Conversations on Paul III: On Submission
“So what besides a penis makes a man the head of a home?” I tried to catch the words as they came out of my mouth, but it was too late—they had reached my mother’s ears. There are certain things one doesn’t say in front of a Nigerian mother—not a Northern one at least—and casually referring to genitalia of the opposite sex in a non-medical discussion falls in that category (the fact that I was in my mid-twenties at this point is besides the point). My mother (a firm complementarian) and I (a decided egalitarian) were thick in a passionate conversation about the marital roles of women vis-à-vis the Bible. In Half the Church: Recapturing God’s Global Vision for Women, Carolyn Curtis James explains “complementarians believe the Bible establishes male authority over women, making male leadership the biblical standard,” whereas “egalitarians believe that leadership is not determined by gender but by gifting and calling of the Holy Spirit, and that God calls all believers to submit to one another.”
Thankfully, my Mother let my rashin kunya (lack of discretion) slide and calmly pointed me to scriptures from both the Old and New Testament supporting her beliefs about male headship. While I appreciated the merits of her argument, I remained unconvinced that a man is always supposed to be the leader in every marital scenario solely because he is a man; or that complementarianism is the only appropriate model for a Christian marriage. In fact, the sermons or analogies I had heard by Christians or non-Christians alike on this issue over the years only led to more questions.
“A company only has one CEO.” Well, what about partnerships?
“A plane has only has one captain.” Doesn’t that depend on the plane and destination? A co-pilot on one route and/or plane can be the captain on another, right?
“Men are wired to be in charge.” But, how much of that is a biological thing, and how much of that is a conditioning thing though?
“There’s a reason why men tend to be physically stronger, and women birth and nurse babies.” Does equality require sameness?
“Well, Paul Said….” Okay, let’s get into what Paul said…
In two scriptures— Ephesians 5: 22-24 and Colossians 3: 18— Apostle Paul unequivocally instructs wives to submit to their husbands. To the church at Ephesus, Paul told wives to submit to their husbands “in everything.” To the church in Colossae, Paul reiterated that wives should submit to their husbands “as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.” Case closed, right? Well, not necessarily—not for me at least.
Bringing nuance and context to Paul’s texts over the years, has given me a different perspective. In Ephesians 5:24, Paul writes, “Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.” Rachel Held Evans teaches in her book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, when reading the Bible, it is wise to ask yourself: “What is the ‘therefore’ there for?” (The same applies to other conjunctive adverbs, such as however, likewise, also, finally, for example, etc). Put differently, to get a full understanding of biblical verses, it is often necessary to read them in relation to the chapters and books they appear in. On this note, if one digs around Paul’s submission verses in Ephesians and Colossians—one will find that both verses either come before or after verses instructing slaves to submit to their masters (the same goes for Peter’s verses on submission). In Ephesians 6:5, Paul instructs slaves to obey their masters “with deep respect and fear.” In Colossians 4:1, Paul reminds masters to “be just and fair” to slaves. Paul was writing to societies where the Greco-Roman household codes were the law of the land. In his book Let Wives Be Submissive: The Domestic Code in 1 Peter, New Testament Professor David L. Balch notes that the Greco-Roman household codes can be traced to Aristotle’s Politics— a governmental treatise that came over 300 years before Christianity. For Aristotle, harmony in the city-state, and in its most basic unit—the family—came at the expense of subjugating slaves and women. Until (relatively) recent history, slavery was the norm for hundreds of years, and many men and women of God upheld slavery on the basis of the Bible. Yet, most Christians today understand that while slavery was culturally acceptable when the Bible was written, it is far from holy. If one calls for a contextual understanding of Paul’s verses on master and slave, couldn’t it be logical—or at least permissible—to do the same for his verses on man and wife?
Enter nuance: as John Stackhouse explains in Partners in Christ: A Conservative Case for Egalitarianism, it is crucial to understand that when Paul wrote his letters to Ephesus and Colossae, he was giving the church a few instructions on how to “survive and thrive in a patriarchal culture that he thinks will not last long.” I believe, in subtle ways, Paul introduced a new hierarchy—a more mutual one. In Ephesians 5:21: Paul writes that wives and husbands should “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
So, do I believe traditional Christian marital models should be completely disrupted? Not necessarily—I have seen this model work for couples I respect. One of my biggest sources of frustration on this issue though, comes from how I sometimes see headship and submission defined. As a woman from a Christian and African background, I often witness the lines between culture and religious text blur. I have seen submission defined as the person who is responsible for the majority of household chores and the person required to delay or abandon their dreams. I have also seen headship defined as the person who is responsible for being the breadwinner, and the person deserving of the final say in household matters. What bothers me is not necessarily these definitions (because it works for some), but the danger of the rigidity of them. For example, in the name of biblical submission, I have seen women excuse and endure abuse. I have also seen men experience shame, insecurity, depression, and anger, when they are unable to be the primary breadwinner or decision tiebreaker. In a world where earning power is no longer based solely on physical strength or gender, but on a myriad of factors including intelligence, connections, luck, coincidence, economic climate, professional field, experience—are we adequately preparing Christian couples when we tell them the man is meant to be the primary breadwinner?
A 2008 national study conducted by Barna Research Group revealed that 32% of evangelical and non-evangelical born again Christians have experienced divorce. This divorce figure was nearly identical to that of non-born again adults: 33%. An earlier study by the group studies revealed that more than 90% of the born again adults who have been divorced experienced that divorce after they accepted Christ, not before. According to Barna, these statistics challenge “the idea that churches provide truly practical and life-changing support for marriage.”
I find it hard to believe that the God who created a world with so much diversity, who gifted men and women with diverse abilities and callings—expects a one-size fits all model for all marriages. More importantly, while I am very very far from having this marriage thing figured out, I would like to believe a marriage boils down to so much more than chores, coins or control. Perhaps we need more room in the body of Christ: to figure this marriage thing out based on our unique circumstances. Perhaps when one truly follows the example of Jesus Christ, the rest is semantics: the metaphor of Christ as the head of the Church is used 5 times in the New Testament, and in each instance, the metaphor refers to Christ as a source of life, growth, love and sacrifice.
In the end, this is what a Christian marriage means to me: learning to love my husband as much as I love myself (this might take a while—but I’m working on it). Indeed, “the entire [Christian] law is fulfilled in a single decree: love your neighbor as yourself” (Galatians 5:14).
If you are interested in learning more about Egalitarian Christian marriages and Mutual Submission, you can check out: Pastor Taffi Dollar's sermon on Biblical Equality, Additional Resources for Mutual Submission compiled by Rachel Held Evans, and 60+ Marriage Resources for Christians compiled by Sarah Bessey.