What Did the Apostle Paul Actually Mean? A Look at Submission, Headship and Respect
Today’s topic will be a doozy. Why you ask? We have been taught a lot of misinterpreted scripture in the church around the ideas of submission, headship and respect, particularly in marriage. As a result, many in this world believe Christians treat women badly, and men for that matter. Has the scripture been misinterpreted on purpose? I do not believe so regarding well-meaning leaders and teachers with a heart for God. For others, yes, I do believe they have misinterpreted it on purpose to maintain a power balance of male over female. We might as well say over God, because that is whose Word they are trying to trump.
Let’s look at Paul’s passage in Ephesians to start out so we’re all reading the same words. Ephesians 5:21-33, ESV:
…. 21submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. 25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.[a] 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body. 31 “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” 32 This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. 33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. If there is one thing I know about Paul; he never wrote anything without a reason and without the leading of the Holy Spirit. Politics did not influence his writings. His personal agenda did not influence his writings. Also, we need to keep in mind that Paul’s writings to the early church were to address issues going on in that group of believers; they were not meant to be used as a broad brushstroke for all believers in every century and in every place. The letter to the Ephesians went to Ephesus. The letter to the Corinthians went to Corinth. These letters were combined in the Bible centuries later and translated from Greek; many times, mistranslated by the early English scholars in the time of King James of England. I’m going to address one misinterpretation of the word “head” that Paul uses as well as clarify what he meant by submission and respect in this passage, so keep reading.
Note how Paul starts this section of his letter out in verse 21, “submitting to one another”, e.g. mutual submission between men and women. Many times, this verse in teaching on submission and male/female “roles”, is completely skipped or skimmed over but it is a very important tie to this entire section. Without mutual submission ladies and gentlemen, you don’t have a relationship, you have a dictatorship. Jesus, nor Paul, were encouraging nor sanctioning dictatorship. Both Jesus and Paul had been well acquainted with Roman dictatorship. Why would this be encouraged in the church? Of what value is it to the Kingdom of God? None and it has no value to the Kingdom. It doesn’t make sense that Paul would encourage dictatorship much less tell a group to be dictators in their relationships. The Kingdom of God is mutual submission and love, not dictatorship.
Let’s look now where Paul begins to speak to wives.
22 Wives submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.
The Greek word “head” as it was translated does not mean the “one in charge” or “the leader”, it means “head” as in a part of the body. The husband and wife, as they come together as one (verse 31-32), form the head and shoulders of the body. They support one another, they are one head and one set of shoulders. They lead together under Christ’s spirit and love for each other. They submit to one another and to the head of the Church, Christ. Paul was trying to say here that Christ is the head, the husband and wife submit to one another and to Him and co-lead the family. Sadly, this has been misinterpreted to mean that men are in charge and should make all the decisions in a family and that women must go along to get along and be a “godly wife.” Why would Jesus put that all on one person? What if a man asks his “godly wife” to do something wrong or evil? Christ does not submit to evil! Men and women were made equal in the Garden! Look at Genesis Chapter 2 if you don’t believe me. We were taken from man’s side (as in beside him), not his foot or leg nor his head. Adam was formed from the dust of the ground, not from a women’s head. This misinterpretation (man is the head) does not make sense or God would have provided some symbolism for us at the beginning of creation. Jesus created men and women to lead with their strengths and mutual submission allows us to lead in our strengths. It also protects us from the dictatorship of one person over another – and this protects us from abuse. Ladies, we submit to Christ and thereby we submit to our husband because he too is submitted to Christ. Men, you submit to Christ and thereby you submit to your wife because she is submitted to Christ. Ladies and gentlemen, you are both godly spouses when you lead in your gifts, love and mutually submit to one another, co-lead your home and allow Jesus to be the head of your family. Do you see what I’m getting at and why this has been so grossly misinterpreted and twisted? I will take this a step further; without mutual submission and co-leading (with Christ as the head of the family), you don’t have a relationship, you have a dictatorship and you have one person with a lot of unnecessary burden!
Let’s read further.
25 Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, 26 that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, 27 so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. 28 In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, 30 because we are members of his body.
This is a call for husbands to love their wives, not abuse their wives or be harsh (verbally, mentally) with them. No where in this passage does Paul say, “it is okay for you to treat your wives badly to get what you want because you are the boss.” Paul was writing to men specially because during this time in history, women were property and often treated as such. People imitated their culture at the time. Paul wanted these early Christians to be like Christ – and Christ was not abusive. He was addressing issues within Greco-Roman culture at the time, namely men could be mean (abusive) to their wives and get away with it. There were not laws to truly protect women. Christianity came to change all of that! Talk about a culture shock for the men and the women! Paul called men and women to value and mutually submit to one another! By telling men in this culture these things, Paul gave women the same value Christ had given them when he walked this earth. These women had not known this value before! This call to men is still just as pertinent today as it was back then!
And lastly let’s look at verse 33:
33 However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband.
Again, Paul is calling men to love their wives, not abuse their wives in any way or be harsh (verbally, mentally) with them. He is calling women to respect their husbands and if we are all mutually submitting to one another, not just the woman submitting to the man, guess what? We also have mutual respect! We are both called to mutually respect one another as we mutually submit to one another and this hereby increases our love for one another! This is not one-sided ladies and gentlemen and it was never meant to be! That is a whole lot better than, “I get all the respect” and “you just get all the love” don’t you think? I would gather from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians there were power struggles, abuses, and a lack of both respect and mutual submission in the churches of Ephesus. Jesus also knew this would not just be a Greco-Roman problem, it would also be an American problem – hence the very reason Paul’s words were included in the Bible.
In closing I want to say something very important to you. Anytime I break down scripture, I don’t want you to take my word for it; I want you to go study it for yourself and talk to Jesus – he inspired it. These are the things He has shown me over time through teaching, , trusted leadership, reading the Bible for myself and listening to Him, blogs, and other resources aimed at bringing us back to our original design in the Garden before the Fall. Study it out for yourself and don’t listen to anyone who twists the scriptures to support a personal or political agenda. The Bible is not political, it is Life! The Bible is not for our personal agendas; it changes our lives, our attitudes, and yes, even our agendas! Love, Elizabeth