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Homosexuality, marriage, and why I don’t think Paul teaches mutual submission

There’s an interesting exchange between the contributors to Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible and the Church (ed. Preston Sprinkle) over how close the modern ideal of Christian marriage conforms to the biblical pattern of marriage. The underlying question is whether we have a closed and fixed or an open and evolving idea of “Christian” marriage. If the latter, then there is some scope, as Megan DeFranza argues, for extending “marriage” to include comparable same-sex commitments.

DeFranza thinks that we have already changed marriage by shifting over time from a patriarchal biblical model to an egalitarian model. So where’s the harm in changing again to accommodate gay marriage?

‘It is only very recently,’ she says, ‘that Christians have been shifting their interpretation of Eph 5 so that the call to “mutual submission” in verse 21… is read to support egalitarian human marriage, while the ancient vision of patriarchal marriage remains an analogy for Christ and the church” (101 n. 66).

Wesley Hill responds that Paul already subverts or deconstructs patriarchal marriage, notably in Ephesians 5:21, where he requires husbands and wives to submit to one another before he instructs wives specifically to submit to their husbands, as to the Lord. He quotes Richard Bauckham: Paul “attempts to transform relationships of dominance and subordination into relations of mutual subordination” (111-12). So, no, marriage hasn’t already changed and should be left alone.

I simply don’t think Paul ever meant to suggest that there should be mutual submission between husband and wife.

In her response DeFranza accepts the standard egalitarian reading of verse 21 but insists, nevertheless, that Ephesians “does not offer us an ideal model of marriage that is also egalitarian” (121).

I think DeFranza is nearer the mark than Hill on this matter, though possibly for different reasons: I simply don’t think Paul ever meant to suggest that there should be mutual submission between husband and wife.

The requirement to submit “to one another” is addressed to the whole church, not just to husbands and wives. The participle “submitting” is coordinate with the preceding participles “speaking” and “giving thanks” (19-20). Grammatically the submission of wives to their husbands is dependent on “submitting to one another” (there is no verb in verse 22), but the household code includes instructions for children and parents, slaves and masters, which presumably also come under the “submitting to one another” heading. It seems highly unlikely that Paul would have enjoined mutual submission in both these sets of relationships. Fathers were not expected to submit to or obey their children. Masters were not expected to submit to or obey their slaves.

As an exhortation to the whole church “submit to one another” need not carry the thought of direct reciprocal submission. It simply means within the community. For example, Paul urges the Galatians not to use their freedom “as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love [to] serve one another (allēlois)” (Gal. 5:13). When the town clerk in Ephesus says that Demetrius and the craftsmen should “bring charges against one another (allēlois)”, he does not mean that they should present mutual accusations. There is an implicit direction—one group brings charges against another.

We have a good point of comparison in 1 Peter 5:5: “Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another (allēlois)” (1 Pet. 5:5). Peter has exhorted the elders not to be domineering shepherds (5:1-4), but the order of submission between the elders and the younger members of the congregation remains in place. Even if “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another” is to be understood reciprocally, between the young and old in the community, it does not subvert or deconstruct the basic hierarchy.

There is no suggestion of mutuality in the parallel—and more certainly Pauline—passage at Colossians 3:18-4:1.

Wives are told to submit “to their own men” (tois idiois andrasin). This is not just an instance of mutual submission. It looks like a specific corrective: the “headship”—that is social prominence or status, not the authority—of the husband should still be respected in these dangerously egalitarian or libertarian communities.

Husbands are told to love their wives precisely because they do not have to submit to their wives.

Mutual submission makes nonsense of the analogy between the husband-wife relationship and the Christ-church relationship. As DeFranza says: “No matter how much Jesus humbled himself, the humiliation of the Messiah was temporary; Christ is not mutually submissive to his bride” (121).

For these reasons, it seems to me that “submitting to one another” means “submitting to one another within the various implicit structures of the ancient household”—wives to husbands, children to parents, slaves to masters.

This submission is of a radically different nature because it is “out of reverence for Christ… as to the Lord… as you would Christ… as servants of Christ”. And by the same token the dominant partners in these relationships should should exercise their “power” in a Christlike fashion. The relationships that constitute the patriarchal household are revised or reoriented “in the Lord”, but they remain unequal, patriarchal relationships.

I think DeFranza is right: there is no ideal of Christian marriage here in absolute terms, only an ideal of Christian marriage under the particular conditions of antiquity. Whether that permits the further redefinition of marriage to include same-sex relationships, as DeFranza argues, is to me unclear. But it does push us to ask: what is the ideal of Christian marriage under the particular conditions of post-Christian modernity?

Image of Two Views on Homosexuality, the Bible, and the Church (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology)

On Amazon (US):

Zondervan (2016), Paperback, 240 pages, $16.99
Image of Speaking of Women: Interpreting Paul

On Amazon (US):

Andrew Perriman
Apollos (1998), Paperback, 224 pages,


‘…Husbands are told to love their wives precisely because they do not have to submit to their wives…’ A crucial point, and one that undermines without need of further argument the idea of mutual submission. Husband-love is the counterweight to wife-submission. So far, so good.
However, ‘…only an ideal of Christian marriage under the particular conditions of antiquity…’ Hmm. Are you suggesting that Christ’s love for the church applies only under the particular conditions of antiquity? It is not easy–if even possible–to disentangle the historically and narrativally (?) conditioned arguments from the permanent and abiding.

Are you suggesting that Christ’s love for the church applies only under the particular conditions of antiquity?

No. The point would be that this particular application of the analogy only really works under the cultural conditions of antiquity. We can still use the ancient patriarchal model to teach us something about the relationship between Christ and the church—for example, that the church should submit to Christ. But it’s harder today to turn it round and argue from the analogy that the wife should submit to the husband because, with the best will in the world, we cannot—even the complementarians among—think ourselves back into the ancient worldview.

There may be other aspects to the analogy that work better today, though I’m not sure what they would be, off the top if my head. Or we may revert to the Old Testament idea that God is husband to his chosen people. I don’t myself think that we are duty bound to preserve the christological analogy as a matter of absolute sacramental significance. It’s just an analogy, isn’t it?

I’m curious: if the call to submission applies only to women and not men, then does the call to love apply only to men and not women?

The difference arises, I think, Michelle, because Paul takes it for granted that these households were patriarchal and hierarchal. There was no question that women would have to play the subordinate role, the men the dominant role.

Paul may or may not have thought that this situation was unjust, but his concern is the pragmatic one of ensuring that both husband and wife performed their given social roles as Christians and not as pagans.

So the socially subordinate wife does not submit resentfully but as to the Lord, and the socially powerful husband does not domineer over his wife but loves her sacrificially. Perhaps in the background are tensions that had arisen ( as seems to have happened in Corinth) as a result of the new-found freedom that women had in Christ.

In the modern world the playing field has been largely levelled out, so we would not expect to see this discrepancy.

By submitting to her husband demonstrates that his wife loves him.
Furthermore, Paul specifically commanded wives to love their husbands (cf. Titus 2:4).

Notice also that Paul taught that a Christian wife is to “fear” (phobētai) her husband in Ephesians 5:33. A husband is never commanded to do this in regards to his wife. Furthermore, Peter taught the Christian wife is to view her husband as her kyrios (1 Peter 3:6).