In our work with domestic violence, faith communities, and survivors who experience family abuse in a faith based setting, one common religious discussion involves the wife’s “responsibility” in her marriage. While most of us feel that this should have little affect on her safety, many females seeking safety from abuse feel an obligation to “submit to their husbands” and stay in the relationship. Sadly, there are also leaders within congregations who claim that their husbands are “heads” of the family, encouraging the women to return to their abuser.
One example that comes to mind is the discussion involving Candace Cameron Bure’s “submission to her husband” while appearing and performing on Dancing with the Stars. Her partner, Mark Ballas, carefully choreographed their dance routine to avoid the appearance that she was acting inappropriately while the question was presented, “How can you perform a dance with another partner while displaying submission to your husband?”
Another example is expressed when we have worked with abusive and controlling “Christian” males. They indicate that their spouses must submit to them, since they are the God ordained “heads” of their families. While their audacious beliefs seem outrageous, they are only reflecting what is preached in many churches today—which suggests that males are the head and authority of their families.
The very presence of the word “head” offers both controversy and a questioning of Paul’s use of a phrase that, to some, justifies the oppression of females and support of misogyny, chauvinism, and male privilege. While I agree that the traditional understanding of “head” and “submission” has ruined males’ understanding of marriage as well as our relationship with women, it has also treated women as inferior and become a catalyst to an already oppressive system which devalues females, and views femininity as a weakness.
Is The Text the Culprit, making Paul a Misogynist? Ephesians 5:21-33
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
- Wives, submit to your husbands as you do to the Lord. The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. As the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
- Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated their own body, but they feed and care for it, just as Christ does the church—for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. Each one of you must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.
I will admit that when we first read the text, it seems that Paul is “putting women in their place.” Yet there is more to the story and this Apostle, writing in a Roman context, actually offers a challenge to men rather than women.
The city of Ephesus was a Roman colony that had a long history of art, magic, economic prosperity, and beauty. Artemis, the goddess of wisdom; was a predominant deity in the city. Her temple was one of the seven wonders of the world and overshadowed the mighty Roman temples erected in some of the the conquered cities. Due to the city’s acceptance of immigrants she was worshiped by many cultures and adopted the qualities of their goddesses. By the time the Apostle Paul came to Ephesus Artemis had become the goddess of healing, magic, fertility, sailors, hunters, soldiers, child birth, and presided at weddings. She was the great mother of the city and, as “head” of this city, nurtured, united, gathered, and protected her people.
Paul mentions “head” in Ephesians in reference to Jesus. Jesus as head, like the great mother Artemis, also united, gathered, protected, healed, and was present in marriage, making him similar to the head of the city of Ephesus. When Paul suggested that males were to be “heads” of their wives/families, the word had little to do with power, authority, and control—it was a challenge to be loving and caring. Hence Paul challenged husbands to:
- Sacrificially love
- Cleanse and purify
- Feed and care for
- and help her to be the best she can be
Cleanse and purify to me that some of the abusive/controlling males, male ministers, and Christian men we work with embrace this text but do not use the vocabulary Paul directly gave to them in their relationships. In addition to this more verses apply to males than females. The text was not written to “put women/wives in their place.” It was written to “put men/males in their place.” Most Roman males didn’t love their wives, they had affairs while their wives stayed home and raised their families and managed the slaves. Christian husbands were called to be counter-cultural in a world that values Roman masculinity, social inequality, cultural privilege, and an offering of peace that comes through violent military action and police brutality. Today, husbands are called to be nurturers, healers, care givers, and lovers in a culture that defines masculinity through force, body size, testosterone, and oppression of females and anything labeled feminine. However, headship, through Jesus, was a challenge to reevaluate masculinity in relationship.
To Submit or Not Submit: Is That an Issue?
Another interesting point concerning the text is found in Ephesians 5:21
Submit to each other out of respect for Christ… (Eph 5:21)
This section is addressed to males. Women submitted to their husbands, naturally and legally, in the Roman Empire. Men, however, were not typically expected to do so. Paul’s challenge was for “mutual submission.” Wives submit this way…while husbands submit this way… The text teaches what it means to be a man in submission to one’s wife rather than forcing the wife to serve her husband. While submission means respect, supporting the other one in leading, taking on a servant role, or simply valuing the other—Paul did indicate that men had a responsibility to submit to their wives. Yet I rarely hear “husbands submit to your wives by…” The emphasis is typically placed on the wife. Mutual submission (Ephesians 5:21) is clearly suggested by Paul, but not by many clergy over the past Millenia.
This is why Intimate Partner Violence destroys the marriage covenant, one’s relationship with God, and the family. Christian men have the responsibility to care for, nurture, and love their spouses. Male clergy have the obligation to not only model this same love in their marriages, but guide and challenge other men to love their wives in this way. Likewise Christian women have the opportunity to expect their partners to treat them with love, respect, honor, and care. In this type of a marriage they would fee safe, loved, and valued. This is what it means to be “one flesh.” Males need not be afraid of this language since “mutual submission” helps us to have better, healthier, and spiritual relationships, trust, and grace. American males live in a culture that continues to devalue females and femininity, yet it is these Artemisian characteristics that Jesus not only carries—but emulates in all of us.
This is truly what it means to be “head.”
Next Steps: Where Can We Go From Here?
First, men can create and encourage mutually supportive relationships. By loving, caring for, and nurturing our marriage we will be more healthy, more spiritual, and at peace. By creating a safe place for our spouses to express their love and support, grow emotionally and spiritually, and draw closer to us we model the relationship Jesus seeks with us as well as all people. If my spouse trusts me, and I am trustworthy, we will have a healthy marriage. We can also choose our friends. If we are surrounded by males who have unhealthy relationships with females or those who speak negatively concerning women or those labeled “feminine,” we will begin to believe that this is normal and acceptable behavior. However the way of Jesus is not always the common path. We may need to find new friends, new church, or new spiritual mentors. Seek relationships with those who value women as people created in God’s image and worthy of honor, respect, and love.
Second, women can believe that Jesus has called them to be loved, respected, and honored in a relationship. When violence, humiliation, oppression, and/or control happens, the husband has violated the relationship—not them. When the husband creates an unsafe place to live, he is guilty—not the woman. Jesus desires for women in relationship to thrive spiritually, feel loved and supported, and be mutually respected. Trust can only exist if he is trustworthy.
Finally, clergy must not only model a loving and healthy marriage, we must encourage “mutual submission,” as the Bible teaches. We must call men to be honorable, loving, and caring—regardless of what our culture teaches concerning masculinity. We must not tell “just the wife to submit,” but show that husbands and wives “both submit” in order for the relationship to honor Jesus. We must also remember that “head” does not suggest power and control, but love, respect, and creating a safe space to grow. We are not called to side with the bully, the oppressor, the manipulator, the offender, and the abuser. We are to speak out for the oppressed which means we listen and call men to model love, peace, and courage through submission.