If you’re a Christian who wants to think the right way about marriage, you’ll have to decide whether God has anything to say about roles of men and women … and whether you care.
Are male and female distinctions just learned behavior? Are there no bedrock differences? Good differences? Wholesome differences? Complementary differences? Is all this just socialization?
One sociologist suggests1 men have deliberately combined together to create social structures to limit women’s power, to push them down, to squeeze them into a very particular mold. In fact, the theory goes, the only reason we think of “gender roles” the way we do is because we’ve internalized them, we’re immersed in them, they’re all around us, we drank these roles with our mother’s milk.2
So, there is no such thing as “masculine” or “feminine.” These are ideas we’ve imposed on ourselves! Or, more specifically, that men have imposed on women because they have the power.
So, we must break free of them! Create a new paradigm! We must imagine new rules about gender. One of those rules being there really is no such thing as gender—because that’s a social construct, too!3
Are we just sexually androgenous beings with no “maleness” or “womanness”? Are we generic Walmart USB charging cords—bland, interchangeable, anonymous?
So, as I said, you’ll have to ask and answer “what is my authority?” We can go with the idea that academics like sociologists are the new secular priests.4 Or, we can believe in God’s plan for gender roles, revealed through the scriptures.
The truth is the entire dispute about gender roles is explained by one single verse in scripture—“Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you,” (Gen 3:16). This tells us how and why disharmony and conflict entered the marriage relationship. Some theologians speculate that hierarchy wasn’t part of God’s original creation, because there is no functional hierarchy in the Trinity—whose image we reflect.5
This essay (and the next) will briefly examine what God says about gender roles; about relationships within the marriage. It’s won’t cover the whole story, but it’ll cover the main course of that story! Our text will be Ephesians 5:21-33. The translation here is my own, from the NA-28.
We begin by parachuting in as Paul finishes an exhortation about living a life characterized by love (Eph 5:2) and holiness (Eph 5:8); “walk as children of light.” He tells us to be filled with the Holy Spirit (Eph 5:18), and says Christian must be …
This is the bedrock principle of Christian relationships. Paul goes on to explain what this looks like in different situations, but I’ll explain the specific implications for the marriage relationship.
First, notice the idea of mutual submission. This is the overarching principle of marriage relations. There is no dominance/submission motif here. If you picture an organizational chart, you don’t have a brute hierarchy.9 Instead, you should picture a relationship of mutually complementary and harmonious roles that work together for the benefit of the couple and the glory of God.
Complementarity means our gender differences are mutually reinforcing. Men and women aren’t generic USB charging cords. We aren’t interchangeable; we’re different. We “complete each other” because we’re different; not because we’re the same. We mutually reinforce one another in complementary ways to make one functioning unit.
Men and women in a marriage unit are harmonious in the same way a combination of several notes produce one tune. In this respect, a marriage unit is like an inkjet printer—it won’t work if one cartridge is empty! A husband and a wife are like two matching puzzle pieces—they’re only whole and “complete” when they’re paired.
Paul says husbands and wives must submit to one another “because of reverence for Christ.” First, I suggest we look to the Trinity for a model of oneness in the marriage relationship.10 We’re made in God’s image, and that image is the structural makeup that hardwires us for relationships.11 God made us to want and need a relationship with Him (vertical), and with one another (horizontal). We are the only one of God’s creatures who are made this way. Everything we are, and everything God made us to do, can only rightly exist when these relationships are properly set.12
Of course, the very first and primary horizontal relationship is the marriage covenant (Gen 2:18). Our horizontal relationships are meant to be patterned after our God’s intra-trinitarian relations—which consists of mutual deference, love and submission among the Persons. Three divine persons with one single, united will! There is a depth of “oneness” and mutual deference here that one cannot ponder too deeply. This is only strange to us because our marriage relationships are ruined by the Fall (Gen 3:16).
Second, Christian husbands and wives should want to copy this pattern because of their reverence for Christ. You’ll want to do what God says; “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” (Jn 14:15).
So, how are the roles complementary? How are they different? What are the two notes that make this harmony sing?
Paul has to pick somewhere to start, and he begins with ladies.
Eph 5:22: You wives,13 [submit yourselves] to your own husbands, like you do to the Lord.
There’s really no way to get out of this. It can’t be “nuanced” away. It says what it says. But, as we read Paul’s words, I suggest we focus on motive.
I don’t believe Paul’s point is (1) you submit to Christ because of who He is—His status demands honor, so (2) wives must submit to husbands because of who they are. I think this misses the point. Your husband is not the Lord!
This is why we ought to focus on motive, instead. You submit to Christ because you love Him—and that love is the basis for obedience (Deut 6:5; Jn 14:21). You submit to God based on an all-consuming love that’s marrow-deep. This is Paul’s point—love produces joyful obedience. So it is with wives concerning their husbands.
Paul goes further.
Paul’s comparison is pretty simple; (1) the husband is the authority over wife, (2) just as Messiah is the authority over the Church. There is an authority (κεφαλὴ) structure in the marriage relationship, and wives must submit to their husbands because of that authority. Attempts to explain this away are ridiculous—you’ll have to delete the text to make it go away.
The common marriage analogy for the Trinity breaks down badly here, because there is no senior/subordinate relationship in the Godhead.17 Father and Son share the very same throne in eternity; the Son’s isn’t a step below the Father’s (Rev 22:4-5)!
Does Paul leave us with a way out? It’s important to take a step back and remember we’re only looking for an escape pod because of Genesis 3:16.
Eph 5:24: In fact,18 just as the Church submits to Christ, so even the wives [must submit] to [their] husbands in everything.
There is no escape pod here! Paul ratchets things even tighter, just to make sure we get his point. The Church obeys Christ, so the wives must obey their husbands.
But, remember to think about motive. The Church obeys Christ because we love Him more than anything, so too a wife obeys her husband because she loves him.
An objection might be, “You obviously haven’t met my husband!”
Again, remember the implications of Genesis 3:16! That scripture is the bedrock problem in marriages today. It’s almost as if, for the rest of our lives, God has to work on us, to refurbish us into the people He made us to be—to remake us into His image!
2 Cor 3:18: And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another
It’s almost as if it’ll take us our whole lives to grow closer to that Eden ideal—but God promises that you will make it.
1 Cor 15:49: Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.
Now, in our next article on this passage, Paul switches to men. He knows Genesis 3:16. He knows men are apt to like the part about women being submissive. So, he reaches for the strongest, most radical, most pride-crushing analogy possible.
This analogy destroys dominance, arrogance, self-centeredness, sexism, chauvinism, emotional cruelty, sexual cruelty, sadism … and any other bad adjective you can think of! It crushes the “John Wayne” syndrome men might have imbibed from the culture. Instead, Paul shows us a more excellent way.
1 Rodney Stark, Sociology, 10th ed. (Belmont: Thomson, 2007), 338-340.
2 “Gender role socialization—the subtle, pervasive process of learning what constitutes masculinity and femininity—begins early and continues throughout our lives. It is accomplished primarily by the four major agents of socialization: families, schools, peers, and the media, though other social institutions, such as religion, may also play a part in the process,” (Kerry Ferris and Jill Stein, The Real World: An Introduction to Sociology, 6th ed. [New York: Norton, 2018], 257).
3 “In addition to perpetuating binary notions of gender and gender conformity, the process of socialization also tends to support heteronormativity (the assumption that heterosexuality is the only acceptable orientation),” (Ibid.).
4 “ … the social sciences, especially psychology and sociology, work in secular society as a new kind of priesthood,” (Charles Chaput, Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World [New York: Henry Holt & Co., 2017], 134).
5 The eternal functional subordination perspective regarding Christ is hetero-orthodox. See especially Millard Erickson, Who’s Tampering With the Trinity? An Assessment of the Subordinationist Debate (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2009).
6 The word means, in this passive sense, “to become subject to” someone else (BDAG, s.v. “ὑποτάσσω,” 1b). It’s a voluntary, mutual subordination.
7 The genitive in ἐν φόβῳ Χριστοῦ is objective, and I believe the preposition express reason.
8 BDAG, s.v. “φόβος,” 2b; p. 1062.
9 Which isn’t to say there isn’t a hierarchy. More on this later.
10 Common appeals to roles in the economic Trinity as an analogy for marriage are misguided. Indeed, these appeals often include an implicit eternal subordination on Christ’s part. I am not making that argument. I am simply saying the oneness of the Trinity is an archetype for the oneness in the marriage relationship.
11 See the discussion by Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2013; Kindle ed.), 469-471. I follow Erickson in taking a substantive view, that is, there is something about the very nature of humanity that somehow mirrors God dimly. Erickson, in keeping with his social trinitarianism, sees the imago dei as substantive in service of community and relationships, with the Trinity as the archetype.
12 “The human was intended to know, love, and obey God, and live in harmony with other humans, as the story of Cain and Abel indicates. The human was certainly placed here on earth to exercise dominion over the rest of creation. But these relationships and this function presuppose something else. Humans are most fully human when they are active in these relationships and performing this function, fulfilling their telos, God’s purpose for them,” (Ibid, 470).
13 This is a nominative of address, so I converted the rest of the sentence to match. EVVs do the same.
14 τῆς γυναικὸς is a subjective genitive; ditto for τῆς ἐκκλησίας.
15 This is an intensive pronoun.
16 This also is a subjective genitive, but I left it as is for stylistic reasons.
17 Even Tim Keller makes this error (The Meaning of Marriage [New York: Random House, 2011], pp. 196-198).
18] The conjunction indicates emphasis, not contrast.
Tyler Robbins is a graduate of Maranatha Baptist Seminary, a DMin student at Central Seminary (Plymouth, MN) and a bi-vocational pastor at Sleater Kinney Road Baptist Church, in Olympia WA. He also works in State government. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist and is the author of What’s It Mean to be a Baptist?