Lately, I’ve asked a few husbands I know whether they make a practice of telling their wives what to do.
The question usually gets a smile that acknowledges something I suspect. Most of us know that the apostle Paul calls a husband the head of his wife and urges wives to submit to their husbands. Yet in practice, many of us treat one another as equals. When pressed, we admit that there is no substitute for mutual love and respect.
So is there a disconnect between our world and that of the New Testament?
One thing we know is that the apostle’s words meant something different to readers in first-century Greek, Roman, and Jewish worlds than they do to many of us today. In Paul’s day, men ruled their homes, and women were regarded as property.
The changes between then and now require us to give careful consideration to both the times in which the apostles lived and the meaning of the words they used. Even more importantly, we need to read their letters in the light of the whole story of the Bible.
In the beginning, God created man and woman in “Our likeness” so as to “let them have dominion” over the world (Genesis 1:26-27).
Although both are given this responsibility of oversight, the second chapter says that God made the man first from the dust of the ground before creating Eve from one of Adam’s ribs. Ever since, the wonder of masculine and feminine distinction has inspired countless stories of romance, conflict, and new beginnings. But because God characterized Eve as a “helper” (Genesis 2:18), many have concluded that woman was made to be like a “secretary” or “assistant” to the man.
In the Hebrew language, however, the word helper does not necessarily imply subordination. The Old Testament uses the same word in more than 15 other places for God Himself as our helper (Psalm 70:5).
At what point in the story, therefore, do we get the idea that it is a husband’s God-given responsibility to rule over his wife?
After the fall. The first indication we find in the Bible that a husband would dominate his wife came with the prediction of weeds in the garden, multiplied pain in childbirth, and the curse of death itself (Genesis 3:16-19). It was within the context of curse and consequence that God said to Eve, “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (v.16).
Some of us have read these words as if they give husbands the right to lord it over their wives. But we don’t read the rest of the curse this way. We fight weeds in our lawns and crops. We do what we can to lessen a woman’s pain in childbirth. We use caution, medication, and surgery to delay an untimely death (vv.16-19).
Reading part of the curse as if it gives husbands the right to impose their will on their wives has contributed to a long pattern of misuse and misunderstanding.
With the coming of Jesus, however, we can see the obvious plan that so many of us have overlooked.
The teaching and example of Jesus: By teaching His disciples to give one another the consideration they would want for themselves (Matthew 22:39), Jesus gave us a principle that is at the very heart of a healthy marriage.
When He added that in His kingdom, those who rule are as those who serve (Luke 22:25-27), He gave His followers a way of thinking about all relationships.
With only a few words and the power of His own example, Jesus gave us reasons not only to give others the consideration we’d want for ourselves, but He also offered a way to understand the words His apostles gave to husbands and wives.
Paul and Peter’s response to a first-century social order: In first-century Greek, Roman, and Jewish society, husbands were expected to rule their homes. In that setting, Paul used the word picture of a head and body to illustrate the complementary nature of the marriage relationship.
The one-flesh, head-body analogy gave Paul a way of emphasizing, as Jesus did, that in the kingdom of God those who rule are as those who serve (Ephesians 5:21-25,28). He reminded husbands that Jesus loved the church as His own body (v.23), rather than lording it over her. Using Jesus’ own example, Paul urged husbands who wanted to follow Christ to care for their wives just as they daily cared for and protected their own bodies.
In parallel counsel to wives, Paul and Peter took a similar approach. They started with the submissive marital role first-century women understood. Then they gave that social order a new heart and purpose. Instead of just encouraging wives to comply with their husbands for the sake of marital unity, the apostles encouraged them to respond in a way that would reflect well on the reputation of Christ (1 Timothy 5:14; Titus 2:5; 1 Peter 3:1).
The meaning of submit: Over the years, many have called attention to the fact that the word the apostles used for “submit” was used for soldiers who were duty bound “to arrange themselves under the command of a leader.” But marriage is not a military relationship.
In nonmilitary contexts, the word for submit involved “a voluntary giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden” (Thayer and Smith Greek Lexicon). Such submission complements the responsibility of a husband who is asked to sacrifice his own interests for the life and well-being of his wife.
Marital sacrifice and submission, therefore, mean that neither husbands nor wives have been given authority to claim entitlements, to impose, to coerce, or to control one another. Instead, both are responsible and accountable to God to use whatever He has given them for the good, the honor, and the joy of one another.
Since such relationships don’t come naturally to us, they give us reason to pray, Father in heaven, please change us by Your Spirit. Help us as men and women to give one another the same love, respect, and consideration that we want for ourselves—but for Your sake. —Mart De Haan