Submission and Love: Unpacking The Complexity of the Marriage Relationship

The Intersection of the Epistles of Ephesians, Colossians, and 1 Corinthians

I simply must attribute blame where it belongs, so if you’re offended by what I say in this post…well,…tough stuff and the blame should be place squarely on the shoulders of Pastor Douglas Wilson who wrote a very thoughtful analysis on an event that was—well—revealing to say the least. 

One of the points that Pastor Wilson touched on in the piece was the issue of inerrancy, a topic that I addressed here, but on the subject in question he writes,

[Inerrancy] is absolutely useless unless we are prepared to live and die by the results of our exegesis. And it is frequently the case that liberals are more to be trusted with representing what the Bible actually says than evangelicals are. This is because evangelicals have an a priori obligation to live by and defend the results of their exegesis. 

This is important because most evangelicals claim to believe in inerrancy, and they believe in inerrancy because they believe in inspiration, and because they believe that the Bible is inerrant because it’s inspired that means it’s authoritative. Or at least one would hope. As Pastor Wilson continues, he makes this concern over inspiration clear:

The liberal can say, “Paul taught wives to submit to their husbands, ho ho ho.” The evangelical has to think to himself, “A servant leader has a supple spine, which God gave him so he can find out what mama wants, and pretend he thought of it himself.”

Pastor Wilson’s wit may be lost in this disconnected, a-contextual quotation but I hope that you see the point, more importantly where I am going to go with this. 

In the discussions leading up to my appearance on Dogma Debate, David had hinted at a discussion on the issue of the submission of wives to their husbands, but he had done several episodes already on that arc in rapid succession and so he was afraid of becoming something one-note and so our discussion went in the direction that it did. Especially given certain sore toes in the realm of evangelicalism, as I discussed here, the subject seems to be somewhat taboo. In other words, now is definitely the best time to talk about it. 

I don’t expect much feedback from this post, in fact I doubt that it will even get much of a notice, but I thought that it would be worthwhile to dig into the subject. 

The Family, and Only the Family 

One of the first errors that we often make in handling passages like Ephesians 5:22-33, as well as its parallel in Colossians 3:18-21, is by not trying to understand the historical situation that Paul was speaking into, namely the understanding of what was known by its Roman term as paterfamilias. 

The head of the house essentially had autocratic control, quite literally, over life and death of everyone that lived under his roof: wife, children, extended family and servants. His word was law and he often ruled with an iron fist. While civil law often regulated the interactions the people out in the streets, behind the doors of the home, the father (pater) ruled absolutely, and the civil authority rarely interfered in matters across the threshold of the house. 

Looking at the various evidence of legal codes that have survived, its only the Israelite legal code that dares to challenge this perceived absolute authority of the father, by God asserting his absolute authority as both father and king. The family of Israel only existed because of his power demonstrated in the birth of Isaac. 

God exhibits his authority in the law by protecting wives from their husbands in marital rights, as well as the children in inheritance rights, as well as raising the value of a slave’s life to that of a freedman. These are facts that we often miss, or even misunderstand because of where we live in time, and our unique experience. Understanding who’s actually “in charge” of things helps to put these matters in perspective. 

Also, another fact to keep in mind is that there is a reality, in fact it often seems to be assumed by Paul that a person who comes to believe might be married to an unbeliever. 

Now, this might seem to be something minor to us today, given the fact that we live (largely) in a society that embraces a form of religious pluralism. Most western societies have a measure of religious freedom. Some nations, such as the United States, have a legal doctrine that separates religious matters from state matters to further religious freedom. Some mistakenly take this doctrine to mean that the government is to be freed from religious influence, when it actually exists to prevent a particular religious sect or set of beliefs from being considered as definitional of citizenship. Americans often take such a reality of tolerance for granted when the reality was, in certain European states, just a few hundred years ago, changing your religious expression from Catholicism to Protestantism, or vice versa, in a nation where one was the state religion, could be seen as treason. This view also existed in the ancient world and understanding and applying the Deuteronomy 32 worldview helps to make sense of this. 

Deuteronomy 32:8-9, in the English Standard Version, reads,

When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.

We find the Apostle Paul drilling down on this in his address to the philosophers at the Areopagus in Acts 17 when he says,

[God] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek [Him], and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us…

We find this view shared in various non-biblical writers as well: the point being that there was a common view among the various cultures of the ANE and others that specific regions had patron gods that had been placed into those positions by a greater god and that people who lived in those specific places were obliged to honor as gods. Kings, governors, tribal rulers operated under the assumption that their political power was bestowed by the god of their kingdom. More than that, even specific places, specific households could be under the patronage of a specific divine entity. That is why Christianity posed such a dire threat to the status quo. 

The chief assertion of Christianity was not that the gods of the nations didn’t exist or didn’t have authority. The chief assertion of Christianity was that the man Jesus of Nazareth was the High God over the gods of nations of the earth, proving this by his resurrection. Jesus was not competing against the gods, he owned them, demonstrated by his citation of Psalm 82 to the Pharisees, authority given to him by the Father. This challenge required something of the believers to demonstrate two things: Christ’s authority and the goodness in matters that people already accepted, that being the absolute authority over those who are his family. That is why the loyalty oath of believers is “Jesus is Lord,” and not “Caesar is Lord”.

Westerners bawk at this kind of authoritarian control, while the rest of the world, at least in the East, not only understands it, they fully accepts it. We’ve taken the simple concepts of honor and duty that we owe, and flipped them into being things that we are owed. We are like the denizens of Babel who wanted to approach heaven on their own grounds and make their own terms, a project that ended in confusion. In which we find a curious analog as the culture has embraced a sense of absolutism in human autonomy, we have lost any ability to ground our identity and we have run headlong into confusion as a result. Rejection of the Father’s authority and his protection gets us cast into a world full of hazards. That is why, when we see certain commands, primarily because we 1) don’t understand the cultural context and the implicit expectations of it and 2) ignore the connections between certain statements that we will often miss what is actually being said. 

I guess that I need to digress somewhat and back up. 

Men, Women, and Hostility 

I previously stated that Paul was writing into a specific reality. This doesn’t mean that what Paul was writing doesn’t have application, rather the context needs to be understood so that we can make proper application in our particular cultural situation. 

Paul’s admonition for “wives to submit to your husbands” and “husbands to love their wives” can only make sense if we consider them in light of the situation that believers were living in. 

The Apostle gives fuller explanation of his position in his first epistle to the Corinthians. 

In chapter 7, Paul addresses a concern of the Corinthian church,

Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is good for a man not to have sexual relations with a woman.” (1 Corinthians 7:1, ESV)

This is where the ESV shines as some older translations have made it seem that Paul is making an affirmative statement here, rather than preceding to provide a critical response to a popular statement. The appearance of Paul’s affirmation of this statement has been taken by enemies of the faith to argue that Paul was a misogynist; however, an honest reader can see that such an accusation is patently false by how Paul handles the statement. First, there’s an important qualification that needs to be made here in regard to the Greek and Roman understanding of sex in contrast to the Jewish and later Christian understanding. 

In the pagan world, sex was seen as being two-tiered: recreational and procreational. Recreational sex was not for men and women to engage in. If a man wanted to—pardon the crudeness—get his rocks off, he had a boyfriend, usually a prepubescent boy slave, or a male prostitute. Women weren’t seen as being necessary for sexual relief, but were for procreation, the production of children. This distinction even existed for women. Paul hammers on this artificial distinction in using it to demonstrate that homosexuality displays the fact that men suppress the knowledge of God and his requirements for his creation. 

In the Jewish worldview, while there was a recognition of the distinction between recreation and procreation in the sexual act, it insisted that they were not separate acts. It’s not that men or women were limited to sexual behavior as being either or, but that they were to find it in each other as imagers of God. This was recognized in the sharp prohibition of homosexuality and adultery, both of which encourage promiscuity and ultimately diminishes each party participating in the act. 

Paul seizes on this in v2,

But because of the temptation to sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband. (1 Corinthians 7:2, ESV)

The focus here is the reduction of incidents and opportunities for “sexual immorality” (porneia). This serves as a direct contradiction to both the larger pagan culture and the experience of the Corinthians themselves, as well as the saying about which they are corresponding over. It’s rhetorical power was undoubtedly felt in that Paul is implying that anything outside of a sexual relationship outside of the marriage of a man and a woman is immoral. This point is reinforced in v3,

The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. (1 Corinthians 7:3, ESV)

In using the word rendered “conjugal rights” here, Paul is literally saying that there is a duty in the sexual act. The husband owes his wife and the wife owes her husband. Not to be misunderstood, Paul uses the Middle voice of the verb: this duty is owed to each other, mutually. Husbands and wives owe one another a duty and must work out how it is to be fulfilled, as seen in v5,

Do not deprive one another, except perhaps by agreement for a limited time, that you may devote yourselves to prayer; but then come together again, so that Satan may not tempt you because of your lack of self-control. (1 Corinthians 7:5, ESV)

The only legitimate excuse that a husband or wife might have for not fulfilling their duty is a religious obligation, but this is only to be for a short time and by mutual consent. Why?

For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does. (1 Corinthians 7:4, ESV)

Of course, the retort might be, well I’m not married. Paul checks that in vv8-9, with the admonition that if you cannot control yourself, then you better marry. For Paul, who is the one making application it’s an either/or proposition when it comes to sex: either you do it right, or you don’t do it at all. There is no middle ground here, no exceptions. 

But, Triggerman, that’s about “sex”, and we can accept that, what about the other thing?

Glad you asked, but that’s kinda the point, given what Paul states in v10 and 11

“To the married I give this charge (not I, but the Lord): the wife should not separate from her husband(but if she does, she should remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and the husband should not divorce his wife. (1 Corinthians 7:10-11, ESV)

Notice that Paul couches this in a “charge”, in the original language it could be literally understood as a “command” or a “warning”, and that this doesn’t come from him, rather it comes from “the Lord”. Anyone care to guess where this command comes from? This is interesting because Paul goes right to the culture here because, under Roman law, a wife could divorce her husband. There was no compulsion in becoming a Christian to separate from one’s family, in fact Paul encourages the believing spouse to be open and honest with their faith, because, “For how do you know, wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, husband, whether you will save your wife? (1 Corinthians 7:16, ESV)” This is what brings us into close contact with the commands to “submit” and “love” found in the epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians. 

First, we have to recognize that Paul is making an analogy. This is not simply about wives and husbands in the first century Graeco-Roman context; it is about the church’s relationship to Christ, as a bride to a husband. This is rather explicitly spelled out in Ephesians, whereas not as clearly in Colossians. Second, the participants in the relationship have a part to play. The wife, like the church, is to be responsive to the desires and needs of her husband just as the church is to be responsive to Christ; while the husband was to imitate Christ, who is attentive and protective of his bride. 

The tendency might have been, in a situation where one spouse was a believer and the other was not, was to pull away. After all, in 1 Corinthians, Paul writes,

“To the rest I say (I, not the Lord) that if any brother has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. If any woman has a husband who is an unbeliever, and he consents to live with her, she should not divorce him. (1 Corinthians 7:12-13, ESV)

There was the potential for tension between spouses if one was a believer and the other was not. And this tension could explode into hostility. Notice that Paul puts this on the unbeliever, because the only solution might be to divorce. And a divorce in the ancient world had considerably more stigma than today, especially if children were involved. 

Because we live in a culture that is primarily Christian, we just don’t understand how this could turn violent, and do so quickly. We have become insulated from the harshness of humanity in the Christianizing of the West to the point that some of these commands seem ridiculous, when in a hostile environment, they could, quite literally, save lives. 

The sad truth is that we’ve actually done this so well, that we have embodied these so easily, that they no longer make sense. It’s not that women have forgotten how to submit to their husbands or that husbands have forgotten to love their wives. It’s that we do it to easily. What we have forgotten is Christ. 


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