I believe in the full equality of men and women in both marriage and ministry. The widespread misunderstandings and mistranslations resulting in gender hierarchy are damaging to people, marriages and the body of Christ. I am going to start by diving into the most famous (or infamous) passage on marriage in Ephesians Chapter 5. It’s amazing to discover what this passage really says!
Ephesians is not a letter written to Western marriages. It is written to Christians living in a culture where marriage was a type of slavery. Young teens were wedded to middle-aged men in order to bear them a legal heir. We can’t imagine the level of degradation and hopelessness these young wives must have experienced.
In this passage, Paul was not setting up gender hierarchy in marriage any more than he was endorsing slavery in the next chapter by encouraging slaves to submit to their masters (Ephesians 6:5-8). He was simply referring to aspects of life that were already a part of their secular culture. But before Paul gets to this passage, he bathes his readers in the wisdom of living in a peaceful, loving, humble way.
One way to approach social reform is to look at it as a goal of its own, ignoring the people trampled on the way. But Paul was not a social reformer — he was a people reformer. He saw social reform as a byproduct of healed people who had a new vision for life, a vision that left no one out. In all of his writings, Paul did not teach Christians to rebel from the established order, because he didn’t want the Gospel to be lost to that culture. In matters of the heart, however, he called for total, immediate revolution.
Paul advised wives to stay in the same position, but with a completely new heart — accepting the outward slavery, while growing into the internal freedom of Jesus. Paul’s admonishment to men was more powerful, in light of that culture, than we realize. He encouraged husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church. He reminded the men of the church’s low position before she was redeemed. She needed washing and cleansing until she could be “presented” as a bride to Christ. The word “present” in the Greek is literally translated “beside-standing”! Because men had the authority and power in that culture, they were to use their position to culturally redeem their wives.
This was undoubtedly the reason Paul encouraged wives to respect their husbands, who would most certainly lose respect in that culture for treating a wife as an equal. Likewise, the admonition to love the wife, specifically in a way that would lift her, would be a complete departure for Ephesian men.
Many teach from this passage that women are created to need more love, and men just naturally need more respect. Paul is not being a psychologist! We all need both love and respect. Paul is being completely practical. Paul is going for a healed Ephesian marriage that would, by its wholeness and peace, rock secular Ephesian culture without bruising a reed. What a sad irony that the fallen secular Ephesian system of gender hierarchy that Paul tried to peacefully heal is being revived in Western evangelical circles!
I can’t close without throwing light on an Old Testament word that is wrongly used to drive a huge nail into the coffin lid of gender hierarchy. We’ve all heard that Eve was created as a “help.” The Hebrew word for “help” is “ezer.” In the other Old Testament places the word is used, “ezer” describes the coming help of God, or, in a few cases, an army. In short, there is no hint of hierarchy in it. In fact, one could logically defend the case for a superior woman! My head spun when I realized the deception surrounding this word. The Lord blessed male and female and gave them both dominion. When we fell, death, sickness and male dominance entered the world. But in Jesus, these things are redeemed.
So what next? How does an equal marriage function? Who leads? The answer is the Spirit. Order in marriage and ministry is not achieved by bringing heavy-handed roles to bear. Order is a byproduct of healthy people who are led by the Spirit. In the absence of his Spirit, people will begin to lean on role-based religion. The result will be strained, performance-based relationships, and crushed, hurting people. The effects of these man-made doctrines on women are staggering, sometimes leading to emotional and physical abuse within Christian homes.
An equal marriage is a place where a deep friendship can grow based on trust, love and mutual servanthood. From this foundation, a fruitful and healthy family and ministry can grow, too. Ministry itself is the by-product of whole, joyful, loved, released people. How silly it is to be fooled into thinking we are spiritual for denying the gifts God gave us. We were meant to express the gifts he gave all of us without regard to race, age or gender!