“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” (Eph 5:22–23).
“Wives, submit.” I doubt I could come up with a more offensive statement if I tried.But there it is, in the middle of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. So what do we make of it? What is Paul up to in telling wives to submit? And what does it mean for a husband to be the “head” of his wife?
As you consider what Paul is saying about gender roles, keep this in mind: the gospel challenges every culture, but not in the same ways.
Conservative cultures have found the gospel dangerous because it seems to undermine their hierarchies. In Christianity you have a group of people declaring allegiance to Christ above all earthly powers, encouraging every member to exercise spiritual gifts. That is a subversive idea, and in restrictive countries (as extreme examples, think of China or North Korea), the gospel is not welcome for that reason.
But liberal cultures find the gospel dangerous because it challenges the idea of individual autonomy. In Christianity you have a group of people renouncing their rights and individual comforts and telling others that the self is not supreme. And all of that sounds stuffy and too conservative.
As Tim Keller says, because the gospel is from God, every ideology—conservative or liberal—is going to be deeply suspicious of it.
That goes for gender roles as much as for anything else. In the first century, what Paul was saying was actually quite liberal and subversive. He even had to warn many of his churches to rein things in a bit because the surrounding communities thought they were throwing off all societal norms (cf. 1 Cor 11). Throughout history, his words have been scorned by some cultures for being too liberal, by others for being too conservative. The only common ground that everyone seems to agree on is that what Paul is saying is offensive.
It is safe to say that our culture finds these words far too conservative and restrictive. But the Bible challenges every culture, and that includes our own. Now, admittedly, many (conservative) traditionalists have taken the biblical stance and fused it with the cultural mindset of 1950s America. But the Bible isn’t saying that pseudo-Victorian, post-industrial American family values are identical with gospel values. Sure, there are some aspects of those gender roles that are right. But many are wrong, too.
What Paul is saying challenges gender roles in 1953 and in 2013. Husbands and wives have distinct gifts. Neither gifting is complete without the other, but neither gifting is exclusive either. Women are told to submit (Eph 5:21), but that doesn’t excuse men from the same duty. On the flip side, men are told to love their wives so that they would be blameless before God (Eph 5:25–27). But obviously wives aren’t exempted from loving their husbands.
We have to remember that the spiritual gifts that men and women embody in marriage—like all spiritual gifts—are also duties for every believer. Just because one person has the gift of evangelism, for instance, does not mean that no one else should share their faith. That particular gifting ought to be an encouragement to everyone else.
The differing roles between men and women are meant to be a blessing for us, not a curse. Feminists may forget that these differences can be helpful; traditionalists may forget that these differences can be abused. But the differences are part of God’s design for us, a delicate dance between men and women, in which each gender reveals and demonstrates an aspect of the image of God.