This past weekend Michele and I went to The Art of Marriage Conference held at our church. It was wonderful. It’s a video conference with pre-recorded sessions, put together by FamilyLife. I was skeptical about the video thing, but the sessions were high-quality, the speakers were compelling, and aside from some really cheesy skits, the material addressed important issues like intimacy, forgiveness, and spirituality in marriage. Michele and I had a great time.
However, there was this one little thing. One of the sessions focused on roles in marriage. The speakers and material made clear that in a proper, Biblical marriage, the husband’s role is to love and lead his wife, and the wife’s role is to submit to and respect her husband. The Bible says this in Ephesians 5:22-33, where Paul writes that the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the church, and that husbands should love their wives and wives should submit to their husbands as the church submits to Christ.
Yes, the Bible says this. I won’t dispute that. But that is an overly simplistic understanding of marriage, and an unfair reduction of what even Paul himself says in Ephesians. I don’t think this interpretation does justice to the complexities of marriage or of the Word of God, and it also makes Christians look simple-minded and (perhaps unfairly) misogynistic.
Let me explain. At the beginning of the passage in Ephesians 5:21 Paul writes, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The Greek word for “submit” is hupotasso, and it means “to be subject to.” In other words, Christians should be in the habit of respecting and obeying the will of other believers. As subjects live under the leadership of their king with humility and respect, we should be subject to one another. We should treat one another like kings. It is this attitude of mutual submission that allows Christians to live in a state of humility and respect for one another. Imagine if all God’s people were treating one another like royalty. This is Paul’s opening point when it comes to Christian relationships in general, and family life in particular: we should all submit to one another.
But when many Christians start talking about what Paul says about marriage in Ephesians 5:22-33, we forget Paul’s opening point in 5:21. In fact, some translations of Ephesians 5 don’t even include his opening point on mutual submission in the passage on marriage. They slice the passage right in the middle of the sentence, even though Paul is making one point: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ: wives, to your husbands…and husbands, love your wives.” FamilyLife, which put together the conference, makes the same mistake. They simplify Paul’s teaching by explaining that women should submit and men should lead. But the passage doesn’t exactly say that. It says that all believers should submit to one another. This includes everybody: wives to husbands, and even husbands to wives.
While I’m at it, neither does Paul say that it is the husband’s responsibility to lead his wife. Paul says that the husband is the “head” of the wife just as Christ is the “head” of the church. One of the speakers at the conference—renowned Biblical scholar Wayne Grudem—points out the Greek word for “head,” kephale, is best translated “authority.” According to Dr. Grudem, the husband is therefore the authority over the wife.
But I don’t think Paul says that at all. (Due respect to Dr. Grudem.) Paul says that the husband is the head of the wife. Most literally, the word kephale means “head,” not “authority.” Paul’s point is that just as Christ is the head of the church, which is his body, the husband is the head of the wife, who is his body. His point is not that the husband is “in charge,” or “an authority,” or that he should “be a spiritual leader.” His point is that the husband and the wife are connected as a head with a body, and that what affects one affects both. As Paul writes, “Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies” (Eph. 5:28).
Even though the Bible says all this, it’s easy to reduce Paul’s teaching about marriage to simple roles: the husband should lead and love, and the wife should respect and submit. And that might be Paul’s general, first-century understanding of how marriages should function. But even allowing for that, the Bible’s teaching is far more nuanced.
Let me illustrate by asking a simple question. Would there ever be a situation in which a husband should submit to his wife? Of course there would be! Even the most conservative Christian husband understands that there are some things that husbands know nothing about. I am a fairly strong husband and spiritual leader, but I submit to my wife’s expertise and knowledge and will as often as I need to. (Which is very, very often.) I know nothing about breast-feeding, medical care, how to help my daughter process changes going on in her body, and a myriad other subjects on which my wife is an expert. I am subject to her when I need to be. Or take the converse. Is there ever a time in which a wife should lead her husband? Gadzooks, of course there is! Husbands are fools who do not recognize the authority of their wives. In the Old Testament book of Judges, Deborah steps up to lead the nation of Israel when nobody else would—and is commended for it (Judges 4). Priscilla, wife of Aquila, seems to have a more prominent role than her husband, but the arrangement clearly works. The noble wife of Proverbs 31 is no quiet mouse. She takes charge and works as a teammate with her husband, who “has full confidence in her.”
The Bible gives a much more complicated picture of husband/wife relationships than FamilyLife does. Why, then, do we like to reduce our model of marriage to simplistic notions of husbands leading and wives submitting?
I’m not sure, but probably because it’s easier. We like easy models. They’re easier to teach and understand. But as Paul says in Ephesians 5, marriage is “a mystery.” Despite our best attempts, there is nothing simple about joining two lives together as one. In any healthy marriage, sometimes the husband leads, and sometimes does the wife. Sometimes the wife submits, and sometimes does the husband. What’s important for every couple to know is what their tendencies are, and how they need to grow in balancing assertiveness and humility. Is the husband afraid of exercising leadership? With his wife’s help, he should learn to step up and take the reins. Is the husband a power-hungry dictator who has trouble listening to his wife? He should back off and learn humility. Is the wife a control freak who doesn’t let her husband be the assertive man of God he was created to be? She should step back and help him become that man. Is the wife a passive wall-flower who doesn’t understand that she, too, has a voice? She should risk the status quo to challenge her husband on important matters.
I don’t call any of that unbiblical.
I call it a healthy marriage.