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.
Today in the West, two thousand years later, Paul’s counsel sounds out of step with a world that no longer advocates the submission of wives.
So what has happened? Have cultural changes trumped the social order of the Bible? Or is there more to consider? 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 (Genesis 2:18, 20). The King James Version used the term “help-meet.” Based on this language, many over the centuries have seen the 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 (Psalm 46:1). The word the King James Version translates “help-meet,” therefore, does not have within it the idea that a wife was made inferior or to be dominated by her husband. If subordination of wives is a biblical principle, it does not come from the word “help-meet.” So where do we get the idea that God made husbands to rule over their wives?
The Curse—In the aftermath of our first parents’ 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, and he shall rule over you” (Genesis 3:16).
Consistency and context seem 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, I believe “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 Bible confirms the prediction.
Yet, with the coming of Jesus, the strength of a man gets a new look.
The Teaching of Christ on Power—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).
Jesus, however, was talking about kings and kingdoms. Is it appropriate to take His principle about the use and misuse of power and apply it to husbands and wives?
The Culture of Christ—The apostle Paul shows us how to apply Jesus’ words to marriage. He writes that a husband is the head of his wife even as Christ is the head of the church.
First-century Jewish, Greek, or Roman husbands, who converted to Christ, probably would have related easily to the word picture of “head and body.” They assumed that a husband was entitled to rule over his wife and home.
What might have surprised them, however, is that Paul was not using the analogy of “head and body” to affirm a husband’s right to “lord it over” his wife. Instead, Paul says that a husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church (Ephesians 5:25).
For husbands who might not understand the spiritual imagery, Paul adds, “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” (5:28-29).
But that still leaves another question. Why then does Paul tell wives to submit to their husbands?
In Ephesians 5:21, Paul instructs the whole community of faith to submit to one another out of reverence for God. In the very next verse he says, “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord” (v.22). Then he adds, “Just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything” (v.24).
A few statements in the New Testament, like these, have been used to justify marital oppression and abuse. Whenever that happens, a wonderful truth is turned into heresy.
Christ doesn’t even force the church to submit. How can fallen men think that in being asked to be an example of Christ to our wives, we have been given authority to physically, emotionally, or spiritually force our will upon them?
Instead, Paul uses the marital culture of Christ to illustrate a great mystery. Those who are in Christ are one with Him. Paul regards this oneness as something beyond our understanding: “We are members of His body, of His flesh and of His bones” (5:30).
Any masculine or feminine distinction, strength, or awareness that has been entrusted to us is to be used as a complementary means of presenting a picture of the wonderful mystery of the church’s relationship with Christ.
Father in heaven, we are so inclined to use what You have given us to exploit and control one another. Please help us to rise above our natural ways until, even in marriage, we are pictures of our oneness with You. —Mart De Haan