When Lois and Jim Watkins signed on as co-pastors of LaOtto Wesleyan Church in rural Indiana, they agreed to share the workload, 50-50. But six years into the job, "we were driving each other `co-razy,'" recalls Jim. He excelled as a worship and youth-group leader and preacher, but struggled with the administrative duties that Lois, the organizer, tackled with relish. On the advice of a counselor, they took a hard look at each person's strengths and weaknesses and developed a plan to shift their focus from the roles society had assigned them to the gifts God had given them.
Then, after Jim took a yearlong sabbatical to get parishioners used to the idea of bringing the bulk of their questions and concerns to Lois, they asked the congregation for permission to shuffle their responsibilities and tweak their titles. The vote for approval was unanimous: Lois emerged as senior pastor and Jim as associate minister.
"She's an incredible pastoral caregiver," Jim boasts about Lois, his wife of 25 years. "My counseling technique tended to be along the lines of `Get over it!' I also spelled `board' meeting as `bored' meeting." Now Lois conducts all the business sessions. For Jim, that spells relief and frees him to focus on what he's good at--which includes speaking at seminars and writing. (They still share preaching, each taking two Sundays a month.)
"When we were co-pastors, I think the majority of the people viewed Jim as the pastor and I was kind of an overactive pastor's wife," says Lois. When the couple suggested the changes in duties and titles, "I had hoped that after six years of ministry not an eyelash would be batted," Lois recalls. In actuality, "there was more batting than I anticipated," mainly traditional questions about women in ministry. For example, members wondered if people might choose not to attend a church led by a female pastor. In the end, though, the final vote was gratifying.
The Watkinses know their division of duties is at odds with some people's belief in a biblical chain of command. Proponents of the chain point to Ephesians 5:23, which says a wife should submit to her husband's authority. Opponents counter with the assurance in Galatians 3:28 that everyone is equal in Christ. Jim and Lois prefer not to pit passages against each other. "We've tried to look at the Bible as a whole and not build a theology of marriage on one or two verses," says Jim. "Here's my theory: God is such a complex being that it takes two genders to adequately express his image. Each part of that image is of equal value, and God intended for both males and females to rule over his creation." The grim alternative, he says, "is to keep half of God's army inactive by saying that women can't fill leadership roles."
When Does Equal Mean Unequal?
The issue of submission--the dreaded "s" word--is an old one, and many people dismiss it as woefully out of date. "Honestly, it's so politically incorrect that I don't think I've ever heard it mentioned in my 25 years of counseling couples," says Howard J. Rankin, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and author of "10 Steps to a Great Relationship" (StepWise Press, 1998). "But there's a vast difference in what people say and what they actually do, and a sizable number of men feel they should control many, or even most, aspects of their marriage."
Politically incorrect or not, submission got a big boost two years ago when the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution affirming that wives should "submit graciously to the servant leadership" of their husbands. Since then, other prestigious groups have said "amen" to spin-off versions of the Baptists' statement, endorsing the idea that hubbies should fulfill their "God-given responsibility" to serve their families by leading, protecting, and providing for them--and implying that women should not try to assume those roles. Each new endorsement has provided a kick in momentum and a spurt of publicity. Campus Crusade for Christ joined the list last summer, a move that some say could cause female students to turn their backs on a ministry--and a faith--they might otherwise embrace.
"That could be the outcome," says Mimi Haddad, executive director of Christians for Biblical Equality (CBE), an interdenominational organization founded 12 years ago by a group of faculty members from evangelical seminaries and colleges. "In a way, it's like going on secular campuses and telling Gen X women, `You may use your intellect and your gifts and your calling, but when you get to church or to marriage, you need to fall into these specific roles.' It doesn't make sense. How can women be equal in Christ and unequal in relationships in the church and in marriage? It's not going to work because it's not true, it's not biblical, and secular culture has made it clear to women that they have gifts that are valuable in the world."
Haddad supports her argument by calling attention to Ephesians 5:21, "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (emphasis added), and to the first two chapters of Genesis. "Adam and Eve were mutually called to subdue the earth, be fruitful, multiply, and respond in loving submission one to another. There were no duties assigned to Adam and Eve along gender lines. They were called to work together in the Garden," Haddad says.
As the case for biblical submission gains visibility, so does the argument for biblical equality. A number of books on the topic (some carrying tongue-in-cheek titles such as "But Can She Type?") build a strong case for men and women operating in a partnership rather than in a pecking order. "We need to set marriages free," says Haddad. "We need to believe that perfect intimacy can never occur between people who are not equally yoked." She sees the resurgence of submission as "a longing for the 'Leave It to Beaver' family." Nice, but not necessarily biblical. "If you want a biblical image of marriage, look at Priscilla and Aquila. In the six times they're mentioned in Scripture, Priscilla is mentioned before her husband. This indicates that she was the more prominent of the two and that she perhaps played a greater role in the teaching of Apollos, according to Acts 18:26. Both Paul and Luke tell us that Priscilla and Aquila risked their necks for the church. They were ministers. They had a church in their homes. They were people who lived on the edge for their belief in Christ. This kind of mutuality in marriage is something we see throughout Scripture, and it's really the higher ground," Haddad says.
Submission for All?
There's yet another way to look at the issue, although making people aware of it has been a challenge for Bunny Wilson, author of "Liberated Through Submission" (Harvest House, 1990). When she shopped her book around the major Christian publishers more than 10 years ago, she got no takers. Undaunted, she self-published the book, and after someone sent a copy to Oprah Winfrey, Wilson found herself on national TV defending her position to an audience that bristled at anything that smacked of a return to doormat status. She was convincing, led a lively discussion, and attracted the attention of publishers who previously had rejected her. At last count, "Liberated Through Submission" has sold more than 100,000 copies.
Wilson's beef with recent statements in favor of submission is this: They're aimed solely at married women. Submission is for everyone, she argues, singles and pairs. Submitting to someone higher on the flow chart, whether the world's or God's, is a way of life that works not just in marriage but in a variety of environments. Citizens submit to the laws of the government, employees submit to the rules of their company, church members submit to the leadership of their pastors, and the country is peaceful, the workplace is orderly, and the church is harmonious. When wives yield to husbands and husbands yield to God, "everything works with peace and harmony," says Wilson. "Freedom comes from operating according to an established order."
In "Woman of Splendor" (Broadman & Holman, 1999), author Linda Weber suggests viewing submission not as a role for women to play but rather as a call to Christ-like action, including unconditional love. She acknowledges the difficulty of this, especially when a husband does something you feel God would not approve of. She suggests taking such a situation to God--whom, she asserts, both husband and wife ultimately submit to.
One of the real dangers of submission is when wives think they must love, honor, and obey no matter what. Joy Gage, a popular women's seminar speaker and Bible study leader, says she has encountered "far too many women" who ignore their legal, maternal, and moral responsibilities rather than question their mates' bad moves. The results can be heartbreaking.
"The most troubling incident concerned a case of child molestation," recalls Gage. "The mother knew of the abuse and talked to a `spiritual advisor' who told her, `Whatever you do, don't leave your place of submission.' The mother stood by while the abuse continued over a period of years."
Gage takes issue with women who weigh in on either extreme of the submission controversy. "One extreme sees women taking Scripture so far that they will disobey the Lord before they'll disobey their husbands," she says. "The other extreme sees women so bent on their rights that they forsake common sense and responsibility."
For its part, Campus Crusade for Christ affirms that submission in marriage does not translate into dominance on the husband's part and passivity on the part of the wife. The group's statement in support of the idea says in part, "The love between husband and wife will show itself in listening to each other's viewpoints; valuing each other's gifts, wisdom and desires; honoring one another in public and private; and always seeking to bring benefit, not harm, to one another."
Gage, a pastor's wife, prefers less discussion about authority and more talk about respect. "I would never forge ahead to an area where my husband doesn't want to go." As an example, she says that before she accepts an invitation to serve as a retreat leader or keynote speaker away from home, she makes sure that the time meshes with her husband's schedule, and they talk over whether the opportunity is in keeping with their joint ministry. "But that's not to say I'm waiting for his permission," she explains. I want his full support in all my work, and I can only have it when we talk about opportunities and come to a meeting of the minds."
Which is exactly what Jim and Lois Watkins now have. Four years after the congregation okayed their proposed shift in responsibilities, Jim is a columnist and author of award-winning Christian books for kids. Under Lois' leadership, the church has almost doubled its membership and has earned "five-star" status, an honor bestowed by the Wesleyan denomination.
"Our gifts complement each other," Lois says simply. "The end turned out well, although the process was painful at times." As for the verse in Scripture that is at the heart of the submission debate, Lois says, "it just doesn't make sense" in light of the lessons contained in other verses and other chapters. But rather than argue the issue, she'll wait until later for a definitive explanation. Much later, "When I get to heaven," she says, "I'm going to ask Paul, `Why did you put that in?'"