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.
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
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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).
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.” or “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden.”
Only the context can help us. And since we’ve already seen the call for mutual submission in Ephesians 5:21, we know it cannot be a dictatorial-type military submission.
In verse 22, where Paul begins his instructions to wives, the Greek word for “submit” isn’t there. It has to be carried over from verse 21.
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.”.
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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
Featured image: Denny Muller on Unsplash.
 Plato, Republic, 4.431b-c.
 Carolyn Osiek, “Household Codes,” Bible Odyssey.
 Aristotle, Politics, Book 1, Part V.
 Ibid., Book 1, Park XII.
 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!
 Osiek, “Household Codes.”
 Mowczko, “The household codes.”
 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.
 BDAG, 1042.
 Philip B. Payne, “What About Headship? From Hierarchy to Equality,” Mutual by Design: A Better Model for Christian Marriage, CBE International (2017), 151.
 In Ephesians 4:15-16, Paul calls Christ “the head” of the Church, but emphasizes the nourishing role Christ has with his church.
 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!”
. 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.