It appears that as a Christian woman, if you are not speaking in support of submission, then you are speaking against the bible. Even for the bulk of “open minded” Christians, Feminism seems like a fine idea, as long as it’s not tackling submission. Equality outside the home is great, but in the home the wife is to submit and the husband is to lead.
I don’t believe in these doctrines.
Now before you get to closing this “blasphemous” article, please, please, please, give me some time to explain.
By now you are probably thinking; “but it appears in the bible that wives are to submit to their husbands”. Of course it appears, it appears in Ephesians, Colossians and 1 Peter. But, there are many other things that appear in the bible that we Christians don’t follow; take putting adulterers to death for instance. My point is — “appearing” is simply not enough, studying these appearances is actually what matters.
let’s start with a little chit chat about bible study;
- There weren’t initially verses in the bible, chapters and verses were added for ease of read. The writers wrote long essays, letters and songs to express themselves. To isolate a verse is to take things out of context. “Equality outside the home is just great but in the home the wife is to submit and the husband is to head” — this is an excerpt from the 1st paragraph of this article. If you read this excerpt alone; you’d think I was in support of the “wife submission” doctrine, when in fact reading the whole article will suggest the opposite.
- The people in the bible lived in settings. Full fledged social, cultural, political settings.
- The bible wasn’t originally written in English, this is why there are various versions, there is indeed such a thing as lost in translation.
- No one person has sole interpretation of the bible, this is why theology grows. So don’t be afraid to query doctrines and investigate them within the bible.
- Lastly we must base our understanding on the perspective of what Christ has done.
So, let’s start by looking at the verses that ask wives to submit to their husbands.
1st Peter 3:1 reads
“Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands”
“In the same way” stands out because it gives meaning to the verse. It means there is something that has been said earlier that is being referenced, right? Let’s take a look. The preceding paragraph (1st Peter 2:18) has nothing to do with the relationship between men and women, but was instead about the relationship between masters and slaves!
1st Peter 2:18, 3:1 reads
“Slaves, in reverent fear of God submit yourselves to your masters, not only to those who are good and considerate, but also to those who are harsh, For it is commendable if someone bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because they are conscious of God…………………..Wives, in the same way submit yourselves to your own husbands”
Some more investigation revealed that all three major passages that instruct wives to submit to their husbands are either preceded or followed by instructions for slaves to submit to their masters. Right after Paul encouraged Ephesian wives to submit to their husbands as they would to Christ, and Ephesian husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the Church, he instructed Ephesian slaves to “obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ” (Ephesians 6:5).
The same thing happens again in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, where Paul wrote: Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and …….. Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. . . .
The implications of this pattern are immense. If Christians are to use these passages to argue that a hierarchical relationship between husband and wife is divinely instituted and inherently holy, then, they must also argue the same for the relationship between master and slave.
Now, let’s take a look at the intentions behind those verses.
Were Paul and Peter really establishing a divine hierarchy or were they working with a cultural one that already existed?
We know through other verses of the bible that our God cannot be in support of slavery.
Gal 3:28 reads
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Similarly, we can tell from verses like Gal 3:28 that gender isn’t to be a factor in the dynamics of roles and opportunities in the new creation. This starts to open up the thinking that perhaps, rather than establishing hierarchy, Paul and Peter were working around already existing socio-cultural hierarchy.
In 1st century Greece and Rome, women were viewed as property, slaves were seen as property too. Women moved from being their father’s property to their husband’s property. This was such an essential part of their culture, so much so that these household codes were enforced by law. These household codes were considered essential to the preservation of Roman society, at the center of which stood the pater familias or head of the family. He had authority over his children, wife and slaves. Any new movement or sect thought to undermine the authority of the pater familias would have drawn unwelcome attention.
We must remember that the bible tells us that the early Christians were a minority who were highly persecuted. Beaten, killed, imprisoned. So, Paul did not throw away the Roman household codes; to do so would have been suicide for himself and the early church. But he did seek to reform them by urging the pater familias to show a measure of kindness, restraint, and respect not typically expected of him.
Paul did not liberate the weaker parties (slaves and women) from their culturally-bound obligations. Rather, he offered them a way to work within these obligations; turning them into an opportunity to imitate Christ’s suffering and thus redeeming an unjust situation.
Peter and Paul’s use of metaphor (the husband is like Christ, the wife is like the Church, suffering slaves are like the suffering Christ) is not meant to universalize or glorify the household codes themselves but rather the *attitudes* of those functioning within the hierarchical systems of the day.
It is no accident or coincidence that Peter introduced his version of the household codes with a riddle: “Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves” (1 Peter 2:16 Updated NIV) or that Paul began his with the admonition that Christians are to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). It may be hard for us to see it now but Peter and Paul were introducing the first Christian family to an entirely new community, a community that transcends the rigid hierarchy of human institutions, a community in which submission is mutual and all are free.
We see this sort of thinking again in I Peter 3:7
I Peter 3:7 (KJV) reads
Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honor unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered.
The “Weaker vessel” in this passage is not referring to an intellectual, physical or emotional weakness, but to the woman’s weakened position in first century Greco-Roman and Jewish cultures. This is borne out by the fact that the word “weaker” in this passage is translated from the Greek word asthenei, which is used to refer to someone, such as a prisoner, a marginalised person, basically someone whom society has deprived of freedom and opportunity. This larger meaning is borne out by Thayer’s Greek English Lexicon, which includes the meaning of the word as “one who abstains from the use of his strength” and “one who has no occasion to prove his strength.” Peter is saying that although women have a lesser place in society, Christian husbands should rather act on their knowledge of equality in Christ and honor their wives.
The Message bible version (MSG) has a simpler articulation of 1 Peter 3;7 which reads
“The same goes for you husbands: Be good husbands to your wives. Honor them, delight in them. As women they lack some of your advantages. But in the new life of God’s grace, you’re equals. Treat your wives, then, as equals so your prayers don’t run aground.”
Rather than call for revolution or rebellion, Paul and Peter attempt to reframe these Greeco-roman patriarchal obligations by giving them dignity, either that of identification with Christ or of identification with the ‘holy women’ of Jewish antiquity like Sarah.
This kind of wisdom in dealing with societal obligations is very reminiscent of Christ. When Christ was man living under the Roman empire, he refused to play by their rules and yet he broke none of their laws. He did not fight them; he disarmed them; He didn’t fight away his persecution to death but he resurrected from the dead.
It’s time to look at Jesus.
Jesus himself doesn’t appear to be a fan of human hierarchical relations. When his disciples argued amongst themselves about who would be greatest in the kingdom, Jesus told them that “anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9:35).
In speaking to them about authority he said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25–28). Keep this paragraph in mind when you think of the phrase “Love your wife as Christ loved the church.”
This aspect of Jesus’ legacy profoundly affected relationships in the early church, to whom Paul wrote: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:5–8).
The bible tells us that hierarchy enters human relationship as part of the fall. It begins with man’s oppression of women; “your turning will be for your husband, and he will rule over you” (Genesis 3:16). But with Christ, hierarchical relationships are exposed for the sham that they are, as the last are made first, the first are made last, the poor are blessed, the meek inherit the earth, and the God of the universe takes the form of a slave.
What’s great about the Christian remix of the Greco-Roman household codes is that, when put into practice, it blurs the hierarchal lines between husband and wife, master and slave. If wives submit to their husbands as the Church submits to Christ (Ephesians 5:24), and if husbands love their wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Ephesians 5:25), and if both husbands and wives submit to one another (Ephesians 5:21) — who’s really “in charge” here?
Such a relationship could only be characterized by humility and respect, with both partners imitating Christ, who time and again voluntarily placed himself in a position of submission. No adult who truly loves another adult can demand or even want their submission in the way it has been typically asked of Christian wives. For a husband to demand or want submission means he has failed in that which is required of him, which is to love self sacrificially.
Ephesians 5:25 reads
“Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it.”
Christ obviously still loves the church till date. “Loved” suggests that there is a specific activity of love that Christ had done which expresses what Paul is asking of husbands. Husbands were not even for once commanded to lead their wives, they were asked to give themselves up for her.
I’d love to talk extensively on the famous Ephesians 5:21–32 but, I don’t want a lengthy article. I’ll probably do so in another post. For now, I think, it’s clear that the early church leaders (Paul and Peter), took wise, less belligerent approach to define their homes differently from the hierarchal obligations of society. We really don’t appreciate how progressive the apostles were, it’s a pity that today’s Christians are still living in the bondage of Greeco-Roman household codes.
Slave Submission and Wife Submission were addressed similarly in the New Testament, You can’t say one is a product of its culture and the other is a timeless command. They are either both one or the other. For many Nations, law enforced patriarchy in the household is a far gone concept — In this regard; “Wive Submission” is therefore a culturally outdated concept. Unlike Peter, we live in a time where we have the liberty to live free as Peter declared that we are, let us not be like the American slave owners who used the bible as an oppressive tool.
The purpose of the household codes as seen in the new testament is to point to Jesus Christ as the model for interpersonal relationships. That model goes beyond culture and can be applied to any home, past, present or future. It is a model that, rather than reinforcing hierarchical relationships, should point us in the opposite direction, to the radical humility and servant-hood of Jesus, who did not see power as something to grasp, but humbled himself and became submissive to the point of death. We apply these so called “submission” verses most faithfully to our own lives, not when we use them to reinforce power structures and hierarchy, but when we use them to break those power structures down at the foot of the cross.
I don’t want to get into the impracticality,artificiality or abusive tendencies of “wifely Submission” in this particular article. For now, I’ll just leave you with the comforting thought that rejecting submission isn’t rejecting God.
Words by Damilola Onosowobo Marcus to read more of her thoughts, follow her on Twitter (@dammymarcus)