Exploring the biblical theology of Christian egalitarianism

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Introduction

Here in Australia, we’ve been discussing the connection between “male headship” and domestic violence. This discussion has been spearheaded by journalist Julia Baird. There have been articles and blog posts on websites, as well as reports, panel discussions, and interviews on television. My favourite part of this discussion so far has been last night’s episode on ABC’s The Drum (episode 125/2017).

During this episode, Kara Hartley (Anglican Archdeacon of Women in the Sydney Diocese) described what is to her a “beautiful picture” of male headship and wifely submission. Her words seem to indicate that she believes husbands have a greater responsibility for the care and protection of their wives than wives have towards their husbands, and that submission is only required from wives. But is this really the case? Is there a better picture that more fully conveys New Testament principles for men and women who are in Christ?

Wives also Care and Protect

The Bible gives us many examples of women who cared for and protected others, including wives who protected their husbands. Some wives even risked their lives for the sake of their husbands.

~ To save Abraham’s life, Sarah hid the fact that she was his wife. She continued the ruse and even became a “wife” of a foreign king, twice, for Abraham’s sake! (Gen. 12:10-20: 20:1-18).

~ Zipporah’s quick action saved her husband Moses when God wanted to kill him. In fact, the Bible records that six women rescued or protected Moses at various times in his life (Exod. 4:24-26).

~ Michal protected her husband David when her dangerously unstable father Saul was intent on killing him (1 Sam. 19:11ff).

~ Abigail protected the welfare of her entire household, including her husband, by taking matters into her own hands and making peace with an incensed David and four hundred men ready for revenge (2 Sam. 25:2ff).

There are many Bible stories of women who protected and courageously helped others. They cared for and protected men and women, even cities and nations. Gender was not an issue.

Surely, we all have a responsibility for the welfare of others, especially those in our own families, according to needs and our abilities to meet those needs. The Bible simply never states that husbands, or men in general, have a greater responsibility for the care and protection of wives and women. Nevertheless, this is how many people have understood Paul’s instructions in Ephesians 5:22-33.

“Head” as “Source” in Ephesians 5

In Ephesians 5:25-33, husbands are urged to give up the privileged status and authority (which society offered many men in the first-century world) in how they relate to their wives. Instead of asserting their authority, they were asked to follow Jesus’ example and give themselves up for their wives and love them sacrificially.[1]

The word “head,” which occurs in Ephesians 5:23, has been traditionally interpreted as meaning “leader” or “authority.” Is leadership a valid context for Paul’s statement, “the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the church, his body . . .”?

Many wives were dependent on their husbands for their livelihood and well-being in the ancient world. It could be that Paul used the Greek word for “head” in this context. Biblical scholar Cynthia Westfall writes, “The meaning of head as the source of life is consistent with the culture’s understanding of husband as the wife’s patron . . .”[2] Similarly, Christ is the source of life of the church, his body.

Westfall continues, “. . . but [head] is not a stock metaphor for authority in Greek.”[3] The word for “head” in ancient Greek (kephalē) does not have exactly the same range of meanings as the English word for “head.” Kephalē rarely, if ever, meant “authority” or “leader” in texts originally written in Greek before or during the first century.

Husbands are never told to lead their wives, or unilaterally have authority over their wives, in Ephesians 5 or in any other passage of scripture. Never. Not once. Rather than leadership, Paul uses the word “love” six times when addressing husbands in Ephesians 5:25ff. Paul tells husbands to love their wives; he doesn’t tell them to lead them.

A “Head-Body” Metaphor in Ephesians 5

Another way of understanding “head” in Ephesians 5 is to recognise that it is part of a head-body metaphor signifying unity.[4] (This is my preferred interpretation.) Unity between husband and wife, between head and body, is a theme in Ephesians 5 (Eph. 5:28-31).[5] The wife submits (acquiesces and cooperates) to promote this unity. The husband gives himself up, he effectively lowers himself, and he loves his wife as his own body, effectively lifting her up (according to the social standards of Roman times), to promote unity and mutuality.

Women, generally speaking, had less autonomy than men in the first-century Roman world, and their contribution sounds rather passive, but this doesn’t mean that wives need to be passive in promoting unity in their marriages today. Furthermore, there are enough biblical examples that serve as precedents and that demonstrate that no one, wives included, should submit to, or cooperate with, foolish or dangerous behaviour.

Importantly though, submission isn’t just for wives. The Ephesians passage about husbands and wives is prefaced with a call for mutual submission (Eph. 5:21). And Christ-like, sacrificial love isn’t just for husbands. Chapter five of Ephesians opens with a general exhortation for all Christians to follow Jesus’ example and to love like Jesus loved (Eph. 5:1-2). A submissive attitude and loving behaviour, where each person prefers and honours the other, should be character traits of all Christians, regardless of gender or marital status.

Submission Today

In western societies, such as in Australia—where both women and men have access to education and have somewhat similar employment opportunities—many women are no longer dependent on men for their livelihood in the same way ancient women were. A husband is no longer a wife’s only or primary source of support. Moreover, education, employment and increased freedoms have enabled women to participate more fully in society and contribute more to their families. But unity remains the goal for married couples.

Where husband and wife are both competent people, the paradigm that the husband is always the one with authority, and the wife is always the one who is submissive, simply isn’t effective. And it was never Paul’s meaning. Instead, all of us, according to our gifts, abilities, resources and situation—rather than according to our sex—are to serve and care for each other. This mutual service and interdependence is the New Testament ideal and is a more beautiful picture of relationships in Christ (1 Cor. 11:11-12).

On yesterday’s The Drum, Philip Freier, the Primate of the Anglican Church in Australia, gave this off the cuff remark concerning male headship.

I don’t find that there is an essential reading of the Bible that teaches me that I must believe in the headship of men. I read the Bible and I see that it talks more about the mutuality of people and their love towards each other. And that God created men and women equally, and both men and women are created in the image and likeness of God. And that men and women can have equal participation in the leadership of the church.

When I read the Bible, I see the same things.

Footnotes

[1] These ideas sound like forms of submission, though the word for “submission” is not used in instructions to husbands here.

[2] Cynthia Long Westfall, Paul and Gender: Reclaiming the Apostle’s Vision for Men and Women in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016), 165.

[3] Ibid.

[4] The metaphor of “source” is not mutually exclusive to the head-body metaphor. Perhaps both apply in Ephesians 5.

[5] A man who loves his wife as himself, as per Ephesians 5:28, treats his wife as his equal partner (cf. Matt. 7:12; Luke 6:31). In the ancient world, the male body was seen as physically and socially superior to the female body. For a Greco-Roman husband to love his wife as his own male body was a powerful image of “levelling” of status, of equality. And equality is conducive to true unity.

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Postscript

In his classic book, Celebration of Discipline (first published in 1978), author Richard Foster wrote about “The Discipline of Submission.” With Paul’s household codes in Ephesians 5-6 and Colossians 3 in mind, he wrote,

The discipline of submission has been terribly misconstrued and abused from failure to see the wider context. Submission is an ethical theme that runs the gamut of the New Testament. It is a posture obligatory upon all Christians: men, as well as women, fathers as well as children, masters as well as slaves. We are commanded to live a life of submission because Jesus lived a life of submission, not because we are in a particular place or station in life. Self denial is a posture fitting those who follow the crucified Lord.


Explore more

A Suitable Helper (in Hebrew)
Do women have a special obligation to be helpers?
Ephesians 5:22-33, in a Nutshell
Wives, Mothers, and Female Masters in the NT Household Codes
Kephalē and “male headship” in Paul’s Letters
Mutual Submission is not a Myth
All my articles on Ephesians 5 are here.

Ephesians 5:22-33 Christian marriage submission

15 thoughts on “A more beautiful picture than male headship and female submission

  1. It’s upsetting that the idea of male authority over women is still being taught and promoted today.
    I was wondering if you had heard of The Red Pill movie or anything about the Red Pill movement, because I heard that it was a growing problem in Australia. It’s becoming a big problem here in America. It’s basically the idea that men are actually the oppressed ones and that women should be put back under men’s control (the latter is what the more extremist think). I was asking because it seems that many Christen men are adopting this thinking and “swallowing the Red Pill” (it’s from The Matrix movie from 1999, the idea that when you swallow the red pill you see the world for what it really is).
    This doesn’t surprise me, sadly, because of what men are already being taught about women needing to submit to them and being under their authority. I’ve been to several of their websites, A Voice for Men, Men Going Their Own Way, Return of Kings, and I’ve seen several comments containing all the widely misunderstood and abused verses about women from the Bible.

    1. ” Similarly, Christ is the source of life of the church, his body. ..” Yes he is, but He is also the Authority over His church, to set in order function and discipline.

      But is Christ the source of God the father? or is God the Father source of Christ the Son?
      If the answer yes, then explain how , since they are ONE and were in the beginning at the same time.

      But if the answer is no, then logically, the meaning for head ( kephale ) is authority over… Christ admits and submits to the will of the Father. That is not Source, but authority. submission and authority goes hand in hand.
      Likewise ( 1 Peter 3) a wife is to admit and submit (in the same manner as Christ did) to her own husband.
      In these examples, Head ( kephale ) means authority over. God is NOT the source of Christ.

      1. Hi Elca,

        There is no shadow of a doubt that Jesus is Lord and is the Authority of the Church, as well as lots of other great things (e.g., saviour, mediator, high priest). But kephalē (“head”) was not a synonym “lord” or “authority” in ancient Greek until after the New Testament period.

        In 1 Corinthians 11:3 a meaning or “firstness” (or as some say, “source”) is even clearer than in Ephesians 5:23, as origins is a theme of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (cf. 1 Cor. 11:8, 12). Several early church fathers, who spoke Greek, were adamant that kephalē meant origin/ beginning/ source in 1 Corinthians 11:3. These men, including Chrysostom and Cyril of Alexandria, believed in the subordination of women and wives (as was the common view at that time), but they did not believe that kephalē (“head”) meant authority. I write about this here: https://margmowczko.com/head-kephale-does-not-mean-leader-1-corinthians-11_3/

        1 Peter 3 doesn’t connect wifely submission with Jesus. Rather, it connects wifely submission with unbelieving husbands, so “they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives” (1 Peter 3:1-2). Peter’s reason for wifely submission (a cultural expectation) seems to be primarily evangelistic.

        1. Hi Marg,
          In Corinthians 11:3, if Head ( Kephale ) means source, then you are saying that God is the Source of Jesus the Son. This is theologically wrong. For NONE existed before the other and NONE came from the other.
          Therefore your exegesis of the verse is flawed and is a false reading and meaning of the verse.
          But if God is the Head meaning Authority, then we see Jesus willing submitting to do the Will of Him who is His Head and Authority over Him. This is more accurate of an interpretation of vs 3.

          Dr. Wayne Gurdem did an extensive research on Kephale and found it’s use more consistent with having authority over than Source of…also the Context determines the meaning of words with dual meaning.
          Please note that both male and female are given, Dominion rule ( headship / kephale ) over creation, with the female being in a supportive role to the man.
          The man was allowed to exercise Dominion Rule ( Headship / Kephale) over the woman by naming. This is God divine design for Order in the relationship between man and wife. And consistent through out…

          Your reference to the Church fathers seems to suggest that they have superseded the Authority of the Word of God and you and others are now going to set the record straight, by appealing to culture.
          But Paul appealed to the creation narrative to justify why a woman should not usurp the authority/headship of men NOT to culture, education or giftings. He is consistent with the Father.

          In 1 Peter 3 :1 it said quote,” Like wise you wives, be in subjection to your own husband…”.
          The word ” Like wise ” is a continuation of the discussion in v2.
          In Ch2 13 -Ch3 the discussion of submission to authority and ordinances/laws of men continues with slaves to masters, which flows to Ch3 to wives to be in subjection. This is a discussion of Headship and submission. Not Source and tributaries like a river system.

          To suggest that Christian wives don’t use many words is funny… but the heart of the instructions to wives is found in verse 6 where Wives ( Christian or not) are encouraged to be like Sarah and Holy women of old.
          Sarah had to endure similar kind of hardship just like Jesus did in Ch2, But Sarah trusted in God and was not using her tongue ( much words) to bring about change.

          This is the submissive Heart that Peter is instructing for ALL wives, by following the examples of Holy women of Old.
          Finally , are you suggesting that Christian Husbands are Perfect, always following the word?

          1. To be clear, I’ve quoted Cynthia Westfall as saying “head” has the sense of “source.” I see it a little differently.

            1 Corinthians 11:3 uses the word “Christ/ Messiah,” not “son” or “Jesus.” It’s important to stay with the wording of the text, otherwise we do get into theological difficulties. Did you read my article on kephalē?

            As well as writing on kephalē, Grudem has done a lot of writing and speaking about the so-called eternal subordination of the Son (ESS) but I completely disagree with him on this.

            As well as disagreeing with Grudem’s findings on ESS and kephalē (Leon Morris, Gordon D. Fee and other top scholars also disagree with his conclusions on kephalē), I completely disagree with his opinions on mutual submission.

            He admits that he didn’t even know the common Greek word adelphoi can refer to brother and sisters, and he admitted this after he had been debating the meaning of kephalē (“head”) for years. I find Grudem’s handling of both Greek and English poor. I critique some of his work here.

            I use the example of the Greek-speaking church fathers merely to show that many others have also believed that kephalē does not mean “a person in authority” in 1 Corinthians 11:3, and that “source/ origin/ beginning” is not a new interpretation. I do not set their words above the Bible. Far from it! Many early church fathers and later theologians have said deplorable things about women, things which are entirely absent in holy scripture.

            I totally agree that wives should have a submissive heart. I believe all Christians should have a submissive, deferential, and humble heart (Eph. 5:21; Phil 2:1ff; “likewise” in 1 Peter 3:7 is also a continuation of a discussion on submission). But I see no evidence whatsoever in the creation accounts that women have a supporting role in the rule of the earth. We are to love, serve, and support one another.

            I have no idea why you think I might be suggesting that husbands are perfect.

  2. I forgot to include this link in my comment. I also forgot to warn you that if you decide to go looking at those website I mentioned, you might want to avoid the Men Going Their Own Way forums, it’s the most hateful environment of them all.
    http://www.charismamag.com/blogs/fire-in-my-bones/33034-don-t-swallow-the-red-pill

    1. Hi Anna,

      I think it is unfortunate that some Christians are hanging on to their idea of headship. Some claim that male authority administered with kindness, consideration and love doesn’t cause harm, but it does. I’ve been around Christian men who are kind and respectful towards me, but the fact remains that they believe they have an authority that I don’t have, simply because I am female. They see themselves as superior, even if they don’t use those words. And they act superior, even if ever so slightly, while I am made to feel inferior and excluded.

      But male authority isn’t always enacted with kindness and considerate. It can be used with control, oppression, terror, and physical violence. I’ve seen it. I think we may all have seen it.

      I have previously read Lee Grady’s article about the “red pill”. The whole idea is disturbing. I won’t be visiting those websites. They are even more disturbing. 🙁

      1. “They see themselves as superior, even if they don’t use those words.”
        I think you hit the nail on the head. I don’t see how you can teach a man that his wife is incapable of making decisions for herself and that she’s more gullible to demons or whatever and him NOT act superior and condescending.
        I wonder if it’s convenient, being able to ignore someone’s opinion based solely on their gender?
        I recently watched an Irish show that was based in the early 1900s, and in the show the father character dies and the “head of the household” is passed to his idiotic, drunken, thieving son. Even though this man’s mother and younger sister are far more responsible then he is, he gets to make all the important decisions because of his gender. It remind me of a monarchy, because of your gender and bloodline you are deemed fit to rule, whether you really are or not.

  3. Timely and important! I agree this is a more beautiful and fitting picture of male and female relations for 21st Century Christians. The exegesis is complete and easy to follow. So it’s a very satisfying viewpoint providing for a gender balanced church culture women will want to attend and participate in. Thanks for your work.

    1. Thanks, Annabel. I’m glad it was easy to follow.

  4. Thanks

  5. Dear Marg, hello, I’ve only just been introduced to your blog through a link on facebook. Thankyou for sharing the results of your studies with us. I would like to say I’m quite happy with being a spine so long as they guys are OK with being a bride. Xx

    1. Hi Liz, Nice to meet you.

  6. A PICTURE OF MARRIAGE
    Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. Ephesians 5:22
    Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Ephesians 5:24
    Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Colossians 3:18
    As a woman and, I suspect, in the company of many other women, I have often wished that these verses weren’t included in the scriptures. Wrongly I have perceived them to be biased in favour of the man in a relationship. But God has showed me a new picture of submission and in a loving relationship it ought not to be a heavy thing, but rather something joyful and natural.
    I am an ardent fan of a TV programme called ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ and love to watch the celebrities grow in confidence during the weeks spent learning and competing. Even in the relatively early days of the programme some of the amateur dancers stand out and by the final couple of weeks it becomes harder to predict who will win.
    As I was watching a recent episode of ‘Strictly’ I began to see that a good marriage should be like a dance partnership. The man leads, the woman follows his lead. She must trust him implicitly if the difficult lifts are to be successful. He twirls her away and she dances alone for a while but they are still in step, still dancing to the same music. He draws her back into a close hold and she rests in his arms in the beautiful rhythms of the dance. She reacts to his every move and he is completely aware of her.
    Whether the music is fast and joyful or slow and sensuous their partnership is beautiful. And the longer they dance together the more confident of her own ability the female partner becomes.
    To me this is a picture of how marriage should be. It is an equal partnership with each partner having their own role; their own set of steps if you like. The woman in a marriage should not lead her partner but follow him just as the female dancer follows the male lead. But equally the man should not control the woman, she must follow willingly.
    There will be circumstances when a woman will be ‘dancing’ separately from her husband, for example following a career or ministry, but their lives should continue to be lived in harmony and in step with one another.
    During hard times, as in the dance lifts, the wife needs to trust the husband. And there need to be times of closeness and intimacy for the partnership to remain strong.
    These dances are choreographed for a man and a woman and are so beautiful to watch when performed by experts. But the dance would not look so good if either was dancing alone; or if the man was pulling and pushing the woman around the ballroom; or if the woman was resisting and refusing to follow the man’s lead.
    This picture of marriage has really opened my eyes to how things should be and I hope it blesses those who read it.

    1. Hi Pat, you’ve partially quoted verses about wifely submission, but that’s only half the story. You haven’t commented on Paul’s words to husbands. Neither Jesus, Paul, or Peter ever tell husbands they are the authorities of their wives or that husbands are to lead their wives.

      Paul’s message to husbands in Ephesians 5:25ff and Colossians 3:19 is love, not leadership. Paul uses the word love 6 times when addressing husband in Ephesians 5:25ff. 6 times!

      Neither Peter or Paul directly uses the word “submit” in their instructions to husbands, but the behaviour they ask for is akin to some expressions of submission: sacrificial love, yielding, living with consideration, etc. And a couple of times, Paul says that husbands are to love their wives as they love their own bodies or as they love themselves (Eph. 5:28, 30). This sounds like Paul wants husbands to care for wives and consider them as their equal. Again, there is nothing in their comments to husbands that even hints at authority or leadership.

      As lovely as dancing is, it’s not the most productive mode of living in the real world with its various responsibilities and challenges. (Don’t they have any female choreographers on “Strictly”?)

      I have no problem with the submission verses. Submission, like humility and meekness, is (or should be) an attitude or trait for all followers of Jesus, male and female (Eph 5:21; 1 Pet. 5:5 NKJV). Submission is a Christian virtue.

      In case you’re interested, I’ve written about Ephesians 5:22-33 here: https://margmowczko.com/category/ephesians-5/
      I’ve written about 1 Peter 3:1-8 here: https://margmowczko.com/category/1-peter-31-7/

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