20 January 2012

What’s wrong with ‘husband’?

Last Wednesday’s prayer meeting closed with the singing of John Newton’s hymn ‘How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear’. For various reasons, I found myself looking at the different versions of the hymn available on the Internet. In particular, I was struck by the changes that modern versions of the hymn have made to what was the fifth verse in Newton’s original. He wrote:

Jesus! my Shepherd, Husband, Friend,
My Prophet, Priest, and King;
My Lord, my Life, my Way, my End,
Accept the praise I bring.
The Mission Praise version we sang on Wednesday substitutes ‘brother’ for ‘husband’ while other modern versions opt for ‘master’ and even ‘Saviour’ in preference to ‘husband’. And yet ‘husband’ reflects the New Testament’s use of  bridegroom and bride as metaphors for the relationship between Christ and the Church. So why is there this reluctance among modern Christians to refer to Jesus as our husband?

Since the nineteenth century fears have been expressed in some quarters that Christianity has become feminized. This was a recurring theme in the works of Charles Kingsley, Thomas Hughes (of Tom Brown’s Schooldays fame) and Baden Powell. In Britain it led to the emergence of a muscular Christianity that could praise ‘the Englishman going through the world with rifle in one hand and Bible in the other’. In the United States it gave rise to the Men and Religion Forward movement and, more recently, to Promise Keepers. Is fear of feminization behind this substitution of ‘brother’ for ‘husband’?

Whatever the perceived danger that this substitution is meant to avoid, I think the change raises a serious theological issue. Newton’s use of the term ‘husband’ clearly connects with biblical concept of the Church as the bride of Christ. (Yes, I know some people claim that as a former ship’s captain he was alluding to the term ‘ship’s husband’, the person whose duty it was to make sure the ship was adequately maintained and provisioned. But the fact that in the Olney Hymns he explicitly connects this hymn with Song of Solomon 1:3 makes it clear enough what his primary focus was.) Thus I cannot sing this verse (as Newton wrote it) without being reminded of my part in the Christian community and the very specific kind of authority that Christ has over me as my husband. By contrast, to sing ‘brother’ instead is to lose both that sense of being part of a community and that reminder of his authority. It plays into the spiritual individualism of late modernity. The substitution of ‘Saviour’ has a similar effect. And ‘master’ is probably even worse because not only does it drop the community dimension but it substitutes the authority of the slave owner for the authority of the lover.

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