Wives, submit to your husbands as 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.
– Ephesians 5:22-24
If you are looking for controversy, the writings of Paul will seldom disappoint. This one, in particular, has always been a puzzlement to me. Why, knowing that husbands will often be unfair and even abusive in spousal relations, would Paul insist on such passivity? Indeed, he will say almost exactly the same thing to slaves in the next chapter, and in Romans a very similar point will be made about submission to governmental authorities.
What is going on here? Why would Paul, in every instance, practically order the disciples of Jesus in his church to submit in situations where they were likely to be subject to tyrrany? And does his reasoning in those situations help us to understand what he is saying to wives?
The old evangelical party line went something like this: Women can’t handle freedom. We saw what happened to Eve. They have to be controlled by someone who knows better what is good for them. Therefore, they must submit to the men in their lives.
But here is the catch: in the other instances where Paul insists on submission, I do not think he is doing so because the subordinates (slaves, citizens, etc.) can’t “handle” freedom. He is doing it becuase the act of submission serves to win the favor of the powerful – it is a display of the character of Jesus in the same way that the church’s submission to Jesus reflects a heart of servanthood. It glorifies God by displaying to the power-broker a new, different way of living that does not resist evil but overcomes evil with good.
Stay with me here. What if Paul is telling women to submit to their husbands not because women can’t handle freedom, but becuase men can’t handle women being free? What if the purpose is not so much for the “good” of the wife (any more than submission in enslavement is for the “good” of a slave), but to act as a display of the gospel to the weaker, tyrranical husband? What if a husband who truly loves his wife (as Paul will encourage in the next paragraph) would never insist on submission? What if submission only becomes applicable or even necessary when the husband, not the wife, is broken?
What if love – true, beautiful erotic love of the sort that can only be experienced in the rare marriage that gets everything right – only becomes possible when the woman is free…free to love and give to the husband because she desires to do so and not because he insists on as much?
And guys – what if the greatest thing we could do for our wives was to completely cut them loose from our expectations? To let them live free of physical, emotional, or “scriptural” restraint? Is that the sort-of relationship which Paul ultimately has in mind? Am I nuts here?