The passage of Scripture that is so often misused in regard to the complex issue of male headship is Ephesians 5:22-23:
"Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church."
Contrary to popular interpretation, these verses do not give men a license to dominate their wives, nor do they endorse a kind of top-down hierarchy in the marriage relationship.
One of Paul's main reasons for writing this discourse on family relationships was to stress the beauty of the mystical union between man and wife, which he compares to the communion between Christ and the church. If Paul were trying to declare who was in charge, he would have said, "Wives, obey your husbands"--in the same manner that he states in Colossians 3:3, "Children, obey your parents." But he does not use the word obey.
The word hupotasso can also mean "to identify with" or "to be attached to." It can also mean "become one with." Again, the issue here is oneness and unity between equal partners, not who obeys whom.
But there is another important reason why Paul wrote these words, and we cannot understand their meaning without delving deeper into the culture of the New Testament period. Theologian Catherine Clark Kroeger has noted that in the first century, women had no rights and were considered possessions. In the Roman Empire, it was customary for the woman's father to continue to claim ownership of his daughter even after she was married.
This inhumane system, known as sine manu, or "marriage without hand," was a way for the bride's dowry to stay under the control of her father even after she moved into her husband's home. As long as she was brought back to her father's house three times a year (sometimes against her will), he could claim legal ownership of her and her property. This system, which was later outlawed, obviously created havoc in families.
Understanding this context, it makes sense why Paul stressed to the new Christian community in Ephesus that a wife should "be attached to" or "submitted" or "identified with" her husband. She was no longer to be attached to her father! And this is why Paul, a few verses later, quotes Genesis 2:24: "For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and shall be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh."
But if this passage in Ephesians does not give men permission to dominate their wives, then why does Paul say that a husband is "head" (5:23) of the wife?
The Greek word for "head" in this passage is kephale, which is most often translated "authority over." However, some Bible scholars point out that this word can and often is translated "source" in ancient texts, in much the same way that we would refer to the "head" of a river being its source. Therefore it is possible that kephale can mean here that man is the source of woman, a reference to the fact that Eve was created from Adam.
Again, many scholars believe that Paul is setting in order the true Christian family in the midst of a pagan Roman culture that treated women like property and disregarded the autonomy of a newlywed couple. According to God's plan, when a man and a woman come together in holy matrimony they must sever their ties to parents, grandparents and any other controlling influences from relatives. The man must leave his father and mother, and cleave to his wife (see Gen. 2:24). She must "submit," or "become attached to" her husband, rather than continue to relate to her father as her "head."
If we truly want to understand the meaning of Ephesians 5, these cultural factors must be considered. Paul's words to this infant New Testament church were meant to liberate women who had been subjected to a patriarchal system that did not even recognize their personhood. The gospel proclaimed in this passage set in motion a way to revolutionize that culture--and to transform the nature of men who did not know how to love their wives.
How tragic that we have used Paul's liberating words to put women in bondage!
In New Testament times, women were considered the absolute property of their fathers or husbands. They were less valuable than cattle. This is why the Apostle Paul's words to husbands in Ephesians 5:28, "Husbands should love your wives as your own bodies," was such a radical departure from the cultural traditions of the day. The Christian view of husband-wife relationships is one of equality and mutual respect, not domination, control and humiliation.
The National Council on Domestic Violence says a woman is battered every 15 seconds in this country. Tragically, the problem also exists in evangelical churches--but it is often swept under a rug because Christian leaders either don't know how to stop it or can't reconcile the problem with their theology. That's because their own teaching about marriage relationships, particularly their philosophy of wives and "biblical submission," is an underlying cause of this ugly dilemma.
Isn't it time that the church stood up and shined a truly biblical light of truth into the world's dark history of gender bias?
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