RDBook: Wifely Submission and Christian Warfare

Many narratives about the genesis of the American Christian Right begin with Francis Schaeffer, variously described as a fundamentalist or neo-Calvinist Presbyterian pastor, author of a number of books including A Christian Manifesto, and creator of the film series Whatever Happened to the Human Race. Schaeffer is widely credited with rousing the apolitical giant of fundamentalist Protestant voters to action against secular humanism—an opposing religion, in his own description, that could not be squared with a Christian worldview—and to an even greater degree, against abortion, urging Christians to be “salt and light” to the culture at large (as the Bible instructs in Matthew 5:13–16). At a time when antiabortion activism was seen as the province of the Catholic Church, Schaeffer counseled an interfaith cooperation that transcended doctrinal differences. He promoted “co-belligerency,” the ideology that informs today’s formidable (though incomplete) united religious right front, particularly the evangelical, Catholic, and Mormon alliance against reproductive freedom, women’s and gay rights, and church-state separation.

A character in this narrative lesser-known outside of evangelical circles is the woman standing beside Schaeffer: his wife and trusted helpmeet, Edith Schaeffer. Edith was the indefatigable hostess of Schaeffer’s American expatriate community in Switzerland, L’Abri (meaning “Shelter”), a training ground and experiment in radical Christian living. She is also an author whose most durable contribution to the culture wars are two of her seemingly most apolitical books: L’Abri, a memoir of her role in her husband’s ministry, and a book that became, perhaps unintentionally, a landmark text for proponents of “biblical womanhood” (an all-encompassing lifestyle for antifeminist Christians that champions wifely submission to male headship) called The Hidden Art of Homemaking. Interestingly, the latter book’s original title was simply Hidden Arts—evoking a broader range of artistry in the “feminine,” domestic realm—but in reprinting, the title was restricted to housework, possibly reflecting the movement it inspired and the generation of anti-feminist writers who saw the book as an alternative to the women’s liberation movement blooming across suburbia and the country at large.

These women found in Edith Schaeffer the counterpart, the warm heart, of her husband’s call to Christian political action, one frequently summed up in a truism that today’s anti-feminists, patriarchalists, and complementarians like to repeat: “As many people were brought to the Lord through Mrs. Schaeffer’s cinnamon buns as through Dr. Schaeffer’s sermons.” Meaning that women’s work in the home is their own most important ministry, and though domestic and supportive, it is as critical as men’s leadership role in the Great Commission and in the eyes of God.

Mary Pride’s homeworking manifesto, The Way Home: Beyond Feminism, Back to Reality, was not only inspired by Schaeffer, but she even credits two books by Edith and Francis as key to her salvation. The impact the Schaeffer family had, Pride says—through the parents, children, and now grandchildren (save son Franky, who criticized the Christian Right in his 2007 book Crazy for God)—in calling Christians to the arts and politics was due to their obedience to God and their fidelity to God’s family order. It was the comforts of the home environment Mrs. Schaeffer created, her hospitality, and her good cooking that convinced pilgrims visiting L’Abri to sit at her husband’s feet and absorb his new political theology. The way home, Pride says, is to follow Edith Schaeffer’s model and be a homeworker, submitting to and building up your husband and making the home your ministry rather than searching for God’s work outside of your home. “What a day it will be when all God’s women return to homeworking and every wife has a church in her home.”

The cinnamon bun anecdote is also a promise of power, similar to the old adage about the hand that rocks the cradle ruling the world (another favored verse for anti-feminists) directed at a group that claims not to want power and advocates revolution through the forfeiture of any claim to authority and self-determination. Though it seems odd to outsiders, the faithful might recognize this paradox as a particularly Christian one: that you sacrifice yourself to gain the world; that true freedom comes through abject submission and obedience to authority; that the meek shall inherit the earth.

Complementarian theologian John Piper echoes this, arguing that women’s challenge is to influence their husbands spiritually, through “fearless tranquility and holiness and prayer.” Prayerful women, he writes, are using their God-ordained power over men, and this enables them to “exert far more power in this world than all political leaders put together.” For those unmoved by rote Christian platitudes about the power of prayer moving mountains, Piper offers practical information as well—consider the power women wield through the way they raise their daughters and sons. Though this too is an offer of delayed power and reward, vindication through posterity, it’s one that has caught on.

It’s a theme that Pride inhabits thoroughly in her crusade against feminism. In this war, women’s call is to echo their role in life: as helpmeets, as servants, submissive to the authority above them. “Submission has a military air,” she writes in The Way Home. “For the greater good, the soldier is subject to his commanding officer, even if he disagrees with him.” She continues:

This generation is in danger of forgetting that the Christian way of life is still a war. We have strong enemies—the world, the flesh, the devil. We also have a commander in chief, Jesus Christ, who has created a winning battle strategy. Jesus is the one who assigns roles and goals in his own army. And Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, has said that wives are to willingly subject themselves to their husbands.

When the private is committed to winning the war, and is willing to subject his personal desires to the goal of winning, and is willing to follow the leader his commander has put over him, that army stands a good chance of winning.

These truths, Pride and the ranks of complementarians argue, were too generally accepted to merit mention several decades ago: they were the commonsense rules for life followed by most men and women, conservative Christians and otherwise, across the country. What happened in between they blame not just on the rise of the women’s liberation movement, but on a previous generation of women abdicating responsibility by failing to follow the guidelines of Titus 2, the Apostle Paul’s instructions to his disciple Titus on how to govern the lives of his early Christian community on the island of Crete. Among those rules is the instruction that older women spend their days training younger women to love, submit to, and obey their husbands so that the word of God will not be blasphemed.

This call, though neither Pride nor Schaeffer named it as such in the early 1970s or ’80s, is now recognized across the Christian community as a demand for Titus 2 ministries: ministries (including blogs, books, clubs, women’s retreats, and one-on-one mentoring relationships) dedicated to rediscovering the lost arts not just of motherhood but of cleaning, cooking, homeschooling, and, particularly, submitting in wifehood.

But before them all, and in contrast to Edith Schaeffer’s “accidental” women’s ministry, there was Nancy Campbell.

In Primm Springs, Tennessee, a point in a web of barely paved country roads southwest of Nashville lined by hay bales festooned with American flags and notices to “Vote Yes on 1 to Protect Marriage,” I met one of the grande dames of American Christian womanhood, Nancy Campbell, author of books such as Be Fruitful and Multiply and The Power of Motherhood, and the self-titled “editriss” of the internationally distributed Above Rubies magazine, a missive of “family encouragement” for women seeking to become more virtuous mothers and wives. Campbell sees her magazine, with a readership of 150,000, as a Titus 2 ministry, and as such she is perhaps one of the first women of the post-1950s era to have picked up the “dropped baton” of female training.

/images/managed/Story+Image_aboverubies.pngThe title of Campbell’s magazine points to another portion of Scripture popular with conservative Christian women, Proverbs 31, an exhaustive delineation of the proper spheres of feminine activity. A woman who excels in the catalogue of Proverbs 31 virtues is praiseworthy, a boon to her husband, and valuable “far above rubies or pearls.” And Above Rubies, which frequently features an assortment of Campbell’s children and grandchildren in various tender moments of motherhood, exists to glorify women following their “natural high calling.” Articles cover topics such as “Dressing for My Husband,” “The Beauty of Homemaking,” “Where’s My Apron?” and “Raising Missionaries.”

When Campbell started printing the magazine in 1977, she says she was seeking to fill a void in the encouragement of women who resisted the lures of feminism and careers. Having just given birth to her sixth child in rural New Zealand, Campbell, like many women who would become conservative leaders, says she felt bereft of guidance and encouragement in her stay-at-home life and determined to provide it herself for other young mothers living a homemaker’s life. She started from scratch and eventually went on to mentor thousands, leading women back to hearth, home, and the proper honor of their husbands.

On the cover of a 2006 issue of Above Rubies, Campbell published a photo of her three daughters, Pearl, Evangeline, and Serene, as well as a daughter-in-law, Monique, all holding their latest offspring—four babies apparently born within weeks of each other—at arm’s length, a bounty of chubby blond offerings to the camera. The young mothers stood before a thicket of mossy trees glinting in spring sunshine, wearing bohemian crocheted sweaters, thong sandals, and baggy cargo pants. Their hair fell loose to as low as their waists, and their mouths were open in laughter: an image better suited to commune-living Earth mothers than stern fundamentalists.

Other covers offer similar scenes, family and children shot with a heavy preference for soft-focus close-ups of wispy-haired, gently pretty women adoring newborns cradled in their arms. One cover features a blond toddler boy, a Christian back-to-the-land farmer’s son from Tennessee, wearing overalls and a yarmulke, head-butting the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem—a somewhat baffling image until explained by the story within, that of an eleven-child family that moved to Israel as a “fulfillment of biblical prophecy” and were greeted as kindred spirits by the Orthodox Jewish community because of their large family. It was international proof, they explained, of their love of the same God. This is a returning focus of Campbell’s—convincing Christian couples to be abundantly “fruitful” in their offspring—but the first step toward that is returning women to their rightful roles as helpmeets and keepers at home.

“I think humanists set out to undermine marriage, motherhood,” she said, “not just by promoting careerism. Really the first thing was the undermining of man, of manhood, with ‘what do we need a man for?’ and ‘who’s going to submit to a man?’ Let’s get out of that. Goodness me. Encouraging women to not ever come into any submission to a man, and to do their own thing, and to have a career and put their children in daycare, and to get out and be themselves.” As Campbell spoke of the eroding influence of feminism and humanism on traditional family life, her voice became gruff and Americanized, taking on the gritty accent of a hard-living film noir newspaperman, rattling off the facts of a sad case. When she returned to describing biblical living, her voice softened back to a syrupy drawl. “All that,” she said, meaning all that independence and doing your own thing, “sounds very wonderful, but it doesn’t work in the long run. It only brings heartache, the weakening of the family, and it has wreaked havoc on marriage and homes. So we don’t have that strong family unit that we once had in the nation. There are many who do have that, but many don’t because they’ve been taught against it by the education system. By the time you get through college, a young woman is really brainwashed against the biblical understanding of marriage and home and motherhood.”

The biblical understanding, of course, is that men and women are one, united, and equally important in the eyes of the Lord. But within that understanding, the first created human, Adam, has authority—demonstrated by God’s choosing him to name the animals and to in fact name Eve when she was taken from his side to be his servant and companion. So a woman is to submit to that leadership, and a man is to love his wife as he loves his own body, as Christ loves the church, for she is his body, after all.

“ ‘She is flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone,’ said Adam. ‘She shall be called woman, because she was taken out of me,’ ” Campbell repeated the oldest story with starry-eyed wonder. “Adam recognized that, of all the animals, she was not a new creation. Every single thing God created was new creation—the stars, the sun, the moon. Adam and the animals were dust of the earth. Eve wasn’t. She wasn’t made from dust. She was not a new creation. She was not some independent, new creation who could do what she liked. She was part of man. Out of man. Made for man.”

kathrynajoyce@gmail.com'

Kathryn Joyce is the author of The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption and Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement. Her articles have appeared in The Nation, Mother Jones, The Atlantic, and many other publications.