This text was not controversial through almost all of the history of the Christian church. That does not mean that all women in Christendom before the Reformation submitted to their husbands. A survey of the literature on virtually any period of European history since that continent's Christianization will show that women found ways to defy their husbands, even if not in their presence. Before the Reformation such women, although very likely baptized into the Roman church, did not take this or other Biblical texts seriously. The Roman church for its part ignored the laity and was not surprised by sin. In the Roman view truly religious life was found in the orders of priests, monks, and nuns, who were celibate.
The churches of the Reformation took this text seriously, but did not consider it to be controversial. With the collapse of the Christendom of Rome non-Christians could openly reject the authority of Scripture without fear of reprisal by the Inquisition. It was not until the combined efforts of Protestant state churches and their offspring, revivalism, that this passage became controversial among people who profess to be Christians. Both the state churches and the revivalists that followed them adopted means to draw unregenerate people into the church. Suddenly many Scriptures became difficult to "understand," this one included. How could wives be commanded to submit since so many women who had been drawn into the church did not want to submit to their husbands?
Far from being difficult to understand, this passage is the essence of simplicity. Unlike the many books on how to be a good Christian wife, Paul summarizes the one basic command for Christian wives in three verses. This command has three aspects which I will address as the points of the sermon.
In verse 22 the word translated "wives" is the Greek word gune that also means "women." If the context indicates the woman of a particular man gune is translated wife. The same rule applies to the word translated "husbands" in this verse, which also can be translated "men."
The command to wives is that they "submit to your own husbands." "Submit" translates the Greek word hupotasso, literally to "place under." The sense of the word is to "place under the authority of another." It also may be translated "be subject to" as later in our passage and in the first use of this verb in the New Testament to describe how Jesus as a child "was subject to" Joseph and Mary.
Americans tend to bristle at the idea of submitting to someone else. This country has been shaped by ideas of independence and equality, most recently in terms of the relationship of men and women. Radical proponents of independence and equality extend these ideals to children and parents. Some countries apply this ideology so as to eliminate any claim by parents in the home to authority over their children. However, in the Word of God we see that even the Son of God submitted to the authority of His human parents, although only Mary was His mother after the flesh. Women who reject out of hand the Biblical idea of submission to their husbands reflect recent political ideology limited to some parts of this planet and not truly tested over several generations anywhere. Christian women should not adopt such an ideology which places them in opposition to the Word of God and in a stance which implies that they are better than the Lord who accepted submission to people who were infinitely inferior to Him. Such women cannot submit to God's Word because: "the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God nor can it be. So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Now if anyone does not have the Spirit of God, he is not His" (Rom 8:7-9).
Since the fall of Adam, women have been cursed by a reminder of Eve's independence of her husband. God's words to Eve, "your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you," refer to a desire for power over her husband (Gen 3:16b). This would remind Adam's male descendents of the original failure to act as the representative head of the wife.
Although all wives experience Eve's desire to rule over their husbands, Paul's words are a command to Christian wives. The Bible provides no basis for the notion that this submission can be compelled by the husband, aside from appealing to the Word of God. However, like all unrepentant sin, the refusal of a wife to submit to her husband can be a matter of church discipline if brought to the attention of an elder by her husband. Since failure to submit to her husband is "as to the Lord," persistence in such sin is especially incompatible with communicant membership in the church.
The Bible does not teach the submission of women to men in general, but to "your own husbands." Moreover, this command is not to wives in general but to Christian wives, who should submit to their husband's authority "as to the Lord." Obviously those wives who do not have Jesus as Lord could only be persuaded to submit to their husbands on the basis of some worldly consideration. This point is reinforced by the reason Paul gives for the submission of Christian wives.
Verse 23 should remind us of how God's design of the family is the basis for Biblical language for His relationship to His people. The relationship of a wife to her husband is one of the most important examples. The husband is the head of the wife because Christ is the head of the church.
The Biblical use of the word "head" has nothing to do with the location of the brain. That is not discussed in the Bible. Ancient peoples had no idea about the brain's purpose. (It is the only body part that Egyptian embalmers didn't understand and so they simply disposed of it during mummification, while preserving every other internal organ.) In the Bible the Hebrew and Greek words for "head" often simply mean "top." This combined with the location of sight, speech and hearing in the head reinforced the association with authority. The head also represented the rest of the body. In the Bible something that would happen to the whole person commonly is applied to the head. We see this in anointing the head, placing hands on a sacrificial animal's head, and the expression "his blood be on his own head."
The headship of the husband is based on Christ being head of the church. Earlier in this letter Paul said of Christ that God the Father "put all things under His feet, and give Him to be head over all things to the church" (Eph 1:22; see also Eph 4:15; Col 1:18; 2:10,19; compare 1 Pet 3:22). Paul stated this more pointedly in 1 Corinthians: "But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of every woman is man, and the head of Christ is God" (1 Cor 11:3). These are relationships of authority. Clearly the husband's headship of his wife implies no inequality, but rather a voluntary submission to the will of another, as Christ to God the Father.
The principal evidence in the congregation of the wife's submission to her husband is that she does not speak in the assembly. Without refraining from speaking in the assembly, the long hair which is the sign of the authority of her head, is meaningless (1 Cor 11:10). The husband speaks for his household because he is the representative head. The connection between submission and silence in the assembly is brought out in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians: "Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak, but they are to be submissive, as the law also says" (1 Cor 14:34). Questions posed to the husband at home encourage him to act as her representative head in the congregation (1 Cor 14:34,35; 1 Tim 2:11).
Reformed commentators are divided on how to best interpret the clause "and He is the Savior of the body." That is, is the fact that Christ is the Savior of the body, the church, also applied to the husband's relationship to his wife? I would say that Paul is contrasting Christ and husbands. First of all, the words "He is" in Greek are "emphatic" and usually would be rendered "He Himself is." In other words, He, Christ, although Head of the church, also is its Savior, but the husband, although head of his wife, like her he is part of the one body with one Savior. This view is upheld by the fact that in every use of the word Savior in the New Testament God or Christ is intended. The manner of beginning verse 24 also confirms the interpretation that headship is not paralleled by the role of Savior.
In verse 24 the word translated "therefore" in fact is alla, which usually is translated "but." As an adversative, it could be translated "on the other hand" or "nevertheless." Paul is saying that even though the husband is not a savior like Christ, wives must still be subject to their husbands as the church is to Christ.
It is possible that a Christian wife might think that because her husband is not very Christlike, she need not be subject to him. I believe that the tendency to interpret the role of the husband as a type of savior played into this error. Peter said Christian wives should submit even to husbands that "do not obey the word" (1 Pet 3:11). Rightly understood Paul is saying the husband's headship alone is the basis for a wife being "subject" -- this is the same Greek word as "submit" in verse 22 -- "to their own husbands in everything."
Others have sought to undermine this command by putting forward situations in which a husband commands his wife to sin. However, "in everything" refers to all matters, it does not envision complying with what the Bible considers to be sin. However, such sin should be clear, not conjectural.
While a Christian wife need not submit to a command that is clearly contrary to God's Word, submission to another, even a beloved husband, will be difficult at times. Therefore, a young woman should be especially careful to ask herself before marrying if she is confident that the prospective husband is a man to whom she could submit. A young man also should understand not only that it is wrong to marry a non-Christian, but that his prospective bride should agree with God's Word on this question.
This passage reveals God's basic command for Christian wives. This command involves several aspects which formed the points of my sermon: First of all, submission by a Christian wife to her husband is an expression of submission to the Lord. Second, submission by a Christian wife to her husband means accepting his authority as head. Third, submission by a Christian wife to the authority of her husband extends to all aspects of life.
Since the beginning of revivalism's enticement to women to exercise roles in the church which deny or undermine the representative headship of husbands, women have struggled with this passage. So too have the male religious leaders that encourage them in their sin. The usual excuse for defying the husband's headship has been a combination of his shortcomings and the supposed fruit in church work of wives who do not submit. However, they are seeking to establish their own righteousness and do not submit to the righteousness of God. Indeed, the principal evidence that a woman in her role as a wife is obedient to the Lord is her submission to her husband.
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