In first century Greek, Roman, and Jewish society, a man was the master of his house. Wives lived under the rule of their husbands and were expected to submit to them. So when the Apostle Paul, in his New Testament letters, encouraged wives to submit to their husbands, those words would not have been unusual.
Two thousand years later, Paul’s counsel sounds out of step with a world that no longer advocates the submission of wives.
So what’s happened? Have cultural changes trumped the social order of the Bible? Or is there more to the answer? I’ve been slowly seeing this issue differently than I used to, and I think my perspective is more closely lining up with the unfolding story of the Bible.
The Creation- Genesis says God made Eve to be a “helper” for Adam (Gen. 2:18, 20). The King James Version used the term “help-meet.” Based on this language, many over the centuries have seen a wife as being like a secretary or live-in assistant to the husband.
Until recently I did not realize that the Hebrew word used to describe the woman is used only 16 other times in the Old Testament. In those other instances the word for “helper” always refers to God as the One who saves, upholds, and sustains His people (Ps. 46:1). The word that the King James Version translates “help-meet”, therefore, does not have within it the idea that a wife was made to be inferior, subordinate, or dominated by her husband. If subordination of wives is a biblical principle, it does not come from the word “help-meet.” So where then do we get the idea that God made husbands to rule over their wives?
The Curse– In the aftermath of our first parent’s sin, thorns, thistles, multiplied pain in childbirth, and death signaled that something terrible had happened to the world.
There is another part of that same curse, however, that is sometimes misunderstood. The same list of consequences indicates that fallen men would begin to dominate their wives. After pronouncing a curse on the “serpent-devil” who deceived Eve, God said to her, “Your desire shall be for your husband, but he will rule over you” (Gen 3:16).
Consistency seems to say that what God said to Eve about her husband ruling over her was like a condition of “weeds” in the garden. In this setting, “husband-rule” was not a God-given prescription for marriage, but rather an anticipation of how God’s design for men and women would be misused.
The rest of the Old Testament illustrates the fulfillment of this prediction. In a fallen world the strength of a man is too often misused in government, war, business, and the home.
Yet with the coming of Jesus, strength of body or position gets a new look.
Christ’s View of Power and Position– Matthew quotes Jesus as saying to his disciples, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves… I am among you as the One who serves” (Luke 22:25-27).
As the rightful King of kings, and Lord of lords, Jesus used his three years of public life to illustrate the principle. He showed us what happens when power and strength are submitted to the spirit and purposes of the Father in heaven.
Paul’s Teaching on Marital Headship– Because of what Jesus said about the use and misuse of power, we need to listen carefully to what the Apostle Paul says in Ephesians 5 when he writes that a husband is the head of his wife even as Christ is the head of the church.
Because of what Jesus taught about the use of strength and power, one thing we know for sure is that Paul is not giving husbands the right to “Lord it over” their wives. Instead, Paul says that a husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church (Eph 5:25).
For husbands who might not understand the spiritual imagery, Paul adds for clarification, “So husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies; he who loves his wife loves himself, for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as the Lord does the church” (5:28).
But that still leaves another question. Why then does Paul tell wives to submit to their husbands?
Paul’s Teaching on Submission- Even though Paul spends most of his words in Ephesians 5 urging husbands to love their wives, he does encourage wives to submit to their husbands.
In context his words make sense even in Western culture. In a mature relationship, husbands and wives complement and work together just as our own head and body work together for our mutual happiness and survival.
Such submission is voluntary. Husbands have no authority to force their wives to submit. Just as Christ does not control or force his church to submit to him, husbands are to follow his example of leading by the example of loving words, reason, and a servant attitude.
If we have any question as to whether God intends shared love and respect rather than one-sided authority, Paul gives us an enlightened view of marital intimacy. In his first letter to the Corinthians he writes, “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. And likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. (1Cor 7:4-5).
Creation, Curse, Culture, and Christ– These factors combine to tell a story that convinces me that those of us who are husbands should be working not only against the curse of weeds, but against the misuse of our God-given strength– not to give in to our times but to reflect the creation design, kingdom love, and timeless wisdom of Christ.
I realize that this is a long post today. Thanks for reading this far. It reflects some thoughts I’ve mentioned before and I’ve been thinking about for quite a while now. If you think I’m spinning the words of the Bible or misrepresenting the intent of Scripture, I wish you’d let me know.