As in marriage, so in the church? As in the church, so in marriage?

One thing all interpreters in this debate have in common, so far as I can tell, is the belief that the respective roles of men and women should be the same in marriage and in the church.  Those who call for restrictions on what women can do in the church argue that because the husband is in authority over the wife, men should be in authority over women in the church, and so women should be restricted from assuming roles in which they are in authority over men.  Those who oppose such restrictions argue that men and women are equal in the church (appealing, for example, to statements such as, “There is . . . neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”), and that marriage, too, should therefore be “egalitarian” (to use a term I said I wouldn’t use).

What I wrote in my last post about the present age and the coming age suggests, however, that the respective roles of men and women will not necessarily be the same in marriage as in the church.  If marriage is an institution of the present age while the church is an institution of the coming age, then even if we do interpret the biblical teaching in such a way as to conclude that the husband is in authority over the wife (and that’s a complicated discussion in itself), we don’t necessarily have to infer that men will also be in authority over women in the church.  This is an idea that I will develop more in the course of our discussion.

But doesn’t the Bible itself say that there’s an analogy between marriage and the church?  Isn’t marriage supposed to be a “mystery” that reveals something about “Christ and the church”?  Yes, but note what specific analogy Paul draws in his letters:  husband is supposed to be to wife as Christ is to the church.  That is, Christ relates to men and women together in the community of his followers as husbands should relate to their wives (lovingly and sacrificially).  What Paul specifically does not say is that husband is to wife as man is to woman in church. So if the institution of the present age, marriage, can shed some light on the institution of the coming age, the church, it’s to show us that we are all together, men and women, the beloved of our heavenly bridegroom.  I don’t see a mandate there for restrictions on what women can do to honor and serve that bridegroom.

14 thoughts on “As in marriage, so in the church? As in the church, so in marriage?

  1. 1 Cor 7 has at least 8 Symmetries (using NIV), and you cannot get more egal than symmetrical treatment of the gender.

    2b each man should have his own wife
    2c and each woman her own husband
    3a The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife,
    3b and likewise the wife to her husband
    4b In the same way, the husband’s body does not belong to him alone but also to his wife
    4a The wife’s body does not belong to her alone but also to her husband.
    11b And a husband must not divorce his wife
    10b A wife must not separate from her husband.
    12b If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her.
    13 And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him
    14a For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife,
    14b and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband.
    16b how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife?
    16a How do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband?
    33But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world–how he can please his wife–
    34c But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world–how she can please her husband.

    • This is a very convincing set of parallels and it does make a case for the equal status of husband and wife in marriage. I’ve found that the whole question of submission or headship is usually framed in terms of decision-making: who gets their way if the couple can’t agree. But I’ve always felt that if the couple can’t agree, they haven’t come to the best possible decision. God created the world and called each thing “good”; at the end, he said it was all “very good.” But then he said it was “not good” for man to be alone. If the man could do just as well on his own, he wouldn’t need a wife. So I don’t think it’s a biblical idea, in terms of the big picture, to say that the husband gets his way and that’s what submission means. Rather, as I say in my guide to Paul’s Prison Letters, I think that headship means that the husband accepts a leadership role in the family and the wife agrees to support and encourage him in that role. Not about decision-making but about complementary roles in a climate of equality–you see why I wanted to change the terminology and talk about the question of “restrictions” instead!

      • Here is how I see these things as an egal.

        1. The term “headship” is not what is used in the Bible, what IS actually used is the Greek word kephale which has a primary meaning of a physical head on one’s neck. Since this is not what is being said in Eph, Paul is using kepahle/head as a metaphor. The question is then what does this metaphor mean, as we do not want to take the metaphor too far or not far enough. What does Paul mean when he writes that the husband is the head of his wife?
        2. It is true that in the 21st century the main use for head as a metaphor is as leader, for example, the head of a company is the CEO. However, what we need to try our best to figure out is what the phrase meant to Paul and his readers/hearers in the 1st century. We should try to avoid teleporting what a metaphor might mean for us today back 2000 years when it might mean something different.
        3. The actual mapping in Ephesians is an extended metaphor. A husband is the head of his wife like Christ is the head of his body, the church. And here is another place where we can extend the metaphor too far, Christ is Lord and leader of the church, so does this mean that a husband is the leader of his wife? No it does not and this is where it gets somewhat involved, so I will need to revert to using chapters and verses. Eph 4:15, Eph 5:23, Col 1:18, and Col 2:23 are the relevant areas that refer to Christ as head of the church in Paul’s letters. In Col 1:18 the idea being expressed is that Christ is the first and pre-eminent and is this by serving us by providing a means of reconciliation via the cross. In the other 3 places Christ as head of the church serves the body of Christ in various ways. In other words, Christ as head of the church always is serving his body, the church; this is somewhat counterintuitive and so may take some meditation, when I first studied this I felt like I had played a magic trick on myself before seeing this.
        4. So Paul is asking a husband to lovingly serve his wife, of course her husband cannot be her savior, only Jesus can be that. But Paul is writing contrary to the expectations of society as exemplified in Aristotle’s household codes. That is, when read in cultural context, the contrast shouts!
        5. Another thing to notice is that while Paul is willing to tell slaves that they must obey their masters and tell kids that they must obey their (Greek) paternes (which I read as parents, but can also be read as fathers, the Greek is ambiguous as the grammatical masculine plural forms are used when a group includes females), he declines to say that a wife must obey her husband, he simply repeats what he has just previously said applies to all believers, mutual submission, and calls her to submit to her husband as an example of that mutual submission.

      • In my study guide to Paul’s Prison Letters I explain that Paul uses the “head” metaphor in both Ephesians and Colossians to describe Jesus as the source of life and growth for the church. For example, in Ephesians we are told to “grow to become the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body . . . grows and builds itself up in love.” Similarly in Colossians Jesus is described as the “head, from whom the whole body . . . grows as God causes it to grow.” So when shortly afterwards in Ephesians Paul speaks of the husband metaphorically as the “head” of the wife, the context suggests that we should also take this to mean “source of life and growth.” That’s why, when I offer discussion questions for this passage in my guide to Paul’s Prison Letters, I ask each woman in the group who are married to share (if she wishes) some ways in which her husband has helped her grow as a person. I think this is very similar to your idea that headship means sacrificial service of the kind that Jesus offered the church.

        It’s true that Paul tells children to obey their parents and slaves to obey their masters, but he tells wives to submit to their husbands. Clearly some distinction is in mind. However, Peter tells slaves to submit to their masters as a specific example of believers submitting to “every human authority” such as government officials. He then tells wives to submit to their husbands “like Sarah, who obeyed Abraham.” So when we consider all of the biblical passages and put them in conversation with one another it’s harder to maintain a distinction between the submission that wives offer and the obedience that children and slaves offer. Nevertheless, as I also say in the guide, I see this submission or obedience as “a voluntary decision to honor and respect a leader who has been given responsibility for one’s welfare and is devoted to that task.” And these are not rules to follow, but a description of how believers can live out the life of the new realm in their earthly relationships.

  2. The main pericope for the family is Eph 5:15 – 6:9. Eph 5:22-6:9 is Paul’s Christian take on Aristotle’s Household codes, but he changes them in subtle yet significant ways. P.S. We know that these verses are 1st century application verses, as we do not have slaves today. They are all subordinate clauses in the Greek, subordinate to Eph 5:15-21, esp. the latter teaching mutual submission. So they are all examples from the 1st century on how a household’s members should live, given the realities of the 1st century. For example, Aristotle taught that a husband rules over his wife, Paul says that husbands are to sacrificially love their wives and we know from 1 Cor 13 that such love does not seek its own way. However, this could result in a huge loss of status for the husband, so Paul gives Jesus as an example, showing that while this loss of status may be true in the eyes of society, it is nothing compared to what Jesus did and furthermore it is not true in what really matters.


  3. Here’s what I say about this in my study guide to Paul’s Prison Letters, taking up the household codes in Colossians:

    – – – – –

    Both here in Colossians and in his very similar teaching in Ephesians, Paul stresses that the new life will be lived out essentially in basic human relationships: between wives and husbands, children and parents, and slaves and masters.

    These relationships, he explains, have become radically transformed because they’ve been carried into a new realm. People who, from an earthly perspective, are slaves and masters must recognize that together they have become fellow servants of a “Master in heaven.” Husbands and wives have become brothers and sisters in the faith who “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” as Paul writes in Ephesians just before discussing the husband-wife relationship. Children are to obey their parents because this “pleases the Lord,” as Paul writes here in Colossians, and their parents are to “bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord,” as he says in Ephesians. In other words, both children and parents are now accountable to God for how they relate to one another. So the character of these relationships has changed: no longer does one person attempt to dominate the other. Rather, the participants show each other respect and consideration before God.

    However, the nature of these relationships remains essentially the same. One person in the relationship is still entrusted with leadership responsibility, while the other person respects that leadership and cooperates with it. The coming age has not yet fully arrived, and so these ongoing responsibilities must be honored. A situation we’ll explore in more detail in session 20, as we’re considering 1 Timothy, illustrates this principle well. Some slaves in first-century Asia Minor who were followers of Jesus thought that the arrival of the coming age meant that they no longer needed to respect their masters. But Paul explains that these slaves should actually “serve them even better,” since they are now “dear to them as fellow believers” and devoted to their welfare. In other words, relationships of the present age are transformed by the approach of the coming age not by a change in the responsibilities that people have towards one another, but by a change in the spirit in which these responsibilities are carried out. And so Paul tells husbands not to “be harsh” with their wives, he tells parents not to “embitter” their children, and he tells masters to provide their slaves with what is “right and fair.” For their part, he tells children and slaves to “obey” their parents and masters, and he tells wives to “submit” to their husbands.

    What Paul says here about obedience and submission is often misunderstood. These concepts don’t describe the process by which it’s decided what the people in a relationship will do. Specifically, they don’t imply that husbands, parents, and employers make decisions all by themselves and that wives, (growing) children, and employees have to follow them without asking any questions or providing any input. As Paul describes these relationships, it’s clear that no one has this kind of arbitrary power. Rather, obedience and submission describe a trusting, respectful attitude that leads to a response of support and cooperation.

    Paul uses two different terms here, obedience and submission, and the distinction between them points to an important difference between the husband-wife relationship and the other two relationships he describes. Obedience, which Paul asks of children and slaves, implies a recognized duty to support and cooperate with another person’s leadership, while submission, which Paul asks of wives, suggests a voluntary decision to honor and respect a leader who has been given responsibility for one’s welfare and who is devoted to that task. Paul is not giving the Colossians a new set of rules to follow here, even though his instructions are in the form of commands. Rather, he’s describing how believers can live out the life of the new realm in their earthly relationships.

    – – – – –
    This is the idea I develop on this blog: we honor the claims of earthly relationships but do so as those who belong to an inbreaking new realm.

    I think we’re very close in our understanding of these passages.

    • As I see it, Paul tells husbands to love/agape their wives and according to 1 Cor 13, love/agape does not insist on its own way. So putting these 2 ideas together means that the husband is NOT the leader of his wife, rather, both are co-leaders of their kids.

      • I don’t think we should assume that a leader is someone who insists on his own way. The best leaders listen carefully to the people they’re leading and make good use their insights and ideas. Leadership can be collaborative and empowering. I think the problem is that the whole question of submission has been understood as related to decision-making, but as I said before, if a husband and wife can’t agree, they haven’t made the best decision.

  4. It is true that in the 1st century, the husband WAS the sole leader of the family in both the way people thought and the law, but that is not the way in God’s kingdom as I understand it. If I am misunderstanding you and you are saying that Paul is asking for the husband to be a leader in terms of serving his wife since in the 1st century he was the one with the power, then I can agree with that. My concern is with the female restrictionists claim that the wife should defer to the husband’s leadership when there is a disagreement in a decision and it is this claim that I disagree with as not being taught in the Bible.

    I see Peter and Paul in agreement in not being female restrictionists in a church nor in a home. Paul discussed situations where both spouses are believers. Peter discussed a situation where the husband is either a non-believer or is a believer but not obeying God but the wife is a believer (and vice versa) and gives information about what the believing spouse can do in this case. This would have happened a lot as a gentile became a believer while their spouse was still a pagan. Yes, Peter does mention Abraham and Sarah, but this is a perhaps curious comparison to make, as both of them were believers (in the revelation that God had given them), so it can be puzzling why Peter is making that mapping. I think it is because just as Sarah was put into some hard places with no seeming way out by Abraham (except that God kept his covenant vows despite Abraham doing things that put it as risk) so a believing spouse is to trust in God when an unbelieving spouse puts them in a hard place with no seeming way out (except God). Also, God explicitly tells Abraham to obey Sarah (which was counter-cultural in Abraham’s time and also in the 1st century), so there is again a symmetry that can be found.

    • Yes, I am saying that Paul is asking the husband to be the leader in terms of serving his wife. “Love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” Like you, I don’t believe that the Bible teaches that women must defer to their husband’s wishes when there is a disagreement. As I said earlier, God wouldn’t have needed to create Eve as a “helper” (strong ally) for Adam if Adam’s opinion was good enough by itself.

      My only point in comparing Peter with Paul is that we can’t draw a clear distinction, on a verbal level, between “obey” and “submit.” The task is more complicated than saying that “children obey but wives only submit.” Instead, as we’ve both observed, a mutual relationship needs to be lived out in day-to-day decisions and actions.

  5. As I see it, submit and obey are not synonyms, but there is some overlap as one possible way to submit is to obey. But Paul asking for believers to show mutual submission does not mean mutual obedience. Another insight is that Daniel was always in submission to the king and accepted the consequences of his actions, but did not always obey the king.

    • I agree that as believers we are called to obey God unconditionally but to submit to earthly authorities on the condition that this does not compromise our obedience to God. Similarly a wife could submit to her husband by honoring God’s highest intentions for the marriage by engaging in a “loyal protest” that might involve not obliging the husband’s immediate wishes. I would see that as submission, but it certainly wouldn’t be obedience. No contradiction there.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s