The debate-night audience lashed out at the reporter who dared to ask Rep. Michele Bachmann whether she would be submissive to her husband as president, but the chorus of "boos" Thursday in Ames, Iowa, overlooked a much more nuanced and complex partnership that's grounded in Scripture, evangelical Christian scholars say.
The concept of a submissive wife needs to be "seen in the context that there is a good many more things a husband is required to do than the wife is required to do," Richard Land, head of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, said.
The husband "is to love his wife the way Christ loved the church and gave himself for it," Land continued. "He's going to be seeking what's best for his wife and the wife, in turn, is to put herself under the authority of her own husband as unto the Lord."
The relationship is only between two married people and not between a woman and other men, including men with whom she might work, he said. "The husband is to be the head of the home and he is to give himself to sacrificial service to his wife," Land said. "And the wife is to put herself under the authority of her own husband as unto the Lord and that means she is going to trust his authority and he's going to put herself under his headship in the marriage."
One of the most talked about moments at Thursday night's GOP debate on the Fox News Channel came when Bachmann of Minnesota was asked a question that raised some eyebrows. The question stemmed from a speech she gave in 2006 when she was running for Congress.
Bachmann told a church in Brooklyn Park, Minn., that she hated taxes, but went on to study tax law in order to be "submissive" to her husband.
"My husband said, now you need to go and get a post-doctorate degree in tax law. Tax law, I hate taxes. Why should I go and do something like that? But the Lord says, 'Be submissive.' Wives, you are to be submissive to your husbands," Bachmann told the crowd at the Living Word Christian Center. "Never had a tax course in my background, never had a desire for it, but by faith, I was going to be faithful to what I thought God was calling me to do through my husband, and I finished that course of that study."
Her response Thursday night to the Washington Examiner's Byron York was broader but no less faithful. Bachmann said she loved her husband and was "so proud of him."
"What submission means to us, if that's what your question is, it means respect. I respect my husband. He's a wonderful, Godly man and a great father, and he respects me as his wife," she told York and the millions watching. "That's how we operate our marriage. We respect each other, we love each other, and I've been so grateful that we've been able to build a home together."
The teaching is rooted in the fifth chapter of Ephesians in the New Testament: "Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything."
The verse goes on to say," Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church."
It's open to different interpretations, but Land said he believes Bachmann would run the country as other women in authority have, using the example of Queen Elizabeth, who acts as the head of state in the United Kingdom, but reportedly lets her husband make family decisions.
And just as John F. Kennedy said he would not take direction from the Vatican in the White House, Bachmann would not run the nation under husband Marcus' authority, he said
Debra White Smith of Real Life Ministries in Jacksonville, Texas, who has written five books on Christian marriage and lectured and written extensively on the topic, said there are two camps on the submissive wife issue, and she only teaches one point of view. She says some evangelical Christians -- incorrectly, in her point of view -- believe in a "subordinate, insubordinate" relationship between the husband and wife.
"There is a strong camp within Christian evangelicals that have a dysfunctional view on submission where literally the husband is the head of the wife and is responsible for her as a father is responsible to a child," White said.
White and husband Daniel teach Christian married couples a different view of submission. "The word I teach is healthy submission," she said. "It is not about one person submitting to another or ruling over them. It's about mutuality, both submitting to the needs of each other and it's about mutual respect, and it is not a tool of dominance or control."
Bachmann seems to be either "double talking" on her two descriptions of submission or has evolved on the topic, she said.
"When she was talking about tax law, she was embracing the mentality that you submit and walk behind him spiritually, mentally, and emotionally following him," White said, referring to Bachmann's relationship with her husband. "That is the old-line male dominant view of men rule, women drool. It's not about power control or subordination, it's about mutual servanthood, and that's what she said last night. You need to understand is what she first said [in 2006] is one theological view and the second [Thursday night] is another theological view. [The second one] that's what's healthy."
But Land said there is really only one way of interpreting the concept.
"It's not shared leadership in the end," he said. "In the end, the husband submits himself to his wife by giving himself in sacrificial service to her and she puts herself under the authority of her own husband as unto the Lord. It has nothing to do with equality or inequality of the sexes.
"It has to do with gender roles in a divinely ordained institution called marriage in which God understood there had to be an ultimate authority and the ultimate authority is the husband. And he's going to hold him responsible if that home is not everything it should be."
As for the potential political fallout, David Brody, chief political correspondent for the Christian Broadcasting Network, said the controversy will help Bachmann.
"My guess is there will be more evangelical support for Michele Bachmann in Iowa because she will be looked upon as somewhat of a victim," Brody said. "I think this will actually be a boon for her. Not just in support in the polls, but probably an uptick in donations as well. ? It just feels like there is a lot of victimization here that the Bachmann campaign may actually get an uptick in money and polling."
Brody also said he thought the question was "out of bounds" and more "anti-evangelical Christian" than sexist. He questioned why no one asked former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman about his Mormon faith during the same debate.
"The mainstream media and others are trying to wrap their arms around the concept they don't understand," Brody said. "Even though tens of millions not just evangelicals, but Christians around the country understand they are being put on the spot to explain."
Although Brody thought the question was unfair, Bachmann's spokeswoman Alice Stewart said she saw it "as an opportunity for her to clear up any concerns people may have had about that word. Clearly, people view that word differently. But for Michele and her husband that's the way they describe their relationship in terms of having a mutual respect for each other; and they do, they have a fantastic marriage, a very loving couple, and when they're using that term it's their expression of how they have a mutual respect and love for each other."
And Bachmann's Iowa campaign chairman Kent Sorenson agreed, also saying it was a "great opportunity."
"Anybody can ask any question they want. I don't think she's afraid to answer those questions. The audience sounded like they had a little different response," Sorenson said.
Bachmann's husband didn't shy away from commenting today at the Iowa State fair. "I think the fact that she is talking about two people who respect, honor, and communicate to each other about decisions just makes a lot of sense," Marcus Bachmann told ABC News. "I think the American people can see that that makes for a good marriage."
ABC News' Matthew Jaffe and Sarah Parnass contributed to this report.