Kirk Cameron and the Mental Gymnastics of Interpreting the Bible

Earlier this week, Kelly Ladd Bishop wrote an editorial responding to Kirk Cameron's claims about marriage and Biblical relationships. While Cameron's interpretations of Biblical mandates, relating to marriage or otherwise, may cause a progressive's eyebrow to rise, on his interpretation of the husband being a leader of his wife, based on Ephesians 5, I think he is spot on.

Bishop, however, claims that, "Nowhere in the Bible does it state that a husband is the leader of his wife, or that she should follow his lead. It is written a grand total of zero times. Zero."

She then goes on to parse a bit of the passage in question, Ephesians 5:21-32, saying that Cameron's idea that, "Wives are to honor and respect and follow their husband's lead," is a decent dose of reading into Scripture. But is it?

Here is the passage in question:

21 Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. 24 Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.... 31 "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." 32 This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. 33 Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband.

Bishop appropriately points out the oft-overlooked verse 21, and notes that the mutual submission it encourages ought to be read as applying to the whole passage (5:21-32). But she is doing a sneaky bit of cherry picking, since the mutual submission of 5:21 is quickly overturned in 5:22. In no uncertain terms it states that the wife is to be subject to her husband as she is to the Lord, and not vice versa. And 5:24 makes it clear that the devotion Christians are to give to Christ a wife is to give to her husband. I am at a loss in how to render these lines as endorsing mutual submission.

Bishop then discusses how the "head" and "body" metaphor--applied first to Christ and the Church and now to a husband-wife pair--does not mean that a husband is the de facto leader of a marriage. While compelling in that, yes, we cannot have a head without a body and vice versa, her analysis overlooks the power dynamics at work underlying the metaphor.

The last time I looked, our heads are the central command of the body, the place where all the thinking and decision making happens; the body, when working at peak performance, responds effortlessly. How is this not a metaphor for the husband being the leader of (making all the decisions for, etc.) the marriage relationship?

Add to this the direct comparison of the husband's role to that of Christ over the Church (5:24) and you have a difficult task in convincing me that Ephesians 5 does not tell men to be the leaders of marriages. It does not say, "Men, be the leaders in all things in your marriages." No. It says it much more eloquently and subversively.

Bishop then goes on to say that, "A real Biblical relationship is one of equality and mutuality."

This is the point in reading her editorial where I decided I needed to speak up, as a biblical scholar. As much as Bishop critiques Cameron for reading into scripture (when, ironically, I think he is simply taking it seriously), she is rather clearly doing the same thing.

In classrooms, I refer to this endeavor as the mental gymnastics that people of faith sometimes engage in. When there is a belief that one holds, and it is a belief that is crucial to one's everyday living, one can go through some pretty impressive mental gymnastics to find a way to have scripture back up that belief. It usually involves choosing a verse or two, out of context, and assigning to it the full authority of God's blessing, as if all other passages, cover to cover, support that verse or two.

In all honesty, I challenge anyone to take both testaments of the Christian Bible seriously and offer a clear definition of "a real Biblical relationship." If one is honest about all the marriages talked about in the Bible, this is something that cannot be defined clearly as one particular thing. There are just too many examples of inequality between husbands and wives throughout scripture to be able to say that the Bible unequivocally and thoroughly endorses equality between spouses. (See this article or chapter 4 of this book for some specifics on this issue.)

In fact, I only know of one passage (1 Corinthians 7:2-4) that even hints at such equality, and I never hear Christians refer to it in this conversation. In this passage, Paul is discussing how married couples are to handle their sex lives, specifically that neither partner is to withhold from the other. This is the only passage, in all of scripture, that I am aware of that addresses any form of equality between spouses. All other passages assume or reinforce the patriarchal "head of the household" expectations of males in the first century.

To be clear, I think we need to be honest about what is and is not found in the Bible, instead of finding ways to make it all okay. The desire to have scriptures endorse equality in marriage is entirely understandable, but wishing does not make it so.