A friend sent me news of an influential evangelist in South Africa whose movement emphasizes the subordination of wives to husbands.  Careless or hostile readers of what has been written on this subject over the years, here and in the pages of Touchstone, might think the likes of us would be immediately gratified in hearing of it.  Not so.

What makes me nervous about movements of men that emphasize the subordination of women is that (1) how the Christian doctrine works out in practice is based upon a mystery that includes the woman's full equality to the man, so to those outside may not look very much like women's subordination in any crass or obvious sense, and (2) these operations are very much the creative province not of conferences of men, but of faithful women, not doing what they do because of the demands the law of the male places upon them–however just that law may be–but because they love the men to whom they are committed, so follow the lesser law within the greater. Christian women living near the center of their faith are simply too accomplished, too strong, too well-integrated, too wise, too fruitful, and too happy, to satisfy the expectations of either feminism or the subordinationism of those who would make them less than they are.  Christian men living near the center of their faith like them that way, and trust them with their lives.

This is what St. Paul is referring to when he speaks of mutual submission in marriage: charity does not efface or relativize the law of subordination of woman to man, but transforms it into a dance (C. S. Lewis) in which what each partner does in his own proper sphere is done in self-forgetfulness for the good and the glory of the other, which in turn becomes his or her own glory because of the possession, in love, of the other.  There is neither offense in the leading or resentment in the willing and creative response to that leadership (submission), that in its own turn informs and enlarges it.  Both feminism–as gender feminism or the egalitarianism of its ostensibly more benign religious form–and male legalism, each every bit as ugly and destructive as the other, have vested interests in killing romantic love and the charity of marriage into which it can grow (both founded as they are on interest in the other), either by abandoning them for isolation of the sexes, or reducing them to one element, typically sexual excitement.

So, on first hearing I am somewhat leery of religious movements in which the submission of wives to husbands is prominent.  This may be a very good thing, or quite the opposite.  One is wise, I believe, to question these things as one might question all reputed revivals of religion:  Is what we have here mostly the valueless and ephemeral froth of enthusiasm which will end in spiritual exhaustion and rejection of the faith it falsely claims to be–or does it result in denunciation and abandonment of individual and collective sin, in juster, happier, and more temperate societies, and an environment where virtue is rewarded instead of punished–none of which can be had apart from the right ordering of the sexes?  All these things are known by their fruits, not their advertisements.