Female Submission: Let’s Stop Doing as the Romans Do

When we lived in the U.S., Renee and I would occasionally tune the television to 17 (then 18, then 19) Kids and Counting to watch the Duggars Duggaring. It was mildly amusing to watch this massive clan dressing in their homemade prairie clothes, playing violins, and cooking 1,387 waffles for the shared breakfast. Once, they even took the show on the road, loaded up the family bus and, along with their ‘worldly’ cousin, Duggared their way across the state border to a Christian theme park in Branson, Missouri — where, to borrow the words of Obi Wan Kenobi, ‘you will never find a more wretched hive of kitsch and Christianry’.

1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6… Ah, hell, I give up.

Like Star Wars though, there’s a dark side to Duggar culture and the so-called ‘Quiverfull’ movement in the way that it treats women. From afar (the other side of the world ‘afar’), we’ve been journeying with a friend of ours who has left that kind of culture behind. Yet she continues to suffer many indignities heaped upon her and her children by a controlling ex-husband and a family of origin that has disowned her. A similar story is told by Alyssa Wakefield about her ordeals within this movement, a story that had Renee and I riveted for all the wrong reasons. If only these types of narratives were rare.

Is That a Complement?

I didn’t grow up amongst Quiverfull acolytes, but I’m certain that my conservative community’s view of women — indeed, my own view of women — was only superior by degrees. In my Christian community, men led from the front, sat on the church elder board, served as the pastors, preached the sermons, played the guitars and the drums (when we finally allowed guitars and drums for church worship some time in the early 2000s) and called the shots in their families. Women filled the secretary pool, taught children’s Sunday school, played the piano and sang back-up, and organised the church’s pot-luck suppers, supplying them with Jello molds and sweet potatoes with brown sugar and mini marshmallows. It’s a structure that’s optimistically labeled ‘complementarianism’ by its proponents; apparently, these stringently demarcated paths of service are how men and women ‘complement’ each other.

Church ladies, behold your appointed acts of service.

Glancing at the website for the church where I came of age, it’s clear that nothing has changed with respect to women. However, I certainly have. Full disclosure: I now attend a church led with grace and sensitivity by a female pastor, where my wife (not me) has served as an elder — and where I recently preached a sermon series on Ephesians. I’ve been pondering that series as we’ve followed with great sadness the twists and turns of our friend’s personal story. And one thing that has occurred to me is that Quiverfull adherents and complementarians think less like Christians and more like Romans.

As the Romans Do

The rigid stratification of Roman society has been well documented1. The paterfamilias (the male head of household) held absolute authority over all household members: wives, children, slaves. Roman law (Pater Potestas) gave husbands unquestioned control over almost every aspect of the lives of their wives. This order extended all the way to the top of the societal ladder, with the emperor seen as the paterfamilias to the empire. It was an order handed down by the gods and to challenge it was to endanger the very foundations of the Roman world.

It’s interesting to me that fundamentalist Christian groups and complementarians speak about church and family structures and female submission in much the same way: as an order handed down by God, which is so foundational that to question it is tantamount to heresy.2

However, when we turn to Ephesians 5 (incidentally, a favourite ‘proof text’ passage for complementarians), what we find are subtle subversions of the established order.

One thing that has occurred to me is that Quiverfull adherents and complementarians think less like Christians and more like Romans.

As the Christians Do

We’re likely all familiar with the instructions Paul gives to wives in 5:22-24, but we should notice straight away that the majority of instructions are reserved for husbands. To them, Paul states:

"Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendour, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies."
Ephesians 5:25-28

Now doesn’t that sound pleasant? A picture of tender and winsome Brady Bunch / Family Ties / Growing Pains kind of dads.

I suspect Paul had these cats in mind while writing Ephesians 5.

Yet Paul’s words would hit a 1st-century Roman male like a seismic shock. ‘Love’? Love (along with monogamous fidelity) was not an essential ingredient in Roman marriages. And to ‘give yourself up’ for your wife would be unthinkable to a Roman husband, whose role according to the thinking of the day was to rule his wife.3 Of course, Paul understands his audience and their reality; he knows he can’t completely rewrite the established social order in a few strokes of the stylus.4 But within the bounds of that society, he can write some subversive, Jesus-like revisions of ‘the rules’.

Paul is thinking more like a Christian, and less like a Roman.

Further along in this section of Ephesians, Paul gives a similar set of instructions, first to slaves, then to masters (6:5-9). He tells slaves to ‘obey’ their masters and to serve them with enthusiasm. Then, he commands masters to ‘do the same’ toward their slaves. Blasphemy! Roman masters owed nothing to their slaves, certainly not ‘service’ or kind treatment.

Again, Paul is thinking not like a Roman, but like a Christian.

The question is, why don’t we? Why do so many of us insist on maintaining rigid Roman-style gender hierarchies in our families and in our churches? After all, I’ve seen no churches issuing clarion calls to reintroduce slavery — although these days, I wouldn’t be surprised — on the grounds that Paul somehow ‘affirms’ slavery in this passage. No, we rightly recognise that slavery was a Roman institution that has no place in our churches. Yet we refuse to apply the same logic to Roman gender structures addressed by Paul a mere few paragraphs earlier.

I think there are several reasons why we do this, which in the interest of space, I won’t discuss here. I also know that some will respond to all of this with thought-terminating cliches like, ‘It is what it is’, and ‘These are peripheral issues’, and ‘We should focus on the really important things’. But is this really a ‘peripheral issue’? Is this really unimportant, something we shouldn’t argue about?

No, it’s not at all ‘peripheral’ or unimportant. Our friend’s story and the stories of so many other women show us that truth. It’s not unimportant when male-dominated pyramid structures and ‘submission’ principles are used to eliminate women’s agency and keep them completely dependent on men for their wellbeing and even their survival. It’s not unimportant when emotional, spiritual, financial, physical and sexual abuse is enabled, and when women are sent back into the arms of their abusers with the injunction to ‘submit’ to them. None of that is ‘peripheral’. None of that is in any way acceptable.

Two centuries ago, strong Christian voices like William Wilberforce in the U.K. and the Quakers in the United States called out slavery as a cruel and inhumane practice, belonging to a bygone era, that had no place in any just society. They recognised that a genuine, Christ-centred assessment of slavery demanded something more than a flat and simplistic reading of Ephesians 5 and similar passages. What’s more, their Christian belief that all people were equal in the new creation of Jesus compelled them to agitate and labour for change. I wonder if and when those of us in complementarians and fundamentalist circles will, in the same way, reassess our Roman-style subjugation of women.


1. cf. Mathisen, Ralph (2019). Ancient Roman Civilization: History and Sources. Oxford University Press; Evans, John K (1991). War, Women and Children in Ancient Rome. London and New York: Routledge.

2. In his book, The Patient Ferment of the Early Church (2016), Alan Kreider traces this line of thinking to the third century, and a “process that was transforming Christian community life, making it more like the patriarchal Greco-Roman society” (p. 105).

3. Aristotle, for example, wrote this very instruction to husbands in his own well-known version of household codes.

4. An excellent argument about Ephesians 5 and 6 (and its ‘companion’ in Colossians 3:18 – 4:1) put forward by theologian Marg Mowczko is that Paul’s instructions to women aim to help them bear a difficult situation. Paul knows that men held nearly all the power and women’s agency was severely limited. Thus, he presents women with an alternate outlook: treat your submission to your paterfamilias as submission to the Lord. If they think of themselves as acting in service to the Lord, they might see light in their often-depressing state of life. (Please don’t read this argument as helpful advice to give to women caught in abusive partnerships in our present-day churches.)

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