A young woman in a Bible study read the following passage from the book of Ephesians: “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” (Ephesians 5:22-24). “I don’t like that,” she said. “It makes me uncomfortable.”
Young lady, I don’t like it either when words are given new connotations that God never intended; when verses are wrenched out of context and used to justify selfish desires. And it definitely makes me uncomfortable when well-meaning Christians use “proof texts” to subjugate those weaker than themselves, or dismiss another human made in the image of God as inferior. This was never how marriage was designed. We need to see the beauty of the whole passage; what it means to submit to one another out of love and respect; and what God actually intended when He established the pattern of loving male leadership in the family (and in the Church).
The book of Ephesians is an outline of demonstrating Christ-like love in different relationships. Paul opens by exhorting the believers to avoid all forms of sexual immorality and indecent behavior, then zooms in on the nuclear family. After entrusting women to the authority of their husbands in the above passage, the Apostle then turns to the husbands and spends three times as much space commanding them to “love their wives as Christ loved the Church”. Neither a battle cry for feminism nor a return to draconian male-dominance, the entire passage simply reinforces Paul’s original plea for all to “walk in love”.
A Proof-Text for ‘Control Issues’?
In the 1991 thriller “Sleeping with the Enemy”, Julia Roberts plays a wife who flees a man so controlling that he lectured her for bathroom towels being hung unevenly, and berated her for spices not lined up symmetrically in the pantry. Although he never physically abused her, the woman was so brow-beaten by his excessive control that she lived in constant fear and humiliation. This is an exaggerated picture of how non-Christians view biblical submission. Unfortunately, even among believers, the sin nature has sometimes distorted God’s intention for submission and authority.
What often seems to be the case is that this passage is pulled out of context to force women into an unbiblical form of “submission” rooted not in sacrificial love, but rather in an egocentric desire for control. Verse 22 is often quoted as a conversation-stopper when wills collide, but verse 25 is often ignored. However inconvenient and embarrassing it may be, spiritual abuse is real – and is often rooted in an unbiblical application of Ephesians 5:22-24.
This is not to say, of course, that church-going men who autocratically rule their families are not “real Christians”. On the contrary. In an autocratic leadership, the person in charge has total authority and control over decision making. There are many committed Christian men who actually believe this is God’s will and model for family life, and are convinced it is their sacred responsibility to uphold the entire burden of doing, working, deciding – and even thinking. I have even seen an inflated sense of ‘patriarchy’ convince Christian husbands that their wives do not even have the right to think or make any decisions for the family, citing the principle of “submission” to rationalize their absolute power.
The Cycle of Abuse and Shame
This is not only poor exegesis, it is emotional abuse. A familial dictatorship is psychologically destructive, and is much more spiritually damaging to the woman than physical abuse. Here’s why:
- Woman is being treated as second-class citizen at home; even if she holds academic degrees, may be subtly treated as of lower-intelligence;
- Woman reads literature targeted towards Evangelical women, over-emphasizing “submission” in order to be a more ‘godly wife’;
- Woman begins to believe abuse is her fault; feels guilty;
- Woman gradually distances herself from God; feels she deserves the abuse and strives to be “better”.
While “mutual submission” is not biblical (the proverbial buck does need to stop somewhere, after all); the problem with over-emphasizing female “submission” is that when we lose sight of the heart-attitude Paul wants to instill – namely, sacrificial, agape love for one another – the true meaning of marriage is distorted. Everywhere in Scripture, we see Christ far more preoccupied with what’s going on inside the soul than with outward behavior, and marital interaction is no exception. Marriage is supposed to mirror the relationship of Christ and His Bride, the Church. When the sin nature twists surrender to another’s loving authority into a doormat theology, women suffer in silence; bitterness is fostered; abuse is legitimized; and those who slander Christianity gain more ammunition. (Last year’s Vision Forum sexual abuse scandal was a prime example of this dynamic).
“Did Your Husband Speak for You?”
Several years ago, my husband and I had a doctrinal question for the leadership of our church. In the course of events, I was dialoguing about it with another woman, who was part of a “family integrated” movement with a strong emphasis on male headship and a very strict interpretation of “biblical womanhood” (the subject of next week’s post). My husband, who is less theologically-interested than I, had delegated the discussion to me (as English is not his first language, and he knew I had good rapport with the counseling pastor). My friend was somewhat surprised that I, as a woman, would be “allowed” to “speak on my family’s behalf” to church leadership.
I was at first amused, then incredulous. As an adult in my forties, a certified biblical counselor with a college degree, having raised four children and written two books while holding a full-time career, I need permission from my husband to have a conversation with our pastor? Whether or not he had delegated the issue to me, have branches of American evangelicalism reverted so far back into medieval authoritarianism that a woman discussing theology with her pastor raises eyebrows? Where, exactly, is the biblical precedent for this?
If we return to the pages of the New Testament, we see that Jesus Himself held no such views of women having an inferior status. Several women travelled with Jesus and His disciples during His ministry, listened to His teaching and “provided for them out of their means.” (Luke 8:3, emphasis mine). We see the disciples surprised that Jesus would converse with a woman (John 4:27) and the dignity He afforded women that went far beyond the conventions of 1st Century Judea (John 8:11; Luke 7:48; Mark 14:6; etc.) And this does not even scratch the surface of the role women played in the Early Church.
The Pendulum Swing
Where, then, does the desire to return to an absolute patriarchy (with women forbidden a say in the family, or critical thinking, even if they have education) come from? It is possible that it is a knee-jerk reaction to the extremes of the feminist movement, which would deny the God-given differences (in nature and role) between men and women. This is a sociological explanation, and I believe it has some validity as liberalism has invaded the Church in the last three decades. However, it falls short and does not help us address the problem of spiritual abuse in the counseling room.
Love is not self-seeking, and it does not “lord it over” another individual – especially one perceived as weaker. Love protects, and it seeks the other’s best interest. While women are called to submit, it should never be done in slavish fear to an autocrat – but rather in joyful deference to the one she trusts above all else; who would lay down his life for her. When the call to ‘submit’ is wielded like a weapon, it is a sure sign that the follow-up verses on “loving [you] wife as Christ loved the Church” are not being obeyed. Christ never intimidates or threatens the Church; He encourages believers to use their gifts in His service; always heals; always protects.
While there are many causes of emotional abuse within Christian marriages, I believe that the misunderstanding and mis-use of this particular passage of Scripture is behind much of it. Women should not be conditioned either from the pulpit or by strong-willed men to think of themselves as “lesser”; but rather should be edified and uplifted by their true identity in Christ. One of the ways to break this stranglehold is to encourage the woman to develop and use her individual gifts and talents, not only within the family setting, but in the Church and culture as a whole. We will examine ways to do this, and break the stereotypical “biblical womanhood” myth in next week’s post.