The issue of equality between men and women, both inside and outside marriage, it one of the more challenging and significant social and theological issues for Christians in our day. It is a subject on which Christians do not all agree.
A few months ago a conference was held in Sydney attended by around 3,000 Christian women from evangelical churches — Anglican, Presbyterian and Baptist. One of the women speakers, from the Presbyterian theological college, asked Christian women with short hair to grow it longer, in order to be in step with God’s design for differences between men and women. An image of model and actress Kristen Stewart was put up on the screen apparently as a bad example.
There are two aspects to the question of the relative roles of men and women. One concerns relationships in church and society, and another concerns the home: how husbands and wives work together. These two aspects two are connected, but different.
There are deep and important questions to be considered here. These questions affect, not only how men and women live together in marriage, but also how we raise our sons and daughters, and how we model ministry and support people in ministry in the church.
Charles Wesley, in his teaching drew of four sources of wisdom: scripture, the teaching of the church, experience and reason. We need all these resources to address this topic.
This passage on husbands and wives is part of a longer section in Ephesians 5 on social relationships. The headline is for the longer section is verse 21 “Be subject to one another out of reference for Christ”. This verse must also be seen as an expression of verse 1: “Be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love as Christ loves us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” The question Paul is addressing is how to be imitators of God, and live in love the way Christ loves us. This is a principle that applies to all of us, married or not.
Remember also that the whole letter to the Ephesians is an invitation to believers to find their identity in Christ. To know and live out who we are, we need to imitate God in his love, and Christ in his self-sacrificial love, even to death on the cross. As he gave himself up for us, we are to give ourselves up to each other. This is the still point, the centre-point in all of Paul’s presentation of identity in Christ here, including in relation to marriage.
As examples of the principle of mutual submission, Paul considers three types of what were considered socially unequal relationships: husbands and wives, fathers and children, and masters and slaves. In each case, Paul asks the believers to locate their identity, and the character of their social relationships, in Christ.
For marriage, Paul’s framework is based upon the Genesis call to one-flesh union, as he explains: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” He then elaborates this framework for marriage from the model of the union between Jesus Christ and the church. In the analogy, women are to compare themselves to the church, and their husbands are to follow the example of Jesus.
This takes Paul to his conclusions: on the one hand, women should respect their husbands in all things, as the church respects Jesus, its head. On the other hand, husbands should love their wives and give everything up for them to enable them to be all they are meant to be, as just as Christ showed his love for the church by giving his life for them.
Paul here challenges married people in two ways: first, husbands should have a Christ-like self-sacrificial love for their wives, giving everything they have for them. Second wives should be subject to their husbands.
This topic can't be considered seriously without acknowledging that all too often the instruction to wives to be submitted to their husbands has been taken as a license to tyranny. So when I step back from Paul’s instructions, and think about their potential to be abused, it is not hard to see examples of the ways this has been exploited to damage relationships. I have known too many cases where a Christian marriage involves domination, even extending to sexual abuse in marriage – including marital rape – or physical violence. Sometimes the abuse is financial, for example the women may be given a (very limited) weekly allowance, and must submit all her financial decisions to her husband for final approval, even to the point where she finds it difficult to clothe herself and feed her family, but the man sees nothing wrong in going out and buying a new car without consulting his wife.
Men are physically usually larger and stronger than women, and at crucial times in child rearing, women can be particularly vulnerable and dependent upon the support and care of others. Many men can have exploited the teaching of submission to cruelly abuse their wife. Not all men. But it’s a real issue, and something we can’t just ignore.
Also, churches have by and large not done a great job in opposing these abuses. I personally as a pastor have a very low tolerance for spouse abuse, and it saddens me that laws against marital rape are a very recent invention, and churches seemingly did little to prevent this abuse in previous centuries, despite their huge social influence during this time.
I have had other personal experiences in engaging with people’s lived experiences that influence the way I think about this. I have known a number of women over the years who have endured abuse of different kinds, while their husband or their local church has emphasised the submission of women to men, including in marriage. This combination of experienced abuse, with a church teaching emphasis on submission, has caused much pain. It is very hard to find room to breathe and be healed if submission is taught, while men are not held accountable for their on-going abuses, even in the context of a supposed Christian marriage.
Some say that the principle of submission is actually about protection. Women need protection, and men should provide it, and this requires submission. There is thus a kind of trade off : the man says “you submit and I’ll protect”. But this CANNOT be right. Because men are supposed to give their very selves, irrespective of whether the wife is perfectly submitted. Jesus didn’t give his life conditionally. Jesus didn’t say: “I’ll die for you if you obey me.” He loved us first, and gave himself unconditionally, before our decision point to accept or reject him. That is the whole point of the marriage analogy in the Old Testament too: God’s unconditional love. Husbands need to love their wives unconditionally in the same way.
There is also the real risk that the ‘protection’ idea can become an framework for an abuse of power, as it can position women as weak and dependent under the powerful man. This is the mafia’s idea of ‘protection’, where you pay for your own protection, and it is very wrong. At its worst, this travesty of what the Bible teaches can lead a man to abuse his wife believing that if she is not submissive enough, then she no longer deserves ‘protection’.
There is another experiential observation I would make, and that is that men are not necessarily smarter or wiser than their wives! Marriages vary in this. So how does it work if the woman, while being better equipped for making wise decisions, is subject to her husband’s folly?
There are also some Biblical considerations. First, note that for Paul the context here is a teaching that we should be subject to one another. Paul’s application to marriage is an example, but the bigger picture is a mutual submission. And the word for submission used of women to men, is the same one in verse 21 used about everyone submitting to each other.
Second there is Paul’s teaching that there is no male or female for all who have been ‘baptised into Christ’ (Galatians 3:28). In the Kingdom of God there is no distinction between male and female any more. We are, as Paul says in Galatians 3:29 — all heirs of the promise, and alike children of God. Paul was saying that we are no longer subject to the law, with all its heavy distinctions between men and women.
Alongside this there are the curses of the fall, in Genesis 3. In that passage, one of the curses of our human existence, and of the fallen nature of the world, was enmity between man and woman, including that men would rule over women. If what was lost in Adam is restored in Christ, then surely the relationship between man and women is restored in Christ too. If we are truly in Christ! So what place can the one ruling over the other have in the Kingdom of Jesus?
Also I remember that when Jesus was asked about what happens regarding a women who marries seven brothers, all of whom died: whose husband will she be in the resurrection? When Jesus was questioned about this, he replied that marriage is something for this age only, not for the next. Jesus said “They neither marry nor are given in marriage.” After the resurrection we will be children of God. So rules for marriage are rules for this age, not for the next. They are rules for living in the world, not for the Kingdom of God in the Age to come. Marriage is of the earth, not of heaven. And surely, we should respect and love each other as children of the Kingdom to come, not just as children of this age. The values of the Kingdom should impact upon and transform the way we live in this Age, including in marriage. So surely ‘there is no male or female in Christ’ must also influence the values a Christian couple follow in marriage.
How then are we to read Ephesians 5 in the light of all this?
Two observations, and then some conclusions.
First, I don’t think it will do to say the principle of a wife submitting to her husband can be dismissed as just cultural, although it is clearly a principle for this world. Paul mentions it repeatedly, as does Peter. It clearly can be be applied in different ways, depending upon the culture people are in. But the principle of submission itself is not just cultural.
Second, it is not enough to emphasise that a man’s instructions are more demanding. That is important, and the husband’s commission is challenging, but it doesn't really answer the concerns about abuses of this passage.
So here is the best understanding I can present of this passage.
First, in marriage, we are mutually, men and women, to live out the principle of submitting to one another in Christ, as Christ loved and loves us. That is the benchmark of godliness, the basic rule on which all the other rules are based. If we don’t do this, everything is messed up.
Second, there is a principle of a wife submitting to her husband clearly stated in scripture. This is part of a Christian marriage. Although this is a concession to the age in which we live, it is nevertheless clearly taught in scripture. Christian couples need to live that out with care and in a spirit of mutual submission. Some couples take this to mean that as a basic preference, they seek consensus, each seeking to defer to the other wherever they can, but if they are unable to decide on something, then the woman will accept the husband’s decision.
I do believe it is clearly taught in scripture that the man is the head in the marriage — this is crystal clear — but if this is treated as a license for abuse, then it becomes a shocking desecration of the word of God, and we should have absolutely no tolerance in the church for allowing or encouraging a culture of domination and exploitation between men and women. We do need to understand and be aware that this teaching can be and often has been exploited for purposes of abuse.
Third, husbands are taught by Paul to be willing to give their very lives for their wives. This not just sweet talk. For a husband, after God, his wife should be his first priority in this life, above work, children and even a personal calling. Even to death. Men, certainly this includes dying to self to lift up and honour your wife. A man is called to place his wife’s nurture and flourishing above his own interests, including career and personal pleasure. She is not some kind of glorified servant or enabler for his way of life. She is not to be forced, bullied or intimidated. Her flourishing is an end in itself, a crucial personal life goal for a husband's life. She is someone for him to give his whole life for, to die for.
And where a wife is experiencing physical abuse, emotional torment or sexual abuse, such as rape in marriage, or being forced sexually in other ways, in my view, these are valid grounds for separation because they represent an abrogation of the covenant of care and mutual submission by the man. These are never things the church can turn a blind eye to.
Fourth, the Christian ideal is equality. This is the Kingdom goal. This is the restoration of heaven on earth. On earth people are not equal, but as Christians, we have another world in view.
Husbands and wives should seek each other’s best interests in the light of heaven, with great humility, submitting to one another in the Lord.
This post is an edited version of a sermon, given at Oaktree Anglican Church on 16 June, 2017.