It is funny how God prepares you for life. I remember my last year at graduate school. It was before my first call to serve Berea in Detroit. I wrote my first published article. The subject of that piece was the relationship between husband and wife. Who knew at the time that I would need that biblical understanding of marriage so soon in my young career?
The first wedding I had to perform was with a lovely African American couple. As we went through the marriage counseling, I noticed something interesting about this pair. The wife was, how do I put this in the best light? The bride to be was a strong, opinionated black woman. Observing the interactions between this young couple two things became evident. One, she was going to call all the shots in this marriage. Second, the wedding counseling and upcoming ceremony were going to be trying. When I would ask the fiancé any questions, she would answer for him. I watched as she made unchallenged suggestions about every aspect of the wedding arrangements. I desperately wanted to lean over to this quiet young man and give him a piece of advice. You need to either speak up for yourself or “RUN.”
Once we finally got around to the planning of the wedding service itself I feared we were going to have a showdown of biblical proportions. During the review of the marriage vows, we hit a snag on the word “Obey.” This proud, strong black woman was having no part of that in her marriage vows. Her exact words to me were, “We are not using that term in my wedding. You see dogs ‘obey’ I Don’t!” I wanted to look at the groom to be and say with my eyes, “Run NOW.” I was young, and competition is my number one strength, so I was not going to be intimidated. One man in this room had to stand up to her. I was armed with my well-researched article about the role of husbands and wives from the apostle Paul in the letter to the Church in Ephesians in which Paul said, “Wives should submit to their husbands as if to the Lord. A husband is the head of his wife as Christ is head of the church, that is, the savior of the body.”
Was I confident that she would respect my knowledge and the authority of the Word of God? Nope. Her response was classic and entirely unexpected. “Well, I am not marrying Jesus am I?” It was my first experience with culture clashing with theology as a pastor. How do you argue with that? Armed with more experience let’s try and address this issue again.
What Does Submission Mean in Ephesians?
Let me begin with some historical context. It is crucial to understand the audience. Paul was writing to believers. He was in no way suggesting that women are inferior to men. Nor was he suggesting that all women must be in subjection to all men in every situation. Quite the opposite, Paul was in elevating women to a place of honor and respect.
Ancient world philosophers of the day spoke of a Household Code. The roles in this code were explicitly defined. The men ruled the household as the Patriarch, the head of the household. The wife was called to support that reputation publically because in that culture honor and shame were of the utmost importance. The children if there were any, were controlled and regarded as less than fully human. Any servants or slaves were considered below the children; they were at the subhuman level.
Women in Middle Eastern culture faced an uphill climb when it came to honor and respect. The fact that Paul uses Christ and the church as his illustration is evidence that he has the Christian home in mind. Paul was framing the Christian family with a new foundation. Every member of the household has dignity and a role to play in the family.
What is the role of Husband and Wife mutually living under the Lordship of Christ?
When both husband and wife are living under the Lordship of Christ, there is harmony. Headship is not a dictatorship. Each partner is there for the other, and they are both there for the Lord.
Reverence for Christ entails his followers living in mutual subjection to the Lordship of Christ. Paul approaches the idea from a gospel-centered place. Not from an absolute, top-down point of view. Both members of this union willingly give their authority to Jesus Christ. This compliance is based on a mutual respect across every aspect of this marriage relationship. In this new marriage covenant, Paul uses a metaphor of Christ as the head of his body, the church. This biblical concept provides a sacrificial love-based model for this beautiful marital relationship where husbands and wives become “one flesh.” As “one flesh” wives subject themselves to their spouses. And husbands love their wives with the kind of self-sacrificial love Christ had for the Church. Christ was willing and did die for the church.
Paul was not degrading women. He was elevating marriage.