A long long time ago a conservative reader asked for my thoughts on this post by Jollyblogger David Wayne who opines that:
. . . Christianity does have a kind of hierarchical view of the role relationships between men and women in the church and home, but that this hierarchical view does not imply that women are oppressed in Christianity.
Wayne does not explain what he means by "oppressed." As the argument continues it appears that he means that women are not to be mistreated in Christianity but rather to be led by men operating in an humble spirit of service and self-sacrifice. I, however, view any system by which I am automatically placed in a subordinate position based on my sex as "oppressive" regardless of how well-meaning and self-sacrificing those in charge may be. Even if I am well-fed and well-clothed and my opinion listened to, the unjust fact is that I have no chance of exercising my own talents for servant-leadership except over children or other women at home or in church under the conservative Christian view of the relation between the sexes.
Wayne's argument that conservative Christian hierarchy is not "oppressive" comes down to two points. First, he notes that
. . . the gospel challenges the power paradigm . . . the gospel challenges the notion that God moves through the exercise of (human) power.
He is right about that. One of the things I like most about Christianity is its radical views of where real power lies. Christianity is based in large part on the insight that you can be spiritually free, a full moral agent, and equal in moral worth to all other human beings even if you are enslaved by human power, even if you find yourself at the bottom of the hierarchical structures of your society. Christianity therefore devalues human hierarchical relations, or at least, places them in proper perspective.
This facet of Christianity does not, however, lead to the conclusion that it is okay to enslave or exercise arbitrary power over others. Sure, I buy the notion that there are many things in life more important than worldly power. But that doesn't mean that worldly power is unimportant. Or why would men insist so strongly on holding onto it? Nor does it justify consigning one half of the human race to an entire lifetime of submission and the other half to a life of "servant-leadership" based on their sex. It seems to me that much of the conservative Christian argument for women's submission often boils down to: "Power is neither desirable nor important so you women may as well just let us men have all of it." Riiiight.
The second half of Wayne's argument is that the Gospel only calls men to a particular kind of "headship," that of "servant-leadership." In other words:
. . . leaders are only worthy to "call the shots" if they understand their position is one of service or sacrifice . . . We lead like Christ led when we see others as better than ourselves and consider their needs to be more important than our own.
Even assuming that most Christian men who exercise "headship" over their wives are truly Christlike (an assumption that I rather doubt), this is scant justification for the practice. Suppose that we Americans were given the chance to be ruled by a wonderful philosopher-king, a dictator who would have power over our lives but who would exercise it in a self-sacrificing Christ-like manner to serve us and promote our best interests. I am willing to guess that most conservative Christian men would call this "tyranny" and howl like mad at the very thought of such a thing. They don't seem to understand, however, that tyranny is just as bad when it is exercised over women, even by the woman's own husband for her best interests.
I think leadership and hierarchy are useful organizational tools in certain contexts (not marriage, though). For example, I believe that hierarchy is the best organizational model for my law firm and I "submit" to the leadership of my boss every day. My boss, while he is doubtless making money off my back, bears responsibility and risk that I don't have and acts in ways that are for the greater good of the firm, its clients, and employees like me. He is thus, in many ways, a "servant-leader." So why is my boss's leadership not oppressive whereas my husband's would be? One, I can walk away from my law firm at any time. If my boss acts in ways that I dislike, I'm outta there. Two, if I stay at my law firm, I can one day expect the opportunity to be in the leadership position my current boss now enjoys. I can ascend the hierarchy, and thus have the opportunity to have exercised my talents both as a subordinate and also as a servant-leader. In a conservative Christian marriage, however, it is a lifetime commitment of being the subordinate in the hierarchy regardless of my talents and predilections or those of my husband. My husband's a peach, but, much as I adore him, lifetime submission to him would be oppressive in and of itself, no matter how great he is. I can't imagine that a just God would ask that of me, any more than God expected the Founding Fathers of the United States to submit to the headship of their anointed King.