Authority: Is It Really the Biblical Counterpart to Marital Submission?

Authority: Is It Really the Biblical Counterpart to Marital Submission? | RachelShubin.com

Photo Credit: © George G. Shubin (Rachel’s husband)

The other day my husband George burst into the room with his camera in hand and shooed me out to the neighboring field of tall grass. He’d been wanting try taking a golden hour shot using his umbrella flash modifier for fill light, and twilight shots are always a race against the setting sun.

After seeing the final image (to the left there), my Mom commented about me sneezing the rest of the night; but I’m not allergic to grass, and I’ve been taking meds extra faithfully this summer because pollen counts in our area are terrible and I am allergic to cottonwood. So, what if George had asked me to go stand in front of the cottonwood tree for a picture in May when it’s blowing its cotton? Would I have done it?

The Litmus Test

While this is an extremely mild example, this type of question comes up constantly when I talk to people about complementarian/egalitarian issues. When I say I think the Bible talks about husbands and wives each submitting to and loving one another as opposed to husbands leading and wives submitting, they often present a question like this: “If your husband asked you to do {insert some utterly ridiculous/offensive/painful/horrible/dangerous thing here}, would you do it?” I’m not talking about everyday things on the scale of standing in front of a tree; the hypothetical question always involves  some entirely unreasonable request that the inquirer assumes would get an automatic “no” under any other circumstances. The question is a ringer, a Catch-22, and the intent is to trap me into saying the expected “no” so they can then point out that I’m not for submitting after all, mutual or otherwise.

Love – The True Counterpart to Marital Submission

Here’s the problem. That entire line of reasoning is predicated on the idea that the marital counterpart to submission is oppositional, interlocking authority. When I read, I don’t see that at all. When I look at Ephesians 5:22-24, it talks about the wife submitting to her husband in the way that a body is joined to its head. The usage of “head” throughout the entire passage is as a body part, not an authority. There is a Greek word for authority, but Paul doesn’t use it once in this passage, and when he talks to the wives he never refers to the husband as an authority but as a head. A head to a body.

In the verses immediately following, Ephesians 5:25-31, Paul switches from wives to husbands and talks about the husband loving his wife in the way that a head is joined to its body. Paul never once tells the husband to be the authority either or explains what that should look like. What he does tell the husband to do is to love his wife and what that should look like. When I read this passage and the others like it, what I see is not authority and submission as oppositional forces tied together, but love and submission as cooperative forces tied together. Love, not authority, is the Biblical counterpart to marital submission. When I think about how that would play out in real life, the two start looking extraordinarily close to the same.

Metaphorical Usage

Since the same “submit” word is used elsewhere in the New Testament in relation to governing authorities, many people lump that meaning in with marital passages (Rom. 13:1-6 uses the word for authority, not head, to describe the government) . In Ephesians, three verses are spent on wifely submission while the following seven are spent on husbandly love. Three verses comparing a husband to a body’s head and seven connecting a wife to that head’s body. Do you spend a lot of time thinking about how your physical body should submit better to your head or how your head should love your body better? The overriding image seems to be one of unity, not hierarchy.

This extended metaphor doesn’t show up with passages on governmental structures, nor do those passages have counterpart exhortations in their sections for the government to love its subjects (although the parts of the Bible written to rulers definitely requires that in the forms of  justice and mercy); but Paul does use the same type of body metaphor in I Corinthians 12:15-27 to explain relationships within the church, and it is always recognized as a metaphor for unity there. The teaching of love (not authority) and submission being the operating structure within the body of Christ is everywhere in the New Testament (more on most of this here). With that backdrop in mind, the problem with the “If your husband asked you xxx?” becomes clearer.

Bad Presuppositions

“Would you do xxx?” is the wrong question. Not only is it the wrong question, but it is asked of the wrong person. If a wife comes into the pastor’s office or if she elsewhere complains that her husband is asking her to do things that are not loving toward her, the response should not be to ask her why she isn’t doing them. The question should be put to the husband asking why he would request or require such a thing of her in the first place.

When you see the marriage dichotomy as authority/submission, the “If your husband…” question makes sense because any refusal is a challenge to his perceived authority. When you see the marriage dichotomy as love/submission, the question makes no sense because love would never ask someone to do such things in the first place and it would certainly never require compliance if the question were posed. The questionee is not the problem; the questioner misunderstands both his own duty to love and how beneficial authority works in general and in what situations it applies.

My Answer to the Question

So, if George asked me stand in front of the cottonwood so he could take my picture, would I do it? The first and arguably the most important point is that he wouldn’t ask me to because George loves me. If he did ask me, I would say, “Umm, George, my eyes will swell up and I’ll be sneezing for days if I stand there.” At that point he would say, “Oh! Sorry, I forgot. Let’s do it in the field instead.” If later he still wanted a shot by the tree, he would just find someone else to use for the shot. No power struggle over who is not exercising their authority correctly or who isn’t submitting properly because the issue is not one of authority. It is an issue of love.


  • Final note: If George suddenly became other than who he is and insisted upon my standing in front of the allergy tree after I reminded him that it would make me sick, I would tell him “no.” For us, this would be a complete rarety; however, if your spouse (male or female) consistently asks you to do unreasonable things that put you in danger or show blatant disregard for your personhood in mind or body, please consider reading through a screening for abuse and getting help if necessary. 

21 Problems with Wilsonian Submission in Marriage

21 Problems With Wilsonian Submission in Marriage | RachelShubin.com

This post is for Angie, my friend. Last week Doug Wilson posted his 21 Theses on Submission in Marriage, which I reposted on my Facebook wall with a short preface. I had no intention of addressing anything in Wilson’s post directly because I have a whole pile of other posts sitting around waiting for me to finish them, I have 7,000 other things going on including leaving for camping on Tuesday (yay, summer!), but mostly I just get tired of saying the same thing over and over.

However, then Angie asked me which points of Wilson’s post I particularly objected to and why (I hope you know I love you, Angie!). Argh! So… here I’ve responded to his post point by point with his quote first and my comment following:

  1. The teaching of Scripture on this subject is perspicuous and plain. What God requires of us in our marital duties is taught in multiple places, and not in obscure ways.

  2. I would agree that the teaching of Scripture is plain and taught in multiple, unobscure places were it not for the fact that people see so many different things when they look at what’s written. What I see is that kindness, deferring to each other, and mutual respect are the laws of love but that remedy is provided for the damage that accompanies hardness of heart. What I do not see are super clear marital duties cut tidily down gender lines.

  3. We live in a time when honest exegesis is routinely threatened with calumny, and there are frequently honors and rewards for dishonest exegesis. It should not be surprising that we are getting less and less of the former, and more and more of the latter.

  4. Oh, yes. This one I agree with.

  5. Natural revelation teaches us the natural submission of the wife to the husband. These realities are in our bones, and the revolt against them lies at the foundation of our current cultural madness.

  6. HAHAHAHAHA! No. “These realities are in our bones.” HAHAHAHAHAHA! What does that even mean? Maybe when Adam was separated into two people, the parts that were removed (some say ribs and others say flesh) and fashioned into Eve magically switched from authority bits to submit-o bits during the transfer.

  7. The scriptural requirements are entirely consistent with this natural revelation. The God who created the world, and who fashioned us in His image as male and female, is the same God who inspired the writers of Scripture. Whenever natural revelation and special revelation appear to conflict (they do not ever contradict in fact), we should submit to the express words of God. But in this case, there is not even an apparent contradiction.

  8. See #3, upon which #4 is predicated.

  9. The Bible does not require a universal submission of women to men, or the necessary submission of any given woman to any given man. The Bible requires women to be submissive to their own husbands, which is a protection against having to submit to men generally. Further, because no one can serve more than one authority, this scriptural teaching amounts to a prohibition of a woman submitting to other men. Nor does Scripture require a new absolute submission to her husband. No authority in this fallen world is absolute, and includes the authority of a husband. When the authority of a husband turns rancid, a wife should receive the help of fathers, brothers, friends, and/or elders to help her stand up against it. I have been involved in this sort of intervention more than once.

  10. Ummmm, what now? I am glad that Wilson recognizes that there is no universal submission required of women to men in general nor absolute submission of women to their own husbands. However, is sentence three trying to reference Matthew 6:24 where it talks about how no man can serve two masters (that’s what this sounds like)? Because that passage is in no way a proof text for husbandly authority. The two masters presented in that passage are God and money, not one man you’re married to or every other man that you’re not married to. If you are going to try and smush husbands into that equation, then your two options for masters would have to be God or husband, and I hope very much that you can figure out which one loses in that equation. If that’s not the passage Wilson has in mind, perhaps he could include references to where he’s getting this stuff (but then he’d have twenty-one points all referring to the same three passages: Eph. 5:22-24, Col. 3:18, and I Peter 3:5. That is a monster amount of inference from such a small sample.)

    The other weird thing is that Wilson is referencing the authority of the husband, but if you’re going to talk about wifely submission as per the three verses to wives in Ephesians 5, the counterpart section of the following seven verses there written to men say nothing at all about the man leading or his authority or any of that. What it does talk about is the man loving and caring for his wife as if she were one of the most integral of his very own body parts, which is exactly what Adam says upon Eve’s creation in Genesis 2:23-24 . So the problem isn’t when the authority of a husband turns rancid. Nothing is said about that. The problem is when his love turns rancid. Nice that Wilson at least acknowledges that a woman can ask for and expect help in such a situation.

  11. At the same time, in a healthy society, if wives are generally submissive to their own husbands, there will be a cheerful deference to the leadership of men generally, a reality to be welcomed and not resented. This is a deference to the fact of male leadership, not the quality of it. When male leaders are tyrants, fools, and scoundrels, godly women will have as much objection to it as godly men do.

  12. Wasn’t he just saying in #5 that submission to husbands is a protection against having to submit to men generally? Then why on earth are we now excited in #6 about women having a cheerful deference to the leadership of men generally? There is no fact of male leadership in the sense that men are the special chosen ones or most suited from their general manly makeup to lead.

    The Bible is full of women who lead in multiple roles (see my last post for several of the Old Testament ones: Holy Women Who Hoped In God. I haven’t made it to the New Testament ones yet). Wilson somehow conveniently deletes those from his brain or recasts them as irrelevant so that he can promote this whole other idea that men should always be the leaders of all things everywhere all the time forever. He says in one part that that’s not a plus and then three sentences later that it is.

  13. The requirement of submission within marriage does not prohibit the occasional circumstance when a woman in civil society finds herself in a leadership role over men. Deborah, Esther, and Lydia come to mind. At the same time, when feminine leadership becomes widespread and common in a society, it is not a sign of progress at all, but is rather a sign of cultural decadence driven by male fecklessness.

  14. Nice of him to throw a hat tip to Deborah and Co., but where in the Bible is the notion from that women leaders in general are a sign of cultural decadence driven by male fecklessness (answer: this notion is extrapolated from one verse: Isaiah 3:12, which laments the foolishness of the young King Ahaz and the women who were encouraging him in wickedness. This does not seem to be a directive for all time)? Men and women seem to make good and bad leaders pretty evenly.

    Neither has a lock on good or bad leadership, and I don’t see anything saying female leadership means men aren’t doing their job (not even Barak, who was an excellent commander under Deborah and who understood her position so well that he refused to go out without God’s anointed by his side). Maybe it just means some human people have found some capable allies or leaders who also happen to be women (Oh horrors!).

    You don’t see as many women in leadership positions in Western history not because we are somehow congenitally unsuited or incapable but rather because for most of history and right up until a hundred years ago even in our own country, men routinely prevented us from holding such positions or accessing any of the education that would prepare us for filling them effectively.

  15. In Christian theology, there is no tension between authority and submission on the one hand, and essential equality on the other. God the Father is the eternal Father to the Son, and yet the Father and Son are equally the one true God. The husband is the head of his wife, and yet they are one flesh. Men and women stand on level ground when it comes to being created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27), when it comes to the fact of our fall into sin (1 Cor. 15:22), and when it comes to our position in Christ (Gal. 3:28). Men and women are clearly equal in these senses, and so the teaching of the Bible elsewhere on the submission of a wife to her husband means that submission to an equal is not an incoherent concept.

  16. No and yes. First, Wilson is mixing the metaphor in Eph. 5 with the object the metaphor explains. The two primaries are husband and wife. The metaphor for those two are head and body. A head and a woman don’t join together as one flesh. A woman already has a head, so now she would be a human with one head plus an extra head.

    This head/body metaphor is easy to get confused for English-speakers because our English idiom has head meaning both “thing that sits on top of your neck” and “boss of an organization.” So, when you say the husband is head of his wife, yet they are one flesh, that is combining two separate metaphors into a new monstrosity that doesn’t make sense (hence, Wilson’s insertion of the word “yet.”) When you pair the metaphoric components correctly, it makes sense. A head and a body join together because they are one flesh. This is how the husband is to view and love his wife: as part of his very own being. That’s why submission to an equal is not an incoherent concept.

    The other part of this answer that needs commenting on is the beginning two sentences about Christ’s eternal nature and how that plays out with equality and submission to the Father. Wilson isn’t as explicit on the subject here as he has been in the past because last summer the blogosphere got into a massive debate about the idea of Christ’s subordination to the Father and what that means and how it might or might not relate to marriage. I’m not going to cover any of it now because of the enormous volume written on the subject and because Rachel Miller has already done a lovely synopsis of the main points as outlined by Wayne Grudem and the problems with those points if you are interested: Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS).

  17. Women have a deep creational need to be loved and led, so that they might submit and follow, and men have a deep creational need to be respected and followed, and when these needs are thwarted or otherwise frustrated, the end result is deep unhappiness for both sexes.

  18. s just making up stuff. All people, both men and women, have a deep creational need to be loved and respected. All people at different points in their lives need to be led or followed. People of both sexes who are in grief or crisis frequently need someone to come alongside them, take them by the hand, and gently lead them back to safety and life.

    People who can see the way out of the darkness that surrounds them and can see the trail forward frequently become hugely frustrated when they can’t save their loved ones from the grief they are lining up for and often unwittingly signing their families up for as well. This has nothing to do with gender. I completely agree, though, that when these needs are thwarted or otherwise frustrated, the end result is deep unhappiness for both sexes.

  19. At the same time, because of the curse that followed the Fall, women have a deep resistance to dutiful submission, even though such submission would lead them into the joy and true satisfaction that comes from obeying God. It may or may not improve the marriage (depending on his sin issues), but it will most certainly improve her walk with God. The prophecy that her “desire shall be for her husband” was not speaking of romantic getaways, but rather predicting that there would be a struggle for mastery. So instead of trying to gain mastery over her husband, she should struggle to gain mastery over this besetting impulse within herself.

  20. No. The translation of the Hebrew verb in Gen 3:16 is not especially clear, and worse than that, the idea that that verb means a wife is going to try to master her husband is a recent development that was thought up by Susan Foh in 1975. You can read more about both the historic view(s) and Susan’s view along with the strengths, weaknesses, and ramifications of each here: Problems With a New Reading of an Old Verse.

    And what is the rest of that verse? The part Wilson leaves out? “Her desire shall be for her husband, and he shall rule over her.” If your view is that the woman’s curse is that her husband shall rule over her, then why are we not trying to overcome and roll that back like we do garden weeds and childbirth pain? If your view is that the woman’s curse is that she wants to rule over her husband à la Susan Foh, well that seems more like a curse on men than on women.

    If your view is that the curse is that each will want to rule the other, again à la Susan Foh, then first, that’s a curse on both parties as opposed to just on women, and the remedy for that is not giving one side more power and the other side less but is encouraging both sides to loving, respectful cooperation with each other. I don’t think our job of rolling back the curse is helped by institutionalizing, codifying, and requiring adherence to the terms of the curse itself. We don’t do this in any of the other parts of life that were broken in the fall.

  21. The Bible does not teach husbands to enforce the requirement that was given to their wives. Since true submission is a matter of the heart, rendered by grace through faith, a husband does not have the capacity to make this happen. His first task is therefore to love his wife as Christ loved the church. He is to lead by example.

  22. Oh look! We agree on this one.

  23. The fact that husbands cannot mandate or manufacture this does not make it any less mandatory. Wives are to be submissive to their own husbands in everything. The marriage service rightly includes a vow for the bride to obey her husband.

  24. And we’re back to disagreeing. First, the Greek verb used regarding women is never obey except in one case, and that is found in I Peter to describe how Sarah obeyed her husband and called him Lord (hilariously, the cross reference for that is Genesis 18:12; go read it!). The verb for obey is used exclusively with children and both verbs are used regarding servants. Even worse, the form of the verb used with women implies that her deferring is a voluntary act on her part.

    The connotations of the passage overall are nowhere near as forceful as Wilson makes them out to be, and the assertion that to be Biblical, a wedding must include a vow for a bride to obey her husband is just pure fabrication. Nothing in the Bible specifies wedding vow terminology.

  25. The relation of head and body is a constant relation, one that does not come and go. It is not the case that the husband has mere tie-breaking authority.

  26. I’d like to know what he’s trying to say by the second sentence. The husband doesn’t have mere tie-breaking authority? What then are the Wilsonian limits to a husband’s authority? My very careful research does seem to indicate that one’s head and one’s body are integrally connected to each other. Mine are pretty inseparable from each other anyway. See #21 for more on that.

  27. Liberty for Christian wives cannot be enjoyed outside of their appointed sphere. A woman who rejects her obligation to love, honor and obey is like a bird who has thrown away the “constraints” of having wings.

  28. *sigh* What exactly is Wilson supposing is a woman’s “appointed sphere”? One can love and honor one’s husband without spending her life catering to his every whim. One can pursue business or art or theology (!) or teach or be a firefighter or any number of other wonderful things without having her wings lopped off. I know wonderful, happily married women who have children and do every single one of these things (even the firefighter). Has he read Proverbs 31? That woman does everything!

    The ones who are most successful at them and happiest are the ones whose husbands are cheering them on, giving them wings. The same is true in reverse. Husbands do well when their wives cheer them on. This is not a one-directional, gender or role-based requirement about appointed spheres and obligations. All people do generally better when the people they love the most encourage and support them.

  29. Submission is an erotic necessity. The abandonment of this basic marital responsibility is the cause of much unhappiness, and has also been a cause of the resultant pursuit of erotic delusions offered by multiple partners or by various perversions.

  30. Song of Songs; I Corinthians 7:1-6 – bedroom equality for the win! If you want to say submission is an erotic necessity, at least have the good grace to qualify it as mutual submission. Carrying on about how C.S. Lewis says it does not improve Wilson’s usage of it.

  31. Submission practiced poorly does not discredit those who practice it well, and neither does it vindicate those who do not attempt it at all. And conversely, the decision to accept the Bible’s teaching on this subject does not obligate one to defend the many appalling things that are done in the name of following the scriptural pattern. A math student who does all his problems wrong and the student who refuses to do them at all have far more in common with one another than they do with the student who did his assignment properly and turned it in on time.

  32. Sure, nice, uh huh. I mean it would be if we were in any way talking about the same thing.

  33. The liberation of women was a false flag operation. The true goal was the liberation of libertine men, and in our day this was a goal that has largely been achieved. These were men who wanted the benefits for themselves that would come from easy divorce, widespread abortion, mainstreamed pornography, and a promiscuous dating culture. The early twentieth century was characterized by the Christian wife. The early twenty-first century is characterized by the tattooed concubine. And these sons of Belial have the chutzpah to call it “progress for women.”

  34. What? Whose goal was the liberation of libertine men? Is he saying that the feminist movement was really instigated by men so they could sleep around without consequences even more? If so, maybe he could lay off the women for like thirty minutes or so and go after the people he thinks are the actual culprits. If not, then this entire argument is null.

    Also, the early twentieth century is when the first-wave feminist movement really picked up steam, which is why I now have the right to vote, own property, attend university, sign legal documents, and have legal status of my own. Second-wave feminism made it easier and more socially acceptable to start my own business and for spousal battery and spousal rape, while both still common occurrences, to be far less socially acceptable than they were up until the early ’70’s.

    John Wayne spanks women on screen in not one but two movies as late as 1963 — Maureen O’Hara in McLintock! and Elizabeth Allen in Donovon’s Reef. In Wilson’s follow-up post on wife-beating, he includes a picture of Ricky Ricardo spanking Lucy. This was apparently such a common part of culture at the time that it was thought of as hilarious even during the time of Wilson’s own living memory. Again, I am grateful that that has become disgraced in our culture, and I look forward to the day when it is not only disgraced but disappears entirely.

    When I look at what’s going on today, I see hope. While many of the younger people seem truly bewildered by their own sexuality and how to approach it or what to do with it, I think that too is a pendulum swing. Abortion rates went way up after legalization but have been consistently dropping for a couple of decades now and continue to do so even faster with improved ultrasound technique, education, and loving care of pregnant women. After a huge spike in divorces following changes in divorce law, the divorce rate too has been dropping for almost the same length of time as abortions.

    So, why do I see hope? Because while the young people are a bit dazed by sex, both men and women of the upcoming generation seem to be improving dramatically on friendship and caring for one another in each other’s hurts and joys, and they seem to be waking up to and standing up to the sidelining, ignorance, and violence that has weighed down their mothers, sisters, and loved ones for far too long. There are those who are still perpetrating and excusing such things as there have always been, but the fact that it is being noticed and that there are people working to change it is encouraging.

    That caring for each other is a great seed for relationships and an excellent foundation for changing what needs to be changed. I think at some point the culture at large will settle down again about sex. That will probably coincide at least partially with when men stop seeing us women as colonizable house-cleaners and start working beside us as allies, equal in strength and wisdom. That’d be nice.

  35. The general dominance of men over women is inescapable. And so this means that when godly rule (via submission in the home) is relegated to the margins, it will be replaced by an ungodly domination over women everywhere else. We cannot succeed in placing men and women on the same footing. But the attempt to do so can most certainly result in Bruno taking his showers at the YWCA.

  36. No and yes (mostly no). Wilson certainly can’t succeed in placing men and women on the same footing because he apparently can’t even conceive of such a thing in his own mind and therefore will never bother trying to help it come about. If you are truly interested in preserving women from ungodly domination, which is clearly a problem, a good starting place would be asking them what they need and then joining them in their efforts instead of telling them what you think they need.

  37. The God who gives us our commands is the same God who designed and created us. His commandments are therefore good, righteous, and true, and they fit perfectly within the creation order. As wives seek to learn how to live these principles out, they are trying to overcome sin. They are not trying to overcome their nature. Rather, they are growing up into their true nature, which is the only liberation that matters.

  38. I actually like this one. God did design and create us, and his commands are good and righteous and fit with how and what each of us were designed and created for. As we wives and mothers and singles and women learn how to live these things out and overcome the sin and temptation to not use the gifts God placed in each of us, we are growing into our own true nature, which is the only liberation that matters.

    I’m pretty sure that that’s not what Doug is trying to say by “creation order.” That is complementarian code for “men were created first, therefore {insert something about authority or submission or whatever is convenient here}”. To which I say… go find me some firstborns in the Bible who that has worked out for. How about this? I’ll list off a few prominent people who are not firstborns: Abel, Seth, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, Joseph, King David, King Solomon. Jesus was the firstborn of Mary but is also referred to as the second Adam. Also, the last shall be first. God uses whomever He wants and doesn’t seem to give a hoot about where they fall in the birth order. Okay, your turn.

  39. Submission that is invisible is not really submission at all. As submission is cultivated in the home, it needs to be expressed. It cannot exist as a set of hidden resolves or good intentions. Respect must be verbalized, and the demeanor of submissive deference must be plain to everyone in the home.

  40. “Respect must be verbalized, and the demeanor of submissive deference must be plain to everyone in the house”???? Ugh. Guess occasional iron-sharpening is the purview of someone else because we’re too busy making sure even the kids can see how well Mom is verbalizing her expressions of submission. Does Wilson even read the stuff he writes? Does he have the slightest idea how that comes across to women (and boy do I hope there are some men who find that appalling too)? I’d say he can’t possibly mean that except that he writes stuff like this all the time, so it’s pretty clear that he does.

  41. For each one of these theses, there is of course a corresponding set of responsibilities for the men. Not only so, but the failure of men to conform to God’s pattern has been more spectacular than the failures of women. But I am not listing those responsibilities here because we live in a time such that whenever submission is mentioned, we rush to explain, qualify, contextualize, and otherwise assure the world what we don’t mean. We “explain away” feminine responsibilities today far more readily than we do with responsibilities for men—and this is part of the false flag move which consistently lets men off the hook. If wives don’t have to follow, then men don’t have to lead. We have done this so much that scarcely anyone knows anymore what we do mean by submission. So I am just going to say that the Bible teaches submission for wives, and it is glorious thing.

  42. Oh. My. Gosh. So, men are worse at following God’s pattern than women are, but instead of spending a correspondingly appropriate amount of time correcting them for this, Wilson constantly harps on how lousy women are at submitting, and that is somehow not letting men off the hook??? THAT MAKES ZERO SENSE. (Yes, that was all caps because I was yelling at my computer screen.) As previously mentioned, the corresponding part for husbands is NOT maintaining authority over their wives but rather something else entirely. I’ve written about that here: Ephesians 5, Part 2: The Head and the Body.

Doug Wilson is a prolific, charismatic guy with a sizable following. I wish he were using that platform to preach respect and love flowing both directions in a marriage instead of constantly promoting authority over and subordination of wives.

Well, Angie, there you go. I wrote this post mostly for you and partly for the other women and men who have watched me shift my views so much over the last few years and wonder what the heck has gotten into me. I sure hope this answers your question because if not, my Wilson quota has been filled for at least the next six months.


Ephesians 5, Part 2: The Head and the Body

Ephesians 5, Part 2 - The Head and the Body | RachelShubin.com

I wish this were a stock photo instead of one I took of something I drive regularly.

When people suck out verses 22-24 from Ephesians 5:21-33, they tend to concentrate on the “head” part. In isolation, we apply our American idiom of head to the passage and see things like “CEO” or “head of state” which both imply ruling. When you look at those verses with the full passage, it looks less like that and far more like Paul is using pretty oblique language to say what he’s saying. He says the relationship between husbands and wives is like the relationship between Christ and the Church and both are like the relationship between the head… and the body. Let’s look at the text again.

Ephesians 5:21-33 (NIV)


21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.

23 For the husband is the [highlight]head[/highlight] of the wife as Christ is the [highlight]head[/highlight] of the church, [highlight]his body[/highlight], of which he is the Savior.

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

25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her

26 to make her holy, [highlight]cleansing her by the washing with water[/highlight] through the word,

27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, [highlight]without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish[/highlight], but holy and blameless.

28 In this same way, husbands ought to [highlight]love their wives as their own bodies.[/highlight] He who loves his wife loves himself.

29 After all, [highlight]no one ever hated their own body,[/highlight] but they [highlight]feed and care for their body,[/highlight] just as Christ does the church—

30 for [highlight]we are members of his body.[/highlight]

31 “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be [highlight]united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.”[/highlight]

32 This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.

33 However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband.

The first thing that jumps out at me here is that Paul talks far more about how the wife is like the husband’s own body and all the things that he is supposed to do to care for her, his body, than it does about how the husband is like the wife’s own head. In fact, Paul spends three verses talking directly to wives and seven speaking directly to husbands. Most of the commentaries I’ve read seem to argue about the meaning of “head,” which is used twice here, and whether or not it means “authority” or “source.” Paul isn’t using “head” here as a secondary metaphor for authority or for source. Paul isn’t comparing a husband to a head which symbolizes authority. Otherwise verses 25-30 would have to be comparing the wife to a body as a symbol for submission, which I’ve never heard anyone claim. He’s comparing a marriage to an actual head (the husband) that is an integral part of an equally necessary body (the wife). Paul says specifically in verses Eph. 5:23&29&32 that this comparison between man & wife and Christ & the church somehow relates to how a head & body operate.

What the holy hand grenades does that mean? When I think of my own head and body, I tend to think of them as rather inextricably connected. I’d prefer to keep my body in good working order, thank you. My heart, lungs, bladder, spine, legs? Yes, I’d like those to all remain properly functional. That would be nice. At the same time, my head seems equally necessary to my body. I need it for food stuffs and vision and speech and hearing. Rather important too.

How about thought? That’s pretty important and comes from the head, right? Isn’t Paul implying that husbands should be doing the thinky bits? Well… not really.  While we now know that thinking comes from the brain, the anatomy information at the time was based on Aristotle who thought that the heart, not the head, controlled the mind. Paul adheres to this idea in several places like the ones below.

Rom. 1:21 …but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened…

Rom. 2:15 …the law written in their hearts…

Rom. 10:9&10 …it is with your heart you believe…

I Cor. 2:9 …no heart has conceived God’s plans…

I Cor. 7:37 …he who has decided in his own hear…

Eph. 1:18 …may the eyes of your heart be enlightened to know…

Nowhere does he associate the mind with the head. So, he’s not talking about the husbands being the decision-makers either. All of this implies a profound unity since you can’t lop off the body without killing the head, and you can’t lop off the head without killing the body. That’s all grand when talking about a human body, but how does that work with Christ and the church? Surely Christ can survive without us (not so much in reverse though), right? Why would Paul use the body metaphor for Christ and the church? To answer this question, we need to look around and see if he uses body-related imagery in relation to Christ and the church anywhere else and see if it was more obvious what he was talking about there. Turns out, he does!

I Corinthians 12:15-27

15 Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.

16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body.

17 If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?

18 But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.

19 If they were all one part, where would the body be?

20 As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” And the head cannot say to the feet, “I don’t need you!”

22 On the contrary, those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable,

23 and the parts that we think are less honorable we treat with special honor. And the parts that are unpresentable are treated with special modesty,

24 while our presentable parts need no special treatment. But God has put the body together, giving greater honor to the parts that lacked it,

25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.

26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.

27 [highlight]Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it. [/highlight]

Did you catch that? We are Christ’s body. We are his hands and feet. We are one with and in Christ. While the subheadings in your Bible usually tag the Ephesians passage as being about submission in marriage, they almost always tag this section in I Corinthians as being about unity even though it shares very similar language.

Romans 12:3-7

3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.

4 For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function,

5 so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.

6 We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith;

7 if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach;

8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

I couldn’t even figure out what to highlight on this passage without ending up highlighting the entire thing. First, verses 4 and 5 reiterate again that we form one body in Christ just like each component of our personal body combines to form one being. Same thought as the head & body idea in Ephesians 5. Second, verse 3 specifically speaks against hierarchical thinking. Then verses 6-8 go through multiple giftings that God blesses members of the body with – prophesy, serving, teaching, encouraging, giving, leading, showing mercy – and tells each member to do these things as grace is given to us.

Paul gives no indication that these giftings are given on any sort of gender or marital role basis. Nothing about wives can’t teach their husbands or women can’t lead or men shouldn’t encourage women or husbands can’t serve their wives. (Don’t get all excited; I’m sure some of those specifics will come up when I finally get around to writing about Timothy). The overriding impression from this passage is unity of the body of Christ with Christ, and language follows the same body-metaphor language as the Ephesians 5 passage.

And now, a really long one. Sorry.

Colossians 2:8-19

8 See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.

9 [highlight]For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, [/highlight]

10 [highlight]and you have come to fullness of life in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. [/highlight]

11 [highlight]In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of flesh in the circumcision of Christ;[/highlight]

12 [highlight]and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.[/highlight]

13 [highlight]And you, who were dead in trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, [/highlight]

14 having canceled the bond which stood against us with its legal demands; this he set aside, nailing it to the cross.

15 He disarmed the principalities and powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in him.

16 Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath.

17 These are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ.

18[highlight] Let no one disqualify you, insisting on self-abasement and worship of angels, taking his stand on visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind,[/highlight]

19 [highlight]and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.[/highlight]

This passage seems even stronger than the last one. Here Paul says in verse 10 that we have come to fullness of life in Him with the strong implication that since He is the head of all rule and authority, we are joint heirs in this since we are part of him. Verse 11 makes us the heirs of his circumcision. Verse 12 buries us in baptism and raises us from the dead because we are one with Christ and He was raised from the dead. Verse 13 reiterates points out a second time that we are alive and forgiven because we are one with Christ, and He lives. Then verse 19 wraps up that we are Christ’s body and what happens when that bond between head and body begins to dissolve.

Again, this entire passage is a picture of our unity with Christ. Does Christ rule the church? Of course. But is that the aspect of the church’s relationship with Christ that Paul is trying to get across here through use of the head/body metaphor? It would seem not. One last point for now, and that is that this idea is reflected even in communion:

I Corinthians 10:16,17

16 Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?

17 Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf.

We are one body with Christ, and this is reflected in both of the sacraments we do in church today: baptism in Colossians 2:12 and communion in I Corinthians 10:16&17. When we see head/body language in relation to Christ and the church, what we are supposed to be reminded of and think of is oneness to the point where we are joined together as a unified whole. How does that work? Doesn’t that seem kind of mysterious? Oddly, going back to the Ephesians 5 passage, Paul even refers to exactly the same thing in Ephesians 5:32. What could he be talking about? Conveniently, he tells us elsewhere exactly what that mystery of Christ and the church is, and that will be the subject of the next post.