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Does the Bible subjugate women? Part 1

Does the Bible subjugate women

Does the Bible subjugate women? No.

Submission is a spiritual discipline for men and women!

In Autumn 2022 our daughter Katy was knocked off her bike by a hit-and-run driver who’d jumped a red light.

I thank God for a stranger called Laura who stopped to help her. Katy was lying in the middle of a roundabout, in the dark and the cold and the 999 handler said that an ambulance would be at least two hours. So, when Katy’s friend came along to relieve Laura, she took Katy to A&E by car.

The trouble with that is that Katy did not get triaged by the ambulance crew, so she spent four hours waiting in great pain before being assessed properly. She had a fractured skull, plus other injuries!

Triage is important in healthcare because some injuries are more life-changing than others.

Triage is also important in theology. Why? Because some beliefs are more life-changing than others.

Gender relations are a hot topic in society and in the church.

In the church where I serve we have people who hold to a more egalitarian position, and those who hold to a more complementarian position, and we have found a way to work together for mutual enrichment.

That cooperation is a product, in part, of mutual submission.

And that submission has enabled us to conclude that the question of gender roles is not a primary doctrine. What do I mean by that?

My friend Andrew Wilson uses this metaphor to describe how we triage Christian beliefs or doctrines.

Some beliefs are written in BLOOD, some in PEN, and some in PENCIL. Those written in blood are…

… the beliefs that are enshrined in the ancient Nicene Creed. This would include belief in God, that God is Trinity, that Christ is both 100% God and 100% human, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the hope of Christ’s kingdom to come when Jesus returns, etc. as revealed in God’s word to humanity recorded in the Holy Scriptures.

If we do not love and embrace these beliefs we’re not Christian at all.

One of the tell-tale signs of an unhealthy church or a cult group is that they do NOT do theological triage. In unhealthy churches either NOTHING is written in blood, or EVERYTHING is written in blood, everything they teach is a ‘to-die-for’ belief. Even disagreement on a secondary issue marks you as an outsider.

That’s not the way healthy churches work.

If you practice the spiritual discipline of submission, my subject in this post, it enables you to see that many things are not so important as you used to think. We are set free to tell the difference between critical issues and our stubborn self-will.

Hence, there are beliefs written in PEN, where we may differ, such as…

Whether miracles continue today, or died out with the age of the first apostles. For the record I believe that God is still doing miracles — and I’ve seen some.

Or, whether water baptism must always be by full immersion, or must always be AFTER a person has come to faith.

Other beliefs are written in PENCIL, where we may differ even more, such as…

Whether the universe was created in six 24-hour days, or across billions of years in a process guided by God.

Or, whether to share communion daily, weekly, or once in a while.

The late great John Stott — fondly called the pope of evangelical Christians — said something like this:

“Where the Bible is definite we should be definite. Where the Bible is tentative we should be tentative.”

Several of Paul’s letters contain so-called ‘house rules’ — Paul’s guidance about relationships within churches, businesses, families, etc.

One example is Colossians 3:15 through to 4:1

This passage describes various spiritual disciplines.

I want to focus in on an unpopular spiritual discipline, the discipline of submission — often abused, but vital if we are to grow up into God’s vision for our lives.

Here is Colossians 3:15-4:1 in the NIV-UK version:

15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

18 Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

19 Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.

20 Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord.

21 Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.

22 Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favour, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord. 23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. 25 Anyone who does wrong will be repaid for their wrongs, and there is no favouritism.

1 Masters, provide your slaves with what is right and fair, because you know that you also have a Master in heaven.

Let me bring my discussion of submission into sharp focus by turning my lens onto submission in marriage.

bride and groom
bride and groom

Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

This statement has to do with the relations between a husband and wife. So let me explore submission in that context.

“Wait a minute! I’m not married. What’s this to do with me?”

Well look out for any transferrable principles. Submission is a spiritual discipline for us all.

“But Andrew my spouse doesn’t share my faith in Christ!”

That may be exactly the sort of marriages Paul was thinking about when he wrote this!

Christians come to different conclusions what Paul meant.

Does the Bible subjugate women?

This the first of two posts on this subject. The second focusses on 1 Peter 3:1-7 and is here.

In this post, I will argue for two contrasting interpretations, taking each one in turn… and then describe how both look in practice which is often not that different in the couples I observe in churches where I have served.

I hope to give a fair defence and explanation of a moderate complementarian and a moderate egalitarian position on gender relations in marriage.

I’ll argue first for the so-called Complementarian understanding: that submission in marriage is fitting because the husband has a God-given role of leadership in the home, by virtue of being a man.

The complementarian, or traditional gender role position.

18 Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord.

When we hear the English word ‘submit’, we think of yielding to the will or authority of another person.

“That command to wives sounds harsh,” you might say. “It’s not what I think.”

But please do a little thought experiment with me!

If God is a made-up figure, a projection of me, then his book will align perfectly with my preferences and prejudices and will not trigger me in any way. That’s the kind of God most people have. But that cannot be the real God, surely?

So next, in our thought experiment, let’s say that there is a real God, who is NOT ME… in that scenario would you not expect that at least some of what God thinks or says or does may well be triggering, even upsetting or offensive to me?

And might not the all-wise God, rather than me, be right?

Wives submit because the husband is described as the ‘head’ of the wife in the parallel passage in Ephesians 5:21-24:

21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

The word ‘head’ is being used here as picture language.

‘Head’ can have two metaphorical uses:

(1) Christ is described as ‘head’ meaning authority or LORD in Ephesians 1:22-23 (for example ‘head gardener’):

22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

(2) Christ is described as ‘head’ meaning the source of growth and love, as SAVIOUR in Ephesians 4:15-16 (for example ‘head of a river’):

15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

So which meaning of ‘head’ did Paul mean when he used the word ‘head’ in Ephesians 5:24?

24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

If Christ has authority over his church (which he does), then equally a husband has authority over his wife — but constrained, as we say, by the example of Christ who gave himself up for the church.

And even if you adopt the alternative Egalitarian position that the word ‘head’ in this passage means source, not authority, the metaphor still presents us with an asymmetrical pairing of head and body. This indicates a difference of responsibility — that a husband must take the lead in sacrificial love of his wife in imitation of the Saviour’s sacrificial love for his church.

Does the Bible subjugate women
Does the Bible subjugate women?

SUBMISSION is the most easily abused of the spiritual disciplines! So, let’s consider: Has this Complementarian view of marriage been abused? Yes, it has.

In the last 2,000 years of Christianity patriarchal societies have found it comparatively easy to enlist Christianity into their project. And too often Christian churches have connived in that uneasy alliance.

It was only after the passing of The Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 that a woman could take out a loan in Britain without having the application countersigned by her father or husband. Yes, really!

Credit card sexism: The woman who couldn’t buy a moped – BBC News

However, just because something has been misused does not mean it cannot be correctly used. Doctors sometimes murder their patients, but we don’t reject doctoring!

So the Bible gives us mitigations to limit how submission is worked out.

Firstly: (1) this call to wives to submit is matched by a call to husbands to love:

In Colossians 3.19 Paul addressed husbands, saying:

19 Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.

Compared to other house rules given in the ancient world, Paul is revolutionary in how he gives instructions to the authority figures — the ones who hold the upper hand in social relations in his day.

Paul’s instructions to husbands, fathers and slave-owners are revolutionary and liberating. Paul introduced principles of justice, of kindness, and of accountability previously unknown in the ancient world.

Notice Paul does not tell husbands to insist on being obeyed.

He calls them to be kind. What can that look like?

At the age of 25 in August 1876 Benjamin Warfield married Annie Pierce Kinkead. Soon afterward they visited Germany. The story is commonly told that during their time there, Annie was struck by lightning and was permanently paralyzed. Fred G. Zaspel (PhD, Free University of Amsterdam), an expert on B.B. Warfield, says this is apocryphal – but agrees that Annie had increasingly poor health and was eventually an invalid. The couple never had children. Benjamin was a theology professor at Princeton, but he loved his wife and was her primary carer until her death in 1915. That’s love. That’s the kindness that Paul envisaged Christ-following husbands would embody towards their wives.

Secondly: (2) the call to submit does not mean unthinking obedience.

I have elsewhere spoken on what Peter taught about wives and husbands in 1 Peter 3:1-7. This will be the subject of a second post in this series.

Peter makes clear that wives are not told to obey, only to submit. Peter told wives they can choose to follow Christ whatever their husbands thought, and work to persuade their spouse to follow Christ too. In other words, Peter thought that a wife should make her own decisions, and should resist her husband if he proposed a wrong course of action, etc. Submission DOES NOT MEAN UNQUESTIONNING OBEDIENCE.

Conversely, when speaking to slaves Paul shows that you can obey outwardly without being in submission inwardly.

Let me switch now to argue for the alternative, which is the…

Egalitarian understanding, that submission in marriage is fitting because Christ called for mutual submission.

Firstly: (1) when Paul says the husband is the ‘head’ he means source, not authority. How so?

In Ephesians 5:23 we are told that Christ is head by virtue of being the Saviour — not Lord.

23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour.

The late John Stott took a largely complementarian position, but writing about Ephesians 5 he said:

“In order to understand the nature of the husband’s headship in the new society which God has inaugurated, we need to look at Jesus Christ. For Jesus Christ is the context in which Paul uses and develops the words ‘headship’ and ‘submission’. . . . he defines it in relation to the headship of Christ the redeemer: . . . (verse 23). Now Christ’s headship of his church has already been described in 4:15–16. It is from Christ as head that the body derives its health and grows into maturity. His headship expresses care rather than control, responsibility rather than rule. This truth is endorsed by the surprising addition of the words ‘and is himself its Saviour’ (v.23). The head of the body is the saviour of the body; the characteristic of his headship is not so much lordship as saviourhood.”

(Quoted in Andrew Bartlett, Men and Women in Christ (pp. 94-95). IVP. Kindle Edition).

Secondly: (2) the call to submit does not always mean the other party is ‘in authority’ over us.

In Ephesians the call to submit to husbands is preceded by verse 21:

21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour.

Verse 21 is a general command to all Christians to submit to one another.

That means that a command to submit does not tell us that those we submit to are in authority over us. Rather it is the spiritual discipline of submission that is in view.

Thirdly: (3a) the vision of fully reciprocal marriage in 1 Corinthians 7.

For example, see how Paul’s vision of marriage is one of reciprocal rights and responsibilities is described in 1 Corinthians 7:2-4 (CSB):

2 But because sexual immorality is so common, each man should have sexual relations with his own wife, and each woman should have sexual relations with her own husband. 3 A husband should fulfil his marital duty to his wife, and likewise a wife to her husband. 4 A wife does not have the right over her own body, but her husband does. In the same way, a husband does not have the right over his own body, but his wife does.

(3b) Reciprocal mixed marriages where one spouse is not a Christ-follower.

And then later in the chapter, we see Paul’s vision of the reciprocal nature of marriage where only one of the partners is a believer in Jesus. He writes:

14 For the unbelieving husband is made holy by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy by the husband. …

16 Wife, for all you know, you might save your husband. Husband, for all you know, you might save your wife.

Next Paul celebrates the merits of being single —

(3c) Reciprocal concerns of the unmarried again with equal attention to men and women.

32 I want you to be without concerns. The unmarried man is concerned about the things of the Lord—how he may please the Lord. 33 But the married man is concerned about the things of the world—how he may please his wife— 34 and his interests are divided. The unmarried woman or virgin is concerned about the things of the Lord, so that she may be holy both in body and in spirit. But the married woman is concerned about the things of the world—how she may please her husband.

How can Colossians 3:18 be meant to cancel this much longer teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 where the reciprocal nature of marriage is described at such length and with such explicit clarity?

Fourthly: (4) so why does Paul call wives to submit to their husbands, then?

We must remember the social context.

William Barclay writes that in the Greco-Roman world women were the property of their husbands. A wife would offer ‘a complete servitude and chastity; but her husband could go out as much as he chose, and could enter into as many relationships outside marriage as he liked and incur no stigma.’ In other words, privileges belonged to the husband and duties belonged to the wife.

Imagine the scenario. Women heard the gospel. They believed in Jesus. They heard of their new liberty and equality in Christ. Some, then, unwisely rebelled against their husband’s expectations. Maybe what’s in Paul’s mind is that just as Jesus yielded up his freedom and rights for our salvation, we also should yield up freedoms and rights for the mission.

Paul is calling for the spiritual discipline of submission.

To bring it all together let’s consider ways we may respond to…

Paul’s call to practice the spiritual discipline of submission.

21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Eph. 5:21.

30-odd years ago I got to go to Peshawar in northwest Pakistan where a couple from our church at that time were working with Afghan refugees. They were vegetarians but they had a call to reach out to Afghans who ate meat. They voluntarily became meat-eaters for the sake of those to whom they were called. God’s mission, they realised, trumped their commitment to a plant-based diet.

We see several spiritual disciplines in what Paul writes in Colossians 3. For example, the disciplines of gratitude, of engaging with God’s word in Scripture, of mutual accountability, and of peace-making, as well as submission are promoted in Colossians 3:15-17:

15 Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. 16 Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Submission is about taking Christ as our LORD.

Submission is an attitude appropriate to Christ-followers because Christ is Lord of all.

Submission does not mean being downtrodden, it does not mean doing things God forbids because someone told us to, it does not mean we cannot make our own decisions. But submission does mean that we voluntarily do NOT get our own way at least sometimes. And that is good for us.

You want Christ to be Lord of you? Good.

One way to help that become real is to let other people be lord of you — not submission to one person all of the time because that would lead to coercive control.

With regard to the spiritual disciplines Richard Forster writes (p.97):

“…every discipline has its corresponding freedom. What freedom corresponds to submission? It is the ability to lay down the terrible burden of always needing to get our own way. The obsession to demand that things go the way we want them to go is one of the greatest bondages in human society today… “

In the discipline of submission we are released to drop the matter, to forget it. Frankly, most things in life are not nearly so important as we think they are. Our lives will not come to an end if this or that does not happen.

To submit is about giving some choices to another, letting go of our need to be ‘in control.’

How might this play out in marriage?

Paul writes: Let the word of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom. (v.16)

If you are a married man let me ask you this: can your wife speak to you?

In 1 Samuel 25 there’s an episode with a couple called Nabal and Abigail. Nabal is very rich but he’s a fool. He’s not wise.

It’s said of him in 1 Samuel 25:17b (CSB): “He is such a worthless fool nobody can talk to him.”

Abigail told Nabal home truths, and he did not listen. Abigail has to go behind her husband’s back to sort out his mess.

Husbands ask yourselves and be honest:

  • Is your wife sweeping up behind you all the time?
  • Is she clearing up your mess repeatedly?
  • Or can she admonish you? Can you be admonished?

All of us: Can you submit to being admonished?

Can other people, especially your spouse, suggest changes to you?

Or do people tiptoe around you because you are so touchy, insecure, jealous, defensive, stubborn?

Submission changes our attitudes to all other people.

In submission we are at last free to value other people. Their dreams and plans become important to us. We learn to give up the right to demand that others love us, or treat us in a certain way. We stop feeling entitled to privileges and esteem.

The testimony of women is that too many men feel entitled…

  • To catcall them.
  • To make lewd comments.
  • To grope them.

Let’s raise up boys in our churches who treat girls with respect, who have wholesome respectful conversations about girls among other boys or men when no girls are present!

Men, if women and girls are kept safe in our thoughts, kept safe in our speech, kept safe in our surroundings… they’ll be safer in our schools, and safer on our streets.

And how might that happen? If we embrace the spiritual discipline of mutual submission.

In this we only follow our Saviour Jesus who was obedient unto death to rescue us.

If the Master has walked the path of the cross shouldn’t we?

Most of us will die by instalments. But some really do give their lives as they work out what it means to submit.

That’s because to submit also means to attempt great exploits for God — a willingness to risk failure, even death, as we live a life of being kind to others and showing them what God’s call is upon their lives.

In 1934 John and Betty Stam were an American couple in their 20s working in a small town called Jingde near the eastern coast of China. There was a civil war and one day the magistrate of the town warned them that the communists were coming for them.

Before John and Betty could escape with their baby Helen Priscilla, they were captured. Other prisoners were released to make room for them to be incarcerated.

When baby Helen started crying, a soldier suggested that they kill her, since she was only “in their way.” Then one of the prisoners who had just been released asked why they should kill the innocent baby. The soldiers turned to him and asked if he was willing to die for the foreign baby. The man was hacked to pieces for Helen in front of the Stam’s eyes. Thus, baby Helen was allowed to live.

The next morning, they were forced to march 12 miles to the town of Miaosheo. In some accounts their shoes had been taken from them so that Betty was barefoot. John had socks on. He gave his socks to Betty. In other accounts Betty was on horseback.

That night Betty was allowed to tend to Helen, but in fact hid her in the room inside a sleeping bag — later baby Helen was found by local Christians and rescued.

The next morning, 8 Dec, John and Betty were marched to be executed. Crowds lined both sides of the street. A local Chinese merchant, Chang Hsiu-sheng, stepped out of the crowd and talked to the communists, trying to persuade them not to kill the Stams. They ordered the man back into the crowd, but he wouldn’t step back. The soldiers then went into his house where they found a Bible and hymnbook. He was executed for being a Christian.

Marched up on top of a hill, John was ordered to kneel, and he was beheaded. Betty was beheaded moments later. You can read more about the Stams here.

What struck me in this story is a detail: The socks…

That’s a husband loving his wife!

Nevertheless, I have told my wife Elspeth that she’s still not allowed to put her cold feet on me!

“Stam Baby Safe”: Remembering John and Betty Stam

This is the first of two posts on this theme. The second, here, opens up from what the apostle Peter wrote in 1 Peter 3:1-7.

Bibliography

William BARCLAY, The Letters to Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians, The Saint Andrew Press, Edinburgh, 1960

Andrew BARTLETT, Men and Women in Christ – Fresh Light from the Biblical Texts, IVP, London, 2019, 2020

Richard FORSTER, Celebration of Discipline, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1980

Phil MOORE, Straight to the Heart of Galatians to Colossians, Lion Hudson, 2014

Peter T O’BRIEN, Colossians, Philemon, Word Biblical Commentary, Nelson, Nashville, 1989

Brian J WALSH and Sylvia C KEESMAAT, Colossians Re:Mixed, Paternoster, Milton Keynes, 2005

Tom WRIGHT, Paul for Everyone – the prison letters, SPCK, London, 2002

 

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