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- Numbers 6:24
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The Pauline Marriage
by Francis Clare Fischer
I am a Christian and a plain Quaker. As such, I wear a prayer cap. It is a precious reminder of Paul's call that we pray always and as a woman Paul asks, in my understanding, that I cover my head in prayer. It is also a reminder of a more controversial request of Paul. Paul asks that women cover their heads as a sign of obedience to their husbands.
Many young women, sincere Christians, have understood that aspect of the meaning behind the prayer cap and have asked me about this issue. In our modern world it is not an easy issue. And as modern women, plain or not, it can be a stumbling block on the road both to a joyous marriage and to the Christian life.
Who could walk through the last thirty years without being affected by feminism? Outside of living in a cloister or closed community I can hardly imagine such blissful ignorance of one of the most powerful movements of the century. Nor would I decry every change made by this movement. Certainly, I would not lightly give up my right to vote or the sensitivity this culture now has to the needs and creativity of our daughters. I was not blessed with daughters but my beautiful and talented daughter-in-law is a living testament to how much poorer our society would be without the educated and wonder filled minds of our daughters.
So how do I answer a modern young women who asks, "But how can you take Paul seriously? How can you be obedient to your husband or even think that a desirable goal?" I can certainly understand anyone's concern over the commitment to a Pauline marriage. Too often it is seen as a stand for the inequality of men and women; a distinctly unQuakerly idea! And, indeed, I understand men and women to be equal. I don't think Paul is suggesting that we are not. Though I know he is often cited in such a context. Taken on the whole Paul had a great respect for women.
What I have found is that Paul's simple prescription for marriage has healed and brought great joy to my own marriage and that of others I have known. Paul asked husbands, first and foremost, to love their wives as Christ did the Church. Now we know that there is no greater or more unconditional love than this. Then he said, in effect, "Women, this is what a Christian husband is. Be obedient to him." That is very different than the sense one is so often given of Paul's request. Over a long and sad history, Paul's brilliant request has become twisted and made a justification for women's obedience to a domestic tyrant. Nothing could be more unlike the requirements of a Pauline marriage. In fact, I say that Paul's request is brilliant, because it creates a situation where neither man nor woman can become tyrannical. It creates a situation where love is necessary.
Let me explore the implications of a Pauline marriage. Naturally, there are times when husband and wife do not agree on a course of action. Now, if the husband wants only what is best for his wife and rejoices in her joy, the situation is immediately raised from base issues of control. Even if a husband struggles with a wish to control and dominate, Paul's request must give him pause. His wife stands before him, perhaps angry, or fearful, but knowing that she will ultimately choose to be obedient. He stands before her called to a love more profound than any other the world has known; the unconditional love of Christ. He is called to lay down all for the good of his wife as Christ laid down all for the good of the world. An awesome call.
Can he be the domestic tyrant we fear in the Pauline marriage? Not if he is striving to live as a Christian husband. He must pause and consider what best promotes the joy and love of his wife. It may be hard to be obedient to the decision made by a husband. But experience will show the wife who bends to such decisions that it brings forth a blessed and beautiful marriage and that a weight has been lifted from her shoulders. The weight of trying to control what is not properly within her control.
But what if the husband does not make a decision on this Christly basis? There will be times when he will not. He is human and not all his decisions will bring blessings to his family. Some will be wrong.
His wife follows still. She is obedient. She knows that he is trying and that this is what Paul calls her to do. It takes very little time before the husband sees the love which he is being given by such a wife. Her love passes far beyond our poor understandings of earthly love. He is being given the love God asks of the angels. He soon becomes far more careful about decisions. He sees that she will not fight him. She will be obedient. His decisions become more prayerful, gentler, kinder, and more thoughtful.
I am trying to explain this in rational terms and that may not be sufficient to meet the need. In part it may be a somewhat mystical thing that occurs between man and wife. But Paul was an astute man. Look at it from a psychological perspective. First he did not ask this of any couple who was not steeped in love and in Christ. Now look again at this couple. They love each other deeply and want each other to be happy. The woman gives the man her obedience. The man in turn feels an obligation, because he is an ethical and loving person, never to abuse that unconditional trust which he has been given. The man gives the woman his unconditional love (as Christ gave the Church). The woman in turn feels an obligation, because she is a loving and ethical person, never to abuse that unconditional love and trust her husband has given her. And what greater trust can one give than to offer ones total love to another? It is a condition of complete vulnerability. The woman has also made herself completely vulnerable to the man. So we now have two people who are truly vulnerable before each other. They have given each other all that they have and are. Now if they are true to what they have given and to the love which they nurture daily, you can be sure that this will be a remarkable, profoundly loving and giving relationship.
Does thee see a kind of sense, even logic, in Paul's request? I can tell thee from experience that it creates a deeply blessed marriage. I can also tell thee that I am a refugee of the feminist movement (some many years back). I tried to be the liberated companion. I could not keep it up. It was exhausting. It left me spent and empty and my husband very much emotionally alone. In fact it left us both emotionally alone. Truly, following Paul has been like falling into the arms of Love and finally being at rest and peaceful. This has been the case for both my husband and me.
Paul is the great psychologist. He has placed husband and wife in a position of being profoundly and beautifully vulnerable to each other. Wife is dependent upon husband and husband too is dependent upon wife. For who are we more dependent upon and vulnerable too than one who claims our unconditional love? In a situation where husband and wife are called to live in love and a holy vulnerability, marriage becomes a joy so lovely that words are nearly inadequate.
And does thee know what? I am truly more liberated and free than I have ever been before! We have found that we are now truly meeting each other's needs as we never did when we were trying to go about it in a modern, liberated manner. And that is not some oppressed female clap-trap. I am hardly oppressed-by any stretch of the imagination!
Each year of my marriage as I see the depth and beauty of a Pauline marriage unfold like some remarkable flower, I become a more liberated woman. My gratitude to Paul, the great psychologist, knows no bounds. So each day, as I put on my prayer cap, I think of the joyous liberation it represents and I breath a prayer of thanks.
- printed by permission from the author