Wanda and I grew up in a culture (church and society, at large) that assumed men were to be in charge.
Men certainly held most, if not all, the positions of highest rank in society. Men were the mayors and principles and corporate heads and police officers and military leaders. A female president? Absolutely unthinkable.
Men were the movers and shakers. Men were the bosses and decision-makers. I was taught that men were created by God with inner strength and clear thinking and emotional stability that women didn’t have. Women were designed by God to nurture and support…to be man’s “helper”, not his leader.
In marriage, a woman’s place was in the home. She needed to keep her husband sexually satisfied…and give him a couple of kids for posterity. Preferably at least one boy. Keep the house clean…make sure food was on the table for her man at the end of his work day…keep the kids washed and fed. The man provided and protected. The woman submitted and served.
Church life was more of the same. The men were the leaders. They met behind closed doors to make important decisions and seek the direction of God. Wives were not invited to those meetings, because they really didn’t have much to offer. And they couldn’t be trusted not to gossip. Men preached. Men taught the adults and youth. Men served communion and offered the priestly prayers.
And don’t even think about inviting a single woman for her leadership input!
Women sang, taught the children and washed the baptismal robes and glass communion cups. Yeah, we had baptismal robes back in the day…
I’m not making this stuff up.
Looking back, it’s pretty much always been a man’s world. In fact, because of the patriarchal structure that has been present since the beginning of history, it’s easy to conclude that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Men had the power. Men had the control. Men were the leaders. Men had the position and influence. And that’s why Jesus was such a revolutionary and why the words of scripture can be misunderstood without even thinking. Check it out:
Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do 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.
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. Ephesians 5:21-25
There are two lenses we use to interpret these words…the lens of culture and the lens of truth. There is no doubt (historically) the Apostle Paul was writing this letter to followers of Christ who were living in a pater familia culture…a culture of male dominance and authority.
So when the first century christians heard these words for the first time, they must have sounded life-changing and life-giving…especially to women:
- We are all to live a lifestyle of submission…not just women.
- Women were now to submit to their husbands as they did to Jesus…the gentle shepherd, not the domineering boss.
- Husbands were to now get their definition of “headship” from a suffering servant, not a military commander.
- Husbands were to exist to serve their wives…never to treat them as a possession or an employee.
- Submission could now be seen as something beautiful, because the husband would never “tell” his wife to do anything…ever again. They would never abuse power, because his power was emptied the way Christ’s was emptied on the cross.
Did these new believers still live in a male-oriented, male-dominated culture? Of course. Were women still abused? Yes. Were women still treated as property? Yes. Were women still considered second-class citizens who existed for the pleasure and service of men? Yes.
But Paul is saying if you are a follower of Christ…if you are a follower of this “new way”, your marriage cannot look like that! You may have to live and work and socialize in a cultural context of male domination, but inside the doors of your home (and within the vows of your marriage covenant) you must not ever act like that!
Over the course of my 63 years, the culture I live in has changed. There are some things I wish we could turn back the clock on, but the role of women in society is not one of them. I am so grateful to live in a world where it’s possible for women to be looked at as equal. I am proud to live in a country that encourages young girls to be anything they want to be!
I know it’s far from perfect. Many men are still rude and obnoxious pigs. Women are still sexualized and abused and mistreated and overpowered by men…and sometimes by each other. There is still a huge gap in the pursuit of equal pay. But there is progress.
It’s even changed in the church. Women who are gifted speakers, teachers, leaders, visionaries and influencers are now living in a culture (both church and society) where the ceiling of service has been lifted. We now see more and more women who are openly following in the footsteps of the female prophets of the old testament, the female disciples of Jesus’ earthly life, and the faithful female church leaders of the first-century church.
These women are no longer secrets.
As for marriage, I am honored to live out my life with my equal. I am beyond grateful that we were taught, as a young couple, to go against the grain of culture and society and live out our marriage biblically. I am humbled to realize I am called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus as the defining picture of what it means to be a husband.
And to be married to someone who expects no less than that from me.