It was time for the children's sermon. The church member assigned the role for that particular Sunday asked the children to come forward. Some 40-50 young children dutifully filed forward and sat down in a crowd by the leader to hear what he had to say.
The man began by holding up a picture of George W. Bush, the President of the United States. He then held up a picture of some General whose name escapes me. The exact identification of which General it was proved not to be important anyway. The man then proceeded to describe to the children how, when the President walks into a room, the General would stand up and salute. Why, the man asked the assembled children, would the General do this?
An eager child smartly raised his hand, and offered the answer: "Because the President is more important?" The children's sermon leader wasn't sure how to respond. This was clearly not the answer he was expecting.
"Actually," he replied, "that actually goes against the entire point of what I'm trying to say." It turns out that the leader was attempting to draw a parallel between the situation concerning the military chain-of-command and the roles of husband and wife in a marriage. The General isn't less important than the President, the leader wanted to say. Rather, the General's role is to repect the President and do what the President tells him to. Just like (so said the children's leader) the role of a wife is to follow the husband. (By this time, I'm furiously writing snarky notes to my wife, sitting next to me, in an attempt to poke fun at the situation and to keep from pulling my own hair out in apoplexy.)
Leaving aside the extremely conservative interpretation about what the Bible has to say about gender roles in marriage, the problem with this whole analogy was that the kid was right. The President is more important than the General. There are lots of Generals, but only one President. If a General were to be lost in battle, it would be a tragedy, but the war would likely progress much as it had before. If a President were to die while in office, the entire country would be affected. One cannot say that about a marriage. A husband and a wife are both equally important to the marriage (a fact that even the conservative children's leader would agree with). If one person is removed, the marriage ceases to exist.
But let's go back to this idea of roles for a moment. Now, I certainly don't mean to argue that men and women are exactly the same in all respects. Clearly, if I tried to suggest that the man could bear the children in a marriage, I'd rightly be laughed at. Only the woman has this capacity. So, yes, there are some roles specific to the husband, and some specific to the wife. Yet, nearly every time I hear someone talk about such roles, they talk about things that are wholly not intrinsic to the nature of being male or female. Now, I know the Biblical passages that conservatives use to promote the idea of marital heirarchy as well as anybody. To quote Inigo Montoya, "I do not think it means what you think it means." I could spend time going through such passages to demonstrate how a Biblical understanding of these passages is far closer to mutual submission than is generally supposed, but that's better left for another time (this particular post is getting long enough already!). Suffice it to say for now that if people would spend more time thinking of ways that husbands and wives could empower each other, instead of trying to enforce rules limiting each other to their "designated roles," Christian married couples would be a far greater force for evangelism in the world today, rather than an example that non-Christians look at with scorn and disdain.
One last note: Egalitarian thinkers have often been accused by traditionalists of weakening marriages by arguing against traditional gender roles. About a year after this children's sermon was presented, the conservative church in question suffered a seismic shock when its pastor announced that his wife was leaving him. The details are still being sorted out, but the church is already losing leaders in protest of the way that the pastor and the session have mishandled the situation. I pray that God will bring healing to the many broken hearts involved. At the same time I pray that enlightenment may come even in the midst of such suffering.