The submissive wife: part 3

In my last post, I took a brief look at how Jesus talks about marriage. I described the “one flesh” definition of marriage that God lays out in Genesis and which Jesus affirms in the Gospels.

Reminder: one flesh comes from the Hebrew words l’basar echad.

  • Basar (flesh) refers to sex. Sex is the most intimate, emotionally and physically vulnerable act two people can perform. It is meant to be an important, good (and fun) part of marriage.

  • Echad (one) refers to the mental/spiritual/emotional oneness that God intended to be a part of marriage. We are meant to spur our partner on towards Christ.

Since this is how the Bible most consistently describes marriage, I became convinced that interpretations of other verses on marriage need to be reconciled to and understood through the one flesh definition of mutual emotional and physical oneness.

So, keeping in mind how Jesus spoke of marriage, we’re moving on to the controversial New Testament verses. I want to point out that, while Christians are often quick to acknowledge that we should interpret the Old Testament by understanding its cultural context, we sometimes forget that the same applies to the New Testament. To take it at face value without understanding its context would be inconsistent and also probably mean we’d miss the depth and richness of what is actually meant.

Rachel Held Evans, author of A Year of Biblical Womanhood ask a rather profound question on her blog:

“The question modern readers have to answer is whether the Greco-Roman household codes reflected upon in Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Peter are in and of themselves holy and divinely instituted, or if their appearance in Scripture represents the early church’s attempt to blend Christianity and culture in such a way that it would preserve the dignity of adherents while honoring prevailing social and legal norms of the day.”

Before we dive into the more difficult verses, let’s touch on what Paul has to say about marriage in 1 Corinthians. Here, Paul makes it clear that sexual union within marriage involves surrendering yourself to your partner and vice versa (1 Corinthians 7:3-5). The idea of submitting yourself to your spouse is a consistent one throughout the New Testament.

The most often-quoted example of this is probably Ephesians 5:22-24:

“Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife as Christ is head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”

Interestingly, Paul actually includes a brief definition of how Christ’s headship works within the Church in Ephesians 4:11-16. He says that Christ provides the resources necessary to equip the body of Christ (the Church) for works of service and to be filled with faith, knowledge of God and maturity. Paul says that from Christ the Church can grow and build itself up in love as each part does its work.

What if, when Paul says that the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is head of the Church he is talking about this kind of support and equipping for Kingdom service?

Women of the time weren’t educated in religious matters. Most women were married off when they were teenagers, while their husbands were often in their thirties. The purpose of marriage was almost solely to produce legitimate heirs. Equality in marriage would have been an utterly foreign concept. Paul’s statement: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male or and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” would have completely shocked these readers (Galatians 3:28).

Jesus was completely up-ending the concept of racial, social and gender hierarchies. But the women of that time desperately needed training in order to work effectively within the Church. It is almost as though Paul is expanding a husband’s role to include not just serving the Church as individuals, but also helping their wives do the same.

The parallels continue. The Church is often referred to as Christ’s body. That is an intimate, close relationship. Similarly, husbands are supposed to love their wives as their own bodies and care for them as Christ cares for the Church (Ephesians 5:28-30).

Husbands need to view their wives with respect and value—as they would protect and care for themselves. The Bible makes it clear that abuse has no place in how we treat one another, married or otherwise (1 Thessalonians 4:3-6).

However, the relationship between married people is not the same as Christ and the Church. Husbands are not perfect like Jesus, nor can they save their wives. Clearly, this analogy can only go so far. And, while Christ does not submit to the Church, both men and women are told to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” (Ephesians 5:21). This verse follows a detailed list of instructions for Christian living that offers no distinction between the role of men and women—seeming to imply mutual submission between genders.

But let’s get back to the instructions given to wives, specifically. Wives are to submit to their husbands as they do to the Lord and respect them (Ephesians 5:33).

After the Fall, God says that a woman’s desire will be for her husband and that he will rule over her (Genesis 3:16). As a result of sin, women have been dominated by men throughout history. This leads women to fear, hate and resent men. Women grapple to dominate men or manipulate them to get their own way. In a sense, Paul is telling women to trust their husband's motives, be humble and serve them as they serve the Lord. 

This doesn’t sound all that different from the kind of sacrificial love husbands are called to. In fact, 1 Peter 2:21–3:2 says wives are to submit to their husbands in the same way that Christ bore suffering on the cross—which is quite similar wording to the instructions given to men in the Ephesians passage.

Gordan Fee, a New Testament professor, argues in an essay that, instead of re-shaping the societal structure of that time, Paul radically changed how those relationships would operate—ultimately making the structure itself irrelevant.

“In each case the first person addressed is the vulnerable and powerless one in the relationship. In the case of wives and slaves, they are to rethink their status in terms of their serving Christ, as they relate to the male [legal] head of the household. And note, finally, that the male householder is not told to take his proper role as leader of the household—that was in fact the assumed cultural reality that could so easily be abused. Rather, he is told to model the character of Christ in his relationships to his wife and slaves.”

So, both husbands and wives are to love each other as Jesus loves them. Christ gave up his life out of love; the Church receives that sacrifice and in turn serves him.

How does this tie into a one flesh marriage?

I think it does on multiple levels. Going back to the passage in 1 Corinthians 7, we know that sexuality has nothing to do with hierarchy or one person’s needs trumping the other’s. You cannot have a selfish view of sex if you view your body as belonging to God and to the person you’re married to.

When it comes to deep emotional and spiritual connection, these passages make it clear that husbands and wives are supposed to offer this to each other and receive it in return. Wives are to love, trust and respect their husbands. Husbands are to love their wives as equal to themselves.

There is a catch to all of this, though. The world we live in is screwed up. Neither men nor women live up to the standard set by Christ. How do we love the opposite gender when we distrust them and have been hurt by them?

My next post talks about why it’s hard for women and men to validate, respect and appreciate each other—and why doing so is vitally important.


If you want to dig deeper, here are a few other voices who’ve weighed in on this topic.

The cultural context of Ephesians 5:18–6:9

Submission in context: Christ and the Greco-Roman household codes

One flesh – the profound mystery

Ilana ReimerComment