Wife and Husband: sacrificial leadership meets love-inspired submission

Wife and Husband: sacrificial leadership meets love-inspired submission

Christianity Today just released an article by Sarah Sumner that so nicely exegetes Ephesians 5 that I am compelled to share it with you here. Not only that, I want to be sure to remember this, so it’s going into my blog as part of my online brain.

Article Summary
Sarah comes right out of the gates with the observation that we have read into Scripture what was probably never intended: that the metaphor describing the union between man and wife (we become one flesh, one body) and the imagery of that metaphor (that the man is the head, the wife is the body, as Christ is the head of the Church and we are his body) has been taken too far.

Ephesians 5

Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

But among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed, because these are improper for God’s holy people. Nor should there be obscenity, foolish talk or coarse joking, which are out of place, but rather thanksgiving. For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a man is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God.[a] Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for it is light that makes everything visible. This is why it is said:

“Wake up, O sleeper,
rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”

Be very careful, then, how you live—not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the Lord’s will is. Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit. Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing[b] her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”[c] This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

For example, it is often assumed that the word head means “leader”—though the Bible never says the husband is the “leader” of his wife. The mystery of one flesh is exchanged for a business model in which the husband is the boss and the wife his assistant.

In addition, many Evangelicals assume that the husband is the head of the house. But the Bible does not say that. It says that the husband is the head “of the wife” (Eph. 5:23). He is the head of her. That makes sense in light of the biblical picture of one flesh. It’s nonsensical, by contrast, for anyone to think that the husband is one flesh with his household.

Sarah goes on to tackle a hot-button passage close to the heart of the egalitarian vs. complementarian debate: Ephesians 5:22-33–-the passage which defines male and female lines of authority in the family. (Egalitarian position: women are equal to men in essence and function—women are not functionally subordinate to men simply by nature of gender. Complementarian position: women are equal to men in essence, but only men are to hold authority.) But here’s the rub, Sarah wants to do this niggling thing that drives some folks nuts: She wants to read the context.

In fact, Sara wants to look at this passage not only in light of what went before, she wonders what happens if we include verse 21 in the discussion. You know, the verse that says, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

Let’s pare that view down to its essence:

  • Everybody should submit to everybody.
  • Wives submit to your husbands, like the church submits to Christ.
  • Husbands love your wives, like Christ loves the church.

But, Sarah notes, Paul does not seem to be merely repeating his injunction to submit, as though he were in the habit of redundancy. There must be something more going on than the larger picture of general submission. Paul, after all, narrows his focus to marriage after writing about the general issues within the church, so he has something distinct to say about marriage itself, not necessarily submission and authority.

Sara proposes that the passage isn’t supporting either the egalitarian or the complementarian view. Instead, Paul is simply saying something valuable about the nature of marriage and the special relationship it engenders, and it’s being lost in the debate. She focuses on three terms in the text as “couplets,” as shown below, from the article:

The wife is to be subject to her husband in everything, and he is to sacrifice himself for her. The dynamic is for her to submit and him to sacrifice (vv. Ephesians 5:22, Ephesians 5:24, and Ephesians 5:25).

The wife is the body, and the husband is the head. Together they form one flesh (vv. Ephesians 5:23, Ephesians 5:28, and Ephesians 5:31).

The wife is commanded to respect her husband, while the husband is commanded to love his wife (vv. Ephesians 5:28 and Ephesians 5:33).

I like this, because it un-chains submission from leadership, and yokes it to sacrifice, where it belongs.

Read the whole article, it’s well worth it, especially Sarah’s conclusion, where she speculates that our fundamental misunderstanding of the biblical model of marriage be a contributing to our high divorce rates within the church. It’s a fantastic conclusion. I won’t give it away here.

The Article Itself
Bridging the Ephesians 5 Divide: A fresh look at what this controversial marriage passage says—and doesn’t say. By Sarah Sumner, posted 11/18/2005 09:00 a.m.

Additional Thoughts
Sarah’s article provides a needed corrective to the debate. I’m not sure it’s all that new, really, it harmonizes with much that I’ve agreed with from the best marital relationship teachers, and it harmonizes with much that I’ve said about marriage among my family, friends, and pagans. But she articulates it so well, it’s worth the read and it’s worth reading and re-reading Ephesians 5 in light of this view.

Here’s a little bit about my view on marriage. Marriage is the only earthly example God has ordained to serve as the physical picture of his relationship with his people. In my view, this goes all the way back to the Genesis accounts of creation and the imago dei that was built within us. God made man, male and female, in his image. He didn’t just ceate the male in his image, and then the female in his image—it was God’s intent to provide a helper suitable for Adam from the very beginning, and it was his plan that these two join in marriage. After all, they could only marry each other—it was the first marriage. Ordained by God, sanctified by God, created by God. As such, that marriage also bears his image because out of two beings of discrete flesh, marriage unites them into one flesh. The marital union bears the image of God.

Now, if the marital union bears the image of God, this has startling implications, I think.

Why is murder so heinous in God’s eyes? Why was the Old Testament punishment for murder capital punishment? See Genesis 9:6: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man.”

Also, see Chuck Colson on this:

It is because humans are created in the image of God that capital punishment for premeditated murder was to be a perpetual obligation. To kill a person was tantamount to killing God in effigy. (See: “Capital Punishment,”Colson, in turn, cites Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward Old Testament Ethics [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983] 91.)

If murder is so heinous an act because it does violence to the image of God within each of us, then what about divorce?

I am not proposing capital punishment for divorce. However, I suspect that there are very few places in our churches today where you can find such an elevated concept of the sacred (yes, sacred) union between man and wife that it is considered as distasteful, sinful, hateful, and painful as murder.

For a long time it was joked within the A/G that if you were a minister you would do better to kill your wife than murder her because once you were divorced, your standing as a minister was tarnished, and your credentials could be taken away. Then you could be divorced as long as you didn’t remarry. Now you can be divorced and remarried and still minister from the pulpit as long as the divorce occurred before salvation.

On this point, we are accommodating culture, because far, far too many people enter marriages with a low view of its sacredness, its holiness, its role in bearing the image of God.

We can do little, or nothing, about the current state of affairs with current marriages except hope that those who are still married catch this vision and elevate their views of this sanctified thing they hold. But, for the sake of God and marriage, I pray we preach the truth and teach our children that this is not a thing to be entered lightly. Marriage is holy ground. We need to teach it more clearly.

[tags]BlogRodent, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Assemblies-of-God, Assembly-of-God, Christianity-Today, Sarah-Sumner, marriage, egalitarianism, complementarianism, controversy, debate, Ephesians-5, husband, wife, authority, submission, theology, Bible, divorce, imago-dei, image-of-God, hermeneutics, exegesis[/tags]

5 thoughts on “Wife and Husband: sacrificial leadership meets love-inspired submission

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  2. Henry

    This is always an interesting discussion. The thing I like about it is that it drives us into the Scriptures to solidify our positions. Brother Rich, I’ve been meaning to come over here and dialogue with you some but my time constraints have been enormous. Hopefully I will be able to participate more in discussion in the future. You have a nice blog here.

    God bless and Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours!

  3. Curt Dalaba

    “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.”

    So if headship of the wife is not authority and is not leadership, why this comparison to the headship of Christ as our model? Why should the husband imitate Christ only in sacrifice and not in leadership? Or is she weakening the model? Is she saying that Christ is not our authority and not our leader?

    I much prefer the marital model of power sharing. The man is given the power of authority and the woman is given the power of influence. One does not function well without the other.

  4. Rich Post author

    We dialoged a bit about this in IM, Curt, but I wanted to respond a bit here, too, because I think this is a worthwhile dialog. Thanks for joining in!

    I agree with your model: that there is a positive dynamic in the tension between influence and authority. I’ve heard this since I was in high school, and I think it’s a positive view of things–one I strive for with my family.

    In our IM I wondered out loud whether we have anachronistically read back into the metaphor for “head” our contemporary understanding of the brain as the seat of understanding and decision-making. I wondered whether 2,000 years ago the current wisdom might have head that the “heart” or the “bowels” as the chief location of the intellect and will. So, I went on a quick search of the NT, especially Paul’s writing, where cephale (“head”) is used in this contemporary sense of leadership and authority.

    Well, no surprise. I was wrong, here are a few passages demonstrating that headship is authority:

    Ephesians 1:22

    “And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church,”

    Colossians 1:18

    “He is also head of the body, the church; and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that He Himself will come to have first place in everything.”

    Colossians 2:10

    “…and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority”

    Colossians 2:19

    “…and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God.”

    1 Corinthians 11:3

    “But I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of a woman, and God is the head of Christ.”

    And so, I think this necessarily deflates Sarah’s argument:

    “Nowhere in Scripture is a husband told to lead his wife. As I noted earlier, this idea is very popular, but it doesn’t derive directly from God’s Word. Complementarians are the ones who keep saying that husbands should lead their wives. The apostle Paul never says that once in all his letters. Jesus doesn’t say it either. Neither does Peter or John. No one in the New Testament ever says it.”

    Based on my brief survey, Sarah seems to make the mistake of isolating a single metaphorical usage of a term from its cultural and literary context and too narrowly restricting to its role in the metaphor. However, it’s clear that this concept of headship, resting in a metaphor as it does, carries with it clear ideas of authority and identity precisely because of its use in a metaphor. Just because a term has applicability as a metaphorical device does not mean that it is empty of the associated meanings it has acqured precisely because of this aptness.

    For example, suppose I write: “Like a tree’s roots must tap into deep wells of water for nourishment and strenth, we must also be rooted in meditation on the Word.” It would be inappropriate for someone to then say that I am only speaking metaphorically of “roots” here, that I do not mean that there is in any sense a “foundational,” or “unmoving,” aspect to my usage of “root.” That “rootedness” is not in view. No, it’s precisely because of the aptness of the “root” as metaphor that it has acquired these fuller meanings, and my usage of the metaphor is made in light of all that. To restrict the meaning to the metaphor, alone, when there is a greater richness, ignores the fuller usage of the terms at hand.

    So, I must conclude, Sarah does and admirable job exegeting this passage on its own terms, but does poorly in explaining headship in light of other NT, and especially Pauline, usage.

    Thanks for forcing me to examine this more closely, Curt.


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