A Theology of Sex and Gender (Part 6): The New Covenant and the Church

God created men and women in His image (Genesis 1:26-27). He also typically unites them in marriage for one lifetime under His rules (Genesis 2:18-24). Unfortunately, due to sin, all people now live in a corrupted world where they are sinners by nature and by choice. Naturally, the harmful effects of sin have infected and distorted sexuality and gender.

God often regulates the realities of living in a post-Fall world through His people, Israel. Although Israel did not often live up to the ideal of God’s design and purposes, God made concessions due to their hard-heartedness and sinfulness. Divorce was one such concession as even Jesus Himself acknowledges (Matthew 19:4-5). Jesus set the pattern for the church’s engagement with broken sexuality: affirm God’s good design while also recognizing the reality of living in a broken world.

The Church and Marriage 

The book of Acts begins with Jesus going up, the Spirit coming down, and the church going out. As the church began to grow, the apostle wrote God-inspired Scripture to guide the church. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the apostle Paul reveals that marriage points to the grand mystery of the universe: the relationship between Christ and His bride, the church (Eph. 5:22-33). Marriage’s importance, then, lies in the fact that it primarily  a picture pointing to Christ and the church. Therefore, tampering with God’s design for marriage tampers with the gospel message it proclaims. In very real sense, the marriage of Christians is the loudest gospel message that they preach.[1]

Marriage and Gender Roles

If marriage is a picture of Christ and the church, how should Christian marriage be practically worked out? In the text, we see the principles of headship given to husbands and submission given to wives (5:22-25). The important thing to remember, however, is that these are “roles.” Maleness and femaleness speak to our human essence, whereas husband and wife are designation as callings. So a woman who acts in the wifely calling must submit to her own husband. The Bible’s teaching is not of submission of all women to all men, but of the submission of one woman to one man, her husband. The Bible texts make this very clear as most of them speak of the wife submitting to her own husband:

“Wives be subject to your own husbands as to the Lord” (Eph. 5:22)

“Wives, be subject to your husbands as is fitting in the Lord” (Col. 3:18)

“Encourage the young wives [to be] subject to their own husbands” (Titus 1:4-5)

“Wives, be submissive to your own husbands” (1 Peter 3:1)

Therefore, the dynamic of authority-submission is given in the relationship of husband and wife, not in the essence of male and female. This has important implications for both the church and society. First of all, it shows that women need to be less submissive to the wider male-dominated culture. Women need to stop submitting to men in general, except to their husbands. Christian women also submit to the elders in the church because God has commanded all of the congregation to obey its leaders (Hebrews 13:17). Second, the church needs to be wise and judicious about speaking about gender roles in the wider culture. The Bible doesn’t really address what men and women can do in the wider culture. Can a woman be President? Can a father be a ballet dancer? These are questions which the New Testament is not concerned with.

Study of Ephesians 5:22-33

The most prominent text in the debate over gender roles, especially within marriage, is in Ephesians 5:22-33. The egalitarian[2] position on Ephesians 5:22-33 usually lands on one of two major positions on the passage: the exegetical or the applicational (Although Andrew Wilson see “five forms” of egalitarians, I generally have boiled his conclusions down to two). Some egalitarians argue that exegetically, the passage isn’t speaking of a hierarchy in marriage, but actually speaks of mutual submission in marriage. For example, many of these kinds of egalitarians would read the word “head” in 5:23-24 to mean “source” rather than “authority over.” Thus, Paul is not really saying that the husband is the authority over his life, but rather the “source” of the wife (cf. 1 Cor. 11:12).

Other egalitarians admit that some sense of authority and “headship” is found in the original meaning of the text. They argue, however, that the text applies to the contemporary church in a different way than it did in Paul’s day. It may have meant that Paul was re-enforcing the cultural paradigm of his day, but it doesn’t apply the same way into a modern, Western, egalitarian context. Although the issue of application can be a difficult one, it is first important to understand what the text meant in its original context.

Ephesians 5:22-33 in the Wider Flow of the Book. The book of Ephesians focuses on “identity formation” for the people of God.[3] In other words, Paul is not responding to dysfunction within the church like many of his other letters do (e.g. Corinthians and Galatians). Rather, Paul exposits what Christ has done for believers and their status now that they are “in Christ” (1:4-13). The book breaks down fairly neat into three chapters of theology (1-3) and three chapters of Christian living (4-6). Chapters four through six are concerned with living in light of the gospel and walking in a “worthy manner” (4:1). Paul then shows what the new life looks like (4:17-32). Believers should also walk in love, light, and wisdom (5:1-21). Being filled with the Spirit looks like encouraging one another and submitting to one another (5:18-21). In this context of the Spirit-filled life does Paul begin his foray into an exposition of Christian marriage.[4]

Exposition of Ephesians 5:22-33. The main point of Ephesians 5:22-33 is that marriage is a great mystery. The great mystery of marriage is that it points beyond itself to Christ’s relationship with the church (5:32). It is in this context where Paul instructs wives to be subject to their own husbands while husbands out to love their wives. We must pay careful attention to the way Paul upholds common cultural conventions of his day but also infuses them with new meaning as well.[5] In other words, there is both continuity and discontinuity with the surrounding culture for Paul. It is true that the ancient Near Eastern and Greco-Roman culture was patriarchal. And it is very difficult to escape the fact that Paul had some kind of “hierarchal” notion in his mind. For Paul and many of the other biblical writers, they were very concerned with submission to one’s authority. Slaves should be subject to masters (Eph. 6:5-8; Col. 3:22-25; 1 Peter 2:18-25), citizens subject to the government (Rom. 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-17), children submissive to parents (Ephesians 6:1-3; 3:20), and congregations should submit to their leaders (Hebrews 13:17). It is no surprise, then, to see the biblical writers advocating for wives to be submissive to their husbands. There is definite continuity with the larger culture of his day.

The idea of husband headship in that day, however, is given a Christian interpretation in Paul’s writing. The man is not be domineering and controlling. Rather, he is to love his wife just as Christ loved the church through His sacrificial death (5:25). Husbands are to love their wives like themselves (5:28). They should love and care for their wives just like they love and care for their own bodies (5:28-29). A husband who will lay his life down for the betterment of his wife will certainly be worth submitting to! So there is definitely a sense of discontinuity with the wider culture for Paul too. It’s not just that men are head over their wives (which the ANE culture would have affirmed) but that they are also to show this headship through sacrificial love (which cuts against the grain of the world).

Even more profound, however, is that Paul grounds the wife’s submission in a trans-cultural reality.[6] The wife should be submissive to her own husband because the husband is her head just like “Christ is the head of the church” (5:23). Christ being the head of the church does not change based upon time period of cultural context. The church is always “subject to Christ” in every time period and in every culture (5:24). Therefore, wives should be subject to their husbands. This would not be the first or last time that Paul ground his argument in a trans-cultural reality. When he wrote 1 Timothy, Paul also appeals to the creation narrative for showing why women should not serve in the role of elder (1 Timothy 2:12-14).

Does Ephesians 5:22-33 Apply Today? So does the passage speak to today’s church? And if so, how? Thankfully, a large consensus has been reached concerning applying Scripture called “principilizing.”[7] The goal of principilizing to find the theological “principle” standing behind a passage of Scripture and bring that into the new context.[8] Actually, the application of Ephesians 5:22-33 is actually quite straight forward since Paul grounds his argument in redemption realities which do not change. As argued before, wives are to be subject to their husbands because their submission is grounded in the reality that Christ is head over the church. Furthermore, the call of husbands to love their wives also stands the test of time. If wives are no longer bound to be submissive to their husbands, are husbands no longer bound to love their wives? Such a conclusion would be considered nonsense and rightly so. This leads us, however, to the conclusion that wifely submission is still appropriate in the current cultural context as well.

Applying Ephesians 5:22-33 Today

 It is must be said that the while the commands of Ephesians 5:22-33 still apply to Christian marriages today, they are also quite general. The Bible does not give specifics about if a woman can work outside the home, or even what kind of work she can do. Since the command in Scripture is given in general, it seems most wise for pastors and theologians to preach the command in a general way as well. As Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert write, “Go big on the big principles and not as big on the specific applications.”[9] In other words, when applying their advice to marriage, how exactly the headship of the husband and how the submission of the wife takes place will often be relative to each individual marriage.

Headship of the Husband. In context, it seems that “headship” for the husband is most clearly defined in terms of sacrificial service. Just as Christ sacrificially laid down His life for the good of His body, so the husband must sacrificially lay down his life for the good of his wife. In extreme cases, this may mean he must literally give up his life so that his wife may life, but more typically, it means mortifying one’s selfish desires, dreams, and actions. The purpose of the husband is not have the wife’s support and confirm his dreams and his purpose in life. The purpose of the husband isn’t even to support his wife and help her achieve her dreams. Rather, the husband is to lead his family into Christ’s purpose for the family. Too often, the husband and wife go off in different directions for the life of the family: the husband pulls his way and the wife pulls her way. In contrast, both husband and wife are to be lead by Christ into His way. They are to work together to accomplish God’s mission for their lives.

It must also be remembered that the husband is the spiritual head of his wife. He’s not the monetary-head, or the commanding-head. The husband has the responsibility to set the trajectory of the marriage relationship (and the family) toward Christlikeness. Again, the specific ways this works will be unique to each family. But the first step is for the husband to acknowledge his headship and understand that he is leading his family towards the consummated union of Christ and His church. How the husband gets his family there is through sacrificial service.

Submission of the Wife. The submission of the wife is given important qualifiers throughout Ephesians 5:22-33. First, wives are to be submissive “in everything.” This means that every sphere of the wife’s life must be in submission to her husband.[10] Obviously, wives must never to submit to their husband in matters of sin (cf. Acts 5:29). Second, wifely submission is described as “respecting” her husband (5:33). Respect is both an inward and an outward attitude. Inwardly, it means believing the best about one’s husband. Outwardly, it means building him to others, not tearing him down. The book of Proverbs repeatedly speaks of the contentious and nagging wife (Proverbs 21:9; 25:24). The argumentative, contentious woman who seeks to tear down her husband with her words is by definition being unsubmissive. She is not respecting her husband.

All Posts in this Series: Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part SixPart Seven

[1] The concept of Christian marriage being the loudest gospel message is taken from Peter Scazzero, The Emotionally Healthy Leader (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), 97-98.

[2] Egalitarians are those who oppose “hierarchy” within the marriage relationship. Many eqalitarians could be considered “complementarians” in a sense in that they do recognize that a husband and a wife should “complement” each other’s weaknesses. What they oppose, however, is that the husband has authority over his wife. For example, see Ronald W. Pierce Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierachy (Grand Rapids: InterVaristy Press, 2004).

[3] Peter T. O’Brien, The Letter to the Ephesians, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 57.

[4] Although many egalitarians make a big deal that 5:21 focuses on submitting to one another, it is actually the concept of being filled with the Spirit which provides the broader context for Paul’s teaching on marriage. The main command is to “be filled with the Spirit.” The results of a Spirit-filled life are singing, devotion to the Lord, thanksgiving and mutual submission.

[5] Think of God accommodating his revelation to the Israelites with the concept of the temples. He used the common cultural convention of the day (the temple) but used it as a “teachable moment” (i.e. the Holy of Holies was empty.

[6] Compare what Paul does with the husband-wife relationship (and even the child-parent relationship) to that of slavery. When Paul commands slaves to be obedient he doesn’t ground their submission in either creation or redemption like he with wives to husbands and women in the church to male eldership. Therefore, it is appropriate to see Paul’s words to slaves as largely being culturally bound. Furthermore, Paul takes many subtle jabs at the institution of slavery, which a full-blown Christian ethic would have undermined.

[7] William W. Klein, Craig L. Blomberg, and Robert L. Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, Rev. and Updated. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2004), 483.

[8] Ibid. The authors propose four steps to principilizing. First, the original application for the original readers must be discerned. Second, the interpreter must evaluate how culturally specific the principle is. Third, if the principle is too culturally specific and cannot be brought over directly into the contemporary culture, then the interpret must examine to see if there is an even broader principle expressed in the passage that can be brought over into current times. Fourth, the interpreter must find appropriate applications for today which implement the broader principles.

[9] Kevin DeYoung and Greg Gilbert, What is the Mission of the Church? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011), 257.

[10] O’Brien, Ephesians, 417-18.

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