A couple of rules of engagement with views different to yours are:
- Be fair. Represent the other accurately
- Engage with the best example of the other point of view, not a caricature or extremist position
- Look under the surface to their motive – what is their concern underlying their position? Assume the best of the other as much as you can.
It is easier to write this than to do of course. Don’t know about you but I fail regularly. But, the world, and the church, would be a much more civil place if we did.
This is a continuation of posts on Ephesians 5, this time specifically on wives and husbands and verse 23 in particular.
For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour.
Over the last few weeks I’ve read a wide range of interpretations of this verse and wider passage (21-33). Probably one of the best articulations of a ‘traditional’ view of male ‘headship = leadership’ and female submission in marriage is John Stott in The Message of Ephesians which was originally written in 1977 as God’s New Society. So it dates back a long way. There have been forests of books since on this topic, but Stott is such a good writer and exegete that it remains, I think, hard to beat.
Like many others I grew up as a Christian reading Stott. He is a huge influence and I’ve nothing but admiration for him. He is one of the great figures of the 20th century church.
In this post, I’ll try simply to summarise his interpretation of the text and then add some questions and comments. And then in the next post I’ll put it in dialogue with a recent and widely praised book articulating a very different interpretation of the text – that of Cynthia Long Westfall (2016) Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ.
If you have read this far, you may be groaning, ‘texts like these have been gone over 100s of times!’
True, but I suspect that for many, on whatever side of the debates, practice is largely inherited and assumed. The issues need aired for each generation. And it is an interesting angle on biblical interpretation to compare and contrast two views separated by about 40 years and a lot of published words.
A bullet point summary of Stott:
- Paul is exhorting wives to submit to authority (and children and slaves to obey) within the familiar structure of the Household Codes of the ancient world.
- Christians ought to acknowledge how the church has often upheld a status quo of injustice rather than liberation from all forms of exploitation or oppression.
- We cannot interpret Paul here as advocating some form of authoritative relationships that either go against what he teaches in the rest of Ephesians and his letters, or that goes against the teaching and example of Jesus.
- Dignity and equality of all before God is a beginning point. Submission does not equal inferiority.
- Husbands have a certain God-given role, wives another, within God’s ordering of society.
- Authority is God-given. Since husbands have delegated authority, wives are to submit to it. Such submission is a humble recognition of the divine ordering of society.
- Much care is needed not to overstate this teaching on authority. It is not unlimited, it does not mean unconditional obedience, submission to God comes first, it must never be used selfishly. Not once does Paul use the normal word for authority (exousia): “When Paul is describing the duties of husbands, parents and masters, in no case is it authority he tells them to exercise.” 219. (PM: this is somewhat confusing – in the next sentence Stott affirms authority is in view, namely improper authority that should not be used)
- The husband is to use his role for the good of his wife – to love and care for her.
- Those with authority are responsible to God and to those under their care.
- The husband being ‘head’ of the wife – his ‘headship’ – is defined in regard to 1 Cor 11:3-12 and 1 Tim. 2:11-13.
- There, the refs to Genesis 2 and ‘headship’ is based on “his emphasis is on the order, mode and purpose of the creation of Eve”. Thus ‘headship’ is not culturally contextual, but based in creation. p. 221.
- The sexes are distinct and complement one another: man has ‘a certain headship’ [PM: what does this mean?] and wives in ‘voluntary and joyful submission.’ p.222.
- Stott roots this in psychology and physiology [a lot of the psychology sounds dated now]
- The word ‘submission’ is loaded and needs to be ‘disinfected’ from associations of subjugation and subordination and subjection. How it is used in Eph 5 is how it should be understood
- The characteristic of male headship is Christ’s example – defined as saviour. ‘the characteristic of this headship is not so much lordship as saviourhood.’ p. 225.
- Just as the church submits to Christ, so the wife submits to the husband’s care. This will enrich her womanhood. p. 226.
- The husband’s primary responsibility is to love his wife. Two analogies are given.
- ‘As Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her’. As Jesus perfects his bride, the church, so the husband ‘will give himself for her, in order that she may develop her full potential under God’. p.229
- ‘Husbands should love their wives as their own bodies’. Stott sees an anti-climax from the heights of love just described, as a more ‘mundane’ command. Linked to the ‘golden rule’ of treating others like we would like to be treated.
- ‘one flesh’ is an image of union. All believers are members of his body (v.30). ‘Thus he sees the marriage relationship as a beautiful model of the church’s union in and with Christ.’ p.231.
- So the husband leads and loves, she submits and respects in ‘response to his love and her desire that he too will become what God intends him to be in his “leadership”.’ [PM note how leadership is in quote marks] p. 231.
Stott then applies this passage with 5 reasons for wives to understand the nature of biblical submission. He confesses that
‘it surprises me how unpopular this passage is among many women.’ p. 232.
The five reasons are:
- Submission is for all. Verse 21 makes clear that if it is the wife’s duty to submit to her husband, ‘it is also the husband’s duty, as a member of God’s new society, to submit to his wife.’ ‘Submissiveness is to be mutual.’ p. 233
- The wife’s submission is to be given to a lover, not an ogre. Her submission functions in the context of his self-giving love.
- The husband is to love like Christ.
- A husband’s love, like Christ, sacrifices in order to serve.
- The wife’s submission is but another aspect of love.
On the last point, Stott comments that when you try to define ‘submission’ and ‘love’ you end up finding it very difficult to distinguish them. To submit is to give yourself up to someone. To love is to give yourself up for someone.
‘Thus “submission” and “love” are two aspects of the very same thing, namely that selfless self-giving which is the foundation of an enduring and growing marriage.’ p. 235
This remains one of the best examples of a traditional male ‘headship – leader’ interpretation because Stott is too good an exegete not to give a full-orbed analysis of the text.
Looking under the surface, his motive is to be obedient to what the Bible teaches. He goes to great lengths to clarify and modify any potential abuse of this text to control women.
But in doing so, and particularly in his five reasons to women to submit, some problems become apparent:
The notion of husband as leader is read into the text rather than out of it. Stott several times writes ‘leader’ and talks about ‘a certain headship’ indicating his awareness of how this is, at best, an implication which depends on a particular interpretation. A huge amount is built on an argument from silence – that the reference to the creation account somehow implies that Adam being created first leads to ‘headship’.
However irenic and well-articulated the final five reasons for wives to submit to husbands are, it is ironic that Stott’s main application is aimed at women.
The whole tenor of the passage is addressed to husbands – to help them reimagine what it is to be a Christian husband in a Greco-Roman world. Wives are pretty well assumed to do what wives do in that culture – if radically modified by the fact of mutual submission in verse 21. Yet so much interpretation of this text ends up being about wifely submission and defending the husband’s ‘authority’. There is something very askew in this ordering of application.
What actually in practice is being argued for? Where Stott has integrity is how he recognises that the text itself drastically qualifies normal notions of ‘leader’ and ‘authority’. As he says, submission and love become synonymous. Husband and wife submit to each other [this is strongly resisted by some later harder-line complementarians]. If this is the case, the whole idea of ‘leader’ and ‘headship’ becomes virtually meaningless in practice. It seems to me that this is why modern complementarian practice is reduced to arcane theoretical discussions of ‘who makes the final decision’ when husband and wife disagree. Really – is that what Paul has in mind?
Rather, might this not all point to the problem being one of insisting on a faulty notion of ‘headship’ that is just not there in the text? Despite Stott’s assertion (and it is an assertion) that ‘headship’ is rooted in creation and therefore transcends all cultures, it remains a conceptual leap that is highly debatable. Great caution should be exercised in building edifices on shaky foundations, especially when those edifices (in my humble opinion) have tended to disempower women.
The irony is that the thrust of Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 5 is going a different direction.