Teaching Law

Saturday, 25 August 2012

Why 'Submitting' is a Dangerous Development

The Anglican church in the diocese of Sydney is changing the wording of its marriage service to provide, optionally for couples who choose it, for the wife to submit to the husband.  This replaces the old vow for the woman to ‘obey’ – made optional in the Anglican rite in 1928.  
It is not my place to critique religious rites so long as they occur within a church context between consenting adults.  However the Marriage Act 1961 (Cth) provides that those who are recognised ministers of religion of a recognised denomination, are empowered to solemnise marriages under the Act.
Because marriage is an institution of law, ministers of religion are in my view effectively agents of the state in terms of solemnisation of marriage.  It is concerning therefore that wives may undertake to submit to husbands in a legal process, even one that occurs within a church.  This is so for two reasons.

The Many Faces of Marriage

Contemporary Australian debate around marriage involves a lack of distinction between its romantic, personal and religious aspects, and its legal effect.  All these concepts seem to be perceived in the popular imagination within a cohesive whole. Indeed Christian organisations have been vocal in their conceptualisation of marriage within a Christian construction. (I have written before on some of the personal and the legal implications of marriage.)  
Use of ‘submit’ as the foundation for a woman’s promise to her husband raises the possibility of this term entering wider contemporary marriage discourse, including in the context of rights and obligations in the context of the law.  A piece in the Sydney Morning Herald identifies also a 'slow intense creep of anti-women sentiment in Sydney' since 1992.  This is in a wider cultural context.  This is seen also in the blatant widespread misapprehension of the concept of ‘consent’ in sexual relations (rape).  In my view, the danger of validating a wife’s obligation to ‘submit’ to her husband is a real one.   
At best, this word and all it implies muddies the waters.  At worst, it may be used to justify violence and abuse: if not at law, then within the minds of those who perpetrate such abuse.

Submission and Sexism

ABC Radio has reported that the Sydney diocese denies that the obligation on a woman to submit is sexist.  In my view this is patently incorrect for two very simple reasons.  First, there is no equivalent obligation on men to submit to women. There is no parity in submission as between the parties.  Indeed, how could there be?  Mutual submission would destroy the power imbalance on which submission depends. 
Furthermore, it is sexist because of this validated power differential in a way that places women as subordinate to men.  For more on the loaded nature of submission, see Tara Moss here.

A Question of Justice

If the Church wants to facilitate a rite in which consenting couples submit to each other, it is free to do so.  But when it is acting as the agent of the state to solemnise an institution of the law, it must be held to contemporary standards of justice.  Validating women’s submission to men fails to meet this standard.
An argument perhaps for the removal of marriage from the law?


  1. Not to remove marriage from law, but to distinguish between legal (civil) marriage and personal (cultural, religious) marriage. They do it in Denmark to good effect; when the world watched Prince Fred and Princess Mary marry, they watched they personal, religious marriage ceremony. It had no legal effect. The legal marriage was solemnised afterwards at a civil registry office, just like all Danes do - an exercise in democracy and the rule of law perhaps?

    Distinguishing between civil and religious marriage would also pave the way for marriage equality. If legal marriage is based on law, rather than religious concepts, then there is no argument to prevent same sex couples marrying.

    The current fused model lacks a logical and conceptual basis and should be done away with.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I agree that separation of the two purposes of marriage is essential.

    2. One must look at the entire passage of the word submit or subject to really understand what is being said(included on the bottom of this post, from here we can see the whole meaning of which the actual word really means in its original context. As you can see the first line is "be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ", so when this is stated to be subjective to your husband it is not saying that a husband has a contract of domination over his wife through marriage, rather a husband simultaneously is subjective to his wife by his love.

      Those who choose to use these vows should fully understand what they are agreeing to, as in any marriage..no one would sign a life long contract without reading the fine detail and being fully aware of what it entails, hence no self respecting virtuous human using these vows in a verbal marital 'contract' would ever attribute the word 'submit, or subject' to a justification of violence and abuse, (assuming that this human is christian since it wouldn't make sense for a non-christian to be using biblical passages and vows within their marriage ceremony?). Anyone who are using these vows have obviously chosen to marry within the presence of God and in his church and therefore they would know the context of the word and their duties as husband and wife under the unity of marriage and the spousal meaning of their bodies, which calls them to mutual and sincere self-giving, not using the word to validate your wife to be a sex slave or personal maid.

      I feel like when we start dissecting words outside of its original meaning and taking the word submit or subject out of the marital unity of the church then it will become misinterpreted and then where does the misinterpretations stop? biblical readings within marriage ceremonies couples commonly chose ephisians 5 and in the passage it reads 'For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh".. does this mean that one day men and women will have to start sewing their body parts together because they said it in their vows, of course not but there are many ways that this phrase 'one flesh' could be taken and misinterpreted when taken outside of the church and thrown into law.

      Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. 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. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind--yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes and tenderly cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church. Each of you, however, should love his wife as himself, and a wife should respect her husband. Ephesians 5

      If you are ever open to understanding the christian sexual revolution and all it entails i would suggest Theology Of The Body For Beginngers from Christopher West. I suggest it since i like to inform myself of other peoples views but in no way am i suggesting it to undermining your own personal opinions.

      Aside from that, thanks for the post and posting your views. have a great saturday!

    3. Mary thank you for this comment. I agree that in the context of the church, people should be free to exercise their religious views and I recognize that the church maintains that submit has a theological meaning. My point is rather that marriage is not just religious, it is legal. Already the church argues in a legal context for the upholding of religious views of marriage. They should be separate.

      The two souls one flesh example is apt - as this Biblical principle was a fundamental tenet of the LAW for centuries. This tenet prevented married women from being recognized as people before the law. No legal identity, but subsumed to that of their husbands.

      There is no place for this kind of thinking in any just system of law.

  2. The use of language has always been and continues to be a way in which groups attempt to disempower others, either other groups or other individuals. The comment above is a great example of how interpretations of scriptures over the ages is one way churches have attempted to disempower women. "Submit", in English, has a clear and incontrovertible meaning. Let us not include this word in any type of ceremony to infer that any person has to bow down to physically or to the views of any other person. One may decide to negotiate submission to a principle, such as the rule of law for example, but surely not to another individual over whom one has no knowledge of or guarantee of his or her continuing viewpoints.

    Anne Powles