Yesterday I made the simple point that we must understand Paul’s teaching about husbands and wives, in both Ephesians 5 and Colossians 3, in a way that keeps Christ at the center. He is the head over all. He has redeemed the human race and he is now calling his bride, the church, to a marriage and a wedding feast in the age to come. He cleanses his bride and cherishes her. He loves her with an eternal love. This is the biblical basis for a true understanding of this often controversial text about husbands and wives.
I believe Paul’s view of marriage is totally unexpected if you know the social and cultural background of his words. These words would have shocked ancient people. They should shock us but generally we read them through our own cultural lens. They do not shock us precisely because we have settled for ideology rather than true theology.
Paul clearly says that wives are to submit to their husbands. In fact, they are to do this as to the Lord. But do not fail to see that he plainly says: “Let all kinds of submission to one another become obedience to Christ” (CCB). When we rightly submit to others, in the proper context and manner, we are submitting to Christ. Husbands submit. Wives submit. All faithful Christians are submissive to all kinds of God ordained authority. This does not mean that Christians become doormats for tyrants, whether in marriage or in society. It does mean that if we obey we adopt an attitude like that of Christ. Remember, he refused to use his innate power to overcome opposition. We sometimes read Jesus’ actions as passive. I submit that he actively resists all powers and all tyranny by submitting to the Father in all things. This required hard work, the work of self-discipline and prayer. He did not submit by the power of his divine nature but rather by the power of the Holy Spirit working in his humanity. (Any other view is a heresy if the truth is followed!)
The society of Paul’s time demanded that wives submit to their husbands. The husband was an autocrat who had control over his wife (rights, sexuality, etc.) entirely. Women had few, and at times no, legal place in society. They were expected to please their husbands and to do their will. So when Paul says that wives should submit it could have been understood as a simple endorsement of the cultural norm. But this would be a totally simplistic category mistake given the actual context of this letter. The context is Christ, his supremacy and his authority.
There is no reason to reject Paul’s teaching as oppressive or radically hierarchical. There is no hammer and chisel here. There is no male-centered chain of command. We are “joint-heirs” of the grace of God. We are co-laborers in the gospel. We are brothers and sisters in Christ. “There is no longer any difference between Jew and Greek, or between slave or freed, or between man and woman: but all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). This obviously does not mean that we become sexless, gender-neutral persons. We remain male and female. There is no place for misogyny or gender wars. The point is that in Christ we do not relate to each other as the world teaches us to relate but rather as brothers and sisters, as one undivided humanity. Let this truth soak in for a time. Do not throw up all kinds of reactions. Just let that central thought fill you with his light and truth. It has incredible power when it is acted upon in faith.
The point Paul is making here is too easily missed. He is encouraging Christians to practice a strong mutual love in marriage. He is not reinforcing cultural distinctions but teaching doctrine that is centered in Christ alone. In fact, Paul is not primarily teaching us about marriage in this text. Marriage is secondary and cannot be understood unless we grasp the primary point about Christ. What is primary is the deeply intimate and mystical relationship that Christ has with his church.