Subject, Once Again

by Anne Linstatter

Woman and Man Divided by WallIt’s a nightmare from the past, on my kitchen table: the front page of the Los Angeles Times with a feature story headlined, “They love to do their homework: At this Southern Baptist seminary, women who serve God also serve their husbands.  Baking, sewing and laundry are part of the curriculum.”  The date is October 11, 2007.

“Equal but different,” the article begins.

The same theory behind segregation in the southern states and apartheid in South Africa.  Yeah, equal but different always works.

I’m sucked into reading the article like a fruit fly hovering around fly paper.  It continues on the inside with a huge photo of four smiling, nicely dressed young women sitting around Professor Dorothy Patterson’s dining room table at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

“My created purpose as a woman is to be a helper,” one of them, Emily Felts, is quoted as saying.

Ezer!” I am screaming.  “Ezer!  Didn’t Dr. Patterson teach you that this Hebrew word translated “helper” or “help”  in Genesis 2:18 occurs 21 times in the Old Testament, 16 of which are referring to God or some other clearly superior helper?  As in Psalm 121, ‘From whence does my ezer come?  My ezer comes from the Lord.’  That passage doesn’t mean that Eve was created to be a subordinate helper!  Haven’t you studied the work of eminent Bible scholar, Phyllis Trible?  Haven’t you read Scanzoni and Hardesty’s All We’re Meant To Be?”

Emily doesn’t answer me.  She’s still smiling brightly on page A18 of the LA Times.

The beautiful faces of young men and women in my “Women and Religion” classes at California State University, Northridge, flash before my eyes.  I will see them tomorrow.  I love them and I love Emily—such earnestness as they seek to serve God.

The words “Jesus looking at him, loved him” come to mind from Mark 10:21.  Jesus met so many people asking, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”  So many had preconceived ideas of the correct answer; they heard Jesus’ response, were “shocked and went away grieving.”

The answer given to women at this seminary is that “God expects wives to graciously submit to their husbands’ leadership,” and doing so involves “learning how to set tables, sew buttons and sustain lively dinnertime conversation.”  Students in class mention cross-stitching,  “freezer pleaser” meatloaf, and using the Internet to track grocery coupons.

Emily, home-schooled by her mother, commutes to college from her parents’ home.  “She’s sewing a pink-and brown polka-dot dress for herself,” reports Stephanie Simon, the  LA Times reporter who traveled to Fort Worth to write this article.  “She often makes dinner for her family: Noodles from scratch, or quiche with a homemade crust.”

At this point my mind is replaying similar scenes from my teen years in the 1960s, and I’m trying to imagine how some mother in Texas managed to recreate this phenomenon in 2007.  Dorothy, Emily, and her mother seem to think that by keeping the world the way it was fifty years ago—buttons, meatloaf and all—God will be served.

And then Ephesians 5:22 leaps off the newspaper page:  “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.”  Ephesians 5:21 is missing, of course, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ,”  as well as the following verses that limit the power of husbands.

No one is teaching Pat Gundry’s Heirs Together: Mutual Submission in Marriage . No one has sent these students to the websites of Christians for Biblical Equality or the Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus. It’s as if the past forty years of biblical scholarship on women’s issues never happened.

At this point my eyes fix on the photo of Dorothy: a full-figured woman, 64 years old, dressed in black with her hands poised above her open Bible in a teaching gesture.

Just five years older than I am, I think, but what huge cultural changes happened in those five years.  She graduated from a small college near Fort Worth in 1965.  By 1970 when I completed college, Vietnam War protests had changed campuses and the women’s movement was underway, rediscovering its 19th century roots.

Curious to know how she could possibly have missed the important changes that caused Christian women to reexamine their Bibles, I go to the website of the seminary, where her husband is president, and the answer quickly appears.  She’s a member of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) as well as the Eagle Forum Council.

Whew!  These words hit me like a slap on the face, a brush with Satan.  Just by picking the morning paper up off my lawn, I have invited CBMW into my house, scribes, Pharisees and all.  No wonder reading this article has been so difficult for me.

It’s the kind of situation where Jesus himself turned over tables or shouted “Woe to you!  You load people with burdens hard to bear… you have taken away the key of knowledge” (Luke 11:46-52).

By now I’m thinking about the slippery slope that leads from “Wives, be subject” to husbands and boyfriends abusing women—and to tragedies like Andrea Yates cracking under the burdens laid on her. Coincidentally, it’s Domestic Violence Awareness month.  Tomorrow’s lecture for the “Women and Religion” classes starts to form in my mind; this week we’re studying the letters of Paul.

I think back on the journeys so many of us have traveled, both women and men, who also once embraced the beliefs being taught in the Southwestern Theological Seminary’s “for women only” homemaking course. I know that however strongly these people try to define “biblical manhood and womanhood” to mean limited roles for each gender, they can’t set it into cement.  These young women in the homemaking classes may marry and submit to husbands for a while in their effort to please God.  Sadly,  some are likely to encounter abuse and divorce.  Others may find that their marriages evolve in a more egalitarian direction—even while they may continue affirming a belief in male headship, as sociologist Sally Gallagher found in her research (reported in her book, Evangelical Identity and Gendered Family Lifereviewed in Christian Feminism Today  by Sociologist Joan Toms Olson).

In any case, their children will find their own paths through Scripture and life in ways creative and unpredictable.

Through it all, God will sustain them.  God has seen a lot of marriages in the last four thousand years, starting with Abraham and Sarah, who brought the handmaid Hagar into their tent in an effort to fulfill the divine promise.  Now there’s a biblical marriage!

I sigh and take out my scissors.  Using the article, I’ll speak to my students about I Corinthians, Ephesians, I Timothy, and the work of Trible, Gundry, and others.  I’ll pass on the bit of understanding that has been given to me, trusting that it will be divided, multiplied, and passed along in the lives of these young women and men.


© 2006 Evangelical & Ecumenical Women’s Caucus A Web Exclusive October 2007

Anne Linstatter
Anne Linstatter was present at the founding of the Evangelical Women’s Caucus (now Christian Feminism Today) and attended most of the organization’s conferences. She looks forward to celebrating fifty years of CFT in 2024. A long-time Californian, she taught “Women & Religion” among other courses at California State University, Northridge, and is working on a memoir, Off Track: Confessions of a Feminist Christian.