I entitled the overarching theme of these messages, “Manhood, Womanhood, and God” because I think the glory of God is at stake in how we live out our manhood and womanhood. This comes out most clearly when we focus on the meaning of marriage according to Ephesians 5.
Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen represents most Christian feminists when she says, in her newest book, After Eden, “Jesus insisted on monogamy and assigned the same rights and responsibilities to both husbands and wives (Mark 10:2–10; Matt. 19:3–9)” (9). I think that is a profoundly misleading statement. It implies without qualification that Jesus addressed the issue of whether a man should take special responsibility for the leadership and protection and provision of his home, and that Jesus denied it.
The truth is Jesus did not address it and he did not deny it. His behavior and teaching were deeply affirming and honoring to women and men, but he did not say anything that would contradict the possibility that God may call men to bear unique and special responsibility in the home for Christ-like leadership and provision and protection. That issue is addressed most directly by the apostle Paul, and most fully in Ephesians 5:21–33:
. . . submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
Let’s jump into this text at verse 31. It’s a quote from Genesis 2:24, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” In the next verse (Ephesians 5:32), Paul looks back on this quote and says, “This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”
Now why is the coming together of a man and woman to form one flesh in marriage a mystery? Paul’s answer in verse 32 is this: The marriage union is a mystery because it’s deepest meaning has been partially concealed, but is now being openly revealed by the apostle; namely, that marriage is an image of Christ and the church. Verse 32: “I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.”
So, marriage is like a metaphor or an image or a picture or parable that stands for the relationship between Christ and the church. That’s the deepest meaning of marriage. It’s meant to be a setting forth in the world, a living drama, of how Christ and the church relate to each other. Marriage is meant to glorify Christ and his gracious embrace of the church at great cost to himself.
One of the things to learn from this mystery is the roles of husband and wife in marriage — and by roles I don’t mean the details of day to day living, as though the drama of every Christian marriage would follow the same script. I mean we learn something essential about the way God intends for manhood and womanhood to come to expression in marriage. One of Paul’s points in this passage is that the roles of husband and wife in marriage are not arbitrarily assigned, and they are not reversible without obscuring God’s purpose for marriage. The roles of husband and wife are rooted in the distinctive roles of Christ and his church. God means to say something about his Son and his church by the way husbands and wives relate to each other.
We see this in verses 23–25. Verse 24 speaks to wives about her half of the metaphor and verses 23 and 25 speak about the husband’s half of the metaphor. Wives, find your distinctive role as a wife in keying off the way the church should relate to Christ. Verse 24: “As the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.” Then husbands, find your distinctive role as a husband in keying off the way Christ relates to the church. First, verse 23: “The husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.” Then, verse 25: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”
Therefore, headship is not a right to command and control. It’s a responsibility to love like Christ: to lay down your life for your wife in servant-leadership. And submission is not slavish or coerced or cowering. That’s not the way Christ wants the church to respond to his leadership: He wants the church to be free and willing and glad and refining and strengthening.
In other words, what this passage of Scripture does is two things: It guards against the abuses of headship by telling husbands to love like Jesus, and it guards against the debasing of submission by telling wives to submit the way the church does to Christ. So, it doesn’t dismantle the purpose of God for complementarity in creation; it restores it.
Maybe what would be most helpful here would be to give a crisp definition of headship and submission as I understand them from this text, and then answer a couple objections to clarify my position.
Headship is the divine calling of a husband to take primary responsibility for Christ-like, servant-leadership, protection, and provision in the home. [1) Leadership is implied in the concept of “head” (see below) and in the correlary “submit” follows also from the fact that Christ was the leader of the his disciples and is the leader of the church. 2) Protection is implied in the death of Christ for the church to save her from the destroying effects of sin. His death for her was not merely a demonstration of sacrificial love; it was love because it protected and saved. 3) Provision is implied in the nourishing and cherishing that Christ does for the church, his own body, as an analogy of what the husband is to do for his own body, his wife.]
Submission is the divine calling of a wife to honor and affirm her husband’s leadership and help carry it through according to her gifts. Submission is an inclination of the will to say yes to the husband’s leadership and a disposition of the spirit to support his initiatives.
Here are some practical implications of this interpretation:
1) The call in verse 25 for husbands to “love [their] wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” revolutionizes the way he leads. In Luke 22:26, Jesus says, “[Let] the leader [become] as one who serves.” In other words, husbands, don’t stop leading, but turn all your leading into serving. The responsibility of leadership is given not to puff yourself up, but to build your family up. Christlikeness qualifies leadership; it doesn’t cancel it.
2) Submission does not mean putting the husband in the place of Christ. Verse 21 says you submit “out of reverence for Christ.” Submission does not mean that the husband’s word is absolute. Only Christ’s word is absolute. No wife should follow a husband into sin. You can’t do that in reverence to Christ. Submission does not mean surrendering thought. It does not mean no input on decisions or no influence on her husband (1 Peter 3:1–2). It does not come from ignorance or incompetence. It comes from what is fitting and appropriate (Colossians 3:18).
3) Submission is an inclination of the will to say yes to the husband’s leadership and a disposition of the spirit to support his initiatives. The reason I say it’s a disposition and an inclination is because there will be times when the most submissive wife will hesitate at a husband’s decision. It may look unwise to her. Suppose it’s Noël and I, and I am about to decide something foolish for the family. At that moment, Noël could express her submission with something like this: “Johnny, I know you’ve thought a lot about this, and I love it when you take the initiative to plan for us and take the responsibility like this, but I really don’t have peace about it and I think we need to talk about it some more. Could we? Maybe tonight sometime?”
The reason that is a kind of biblical submission is because: 1) Husbands, unlike Christ, are fallible and ought to admit it. 2) Husbands ought to want their wives to be excited about the family decisions, because Christ wants us to be excited about following his decisions. 3) The the way Noël expressed her misgivings communicated clearly that she endorsed my leadership and affirmed me in my role as head.
When a man senses a special, God-given responsibility for the spiritual life of the family — gathering the family for devotions, taking them to church, calling for prayer at meals — when he senses a special, God-given responsibility for the discipline and education of the children, the stewardship of money, the provision of food, the safety of the home, the healing of discord, that special sense of responsibility is not authoritarian or autocratic or domineering or bossy or oppressive or abusive. It is simply servant-leadership. And I have never met a wife who is sorry she is married to a man like that. Because when God designs a thing (like marriage), he designs it for our good and for his glory.
The most common objection to the picture I just painted of loving leadership and willing submission is that verse 21 teaches us to be mutually submissive to each other. “[Submit] to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
So, one writer says, “By definition, mutual submission rules out hierarchical differences” (Gilbert Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles, 154). In other words, if mutual submission is a reality between husband and wife, then it’s a contradiction to say the husband has a special responsibility to lead and the wife a special responsibility to support that leadership and help carry it through.
Answer to Objection 1
What shall we say to this? I would say that it is simply not true. In fact, the writer who said that mutual submission rules out all hierarchical relationships shows that it’s not true a page later when he says, “The church thrives on mutual subjection. In a Spirit-led church, the elders submit to the congregation in being accountable for their watch-care, and the congregation submits to the elders in accepting their guidance” (155). On page 251, he even says “the congregations submit to their leaders by obeying.” In other words, when it comes to the church, he has no trouble seeing how mutual submission is possible between two groups, one of whom has the responsibility to guide and the other of whom has the responsibility to accept guidance.
And that’s right. There is no contradiction between mutual submission and a relationship of leadership and response. Mutual submission doesn’t mean that both partners must submit in exactly the same ways. Christ submitted himself to the church in one way, by a kind of servant-leadership that cost him his life. And the church submits herself to Christ in another way, by honoring his leadership and following him on the Calvary road.
So, it is not true that mutual submission rules out the family pattern of Christ-like leadership and church-like submission. Mutual submission doesn’t obliterate those roles; it transforms them.
One other common objection to the pattern of leadership and submission is that the term head does not carry the meaning of leadership at all. Instead it means source, somewhat like we use the word fountainhead or the head of a river (Bilizikian, 157–162). So, to call a husband the head of his wife wouldn’t mean that he is to be a leader, but that he is in some sense her source or her fountainhead.
Answer to Objection 2
Now, there are long studies to show that this is not a normal meaning for the word head in Paul’s day. But most of you will never read these articles because they are too technical. So, let me try to show you something from these verses that everyone can see.
The husband is pictured as the head of his wife as Christ is pictured as the head of the church, his body (Ephesians 5:29–30). Now, if the head means source, what is the husband the source of? What does the body get from the head? It gets nourishment (that’s mentioned in verse 29, “No one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church”). And we can understand that because the mouth is in the head, and nourishment comes through the mouth to the body. But that’s not all the body gets from the head. It gets guidance because the eyes are in the head. And it gets alertness and protection because the ears are in the head.
In other words, if the husband as head is one flesh with his wife, his body, and if he is therefore her source of guidance and food and alertness, then the natural conclusion is that the head, the husband, has a primary responsibility for leadership and provision and protection.
So, even if you give head the meaning of source, the most natural interpretation of these verses is that husbands are called by God to take primary responsibility for Christ-like, servant-leadership and protection and provision in the home. And wives are called to honor and affirm the husband’s leadership and help carry it through according to her gifts.
I close by reaffirming that marriage has to do with God. It is a mystery — a dramatic, revelatory witness to the world of the way Christ loves his church and the way the church loves Christ. The forms of these two loves are not identical or reversible. To the degree that we press for the leveling of this complementarity, we oppose the highest purpose of God in marriage.