The Submitting Head
I know I’ve talked about this lots, but let’s go over again in a slightly different way what I think Paul means in his household codes. They’re similar, but here’s one to work with as an example:
Instead, be filled with the Spirit in the following ways: 19 speak to each other with psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs; sing and make music to the Lord in your hearts; 20 always give thanks to God the Father for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; 21 and submit to each other out of respect for Christ. 22 For example, wives should submit to their husbands as if to the Lord. 23 A husband is the head of his wife like Christ is head of the church, that is, the savior of the body. 24 So wives submit to their husbands in everything like the church submits to Christ. 25 As for husbands, love your wives just like Christ loved the church and gave himself for her. 26 He did this to make her holy by washing her in a bath of water with the word. 27 He did this to present himself with a splendid church, one without any sort of stain or wrinkle on her clothes, but rather one that is holy and blameless.28 That’s how husbands ought to love their wives—in the same way as they do their own bodies. Anyone who loves his wife loves himself. 29 No one ever hates his own body, but feeds it and takes care of it just like Christ does for the church 30 because we are parts of his body. 31 This is why a man will leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and the two of them will be one body. 32 Marriage is a significant allegory, and I’m applying it to Christ and the church.33 In any case, as for you individually, each one of you should love his wife as himself, and wives should respect their husbands. (Ephesians 5:18-31 CEB)
I like that the CEB here keeps the household code within the same paragraph as the previous section, making it a bit more clear that the context of this code is being filled with the Spirit. The book covers a variety of what this looks like, not just the household codes. Household codes which, by the way, also include making sure slaves enthusiastically stay as slaves, something we rarely consider when we say that the husband-wife structure must be the exact same way for all time without applying that same thing to the slave-master structure. In any case, that context is important. We aren’t talking about a new legalism. We’re talking about living by the Spirit of love.
It makes sense, then, to be clear on what the context is for this passage. Telling wives to submit to their husbands was nothing new, same as telling slaves to submit to their masters or children to their parents. That part isn’t new and it was easily interpreted as that men have veto power over women, parents over children, and masters over slaves. This included not just overriding decisions but could also include making major decisions for them, such as a husband deciding when it was time for more children or a master deciding when a slave should be violently punished for failing at his task. All common understandings for the time. If we only had these halves of each section in the code, we could probably conclude similarly, although most now would water it down and still be rid of slavery.
The problem is that we often underscore the significance of the rest of the passage, the parts that would stand out to the original audience. Men, love your wives as Christ loved the Church. Parents, don’t provoke your children to anger. Masters, take care of your slaves. These things are radical. And in biblical studies, we really have to look at what is radical to the original hearers rather than look for what seems backward to us now.
We must submit to one another (v. 21). How is it that most complementarians skip over that piece? I really think it’s framing the whole thing. Paul uses the language of the day, headship and submission. But then how he defines headship is fascinating. It is a headship which gives up everything for the one submitting, always seeking her good no matter the cost to self. It actually sounds like a headship which is by definition submissive.
There’s no talk of who holds the veto power in a vote, which is what many complementarians want to make this passage about. I’d argue that is for a good reason: when both parties in a relationship are submitting to the other – whether you call one technically the head or not – you never need to vote and so you don’t need a tiebreaker, whether that tiebreaker is decided by gender or something else. You’re too busy constantly trying to serve the other person as best as possible. Yes, I know I’ve only been married for a year and a half, but I’m not the only one who is arguing that this really does work and a tiebreaker is not necessary.
I actually get a great deal of amusement and confusion out of couples who are “complementarians” but really do try to live out this passage as seriously as possible. When they do it well, and I know there are many who do, they end up essentially being egalitarians whether they call it that or not! The husband may be a figurehead, technically in charge, but it doesn’t matter. It does definitely make me wonder, though, why they couldn’t then just call it what it is: a beautiful mutual submission. Just like Paul suggested.