Husbands and Wives
Christians, especially conservative Christians, often claim to stand for “family values.” What those values are sometimes are rather vague. But the disturbing thing is that one can get in the media spotlight and preach family values and come home and not value family. There have been many unfortunate reports of bad relationships, especially husbands and wives, within the church. Some children have left the church after seeing what their supposed Christian fathers and and mothers acted like at home.
Now it is not as if the Bible is silent about family relationships. There are certain issues that we have to look for principles but when it comes to the family, there is direct teaching. Unfortunately, some of those teachings have been twisted and used in the opposite way that were intended. One of those passages is “Wives submit to your husbands.” Many have interpreted this as “Men, you are in complete charge and women, you better get used to saying yes dear.” Some husbands have used this verse as support for abuse, claiming they were using their biblical mandate to make their wives submit.
We need to ask the question: Is the Bible helpful or unhelpful for creating healthy relationships between husbands and wives? I am going to argue that it is helpful but only as it is interpreted correctly.
Role of Wives
Before getting too far into the teaching of husbands and wives, I like to look at where certain Bibles place Ephesians 5:21. That verse speaks of mutual submission between all Christians. Many modern Bibles place passages as paragraphs with their own subtitles. Some Bibles will include verse 21 in the previous section and some will include it with the sections on husbands and wives. Think of the consequences of this. One is saying that mutual submission is a completely different topic from the submission of a wife to a husband and the other is saying that the submission within a marriage is in the context of our mutual submission. Since even chapters and verses are a much later invention, we must use our wisdom to help in our interpretation.
I can say with confidence that submission within the marriage is in the context of mutual submission. How do I know? Because in the verse “Wives submit to your husbands,” the word “submit” is not found in the Greek. Verse 22 borrows “submit” from verse 21, tying these two verses together tightly. It is not only wives that are to submit.
Even having said that, there are many women who will dislike this teaching. They will see it as another example of Paul’s anti-woman bias. First I would say that Paul’s attitude toward women is much more complex than people claim. Secondly, this passage hints at the important role Paul saw women as having.
In the ancient world, women had very few rights. The men had full authority and only their needs or wants were taken into consideration. Normally if there was instruction given about marriage, it would only be given to the husbands because they are the only ones who mattered. “Make your wife do this, make your wife do that.” But that is not what Paul says at all.
Paul first of all addresses the wives. He is doing two things here. he is assuming that women are present in an equal capacity with men at the church gathering where the letter was being read. He is also leaving it up to the wives to follow his instruction. He doesn’t demand the husbands enforce this. It is completely up to the wives.
It also says that wives are to submit to husbands as the church submits to Christ, which assumes only as much as the husband is Christ-like. This is not a command for a wife to submit to abuse, physical or emotional, from a mean-spirited husband. It also does not assume that women have to be the most submissive, since the model is the church, which is made up of men and women. We are all meant to live a life of submission in certain situations.
Role of Husbands
When I first heard this passage taught, usually be men, I assumed what Paul said was “Wives submit to your husbands and husbands make sure that they submit.” But that is not what Paul says. Paul says for husbands to love their wives. That seems unfair. Wives have to work at submission while husbands get the passive experience of love. That is not what Paul is saying. Paul doesn’t say feel love for your wife. What Paul says is that husbands should love their wives as Christ loved the church. Did Jesus simply look at the first believers and feel warm affection for them? Jesus acted out his love for them. If we don’t get it, Paul spells it out to us that Christ gave himself up for the church. That means in plain language that he gave up his life for us. Those men who see this passage as being about giving them exalted authority better re-read it. The calling of husbands to be Christ-like is about becoming completely selfless. Let’s think more about how Jesus died. Was Jesus overpowered by the Romans? Were they stronger than he was and he became a victim of their might? That is not the impression the Gospels give of the death of Jesus. Jesus gave himself up to his accusers, you could even say that Jesus submitted to death since he had the power to prevent it.
So what kind of love are husbands to have toward their wives? It is a selfless and submissive love, the same kind of love that Christ has demonstrated to us. This is not the love where the wife is expected to fetch the slippers for her husband but the love of Christ washing the feet of his disciples. It is about a relationship of a mutual love and submission.
Why is all of this important? It is important for two reasons. One is that it is important for there to be a healthy family life. Paul will go on to describe healthy relationships with children and other members of the household and will be equally radical. I have roles that people respect, such as pastor, chaplain and Bible teacher. But he see my most important and most challenging roles as being a husband and a father. I feel the burden that God wants me to be just as if not more faithful in my home life than in my other roles.
In addition to this, this is important because the husband and wife relationship is a picture of the relationship of Christ to the church. No wonder people struggle with being in relationship with Jesus when they have never seen a healthy relationship. There is a circular argument here in that Christ and the church are the model for the marital relationship and the marital relationship is a picture of Christ and the church. When we see the healthiest possible marital relationship, one marked by mutual love and submission, we see a glimpse of how we as the church can related to Christ.