In the modern west, it seems that there is an increasing refusal of brides to take the surname of their new husbands, and instead a determination to retain their maiden names. Even the Duchess of Cambridge, the new and popular bride of Prince William, second in line to the British throne, has opted to keep her maiden name, so that Kate is still legally Kate Middleton. It is an increasing trend, and one that is preferred because it seems to express women’s empowerment.
The smartest woman I know, my wife, has always thought this trend a bit odd. Why keeping a surname that one never chose (i.e. the name of one’s father) in preference to a surname that one chose, that of her husband, should reflect a woman’s empowerment never seemed to make sense. After all, no woman chooses her father. In our culture, she does choose her husband, so that taking his surname would seem to reflect her power to choose more than retaining a surname which she never chose. Kate was born a Middleton, whether she liked it or not. Her becoming a Windsor was entirely her own decision.
One supposes that the objection to taking the husband’s surname is rooted in the objection to a woman’s defining herself in terms of another person. Kate shouldn’t be “Mrs. Kate Windsor” because she is a person in her own right. Taking the husband’s surname smacks of an archaic and out-dated submission to a husband’s authority which is altogether out of fashion and considered more than a little oppressive. This refusal to be defined by another and to submit to oppression finds expression in the woman’s retention of her surname.
For those who take Scripture seriously, this is one more reason why woman should take on the surname of her husband upon marriage. St. Paul speaks of the submission of the wife to the husband in Ephesians 5, as he does of the husband’s duty to love his wife as Christ loved the Church. In Paul’s day the submission of the wife to her husband was expressed (in Corinth anyway) by the wife veiling herself when in public and in church. In our day, it is expressed in her taking her husband’s surname. The question then arises: of what does this submission consist? What’s it all about?
It is important to stress first of all what it is not about: it is not about a denial of a woman’s fundamental equality with men. When a Christian woman takes her husband’s surname, she does not thereby define herself in terms of her husband, but continues to define herself in terms of Christ. In marriage and in singleness, both man and women owe their ultimate allegiance to the Lord, not to any earthly person, including their spouse. The name change simply means that she now acknowledges the leadership of her husband in the Lord.
Clearly, submission does not imply inequality. St. Paul not only says that the husband is the head of his wife, but also that God is the head of Christ, and Christians have always insisted that God the Father and Christ are co-equal, co-eternal, and consubstantial. That is, Christ is ontologically equal to God the Father in every way. Submission therefore does not imply any ontological inequality, and the wife’s submission to her husband (or, come to that, their children’s submission to them) does not imply any inequality of value either. It does mean, however, that only one is charged by God to lead and to take the ultimate responsibility—namely, the husband. What does this mean in terms of inter-relationship between husband and wife, between the leader and the led? How does this work itself out in day to day life? Bluntly put, it means that the husband must abase himself and die in his leadership, even as Christ died for His Church. The husband must put his wife’s joy and benefit before his own, and serve her, no matter what the personal cost to himself. This is manifested in a thousand little ways, starting at the beginning of their married relationship: when the marriage agreement is first made, he proposes to her, and that upon bended knee. It was thus that Christ served His own bride the Church, for He served her on bended knee when He knelt to wash His disciples’ feet on the last night of His earthly life. The crown of leadership is the crown of martyrdom. Christian men have not exemplified this truth very well throughout the ages, I admit, but it remains true nonetheless.
I suggest therefore that Christian women should resist the modern trend of married women retaining their maiden names. In North America, glory to God, women are free, and free to choose their own husbands. Having done so, both wife and husband are called to lay down their freedom to serve Christ, and submit their own wills to His blessed and saving will. When both do so, they find that service to Christ is the perfect freedom. In submitting to His will, both find joy and inner liberation. They also find themselves increasingly at odds with the world around them. Part of this oddness consists today of the wife’s taking her husband’s name. It is a small thing, I suppose, just a matter of a few syllables. But small things can be very significant. Remember Christmas: the baby laid in the confines of the manger was small. But this baby was still the infinite Christ our God, and more significant than the whole wide world.