Excursus on the Fifth Commandment

A friend, knowing that I was concerned about the book, It’s Good To Be a Man (IGTBAM), put me in touch with one of the authors, the Rev. Michael Foster, pastor of East River Church (CREC) in Batavia, Ohio, and we exchanged a few emails as I was preparing to review the book, here. Mr. Foster responded graciously to my concern about the reference to the Shorter Catechism mentioned in my review. He suggested that the proof texts cited in support of Q. 129 of the Larger Catechism, which deals with the responsibilities of superiors, include Colossians 3:19 (calling husbands to love their wives) and 1 Peter 3:7 (commanding husbands to honor their wives as the weaker vessel) show that the authors of the catechisms “made it clear by citing these marriage relationship texts that they saw husbands as superiors (in rank, not essence) owing their wives loving care” [personal correspondence, January 29, 2022, quoted with permission]. He continues: “The point we were making in the chapter had to do with rank, not essence. Women aren’t ontologically inferior to men. Headship and submission isn’t due to women being lesser or men being greater. It’s simply part of our God’s created order.”

I am thankful that Mr. Foster clearly affirms that women are not ontologically inferior to men. Would that more of those in patriarchal circles would agree. The position he espouses, however, still appears to me to go beyond Scripture’s instruction to husbands and wives. In Ephesians 5:21 all believers are called to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Paul does not link that mutual submission to superiority or inferiority in ontology or rank. In the verses that follow, the shape of that submission is spelled out for various groups, wives and husbands (but ultimately Paul is speaking of the great mystery of the relationship between Christ and his church), children and parents, and finally slaves and masters. For Mr. Foster, the superiority and inferiority, while not based on essence, has “to do with rank,” and is “simply part of our God’s created order.” In IGTBAM the principle is taken beyond the marriage relationship to males and females in general: “And when God divides the woman from the man, the woman is also over the earth, but the man is over the woman.” (p. 40) I want to be fair to Mr. Foster. He reminded me that the reference to man being over the woman is in the context of the first marriage in the Garden of Eden. He goes on to state: “I don’t believe or teach that all women are under all men. Never is that stated in this book and I’ve publicly been teaching otherwise for decades.” While I am thankful to read that, I find tension between that and the statement on p. 9 that all leadership “whether civil or domestic or ecclesiastical, is exclusively male.” I fail to see how he can have it both ways.

I believe that God’s Word calls wives to submit to their husbands and husbands to love their wives. I do subscribe to the Larger and Shorter Catechisms. But their treatment of relationships under the Fifth Commandment requires far more nuance than IGTBAM displays. To give a hypothetical example, suppose that a woman in the church I serve were a judge in the district court in my county. Were I to visit her courtroom, I, along with others, would rise when she entered the courtroom. In that setting she is my superior. My rising is not just tradition, it is obedience to Paul’s command to submit and give honor to those in authority over us (Romans 13:1, 7). By the way, I would consider myself under no obligation to counsel her to leave her position of leadership as a judge on the grounds that she is a woman. Rather, I would be thankful that a godly Christian has an opportunity to serve in that position. Were I to address her in her courtroom, it would be as “your honor.” In the context of the church, when the same woman worships and receives the ministry of the Word with gladness, I believe that she would be obeying the command of Hebrews 13:17, “Obey your leaders and submit to their authority.” After the service we would appropriately address each other by first names. In the different settings the judge and I would, at points, be acting as each other’s superior or inferior or as equals. Obedience to God in the particular relationships in which he places us, rather than ontology or order of rank determines how our conformity to the Fifth Commandment plays out.

Both the Shorter and Larger Catechisms use the terms superiors, inferiors, and equals in treating the Fifth Commandment. As I see it, the catechisms are trying to ensure that our focus is obedience to God by treating those around us appropriately, regardless of social status or other ranking. The commandment, in other words, goes beyond duties of children in the home towards their parents. The patriarchy movement, however, appears to shift the emphasis to identifying who is superior and who is inferior. In Matthew 20, when James and John were concerned about their rank, Jesus pointed out that their desire to exercise authority reflects the pattern of the pagan Gentiles. His disciples are called to be servants — if they are followers of the Son of Man who came, not be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28).

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