Mutual Obedience

Julia and I holding hands.

Photo: Jack Burgess

Rachel Held Evans is running a series this week titled One in Christ: A Week of Mutuality. Here’s how she describes it on her blog:

The purpose of this week’s series is to make a case for egalitarianism, (though it should be assumed that people of goodwill and sincere faith can disagree on these issues).  I’m not aiming to spend much time arguing against complementarianism, but rather showing that egalitarianism is a tenable position for Christians, based on scripture, reason, tradition, etc.

(Note: For those unfamiliar with the terms “complimentarianism” and egalitarianism,” Rachel defines them on her blog.)

I touched upon this same subject at the end of March when I wrote about Parenting as a Vocation. I drew parallels between the Benedictine Vows —Stability, Obedience, and Conversion of Life—and the commitments I live out daily as a husband and parent. Here’s what I said about the vow that bears most directly on the complimentarian/egalitarian debate:

Obedience: This is a tricky one, given the traditional view of marriage as a one-way relationship regarding obedience. Not that I would try, but if I ever suggested to Julia that she “obey” me, she would laugh me out of the room. Our relationship is a partnership: both complimentary, in that we bring different strengths and weaknesses to our marriage; and egalitarian, in that we respect each other and acknowledge our common human dignity. But the root of the word “obedience” is the Latin word obedienta, which in turn is derived from a stronger form of the word audiere: to listen. Obedience in the Benedictine sense is before all else a vow to listen, which is the first word of The Rule of Saint Benedict. I need to listen carefully to my wife, she needs to listen carefully to me, and we both need to listen carefully to our daughter. Only by careful listening will we be able to hear and respond to each other’s needs. In the parent-child relationship, of course, obedience can be understood in its more traditional sense: Anna is the child and we are the adults. She needs to do what we tell her to do, but we need to listen to her and understand her needs instead of barking orders at her.

I didn’t have a adjective for this relationship when I wrote this over two months ago; thanks to Rachel I have one now: mutuality.

Like complimentarianism, mutuality recognizes that men and women are different and that those differences compliment each other. But mutuality doesn’t set a hierarchy. Instead, it acknowledges that different doesn’t mean better or worse.

Like egalitarianism, mutuality recognizes the equal dignity of men and women. But mutuality doesn’t diminish the differences in the way at least some egalitarians are tempted to do. Instead, it acknowledges that we need each other to complete each other. That God created us—male and female—in his image intentionally leaving out something that we would seek out naturally in the other.

But just as Paul says in the Epistle to the Galatians: “male and female . . . all are one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28) So what does he mean? Can we still uphold the patriarchy of our fallen condition when “all the old things have passed away?” (2 Corinthians 5:17) Or do we have to think of our relationships in a new way?

I think this was what Paul was driving at when—in the Letter to the Ephesians—he said “be subject to one another out of reverence to Christ.” (Ephesians 5:21) The following lines set the mutual subjection within the context of the Greco-Roman household codes. The wife submits to her husband—that’s nothing new—but the husband is to “love his wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” (Ephesians 5:25)

Given the position of the Roman paterfamilias—head of the household—who owned the people under his roof—whether a wife, or children, or slaves—and could do whatever he wanted with them, this advice is like an earthquake knocking down everything that men in Roman culture had taken for granted.

And it gets worse, for Christ “came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:28) That’s how Jesus describes leadership in his new community. Not like “rulers of the Gentiles” of the Greco-Roman household code, “who lord it over” their subjects (Matthew 20:25), but like Christ, who in a startling example washes his disciples feet. That’s not anything like the patriarchy that’s been perpetuated over the almost 2,000 years since Paul wrote his epistles; it’s the opposite: a continuation of the old ways as if “Christ has not been raised . . . and you are still in your sins.” (1 Corinthians 15:17)

So, in the light of Christ’s example, what does it mean to be “subject to one another?” What might Paul be driving at?

I think the answer is mutual obedience. Allow me to play with Paul’s text a little without changing it’s meaning. To be subject is to be obedient, so as a first step let’s replace the word “subject” with “obedient,” so the text reads: “Be obedient to one another out of reverence to Christ.”

Now no one would think twice of that rendering of the text. It conveys the exact same meaning. But remembering the origins of the word obedience, we can also replace “be obedient” with “listen” resulting in: “Listen to one another out of reverence to Christ.”

Which sounds very similar to the opening of the Rule of Saint Benedict—”Listen carefully, my child, to your master’s precepts and incline the ear of your heart”—but not quite. In the spirit of Paul’s call for mutual obedience, a better reading would be this: “Listen carefully to your spouse’s words, and incline the ear of your heart.”

Listen to one another: great marital advice from both St. Paul and St. Benedict, and a great definition of mutuality.

This post is a part of Rachel Held Evans’s Week of Mutuality: One in Christ. Be sure to follow the#mutuality2012 hashtag on Twitter for more participants in this synchroblog.

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