A Commentary by John Stott
Ephesians 5:22-24 2). The duty of wives (continued).
There is little doubt what ‘submission’ meant in the ancient world in which disdain for women was almost universal. William Barclay sums it up: ‘The Jews had a low view of women. In the Jewish form of morning prayer there was a sentence in which a Jewish man every morning gave thanks that God had not made him “a Gentile, a slave or a woman”… In Jewish law a woman was not a person, but a thing. She had no legal rights whatsoever; she was absolutely in her husband’s possession to do with as he willed… The position was worse in the Greek world… The whole Greek way of life made companionship between man and wife next to impossible. The Greek expected his wife to run his home, to care for his legitimate children, but he found his pleasure and his companionship elsewhere… In Greece, home and family life were near to being extinct, and fidelity was completely non-existent …In Rome in Paul’s day the matter was still worse…The degeneracy of Rome was tragic…It is not too much to say that the whole atmosphere of the ancient world was adulterous…The marriage bond was on the way to complete breakdown.’ Charles Seltman confirms this. In the Roman Empire, he writes, ‘A girl was completely under her father’s, a wife completely under her husband’s, power. She was his chattel…Her life was one of legal incapacity which amounted to enslavement, while her status was described as ‘imbecilitas’, whence our word.’ True, this was not the whole picture. Markus Barth tries to redeem the balance: ‘There was also a counter-movement which promoted equal rights for females’, while ‘different periods and different geographical areas produced different views’. As for Ephesus and its environment, ‘The cult of the Great Mother and the Artemis Temple stamped this city more than others as a bastion and bulwark of women’s rights.’ Nevertheless, the oppression of women prevailed in the ancient world, and their emancipation had scarcely begun. It is against this dark background that Paul’s teaching shines with such a bright light. Yet we will still have to ask precisely what is meant by ‘headship’ and ‘submission’.
To begin with, these words do not by themselves establish stereotypes of masculine and feminine behaviour. Different cultures assign different tasks to men and women, husbands and wives. In the West, for example, it has long been conventional for the wife to do the shopping, cooking and cleaning, together with the feeding, bathing, nappy-changing and minding of babies. In many parts of Africa and Asia the women also work in the fields and carry heavy loads on their heads. Nowadays, however, and rightly, these conventions are recognized as cultural and are therefore being challenged and in some cases changed. Many couples are learning to share the household chores.
In order to understand the nature of the husband’s headship in the new society which God has inaugurated we need to look at Jesus Christ. For Jesus Christ is the context in which Paul uses and develops the words ‘headship’ and ‘submission’. Although he grounds the fact of the husbands headship in creation, he defines it in relation to the headship of Christ the redeemer: *for the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its saviour* (verse 23). Now Christ’s headship of his church has already been described in 4:15-16. It is from Christ as head that the body derives its health and grows into maturity. His headship expresses care rather than control, responsibility rather than rule. This truth is endorsed by the surprising addition of the words *and is himself its saviour*. The head of the body is the saviour of the body; the characteristic of his headship is not so much lordship as saviourhood.
If the husband’s headship of the wife resembles Christ’s of his church, then the wife’s submission will resemble the church’s: *As the church is subject to Christ, so let wives also be subject in everything to their husbands* (verse 24). There is nothing demeaning about this, for her submission is not to be an unthinking obedience to his rule but rather a grateful acceptance of his care. To quote Markus Barth again: ‘The submission to, and respect for the husband, to which the wife is specifically admonished…is by no means the submissiveness of a pussycat or a crouching dog…Paul…is thinking of a voluntary, free, joyful and thankful partnership, as the analogy of the relationship of the church to Christ shows.’ Whenever the husband’s headship mirrors the headship of Christ, then the wife’s submission to the protection and provision of his love, far from detracting from her womanhood, will positively enrich it.
Tomorrow: Ephesians 5:25-33. 3). The duty of husbands.