I interrupted my thoughts on the marriage relationship for an extended digression on authority because it seemed impossible to me to finish the thought without being seriously misunderstood. Expectations different from contemporary standards color the New Testament perspective on authority and freedom in general. In contemporary discourse we tend to conflate a whole bunch of issues into anything touching on women in the Bible. Through this compression we drive a polarization of views between either keeping women chained in the kitchen dressed in burqas and not speaking unless spoken to, or just “normal” American middle-class mores of his and hers: two cars, two careers, two nominally interchangeable adults with accidentally different physiology. People live all up and down this spectrum, of course, but usually by unspoken agreement; those moderating positions are not arrived at through discussion or argument. If a discussion arises any amount of disagreement usually turns to accusations of extremism toward one end or the other.
My understanding of the authority of a husband is in some ways extreme. I do see a husbands authority as roughly that of a king over a household. The close proximity of instructions to masters and instructions to husbands in the epistles is not coincidence. For the authors of the New Testament there are similarities between the relationship of master to servant and husband to wife. But many others who advance such a view implicitly or even explicitly insist that kingship conveys righteousness. They insist that God speaks through this mini-king, ignoring the plenteous examples of sinful kings throughout the Bible; or they whimsically decide that this mini-king only should be obeyed if he is acceptably righteous (again, ignoring a multitude of contrary evidence). Although we are never expected under Biblical teaching to obey a command to directly participate in immorality, our usual obedience is not even a tacit indication of the moral quality of the authority we obey. In observing that New Testament authors expect wives to be under the authority of their husbands, I am drawing no conclusions about the moral, spiritual, or ethical superiority of men.
Let me reiterate that I am speaking now only of husbands and wives, not women in general. Whether a woman should ever have a commanding position over a man is a different subject. Clearly women can and do; Cleopatra predates the Gospels. There are a few examples of women in authority within the Bible as well. Examining those cases is beyond the present subject. Also, I am not addressing men and women within the church generally; that too requires consideration of some specific points that I am not now considering. For now I am considering only the relationship between husband and wife.
There are three passages that link the submission of a wife and the submission of a servant, two from Paul and one from Peter. I will quote from them at length, since it is sometimes said that the instructions for wives are taken out of context. Note that in all three of these passages, there is a comment either before or after the instruction to wives on the conduct of believers toward one another generally. In Colossians it is “Put on […] compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” In Ephesians it is “submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.” In 1 Peter it is “all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind.” But also note that each of these passages deals not jut with husbands and wives, but also with masters and servants. Two of them also deal with parents and children. Therefore, the context that applies to and modifies the instructions to wives also applies to and modifies these relationships as well.
With that in mind, this is what Paul says to the wives in Colossae, in context:
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged. Bondservants, obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord. Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ. For the wrongdoer will be paid back for the wrong he has done, and there is no partiality. Masters, treat your bondservants justly and fairly, knowing that you also have a Master in heaven. (Colossians 3:12-4:1 ESV)
Note that all believers are “called in one body.” This principle, however, does not exclude some serving others in a one-directional way, as bondservants are to “obey in everything,” a command not given to masters. The masters and servants are both part of the “one body” and both under the command of humility and meekness, but there is still a servant-master relationship. Note that the servants are to consider their service “as for the Lord” because they are “serving the Lord Christ.” This does not mean that the masters have a relationship with Jesus which the servants do not have. It does not mean that the masters are more godly, wise, or righteous. It means only that our work serving one another, whether serving masters or “the least of these,” can be dedicated to Christ.
Essentially the same remarks apply to Paul’s words to the Ephesians:
Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, 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.
Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. “Honor your father and mother” (this is the first commandment with a promise), “that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.” Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Bondservants, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ, not by the way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but as bondservants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. Masters, do the same to them, and stop your threatening, knowing that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and that there is no partiality with him. (Ephesians 5:15-6:9 ESV)
Some commentators start the explanation of the instruction to wives with the verse about “submitting to one another.” In the ESV translation it is very hard to get that phrase to go with the instructions to wives, as it fits and flows with the preceding thought. That is not to say that “submitting to one another” is totally unrelated to what comes after, but it is easier and a more natural grouping (again, in the ESV translation; I don’t know Greek) to take the following verses as context for the instruction to wives. When bondservants are to “obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, with a sincere heart, as you would Christ,” this sounds very similar to and naturally pairs with “Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” The point again is not that a husband somehow “represents” Christ to a wife, but that a wife may dedicate her service to her husband to God, the same way a servant may consider his service to be not merely for a man. Distorting the significance of “as to the Lord” leads to an equal distortion of “as Christ loved the church.” No man can “wash” his wife so that she is “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing […], holy and without blemish.” But a man can understand that caring for his wife does not make him “weak” or “whipped”, any more than Christ’s love for that man makes Christ weak. In all these cases the point is not to exalt the person in a position of power, but to exalt service as a sacrifice pleasing to God.
Paul is clear enough in comparing a wife’s service to her husband with a servant’s service to his master, but Peter is even more explicit. He writes:
Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.
Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening.
Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered.
Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. (1 Peter 2:13-38 ESV)
Summarized for our purpose, Peter’s instruction is to “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution […], not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. […] For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. […] Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands.” Peter does not expect “more” submission or service from a wife than he expects from a servant. True, it is always possible for a woman to be one rung lower on the ladder than a man of equal station who is her husband. But position on the ladder is not something esteemed by Peter or Paul. It is never said “woe to you if you have many governors and institutions of man,” or “it is shameful for you to have more layers of human institutions bossing you around than your neighbor does.” Service offered to God is service to God, regardless of what godless men make of it.
It is in this connection that Peter admonishes us to “live as people who are free.” He does not mean that we should be subject to no authority, for he is at the same time telling us to submit to every authority. When modern commentators object that no Christian could be expected to submit to another Christian because “for freedom Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1 ESV), they misunderstand the meaning of freedom. For Paul and for Peter, freedom is not the lack of an earthly master who can boss you around. Freedom is the assurance that your life does not depend upon the performance of temporal things (whether obeying a master of keeping the Mosaic law). It is “through fear of death” that we are “subject to lifelong slavery” (Hebrews 2:15 ESV), and it is from this that we are set free (Romans 8:2, John 5:24). Even if we are “subject” to “unjust” masters in this life, still we are free because of our assurance of everlasting life in Christ. This is true whether it is a master or a husband who does not “obey the word.”
All three of these passages show clear parallelism between instructions to wives and instructions to servants. In this third passage, Peter’s opening remark on service in general, “for this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people,” complements his latter comment to wives specifically: “be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives.” For Peter it is explicitly possible that a master or husband may not seem to deserve honor or respect. The suggestion some people offer, that slavery in Biblical times was “different,” glosses over the three slave rebellions in Roman history. The third happened about as many years before the New Testament was written as the Civil War was before now. None of the three ended in emancipation. The rebellious slaves were killed. By the third revolt the penalty had to be obvious, but they revolted anyway. The cause was probably more severe than a missed Cost of Living Adjustment. Masters could be “unjust” in a way that caused “suffering” like that of Christ. Still, Peter tells servants (and wives) to submit.
It is appropriate here to point out what submission of wives to husbands, or servants to masters, does not mean:
- It does not mean that husbands / masters have spiritual authority. Whether it is the “[pagan] emperor as supreme,” the priests of Jerusalem, or just another Mr. Everyman, earthly power (even over life and death) does not signify heavenly approval.
- It does not mean that husbands / masters are more qualified. Although Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17 might seem to imply that obedience is only owed to just authorities (as some have argued), Peter explicitly enjoins obedience to the unjust as well. And the authors of both letters died under unjust auspices. There is no other indication that authorities must be qualified to be obeyed, and numerous examples of incompetent and unjust authorities within scripture.
- It is not an excuse for husbands / masters to be selfish tyrants. As I noted at the introduction of the excerpts, all the instructions to submit come in contexts that also urge all Christians to be kind, gentle, and humble.
- It is not a promise that wives / servants who submit properly will be treated well. Instead, it is acknowledged, particularly by Peter, that unjust masters will mistreat their servants. (These masters should not be believers; but from the servant’s perspective it does not matter.)
- It does not mean that a husband’s authority is exactly like “the emperor as supreme, or [the authority of] governors,” or a parent’s, or any other authority that is mentioned nearby. Authority comes in many contexts. Although as a practical matter a woman often was (and still is) at the mercy of her husband/live-in boyfriend, a man who styles himself “king” or “emperor” of his home is rarely thinking of the way Jesus treated his disciples (the church).
- It does not mean husbands / masters are “worthy.” Instead, the one who serves is to dedicate his or her service to the only one who is worthy, which is Christ. The husband does not necessarily represent Christ any more that Christ’s submission to Pilate made Pilate represent Christ or God. A husband ought to love as Christ loves, but his failure to do so (guaranteed) does not affect his worthiness to be obeyed. Babylonian and Roman emperors, pagans and self-styled deities, were not worthy of worship, but were nonetheless obeyed by god-fearing men–up to a point.
The New Testament writers did not abolish, nor attempt to abolish, slavery. Neither did they attempt to abolish childhood or parenthood. Neither did they attempt to abolish government. These are all regarded as persistent institutions of man, and of the present creation generally. (Slavery, as I have pointed out elsewhere, is not clearly separated in the Bible from servanthood or employment generally.) In the same way, the husband and wife relationship is expected by the authors of the New Testament to continue with the husband generally having authority over the wife, and wives are enjoined to cooperate in making it so. Although some people consider Jesus to be abolishing authority of any kind for Christians when he washes his disciples’ feet, a reading of any of the gospels will only show the apostles doing the bidding of Jesus, never Jesus doing the bidding of the apostles. Jesus does show a far more gentle and patient authority with mankind in general than any other man will ever demonstrate, but his patience and humility is not an abdication of his authority. Jesus expects to be obeyed as well as to be loved.
This relationship of power and love illustrates the relationship of Jesus to his people: positively, as an illustration, when the husband loves his wife in preference to himself; but also, negatively, demonstrating the unworthiness of anyone else to take Christ’s place when the husband fails to be Christ-like. And it is not as though only some husbands fail to be Christ-like; all do, and we notice some more than others. The husband who is not Christ-like is to be compared to the Adulterous Woman in scripture, who represents the people of God who are not faithful to him. You see the Adulterous Woman a lot in scripture because in this world the people of God are never fully faithful to him. Only when Christ returns is the Perfect Bride revealed; only when Christ returns is the Perfect Groom revealed. He is also the perfect Bread of Life, the perfect Water of Life, the perfect Light; all these things speak of Christ and illustrate his nature even when they are not perfect, even if only by contrast. Thus marriage always speaks of Christ, regardless of the faith of the couple; and in faith the picture should only become more vibrant and beautiful.