

The other branch of the Anglican church takes a different view. It attempts to stay faithful to Christ’s call to go into the world and be “yeast”, transforming the world by emulating Christ’s forgiveness. This branch views St Paul’s statements on marriage as being culturally conditioned. Dorothy Lee wrote a thought piece on this on the Anglican Diocese of Melbourne website. Click here to read the full article. Here is the crux of her argument:

“Household codes [like those on marriage] reflect the culture of the ancient world and the context in which the early Church found itself. These codes, originating with Aristotle, demonstrated that, far from being socially and politically dangerous, Christians were good citizens, following the accepted values of the day (even with a Christian twist). The household codes reflect the compromise the church sometimes has to make in order to proclaim the gospel in socially or politically repressive contexts.” This branch of the Anglican Church would say that we aren’t being faithful when we antagonise the people we are trying to serve in the world by stressing an outmoded cultural code.

Here you see the contrast between two religious views; one which draws a sharper line between secular and sacred in order to convert it, and the other which moves toward the secular, to be part of it, transform it and convert it.

Submission of wives to husbands based on political grounds

This might seem a simple question. In our society, it seems completely obvious that wives don’t submit to husbands, nor women to men in general. That is the ideal of western society (but not other global societies). It has been the ideal since the emancipation of women, given strength by the feminist movement.

But, as a general rule, in cases where things seem completely obvious, we ought to look more closely, to discover whether we have lost some nuances or distinctions. [Let me hasten to add that I am not opposed to the general thrust of complete equality for women.]

Here is one point I’d like to make about the nuanced power issue contained in the ideal of complete equality of men and women. As an example, when women take up powerful political positions — CEOs, Prime Ministers and the like — we hope that their feminine side is not totally subsumed by the masculine demands of the role. The crucial strenghts of the feminine side are well-known — seeing issues and context more broadly, more sensitivity and nurturing in their decision-making, more concerned about relationships. Their feminine side ought not be forgotten by the women in such power psoitions. Indeed Thomas Berry in his wonderful book The Great Work sees the feminine influence as being one of the major positive forces that can heal global problems in the 21st century.

So, if we have a nuanced view of feminine power in corporations and government, cannot one also exist in marriage? Whatever words we might use in the marriage vow, don’t we want women to bring their feminine talents to the marriage? I’m sure that makes sense to most married couples. Young people choosing their vows ought not lose the distinction between the different strengths men and women bring to marriage. It is an important part of what they are commiting themselves to.

If the Sydney Anglican Diocese, by its emphasis on having an option to “submit” in the marriage vow has reawakened a discussion of these important things, good on them I say.

 

Why aren’t you excited?

I had a ‘eureka’ moment the other day, as I was reading Hans Kung’s The Beginning of all things: Science and Religion. He had discussed science’s view of the beginning in the Big Bang, and the beginning of the human race in Darwin’s The Origin of Species.  Then Kung summarised Polkinghorne’s view of  the role that God played in the beginnings as  “. . .a patient and subtle creator who is content to pursue his aims by initiating the process and by accepting that degree of vulnerability and uncertainty that always characterises the gift of freedom through love.” A number of things clicked for me when I read this.

  • “In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” [Acts 2:17]
  • “They are not of this world, even as I am not of it.” [John 17:16]
  • “You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” [John 14:14]

Eureka! We are in the time God and Jesus promised, when the very Spirit of God will empower us to do great works and ‘move mountains’!

So why aren’t you excited? Probably because your common sense tells you that this simply cannot be true. But where did your common sense come from?

Everyone faces three choices when they consider how to view and put into practice Jesus’ promises. First, they may decide it’s all too fantastic and refuse to think about it anymore. You might view them as the cynics of this world. Such people withdraw, become passive, remain victims, and generally wait for someone else to do things. [1]

Second, some people at least reflect on Jesus’ promises and begin to realize there might be some truth in them. But then they become overwhelmed by the reality of the world.  You can recognize such people because they actually talk about the Spirit and Jesus’ promises and seem to understand that they might not be the ordinary people common sense says that they are. In the end though, they say that Jesus’ promises are so improbable that it isn’t worth the risk of putting them into practice. These are the people who settle for the status quo, the skeptics.

Finally there are some people who realise what Jesus’ promises mean. You can call them visionaries or heros. Heros, in the great myths, went on a quest. The hero’s quest was seen to be an extraordinary journey requiring great courage. The first step in Christian heroism is imagining that Jesus’ promises mean exactly what they say: Ordinary people have the power to influence things. The second step is acting despite personal risk. The third is persevering despite difficulties and failures because Jesus’ vision is so vital and compelling.

A person who believes in Jesus’ promises says, “Even if I am only one person, I might make a difference. Therefore, I must try!” They begin to believe that a powerful force — the most powerful imaginable — is at work changing them and empowering them. They understand what Jesus meant by saying we can create whatever is in God’s will by asking him to do it. It isn’t our strength but his.

Isn’t that exciting? If you’re not excited, I encourage you to reflect on why that is. Are you actually a cynic or a skeptic even though you are a Christian believer?


[1] This is based on Melanie Klein’s model, taken from “Mourning, Potency and Power” by Laurent Lapierre in The Psychodynamics of Organizations, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1993, pp 26-31.

 

 

Applying Jesus’ Principles to decisions

Imagine that Jesus is sitting in your Parish Council meeting. Eleven people are discussing some decision that needs to be made, e.g., should we construct a quiet room in the church so parents can attend services but their babies won’t disturb the rest of us? This room will cost a significant amount of money. Jesus sits silently and listens to the discussion, which winds on and on. The hour is getting late. Finally Jesus speaks. He doesn’t say what the decision ought to be; he just lays out the pros and cons from his way of thinking. He leaves the decision up to the rest of us.

Jesus is showing us how his mind works in this specific situation. If he does this for enough different issues, over time we begin to get a sense of the ‘mind of Jesus’ when it comes to the ordinary life of our parish. We can infer certain common principles about how Jesus thinks about the pros and cons of the everyday issues in our local church. Eventually, Jesus doesn’t have to speak up in the Parish Council at all because we understand and apply his principles to our choices. He may occasionally nod, “Yes, you’ve got it right” or shake his head, “That’s not quite the way that I think about this situation.” We gradually become comfortable that we are making the choices that Jesus desires. When that happens, the local church is thinking and making choices with ‘the mind of Jesus.’ There are no guarantees that we are 100% right all the time, but in prayer, before and after serious decisions, we sense whether Jesus is nodding ‘Yes’ or shaking his head ‘No.’ We are doing the process of Principle Based Decision Making based on common principles that we have tested with Jesus.

When Christians accept Jesus as their leader, in practical terms they believe that they can understand Jesus’ plan and his guidance on how to ‘execute’ it. Otherwise, saying Jesus is our leader would be just an empty statement, because Christians would have no practical way of following him. A usual way that all Christians use to understand what Jesus wants of them is by using the Bible. From reading, discussing and praying about relevant passages in the Bible, Christians understand Jesus’ teachings and his way of life, especially how he made practical choices.

Life in modern society is complex. We are faced with many practical choices each day, e.g., How to use our time, how to use our money, how to relate to people, how to relate to political and legal systems, etc. Part of becoming a mature Christian is learning what the mind of Jesus is about our choices in life and how to follow his example and teachings. This is a life-long undertaking. All of us miss the mark sometimes; nonetheless, we know in our hearts that following Jesus as our leader means that we must take his guidance and plan seriously.

When it comes to the choices that a local church makes, following Jesus’ leadership is even more important because the choices that a church makes affect many people. There are many ways that different churches try to guard against making the wrong choices. In this regard, most churches are conservative and avoid making abrupt or sweeping changes. But when transformation seems called for, we obviously need to understand the mind of Jesus.

I am advocating Principle Based Decision-making as an appropriate way for local churches to make difficult, perhaps controversial choices and, at the same time, be respectful of the mechanisms that are in place to guard against the risks of wrong choices. Obviously, how this process is implemented will vary from church to church. Nonetheless, by applying the principles I provide, which overtly bring the mind of Jesus into every serious choice, churches will take a fresh look at how they are living out the plan and guidance of their leader. That is an important step towards transforming the local church. [Click here to download a pdf of a starter set of Principles and Process for Christian Decisionmaking]

Jesus was focused on helping people find the freedom that God intended, and healing whatever ills they were suffering from. He wanted to shock the local church into paying attention to God’s priorities, which weren’t following rules but feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, freeing the imprisoned, healing the sick, etc. This would require changing how people thought about the structure of society and the church’s role in society. Jesus knew that this would transform everything in his disciple’s lives.

Each local church needs to decide how to transform itself and engage in actions that further Jesus’ mission. This requires that we know how Jesus would decide and act if he were present with us in the various situations we face, so that we can decide and act like him. This, in turn, requires we agree on a set of principles that will guide us as we make choices, as individuals, as small groups and ultimately as a whole local church.


[1] There are many other ways as well, which are not universally practiced across all churches, such as tradition, authoritative teaching, discernment in prayer, and others. Because this book is for all Christians, I will only use the Bible as my source for understanding his mind and purposes.