The Church needs to stop telling husbands to lead, and start teaching them how to love.

It’s been 13 years since our wedding day, a day when Tanya promised to ‘love, honour and submit’ to me, and where we started our Bible reading with Ephesians 5:21 to remind us that submission in marriage is a two-way street.

But to this day, the blank line in many translations between verses 21 and 22 of Ephesians chapter 5 seems to remain an insurmountable barrier in much of the teaching on submission in marriage. Why do we so often start with verse 22 “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord” and not with verse 21 “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”?

This week a number of bloggers are posting syncro-blogs exploring the Bible Texts which mention submission in marriage and my contribution to the debate is to ask just what problem these New Testament ‘household codes’ are trying to address. The answer to this question makes a big difference to our application of these passages and what I want to suggest is that these instructions are intended to help Christian families live in the freedom which Christ alone offers to men and women. In other words, they are part of the overthrow of the effects of the fall.

There is a powerful and popular school of thought that teaches that female submission and male leadership are the antidote to the sins of the fall. in this schema, Adam’s sin was his failure to take the lead (“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife…” 3:17) and Eve’s sin was her disastrous delusion that she could make decisions on behalf of her husband (“she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate” 3:6). The application is worked out in the common-place teaching that husbands should exercise leadership more explicitly in their homes, and wives should actively submit, whether or not their husbands temper their leading with love.

And this is really important because as a result of this teaching, men, even Christian men, who have a tendency to abuse women are given theological justification for doing so. Even more horrifically, I keep hearing accounts of how some churches are complicit in this abuse as they tell women who complain to go back and do a better job of submitting.

When I hear about these stories of abuse, what I can’t get to grips with is how we got to this teaching in the first place. The passages in the New Testament which talk about wives or slaves submitting never use leadership as the male counterpoint, they always talk about love. In any case, leadership in the New Testament is always modelled on the pattern of Christ, who led by his total self-giving sacrificial love.

It is much more consistent with the overall witness of the Bible to see these codes as written to deal with the effects of the fall. In them God himself demonstrates how the curses of the fall will be undone.

It is Jesus who is the second Adam, succeeding where humanity has failed. These codes are not written to show us how to correct the sins of Adam and Eve, but to teach us how to live, throwing off the curses which their sin laid upon us.  

Much of the discussion about women submitting will draw on the context of the patriarchal nature of Jewish and Greco-Roman society. But it’s worth reminding ourselves that patriarchy too is a result of God’s curse and not part of God’s design. In Genesis 3:16 God says to Eve:

“I will greatly increase your pangs in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children,
yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”

Genesis 3:16 (NRSV)

Until this point the relationship between Husband and Wife had been one of mutuality and co-operation – that was the intention of the one-flesh union described in Genesis 2:24. But as a result of the fall man would rule over woman, which is what we have seen perpetuated in patriarchal society in every generation since.

But Peter and Paul in the New Testament are writing to Christians about how to live Christ-empowered lives which challenge the dominion of sin and challenge the effects of the fall. And I want to suggest that these household codes have nothing to do with maintaining patriachal society, instead, we see submission and love as the counterpoint to the sinful tendencies pronounced over women and men at the fall. This will now be their default mode of operation.

“yet your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”

To see the full semantic range of the words in bold, we can look ahead one chapter in the Genesis narrative to see how the author deliberately puts the Hebrew words together again. God is speaking following the exposure of the sin of Adam and Eve’s firstborn son Cain, who has begun to plot to kill his own brother.

“If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.”

Genesis 4:7 (NRSV)

Here the words present a power struggle, sin desires to have you under its control, but you must exert your rule over it. And this is the same struggle which is seen in ‘the battle of the sexes’. The wife desires to control her husband, but he will use his superior strength and power to dominate.

All the Bible’s teaching about men and women is built on the foundation of Genesis chapters one to three. So when we come to its teaching about submission and love in marriage, it makes sense to see submission as the antidote to the desire to control, and love as the antidote to domination.

Submission then, cannot be the blind acceptance of a Husband’s decisions, however benign. Neither can love be construed to be taking control, however well intentioned.

We (and I say ‘we’ as a church pastor and Bible teacher’) do both husbands and wives a serious disservice when we tell husbands to ‘man up’ and lead their families. What men need is to be taught how to overcome their fall-driven impulses to use their strength position and power to  dominate. They need to be taught to “love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25) and nowhere is that love expounded more clearly than in Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.

And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

The love of Christ for His church is a love which gives up all superiority (however much it was deserved) and takes the position of a slave. No wonder we men find it hard to love – we need Christ to teach us how to love like this, and the church to celebrate that love, not tell us to put down our cross and exert our authority.

10 thoughts on “The Church needs to stop telling husbands to lead, and start teaching them how to love.

  1. Could you explain the qualitative essential differences between the wife’s desire for her husband (“to control”) and the husband’s rule (“domination”) of his wife that accounts for the differences in Eph 5 as the corrective of Ge 3, wives submit and husbands to love?

    • I think they are very similar, but not identical. The difference is that the balance of power is generally weighted towards men due to their physical strength, and this is reinforced by their position in society. So domination here is to use power to control. The desire to control is the same impulse, but from a position of weakness. This is why I think Peter tells men to respect wives as the ‘weaker partner’, it’s a recognition of the unequal power balance.

    • thanks for this jon. superbly written. that title and gap in ephesians upsets me. the whole of ephesians is about love and particularly how we talk to each other in the bits running up to this bit. loving and submitting is for everyone. but then paul has to remind some groups who’ll find it harder to do.

      i like what you say about the power balance too. i like the picture given of the ideal wife in proverbs. in order to release him to be able to serve as a local magistrate she is manageress of a substantial household and an agricultural enterprise. she’s submitted to him but that delegated role includes plenty of responsibility and shows a high degree of trust.:-)

  2. I love your exposition on this scripture.
    Love is indeed not an easy task and as such that’s why the strongest among the sexes (man) should take as his responsibility. Let’s also remember that love encompasses submission hence the husband has am enormous role to play. May God help us to ‘man-up’ (love our wives as Christ loved His church).

  3. Fondly I remember that day 13 years ago Jon. A wonderful day it truly was, seeing two such lovely people being married.

    I also remember, however, the slight shudder I felt as a man with a girlfriend (of your close acquaintance) to whom I am now happily 10 years married, at the words the “love, honour and submit”. Actually, scrub that, it was more than a slight shudder.

    Additionally, I have also experienced (much more recently) a sermon in a church which seemed to imply that Jesus’ example of suffering should be an example to wives (I don’t recall husbands being mentioned) in unhappy (abusive?) relationships. Not quite the submission you are talking about in this post, but something else that I found very uncomfortable to hear.

    I don’t pretend to understand the depth of the scriptural explanation in your post, but felt compelled to share my thoughts on these.

    All the best,


    • Thanks Ed,

      Tanya’s written some helpful stuff this week on submission in abusive marriages and feeling trapped, but we’d both disagree with the conclusions of the preacher you mention that those in abusive situations should submit to the abuse rather than get out of there. I always council women who are being abused to get themselves out of danger. At the other end of the spectrum, the wife whose husband shows her the sacrificial love modelled by Jesus should find submission a more joyful experience.

      Tanya’s post is here if you want to read it – more story than theological argument – so it gets to what the Bible is saying ‘sideways’. As God’s Slaves – Thorns and Gold

  4. It has been my experience that when there is a relationships where love dominates that submission and rule are rarely an issue. I think this love looks like submission to one another. Each wants to serve the other and build each other up.

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