A late summer morning 30 or so years ago. The events of this past week involving Ray and Janay Rice, shining new focus on domestic violence, bring a long ago moment freshly to mind…
He burst into my office. She trailed behind. Though her head was bowed, I could see her tear-stained face. I stumbled to my feet as he stood before me, shouting, “Father, take back what you said!”
Perhaps it was the automatic interplay of my sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems balancing the tension between stress and rest. Perhaps it was that they were long-standing parishioners, a committed couple, doting parents, and ardent supporters of the church and of me. Perhaps it was a combination, for, though uncertain of his reference, I felt composed, believing that whatever it was, we could resolve it.
He slammed his open Bible on my desk. “Take it back!” Ah, I thought I knew. That Sunday before I had preached a sermon based on Ephesians 5.21-33.
He pointed to the page. “Here! See?” Not looking at the text, he recited, “‘Wives, submit to your husbands in everything as unto the Lord. The husband is head of the wife, even as Christ is head of the church.’ You said this wasn’t true! Take it back!”
I hastened to my defense, “That’s not exactly what I said. I can show you my text.”
“Father, don’t toy with me. You have caused discord in my household. My wife,” pointing at her angrily, “for the first time in our marriage dared challenge me on a family matter! She confessed it was because of what you preached!”
I called him by his name; with a voice of familiarity seeking to calm him, to calm us all. Still breathing hard, for a moment he relaxed, lowering his head. I took up his Bible. “Looking at this verse, ‘Submit yourselves one to another in the fear of God,’ I said that I believe scripture teaches mutual submission, wife to husband and husband to wife as a sign of their reverence of God…”
“But,” he interjected. “Please,” I besought him. Stepping back, he crossed his arms over his chest. “And I said that this verse, ‘This is a great mystery, but I speak of Christ and the church’ tells us that is the true subject of the passage, that the marital relationship is an illustrative analogy, and,” I felt the rush of my words, trying to get it all out, “that I thought the only way to interpret the text as you suggest would be that the husband is Christ and the wife is the church, which they are not.”
“You,” he unfurled his arms, “teach falsehood and call yourself a man of God! I was raised to believe that the man is lord of his house, and so I am! We will not stay here where lies are preached as truth!” He marched from my office, directing his wife to follow.
I slumped into my chair, my soul roiling with sadness. Yes, for myself, feeling that I had failed as a minister, fomenting disharmony, however unintentionally, that no amount of my self-justifying belief that I had preached with honest conviction could assuage. I was sad for what felt like a loss of relationship (which, despite subsequent efforts at reconciliation, proved true). I was sad for them, as respectable a couple as I could have imagined (though, in witnessing an aspect of their relationship, one of dominance, dominion, I never had known, I also felt I had seen them again for the first time). I was sad that, in a greater sense, in my judgment then and now, the gospel, the good news of love and liberty, had been employed to promote an unholy servitude; one that she, the wife, believed as much as he, though perhaps less contentedly.
Yet, to this day – and now, again, given events of this past week – I wonder. What happened to that couple, to that family? And if I had known when I stepped into the pulpit that my words would have been so offensive, would I have preached that sermon? Although a question I ask now about a prior time is impossible for me to answer with any assurance, I think…yes.