The particularity of each life is obscured by reductionizing abstractions. Life leaks out of us as we find ourselves treated as objects, roles, images, economic potential, commodities, consumers. – Eugene Peterson
One of the most divisive issues within the Christian church here in America is the issue of gender. On the one hand, you have the group called the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, which states that its aim is “to set forth the teachings of the Bible about the complementary differences between men and women, created equally in the image of God, because these teachings are essential for obedience to Scripture and for the health of the family and the church.” Among these ideas is that men are to be the dominant partner in marriage and women are to be submissive to their husbands.
On the other hand, you have the group Christians for Biblical Equality, which which believes “that the Bible, properly interpreted, teaches the fundamental equality of men and women.” This group would say that husbands and wives are to work together in marriage equally, and not in a hierarchical structure.
Whatever your personal view of all of this is, I want us to look at what the Bible says. Set aside what you believe the Bible says and walk with me through the Scriptures as we discuss what they say about gender roles in a marriage relationship.
The LORD God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”…So the LORD God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while he was sleeping, he took one of the man’s ribs and then closed up the place with flesh. Then the LORD God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh. (Genesis 2:18, 21-24 TNIV)
From the beginning, God has desired for His creation to be like Him. When He made humankind in His image, I believe that He made them to be in relationship with themselves as He is in relationship with Himself. I think this might be part of what is meant when the Bible says, in Genesis 1, that God made us in His image and that He, “Created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:21 TNIV). He created them be one in kind and substance, but different in their functioning within creation.
But, despite their different “functions” within creation, even when Moses was penning Genesis, he seemed to have an understanding that men and women were to be more equal than not. Just as God took woman from man, so man returns to woman. Woman would not exist had man not existed, but neither will men exist if not for women. Because woman was taken from man, that is why man leaves home and goes back in to woman in marriage.
God’s plan from the very beginning was that humankind would be equal with each other. But something messed this plan up. People chose to do their own thing and go their own way and, as a result, what God had brought together, humankind had ripped apart. What was once harmony was now discord. Where there once understanding and mutual respect, injustice now stood.
To the woman [God] said, “I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband [to rule over him], and he will rule over you.” (Genesis 3:16 TNIV)
Thousands of years pass, and women are dragged through the dirt. Inequality becomes the norm. Women are made to bear the brunt of the guilt for abuse, sexual neglect, and adultery. If a woman is raped, she is forced to continue in her suffering by being forced to marry her rapist. But this is not God’s plan, and despite these things being commanded in the Law, I do not believe that they are God’s will for His people.
Jesus comes and shows us exactly what God is like. He shows compassion to those who had been marginalized by His own people and treats them with respect. He allows women to learn from Him just as any man would. He is followed by women, and women are even referred to as His disciples. And this doesn’t stop when Jesus dies. Women hold a prominent place in the early church. They are named by name. The business woman Lydia. Paul mentions Phoebe, a deacon; Priscilla and Aquila, Paul’s co-workers; Mary; Andronicus and Junia, possibly a married couple, and both are referred to as apostles; Tryphena and Tryphosa; Persis.
God’s plan is on it’s way to being re-established, His kingdom reinstated, and Paul is at the forefront. He talks about proper marital sexuality, saying that not only does the wife’s body belong to her husband, but the husband’s body equally belongs to his wife. They are not to deny “each other.” But then he says something, in Ephesians, that is grossly misinterpreted, and has been for centuries.
Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. (Ephesians 5:22 TNIV)
The church, centuries after these words were written, latches on to this admonition to keep women in control. Free-thinking women are called “witches” and are burned and tortured. But this is not what Paul meant, and it is not God’s plan. (And wives submitting to asshole, abusive husbands is not what God wants for His people, either.) And His own Scriptures make this clear. Context is key.
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, people have never hated their own bodies, but they feed and care for them, just as Christ does the church— for we are members of his body. “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.” This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband. (Ephesians 5:21-33 TNIV)
It starts with a general admonition to all people to submit to each other. Then he tells wives to submit to their husbands. And I can hear the applause as the letter is read. Men high-fiving each other and laughing as they nudge their wives in the ribs and whisper, “See? I told ya he was one of us!” But then he does something so subversive that it shocks even the sensibilities of a culture as accepting of women’s rights as our’s. He tells husbands to love their wives as Jesus did the church. He tells the husband to “give himself up for her.”
The heiarchy is turned upside down. No. Better. It is shattered. As if Jesus saying that rulers lording over those under them is not to be so is not enough, Paul goes so far as to say that wives should serve their husbands AND husbands should serive their wives. Wives should submit, but husbands should submit as well. Mutual submission.
Paul calls for a return to God’s original plan: for us to be in God’s image. And Marriage is supposedto be that image. Men in equal relationship with women. Different in “function”, just like the Father, Son, and Spirit all “function” differently as their own aspects of God come forth, but of the same substance. Men and women are not fundamentally different, they are fundamentally the same. Whether from dirt or flesh and bone, men and women are, at their cores, the same. They come from the same substance and originate from the same Creator.
The husband and wife should “flesh” this out in their relationship with each other. Wives should submit to their husbands as they do to God, but husbands should submit to their wives as God did to His church: He became like her, served her, and died for her. If a husband is not doing this, then he has no right or business complaining when his wife won’t submit to him.
I could go on and on, and I really want to. Suffice it to say that when men and women are viewed as fundamentally different, and roles are imposed; when husbands are viewed as husbands and wives as wives, rather than as the individual human beings that they are, harmony is broken. And when harmony is broken, whether between humankind and God, or even between men and women, the result is death.