Isn't it a Scriptural command that husbands should submit to their wives?

Someone emailed:
You touch on the issue of wives subjecting to husbands, but you appear to treat this as if it was not a Scriptural command. But it says in black and white: "Wives submit to your husbands" (Eph.5.22).

Reply: Paul appears to have a complex position on the role of women, on the one hand saying that they should be silent and submissive (1Cor.14.34; Eph.5.22) and on the other hand allowing them to pray and prophesy and teaching couples to "submit to each other" (1Cor.11.5, 13; Eph.5.21). The fact that he puts these different emphases very close to each other suggests that this is a conscious disparity and not an accidental contradiction - ie he wants us to think about these things carefully.

However we should take seriously the charge that Paul is contradicting himself.

Many books have been written on this subject, so I can only cover the issues very briefly. In an academic paper I concluded that the words "Wives submit to your husbands" is a quotation by Paul and Peter from an Aristotelian moral handbook.

The same source was used by Philo and Josephus who also quoted "children should submit to their fathers" and "slaves should submit to their masters", just like Paul and Peter do (Eph.5.22--6.9; Col.3.18--4.1; 1Tim.2.9-3.7; 6.1-2; Tit.2.3-10; 1Pet.2.18--3.7; Philo Hypothetica 7.2-3; Josephus Contra Apion 2.24, 201).

If this is so, the phrase "wives should submit to their husbands" has the same status as Paul's quote from his Corinthian correspondents that "It is good for a man not to touch a woman" ( (1Cor.7.1) and his quote from a Greek poet that "Cretans are always liars" (Tit.1.12). Such quotations are in Scripture but they are man's words, not God's words.

This does not mean that Paul did not teach women to submit to their husbands - he clearly did. But we have to ask ourselves why?

Facts which virtually everyone agrees with:

1) There were no women among the 12 top leaders of the NT church
2) Paul said and Peter said women should submit to their husband, just as their children and slaves did, and no woman should "teach or have authority over a man" (1Tim.2.12).
3) Paul & Peter also said that women should not wear jewelry or expensive clothes or use hairdressers (1Tim.2.9; 1Pet.3.2) and should wear their matrimonial veil (1Cor.11.4-5)
4) Paul and Peter said that women were like this in the OT, and that acting differently was shameful, dishonouring, not respectable, and ungodly (1Cor.11.5; 14.35; 1Tim.2.9-10)

Historians tell us that Roman women at this time had recently gained equality with men. They gained:- freedom to spend their own money on what they wanted, and they lavished it on fashion- freedom to divorce and marry as they wanted, and many ended up doing so repeatedly- freedom from submission to the head of the household - ie their husband or father (though children and slaves still had to submit to head of the household, as before)- and many also helped themselves to sexual equality by taking lovers like the men did- all women wore a matrimonial veil unless they never married or they were prostitutes but some women stopped wearing it, as a sign of their freedom

The world was going through a social revolution which turned out to be a revolution of sexual immorality. Women who exercised their freedom by not submitting to their husbands or spending money on expensive fashions were therefore assumed to be living immorally.

Paul and Peter told believers to follow the old moral codes of the previous centuries, when women submitted to their husbands and dressed moderately.
Jewish leaders, like Philo and Josephus, also advised Jews to follow this older moral code which they summarised (following Aristotle) in the same way as the New Testament does:
1) Women should obey their husbands
2) Children should obey their fathers
3) Slaves should obey their masters
(NT: Eph.5.22--6.9; Col.3.18--4.1; 1Tim.2.9—3.7; 6.1-2; Tit.2.3-10; 1Pet.2.18--3.7Judaism: Philo Hypothetica 7.2-3; Josephus Contra Apion 2.24, 201)

Both Christians and Jews had problems with this moral code, and added limitations, eg:1) Wives should submit but also husbands should love them and not be harsh (Col.3.18-19)2) Children should obey but also fathers should not exasperate them (Col.3.20-21)3) Slaves should obey but also masters should be fair and not threaten them (Eph.6.5-9)

The NT also taught that men, women and slaves are all equal (Gal.3.28; 1Cor.12.13)
Why did Christians keep these morals if they were not entirely sure about them? 1) If a Christian wife doesn't submit to her husband, the gospel will be slandered (Tit.2.5)2) If a Christian wife submits to her husband, he is more likely to be converted (1Pet.3.1)3) Similarly, if a Christian slave does not submit, the gospel will be slandered (1Tim 6.1)

If they did not keep this basic moral code people assumed they were 'immoral', like people who assume that all women who go clubbing or wear short skirts are living immoral lives.

There are two main views about what we should do:

A) Follow the command that women should be submissive and not have authority over men - and therefore they should not teach (because teachers were in authority)

B) Follow the reason for the command, that our lifestyle should not scandalise the gospel - and therefore we should not enforce an ancient Greek morality of inequality

Additional reasons for following the command, that women should submit:

1) Paul and Peter use the OT as additional arguments- a) Adam was created first, and Eve fell, so only men should teach (1Tim.2.13-14) BUT one could say Paul was being ironic, because Adam should have known better- b) Sarah called her husband 'Lord', as did all the old saintly women (1Pet.3.6) BUT 'husband' and 'lord' are the same word in Hebrew, so what else could they do?

2) If you start looking for reasons behind commands, where will this stop?

Additional reasons for following the reason, that we should not scandalize the gospel:

1) Women filled as many leadership roles as the church could get away with in that society:- deaconesses (1Tim.3.11) - perhaps deacon's wives, but with leadership roles - Paul's 'co-workers' (Rom.16, 3, 6, 12, 16; Phil.4.2-3), including the teaching team of Priscilla and Aquillus (she is named first, Act.18.26; Rom.16.3; 2Tim.4.19)- convenors (or leaders?) of House Churches (Act.16.40; 12.12; Col.4.15; 1Cor.1.11)- prophets (Act.2.37-38; 21.8-14; 1Cor.11.5)- perhaps an Apostle (Rom.16.7 - Junia is a very common female name, but some texts changed this to the male form 'Junias' which is completely unknown) BUT they never taught or preached or had any other role of high authority in the church

2) The phrase "Wives should submit" is a quote from elsewhere, like "It is good not to touch a woman" (1Cor.7.1) and "Cretans are always liars" (Tit.1.12), which have no inspired status. BUT it appears to be quoted as something to agree with, so it becomes part of God's word

My personal conclusion from all this is that couples have to decide for themselves how to order their marriage. Paul was willing to affirm the Aristotelian model of submission to the head of the household. His reasons for doing so was for the promotion of the gospel. But we also should be willing to affirm it for the sake of marriages in which it is adopted by mutual choice and where it works well. But we should also point out that it is not the only model.

For more see The vow "to obey" in Divorce & Remarriage in the Church


Anonymous said...

To me the issue is not choosing which works better; equality or headship but it is in fact both concepts that should be incorporated in the marriage. God clearly puts the husband in the position of responsibility for the marriage as that is the nature of headship and while the wife is indeed equal she is asked to submit to her husband. If a husband is to love his wife as Christ loved the church and if he is extremely wise he will listen to his wife's council and do everything he possibly can to put her into a position to be the best wife she can be resulting in her joyful submission and trust even at times when his direction for the family is not completely understood or seems dubious.
I also wonder about your view of the inspiration of the scriptures or at least maybe a clarification may be in order regarding the apostle Paul's quotations of pagan sources etc. Are you saying that those parts of scripture where a quotation is being made, that because they are not God's words that the quoted section is not inspired and not God's word and or is not scripture. In other words are quotes inspired scripture or just the fact that they are there doesnt mean they are inspired in terms of God - breathed.
Thank you for all your work and help in the divorce - remarriage debate

David IB said...

Anonymous asked if I regarded words quoted within Scripture as inspired.
The importance of recognising quotes is to see where people are coming from. Knowing that Paul is answering those who say "It is good not to touch a woman" helps us to see that he is reacting against asceticism rather than arguing for it, while saying that he has sympathy for some of their ideals.

David IB

Anonymous said...

Have you read Rebecca Groothuis' logical argument that for a woman to adopt a permanent role of submission (unlike the temporary role of a child to a parent or an employee to an employer) is to be ontologically inferior. Yet we know God says male and female are equal. Therefore headship cannot be taken to mean that a wife is to permanently submit. She can, however, choose to voluntarily submit in areas that they agree he should take the lead in, and on other matters, he may choose to submit. It seems to be the more Biblical model.

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