A Thousand Splendid Suns and Subordinationism

I found it particularly poignant that the minute I finished my book (A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini), I should hit on this sermon on marriage via my blog list. The preacher whose church has a link to Reform, marries the couple before him with words such as:

'Marriage is like the trinity, The Father is in charge. Jesus ALWAYS submits to the father, he obeys, he says what his father has told him to say...To submit to any authority, you are being Godlike...we have a couple (indicating the husband and wife), a head and a helper... Wives, submit to the husband as the head - he is in charge...'

Oh yiex, I'm thinking, here we go - 'helpmeet' no, 'ezer kenegdo' yes and when it's attributed to God, He is never subordinate to His people, he is their rescuer. Dr. Susan Hyatt in In the Spirit We're Equal "defines the hebrew to mean "one who is the same as the other and who surrounds, protects, aids, helps, supports," with no indication of a secondary position.

The preacher goes on to say, 'In a culture where Jesus has been proclaimed and women have been raised to equality, and have been treated in every way equal but different to men, [in] that same culture, people jettison God and the women say they want to jettison the men, they say, we want to be in charge.'

But it's never about who is in charge. God is in charge. We submit to Christ (we, being men and women), When did the three tier structure come in?

my husband

this just isn't biblical, surely it's:

The trinity

If I haven't even understood this most basic of Christian concepts then I'd better get back to basics at once and start rebuilding my faith from scratch!

Christians do not claim to be as powerful as God, we submit to each other and together to Christ. We exist by grace alone not works, we neither deliver God's justice nor do we impose our own hierarchies claiming them God-given. Christ came to free us from this - there is an equality for the repentant at the foot of the cross and the only vertical relationship of faith is the one where we come under the authority of the God-head. I know the apostle Paul has us submitting to our earthly masters, - whom none of us can escape, but we submit to the state, the government and the law where it conforms with the laws of our Lord - those laws were gifts, given in exchange for his promises.

Hosseini's Babi explains to his daughter in 'A Thousand Splendid Suns', that 'men saw it as an insult to their centuries-old tradition...to be told by the government-and a godless one at that- that their daughters had to leave home, attend school and work alongside men.'

Is it perhaps not also the case that female ordinands are breaking with tradition, only, of the established church; they aren't breaking God's Word and yet not everyone thinks this way. Jody points out on a recent fulcrum thread, that there were no ordained women invited to GAFCON, we have to draw from that our own conclusions.

Khala Rangmaal the teacher in 'A Thousand Splendid Suns' 'did not cover and forbade the female students from doing it. She said women and men were equal in every way and there was no reason women should cover if men didn't.'

And yet those in charge of dishing out God's retribution in this novel explain how,
'God has made us differently, you women and us men. Our brains are different. you are not able to think like we can. Western doctors and their science have proven this. This is why we require only one male witness but two female ones.' This is said just before he orders Mariam's execution for having acted in self-defence against a man who beat, raped and tried to kill her and his second wife. 'Shari'a is not vague on this matter', he says, 'It says I must send you where I will soon join you myself.'

At the end of this novel its sacrificed protagonist is described as having been like 'a rock in a riverbed, enduring without complaint, her grace not sullied but shaped by the turbulence that washes over her' and there is some hope for the women who had once suffered under the rigidity of the regime's interpretation of the Koran:

Attention women:
You will stay inside your homes at all times. It is not proper for women to wander aimlessly about the streets. If you go outside, you must be accompanied by a mahram, a male relative. If you are caught alone on the street, you will be beaten and sent home.

You will not under any circumstance, show your face. You will cover with burqa when outside. If you do not you will be severely beaten.
Cosmetics are forbidden.
You will not wear charming clothes.
You will not speak unless spoken to.
You will not make eye contact with men.
You will not laugh in public. If you do you will be beaten.
You will not paint your nails. If you do, you will lose a finger.
Girls are forbidden from attending school. All schools for girls will be closed immediately.
Women are forbidden from working.
If you are found guilty of adultery, you will be stoned to death.
Listen. Listen well. Obey. Allah-u-akbar.

As we know from the news coverage of civilian atrocities this is a very compromised hope. But Laila will fulfil her father's vision:
'Afghanistan is going to need you as much as its men, maybe even more. Because a society has no chance of success if its women are uneducated, Laila. No chance.'

Swap Afghanistan for church, if you would, in the first part of the first sentence of this vision.

Suzanne's bookshelf blog who posted the marriage sermon, goes on to explain in her next post how 'marriage has only been compared to the subordination of the Son to the Father in the last half of the last century...Did the church fathers believe that the Son was subject to the Father?' she asks and concludes with: 'Augustine rebutted the view that the Son was subject to the Father, except in that he was subject to Himself, that is, the will of God the Father, and of the Son, is indivisible.'

In scripture Jesus, with his own words, says:

I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. (John 13: 16).

So where has all this subordinationism stuff come from? Surely, we have to have tremendous faith in humanity, as much as we have in God, in order to believe that if one gender is set to rule another, that those in control will not abuse that right - for humanity is prone to weakness and if the atrocious abuse of Mariam and Laila at the hands of men in 'A Thousand Splendid Suns' seems a million miles away from what occurs in our culture, let it nevertheless serve as a warning to us about what one person can subject another to in the name of God.

As regards Suzanne's analysis that 'marriage has only been compared to the subordination of the Son to the Father in the last half of the last century' it can't be a coincidence that this interpretation has found favour in evangelical circles at the same time in which we have seen women given choices and control over their own lives - be it biological, financial and, or educational.

Our theologies, reflect and address, sometimes critically, the diversity and agenda of our culture. This conservative Christian insistence on 'homemaker moms who submit to their husbands' is surely in response to a society which will at times choose to pack off its children to nurseries at 6 weeks old, to then transfer them to boarding schools later, so that parents can pursue their careers. Love of one another in a family unit, give and take on all sides, can become compromised due to our society's empty promise that we should be happily and healthily balancing it all by embracing all of our 'opportunities'.

I'm faced with all these choices, I'm a woman of the twenty-first century but I'm a Christian woman - what do I do? Do I really simply really do what I'm told by my husband? What if he gets it wrong? Let's say he does. Is it not part of my human weakness then that I can't help but feel that his decisions have damaged the beauty of our relationship and family unit.

Surely, do we not instead decide together, compromise? We both have the same amount of personal autonomy and choose what to sacrifice for the benefit of the other or indeed the family unit as a whole, so that in actual fact, sacrifices don't feel like they are sacrifices in any negative sense that the world might conjure up, sacrifice takes on the Christian sense - it becomes good news - when the affect is the increased happiness of the whole family unit.

'I need to study on Wednesdays, can you work from home, so that the children's needs are met?'
'I get back late, can you cook the food?'
'I'll take the children to school this morning, are you able to pick up?'
'I have to be somewhere at three, but if you are out at 7, I'll be back in time' etc

This is how I read what God intends, after all in the original plan, before the fall, Adam and Eve were both instructed with the care of their world:

Gen. 1:26 Then God said, 'let Us make man (humanity) in our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.' 27 So God created man (humanity) in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

There is a mutual submission and beautiful harmony in the ideal marriage, and in this way, marriage, if it should be compared to the trinity, as it is in subordinationist thinking, serves as a reflection of the Godhead: separate persons, united with one will.


Anonymous said...


George Athas said...

Thanks for your thoughts on this important matter. I think your argument might need a little more nuancing, though. What you seem to be objecting to in this post is 'radical subordinationism', rather than biblical subordinationism. And we really need to distinguish the two.

It's easy to see how the term 'subordinate' can be taken as meaning 'inferior' or 'unequal', but as you state in your post, this is just not biblical. Biblical subordination says that although the Son always submits to the Father (always, and never vice versa), he is no way inferior or unequal to the father. In other words, subordination does not subjugate or demean. It's an activity that is inherent to the identity of the Son within the Triune God.

The descriptions of life under strict Islamist law given in the post are not in any way reflective of biblical subordination. When Paul says that wives must submit to their husbands, he does not have a strict Islamist-style subjugation and dehumanising of women in mind. Unfortunately, that's what some assume. On the contrary, he is inviting them to be equal participants with their husbands in their human responsibilities. He just asks them to do so as wives. Similarly, the obedience children owe to their parents does not make them inferior or unequal.

You're right that the basic order of things is:

Triune God

But humanity is a complex unity made of different persons. We are not merely generic human units. A robust trinitarian theology will affirm this. There is unity as well as distinction, and both must be held together. So perhaps, in accordance with Gen 1, we should revise the basic order as:

Male + Female

In terms of Church History, Athanasius was a biblical subordinationist. He is often touted as the champion who defeated 'subordinationism', but what he actually was arguing against was 'radical subordinationism' (what you also are arguing against in this post), whose logical endpoint is the inequality of the Son with the Father—totally unbiblical! It's why we need to distinguish biblical subordination from unbiblical subordination.

It's not then a case of direct transfer from the triune relations to husband-wife relations. Father-Son does not equate to Husband-Wife. But the concept of submission, which is inherent to the identity and function of triune relations, is also seen as inherent in a different set of relations, namely that between husband and wife. The submission of a wife to a husband may look slightly different, and husbands need to be careful not to treat their wives as children or as inferiors. Unfortunately, men fail in that regard a lot. But there is a submission involved in the marriage relationship that does not demean or dehumanise, and it is thoroughly biblical. It does not privilege the husband over the wife, nor does it devalue the wife. Rather, it enables her to be 'ezer kenegdo'.


Ed said...

Thankls for this well-thought-out post.

When a drugs-worker, I spent some time as the domestic violence rep. At a study day, a police domestice violence liaison worker (I don't know if he was an actual Officer) said domestic violence was due to "the patriarchal society), and defined this society's spiritual underpinning to be the first part of the Book of Genesis, where Adam is created first and Eve made from his side. I quoted the passage from Genesis that you do.

I once went to a presentation to a Roman Catholic priest who was going to the missions. He compared a curate's relationship to the parish priest to a wife's to a husband, in that she lets him think he's in charge. I liked that one!


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