6.15.2009

marital roles

Some of the most difficult passages for the modern mind to understand and trust are those about marital roles, specifically the command for submission of wives to their husbands. The idea that there are any clearly defined roles or duties for each of the spouses to fulfill is generally unacceptable for the modern mind. Equality trumps any notions of authority or difference. Application of roles in destructive and demeaning ways has only amplified the resistance. On the other hand, it seems the resulting gender confusion and a failure to fulfill these roles contributes to much of the pain being experienced within our marriages. Men do not know how to act like men, and women do not make them feel like men. In the vacuum, women must step up to act like men, and men do not know how to make them feel like women.

If there are roles, what are they? What aren’t they? Ephesians 5 contains probably the most frequently cited teaching on the subject, and seems to be the springboard for most discussions on the subject, and so some analysis could be helpful.

Submitting yourselves to one another in the fear of Christ.

Wives, to their own husbands as to the Lord. Because a husband is head of his wife as also Christ is head of the church. He is savior of the body. But as the church submits to Christ, in this way also wives to their husbands in everything.

Husbands, love your wives just as also Christ loved the church and gave himself over for her. In order that he might sanctify her, by cleansing by the washing of the water in word. In order that he might present her, the church, as glorious not having a stain or wrinkle or anything such as these, but in order that she might be holy and blameless. In this way, husbands are obligated to love their own wives as their own bodies. The one, who loves his own wife, loves himself. For no one at any time hated his own flesh but nourishes and cares for it. Just as also Christ [does for] the church. Because a body part is his body. “On account of this, a man will leave father and mother and he will be united to his wife, and the two will be as one flesh.” This mystery is great, but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the church. Nevertheless, you, one after the other, let each [man] love his wife as himself, and the wife, let her revere her husband.
(Eph 5:21-3, BAB)

Important observations:
(1) v. 21 “submitting yourselves to one another in the fear of Christ” is the fourth of four supplementary statements describing what accompanies being filled with the spirit (v. 18). In other words, it is very clearly connected to what precedes, in contrast to some who interpret that as the introduction to what follows. However, the discussion that follows is concrete application of the principle.


(2) Each has the relationship between Christ and his church as the paradigm for understanding how they ought to act toward the other. Christ is ground for and example of how one ought to live. In this case, the marriage relationship embodies the gospel. Male headship means embodying Christ’s sacrifice in the provision of love and honor. Female submission means embodying the church’s faith in the provision of respect and trust.


(3) These can still qualify has mutual submission in that each is called to sacrifice themselves for the other. If the woman sacrifices in respecting and trusting her husband, the husband sacrifices in exercising his headship in service of her (not him).

(4) These roles say nothing really about things like who works, who makes decisions, who controls the finances, and so on. When Paul describes Christ as the head of the church (4:15-16), he describes him as the one who holds the body together. In that way, I think the idea of roles has very little to do with some of the ways they are traditionally defined. Rather it means that the responsibility for holding the family together as a healthy, functional, and growing body rests squarely on his shoulders. The wife’s submission means that she will not do things that undermine his attempts to do that. I think the details on how this is lived out may be more fluid are typically taught.

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