I thought I’d continue my thoughts from a comment thread at Sunshine Mary’s here, since the conversation is dwindling there, and I need to post here anyway.
The topic became wifely submission, and soon the usual question arose: “What if a husband commands his wife to have a threesome / rob a bank / chop off her hand?” In other words, does God’s command for wives to be subject to their husbands in all things really mean all things? Ellie responded with:
God’s commands trump a husband’s orders.
But following the husband’s orders IS one of God’s commands. That’s the whole point: if a husband gives his wife an order to do something she thinks is sinful, she’s not choosing between following God’s command or her husband’s command. She’s choosing between God’s command to obey her husband or God’s command to avoid the sinful act.
Ss. Peter could have said “subject to their husbands’ virtuous commands.” St. Paul could have said, “Therefore as the church is subject to Christ: so also let the wives be to their husbands in all things except sinful commands.” When they were preaching these things (remember, their letters were only the tiny chunk of their ministry that we happen to have; they were out preaching to the people in person every day), do we think it never occurred to anyone, as it immediately does to us, to ask something like, “Yeah, but what if he tells her to become a prostitute to make money so he can lounge around all day?” Of course it must have. St. Peter was even speaking specifically of being subject to a non-believing husband, and who knows what such a man might order? So the fact that they didn’t put any conditions on this submission is something we should take seriously, and not assume they meant something else that they very easily could have said.
And when Abraham took Isaac up the mountain and was ready to plunge in the sword until the angel stopped him, the angel didn’t say, “Awesome job on the total faith thing, really, but you should have known that God didn’t really want you to commit murder. That’s a sin, stupid.” No, because Abraham was willing to commit murder to obey God, he was rewarded.
As I said over there: as a Catholic, I take comfort that I have the Church and twenty centuries of saints and theologians to guide me in understanding scripture. But consider the girl who doesn’t have that, who belongs to a church that says, “It’s all in the bible; read it and let the Spirit guide you,” or who is more-or-less secular. If she’s assured that she can ignore her husband’s orders when they’re sinful (presumably skimming really fast through Peter 3 and Ephesians 5), who will guide her in determining where that line is? Her friends? Her hamster? Oprah?
These extreme examples that we bat around are easy: yes, a threesome is clearly sinful (to keep it simple, let’s assume we’re not talking within a polygynous marriage, so there’s clearly adultery going on). But most calls won’t be that clear. In most marriages, none of them will be that clear. Ellie says, “Anything that is not clearly, black-and-white, wrong should be obeyed,” but almost nothing in life is truly black-and-white, especially in marriage. Say a kid is refusing to eat his peas, and the husband says not to let the kid leave the table or eat anything else until those peas are gone. The wife hated being made to eat her peas as a child, and her shrink told her that forced eating might have led to her body-image issues, so it could be considered child abuse — voila, it’s sinful, she doesn’t have to do it! Human nature being what it is, the line between sinful and acceptable orders is bound to keep edging over closer and closer to the line between “orders I like” and “orders I don’t like.”
One last thing: let me be clear that I probably seem much more certain about all this than I really am. If I marry again, the question of “Is this order I’m about to give her going to cause her to sin?” will always be uppermost in my mind, because that’s a huge responsibility. It’d be much easier to give her the veto, to let me partly off the hook. I’m arguing for the stricter interpretation mostly because the rest of the world is arguing for the lax one, so the stricter one needs a fair hearing. “The door is narrow,” you know? So when our reaction to a piece of scripture is, “It can’t really mean that,” I think our wisest reaction is to say, “Well, what if it really does mean that?”
Ultimately, if a husband commands his wife to have a threesome, I don’t think she’s going to be damned to Hell if she commits the sin of adultery OR if she commits the sin of disobedience. Her husband really holds the responsibility for the sin either way, not she. But I think she will be much better off if she arrives at the Final Judgment having always been subject to her husband even when she thought he was wrong, rather than if she says, “Yes, I obeyed him when he was right, and disobeyed him to prevent evil the rest of the time.” The latter is so much more likely to end up being cover for, “I actually ran the relationship and let him lead when I felt like it,” even if that’s not what she intended at the start.
You can’t be subject to someone in all things and hold veto power over him at the same time. That’s really the bottom line.