If you live in conservative evangelical circles, it’s hard to miss the controversy over what the Bible teaches about how men and women are to relate to each other in the church, the home, and other realms of life. As a woman, part of me would like to find a way around God’s instruction to women to submit to their husbands. But I can’t find a way to read any other meaning into verses like...
Eph 5:22 Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. ... 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
Col 3:18 ESV - 18 Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.
1Pe 3:5-6 ESV - 5 For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, 6 as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.
And I am happy to submit to God’s will because I trust him.
However, this is not a message to women about how or why to submit. This is a message to the men to whom they are to submit.
What you need to know, husbands
Husbands, your wives are exhorted to submit to you. But you are nowhere exhorted to enforce their submission. Their submission is a voluntary act and attitude. You have your own set of instructions. However, before we delve into your instructions, let’s look into the identity of these creatures from whom you expect submission.
In Genesis, that great book of beginnings, we see God exercising his immense, sweeping power in creation, bringing into existence light and darkness, plants and animals, celestial features, and finally, human beings. We know that God pronounced his benediction on each stage of creation; but with the apex of creation, human beings made in his own image, He was especially pleased. Even so, before the introduction of females, God pronounced something “not good.” This condition of not being good was the fact that the man was alone.
Isn’t it amazing that Adam had perfect fellowship with God, unmarred by sin or guilt, and yet God himself said that Adam was missing something? It feels blasphemous to say that fellowship with God was not enough, and yet it was God himself who said it. Notice that before God made the woman, He allowed Adam to experience his need. We appreciate things more when we know what it is to do without them. Adam sought that missing something in each and every animal, but it was not to be found there. There was some elusive quality that was missing. What was it? Adam didn’t know it until he saw it, but he was missing a creature who corresponded to him—someone who was the same, but different. He was missing relationship. This fact tells us that we were created for relationship. It is a central element of being human.
Equality and agency
There are two essential aspects to the woman that God provided to Adam without which she could not have been the solution to his aloneness and loneliness. The first is equality. The second is agency.
The man and the woman were of the same essence, equally bearing the imprint of God’s image. They were equal as human beings. This was the quality that no animal, however intelligent or relatable, could have. Man and woman were far more alike than different because they shared the one characteristic that set them apart from the rest of creation. They were made in the image of God. The differences that they did have did not divide them but were such that enabled them to come together in unity. God had taken the woman out of Adam and then told them to become one flesh. If they were of the same substance, they were equals. If they were both made in the image of God, they were equals, both fully human. Reminds me of the Westminster Shorter Catechism question 6: the same in substance, equal in power and glory.
Adam needed a wife not just for companionship, but also as a partner in the mission God had given to him/them. God had given the two of them one commission. It was to be fruitful and multiply, to subdue the earth, and to have dominion over all the living creatures. Clearly, Adam could not multiply and fill the earth by himself. But notice that he also needed a partner in subduing the earth and exercising dominion over the living creatures. Just as He did to Adam, God gave the woman the charge to subdue and to exercise dominion. Gen 1:28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth." The woman had the ability and the responsibility to fulfill her commission just as Adam did. She had the power of agency, meaning the power to make decisions and carry them out, to have an influence on the world around her.
Let’s flesh this out a little more (no pun intended). God provided the perfect solution for Adam. It was not a workhorse who could help with the heavy lifting. It was not a dog who would love and be loyal to him no matter what. It was not a parrot who could spout encouraging words. It was not even limited to a female body which could minister to his masculine sexual needs. No, the solution was a complete and full human being, with body, spirit, emotions, and intellect. God reached down from his sanctuary to provide a powerful female to help the lone male, and Adam was thrilled with this solution to his need. This perfect solution could provide physical help, emotional and sexual succor, as well as wisdom, creativity and knowledge.
We sometimes think of that Biblical phrase “help meet” as describing a handmaiden, but God described her purpose, powerful helper (ezer), in the same terms he would eventually apply to himself as a helper to his troubled and needy people. If females look to emulate God in the exercise of their powerful help, they will find God conquering the enemies of his people, both defensively (as a shield) and offensively (as a sword). He comes in mystery, majesty and glory, riding on the clouds. Adam would have been a fool not to welcome and accept all of the ways in which the woman could help him.
Adam now has his powerful helper. What did this first relationship look like? God gave them instructions about the work they were to do, but he did not record any instructions about how they were to relate to each other. In their state of original righteousness, they would have been unselfish, respectful and considerate of each other. There were not sinful impulses to be restrained or regulated. They possessed the moral and emotional capacities for maintaining a healthy relationship.
These equals were naked before each other. Nothing was hidden—physically, of course, but also in that way that the Bible uses to connote a profound and experiential understanding of each other—knowing. There was no hiding because there was no felt need to hide. They had an openness and a connection that we are yearning for when we dream about finding a “soulmate.” So notice, the foundation of this relationship is intimate knowledge. Transparency. No lies, no embarrassment, no hiding, no pretending. No shame of themselves, no judgment of each other. Just knowing.
This, then, is the foundation of the first marriage, the only marriage that ever existed without the complicating tangles of sin and selfishness—at least for a while. It is the way marriage was meant to be. And here we come to our present-day application to marriage. However you work out God’s instruction for wives to submit to their husbands, it must not compromise the foundational principle that God’s perfect solution to Adam’s need was a whole and complete human being, not a set of services, and the fact that the relationship between Adam and the woman was built on knowledge and acceptance of each other. Any formulation that reduces a relationship only to a set of roles and rules diminishes the relationship and eviscerates God’s purpose for marriage and for women.
What happens when we are told that we must behave only in certain proscribed ways in our relationships? Then we are playing a part and our true feelings, beliefs, and convictions are hidden or stifled. We cannot know each other and form deep connections. We cannot speak truth into each others’ lives. Inevitably, walls are built up which separate us. The oneness which God has prescribed is thwarted. This is the truth that must be taken into account when we talk about the roles of husbands and wives in a marriage.
Husband, God has provided a solution for your need. She is a complete and full human being, with body, spirit, emotions, and intellect. If you do not recognize the value of your wife as a human being, you are spurning and squandering the gift of God to you as well as failing to be the gift of God to your wife. Do not be offended when she has strengths that you lack. You need that! That’s why God gave her to you. Cultivate those strengths for the good of your family and God’s kingdom. Do not confine her to being a voice of support and agreement for you. Take advantage of her knowledge of you to help you avoid mistakes and to bolster your growth in areas of weakness. Do not stifle her voice or you could cheat yourself, your family, and the kingdom, of blessing from God.
Your own set of instructions
Parallel to the passages that instruct women to submit to their husbands are those which command men to love their wives. Here is what they say:
Eph 5:25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, ... 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, ... 31 "Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." ... 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
Col 3:19 Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.
Husband, your wife is called to submit, but you are called to sacrifice. You are to die for her. Yes, theoretically to “take a bullet” for her; but far more demanding—to die to self every day in favor of loving her. The first manifestation of that love is that you leave emotionally the people and things that are dear to you in order to make her your first earthly allegiance. Then, you know how much you love to indulge yourself in your work or hobbies or friends or food or entertainment or rest? Yeah, that’s how you should love your wife. Indulge her preferences and joys. Nourish her soul emotionally and spiritually. Care for her with tender dedication. Hold her fast. Make love to her soul as well as her body. I’m not writing a romance novel here. I’m just fleshing out the verses up there. That’s God’s description of being a manly husband.
And there’s one more thing you need to do. You must know her.
1Pe 3:7 KJV Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with [them] according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered.
Knowing another person is the most sublime form of knowing. Knowing another person means that this person has opened the gateway to her most treasured possession—her self. This is the kind of knowledge that can only be obtained by careful preparation of a nest of trust where the gift of knowing can be safely laid. It is intertwined with the previous requirements. Treating your wife in that way will create the trust needed for her to reveal her inmost thoughts which will then inform your efforts to honor who she is and nourish and cherish her. Knowing is the gateway to intimacy. Knowing does not guarantee intimacy, but true and deep intimacy does not happen without it. And God is indicating that knowing your wife and treating her appropriately is essential to your right relationship with God.
Jesus understood the significance of knowing
John 17:3 And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
John 10:14 I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15 just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.
John 14:16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. 18 "I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you.
Jesus describes the essence of eternal life as knowing God. He intertwines the language of knowing with that of union and belonging and indwelling—within the Trinity and between us and the persons of the Trinity. God originally created us in order to have a relationship with us. His primary goal for us is to love him and to love each other—words describing relationship. Our spiritual lives and our earthly lives are all about relationship. And relationship is built on knowledge. We are known intimately by God. There is nothing about us that He doesn’t know. And He has revealed himself to us and invites us to come and know him.
It is this principle of knowledge, intimacy, and oneness that governs all true and healthy relationships. Here is the foundation of marriage, laid before the first sin, when all was as it should be. The man and the woman were of the same essence, equally bearing the imprint of God’s image. They were equal as human beings. Their differences did not divide them but were such that enabled them to come together in unity. They were far more alike than different because they shared the one characteristic that set them apart from the rest of creation. They were made in the image of God.
Do you see your part in the beautiful, fluid dance that characterizes the best of marriage? Your continually demonstrating a sacrificial love that creates an environment of safety and trust. Your taking the time to listen well, to know your wife, to convince her of her primacy in your life.
To pastors and elders
And now I turn to my message to pastors and elders. As I said at the outset, I affirm the Biblical teaching that wives are to submit to their husbands. I am not asking that you avoid that teaching. But I am asking that you thoroughly contextualize that teaching within the larger picture of God’s revelation. Let me explain what I mean with a digression into parenting.
When our children are small, one of the lessons we want them to learn is kindness in the form of sharing their toys. So when we see a playmate grabbing a toy from them, and their responsive grabbing it back and asserting, “Mine!” our impulse is to take the toy from them, hand it to their little friend, and say, “No, no. You must share!” Now, does that teach a child to share? In other words, does that encourage in the child a sympathy for others, an ability to step into another’s shoes, and a desire to be kind and generous? No, it teaches them that someone bigger can take their things away from them and give them to someone else. If it is accompanied by punishment, they will learn that when they are instructed to share, they’d better perform the behavior of handing over the toy. But it will not have had the desired effect on their little hearts.
That’s because you can’t truly share what you do not have control over. It is only choice and control which turn the act of handing over a toy from coercion into the kindness of sharing. So when one child grabs a toy from another, the proper procedure is to restore the toy to its original holder with the message that she does indeed have the right to decide its disposition. Often, with a little coaching of each combatant, a child will decide to give sharing a try, and will consequently find reward in the happiness of her playmate. That is how hearts are changed.
So to return to the topic of wifely submission, the application is that women need to submit from a place of strength, not weakness. It is not submission if it is coerced. You’re probably thinking, “Of course we don’t coerce submission! What is this woman accusing us of?” I am not impugning your motives. Most of the Christian brothers I have had fellowship with have had great regard for the full humanity and spiritual wisdom of Christian women. I am asking you to recognize the power that you wield as a representative of God and an authoritative interpreter of his Word to your congregation. Christian women desire to obey and please God. When they read in the Bible and then hear from the pulpit that they are to submit to their husbands, they take that to heart and try earnestly to do that. So far, so good, it would seem.
The problem comes when that is the only thing they hear about being a woman or a wife. When that message is isolated from the truth of how and why God created women, then being submissive to a husband becomes their identity, their whole purpose in life. Experientially, that identity is extrapolated into assuming a position of inferiority to all men. Qualifying submission with “equal value, different roles” is not powerful enough to counteract the negative effects of that proof-texting sort of teaching. Do you see how far that is from what God created women to be?
Preaching should include the whole counsel of God concerning women. It should proclaim the power inherent in their design, the agency for subduing the earth and exercising dominion they share with men, and highlight the stories of strong and faithful women in the Old Testament and the New. Of course it must also include warnings related to sin and the Fall, as well as the passages directed to women. But guys, come on, we’ve been pretty inundated by those messages. After 67 years in the church, I’ve heard precious few of the other kind.
Is “wives submit to your husbands” a catchier phrase than “husbands love your wives”? It doesn’t really sound like it to me, but for some reason the first one gets a lot more explanation than the second. Let your preaching expound on how men are to love their wives. Leave no doubt that husbands have no warrant whatsoever to “rule over” their wives as fallen men are wont to do, or to “lord it over” their wives as non-Christian men wield authority. The kingdom of God has come to turn worldly notions of wisdom and power on their heads. We are to be identified by love of each other, not love of power.
Or maybe, when it comes to marital problems, “submit” is easier to quantify and enforce than “love.” Do you know how to evaluate how well a man is loving his wife? Do you know how to instruct him in loving his wife? Do you follow up with him to encourage him to persevere in love? Some pastors exhort men to avoid pornography, but have few resources to help them conquer it. If a wife brings this complaint, pastors may accept with relief an expression of repentance and intention to do better, and let this be the end of the matter. Do not be naïve. Sexual addiction is rampant and tenacious. It will destroy a marriage by destroying the wife. The husband is taking something that properly belongs only to his wife and scattering it abroad in the streets (Proverbs 5:16). Do the research to find Christian counseling (individual and group) that deals with pornography and other sexual addictions.
Pastors and elders, check your gut reaction when a woman brings to you a complaint about her husband. Counselors are trained to recognize when their own personal experiences or biases might interfere with hearing a client accurately and treating her fairly. As men, it may be easier for you to sympathize with the burdens a man carries, and how hard it is to be emotionally available, and how frustrating it is when your wife complains. You need to maintain an active awareness of your potential to fall into this trap.
Failure to grasp and exposit the full value of women poses several grave dangers to the church. Women suffer the greatest immediate danger. Women who are taught only about their limitations and never about their strengths do not trust their own judgment or instincts. They are vulnerable to unloving or even abusive behavior by their husbands or other men in power. When the primary message they hear about marriage is that they are to submit to their husbands, they assume that marital problems are their fault and try to submit more and love better. This is disastrous for a woman married to a man whose hard heart will just take more advantage of her. Even worse is the plight of the woman who does speak up only to be advised to submit more. It can drive her further down into despair and even suicide.
Men who do not understand the value and positive power of women will be ill-prepared for marriage. If their faith is shallow or they are undisciplined, they will be unable or unwilling to love sacrificially. They will believe it is their wives’ duty to serve and please them. They will not benefit from the wisdom of their wives. Their egos will become inflated with a sense of superiority which is disastrous for their own sanctification.
Ultimately, an unbalanced view of women is dangerous to the church. A church without a strong view of women presents a haven for abusive men. They know that their wives will be trained to be agreeable or to be silent. Abusive men are expert at presenting themselves as model Christians and so undermining any accusations that their wives may make. They may work themselves into leadership positions and even have impeccable theology. Although it is not always easy to identify such wolves in sheep’s clothing, it is essential that they not be given unnecessary cover. It is especially important that their wives hear the message clearly articulated that abusive behavior is not acceptable and that these wives will be given support and protection if they come to the church for help.
God has given gifts to his church. Women are bearers of those gifts. But the church may fail to “unwrap” these gifts from God if they see women only as servants and helpers to men. Does your church invest in the theological training of women as it does in the men? If not, it’s time to examine why. Is it because you just don’t think of them as being as astute as the men? Or as interested? You probably have women’s groups and women’s Bible studies led by women—which, of course, I’m all for! But did you ever wonder if some of the women would be eager to benefit from your higher education? I suppose it’s possible you don’t think women need that level of teaching, or worry that if they got it, they might be tempted to try to usurp authority over men. (To be clear, I affirm male-only ordained leadership in the church.)
What do you see?
You see, it is the answers to these kinds of questions that determine your true view of women. Do you really see them in their full humanity and take them seriously? Are you eager for the ways in which they could be laboring beside you for the gospel? Or are you content for them to inhabit their “women’s realm” of study and ministry? God created Adam as the source and representative of all humanity. So it seems to me that when He created Eve, she was not only given to Adam as his personal helper, but given as the source and representative of all females who could be powerful allies to men in the building of God’s kingdom. In the same way that Peter charged men to know their wives, shouldn’t pastors and elders know the women in their churches, know their gifts, talents and skills, in order to make full use of what God has given to their particular church? Is it possible that by failing to call on their wisdom, you are hobbling your ministry and missing your own blind spots? Is it possible that you don’t know what you don’t know?
I have written this little “note” as a mother of the church appealing to her brothers and sons in the church. I have written it as your friend who trusts your motives and intentions. There are many churches and pastors who do not deserve to be addressed in this way, but are active and intentional in oppressing the women in their care. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing who have earned harsh rebuke elsewhere. But I believe better of you.