To replace ‘obey’ with ‘submit to’ in a proposed change to the wedding vows by a Sydney diocesan panel is to misunderstand the context of submission in the ancient world of the Bible, argues New Testament scholar Dorothy Lee.

In a recent article in The Sydney Morning Herald (‘To love and to submit: a marriage made in 2012,’ 25/8), the liturgical panel of the Anglican Diocese of Sydney is reported as proposing a new form of the marriage vows that would ask brides to “honour and submit to” their husbands, “as the Church submits to Christ”.

Bishop Rob Forsyth has reportedly claimed that “submit” is “a deeply biblical word” which, he argues, is “more nuanced” than the word “obey”.

I have four problems with this proposal — and, indeed, with any notion of wifely obedience.

In the first place, if we are to accept such a vow, we will find ourselves in a serious theological and logical inconsistency.

The New Testament contains four lists of “household codes” that set out the relevant duties of one partner to another in the context of family relations (Col 2:18-4:1, Eph 5:21-6:9, Tit 2:1-10, 1 Pet 2:18-3:7).

The husband-wife partnership calls for submission by the wife to her husband. It is paralleled by the father-child relationship, which calls on children to obey their parents. The third parallel is the master-slave relationship, which calls for obedience and submission from slaves to their masters. The slave is even to accept suffering, if it is needed to show acceptance of the master’s authority.

It is true that, in the case of the husband-wife and master-slave pairing, there is also a Christ-dimension: Christ’s love for the church, in the case of husbands, and Christ’s willingness to suffer, in the case of slaves.

The problem is that there is an acceptance of slavery implied in these household codes which none of us today would be happy to endorse. If we accept the codes, exactly as they are, we need to accept them all. Is Sydney calling on slaves, in those parts of the world that still have slavery (or something very like it), to submit to their masters? I would imagine not.

But why pick on the husband-wife paradigm while discounting the master-slave paradigm, which is part of the same unit? If one is impossible to interpret literally, then perhaps the other is also!

Secondly, we need to allow for the fact that the household codes reflect the culture of the ancient world and the context in which the early Church found itself. These codes, originating with Aristotle, demonstrated that, far from being socially and politically dangerous, Christians were good citizens, following the accepted values of the day (even with a Christian twist).

The household codes reflect the compromise the church sometimes has to make in order to proclaim the gospel in socially or politically repressive contexts.

At the same time, in more foundational ways, the New Testament proclaims a more radical and counter-cultural status afforded Christian women in the new order of things, in and through Christ. There is no better statement of this than Galatians 3:28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

The Easter stories in the Gospels likewise give women an extraordinary authority to proclaim the Lord’s resurrection, far beyond the patriarchal norms of the ancient world. Even the women disciples’ status as witnesses to Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection challenges the values of the day. Why should we ignore these explosive, evangelical texts in favour of others that support a more conventional model of human relationships?

Thirdly, in theological terms we can’t call something “biblical” just because we happen to find it in the Bible. We can find all sorts of commands in the Bible – against usury, skin diseases, and tattoos, along with the death penalty for cursing parents – which we would not necessarily endorse today. What is truly “biblical” must be discerned, not by arbitrarily grasping verses here and there, but by understanding the tenor of biblical texts. We need to interpret Scripture in its context and discern its theological heart: to interpret Scripture by Scripture.

It’s not the submission of wives to husbands that is “biblical” in this sense, but rather the mutual submission of Christians to one another, in loving knowledge and service.

Fourthly, I have yet to hear an argument explaining why husbands need to be the head of their homes, apart from the rather naïve statement, “because the Bible says so”. What is it about the nature of men that associates them with leadership and authority, which is lacking in women?

In the ancient world, where women were by-and-large uneducated, and society had strict gender differentiations, it might have made some sense, but in the modern context, it makes none at all. Both the world and the church have had fine leaders among women; women who use authority well – sacrificially, wisely, strongly, responsibly.

The young Sydney bride, interviewed by The Sydney Morning Herald, who promised to “submit to” her husband, spoke of the “joy and freedom” of submission. I take the point. The great truths of the gospel can sustain us, even in the most unpromising situations.

Saints and martyrs down the ages – some of them slaves and many of them female – have endured suffering, privation and imprisonment, and found that Christ’s vibrant presence has filled them with a paradoxical sense of joy and freedom.

But that doesn’t justify either the privations or the imprisonment.

The Revd Dr Dorothy A. Lee is Dean of Trinity College Theological School and Frank Woods Distinguished Lecturer in Biblical Studies, MDC University of Divinity.