Categories
Let Her Lead Theology

What About Marriage?

On a few occasions, after telling someone that I believe women should not be restricted from any leadership in the church, I’ve been asked, Well, what about marriage?

Perhaps you’re okay with women leading in the church, but equal authority in marriage makes you uncomfortable. After all, doesn’t the Bible say wives should submit to their husbands in everything?

When I had a complementarian framework, I believed this (obviously). Even then, I wondered how it worked practically. Oddly enough, the New Testament doesn’t get as specific as the “biblical manhood and womanhood” movement.

Why?

I believe it’s because we’ve missed the point of these passages, reading them through a lens of power and authority rather than service and sacrifice.

Let’s try to look at them with fresh eyes.

Ancient Household Codes

There are three passages where wives are told to submit to their husbands in the New Testament: Ephesians 5-6, Colossians 3, and 1 Peter 3.

These sections reflect secular ancient household codes. Plato, one of the first to articulate this, taught that women, children, and slaves ought to be ruled over because they belonged to the “mob of motley appetites and pleasures and pains.”[1]

Aristotle, Plato’s student, took the codes to a new level. He created the three-fold structure of husbands-wives, parents-children, and slaves-masters that we find in Ephesians and Colossians.

For Aristotle, a well-ordered home was the cornerstone of society. But a household was only as stable as its patriarchal rule.

For Aristotle, a well-ordered home was the cornerstone of society. But a household was only as stable as its patriarchal rule.[2]

His codes addressed men only and taught how men were to treat their subordinates. Aristotle believed men had all the agency in relationships.

“The male is by nature superior, and the female inferior,” he wrote. “The one rules, and the other is ruled; this principle, of necessity, extends to all mankind.”[3]

He goes on to say:

A husband and father, we saw, rules over wife and children, both free, but the rule differs, the rule over his children being a royal, over his wife a constitutional rule. For although there may be exceptions to the order of nature, the male is by nature fitter for command than the female, just as the elder and full-grown is superior to the younger and more immature.[4]

Women, as Aristotle saw it, were destined to be ruled by men simply because they’re female. That’s what “a constitutional rule” means.

Aristotle was certainly sexist. Most of the ancient world was. But these codes weren’t mainly about gender (though that was a significant part of it), but power. They were designed to keep certain groups of people in power and other groups far away from it.[5]

Then Jesus came and changed everything.

How Jesus Changed Everything

In the New Testament’s version of household codes, a dramatic shift takes place.

Paul and Peter address both parties, rather than men only. The Apostles believed the subordinate person also has agency in their relationships. What’s more, the “inferior” party is addressed first: wives then husbands; children then parents; slaves then masters.[6]

The New Testament shows how Jesus brings redemption to human institutions and relationships.

As for those in power? They are never called to lord it over, but to love. The gospel leads them to divest themselves of power, deny their worldly status, and serve.

In other words, the New Testament shows how Jesus brings redemption to human institutions and relationships.

Yet, the New Testament also stops short of prescribing social revolution. Why? Mowczko reminds us, “Christian teaching that blatantly undermined or openly subverted the social structures of the day could have been disastrous for the new Jesus movement.”[7]

Rome was suspicious of any religious group that threatened the Roman way of life. The Apostles were careful with their words.

Besides, they couldn’t have imagined a world in which women had equal rights and slavery would be abolished.

When the opportunity did come, though, Christians took on those social causes.

A Closer Look at Ephesians 5

Now let’s zoom in on Paul’s largest section on household codes, Ephesians 5:21-6:9.

Mutual Submission Defines Christian Community

Before getting to specific relationships within the house, Paul encases the entire discussion with mutual submission. He writes, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21). Everything else in the section should be read through this framework.

Then to end the section, he makes what I think is the most radical statement of all: “And masters, treat your slaves in the same way” (6:9).[8]

Can you imagine how many jaws hit the floor? Paul flips the power dynamic of the ancient world on its head.

Men are never told to rule or make all the decisions or make all the money. Instead, husbands are to lay down their lives for their wives (5:25), fathers to not provoke their children (6:4), and masters to treat slaves as fellow servants (6:9).

This reflects Jesus, of course. Jesus did not come to be served but to serve and give up his life (Mark 10:45). He washed his disciples’ feet and invited them to do the same to each other. He said the first shall be last and the last first.

When an entire community lives this way, it’s called “mutual submission.”

What About the Word “Submit”?

When we read the word “submit” in English we think that it means that someone is in charge and everyone else is subordinate to that person. It can mean that in Greek, too. There was a military usage that meant “to arrange under the command of a leader.”

But two Greek lexicons show that it has a broader, non-militaristic meaning. It can mean “voluntary yielding in love.”[9] or “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden.”[10]

Only the context can help us. We can’t deny there is likely a cultural aspect of deference to a husband’s authority since Roman cities, like Ephesus, were patriarchal. Yet, since we’ve already seen the call for mutual submission in Ephesians 5:21, we know Paul cannot be encouraging a dictatorial-type military submission.

In verse 22, where Paul begins his instructions to wives, the Greek word for “submit” actually isn’t there. It has to be carried over from verse 21.

Again, the societal norm was for wives to respectfully defer to their husbands. Every single wife reading this letter would have expected Paul to write what he did.

The societal norm was for wives to submit to their husbands. Every single wife reading this letter would have expected Paul to write what he did.

But while he affirms this expectation, he frames it through the lens of the gospel: submit, but only as the church submits to Jesus. (So, never to an abusive husband, for example.)

Paul shows wives (and children and slaves) dignity by starting with them. But he saves most of his words for husbands, who had the upper hand in the relationship.

If verse 21 commands mutual submission, we have to ask, “How should husbands submit to their wives?”

Verse 25 gives us the answer. Husbands are not to use their power to their advantage, but love their wives and lay down their own lives, like Jesus.

It was Jesus, after all, who “did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage” (Phil 2:6). He voluntarily laid his life down for the good of others.

Husbands, Paul says, do the same.

What Does It Mean to Be the “Head”?

Verse 23 says that the husband is the “head” of the wife. When we use the word “head” as a metaphor in English, we use it to mean an authority figure. But that wasn’t the natural Greek meaning for “head.”[11].

I’ve shown in another post that the Greek word for “head” can mean source. In Ephesians, Paul is using it in the sense of a source that provides connectedness and nourishment.[12] The focus on Christ’s “headship” stresses his love, sacrifice, and cleansing of the church–not his “authority.”

One mistake Christians often make–and I will be the first to admit I’ve made it–is that we say, “Marriages are to be a picture of the gospel.”

Where do we get that? Not Ephesians 5. Paul never says this. It’s actually Christ and the Church that is the picture to emulate.

Roman husbands had the power and legal right to treat their wives however they pleased. This was the case for nearly all societies throughout history. Even if a husband wanted to buck the trend and love his wife, he didn’t have an alternative option to follow.

Paul uses Christ and the Church as an analogy to show husbands what it’s like to love their wives, be united to their wives, and nourish them rather than harm them. That’s what a “head” does for its “body.”

Most marriages in our country today, religious or secular, actually encourage both people to love and nourish each other. I hope we’d all agree this is a good thing!

We need to remember that this was not on a Roman man’s radar in the first century. Men were not taught to love a woman. Paul’s instructions to husbands were radical. Even unheard of.

Paul uses Christ and the Church as an analogy to show husbands what it’s like to love their wives, be united with their wives, and nourish them.

Like all divine analogies for human behavior, however, it breaks down at some point.

In verses 26-27, Paul talks about how Jesus treats his church. But husbands don’t cleanse their wives of sin or sanctify them (even though I’ve heard pastors at weddings say they do).

He comes back to husbands in verse 28 and tells them to love their wives “in this same way.” Paul’s point isn’t that they become Savior 2.0.

It’s that husbands must obey the Golden Rule even in marriage. If husbands are commanded to love their neighbor as themselves, how could they do anything less for their nearest neighbor?

Because Christians (myself included) have read this passage through a lens of patriarchal power, we’ve entirely missed the point.

It has nothing to do with a husband’s leadership and a wife’s subjugation. It has everything to do with the gospel’s transforming work. The powerful become meek to bring unity with and nourishment to those society deems inferior.

In other words, Paul wants husbands and wives to look at Jesus and his Church as an example of loving unity. He wants married couples to function as one because that was God’s design in the beginning, after all (v 31).

Consider this practically. It’s very difficult, I’d argue impossible, to have sincere unity in a marriage if one person makes all the decisions, always gets the final word, bears all responsibility for everyone’s spiritual growth, makes/controls all the money, or does any and all of the things complementarians claim husbands should do.

That’s not unity. At best, it’s a benevolent monarchy. At worst, it’s an abusive dictatorship.

But Do Parents Submit to Children?

Is it crazy to claim children and parents mutually submit to each other? Maybe you think my view doesn’t hold water because this is where the dam bursts. Everyone has an authority to submit to, James!

Yet in their own unique way, parents do submit to children (gasp!).

Children submit by obeying their parents.

Parents–specifically fathers here–are commanded to not exasperate their kids. This is how the one with power “mutually submits.” Parents are still responsible to raise their children. But because of the gospel, fathers voluntarily give up whatever “right” their culture says they have just for being a parent.

Finally, it’s interesting to me that Paul writes that children obeying parents in the Lord “is right” (6:1). But he doesn’t say that about wives or slaves submitting. Paul accommodates the general cultural expectation for wives and slaves without commenting on its ethics.

Remember, too, that Paul never tells wives to obey their husbands.[13]

Paul’s Vision for Mutual Submission

All this may not convince you. But perhaps 1 Corinthians 7 will.

Paul covers a lot of ground here, his longest discussion on marriage. If there was any place we’d expect him to assert in the clearest terms possible that husbands are in authority over their wives, this would be this place.

But he doesn’t. In fact, he does the exact opposite as he paints a beautiful picture of equality.

The context at the beginning of this chapter is sex. Some of the Corinthians were duped into believing abstinence in marriage was a good thing. Paul refutes their false belief. Listen to verses 3-4.

The husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife, and likewise the wife to her husband. The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.

WHAT?! He tells husbands and wives they have authority over each other in the bedroom. Equality. Dignity. Servanthood. Sacrifice. Mutual submission. For both partners.

To first-century ears, this would have been absolutely astonishing.

To first-century ears, this would have been absolutely astonishing.

If Paul believed that husbands were to be the leaders in marriage (that they have “headship,” as the biblical manhood/womanhood movement says) and that their decision was always final, why wouldn’t he have taken this perfect opportunity to clearly articulate that view?

If you’re thinking that maybe women should submit in everything except sex, then you haven’t read many evangelical books on sex lately. Or ever.

Paul said wives’ have authority over their husbands’ bodies because he believed in and taught mutual submission in marriage (again, see Ephesians 5:21). He applies that principle here to sex.

This vision is unparalleled in the ancient world.[14] But it was the foundation for a “new way” to do marriage.

When we dig a bit deeper into the Scriptures and look beyond our own cultural biases, we see that a Christian vision for equality in marriage is not far-fetched or the product of a liberal agenda. Its source is the very life and mission of Jesus.


Notes

Featured image: Denny Muller on Unsplash.

[1] Plato, Republic, 4.431b-c.

[2] Carolyn Osiek, “Household Codes,” Bible Odyssey.

[3] Aristotle, Politics, Book 1, Part V.

[4] Ibid., Book 1, Park XII.

[5] Marg Mowczko, “The household codes are about power, not gender,” 2/17/19. We know these codes were primarily about power because a female master had power over her male slave and a mother had power over her male child. Nevertheless, gender and power were (and still are) intertwined because it was men who had all the power in the ancient world! Still, the ancients believed men were more powerful by nature. Unfortunately, some Christians still believe this today!

[6] Osiek, “Household Codes.”

[7] Mowczko, “The household codes.”

[8] Craig Keener, “The Case for Mutual Submission in Ephesians 5,” CBE Blog, 6/1/2016. What does Paul mean when he says “in the same way”? Earlier he told salves to “obey your earthly masters with respect and fear…obey them…serve wholeheartedly, as if you were serving the Lord” (vv 5-7). So he means that masters ought to obey and serve their slaves! In other words, mutual submission.

[9] BDAG, 1042.

[10] Outline of Biblical Usage.

[11] Philip B. Payne, “What About Headship? From Hierarchy to Equality,” Mutual by Design: A Better Model for Christian Marriage, CBE International (2017), 151.

[12] In Ephesians 4:15-16, Paul calls Christ “the head” of the Church, but emphasizes the nourishing role Christ has with his church.

[13] You might be thinking, “Ah! But Peter does!” In 1 Peter 3, Peter does tell wives to submit to their own husbands and uses Sarah as an example of obedience. Notice two things: 1) Peter never actually tells wives to obey, and 2) he is only talking to wives who have unsaved husbands (see v 1). Peter’s instruction has a very practical, missional emphasis. It’s like he’s saying, “Wives, don’t abuse your freedom, become preachy, and push your unsaved husbands further away from Jesus!”

[14]. Richard Hays says, “Paul offers a paradigm-shattering vision of marriage as a relationship in which the partners are bonded together in submission to one another.” Quoted in Philip B. Payne, “What About Headship?”, 146.

Categories
Life

“Hands”

I have a goal to write and post something for 90 straight days. I’m on day 4 and today was a packed day. My wife and I also recorded a new podcast episode tonight that just released a few minutes ago.

Whew.

So here I am at 10pm to write something.

But I’m cheating. I’m not writing something new or original.

I’m reposing a Christmas poem I wrote a few years back. It takes the perspective of Joseph, Mary’s husband and Jesus’ adoptive father.

I hope you enjoy it.


“Hands”

Open on your mother’s chest
or after a bellowing belch.
Taut when you’re tired.
Slurp slurp, tick tick,
your tongue tackles
each knuckle and cuticle.
Somehow that helps you fade
away to never-never-land.
Mine are calloused, crusty, tired.
Splinters are their wages.
Blue veins bursting.
Palm lines peeling.
Bleeding.
Grab the balm and bandage.
I’ll too visit never-never-land soon,
only after watching you there now.
For a moment I remember
the memories we will make.
Brush and comb. Throw and catch.
Shave and wash. Swing and saw.
Eat and write. Push and pull.
Mine will train yours?
That baffles me.
Yours built clouds and stars,
birds and seas.
Mine build yokes and stools,
locks and keys.
Yours rest so peaceful,
so perfect, so calm in your crib.
I reach in. A twitch.
Yours clutch mine
with a tiny might.
I worry one day you’ll be
ashamed to do the same.
Frail, weak, scarred mine are.
Made from and destined for dust.
Yet yours now
fit in mine.


This poem was originally posted on December 24, 2015 at https://jamespruch.wordpress.com/2015/12/24/a-christmas-poem-hands/

Categories
Life Ministry

We Are Going to Be Foster Parents

Six years ago this spring I interviewed to be a child protective services investigator for the State of Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services. I knew next-to-nothing about the job or the field. It had only been three months since I entered the child welfare world, working for a private human services agency tracking youth on house arrest and supervising visits with parents and children who had been removed from the home. In God’s wisdom, however, I got the job.

With Nebraska DHHS, I investigated child abuse and neglect allegations. When I tell people this, most of them cringe, close their eyes, stay silent, or say, “Man, that must have been hard.” It was. I was exposed to seeing, hearing, and reading things no one should ever have to see, hear, or read. Most days, my work was not newsworthy. But sometimes—to often, of course—my work was heartbreaking, whether it was my case or a co-workers.

I couldn’t see what God was doing then. I was a newly married man without kids and quite clueless as to what Carly’s and my life and ministry together would look like. At the time, I knew I wanted to be a pastor. Now that I am a pastor, I realize that in the short time I was a CPS investigator God was preparing me (and my wife) for a significant step of obedience we need, and want, to take.

Before that job, my heart was like a frozen piece of meat when it came to the well-being of children and families. It’s not that I intentionally frozen my heart. I was oblivious. But through my job with the State of Nebraska, and being involved with TRAC, a camp ministry for foster kids, God was thawing and tenderizing my heart. He opened both of our eyes to see the plight of orphans—children who either have been abandoned by their parents or who have functionally been abandoned by them.

Over the past few years, God has increasingly burdened our hearts to care for children, either through fostering, adoption or both. It pains us to say, “We will when we are older!” as if the obstacles now are somehow greater than what will face us then.

If we want to live our lives for the glory of Jesus, then there is no sense waiting. We can, and should, be concerned about not wasting our future. But what about now wasting our lives right now? This has led us to pursue foster parent licensing in the State of New York. We are in the midst of training right now and hope to be licensed later this summer.

This is risky. Why would we do something like this? Because it is imitating what God has done for us. Because of sin, we came into this world spiritually fatherless. We were orphans. And yet, by the grace of God through the work of his Son Jesus, we have been adopted into his family. He became our Father. He took care for us when no one else would.

In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will (Eph. 1:5).

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons (Gal. 4:4-5).

We are risking much. But Jesus didn’t merely risk his life. He actually gave it up, for us, that we might become children of God.

Now, as Christians, we are called to tangibly display this spiritual reality by caring for orphans, abuse and neglected children, and widows. “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from them world” (James 1:25).

The early church understood this. They distinguished themselves from the world in several ways, most notably in their sexual chastity, caring for the sick, and caring for orphans as well as other vulnerable people in society.  Listen to two early accounts written about the community of believers:

But consider those who are of a different opinion with respect to the grace of Christ which has come unto us, how opposed they are to the will of God. They have no regard for love; no care for the widow, or the orphan, or the oppressed; of the bond, or of the free; of the hungry, or of the thirsty (Ignatius, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 6, c. AD 110).

Falsehood is not found among them; and they love one another; and from widows they do not turn away their esteem; and they deliver the orphan from him who treats him harshly. And he who has, gives to him who has not, without boasting. And when they see a stranger, they take him in to their homes and rejoice over him as a very brother” (Apology of Aristides the Philosopher 15, c. A.D. 125

Friends, this is our heritage. Carly and I alone can’t do everything. And neither can you. I do not believe all Christians should be foster parents or adopt. But we can all do something. Recent data shows there are only 400,000 kids in foster care. I say “only” because the number of Christians (even churches!) in this country dwarfs that. The Church could single-handedly end the foster care system as we know it without everyone needing to foster or adopt. Might the gospel spread and awaken the hearts of many if the church testified to the grace of God in this way?

I’ll be writing about our journey on this blog and Carly will on hers. When you read this or visit our blogs or think of us, would you pray for the child(ren) we’ll care for, their parents, and for us to be a tangible expression of God’s adopting love through the gospel? We would greatly appreciate it.

Categories
Life

Calvin on Abortion

From John Calvin’s Commentary on the Last Four Books of Moses:

For the fetus, though enclosed in the womb of its mother, is already a human being, and it is almost a monstrous crime to rob it of the life which it has not yet begun to enjoy. If it seems more horrible to kill a man in his own house than in a field, because a man’s house is his place of most secure refuge, it ought surely to be deemed more atrocious to destroy a fetus in the womb before it has come to light.

Categories
Disciple-Making Life

Everyday Talk, Everyday Discipleship

My wife and I live with two non-Christians, and a third is moving in this fall. These people don’t know much about Jesus. Their affection for Jesus is, practically, non-existent. When we talk about Jesus or pray or sing, they do not fall on their faces confessing their sin and praying for God’s Spirit to rain down mercy on them. Still, we’ve welcomed them as genuine members of our family. There are good days and bad days, but we love these people. Their journey to Jesus is a process. They have stony hearts and rebellious wills hell-bent on seeking their own glory, not God’s. They seek their own good, not that of others. We pray that someday they believe in Jesus and see transformation. But man alive, right now it’s not pretty. In fact, it can be downright unbecoming some days.

Can you imagine living with people like this?

Chances are, you do.

If you are a parent.

Our two, soon-to-be-three, non-Christian housemates are our beloved children. They are full-fledged members of our family, cherished and treasured above all else. Yet they did not come out of the womb singing “Just As I Am.” They aren’t Christians yet. They are members of a covenant household—Carly and I belong to Jesus—but they need conversion, just as we did at one point.

Having the perspective that we don’t just have two children but two non-Christian children (and another ready to move in), changes everything. Everything becomes evangelism and discipleship. Every conversation is a gospel conversation. Every failure or success is a moment for correction or instruction or encouragement or training. If and when our children do cross over from unbelief to belief in Jesus, this everyday and everything discipleship will not stop, but continue on quite organically.

If Carly and I are going to lead our non-Christian children to Jesus, it’s going to happen in the mundane, average, everyday stuff of life. A conversation here, a conversation there. While we walk and play and talk and read stories and watch movies and eat meals and drive and kiss ouchies and wipe away tears. Over and over and over again. It’s not going to be a one-time event or a once-a-week lesson at Sunday School. Those things can help, but it’s the everyday talk that will be the primary influence in our home. Deuteronomy 6:4-25 shows us the power of “everyday talk” in the home.

As parents in a big and fast society this is hard to handle. We want Chia Pet discipleship: after a few weeks gospel seeds start to sprout, the shekinah glory comes down, and our children are changed on the spot.

The reality is that it happens over a long period of time with lots of short, meaningful, gospel conversations that produce a lifestyle of discipleship

It happens on the way to Sunday worship, when Bailey asks me if God hears loud noises. I say he hears everything, so Bailey asks, “Is God in my heart?” Perhaps Bailey knows, deep down, there are things going on in her heart that no one knows and if God is in her heart, surely he’d “hear” those “noises,” too. Whatever the case, I say, “God is in your heart if you trust Jesus and love him.” Back to the radio. “Can you turn it up?” And we drive on.

It happens at the grocery store. Bailey makes a comment about the color of someone’s skin, simply noticing she looks different—a little darker—than we do. Everyone is made in the image of God and Jesus died for all people, not just the white ones. Back to veggies and ice cream and bread. And we walk on.

It happens when I’m unbecoming and selfish and hell-bent on seeking my own glory, and I turn to my blonde 24-month-old Hope and say, “Sweetheart, what Daddy said and did was not okay. Please forgive me. I need Jesus just like you.” Kiss. Hug. And we play on.

This is how discipleship happens. Look at the birds of the air. The grass of the field. Notice the sower. Consider this mustard tree. Do you see that mountain? Carly and I aren’t great at this. We probably aren’t even good at it. But we are learning and growing. We—the disciple-makers—are also being made, being changed. And it’s our prayer that, over time, by God’s sovereign grace, our everyday discipleship makes a few everyday disciples of Jesus right in our home.