If you start talking about marriage in the Bible, most people are going to pull out Ephesians 5. The Ephesians 5 passage is beautiful and applicable; but it is not the first time marriage is discussed, nor is it the only passage that talks about marriage.
Let’s start at the beginning and work our way through the story. It is the same story that Paul is actually retelling in Ephesians 5- because God is always telling a cohesive story throughout Scripture- but I think we miss that because we rarely look at marriage anywhere else.
Right after God makes woman as man’s “ezer,” He proclaims the story of marriage. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). This is fascinating to me because Adam didn’t have a mother or a father. But Moses wrote this hundreds of years after it happened in a context where all men getting married did have a mother and father. (Do a little digging into patriarchal cultures. Women were just absorbed into their husband’s family.) Instead of a woman losing all that she could be, the man was supposed to leave what he had and hold fast to her.
In one of my recent reads through Deuteronomy, I noticed that the people of Israel were also commanded to hold fast to God. Deuteronomy 30:19-20a says, “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days…” The Hebrew word for “holding fast” is “dabaq” and it means, “to cling, stick, stay close, keep close, follow closely, join to, etc.” You can check it out here. That is the command that is also given to husbands about their wives.
Genesis 2:24 ends with “and they shall become one flesh.” And that unity continues to be the story of marriage in Malachi 2. The men are being rebuked because they are being faithless to their “companion” and “wife by covenant” (Malachi 2:14). Verse 15 goes on to say, “Did he not make them one, with a portion of the Spirit in their union?” Again, the two become one.
I encourage you to go study all of these passages in their context on your own. I cannot possibly cover it all here and I would rather you went and dug into the Word for yourself anyway.
Jesus also spoke of marriage. The Pharisees came to Him, demanding to know if it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife (in that culture women could not file for divorce but men could get a divorce for almost any reason). Jesus answered, “But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’ ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:6-9).
One story of unity without any hint of a hierarchy. Twice the men are being reprimanded and at no point does the Word say, “I know you’re in charge, but you have to be nice.” Some people attempt to claim that God made Adam first so he has the supreme position but Jesus specifically said that “from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female.” Also, God never uses primogeniture or endorses the systems of the world in claiming a hierarchy, but instead repeatedly overturns them (many stories in Genesis, 1 Corinthians 1:26-31).
Then we get to Ephesians. Instead of starting at verse 22, let’s start at verse 18. (Actually, please go read the entire book of Ephesians before you start discussing this marriage passage.) Verse 18 starts out with a command to be filled with the Spirit. Being filled with the Spirit is exhibited in three ways: addressing one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (singing and making melody to the Lord in your heart); giving thanks always and for everything; and submitting one to another out of reverence for Christ.
Submission is a sign of being filled with the Spirit and is for all believers. Blue Letter Bible’s Greek lexicon states the definitions of this word then points out that it arranges “troops in a military fashion under the command of a leader.” It goes on to say that in non-military use it means “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden.” Neither marriage or the Christian life is militant. We are in a battle as believers, but we interact as a body, as a family.
1 Corinthians 16:15-16 also talks about submission, “Now I urge you, brothers (note this also means sisters)— you know that the household of Stephanas were the first converts in Achaia, and that they have devoted themselves to the service of the saints— be subject to such as these, and to every fellow worker and laborer.” (Parenthesis mine) All believers are fellow workers with God (1 Corinthians 3:9) and in Philippians 4:3 Paul specifically mentions two women who have labored side by side with him in the gospel.”
1 Peter 5:5 also urges younger believers to submit to older believers and then admonishes, “Clothe yourself, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’” There is only basic Christian behavior that is toward every other person. 1 Peter 2:17 tells believers (with the same Greek word) to honor everyone and to honor the emperor. There is one standard of Christian behavior; this is strikingly different from the way the world operates both then and now. We live in an upside-down kingdom.
Even in Ephesians 5, the command for wives to submit to their husbands cannot be separated from the command for all believers to submit to one another. In verse 22, the word “submit” isn’t in the Greek. It simply continues, “Wives to your own husbands.” It’s not a command for only wives to submit, just as men aren’t the only ones commanded to love. Please note that verse one of chapter five tells all believers to love as Christ loved and gave himself (compare that to verse 25). Submission in marriage is mutual; just as love is.
So why the separation in that passage? In the Bible God is continually leveling the power structures that exist in the present cultures. We don’t (any longer, at least) use Ephesians 6:5-9 to justify slavery, noting that the the bondservants are given commands and then masters are told to “do the same to them” because there is no partiality with God. Women submitting to men in that culture was not a new thing; that was the least of what was expected of them. But a command for men to love as Jesus did was astonishing. A call for husbands to nourish and cherish their wives and love them as their own flesh (in Ephesians 5) would have been startling and so opposite the culture. Colossians 3:18 actually tells wives to submit “as is fitting in the Lord.” They submit because it’s basic Christian behavior, not because they are inferior or subordinate to their husbands.
Peter actually gives women freedom in 1 Peter 3 (because there is as much freedom in Christ for women as there is for men: Galatians 5:1, 13) to worship God, even if their husbands didn’t. Again, this was unheard of in that culture. He told them not to let their worth be measured by what culture told them was valuable in women but by who they were as people. He told them to be Sarah’s children by doing good and not fearing frightening things. (I have so much more to say about this bit on Sarah but there’s not space. Go read the story of Abraham and Sarah in Genesis though.) Then, husbands are told to honor their wives because they are heirs with them. That word honor is the same Greek word used to refer to honoring elders in 1 Timothy 5:17. Husbands and wives are heirs together, just as Romans 8:17 discusses of all believers.
You will notice that I have not used the word “headship” and that is intentional because it’s not actually in the Bible. Of course, some words, like “trinity,” for example, are not in the Bible and we use them fluidly because they give us a concise explanation of a concept. I choose not to use the word “headship” because doing so actually changes the language that is in the Bible. People also typically slap “headship” on passages that have nothing to do with what this passage actually says.
Ephesians 5 says the husband is the head and everyone knows that part. I usually see it left right there, like the husband is the head of a company. Or people call go on and say (incorrectly) that the husband is the head of the household. But there’s more to the story; we can’t just describe the husband. What’s the wife? The wife is the body. Just as Jesus is the head of the church, the body. The church is described as the body of Christ (go and read 1 Corinthians 11-12 for a lengthy description of this). Colossians 2:18-19 tells believers not to insist on things that prevent you from “holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.” Remember, in the marriage story, the opposite happens: it is the husband (the head) holding fast to the wife (the body).
Flip back over to Ephesians 5- friends, please actually go read these passages for yourselves. There is so much I want to point out but there is again not time or space here. Note that Paul pulls together this passage by repeating that exact same story of marriage that has been in the Bible so far in verse 31. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” A head and a body equals one flesh. Then verse 32 he tells us that he’s explaining part of mystery of Christ and the church. We have what is known of the cohesive Bible story of marriage teaching us about something new. The church is one with Christ. 1 Corinthians 6:17 tells us that we are one spirit with the Lord; we’ve also looked at other references that discuss this head/body unity and there are more.
Of course, marriage portrays the covenant love that Christ has for the church. Our marriages are serious business and not to be taken lightly. Malachi 2:14 says, “she is your companion and your wife by covenant.” God takes covenants very seriously and He always keeps His Word. But wives also display the covenant love of Jesus because, let’s be real, people don’t do this very well. If we hold wives to the standard of the church, we aren’t asking very much of them. However, Ephesians 5:1 tells all believers to “be imitators of God, as beloved children.” Wives also should reflect the faithful, covenant-keeping love of God to their husbands.
Sometimes people insist that this passage means the husband is the leader in the marriage; people I love and respect teach this. But we must acknowledge that changes the story of marriage that is in the Bible so far. Some people try to insist that we only “submit” to leadership but we have shown that’s not true. The Bible never calls for husbands to lead their wives. Of course, we can claim that Jesus is the leader of the church so that’s what this passage means, but the passage actually lists things that Jesus does for the church (saves [verse 23 actually says Christ is himself its Savior], sanctifies, cleanses by the word, presents to himself) that we cannot, with any good theology, claim that husbands do for wives. So why are we making the story something the Bible does not say?
Then we start advocating that a husband holds a trump card in decision-making in marriage (because he’s the leader) when the only passage that discusses decision-making insists that it should be mutual (1 Corinthians 7:1-5). That same passage also goes on to state that the ability of each spouse to make an unbelieving spouse holy is the same. And as we discussed in a previous post, the Bible never says the husband will answer for his wife. Instead, the Word insists that we will each answer for ourselves.
Concerns I have about calling the husband the “spiritual leader” in marriage:
-This is never said in the Bible. Not one time is the husband called to lead his wife. (Please note this is not in a word-for-word translation of the Bible; thought-for-thought translations differ. It is not in the original Greek.)
-There is no Biblical definition of what this means. Everyone who uses this makes up their own description of what they think it means.
-Do we actually believe that all husbands are more spiritually mature than their wives?
-Why did we remove the mutuality of believer to believer relationships once we got to marriage?
-How would the church in Rome, Galatia, Thessalonica, Philippi have known that husbands were supposed to lead their wives or have a superior position? They would not have read the Bible as we have it.
-Why do we believe that Paul is changing the story on marriage that’s already in the Bible? The Bible always tells a cohesive story.
Some people use the word “authority” to describe the husband’s position over/to the wife. The word authority means, “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.” Is that what we mean? Surely not, at least in most cases. We should stop saying things we don’t mean. That is not the Bible story of marriage.
Let’s camp out for a moment on the Old Testament law that some teachers use to insist that men were in charge of their wives. Numbers 30 talks about men and vows and women and vows. The instructions for wives and younger women in her father’s house allow for the husband or father to make void her vow and she was no longer responsible to God for the vow. In that culture, if a wife/daughter at home wanted to do something that her husband/father opposed, he could have her killed or kill her for that. We should consider that God is preventing a woman from making a vow to God and being forced to choose between breaking her vow to God or having her husband/father kill her. Again, let’s at look at the possibility that God is caring for women and not subordinating them.
Regardless of where we fall on this issue, we must grapple with the implications of our theology. What happens when we live this out? What clarifications do we find people making over and over when they teach from a certain position? Do our beliefs work out badly for the same group of people over and over? Do we actually live out what we say we believe? We must do the work to be able to answer the questions that our position leaves.
I understand this may have been challenging to read. But camp out in these Scriptures. Wrestle with the questions. Talk it through with friends who know and love the Bible.
God is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He’s not changing up how He wants things done (not even between the law and now) or how He expects us to interact with one another. There is one standard of behavior for believers and it’s Jesus. That even applies in marriage.