About that tricky passage: “Wives, submit to your husbands…”

November 15, 2010

I love "Leave It to Beaver," but the role of iconic mother and homemaker, played beautifully by the late Barbara Billingsley, doesn't come from the Bible.

Sometimes it seems like we Christians are reading different Bibles… And I’m not talking different translations.

A lengthy article in the New York Times Magazine last week focused on a popular evangelical speaker and author named Priscilla Shirer, who preaches a message of “biblical womanhood”—not to be confused, please, with feminism. The big problem, she believes, with the state of marriage and family today is that uppity women have usurped their husband’s God-ordained authority by becoming pastors, for example, and working outside the home. Women need to find their place all over again.

This message is nothing new, of course. In the Victorian era of the mid-nineteenth century, the forces of industrialization, mass marketing, and a burgeoning middle class combined to create the ideal of the stay-at-home mother and homemaker. As middle class families had more discretionary income, the stay-at-home mother represented a new niche to which marketers could sell their wares. From what I’ve read, their efforts were a little like Starbucks today: make consumers feel a little wealthier than they really are, and they won’t mind spending money on items that might otherwise be considered luxuries (like a $4 cup of burnt-tasting coffee). 

Prior to the nineteenth century, there was no such thing as a stay-at-home mother and homemaker. There was no “domestic sphere,” which was the province of women, and working sphere that belonged to men. The vast majority of families—every member of the family—worked on farms, men and women, boys and girls. Everyone worked in, around, and outside the home. Even after industrialization, most women couldn’t achieve stay-at-home status. Women worked in factories, too, but they were badly mistreated by men and discriminated against. And this mistreatment had nothing to do with what’s in the Bible.

Maybe I’m being too harsh about this latest evangelical reaction to the problems of late modernity. I agree with them about many of the problems: marital and family strife, divorce rates, and sexual confusion. What I’m against are many of their solutions, justified as they are by what I view as a misreading of scripture.

Consider this excerpt from the article:

[Ms. Shirer] steers women away from the “feminist activists” who tell women to “do your own thing, make your own decisions and never let a man slow you down,” as she puts it. “Satan will do everything in his power to get us to take the lead in our homes,” she wrote in her book “A Jewel in His Crown: Rediscovering Your Value as a Woman of Excellence.” “He wants to make us resent our husband’s position of authority so that we will begin to usurp it. . . . Women need to pray for God to renew a spirit of submission in their hearts.”

Sorry, but this makes me want to puke.

Her words above are informed in large part by Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. The letter, along with Colossians and 1 Peter, includes a common feature of Greco-Roman letter-writing known as “household codes.” Traditionally, these are instructions given by moral teachers to minority members of households: wives, children, and slaves.

Paul is adapting this convention to Christian households in nothing less than radical ways. Consider Ephesians 5:21-22 (from the NRSV):

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, be subject to your husbands as you are to the Lord.

This is not exactly what Paul wrote in Greek. If you have an NASB Bible (a more literal translation than NIV or NRSV), you’ll see that “be subject” in v. 22 is italicized. This means that “be subject” (or “submit”) doesn’t occur in v. 22. What Paul actually writes in these verses is the following:

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ, wives to your husbands as you are to the Lord.

Do you see the difference? Of course the “be subject” is implied in v. 22, but notice that Paul is literally carrying over the verb implicitly from v. 21. In the most literal sense, the submission Paul is asking of wives in v. 22, he is asking of all Christians in v. 21. In other words, v. 22 isn’t saying anything that isn’t said by v. 21. It’s redundant. If all Christians are to submit to one another, well then of course wives are to submit to their husbands, just as—by that same logic—husbands are to submit to their wives.

Maybe we’re not out of the woods yet. Because then there’s v. 23a: “For the husband is the head of the wife…”

“For the husband is the head of the wife.” If we were husbands living in and around Ephesus in the middle of the first century, and we heard these words, our reaction would be, “Of course the husband is the head of the wife! Why are you telling us something that we already know, Paul? Nothing could be more obviously true. Look around… women are powerless, little more than property.”

But then Paul continues with something far more radical: The husband is the head of the wife, “just as Christ is the head of the church, the body of which he is the Savior.” Again, if we were husbands living back then, we would feel Paul stepping on our toes. “We’re supposed to be the head, just as Christ is the head? I’m not so sure about that!”

How exactly is Christ “the head,” after all? What is the cross, if not the most dramatic act of submission for the sake of love in human history? Husbands are being held to that same standard of submissive, other-directed, Christ-like love! Think about Jesus’ washing his disciples’ feet in John 13. Why does Peter object to this foot-washing? Because he knows that Jesus, his Master and Teacher, shouldn’t submit to him in such a humble way. Foot-washing is what slaves are supposed to do. Jesus reversed the roles with his disciples; he reversed the traditional understanding of what it means to be in charge, to have power. Somehow, a husband’s love is supposed to look like that?

In a Bible study on Ephesians, which I created for the Board of Ordained Ministry last year, I wrote the following:

Jesus, who is the King of kings and Lord of lords, also reversed roles in the most dramatic way of all: He willingly set aside his own interests, his own safety, his own security, his own reputation, his own position, and his own well-being in order to die a humiliating and shameful criminal’s death on a cross. And he did so out of love for us we can’t fully comprehend. What wouldn’t Jesus do for us out of love? “Husbands,” Paul implies, “are you prepared to love that way?”

Paul challenges husbands here because he knows that that’s not the way husbands typically love their wives, and he wants them to change!

Among other things, Paul is not saying that when a husband and wife disagree about something, the husband gets to assert his authority to say, “I’m the head, so what I say goes.” Doing so would contradict the Christ-like love by which Paul says husbands are to love their wives. Loving with Christ-like love, agape, is a very high standard of love that applies to all of us Christians. And I suspect that for most of us most of the time, loving one another the way Christ loves is still very difficult.

By all means, having a mother—or father—stay at home with young children might be the best choice for many families. My family made that choice, and for many years Lisa stayed at home. But the choice is not biblically mandated, therefore parents—especially women—shouldn’t feel pressured to do so. They certainly shouldn’t feel guilty if they don’t! Like any important decision, the decision to stay at home should be made with much prayer and discernment.

4 Responses to “About that tricky passage: “Wives, submit to your husbands…””

  1. Oh, thank you, Brent! I appreciate your words. Your words are really powerful.

    One of the things that causes me the most grief in our time and in our faith, is that so many women cling to and preach beliefs like Shirer’s. I know of few African Americans who advocate slavery, or Native Americans who think the loss of their homeland was a great idea. But so many women speak out in favor of our own subjugation. I don’t get it.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Right, and they do so because, in a misguided effort to uphold the authority of scripture, they end up not taking scripture seriously enough. Once we grasp what Paul is up to here through good exegesis, we can see that he also subverts the the institution of slavery (notice, after giving instructions to slaves he writes in 6:9, “Masters, do the same to them.”)

      Pretty subversive stuff for the first century.

  2. June Proctor Says:

    Brent, My sister’s friend is Baptist and she is Methodist. He says he will marry her, only if she converts to Baptist. He uses scriptures such as “Wives Obey Your Husbands” to press his argument. She isn’t asking him to convert to Methodist. She wants him to respect her Methodist faith just as she respects his Baptist faith. In most other ways they are very compatible, open communication, and truthful with each other. Thank you, Brent

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thanks for the kind words, June. Plenty of Baptists interpret this passage the way I (and most other Methodists) do: it’s _mutual_ submission. I hope they work it out!

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