The Lost Virtues of Subordination and Obedience

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Women in Ancient Rome - Crystalinks

By Will Deatherage, Executive Director

“I am awfully greedy; I want everything from life. I want to be a woman and to be a man, to have many friends and to have loneliness, to work much and write good books, to travel and enjoy myself, to be selfish and to be unselfish… You see, it is difficult to get all which I want. And then when I do not succeed I get mad with anger.”

Simone de Beauvoir, Feminist

“‘The first division of labor is that between man and woman for the propagation of children. And today I can add: The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman in monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male.’”

Fredrick Engels, Marxist

My generation was taught to believe not only that we should define ourselves, but that anyone who dares to tell us what to do or how to live is oppressing us. These “oppressors” include our parents, whose traditions and customs are rendered obsolete when change is equated with progress. Our media and markets certainly do not help. The blessing of customization has devolved into the curse of entitlement; we are addicted to getting what we want and when we want it, with little care for how our decisions will impact us in the long run. When we cannot have things our way, from the latest phone, to parental approval of a significant other, to surgeries that reshape our bodies, we act as if we have been subjected to a grave injustice. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the following verse has proven rather scandalous today:

Brothers and sisters:
Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ. 

Eph 5:21-22

In a post-Marxist-Existentialist age, subordination, and therefore obedience, is associated with oppression, and natural order is considered an archaic limitation that prevents us from getting what we want. But this reduction of obedience to oppression is counterintuitive, as it disrupts our relationship with other people, the world, and God. When we cast aside obedience and subordination, we deny our inherently social nature by arrogantly assuming that we know better than experts and authorities do. Nature becomes a liability that limits us, rather than an asset that helps us flourish. Finally, God becomes a wish-fulfiller, turning into whatever we want Him to be. The post-modern rejection of obedience, therefore, destroys our perceptions of human nature, society, and God.

While Engels and Beauvoir rightfully cautioned against blind obedience to authority, I argue that the abandonment of subordination altogether can be just as dangerous. Consider how much we rely on experts to inform our decisions about health and safety. Respecting and trusting authorities, from law enforcement to medical professionals, implies a humble subordination to them that is required for any society to function. It is natural for humans to trust each other, since we are born into a dangerous world as vulnerable infants who cannot help but trust our loving parents, the prime authorities in our lives. Perhaps this is why St. Paul considers subordination as a virtue, not a vice; after all, he calls himself a slave of Christ, the ultimate authority of our lives.

Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord.
For the husband is head of his wife
just as Christ is head of the church,
he himself the savior of the body. 
As the church is subordinate to Christ,
so wives should be subordinate to their husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives,
even as Christ loved the church
and handed himself over for her to sanctify her,
cleansing her by the bath of water with the word,
that he might present to himself the church in splendor,
without spot or wrinkle or any such thing,
that she might be holy and without blemish. 
So also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. 
He who loves his wife loves himself. 

Eph 5:23-29

When we understand obedience as a positive quality, we can see that Paul’s command for wives to be subordinate to their husbands is not an archaic form of sexist oppression. It is a beautiful expression of Christian virtue. According to Old Testament covenantal theology, God and man have a lord-vassal relationship, in which the dominant party, God, offers His undying love and protections to the vulnerable party, humans, who rightfully pledge their unwavering obedience to Him. Consider how unequipped women were for self-sustainability in Biblical times. Women were rarely educated or trained in self-defense. The strains of childbirth and intensity of childcare inhibited their ability to prosper economically, and the potential for sexual assault or even rape left them in a very vulnerable position. In a society in which women were inherently vulnerable and dependent on men for their survival, it only made sense that they should be subordinate to their husbands, lest they risk their lives. This is likely why Paul used language that reflects a lord-vassal relationship, though in his eyes, the system needed major reform.

Before Christianity, many ancient societies allowed men (and only men) to be polygamous and divorce their wives as they pleased. Given Ancient Rome’s obsession with social hierarchies, women were often subject to abuse. In a radical development, Paul asked for husbands to show unrequitable love to their wives in an age when they, as economic and political powerhouses, simply did not need to. Men were under no social obligation to love their vulnerable wives. Even Judaism permitted polyamory and divorce exclusively for men, yet Christ demanded they surrender their pride to care for their wives. In light of these developments, I would argue that feminism’s success in the West owes much to Christianity, without which, men would have likely continued to ruthlessly dominate women as the Romans and their predecessors did.

Women are far less vulnerable today than they were thousands of years ago, which nullifies the lord-vassal relationship that was required for their survival in ancient Rome. This does not undermine the biological differences between men and women that necessitate different forms of care for the opposite gender, though it calls the relevance of this controversial verse into question. However, I insist that it is important to never read the Bible in a superficial sense. Every verse uses changing, cultural imagery to reflect timeless, universal truths. Paul’s letters were not meant to be anthropology or gender studies textbooks. Therefore, his parallels between man-woman and Christ-Church relations use the assumptions of their time (that women are inherently vulnerable and therefore ought to be subordinate) to illustrate some greater theological conclusions:

  1. Subordination and obedience are virtues.
  2. Vulnerable populations should trust their authorities.
  3. Authorities should radically love their constituents as themselves.
  4. Humankind, as ever-subordinate to God, should respect human, natural, and divine laws.

Thus, Paul’s parallels between man-woman and Christ-Church relations speak less about gender roles and instead use the state of gender relations in Rome as an example of how authorities and vulnerable populations ought to treat each other.

The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life.
But there are some of you who do not believe.”
Jesus knew from the beginning the ones who would not believe
and the one who would betray him. 
And he said,
“For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me
unless it is granted him by my Father.”
As a result of this,
many of his disciples returned to their former way of life
and no longer accompanied him.
Jesus then said to the Twelve, “Do you also want to leave?” 
Simon Peter answered him, “Master, to whom shall we go? 
You have the words of eternal life. 
We have come to believe
and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”

Jn 6:66-69

The idea of virtuous subordination is not confined to Christianity. People of all cultures and religions can accept that we lowly humans are subject to laws of the universe that we cannot control. It is humbling that we do not determine truth and righteousness; God (or secularly the universe) does. To obey God is to obey the laws of reason that govern human behavior. Understanding these laws of reason requires humble obedience to human experts who understand them better than we do, and this inevitably means not always getting what we want. Christianity’s claim to obedience comes through Christ’s role as the exemplar of subordination to God the Father, but one does not need to be a Christian to understand that we are not masters of the universe and should not be afraid of listening to people who might have better insight of its mysteries than we do.

Joshua gathered together all the tribes of Israel at Shechem,
summoning their elders, their leaders,
their judges, and their officers. 
When they stood in ranks before God,
Joshua addressed all the people:
“If it does not please you to serve the LORD,
decide today whom you will serve,
the gods your fathers served beyond the River
or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now dwelling. 
As for me and my household, we will serve the LORD.”

Jos 24:1-2a; 15

Ultimately, we are called to obey and be subordinate to those who give their hearts and souls to us, whether they be parents, teachers, or public servants. Again, blind obedience is a corruption of this virtue, and we should always remain vigilant of those in positions of authority to ensure they are fulfilling their end of loving us as Christ loves His Church. That said, we must never be afraid to submit ourselves to our neighbors, just as Christian women of old were not afraid to submit themselves to the people who loved them most. From obeying your parents’ advice to avoid drinking and driving, to obeying your doctor when he prescribes you medicine, subordination, as an Enlightenment philosopher once said, forces us to be free. At the end of the day, obedience-deniers imprison themselves in delusional thinking, rejecting science and wisdom for unfettered liberty. As much as I love the music of the 1960s, sex, drugs, and rock and roll will not save us: only virtuous obedience and subordination will.

5 Responses

  1. In the Autumn of 2021 these lost virtues are indeed gone. Thank you, dear corrupt high office holders everywhere…especially in the Catholic Church. Your poison is thoroughly in every corner and affects all.
    No one trusts authority for good reason. The authorities do not deliver what their position demands…as in one certain bishop of Rome, a confused speaker of riddles and holder of many grudges.

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