The language of submission in reference to wives is controversial, and not just for those outside the church. I once heard a Christian react negatively to a statement that was more or less a direct quote of Ephesians 5:22 as a “Neanderthal idea” (thus holding to, I suppose, an early dating of the New Testament epistles). Part of this is because we tend to define what the Bible calls submission and headship in terms of power rather than in terms of the cross. Throughout the Scriptures, we are told that we will “reign with Christ.” In the cosmic unveiling of Revelation 20, we see thrones of those who rule with the ascended Messiah. Sometimes this is jarring for people when they first recognize what it means to be “joint-heirs with Christ,” as though somehow the uniqueness of Jesus is eclipsed by that reality. And yet, the message that we, as redeemed sinners, will reign with Christ is all about what it means to have been conformed to him through the sanctifying of our minds, our souls, our affections, our wills. The reign of believers with Christ is not akin to that of a city council meeting, with debates and filibusters and compromises. The Head is seamless from the body. We share the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16). His purposes are now our purposes; his priorities are now our priorities. This differs, of course, from the sort of unity we see in a marriage, because Jesus is the sinless Lord, and none of us are. We do not have dominion over one another, even when we are responsible to lead. The point though is that this sort of joint-reign is possible because of organic unity. Hierarchy and mutuality are not opposed to one another. Submission, then, in Ephesians 5 and elsewhere is not presented in terms of unblinking obedience but in terms of seeking to respect and to cultivate the spiritual accountability of one’s husband. The controversial part of this passage to those who first heard it would not be submission and headship but rather how the gospel radically redefined those terms and limited them. First of all, Paul used the language of “wives” here, as did Peter elsewhere (1 Pet. 3:1). He does not, as did many others in the Roman ecosystem, view wives as the property of their husbands. Moreover, the Scripture demolishes the idea that women, in general, are to be submissive to men, in general, an attitude that too often persists both within the church and without.
In saying that wives should be submissive to their own husbands, Paul is not creating some new category of submission but rather demolishing a myriad of other categories of submission. Women are to submit to “their own husbands.” Submitting to men in general would, in fact, render it impossible for a woman to submit to her own husband. Every act of submission includes at least one other act of refusal to submit. Eve’s problem was not that she was unsubmissive, but that she was too submissive, submitting her future to the direction of the Serpent. Mary announced herself to be submissive to God’s will, which meant she refused to submit to Herod. The freedom of the gospel means that we submit “to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21) and, at the same time, means that we “do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). Women are never called to submit to “guys” or to “boyfriends” or “lovers,” or to men because they are men. Rather, a wife rejects all other claims in order to cleave to her own husband. A cross-shaped marriage is one in which a wife cultivates a voluntary attitude of recognition toward godly leadership. This is not docility or servitude. Abigail’s refusal to empower her “worthless” husband Nabal in his sin against the House of David is presented in Scripture as fidelity to God (1 Sam. 25:14– 42). A woman once told me that her husband read Ephesians 5 to her in seeking to persuade her to open their marriage up to a three-way sexual encounter. This would be laughable if it were not such a tragic twisting of Scripture for self-pleasure. This wife’s responsibility would be to call him to repentance—following all the steps of Matthew 18 should he not.
Likewise, “headship” in Scripture is not defined in terms of Pharaoh-like rule but Christlike sacrifice. Men and women are given dominion, over the creation around them, but they are never given dominion over one another. A wife submits to her husband, Paul wrote, “as the church submits to Christ” (Eph. 5:24). In order then to know what that means we must look not to sociobiology or to gender-war power struggles but to the way Jesus leads the church. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends,” Jesus said. “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends” (John 15:13, 15). Headship does not refer to power but to responsibility. A man who accepts the calling of husband and father bears a special accountability for the spiritual direction of his future family. This does not mean that a mother bears no responsibility (far from it), any more than it means a father does not nurture. Rather, the father is to be a visible sign of responsibility. As historian Robert Godfrey puts it, humanity in a biblical rendering of the world has a representative function which often seems odd to us in our ecosystem of individualism, but which “promotes a culture in which leaders represent and are responsible for the communities they lead.”
A husband’s headship is not “Woman, get me my chips,” nor is it, in a more sanctified version, “Blessed wife, please get my chips and then let’s pray.” In fact, it is the exact reverse of that. Headship is about crucifying power and privilege in order to love one’s wife “as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:25–27).
How does Christ love and lead his church in these ways? He does so by laying down his own life to the point of crucifixion. A husband’s leadership is about a special accountability for sabotaging his own wants and appetites with a forward-looking plan for the best interest of his wife and children. Headship is not about having one’s laundry washed or one’s meals cooked or one’s sexual drives met, but rather about constantly evaluating how to step up first to lay one’s life down for one’s family. Headship will not seem often to the outside world to be “being the head of one’s house” at all. Headship will look, in many cases, like weakness. So does the cross.
As a matter of fact, God prepared his people for this aspect of the cross by revealing himself over and over again as someone quite different from Baal. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks rightly notes the way that “Baal” meaning “master” was connected to, among other things, the idea of husbands “ruling” over their wives by the domination of force. God revealed to Hosea that he would not be called “Baal” by his people but instead would be called “my husband.” The difference is profound: “For Hosea, at the core of Baal worship is the primitive idea that God rules the world by force, as husbands rule families in societies where power determines the structures of relationships,” Sacks argues. “Against this, Hosea paints quite a different possibility, of a relationship between marriage partners built on love and mutual loyalty. God is not Baal, he-who-rules-by-force, but Ish, He-who-relates-in-love, the very word Adam used when he first saw Eve.”
Now, to be sure, this requires genuine leadership. Some Christian men passively watch all that goes on around them in their homes from the comfort of a reclining chair, and deem themselves “servant leaders,” as though “servant” in Scripture means disengagement. Jesus gives himself up for his church. Jesus washes his church with water. The church did not, initially, see the need for either. When Jesus set his face for Jerusalem, Simon Peter, a foundation stone of his church, objected, saying that never would he allow Jesus to be handed over to crucifixion (Matt. 16:22). When the time came for the trek to Skull Place, Peter sought to fight it off with a sword (Matt. 27:51). Jesus responded to these events not with an exercise of dominion but with teaching of why the cross was necessary (Matt. 16:21, 24–28; 27:52–54). The “washing of water” language in the text arises from the prophetic promise that God would “sprinkle water” upon his people, cleansing them for life in the new covenant (Ezek. 16:9; 36:25), a priestly act anticipated in the ceremonies of the sacrificial system (Lev. 8:6–7). When Jesus bathed his church with water in the upper room before his death, once again the church did not see the need. Simon Peter objected to washing, but Jesus did not respond passive-aggressively, walking away resentfully. Nor did Jesus respond with raw sovereignty, pushing Peter’s feet into the water. Once again, he gently taught (John 13:5–12).
A man does not exercise headship by giving directions and serving himself but by planning to pour himself out for the best interest of his family. A man is “head of his household” not when he “tells” his wife what to do but when he, for instance, crucifies his pornography addiction, seeking help to do so, not simply because he is looking out for his own soul but also because he loves his wife and wants what’s best for her. One of the clearest examples of headship I ever saw was a husband who recognized that his wife was depressed because she wanted children but could see no way forward to be a mother. She was nearing the biological limits for conception, and she had a massive student debt from medical school. She could pay off the debt but only by years of round-the-clock work at her profession, leaving her with little time, in her mind, to be a mother. Her husband did not come up with orders for her. Rather, he listened to her fears and hopes, and worked to bear the burden on himself, to come up with a plan to pay the debt while empowering his wife to be the mother she believed God was calling her to be.
The fact that we see this language of headship in Scripture as being about “who is in charge of whom,” instead of what it is, a question of where the primary burden of self-sacrifice falls, tells us much more about our own selfish inclinations than it tells us about the gospel. All leadership in Scripture is different from that of the world—instead of Roman “benefactors” who give orders, Jesus said, the heirs of the kingdom serve one another, and lay down their lives for one another (Luke 22:24–30). We have, after all, been purchased by a cross and are walking forward by the power of the cross.
We also sometimes misunderstand why the Scripture speaks in this way, wrongly assuming that the Bible is caught in a retrograde, patriarchal way of seeing the family. If by patriarchy one means the rule of women by men, then the household codes of the New Testament are decisively anti-patriarchal, and much more anti-patriarchal than the secularized atmosphere around us in the modern age. For instance, sociologist Rodney Stark demonstrates that first-century Christianity was so empowering of and attractive to women that in 370 Emperor Valentinian issued a decree to the pope demanding that Christian missionaries stop evangelizing in the homes of women. This was because, Stark argues, women were most likely to convert to the new faith since, among other reasons, “within the Christian subculture women enjoyed far higher status than did women in the Greco-Roman world at large.”
Our society has made in many ways great strides in recent years in recognizing the equality and dignity of women. Note, for instance, the different attitudes, at least in terms of ideals, toward sexual harassment now as opposed to even just a few decades ago. And yet, look at the ways in which women are brutalized in repressive regimes around the world, and sexualized and objectified even in the most so-called “progressive” societies. What has gone wrong when a major malady facing young women are eating disorders and the quest to look as thin as the models in popular media? Is it really empowering to women when young girls are pressured toward the sort of sexual availability previously demanded by the worst manifestations of masculinity? What is wrong when an era is characterized by sexual assault, trafficking of women and girls, and a popular culture in which the boasting by men of their sexual prowess over women is tolerated and even celebrated? This is a predatory patriarchy worthy of a Bronze Age warlord.
This post was adapted from my latest book, The Storm-Tossed Family.