Christ-Centered Marriages: Husbands and Wives Complementing One Another
by Chad Brand, Ph.D.
September 1998

At our Convention in Salt Lake City, Southern Baptists declared as a body that we agree with Paul's words to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5:22-33. Southern Baptists? Agreeing with the Bible? That might not sound very startling at first, but there are Baptists who think Paul's words in this chapter are a bit outdated. Some even reject his teaching on marriage outright, and have said as much in response to the Family Amendment to the Baptist Faith and Message.

In light of the uproar over the denominational stance, it would serve us well to look at the text and its affirmations. First we will consider God's instruction through Paul. Then we will examine objections to this marriage model. Finally, we will address those objections.

Paul's Analogy

Ephesians 5:22-33 is the longest passage in the Bible on the subject of marital relations. It stands at the climax of a series of commands and observations in which Paul instructed these Christians to be filled with the Spirit (5:18). He then characterized Spirit-filled believers as those who are "speaking to one another" in spiritual ways, "singing and making melody" in their hearts to the Lord, "always giving thanks" to him for all things, and as those who are "subject to one another in the fear of Christ" (5:19-21). Having introduced the idea of subjection of all believers toward others, Paul brings his practical exhortation about Spirit-filled living into the home.

The Obligation of Wives to Husbands

The first word is to wives. They are instructed, "Submit yourselves to your own husbands, as to the Lord." The verb "submit" is implicit, brought down from verse 21. All Christians should give humble deference to one another, but specifically, wives are to take the initiative to subject themselves to their husbands. The directive calls for a voluntary yielding in love on the part of the wife. The New Testament never tells husbands to subjugate their wives, rather it instructs the wives to take submission into their own hands. This does not deny the husband and wife's essential equality before God, an idea which Paul affirms in Galatians 3:28, where he declares, "There is neither ... male nor female, for all are one in Christ."

Since the two share equality before God, why should the wife live in submission to her husband? Paul says she should do it "as to the Lord." Her submission to her husband is itself an act of obedience to Christ. "Submission primarily honors the Lord who established the relationship."1 Paul does not suggest that husbands are the primary recipients of this act — the Lord is.

There is a further motivation for the wife in making this commitment. Paul announces that marriage is more than just a contract between two people. It is a mirror of the relationship between Christ and the church. "As the church is subject to Christ, so ought wives to be subject to their husbands in everything" (verse 24). Therefore, the submissive wife patterns her relationship to her husband after the church's relationship to Christ. "In the marriage relationship her husband reflects the Lord while she reflects the Church."2

The Obligation of Husbands to Wives

"Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church" (verse 25). Paul does not say to the husbands, "Be the head over your wife." Rather he tells them to love their wives. Paul says three simple things about this love. The husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church (verses 25-27), as his own body (28-30), and with a passion transcending all other commitments (31-33).3

He urges the husband to set the tone of spiritual leadership in the home. "At the heart of mature masculinity is a sense of benevolent responsibility to lead, provide for, and protect women in ways appropriate to a man's differing relationships."4 A husband needs to assume a certain responsibility for the spiritual growth of his wife. In order to do that, though, husbands must "give themselves" for their wives (verse 25) by laying aside many of their own personal desires and conveniences in order to fulfill a higher and prior call.

Objections to the Traditional Interpretation

In the past several decades there has been an exodus from this traditional interpretation. The newer, revisionist camp defends the dual principles of equality and mutuality.5 By this, revisionists mean that men and women are equal and carry responsibilities in both the home and church which are mutual or interchangeable between the sexes. There is no doubt that this concept of mutuality or interchangeability arises from feminist ideology, which claims that, "Physical differences apart, men and women are the same."6 This egalitarianism is a system of belief, a philosophy which denies that there is any intrinsic difference between men and women aside from the obvious biological distinctions. Christians who have accepted egalitarianism as a controlling principle for interpretation are spread across the theological spectrum. There are extreme feminist theologians who reject Paul's words outright, "since only wives are admonished to 'respect' their spouses," thus relegating them to an "inferior position."7 Others still trust the Bible, but find ways to diminish the force of "wives submit, husbands love," out of a fundamental commitment to the egalitarian model.

The traditional camp, on the other hand, advocates equality before God, but is committed to complementarianism , rather than egalitarianism. This is the belief that, while men and women are equal before God, they serve him in complementary roles which are not always identical and in some cases ought not to be. These complementarians recognize that there is "neither male nor female" in terms of our relationship to God (Gal. 3:28). But they also recognize the other biblical texts which counsel that men and women possess distinct abilities and callings (such as 1 Pet. 3:1-7; Col. 3:18; 1 Tim. 2:9-3:7). In the home there ought to be male headship (though not domination) and womanly submission (though not fearful servility). Complementarians insist that to be truly evangelical we must confess that there is no contradiction over this matter in Scripture, and to be truly biblical we must affirm both the spiritual equality of men and women and also the distinctions and differences in roles that are taught in the Bible.

Egalitarians offer several objections to the complementarian interpretation of Ephesians 5:22-33. First, some have rejected this understanding out of practical considerations, complaining that traditional approaches on submission tend to justify sinful, oppressive behavior patterns in some men.

Second, there is the contextual objection. Since verse 21 exhorts Christians to, "submit to one another," some have concluded that Paul is not teaching that the wife alone should submit. Egalitarians opt for "mutual submission" in contrast to distinguishable roles for husbands and wives.

Third, they insist that Paul was a man of his times. His teaching about women is little more than a patriarchal, Christianized Rabbinic theology. Paul was, then, a sort of Jewish curmudgeon when it came to women. Modern Christians are not obligated to follow Paul in his exhortation for wives to submit to their husbands today since this material represents an inferior, culturally-conditioned tradition. This might be identified as the theological objection to complementarity.

Defending the Complementarian Interpretation

There are some sensitive and important issues raised in these objections, but none of them is substantial enough to move Bible-believing Christians away from affirming the truths that Paul is teaching here. Let's look at these concerns.

First, while some men have abused their God-given roles, nevertheless the practical concern is not valid. Such men ignore the greater part of Paul's teaching in Ephesians 5, which demands that husbands love their wives. Paul does not imply that the husband is to be a "domestic despot."8 It is inevitable that some will twist the truth of the Word of God to their own selfish ends, but that should not turn us away from teaching truth. To fail to teach truth is itself a grave sin.

What of the contextual issue? Is Paul telling the Ephesians that husbands and wives are to practice equal submission? How do verse 21 ("submit yourselves to one another") and verse 22 ("wives submit yourselves to your husbands") fit together? Most translations begin a new paragraph in verse 22. That is because it is clear in the Greek that verse 21 is the last of four characteristics of Spirit-filled believers. Being "subject" to others is a responsibility of all Christians. However, that does not negate the responsibility of a husband to lead and a wife to follow.

In the next paragraph Paul moves to an elaboration of some ways in which submission works. Wives are to be submissive to their husbands. Are those husbands also to be equally "submissive" to their wives? Apparently not. At least, not in the sense that wives are to submit to husbands. Notice that only the wife is encouraged to be submissive. Paul does not teach equal or parallel submission. We find here "subjection, but no reciprocal, no mutual subjection. Wives are to be subject to husbands ... but not the reverse."9 Southern Baptist scholar Curtis Vaughn noted that verse 21 concludes the previous paragraph, and then suggests: "[Paul] does teach that the husband exercises an authority the wife must forego."10 Melick observes that in this passage, of the parties mentioned, "only three of the six receive the command to submit: wives, children, and slaves."11 Equal submission does not fit the context when the entire passage is considered.

Those who call for such "mutual submission" argue that husbands are not called to be the spiritual leaders in their homes. "Evangelical egalitarian" Gilbert Bilezikian has claimed that the introduction of any authority into marriage "would paganize the marriage relationship and make the Christ/church paradigm irrelevant to it."12 One wonders if Bilezikian has even read Paul's discussion here. It should be obvious to anyone who reads the biblical text with an open mind that "mutual submission" in the egalitarian sense was not in Paul's mind at all. Seven times in verses 22-33 he uses the little word "as." Wives submit to their husbands as the church does to Christ. Husbands love their wives as Christ does the church. If "mutual submission" entails the unselfish leadership of the husband alongside the caring submission of his wife to that leadership, then we have no problem with such an understanding.13 But that is not what is meant by egalitarians and feminists.

Paul holds up a mirror to Christ and his relation to the church and then says, "See? This is the ideal of what a marriage should be." If that is the model, then equal submission is obviously not the correct interpretation. Does Christ submit to the church? Does He obey the church? Does He wait on the church to take initiative? The answer to each question is clearly, "No." There is no egalitarian relation between Christ and the church. Christ leads the church; the husband leads the wife. The two relationships are analogous to one another. Christ is the servant who leads (Mark 10:45). Thus husbands are servants who lead, but they do lead! Since Paul makes this analogy explicit, to deny the complementarian position is by extension a denial of the headship of Christ over the church. Paul cannot be understood as defending the feminist notion of equal submission or of full interchangeability of roles. Those who disregard this text are not simply rejecting Paul, but are rejecting Scripture and may be following a false image of Christ.

The theological problem remains. Is it possible that Paul was simply a man of his times, subject to error and prejudice? Revisionists repudiate what they perceive to be a patriarchalism in the Bible — it is too male-centered. For them, Paul seems to perpetuate this chauvinism.

He stresses essential equality in Gal. 3:28, but he also addresses wifely submission. People tied to popular culture cannot accept this. They live in a world which emphasizes the interchangeability of gender and the undifferentiated roles of men and women. So, influenced more by the predominant culture than by biblical teaching, they reject Paul's "prejudices."

Should they? There is a subtle deception lurking here. The feminist position assumes the egalitarian worldview and then "hijacks" the Bible to make it fit.14 Texts are either accepted, rejected, ignored, or revised according to the way they fit in with that motif. But this is a mistake of the greatest gravity. The revisionist position does not itself arise from Scripture. Rather, it is plain that while the Bible teaches full equality, it does not affirm egalitarianism or interchangeability in all things, but rather calls for distinguishable roles between men and women.

The egalitarian emphasis reveals a tendency toward theological reductionism. A century ago theological reductionists elevated certain philosophical and scientific models to a position from which they were employed to criticize and evaluate the teachings of Scripture. This reductionism arose from such models as Social Darwinism and historical criticism. In our time, one of the primary types of reductionism facing the church — even evangelical churches — is one based on sexual egalitarianism. Modern notions of sexual equality become the touchstone and Scriptures are received or critiqued based on their adherence to this new norm. Bilezikian, for instance, writes of "the oppressive nature of the patriarchal system" in the Old Testament.15 His presuppositions compel him to reject Scripture. When we allow any philosophical model to rule our theology, we have taken a step in the direction of abandoning the purity of our faith.

There is a better way. It is the way of affirming the language and truth content of the Bible. The Swiss theologian Karl Barth used to say that the Bible came to us in "the language of Canaan," and that we ought to accept that and not tinker with it in order to make it more palatable. Barth was in no sense a "fundamentalist," but he knew that when we change the language we change the content. Philosopher Willard Quine coined a phrase which he borrowed from everyone's high school biology class. "Ontology recapitulates philology." Ontology means "reality"; philology refers to language. Our language may not determine reality, but the words we use set in stone what we believe about reality.

Here is the point. When we see modern Christians, "evangelical" or otherwise, who want to monkey with the language of Scripture because they find that it has certain objectionable qualities, we should avoid their influence at all costs. Do we not believe that the Bible is sufficient, inerrant, and capable of speaking the truth on its own? The modern push for gender-neutral theological language and egalitarian truth is, quite simply, a reductionist deception. We must not be deceived.

What's a Convention to Do?

The Southern Baptist Convention took a lot of heat in the secular media after its decision to affirm the Bible. Unbelievers? Pagan pundits — rejecting the Bible? That is not very surprising. American society at large has already accepted the egalitarian model as "gospel truth." But it gets a little more complicated. Far more troubling is the attitude of some evangelicals who believe it to be impossible to affirm both the equality of men and women and a model of husbands who lead and wives who submit. Since these persons cannot affirm both, they opt to endorse only one side of the equation: equality.

What do we say to them? Look at the Bible. The Word instructs us that male-female equality does not entail an undifferentiated sameness. Male-female equality and male headship may seem paradoxical, but they are both taught in Scripture, much like a thread of two strands. Christian egalitarians have unraveled the two-fold thread and kept only one strand. Complementarians keep the whole thread. Their model, unlike the egalitarian approach, is founded on all the relevant texts of Scripture.

Let us not be parrots of the philosophical fads preached on the cable talk-shows and the network editorials. Rather, let us be prophets who stand firm on the Word of God, even if the unbelieving world assails us. Can Bible-believing Baptists do any other?


1 Dorothy Patterson, "Roles in Marriage: a Study in Submission: 1 Peter 3:1-7," The Theological Educator 13:2 (Spring 1983), 73.

2 Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1990), 368.

3 Curtis Vaughn, Ephesians: A Study Guide Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1977), 117-18.

4 Piper, "A Vision of Biblical Complementarity," in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (Wheaton: Crossway, 1991), 35.

5 Margaret Farley, "Feminist Consciousness and the Interpretation of Scripture," in Feminist Interpretation of the Bible, ed., Letty M. Russell (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1985), 45.

6 Michael Levin, "The Feminist Mystique," Commentary 70 (December 1980), 25.

7 Susan Brooks Thiselthwaite, "Every Two Minutes: Battered Wives and Feminist Interpretation," in Feminist Interpretation of the Bible , 105. Another accuses Paul of subverting Christology to reinforce the "patriarchal marriage pattern." Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, In Memory of Her (New York: Crossroad, 1983), 269.

8 Vaughn, Ephesians , 116.

9 R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul's Epistles to the Galatians, Philippians and Ephesians (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1961), 623.

10 Vaughn, Ephesians, 116.

11 Richard R. Melick, Jr., Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, The New American Commentary, vol. 32 (Nashville: Broadman/Holman, 1991), 311.

12 Gilbert Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990), 249.

13 Wayne Grudem, "Wives Like Sarah, and the Husbands Who Honor Them: 1 Peter 3:1-7," in Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, 199.

14 Willard M. Swartley, "Response," in Women, Authority and the Bible, ed. Alvera Mickelsen (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 90.

15 Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles, 63.

Chad Brand is assistant professor of Christian Studies at North Greenville College, Tigerville, SC., and adjunct professor of New Testament at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

This article reprinted by permission from SBCLife


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