A distraught Christian woman who had been regularly beaten by her husband for four years finally gained the courage to seek counsel from her pastor, who was affiliated with a prominent evangelical denomination. She told him about her husband's addiction to pornography, his fits of rage and how he had once thrown her against a wall so hard that she heard a cracking sound in the back of her neck.
The pastor's response was frightening: "If your husband kills you," he advised, "it will be to the glory of God." Her only option, he told her, was to submit and pray that God would change her husband's heart.
This is perverted! How did we ever invent a "Christian" theology that encourages a woman to risk injury or death at the hands of her husband to please God? How warped this woman's own view of God must be if she accepts this counsel.
The root problem with our theology is that the church has taught that men have a biblical right to dominate--and it has instructed women that their submission to this ungodly behavior is God-ordained suffering, which they must willingly bear. This butchering of biblical texts distorts the character of Christ--who spent much of His time teaching on God's care for the oppressed.
Let's look carefully at a verse that is most often used to promote this wrong view, and set the record straight.
Because the Apostle Paul told women to "submit to your husbands as to the Lord" (Eph. 5:22, NIV), we have assumed this means women have no say in family matters or that their opinion is second-rate. This verse, taken out of context, has been twisted to mean that the husband is the boss and the woman must obey his every whim. We portray marriage as a hierarchy, with husbands on the throne and wives at the footstool.
But this is not a Christian view of marriage at all. The first rule of biblical hermeneutics is that we look at all of Scripture to clarify the meaning of a particular text. So before we can understand this one verse, we must look at what the Bible in general teaches about submission and authority.
In more than one instance Jesus taught that a true leader in the kingdom of God is a servant. He said the greatest must be the least. He told His disciples that they must become as children. He said in Mark 10:44 that "whoever wishes to be first among you shall be slave of all."
How do we apply this passage to marriage? Certainly it should be clear that if a man is called to lead a family, his leadership must be Christlike. He must serve, not dictate. He must display humility, not a know-it-all attitude. He must lead from a position of meekness, not from prideful superiority or tyrannical domination.
In fact, Jesus flatly condemned the worldly style of top-down, hierarchical leadership when he taught that His kingdom was not like that of the Gentiles, whose leaders "lord it over" their subordinates (see Matt. 20:25-26). Why would Christ condemn this kind of behavior on one hand, and then encourage husbands to act in an authoritarian manner at home? He didn't, and neither did the apostle Paul.
When we read Paul's discourse on marriage in Ephesians 5, we must start with verse 21, "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ" (NIV). This verse has been conveniently overlooked in many Christian marriage seminars, which usually start the lesson with verse 22, "Wives, submit to your own husbands." I have often heard teachings on the subject of male headship in the home, but I've never heard a pastor encourage men to submit to their wives as it is suggested in verse 21. Yet in a loving marriage, a man and woman will defer to one another as they make decisions.
A closer look at this passage reveals that this teaching begins with verse 21, which encourages all believers to submit to one another "in the fear of the Christ." To promote an attitude of submissiveness in the entire church, Paul tells wives to submit to their husbands, husbands to wives, children to parents and slaves to masters. Submission, not in the sense of domination or rulership over another, but in the sense of preferring one another and not demanding personal rights, should be operating in the entire body of Christ in order to reveal the love of Christ to the world.
We also must note that the Greek word for submission, hupotasso, is written in the Greek middle voice, which means it is something that an individual imposes upon himself or herself. It means to choose to yield to another, rather than demanding one's own way. Submission remains the freewill right of the one choosing to yield. It cannot be demanded or imposed upon an individual from another. When this occurs, it stops being hupotasso and becomes domination, which was an attitude Christ forbade His disciples to operate in with regard to one another (see Matt. 23:10). Submission is not something that can be required or exacted from another person.
The overarching theme of marriage in the Bible is the concept of unity and oneness. Couples should develop a deep level of intimacy and trust that blossoms as they work out differences, share dreams and walk through hardships together. In my 16 years of marriage, my wife and I have had plenty of disagreements: Over finances, over the education of our children and over trivial matters. But when we disagree, I do not announce, "I am the head of this house, so what I say goes." When we reach an impasse, Deborah and I either agree to pray for a season about the matter, or we choose to defer to one another. This is the concept of biblical submission that the apostle Paul attempted to convey in Ephesians. I don't demand my way and Deborah doesn't demand hers. Instead, we both humbly seek after God's way, His will and His purpose. When our hearts are truly His, biblical submission is easy.
The point is never who is right or wrong, or who is in charge. The issue is how we can discover the mind of Christ. I view my wife as an equal. I am not "over her." We function as one.
Paul told husbands, "this is how you love your wives, by giving up your life, your way and your rights, as Christ gave up His. Remember that Christ was Lord of the universe and laid down His crown by submitting Himself unto death. The Bible says He took on the form of a servant. He laid down His life to raise us up. This is the purpose of biblical submission.
We must notice also in studying Ephesians 5 that Paul does not focus the text solely on the need for wifely submission. His words in this passage also stress the loving attitude husbands should demonstrate at home. Men are commanded to love their wives "as Christ loves the church" (v. 25) and "as their own bodies." These words were revolutionary in a first century culture that taught that wives were their husband's property!
Marriages are doomed to serious dysfunction and ultimate failure if the husband views his wife as inferior, or if he arrogantly assumes that God wants him to always have the right answer and the wisest plan in every situation. No! The reason God provided Adam with Eve was because the man couldn't do it alone. He needed an equal partner who complimented him in every way.
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