Must wives submit to husbands?
The apostle Paul writes:
Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior. Just as the church is subject to Christ, so also wives ought to be, in everything, to their husbands. (Eph. 5:22–24)
Along similar lines, Peter writes:
Wives…accept the authority of your husbands….It was in this way long ago that the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves by accepting the authority of their husbands. Thus Sarah obeyed Abraham and called him lord. You have become her daughters as long as you do what is good and never let fears alarm you. (1 Pet. 3:1, 5–6)
Many evangelicals (labeled complementarians) maintain that these words are as applicable today as they were in the first century. Male headship is part of God’s timeless design for creation. I do not see it this way, however.
Throughout the Bible God works with fallen cultures as he finds them to transform them from the inside out. I see the almost universal tendency for males to be positioned over women as part of our fallenness, and thus something God wants to move us out of. After the fall the Lord said the woman would desire the man and the man would rule over her (Gen. 3:16). The word “desire” in this passage has the connotation of “control.” The passage is declarative, not imperative, which means the Lord is here describing the way things are going to be, because of the fall, not the way he’d like them to be. The Lord is woefully saying that, because of the fall, the man and woman would now be involved in a power struggle and that, undoubtedly because of his tendency to be stronger, the man would tend to win.
I thus see the passages telling wives to submit to their husbands as being on a par with Paul’s instruction to Philemon to take back his slave Onesimus (Philem. 12–16). Though God’s desire was to do away with slavery, in this culture, at this time, the most he could do was “Christianize” it, as it were. Hence, God transformed the master-slave relationship by having Paul command the one who holds the power (Philemon) to use it in a Christlike way.
In the same way, I argue, God’s desire was to do away with gender-based authority and replace it with gift-based authority. But in this culture, at this time, the most he could do was “Christianize” the gender-based authority. Hence, Paul tells the one in power (the husband) to use his power in a Christlike way. He is to subject himself to his wife (Eph. 5:21) and be willing to give himself sacrificially for his wife, even as Christ did for the church (5:25–28). As with all relationships among believers, husbands and wives should not be concerned with who is the boss but should rather seek to serve and defer to one another (Luke 22:24–27; Phil. 2:5–8). While marriages afflicted by the fall are characterized by the husband and wife fighting to rule, marriages in Christ are to be characterized by the husband and wife coming under one another in loving service (Eph 5:21).
If a husband yet insists on being head of his wife, however, Paul’s teaching clearly rules out the carnal idea that this headship is about getting “the tie-breaker vote.” In Eph. 5, headship is actually about the opposite of this. The one who holds the power to rule (the husband) should imitate Jesus and use his power to initiate self-sacrificial service to his wife. While the husband and wife are to submit to each other (vs.21), the man who believes himself to be the head should be the one to take responsibility to defer to his wife first.
- Bilezikian, Gilbert. Beyond Sex Roles: A Guide for the Study of Female Roles in the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985. (egalitarian)
- Clark, Stephen B. Man and Woman in Christ: An Examination of the Roles of Men and Women in Light of Scripture and the Social Sciences. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Servant, 1980. (complementarian)
- Foh, Susan T. Women and the Word of God: A Response to Biblical Feminism. Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979. (complementarian)
- Groothuis, Rebecca M. Good News for Women: A Biblical Picture of Gender Equality. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997. (egalitarian)
- Hull, Gretchen Gaebelein. Equal to Serve. Tarrytown, N.Y: Revell, 1991. (egalitarian)
- Hurley, James B. Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1981. (complementarian)
- Jewett, Paul K. Man as Male and Female: A Study in Sexual Relationships from a Theological Point of View. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975. (egalitarian)
- Kassian, Mary. Women, Creation, and the Fall. Westchester, Ill.: Crossway, 1990. (complementarian)
- Keener, Craig S. Paul, Women, and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letters of Paul. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 1992. (egalitarian)
- MacArthur, John A. Different by Design. Wheaton: Victor Books, 1994. (complementarian)
- Neuer, Werner. Man and Woman in Christian Perspective. Translated by Gordon Wenham. Wheaton: Crossway, 1990. (complementarian)
- Piper, John, and Wayne Grudem, eds. Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood: A Response to Evangelical Feminism. Wheaton: Crossway, 199 1. (complementarian)
I’m a member of a special task group on racial reconciliation that consists of a dozen or so pastors from around the Twin Cities. We’ve been meeting periodically for the past year or so in order to strategize how to help the Church of the Twin Cities as a whole move forward in racial reconciliation.…
In the previous two posts on Oliphint’s God With Us, we’ve seen that Oliphint is trying to reframe divine accommodations in a Christ-centered way, but that what he means by this is not that he is going to derive his understanding of God from Christ, but that he is going to use the “hypostatic union”…
Over the last week many of you have written ReKnew asking me to weigh in on the crisis in Syria. Does being a pacifist mean that I am opposed to America violently intervening to keep Assad from using chemical weapons against his own people? And if so, what would I say if Obama asked for…
Kathy’s Struggle with Temptation Kathy was one of the brightest students I ever had when I taught Theology at Bethel University. She asked insightful questions and often contributed to lively class discussions. The time and energy she put into her theology classes was motivated by more than just a desire to get a good grade.…
The “Newly Discovered” Jesus One of the most common, and most disturbing, refrains heard in the media’s coverage of contemporary radical views of Christ is that New Testament scholars have recently “discovered” new sources of information about Jesus that contradict the Bible’s own view of Jesus. It is claimed that works such as the Gospel…
Here is an excellent post by my good friend Roger Olson in which he makes the case that Open Theism should be embraced by Arminians as an orthodox, if somewhat non-traditional, form of their faith. In fact, Roger argues (rightly in my opinion) that Open Theism is much closer to the “heart” of Arminianism than…