Similar to the argument against women’s full inclusion in church leadership (which I’ve addressed here), some use a few “limiting passages” to keep women in subjection to their husbands. We’ll take a look at two of them in this post.
The idea is that man is the “head” of the household—the authority who must lovingly lead his wife. A wife must submit to her husband’s leadership and respectfully support him. His purpose is to follow God’s calling; her purpose is to help him do so. In this view, women are ontologically and functionally different from men and have separate but equal roles.
22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 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. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for their body, just as Christ does the church— 30 for we are members of his body. 31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” 32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. 33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
(The passage continues through 6:9 giving instructions to children, fathers, slaves, and masters.)
Here, Paul employs a common, Roman literary device called the “household code”—a list of rules for the home. However, Paul puts his own spin on it. No other household code contains instructions for the man of the house. Why? The Pater Familias (the oldest male of a Roman family) owned the women, children, slaves, and all belongings in his household. It’s offensive to tell a man how to rule his own property!
In our culture, Paul’s instructions for women to submit jumps off the page, but we need to read it the way Paul’s audience would have read it. The opposite would have been true for a patriarchal culture like Paul’s. They would see instructions for husbands, fathers, and masters as a subversion of Roman customs—not support for it.
Unfortunately, the context of Ephesians 5 is largely ignored in the arguments made for exclusive female submission, causing Paul’s main point to be all but lost. The passage most naturally begins in 5:1 where Paul instructs the whole church at Ephesus to walk in love as Christ did by sacrificing himself. He then explains what it means to follow Christ’s example as individuals and members of the Body of Christ and, in verse 21, introduces a household code in order to show what it looks like to follow Christ’s example in the home.
To see the context more clearly, we need to recognize that verse 22 actually does not say, “Wives, submit to your husbands…” In Greek, it simply says, “Wives, to your husbands…”
So, how did “submit” get in there?
Paul expects his audience to infer the idea of submission from verse 21, which is the most important verse in the entire passage: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Emphasis mine).
How do we follow Christ’s example? Submit to one another!
Everything in this passage explains how we submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Paul makes it impossible for us to read, “Wives, submit…” without also reading, “Husbands/Masters/Fathers, submit…”
Wives submit through…well…submitting, just as their culture always expected. Husbands submit through becoming a servant (servants don’t have authority), loving, and dying for their wives, just as Christ did for the church.
Children submit through obedience, just as their culture always expected. Fathers submit by training their children in the ways of the Lord (which is humble, self-denying service—not an authoritarian demand for obedience).
Slaves submit by obeying, just as their culture always expected. Masters submit by loving their slaves and treating them with kindness.
From Eph 5:1 all the way through 6:9, Paul answers the question, “How can we follow Christ in self-sacrificial service for one another?” –NOT- “Who’s in charge?”
(The reference to man as “head” will be addressed soon in another post. For now, suffice it to say that our interpretation of the word “head” must align with Paul’s exhortations for wives and husbands to submit to one another and Christ’s explicit denunciation of authority on the part of Kingdom leaders.)
Paul completely turns the patriarchal culture on its head. He radically reshapes what the family looks like in the Kingdom of God. In fact, Paul is simply working out one of Jesus’ central lessons. Jesus explicitly taught that in the Kingdom of God, leaders don’t have authority; rather, they are servants and the younger siblings—the people with the least authority in society (cf. Mt 20:25-26, Lk 22:25-26). Paul naturally applies this idea to the home by redefining what it means to be the “man of the house.” He is not the authoritative, governing hand, as the world would suggest. Rather, he must put himself below his wife, children, and even his slaves and serve them.
18 Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. 19 Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them. 20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. 21 Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged. 22 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. 25 Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favoritism.
Similar to Ephesians 5, Colossians 3 is easily misinterpreted when lifted from Paul’s context and meaning. Immediately preceding this passage, Paul says, “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (v 17). Everything that follows is an explanation of how to “do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus.”
We shouldn’t assume that Paul’s instruction on how to live within these particular social structures is a prescription for all people at all times.
For instance, we know that slavery is corrupt and antithetical to the message of Christ (Lk 4:18-19). We even see in Paul’s letter to Philemon that Paul prefers slaves to be freed. However, Paul wasn’t stupid. Slavery was a staple in the ancient economy. Rome was already suspicious of Christianity since they crucified its leader and immediately became a growing, subversive religious movement, claiming their leader had risen from the dead. For Christians, the best thing to do in order to avoid becoming enemies of Rome was to work within the system rather than denouncing it entirely. Once again, Paul uses the teachings of Christ to bring change from the inside by calling slaves to love their masters rather than rebel against them.
We see God working within corrupt human systems as well. In addition to slavery, he allowed divorce because of the hardness of people’s hearts (Mt 19:8). Of course it was wrong, but God made a way to turn it around for good. The same goes for polygamy. It was obviously not God’s ideal, but he allowed and at times blessed it. (See this great sermon by Greg Boyd)
Similarly, Paul found a way to demonstrate the Kingdom of God within the less-than-ideal familial structure of his culture. Women, children, and slaves should continue on, but do so now with the mind of Christ. Husbands, fathers, and masters should now submit themselves to their “inferiors”—to their “possessions.” Serve them, love them, and even die for them. What a revolutionary, subversive thought!
Again, Paul isn’t talking about who has final authority in the home. He is simply explaining how Christians in the First Century could be a part of the Roman social system “in the name of the Lord Jesus.”
So, should wives submit to their husbands?
Just as much as husbands should submit to their wives.
Craig Keener sums it up well,1
“Paul urges submission, but by placing it in the context of mutual submission…he defines it quite differently than most of his culture did, even at the risk of raising the charge of subversion he had worked so carefully to avoid. Paul does not call on wives to take charge of their husbands, but calls on husbands to love their wives in such a radical way that husbands become their wives’ servants, too” (Loc 2739).
- Craig Keener, Paul, Women, and Wives: Marriage and Women’s Ministry in the Letter’s of Paul, Kindle Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992), Loc 2739. ↩