This is not my final article on the role of women, but it is my final article looking at particular biblical passages. The articles following this one will look at more topical points such as: an overview of women in Scripture, head coverings, women as elders, and a final article on the nature of the gender of God.
But let’s start out by quoting the passage up for discussion from Ephesians:
22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. (Eph 5:22-24)
First off, we need to recognise that this passage actually comes in a larger section on the household. This is where our chapter divisions in our English Bibles don’t always help us in understanding context:
- Address to husbands and wives (5:22-33)
- Address to parents and children (6:1-4)
- Address to masters and slaves (6:5-9)
In all likelihood, when Paul addresses the parents in 6:1-4 and the masters in 6:5-9, he is mainly addressing the husband of the home, since, in such a time and culture, the husband would have been the head of the house. The husband, father and master are all the same person in Paul’s address.
Specifically within the marriage passage, we also see that the emphasis lies on the husband. There are about seven total statements to the husband to three statements to the wife. What is that emphasis? That the husband love his wife – see vs25, 28 and 33. Again, Paul’s main concern seems to be the husband in Eph 5:22-33.
Noting my thoughts on 1 Cor 11:3 and the background understanding of the word kephale (which we translate as head), it is also possible that Eph 5:23 should be understood in a very similar way. Kephale would, therefore, be more faithfully translated as origin/source, rather than head, in the sense of authority. Thus, vs23 would flow like this:
For the husband is the origin/source of the wife even as Christ is the origin/source of the church, his body, and is himself its Saviour. (Eph 5:23)
Also, note that Paul uses the word Saviour here and not Lord. I believe this could easily be a pointer to the fact that Paul does not have authority in mind here. But let’s move on…
So what about vs22 and 24 where Paul tells the wife to submit to her husband?
First off, we have already noted the greater emphasis of Paul’s words to the husband, and that emphasis being to love (agape) her sacrificially as Christ loved the church. That is a very high calling for the husband!
But what about the use of the word submit?
Though many will highly disagree, what I believe we have to be willing to consider here is that Paul is addressing the situation of that particular culture. Again, biblical times yielded to a very patriarchal structure of family and life. This structure norm was not grounded in Genesis, as I already looked to point out in my previous articles, nor was it grounded in the reality of the new creation. But, just as the structure of Paul’s day tolerated slavery (Eph 6:5-9), so the culture of the day tolerated male authority over the wife (5:22, 24).
Therefore, Paul is addressing the wives within their context and framework, asking them to submit to their husbands, and do it ‘unto the Lord’. This would be God-honouring. Not because there is a biblical command to be subordinate to man (we have seen no such command actually exist in the Scripture text), but because Paul was asking women to live with their husbands in view of the cross and as Spirit-filled (see Eph 5:18). And, again, let us also not forget that Paul was also asking men to live out life with their wives in view of the cross and as Spirit-filled followers of Jesus.
And, what is remarkable is that Paul makes this statement to husbands and wives in the midst of the larger context: ‘submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ’ (vs21).
Some might claim vs21 is a general statement to the church. But if women are always to be submissive to men, then such an all-inclusive statement does not help within the church context and Paul’s words seem out of place.
Yes, we need to learn to be submissive to our leaders/elders within the local church. But Paul’s sweeping statement in vs21 is how the whole body of Christ is to submit to one another. That practically calls for men to be willing to submit to women and for women to equally be submissive to men. Paul ultimately wants the whole body of Christ to be submitted to one another. Even within marriage, the great summary statement comes in vs33:
However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
This speaks of mutual submission.
So noting the discussion on this text thus far, I believe Gordon Fee gives a great summary statement about the culture in Paul’s day in regards to the home:
‘I would argue that the structures are ultimately quite immaterial for believers; that is, first-century households can no more serve as models for Christian homes at the turn of the twenty-first century, than the Roman Empire with its self-serving, destructive economic policies and its insistence on emperor worship, should serve for contemporary political structures. All structures, ours as well as theirs, are predicated altogether on cultural givens. There simply is no biblical structure for the household.’ (Listening to the Spirit in the Text, p71)
Those are bold words, but well worth considering. And I believe a holistic theology on women, looking at the nine varying passages that I have, shows us that Paul is not trying to instruct the church in Ephesus on some particular male headship doctrine. Just as he spoke into the slavery structure in 6:5-9 without condemning such, so he spoke into the household structure without condemning such. Paul recognised what was set up and he was not looking to destroy it. Rather, his instructions were how both men and women could faithfully live out their marriage within their historical-cultural context in view of Christ.
I would also argue that Paul was not confirming any such male authority role in Ephesians 5 because such was not set out from the beginning in Genesis, nor was such the foundation of Paul’s new creation theology. Paul was completely convinced that men and women stood on equal ground as both were created in the image of God and both were recreated in the image of Christ.
Thus, ultimately, marriage calls for mutual submission, husband and wife working together to form a kingdom-centred and Christ-centred home. No doubt that each married couple will walk this out differently as each couple considers its own specifics – callings, gifts, culture, etc. A couple might agree that the husband takes the lead role, as this is how my wife and I function together. But there is nothing inherent in my maleness that says the lead belongs to me. And I am continually learning to listen to and lean on the strength of my wife in all her varying gifts and talents. But I believe each married couple will need to consider their roles and functions within their own specific context. At least I believe that is the wisdom of God we must consider.
So, nine passages have been discussed. There could have been more to consider, but those are nine of the biggies. In my next article, I will look to share what I believe will be an encouraging post, laying out an overview of many of the amazing women in Scripture that God used in amazing ways