No secret, gender issues are hot right now. It’s due to a combination of cultural gender crisis, the summer wedding season, and a fairly controversial new TLC series. The deeper we get into the “anthropocentric turn” (how philosopher Charles Taylor has described the shift from a God-believing culture to a human-centered culture), the further we get from things like created gender distinctions, and the less sense things like “gender roles” make. Very often the mere mention of such things today are considered passé, narrow-minded, and offensive.
Here’s the key though. What are sometimes falsely considered biblical “gender roles” today are often just 1950s Leave It To Beaver Americana. Truth be told, I’m sort of put off by that stuff too. You don’t have to browse through too many advertisements from the mid-twentieth century to gather that in this time frame, women were considered by many to be intellectually inferior and largely incapable of doing much outside the walls of the home. By the way, many churches still probably reflect June Cleaver roles for women more faithfully than they do the entrepreneurial, intelligent, faithful Proverbs 31 woman. If the majority consensus about your church is that women have fewer/lesser spiritual gifts than men, your false theology is showing. If you think the gifts that God has most uniquely granted to women to impact his kingdom are recipes and vacuums, at some point this probably must become an issue of repentance for poor understanding.
This is not to say we shouldn’t love women who are good with recipes or are persnickety about keeping the place tidy. We benefit from that greatly too. The point I’m trying to make is that we need to be very careful to let the Bible itself, not the culture we grew up in, shape our thoughts and theology.
So here’s some thoughts about twenty-first century submission.
Words are Important with Gender Distinctions
Distortion of words unquestionably contributed to the first sin. (Gen. 3:1 The serpent said, “Did God really say…?”) This distortion continues to contribute to subsequent sins. Any words that twist and garble THE WORD are doing a disservice to us.
So the pertinent question today then is, “What does submit mean in contemporary society?”
Technically, the word submit today still does not have an inherently negative connotation. The last time you applied for a job, my guess is that you submitted a resume. And you probably didn’t think that was beneath you.
On the other hand, when I personally think of submit, the first thing that comes to mind tends to be mixed martial arts UFC fighting. In this instance, submitting involves tapping out because you’re enduring such excruciating pain that you can endure it no longer. I don’t think one has to be a Bible scholar to figure out that this sort of Randy Couture-induced tap out is not what the Apostle Paul is encouraging wives to do in Ephesians 5.
A pastor friend of mine recently told me that a woman informed him whenever she heard the word submit it made her think of Fifty Shades of Grey. Yeah, again, I’m quite confident that the Apostle Paul wasn’t proposing sadomasochistic erotica either.
But the point is that whatever words Christians use to express the relational roles between husband and wife, we had better be VERY careful that we’re conveying the same thoughts that the Apostle Paul originally intended. I’ve sat through enough weddings where the word “submit” was used a bit haphazardly and have heard the audible scoffs from perturbed men and women in the congregation that day. Now, before we say, “What wicked, godless, anti-biblical people!” we probably should make sure we’re doing our job of faithfully communicating the writer’s original thoughts. IF submit doesn’t convey those thoughts in today’s culture, I’d propose we consider alternative words.
What Words Are Used in Eph. 5 to Differentiate Genders?
The whole “wives, submit to your husbands” thing, while it falls under an umbrella of gender roles established throughout Scripture beginning in the Creation Account (Gen. 2), is technically taken from the Apostle Paul’s words in Ephesians 5.
The first issue we run into with modern misunderstanding are those “helpful” section titles that have been inserted into your English translations of the Bible. So, for instance, the most recent NIV translation uses the title “Instructions for Christian Households” to separate verses 20 and 21. The previous NIV version used the phrase “Wives and Husbands” to separate verses 21 and 22.
What’s the difference? What’s the big deal? Well, where you place verse 21 makes a big deal in comprehending the flow of Paul’s thought. Verse 21 says, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” (Eph. 5:21) While this is a good encouragement for all Christians to do to one another, it also happens to be a nice segue for Paul to begin talking about gender roles in marriage. Because the very next thing he says is “Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.” (Eph. 5:22) Interestingly, the Greek word for submit is not even found in verse 22, but it’s linguistically implied as a holdover from verse 21. The bottom line is this – submission is something God intends for ALL Christians, male and female, in general, to do to one another, and in the marriage relationship, for a wife to do for her husband.
What does it mean? In Greek, the word hypotasso (transl.), used here, is the picture of arranging oneself (tasso) under (hypo). It basically means to place yourself under the will of another. In marriage, it means to place yourself under the will of a godly leader. We KNOW that headship is not an inferiority thing, because Christ himself has a head – “the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. (1 Cor. 11:3) Jesus has a head and, remember, it doesn’t get any better than Jesus – “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.” (Heb. 1:3) Therefore, this genderedness stuff clearly isn’t an issue of talent or worth or goodness or intelligence or anything like that. It’s merely an issue of deferring to another’s will. Jesus, who has all of the glory and majesty of the Father, says to the Father, “Father … not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:42)
And as long as we’re on the topic of misconstrued words, note also that when God creates Eve to be a “suitable helper” (Gen. 2:18) for Adam, this whole helper thing has largely lost its flavor today too. When God says he will make a suitable helper, ezer (Hebrew transl.), this word for helper is actually only used elsewhere in the Old Testament to describe the help that God offers to his people. In other words, when we hear the word helper today, we generally think of someone assisting us in doing something that we could do by ourselves. E.g. “Will you please help me wash the dishes?” See, I can take care of the dishes by myself just fine (NOTE: Relatively speaking. Sweetheart, no need to comment here.), but it’d be sort of nice if someone else helped me out. That is NOT how helper is being used in Genesis 2 nor the rest of the Old Testament. Israel was not sufficient in themselves. They needed God’s help, for instance, to accomplish their purpose of arriving in the Promised Land. In this case, the word helper indicates that you are assisting someone in doing something they could not do by themselves. Wives (women in general) help men accomplish their created goal – glorifying God – in a way that husbands (men in general) would be incapable of doing without the women. When God creates Adam and he says that it is “not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18), he’s not suggesting that Adam’s design is flawed, but rather that man is incomplete without woman. If God had created another Adam to go along with the first Adam, the two Adams would still be equally incomplete in the same way that two identical puzzle pieces don’t fit together and, thus, don’t create a completed puzzle/full picture.
What God, through the Apostle Paul, is suggesting then in Ephesians 5 is that husband and wife are a complementary unit with a common goal, but it is illogical and detrimental for them to have common roles, so, one of them has to take a headship role. WHY God specifically chose which gender for which role (i.e. helper or head) is for reasons that God himself only fully understands. THAT he differentiated genders for complementary roles, on the other hand, is Scripturally obvious.
One final note here. What I’ll often hear is a wife who says that she can no longer respect her husband (or submit to him), because he has behaved so poorly. To this, I’ll often counter with, “Well, if you only want to respect him when he’s completely respectable, do you really want him to love you only when you’re completely lovable?” Obviously not. This love/respect thing simply cannot have constantly fluctuating conditions. With that said, I would, however, also include the thought that a husband does need to lead in this regard. The Church only praises Christ and submits to him AFTER he has shown unbelievable love to her. Similarly, husbands need to move first – in grace, patience, communication, repentance, forgiveness, humility, etc. If you’re in that headship role, you’ve got yourself a huge responsibility and you should expect that God is going to hold you to the higher standard. (Gen. 3:9)
Common Concern about Gender Differences
One of the biggest concerns I hear about the gender roles is a certain amount of trepidation from a woman distrusting that a male is fully adequate to lead her. This is understandable especially when a woman has a history of a man in her life who stunk as a leader. The wrong way to handle that, however, would be to say that God’s design for gender roles is flawed. That’d be like me buying all of the parts to a Ford Explorer, paying a bunch of preschoolers to assemble it in order to save a buck, and then when this machine doesn’t perform at the level I’d like, blaming Ford for its bogus product. In other words, don’t mistake lousy execution for faulty design. I am yet to meet the woman who had a truly Christ-like husband who had any real issues with biblical gender roles. God’s design for gender roles works just great. It’s unfaithful execution that creates havoc.
But, worst case scenario, what if a man becomes oppressive in his leadership role? This is one of the reasons why God designed churches. This is also a reason why it’s so important for a woman to both 1) marry a godly man who resembles Jesus as much as possible, and 2) join a godly church that has a healthy understanding of gender roles AND disciplines men who don’t fulfill their roles. If a man does not step up and into his role as a godly leader in a household, his church’s leaders had better encourage and train him to get there. If you don’t marry a man who is either interested in God-designed gender roles or engaging in a church where proper gender roles or discipline are present, there’s no great way to safeguard against this sort of oppression.
What’s interesting is that the bigger concern for women probably should be a man who is afraid/negligent of his headship role, as Adam appears to have been in the first sin in Eden. We assume Adam was present when Eve was tempted and took the fruit, but for whatever reason, he didn’t intervene and lead his wife away from danger. He was on the couch staying out of her way rather than protecting the woman God had entrusted to his care. Oppression (over-embracing the headship role) is bad, but cowardly negligence (under-embracing the headship role) is more common, and arguably worse.
2) Loss of Voice
Another concern I’ve heard from women is the fear that if the man is the “head” in the relationship, her opinion will never be heard. Look, if your husband loves you like Christ loves the Church, he’s constantly going to be striving for what pleases you and is in your best interest. Jesus was/is constantly paying attention to, sacrificing for, and living to the glory of … his Bride. Jesus is the husband his bride can directly access 24/7 and he’ll always listen. A guy who is daily striving to emulate that WILL care about your opinion.
Practically, the way this plays out is that a wife may very well end up making many of the decisions in a marriage. Speaking from experience, my guess is that my wife and I probably lean towards her preferences in somewhere around 80-90% of our group decisions. Where are we going to go out for dinner? Well, I have certain foods I strongly dislike, but the rest register about the same to me. My wife, on the other hand, has stronger preferences about what she likes to eat. Because I love her and want her to be happy, I often happily default to her preference. Simple example, but because I make an effort to try to live this way consistently, when something comes along that I do feel quite strongly about, my wife senses my conviction and respects my position in the home and consistently defers. For instance, with every major career decision I’ve had to make, after I’ve gained her input, each time she’s said, “Well, you know how I feel, but ultimately this is your decision, and I will support you in whatever you think is right.”
My wife and I are both strong-willed, opinionated people. And I’m absolutely no master at this. But if a knucklehead like me can figure out how to make this husband/wife headship system work, I’m quite confident that most others can find the beauty of it as well.
Everybody Acting Like Jesus, No Matter What Your Gender
Perhaps the best way to look at the corresponding gender roles is to understand that both sexes in marriage are ultimately attempting to reflect the attitude and character of Christ. As Timothy Keller shares in The Meaning of Marriage:
Both women and men get to “play the Jesus role” in marriage – Jesus in his sacrificial authority (i.e. husbands), Jesus in his sacrificial submission (i.e. wives). By accepting our gender roles, and operating within them, we are able to demonstrate to the world concepts that are so counterintuitive as to be completely unintelligible unless they are lived out by men and women in Christian marriages. (The Meaning of Marriage, pgs. 201-202)
What Keller is saying is that, while men and women have different roles, the key ingredient is Christ-likeness. And mirroring Jesus means to put the other person ahead of yourself. Jesus was God who made himself low enough to save sinners. Jesus was God who subjected himself to his Father’s will. In both cases, whether in feet-washing leadership or cross-embracing obedience and submission, he was putting another ahead of himself.
Both the man or woman, head or helper, are asking for God’s power to carry out their roles, asking for God’s forgiveness when they fail, and asking for God’s wisdom to grow beyond committing such mistakes again.
So, yes, since the Bible clearly teaches it and God’s design is flawless, women should still hypotasso. If you want to call that submit, fine, but don’t foist your own ideas of what submit means upon the role. Let the Bible speak for itself. Furthermore, when talking about God’s design for gender roles, if you love people like Jesus does, you’re going to at least be a little sensitive to what others are hearing even if it’s not what you’re saying.
Remember, both husband and wife are simply trying to play the “Jesus role” in marriage. And on our best days, when we are doing this really well, this is still only a taste of what perfect relationship will be like in heaven.