After a recent post by Kelly and a few others, I have finally got around to getting down some thoughts on the issue of Biblical relationships between men and women. There are two places in the Bible I’ll focus on – the first is Creation and the fall, the second is a look at Eph 5:21-33 in the context of Paul's writings. Hopefully, this will result in some good ideas about submission/headship. In the interest of brevity I can’t present complete arguments as to why I say some things, so forgive me if I seem too like I’m making unjustified statements. I'd be keen to hear others' ideas about all this...
There are some pretty obvious and not-so-obvious points to be found here. Firstly, both men and women together were given equal standing to God, because He created them ‘male and female’ (Gen , 28). But, God makes man first (2:7). Being the ‘first’ or ‘firstborn’ has associations with it in Jewish culture, with the firstborn typically being given more responsibility or seen as the ‘leader’ (check
God makes woman “as a helper for him” () – but the Hebrew is better stated as “a helpful counterpart for him.” Again, there is the connotation of equality of status, but perhaps not exactly the same function in relationship. Then, Adam recognises the woman as “bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh” () – expressing his recognition that she was his counterpart. However, another thing noteworthy here is that Adam names her (twice), because such responsibility again could imply a difference between the man and the woman.
God told Adam not to eat of the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil (), and evidently left Adam to tell Eve. In this sense, Adam was again given a responsibility to ensure neither of them did as God asked. So, it is hardly surprising that the ‘serpent’, which we assume is a metaphor for the devil, undermines this responsibility by persuading the woman to go against what her husband had said (3:1-5). Thus, instead of being loyal to her husband, she obeys the serpent. Adam forgoes his responsibility by not only not stopping her, but eating the fruit himself also (3:6). So, perhaps there is more that ‘fell’ here than merely sin against God.
God calls Adam to account first (3:9), again indicating God views Adam as the one who is responsible. By shifting the blame (), Adam tries to avoid facing the responsibility God had entrusted to him. After more blame-shifting and God punishing the serpent, He speaks to Eve. Notice that God did not state that it was ‘for eating the fruit’ that God states her husband will ‘will rule over’ her (3:16) – perhaps this was because the eating of the fruit was Adam’s responsibility. Thus, perhaps the consequences for the women are a result of her breaking of the Godly relationship, for now the husband will desire to ‘rule over her’. This ‘rule’ is not in a good sense, but a harmful sense (compare 4:7), and God ‘instituting’ such dominance but rather merely stating what the consequences are going to be. Indeed, for millennia men have seemingly wanted to ‘rule’ women.
God addresses Adam differently to Eve, saying “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree, although I commanded you ‘You must never eat its fruit’” (). In contrast to His address to Eve, God highlights that He gave the command – and responsibility - to Adam, and He was irresponsible. Furthermore, it is interesting that God says “you listened to your wife” instead of ‘listening to God’.
So, I would suggest that this story illustrates a break of the ideal relationships involving God and people, that ‘the head of every man is God, and the head of the woman is the man’ (compare 1Co 11:3). But what does ‘head’ really mean, and in what sense do people ‘submit’ to the head? As I hinted throughout this look at Genesis, I think ‘headship’ involves responsibility, and ‘submission’ involves devotion. So, let’s look at Paul’s writings to find out…
The Genesis account seems a poor argument to assert the ‘headship’ of the man, but Paul clearly thought it was valid support of the ‘headship’ of the man, as he writes in 1 Tim 2:13, 14: “And I do not allow a woman to… exercise dominion over a man … for Adam was formed first, then Eve” (the teaching and silence matters are outside my current scope of discussion). Clearly, the fact that Adam and Eve were husband and wife cannot be overlooked. Paul points to the fact that Eve was deceived and ate as reason why a wife should not usurp the responsibility of the husband – again indicating this is a notable element of the Genesis account.
Paul states that the man is the ‘head’ of the wife and for wives to ‘submit’ to their husbands too often to ignore (e.g. 1 Co 11:3,7, Eph 5:21-33, Col 3:18, 1Pe 3:1-7, 1 Tim 2:11-15, ). Yet, he speaks of Christ’s ‘headship’ and our ‘submission’ to God even more commonly. So, the real crux of Paul’s teachings on the relationship of husband and wife is found in the parallel with Christ and the church, as outlined in Eph 5:21-33:
Submit yourselves to each other, in reverence of God. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands in the same way that you submit to the Lord. The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church. It is his body, and he is its Savior. As the church submits to Christ, so wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave his life for it. He did this to make the church holy by cleansing it, washing it using water along with spoken words. Then he could present it to himself as a glorious church, without any kind of stain or wrinkle-holy and without faults. So, husbands must love their wives as they love their own bodies. A man who loves his wife loves himself. No one ever hated his own body. Instead, he feeds and takes care of it, as Christ takes care of the church.
We are parts of his body. That's why a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and the two will be one. This is a great mystery. (I'm talking about Christ's relationship to the church.) But, every husband must love his wife as he loves himself, and wives should respect their husbands.
Firstly, in verse 21, it is clear that we are told to “submit yourselves to each other, in reverence of God.” What follows in the rest of the chapter is a description of what the responsibility of service and submission involve for both the husband and the wife. Man and woman are different in how they relate, and therefore ‘submission’ will take a different yet complimentary shape for both.
In all cases, submission is a voluntary and willing form of service, loyalty, and devotion. The word is also translated a ‘subject’ – which would describe the ‘subjects’ of a King. It is portrayed as a proper and willing response to another. Submitting is not something we are compelled to do, but something that is right for us to do.
But, it should be noted Paul’s ideas of ‘headship’ seem often tied to the marriage relationship between husband and wife, and should not be carelessly taken to apply outside it. Plenty of people seem to apply ‘headship’ and ‘submission’ to all men and women. Yet, I am not sure if biblical ‘headship’ applies in general outside of marriage, but I suspect it does not – after all, a ‘head’ can only have one ‘body’. However, the principles found in Paul’s teaching on this matter of how to love one another can perhaps be applied outside of marriage to our friendships – without need to maintain a ‘authority and submission’ mindset.
That said, let’s list some things about the relationship of Christ and the church – because this is the key to understanding this passage.
- Is ‘head’ and ‘Lord’ of the church
- Spiritual leader/’head’ (Heb 12:2 “Jesus, the chief leader and perfector of faith”).
- As the ‘foremost’, He submitted to the church in the form of a servant (Mat ,28). Christ made it clear that the ‘head’ is not a position to forcibly exercise authority over others, but rather it is the responsibility to serve in submission.
- He is completely committed and devoted to the church, and does not waver (Heb 13:8)
- Loves the church graciously, for nothing will separate the church from His committed love (Rom )
- Completely obeyed and submitted selflessly to God’s will, rather than His own. (Mat 26:39)
- Loved the church intensely, at the sacrifice of Himself (John )
- Sacrificed Himself for the Church (John )
- Lead by being the first to sacrifice for the church, which inspires love from us (1Jo , 1Jo , Eph 5:2)
- Is the ‘savior’, of ‘rescuer’, of the church.
- Is the shepherd of the church, protecting, looking after them, and bringing them back from going astray (John , 14, Heb , 1Pe )
- ‘Glorifies’ the church, by living and dying for it
- The giver and wellspring of life (John )
- ‘Feeds’ the church (John )
- Is considered Christ’s own ‘body’ (note parallels with Eph -33)
- The church is co-heir with Christ (Rom )
- Sacrifices itself for Christ,
- Willingly ‘submits’ to Christ, loyally following Him – and serves ‘in the same attitude as Christ’ (Eph , 1Pe 4:1)
- Should be completely obedient to God’s will (which is Christ’s)
- ‘Glorifies’, respects, and praises Christ for what He’s done (2Th )
- Loses its own life, but finds it in Christ (Mat )
- Dies to its own desires, but is made ‘alive in Christ’ (Rom
- Must love Christ far more than anything else on earth (Luk )
- Finds fulfillment in Christ (John )
- Is ‘one with Christ’ in spirit (Rom 8:9).
- Is completely loyal to Christ
Comparing the two, we find that both Christ and the Church:
- Cannot have purpose without the other
- ‘Submit’ to serve each other
- Sacrifice their own desires for the sake of the other
- Love each other more than anything else on earth
- Are (co-heirs) of the Father.
However, these similarities are expressed somewhat differently, and there are clear differences between Christ and the Church. I will attempt to summarise these differences below, while still highlight that each is living for the other, but I’m leaving out important aspects. For example, to maintain relevance to relationships between men and women, I am not mentioning some important things like Christ’s divinity. So:
- Christ is the responsible spiritual leader who takes initiative to inspire, motivate, guide, nurture, care for, serve, and build the church into a ‘glorious bride’. As the ‘head’, He chooses to live for the body.
- The Church is the loyal spiritual follower that responds with love, praise, honour, respect and devotion because of for His love for the church. The church finds its fulfilling purpose in serving and glorifying Christ, for the church is inspired (by Christ) to live for the ‘head’.
Now I cannot help but comment that these ‘roles’ fit rather well with how I observe men and women to show love for each other. Men seem good at showing love by caring for and doing things for (and with) their wives, and wives seem good at showing love by praising and encouraging and supporting their husbands for what they do. Men feel loved by their wives when they are praised and supported and encouraged, while (I think) women feel loved when their husbands take initiative to serve and care and do things for them and with them.
Both live for each other, both serve each other and both are submitted to each other, but men and women differ in how they can best do these things. Yet, in that difference, lies incredible strength because it makes a cycle, where each inspire the other to greater love. The husband and wife form a circle that feeds itself on the love each other provide.
So, it seems that the man is the ‘spiritual head’ of the relationship. Note that this has little to do with 'who's boss', but everything to do with responsibility. In this capacity, he is the one to lead, guide, and take initiative with wisdom, discernment and love – to build up his wife into a great woman of God in all respects by sacrificing himself wholly for her benefit. By loving his wife in this way, he is loving himself because his wife will respond in love and the whole relationship will be strengthened. This ‘role’ fits with what men are good at.
The woman is of an equal importance, but it would not be out of place to describe her as a ‘helper’. By supporting and encouraging and praising her husband, putting him first in the relationship, he will naturally respond by loving her even more. So one could say that by loving her husband in this way, she is loving herself because the relationship will be strengthened. This role fits with what women are good at.
Thus, using a body as a metaphor for the relationship between man and woman is very suitable, for the head and body cannot survive independently, both are of equal importance, both serve the other, and both function in complete harmony with their design.
‘Headship’ therefore, could be viewed as ‘selfless responsibility to the body’, and likewise ‘submission’ could be termed ‘selfless worship of the head’. In using these words, I am unsuccessfully trying to encompass all the aspects of Christ and the Church in only a few words.
Biblical relationships, therefore, have nothing to do with 'who's boss', but all to do with willing sacrifice – both of the husband and wife. So, I think the bar is raised equally high for both men and women, and when both love each other in this way, 'authority' will not be an issue. Men are called sacrifice themselves in responsibility for their wives; women are called to sacrifice themselves in devotion to their husbands. Husbands give their lives for their wives (under God); wives give their lives to their husbands (under God) - both are different yet complimentary. There are many more complexities and overlaps beneath these statements, but I think they capture the essence. Both are different expressions of the same thing – sacrificial love.
Edited last paragraph in light of comments, 21/10/04.