It’s been a long time since I last posted, but somehow I’m still ending up with two (real) posts in a row about Michelle Bachmann’s theology. At the recent GOP debate, she was asked whether, as president, she would submit to her husband as Paul instructs her in Ephesians 5:22. Her answer was along these lines: what Biblical submission means to her and her husband is “respect”–she respects her husband, and he respects her. You can see a video clip here. I’m not particularly interested in politics, but neither do I want to pass up a chance to comment on a public question of Christian ethics. So once again, we find ourselves asking whether or not Michelle Bachmann’s theology is on-target.
Being that Biblical submission tends to chafe modern women very badly, there is no shortage of attempts to explain what submission “really” means to soften it up. Most, however, can be dismissed by a very simple & straightforward test. Go back to Ephesians where Paul tells wives to submit to their husbands as to the Lord. Now take their explanation of submission and apply it back to submission to the Lord. Is it still accurate? If not, then it’s not a good explanation. Applying it to this case means we ask ourselves this: does our submission to Christ merely mean that we respect him and that he respects us? Not so much. Clearly, this isn’t really an adequate explanation–particularly with respect to the clear attempt to equalize the two parties.
Don’t get me wrong; I have nothing but sympathy for Mrs. Bachmann for continually being asked ridiculous questions like this. The audience seemed to agree that she shouldn’t have to put up with it, and answers to gotcha questions are almost never well-formulated. So I don’t blame her for her answer. Nevertheless, there is no use pretending she met the occasion with keen Biblical insight, and it’s worth noting that this same occasion presents an opportunity to parse the ethical implications of submission with respect to a wife who is also a president.
So let’s look at the situation in light of the doctrine of vocation–callings from God to serve our neighbors in particular roles. First, we should recognize that people typically have multiple vocations at the same time. A man can be a husband, father, employee, friend, neighbor, citizen, and more simultaneously. Second, a woman’s obligation to submit to her husband comes from her own household vocations of wife and mother. The office of president, on the other hand, is not under the authority of the office of husband. By way of analogy, consider an employee and his boss. The employee is under his boss’s authority only because of his vocation as an employee. For that reason, the boss has no business telling his employee how to carry out his other vocations (e.g., telling him how to raise his children). Likewise, a husband would have no business telling his presidential wife how to run the country.
This is not, however, the end of the story. The temptation now is to turn this distinction into an airtight separation. It would be much easier and more comfortable to be able to say that Mrs. Bachmann can simply ignore her husband and refuse to submit if he tells her how to carry out the office of president. Unfortunately, that does not really capture the reality of the situation, so the temptation must be resisted. Michelle the wife and Michelle the (hypothetical) president are not two different people. Consider another analogy: because Jesus–one person–was both God and man, we can legitimately say that God died on the cross even though that death proceeded from Christ’s human nature. In a similar way, we can legitimately say that the president must obey her husband even though the obligation arises solely through her vocation of wife.
So what then does the distinction really mean? Does it offer U.S. citizens any protection against a domineering first gentleman? Let us return to the example of a boss. The distinction between vocations means that he has no business telling his employee how he should manage his family. Nevertheless, he still has a strong influence over that very thing. For example, if he tells his employee that he must to work late to finish a project (a legitimate exercise of his authority), he is most certainly influencing how the employee manages his family. Furthermore, unless a higher authority intervenes or the professional relationship is terminated, he is quite capable of misusing his authority to force his employee to live a certain way outside of the office. The wrongness of such an endeavor does not render the boss’s authority null and void. In the same way, even though it would be quite wrong of Mr. Bachmann to tell his wife how to run the country, he still could, and she would still be obligated to obey (provided he were not telling her to sin.) After all, submitting only on condition of mutual agreement is not submission at all.
So what does all this mean for a Christian president/wife? Would her husband really be governing by proxy? The answer to this question is a very practical one: he governs only if he is an immoral & power-hungry micromanager. If a woman has such a husband, she would be well-advised to not run for president. But what about the voters? Should they be worried enough about Mr. Bachmann to refuse to vote for his wife? Once again, the answer is quite practical: if you don’t trust a candidate’s good judgment about her own husband, you probably don’t trust her good judgment enough to vote her into a high office in the first place.