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A Shocking Statement about Authority in Marriage

November 14, 2019 • Life for Leaders

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. . . . Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ love the church and gave himself up for her.

Ephesians 5:21-22, 25 (NIV)

 

In Ephesians 5, wives are told to submit to their husbands and husbands to love their wives. But the context for both of these imperatives shows that both love and submission should be mutual. For example, Ephesians 5:2 calls all Christians to “walk in the way of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” This is very similar to the instruction for husbands in Ephesians 5:25, “Love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” So, yes, wives are to love their husbands in the way husbands are to love their wives, even though this isn’t mentioned explicitly in Ephesians 5:21-33.

Two wedding rings entangled with one anotherBut what about submission? Is this also to be mutual within marriage? The fact that the word to wives “submit to your own husbands” comes right on the heels of the command to all Christians, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” certainly suggests that husbands are to submit to their wives, their sisters in Christ. Just as both wife and husband are to love like Christ, so also husband and wife are to submit out of reverence for Christ.

Yet some Christians don’t see it that way. They believe that submission in marriage is a one-way street, from wives to husbands. In their view, the call to mutual submission in Ephesians 5:21 is not relevant to marriage. One reason, they explain, is that mutual submission just doesn’t work. In any relationship, when there is a serious disagreement about some decision, someone ultimately has to make the call. Shared submission and shared authority are not practical, it is claimed.

Now, I get the logic here. But I find this position to be inconsistent with the only passage in the whole New Testament that actually uses the Greek language of authority when speaking about marriage.

In 1 Corinthians 7, Paul addresses a challenging situation in which Christian wives are refusing to have sexual relations with their husbands. In verse 4 he writes, “The wife does not have authority over her own body, but yields it to her husband.” Using the standard Greek verb meaning “to exercise authority” (exousiazo), this sentence clearly assigns authority to the husband. Implicitly, the wife should submit to that authority. None of Paul’s original audience would have been shocked by this claim of male authority. The view that husbands have authority over their wives would be assumed by all who first received Paul’s Corinthian letter. Such was the nature of marriage in the Roman world.

But there is more in verse 4 to be considered. After saying that the husband has authority over his wife, Paul goes on, “In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.” Amazing! You could not find a clearer statement of mutual authority in marriage, and, by implication, mutual submission, the flip side of mutual authority.

When we take 1 Corinthians 7:4 seriously, we have strong reason to believe that mutual authority and mutual submission are essential to the biblical vision of marriage. Yes, this is certainly messier than one-way authority and one-way submission. But shared authority in marriage is plainly taught in the New Testament—in a way that would have been shockingly counter-cultural in the first century, by the way. No other writer in the Roman world upholds the authority of women as does the Apostle Paul.

At this point, we might wonder what a married couple should do when they seem to be stuck in a disagreement about some decision for their marriage. One might claim that this situation is exactly the situation that requires someone in the marriage to be the ultimate authority. How else will a couple get unstuck? But this claim forgets what Ephesians 5 teaches us about marriage. It is not a realm set apart, a closed-off relationship in which two people are solely responsible for their lives and decisions. Rather, Christian marriage flourishes in the context of Christian community. Wives and husbands are to submit, not just to one another, but also to their sisters and brothers in Christ. So, if they feel stuck in a decision, they are not really stuck because they are not really alone. They have others who can help, fellow Christians to whom they are accountable and who can help them work through their disagreement in a wise way.

I know this will sound unsettling to some Life for Leaders readers. That’s why I entitled this piece “A Shocking Statement about Authority in Marriage.” I find what we read in Ephesians 5 and the parallel passage in 1 Corinthians 7 to be shocking. It shocks me to realize that in such a strongly patriarchal culture, the New Testament envisions marriage as a matter of mutual authority and submission. And it shocks me, given my preference for running my own life (including my marriage) as I wish— that I need to be submitted to my brothers and sisters in Christ, including my wife.

This is not an easy thing for me, I admit. But this, I believe, is what Scripture calls me to do. No matter whether you see things in this way or not, I ask that you join me in seeking God’s truth from Scripture, even when it’s hard to figure out, and even when it challenges our assumptions about how to live. If we’re never shocked by Scripture, chances are we’re not paying close attention to it.

Something to Think About:

Why do you think the New Testament offers such a counter-cultural vision of marriage? What might be behind this vision?

Do you have experiences of mutual authority and mutual submission, in marriage or other settings, that help you to see the benefit of shared leadership?

Have you ever felt stuck in a decision and turned to your Christian community for wisdom and guidance?

Something to Do:

Talk with your small group or a Christian friend about the issues raised in this devotion.

Prayer:

Gracious God, thank you for guiding our lives through Scripture. Thank you for giving us your Spirit to help us understand your Word. When it comes to issues of authority and submission, we need your help. We need to understand what you desire for us. We need to critique the culture in which we live, perhaps even our Christian culture, so that we might understand and walk in your ways.

Whether we are married or not, may we discover the blessings of mutual love, mutual leadership, mutual followership. May we wisely discern when it’s our time to lead and when it’s our time to follow. Amen.

Explore more at The High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project:
Thank God It’s Monday: The Redemption of Work (Ephesians 6 Sermon Notes)

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6 thoughts on “A Shocking Statement about Authority in Marriage

  1. Patrik Bergström says:

    Thank you Mark for an excellent thought provoking exposition of this scripture and topic.

  2. Gerald C Raubach says:

    You state correctly that the passage is in the context of mutual submission within the church. However, you ignore the clear statement of Paul that the relationship between husband and wife is a special case.

    Ephesians 5:24
    Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

    This is not the same as mutual submission between brothers and sisters in the body of Christ. The church submits to Christ. He is the Head. There is no reciprocal agreement.

    If husbands loved their wives as Christ loves the church, and died for her, there is no problem with the wife submitting to the leadership and spiritual headship of the husband. I have never seen a problem, in 40 years of christian marriage, when the husband truly loves like Christ.

    I think you are leaving a confusing message with this blog.

  3. albert m hassler says:

    Dr. Roberts, I greatly admire your ministry and scholarship. And I respect you very much for taking on this sensitive subject. But I am a little puzzled by your decision to use the ellipsis in the above bolded quotation of scripture. Your ellipsis leaves out two entire verses including “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church…” It seems to me that to put forth a persuasive argument for your position this phrase should be dealt with. Grace and peace to you, sir.

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