Within evangelicalism, four main lines of interpretation can be discerned. (Outside of evangelicalism, the response can be all too simple – Paul was a sexist simpleton who didn’t know any better; we’ve been enlightened now, so we should ignore him – although one wonders if the catastrophic track record of post-1960s white people when it comes to marriage will cause this approach to lose its lustre). Sketched briefly, they go something like this:
1. Wives and husbands are called to submit to each other, in exactly the same way. Verses 22-33 should not be read apart from v21, which establishes the context: Paul is giving examples of how wives might submit to husbands, but assumes that husbands will also submit to wives (he doesn’t tell wives to love their husbands, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t want them to!) ‘Head’, in Paul, means ‘source’, and has nothing to do with ‘authority’ or (worse) ‘power’; these ideas have been imported into his thinking by patriarchal cultures, and fly in the face of everything Jesus said about leaders being those who serve. The husband has no greater responsibility to lead his wife than the wife does to lead her husband, and sex-based hierarchy has no place in the gospel. (A good statement of this view would be Gilbert Bilezikian in Beyond Sex Roles).
2. Paul taught wives to submit to their husbands, and husbands to love their wives, in ways that made their roles and responsibilities in marriage different – but that doesn’t mean that we should do the same today. Yes, headship connotes pre-eminence, and possibly authority as well; yes, Paul understood mutual submission to involve different things for women and for men. But Paul was writing from within a highly patriarchal culture, and gave the broad framework of Greco-Roman marriage a Christian twist by insisting that husbands loved their wives as Christ loved the Church. In doing so, he applied the egalitarian shape of the gospel into his world, and we are now called to do the same, which may well mean doing things (as we did with slavery) that Paul himself did not teach. To do so, however, is simply to see the redemptive shape of God’s story, and apply it to marriage. (This is the argument of Howard Marshall in Discovering Biblical Equality).
3. Paul taught wives to submit to their husbands, and did not teach husbands to submit to their wives. Submission in this sense is one-way, and Paul’s instruction to ‘submit to one another’ does not mean ‘all submit to all’, but rather ‘some submit to others’ (wives to husbands, children to parents, and slaves to masters). Husbands are never told to submit to their wives in Scripture, and ‘mutual submission’ is a Trojan horse inside which all sorts of unbiblical assumptions tend to get smuggled. The husband has the leadership role in a marriage, and speaking of the wife ‘obeying’ her husband, following the example of Sarah, is entirely appropriate. (Thus Wayne Grudem in Systematic Theology and Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood).
4. Wives and husbands, along with everyone in the church, are called to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ, but not in identical ways. The church submits to Christ by recognising him as head, and following his leadership. Christ submits to the church by loving her, taking on the form of a slave, giving himself up for her, and presenting her holy and blameless. So when Paul compares the wife to the church and the husband to Christ, he is saying that the ways in which their ‘mutual submission’ is expressed will be different: the woman will follow her husband’s lead, and the man will exercise his leadership by serving his wife, as Christ-like leaders always do. (This view is very simply expressed by Tom Wright in Paul For Everyone: The Prison Letters).
Let me point out four surprising things about this debate, one for each view. With #1, it is strange that (in Bilezikian’s words) “by definition, mutual submission rules out hierarchical differences”, since Bilezikian recognises that both mutual submission and authority structures co-exist in the church: “In a Spirit-led church, the elders submit to the congregation in being accountable for their watch-care, and the congregation submits to the elders in accepting their guidance … the congregations submit to their leaders by obeying.” What is odd about this view, which is more common at the popular level than academically (probably for exegetical reasons), is that the assumption that equality and authority are incompatible is demonstrably unbiblical, when you consider both the church and the Trinity. (Whether the submission of the Son to the Father is eternal or not does not really matter here; the point is, subjection does not necessarily equate to inferiority). Yet many can see this is true in the church, and in the Godhead, but believe it is impossible in marriage.
The fascinating thing about #2 is that its advocates agree entirely with complementarians on the exegesis of Ephesians 5. They do not have any time for the view that Paul makes no distinction between the roles of husbands and wives in marriage. Rather, they agree that he does – but conclude that, for hermeneutical reasons, we do not obey this passage by doing what it says, but by doing what it was pointing towards (as with slavery). On this hermeneutical principle and the hostages to fortune it provides, see the posts on hermeneutics we did here and here, as well as the more thorough review of Bill Webb’s book provided by Tom Schreiner.
With #3, it is somewhat intriguing that John Piper, who co-edited the complementarian magnum opus with Wayne Grudem, disagrees (as, incidentally, he also does on women deacons). Perhaps there should be nothing surprising about this, but given how central a text it is for the debate in which they have been engaging together for twenty years, it is interesting that disagreement on its meaning still lingers between these two great friends and great scholars. Here’s Piper’s view: “It is true that verse 21 puts this whole section under the sign of mutual submission ... But it is utterly unwarranted to infer from this verse that the way Christ submits himself to the church and the way the church submits herself to Christ are the same.”
Finally, the most curious thing about #4 is that it is essentially a complementarian position – the way in which a husband and a wife relate to each other involves a fundamental distinction in their responsibilities which stems from the way men and women are created – and yet it is frequently held by those who would self-identify as egalitarians, like Chris Wright, Ben Witherington (so I’m told), Tom Wright, and many others. This is not because such scholars are muddle-headed, however; it’s because the conversation in the UK, and its rather more feisty equivalent in the USA, has been so preoccupied with teaching and government in the church that many on both sides haven’t noticed how much they agree on when it comes to marriage. Who would have thought, for example, that (notwithstanding the different nuances and phraseology they would bring to the topic) Wright and Piper would basically agree on the meaning of Ephesians 5 and its application to marriage? Who would have thought that it was possible, even common, for people to deny distinct roles in ministry, while affirming them in marriage?
Have a guess, for example, who wrote the following on Ephesians 5:
Paul assumes, as do most cultures, that there are significant differences between men and women, differences that go far beyond mere biological and reproductive function. Their relations and roles must therefore be mutually complementary, rather than identical. Equality in voting rights, and in employment opportunities and remuneration (which is still not a reality in many places), should not be taken to imply such identity. And, within marriage, the guideline is clear. The husband is to take the lead – though he is to do so fully mindful of the self-sacrificial model which the Messiah has provided. As soon as ‘taking the lead’ becomes bullying or arrogant, the whole thing collapses.
It’s the use of ‘the Messiah’ that gives it away, probably. If you’re still not sure, his name’s an anagram of Tim Growth. Maybe complementarians and egalitarians agree about more than we think!