Understanding Submission in the Context of the Pauline Epistles | CBE International

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Understanding Submission in the Context of the Pauline Epistles

Whether through sermons or wedding vows or Christian books, we have been conditioned to see different primary roles for husbands and wives. Many churches teach that a wife’s role is one-way submission to her husband. Sometimes we are vague about what submission means, but feel strongly that there is hierarchy in marriage and that it is of utmost importance. The apostle Paul’s letters are often the basis of these teachings. Yet, is Paul advocating hierarchy in marriage, or is he encouraging mutuality?

Paul the pastor

In truth, relationships within households are a relatively small concern in Paul’s writings. Out of all his letters to the churches, only short sections of Ephesians and Colossians and a longer one in 1 Corinthians outline family relationships. This in itself suggests that, contrary to the scale of contemporary debates, the role of husband and wife in marriage is less central to Paul and Christian life than we have made it.

Ephesians (along with Colossians and Philemon) was written around 60 AD while Paul was a prisoner in Rome. Paul is sending the newly converted runaway slave Onesimus back to his master Philemon in Colossae with his trusted colleague Tychicus and letters (Col. 4:7–9; Eph. 6:21). They would have sailed from Rome to Ephesus before proceeding by land to Colossae. He is not writing to correct specific problems, so Paul is free to write about things that are on his pastor-heart to the Ephesian congregation that he pioneered and worked among for three years.

Dynamics for congregational relationships

If we remember that these letters were originally manuscripts with no section divisions or headings, we notice in Ephesians that after marveling upon the glory of Christ in us and Paul’s desire that God’s people grow into maturity, he writes a lot about “one another” relationships within the body of believers. We are asked to “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:2, 3). And “Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you” (Eph. 4:31, 32).

In practical Christian living, it was important to Paul that all believers exercise humility when our opinions and ideas collide in the wider church family. It is in this broad context of church dynamics that we are required to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph. 5:21). Submission is part of the “one another” (mutual) relationships expected within Christian congregations.

Astonishment for the first hearers: limiting men’s power within the household 

Within the wider context of submitting to one another in the church family, what would submission have looked like within Christian households in Ephesus?

None of Paul’s words to the wives, children, or slaves would have surprised anyone. Obedience to husbands, fathers, and masters was normal; this was the everyday reality in their world. Paul’s words to husbands, fathers, and masters would have been a complete surprise; they are the ones Paul is challenging. It was counter-cultural in the extreme to limit the power a man had over his wife, children, and slaves. Men would have to chart a new way of life in their homes that included giving up power they were socially and legally entitled to.

In each sphere of household authority, men are asked to relinquish power. Husbands are to love their wives, and this is reiterated at least three times, underlining how new this idea was to them. Fathers are not to exasperate their children and instead to bring up their children in God honoring ways. Masters are to treat their slaves in a way that reflects their understanding that they and their slaves share a common Master who shows no favoritism based on social class. When Christian men voluntarily gave up power in these day-to-day relationships, it empowered wives, children, and slaves at home and in the church (which met in homes), even if they still had little status in public life.

At the heart of submission is the deliberate surrender of power. Paul gives out this pattern of behavior for all relationships within the body of Christ and for all relationships within the home. Our motive for such submission to one another is “out of reverence for Christ.” Jesus voluntarily relinquished his power when he became one of us and died in our place (Phil. 2:5–8). We imitate him by letting go of power and exercising humility in our relationships.

Re-owning God’s original design for reciprocal relationships

In addressing marriage, a memory of the pre-fall intentions of Genesis is evoked (Eph. 5:31). In the culture of Paul’s day, where love was not a pre requisite for marriage, the repeated emphasis for husbands to love their wives is linked to God’s intent in creation as Paul teaches them that “a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and the two will become one flesh” (Eph. 5:31). Our basis for mutuality in marriage is God’s intention in creation when he creates us to be equal image-bearers and he gives us equal stewardship of the world (Gen. 1:26–28).

It is by re-owning God’s original design for reciprocal relationship that couples are to rework their married relationship. Even in the sexual expression of our marriages, God desires mutuality. Paul writes elsewhere that wives and husbands have authority over each other’s bodies (1 Cor. 7:4). Just as the practical content of Ephesians and Colossians exhorts a lifestyle of putting off of our old sinful selves and an ongoing pattern of putting on our new God-honoring selves, these instructions for households too are a way of God changing people’s ideas of what is normal.

In Jesus’ ministry too, we see glimpses of life in the new kingdom, including life as wives. Married women like “Joanna the wife of Chuza, the manager of Herod’s household” (Luke 8:3), “Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons” (Matt 27:56) are included in Jesus’s wider band of traveling followers, a culturally novel situation that would have surely caused some disquiet. We see women being a full part of the early church. The Holy Spirit falls on men and women in the same way as the first believers get together on Pentecost. The husband and wife team of Priscilla and Aquila help Paul in ministry and are instrumental in mentoring Apollos who becomes a leader in the church. Indeed each reference to the couple mentions the wife first (Acts 18:18–28), in all probability indicating that Priscilla was the more gifted teacher and leader.

Mutuality then and now

“Each of you must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband” concludes Paul (Eph 5:33). Neither the Ephesian nor the Colossian passage makes any reference to wives needing to love their husbands. Yet now we take it for granted that love is to be mutual within marriage. In the same way, it is implied that respect too is to be mutual in marriage. As men begin to love their wives, men implicitly show a new respect for wives, giving wives an unfamiliar new dignity and standing within their marriages. Considering the social realities of wide gaps in age, limited access to education and participation in civic life, wives of that era showed respect to their husbands by continuing to defer to their husbands.

Today, women’s lives are very different and many men marry wives who are their counterparts at several levels. We work out our marriages within the wide boundaries of mutual love and respect where both spouses freely give up individual power for the sake of each other and their family. We recognize that wives and husbands each bear God’s image fully and mirror him in different ways. We hear each other’s points of view before making decisions that affect our families. As iron sharpens iron, our conversations clarify the issues and help us make better decisions. Each of our marriages can look different yet be mutually enriching and God honoring, depending on how God calls each of us as individuals, couples, and families to follow him. 

Exposure to new models helps us re-imagine the familiar in new ways. In the context of ministry, as a college student in Sri Lanka I saw the volunteer general secretary of our national college ministry conduct the annual general meeting with his toddler daughter in his arms. A woman led a session for college students with her daughter crawling at her feet. Twenty years ago neither picture was traditional for how one envisaged ministry in Sri Lanka!

Marriages too can be re-imagined in new ways depending on our specific contexts. Although our marriage has always been egalitarian in outlook, my marriage has looked traditional from time to time. When we first arrived in the USA, it was preferring my husband’s career goals over my vocation. During the short window after grad school where I could work in the United States as a foreigner, I stayed home, preferring to nurture my one-year-old daughter myself. At other times our marriage looks non-traditional. One year when the graduate fellowship that I volunteered with met at a time inconvenient to my family’s schedule, twice a month my husband came home in the middle of the day from his tenure track job to pick up our preschooler and be home with him, so that I could go to campus to work with my students.

Each marriage will look different depending on the calling of each spouse and the needs of their families. This year during a student conference, my supervisor and I sat for a breakfast meeting sharing the table with our families. She and I talked ministry while our husbands kept an eye on our children. On a larger scale, friends of ours moved to a different city primarily to enable the wife to take up a new job that fit her gifts and calling.

Within our congregations and within our homes, out of reverence for Christ, may we learn again and again to freely prefer one another instead of holding on to our power and privilege. In our marriages may submission look like each person creating space for the other to walk in obedience to God’s calling on our lives.

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