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We now enter the portion of the study on gender roles that gets quite difficult. As I have said before, I am studying this week-by-week and don’t know what will come of my study. Thus far, I have found the egalitarian arguments more convincing. However, I haven't yet dealt with the passages that are considered definitive by the complimentarians, so it hasn’t been a very fair fight thus far. We shall see where this ends up.
When the concept of submission of wife to husband comes up, I immediately think of one of my classmates in preaching school who made the statement, “If I tell my wife to crawl across the kitchen floor on her hands and knees, she must do so according to Scripture.” This classmate of mine would assure us that he would never do such a thing, and that he believed that he would be violating Scripture by acting in such a way towards his wife. Nevertheless, he believed that the Bible passages mentioning wives submitting/being subject to their husbands meant that his wife would ultimately have to do so if he instructed her in such a way.
While never taking it to this extreme, Alissa and I always believed (because that’s what we had been taught) that the wife was to be submissive to her husband as the ultimate authority in the home. In fact, I made my desire clear that her vows in our wedding would include the word “submit.” She willingly (submissively?) agreed. So now, even though I am leaning egalitarian in my understanding of scripture, I can still be an authority over her on the grounds that she made a vow of submission! And the Bible certainly teaches the importance of keeping your vows!
The passages most commonly mentioned as supporting the submission of wives to husbands are Ephesians 5:22, Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:5, and 1 Peter 3:1. Indeed, on a surface reading of the text, the case seems clear – husbands are in a position of authority over wives, and wives must recognize this authority by submitting to it.
Discovering whether this is the true meaning of the texts is, unfortunately, not so clear cut. In fact, it is downright frustrating. Today, we will start looking at Ephesians 5, for it has the most points of contention between the two positions.
Egalitarian position: V. 21 is the interpretive key to the passage, and it refers to mutual submission. The verses that follow give examples of how mutual submission is played out in life. The first example of mutual submission is in marriage. Wives submit to their husbands, and husbands love their wives as Christ loved the church. Christ became a self-sacrificing servant for the church. Slaves submit to their masters (6:5-9), but masters are told to treat their slaves "in the same way" as slaves are to treat their masters. Hence, mutual submission. The parent-child relationship is mutually submissive in that the parents are serving the needs of their child whereas the child is obeying the parent. If these verses are not describing mutual submission, what is the meaning of and purpose of v. 21? The other passages instructing submission of wives to husbands can be independently explained in such a way that makes them consistent with the egalitarian thrust of all scripture up to this point and that does not mistreat the text.
Complimentarian position: It is unnatural to understand these verses as referring to mutual submission. Children submit to parents, but not vice versa. Slaves submit to masters, but not vice versa. Likewise, wives submit to husbands, but not vice versa. In each of these relationships, the authority is regulated to prevent mistreatment. Also, if God's desire was for mutual submission, it would seem that there would be some place in the Bible where it said something that more clearly instructs husbands to submit to their wives? Instead , you have several other verses repeating the instruction directing wives to submit, such as Colossians 3:18, Titus 2:5, and 1 Peter 3:1-6.
My assessment: I'm torn. V. 21 cannot be ignored, and it clearly espouses some kind of mutual submission, although not necessarily the egalitarian brand of it. However, the mutual submission of parents and children seems to be a stretch. On this point, the complimentarian reading of the passage seems to be more natural, although the egalitarian reading is viable.
Complimentarian position: The Greek word for "submit" means to submit to an authority. It carries the idea of authority in its very meaning. Nowhere in ancient Greek writings was that word used to refer to reciprocal submission, whether in the Bible or not.
Egalitarian position: The word "submit" does not appear alone. It is followed by the words "to one another." The addition of that phrase makes it mutual. It like saying, “Treat one another as being an authority over you.” It reminds me of what Paul said in Philippians 2:3-4, that we are supposed to “consider others better than yourselves” and “look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
My assessment: The egalitarian position makes good sense on this point. I don't know Greek well enough to know how well the linguistic argument's hold up, but they do seem to make sense within the text.
I'll continue looking at Ephesians 5 next time. Clearly, both egalitarians and complimentarians have solid points related to Ephesians 5. Taking the passage on its own merits, I have to call it a draw thus far. In the case of a draw, I must defer to my understanding of the whole of scripture, which, as I have said above, currently leans egalitarian. But the jury is still out.