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(Re-)Learning Mutual Submission

As far as anyone knows, I was born an egalitarian. My grandmother was a college professor beloved by a generation of students, especially women. They remember her as an influential figure who encouraged them to explore and use all of their gifts. My parents shared leadership in the home. My church had strong female leaders and staff members. When I went to college, I chose the Wesleyan school where my grandparents taught, Houghton College, and learned about the Wesleyan Church’s historic dedication to women’s rights and women in ministry. After seminary, even though I wanted to do PhD work, I encouraged my wife Jill to pursue hers first and resumed my own studies two years later, part-time, while pastoring a church. From an early age, I understood—and preached—biblical equality.

So when Houghton needed a mathematician, I did not have great difficulty choosing to resign my pastorate and follow Jill back to our alma mater. Oh, it was hard in some ways; we were blessed with a good congregation, which is more than many first-time pastors can say, and we left the Philadelphia area where I was born and raised. But I had absolutely no qualms about leaving paid employment and hoping for the best; I’d certainly be able to teach as an adjunct here and there, and maybe something full-time would open up somewhere. In the meantime, I would be able to stay at home and be the primary caretaker for our kids, Grace, then three, and Jack, then one. It was a good situation for a progressive evangelical gentleman eager to burnish his egalitarian credentials.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself weeping one iron-gray November morning when Jill left to teach. Not just a few silent tears stinging the eyes, but full-throated sobs, like any stereotypical hysterical housewife. That morning, the reality of what I had done hit me full force: that day, Jill got to go off to her office, to adult conversation, to the validation that comes from pursuing tenure. I, on the other hand, got squabbling children, dishpan hands, and horrible diapers. I got the limbo that comes from being new in town without a “real” role to play, and the persistent worry that I would never be a genuine part of the community. Most agonizing, I felt a constant sense of being ignored and that no one was grateful for the choices I had made. I knew in my head that my life was meaningful and that I was appreciated, but I simply could not feel it.

How could it have come to this? I chuckle when I remember how, on one of our first dates, I asked Jill how she felt about women serving in ministry. She hadn’t really considered it and thought that it was an odd question to ask a new girlfriend. Of course, it was an important question to me because I knew that any person I was seriously interested in would have to be an egalitarian. It was not important to me that she actually asserted herself in any specific leadership role; instead, it was important that she was a certain type of person with a certain way of looking at the world. But years later on that teary November morning, I realized that I had embraced mutual submission only in theory. In reality, though, biblical equality is not a litmus test of progressive orthodoxy: like so many other things about the Christian life, it is a practice, and an issue of our hearts. That morning, I discovered that, deep down, I actually knew nothing about biblical equality. It is not something one can inherit or even learn by simply cooperating with one’s spouse so that both partners get what they want. Mutual submission can only be learned by laying down our own desires and actually submitting. 

C.S. Lewis clarified this point for me. In one of his sermons in The Weight of Glory, Lewis distinguishes between reason, which can be changed through argument, and intuition, which cannot. In making a choice between right and wrong, we can always find new facts or data which may change our perspective on an issue; we may even find someone who artfully arranges the facts differently than we’ve heard before and persuades us to change our mind. But what cannot be reasoned away is intuition, a basic, gut-level sense of what just feels right and wrong. Our intuitions run deeper than our reason, and are often given to us very early in life from our parents and other important role models. The only way to change an intuition is through practice and discipline, which Lewis cheerfully calls “mortification.” For instance, when we fast, we clearly see the ways we misuse food to relieve our boredom, anxiety, or loneliness. Abstaining from food forces us to find healthier ways to cope with these realities; so after fasting, we are less likely to misuse food in these ways. Through the discipline, our false desires are “mortified”—put to death—and we begin to know in our hearts what we already know in our heads.

Lewis’s insight into intuitions helped me to understand my inner conflict. My upbringing had given me an intellectual matrix to appreciate biblical equality. I learned about the pertinent Scripture passages and the female leaders in the early and modern church. I also watched women serve in powerful leadership positions in our church. But at the same time, I was imbibing important messages about myself, ideas that would shape my perception of who I was. Early in my life, I felt a call to what my church called “full-time Christian service,” which pleased all the old people at church, my parents included. So at a very young age, I knew I had a special job to do that was affirmed by my community and important to the world. I went to school and there learned self-esteem—that I could grow up to be anything I wanted, and that I had to maximize my potential. This was buttressed by my youth group which encouraged us to use the gifts that God had given us and to let nothing hold us back. I then went to college and heard grand tales of people who had found God’s will for their life, almost always defined by what sort of professional work they chose. I went to seminary and learned the importance of boundaries in ministry, of not letting people take advantage of you, of holding your own in business meetings and with pushy parishioners. 

All of these lessons are in some measure true and important. But they were also shaping my intuitions. Over time, these lessons had taught me at an intuitive level that work—specifically professional Christian work—was primarily where I followed my calling, maximized my potential, and defined and exercised healthy boundaries. No doubt this sense was inextricably tied to my identity as a man. Like many men, I scarcely imagined an extended interruption in my professional life to care for my family.  So much of my identity was having a job that fit me, and defending my right to follow my call as I thought appropriate.    

Consequently, my reason and my intuition were at odds. There were so many reasons why it was the right decision for Jill to take this new job: it was a great career opportunity for her; our kids would thrive in Houghton; it felt like home for both of us; I could find ways to be involved at the college, teaching part-time and interacting with students; and I felt I could be a more positive force for change in the local church by being a layperson than by being a paid staff member. All this I knew in my head; but still I found myself weeping that November morning, struggling in my heart about my identity. Who am I if I’m not actively using my pastoral gifts in a public way? Who am I without a defined professional position that lends public credibility to the ideas I have? Who am I if I am not providing for my family? Am I a pastor at all? Am I a scholar at all? Am I a man at all? 

The cold fact is that if I cannot wrestle with these questions and eventually move beyond them, I cannot be an egalitarian.

I can be a theoretical egalitarian, one who embraces biblical equality as a kind of cultural marker that makes me feel superior to other Christians. But I cannot truly be egalitarian if I cannot submit to my wife and family. I cannot be the husband—or more generally, the person—God wants me to be if I am slave to false intuitions about who I really am. My upbringing, healthy as it was, never taught me that submission—in marriage or otherwise—is actually a normal, vital Christian activity that helps us see ourselves rightly. Submission rewires our brains and opens us up to real service, allowing us to fully enter into the life of another person without reservation, just as Christ submitted and thus fully entered into human existence. Paradoxically, submission uses our service and concern for others to teach us that we are more than our achievements, more than our powerful professions and positions. As such, it is a discipline desperately needed by both men and women, though I suspect that, in this culture, women expect submission as a normal part of life in a way I simply had not as a man.

My false intuitions cannot be reasoned away. Only discipline—at times mortifying submission—can change my sense of who I am. So I get up and soothe Jack after a nightmare. I bake a cake, unsteadily at first, with Jill’s help, but I get the hang of it. I kiss Gracie’s boo-boos. I read and read and read. I wipe noses and bottoms. I kiss Jill and send her off to a life I’d like to live. I break up fights about the most absurd issues. I figure out how many bites of broccoli must be eaten in order to have a cookie. This is how I have to learn now. One day, I will know—really know—what it is to be a man.

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