Men are Not Lords over Women – overcoming the unbiblical savior complex

A recent commenter on this blog relied on this passage for the lordship of husbands over wives:

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. (Ephesians 5:22-24.)

There are a number of good resources for understanding this passage correctly, such as Marg Mowczko’s Ephesians 5:22-33, in a Nutshell and Patrick Franklin’s Ephesians 5:21-33: How Paul Turns Headship on Its Head, but let’s take the commenter at his word and look at what this passage would then mean for him.

Don’t stop halfway – continue on to being a savior, men!

The commenter – as do many others who read the passage superficially – insists wives are to submit to husbands, so it’s worth looking at what the next part of that passage says about a husband’s responsibility to a wife. By the commenter’s reasoning, verses 22 to 24 mean a wife’s role is to submit to her husband as the church does to Christ, that is, since Christ is Lord over the church in all things so the husband is lord over the wife in all things.

The husband’s role isn’t limited to lordship, though, if that commenter is being intellectually honest about verses 25 to 27.

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. (Ephesians 5:25-27.)

As those verses put it, the husband is to give himself up for his wife just as Christ did the church. Here is how Christ carried that out:

While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8.)

The lordship commenter now needs to decide if he is ready to carry this out. Is he ready to die to save his wife in that very moment his wife is in rebellion against him and his lordship? And is he ready to do it in the most unglamourous, humiliating, and debasing manner possible, just as Jesus did for his people?

It doesn’t end there. Verses 25-27 also say that this is all tied in to the salvation Christ brings. So the lordship husband is not only ready to die a humiliating and perhaps unappreciated death for his wife, but also responsible for her salvation into holiness. If the lordship husband requires his wife to submit because his relationship to her is like Jesus’ relationship to the church, then he needs to go all the way in being Christ to his wife.

This turns the husband into a savior. That’s blasphemy.

Reading the Bible like an Ephesian

The Ephesians never would have read the passage the way. It’s not only because they would have been reading it correctly: as a passage using marriage to illustrate something greater rather it being a passage using the church and Christ as an illustration to govern something lesser. It’s also because they would have just read these earlier words from Paul in the same letter:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:4-6.)

Wives – just like husbands and single women and single men and children and widows and widowers – have one hope, and it’s not in their husbands being their personal savior. It’s in the One Savior.

Jude honed in on this when he wrote:

To him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy – to the only God our Savior be glory, majesty, power and authority, through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and forevermore! Amen. (Jude 24-25.)

It is Christ – and Christ alone – who is our Lord and Savior who died for us all and presents us holy and without fault.

Which means that reading verses 25-27 as putting this responsibility on the husband is nonsense. And by the same rules of reading, it also means that using verses 22-24 to put on the wife a responsibility to be submissive to her husband because the church is submissive to Christ is nonsense too.*

But the next time someone tells you wives have to submit to their husbands because that’s what the church is supposed to do for Jesus, ask them if the husband is ready to do everything – every single thing – for his wife that Jesus did for his people. If not, the inconsistency is clear. If so, the blasphemy is clear.

Let’s all just submit to one another as Paul intended to advise. After all, that’s what he said in leading off the passage that extended not only to married couples, but also to parents and children and slaves and slave-owners.

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. (Ephesians 5:21.)

That’s the way to relate to one another.

***

*How to read the passage as the Ephesians would have read it? That is a whole other blog post, and happily it has already been written by Marg Mowczko in Paul’s Main Point in Ephesians 5:22-33 where she explains the chiastic structure of the passage and how it would have been apparent to the original readers.

***

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59 Responses to Men are Not Lords over Women – overcoming the unbiblical savior complex

  1. Christian-in-rehab says:

    I’ve always wondered why churches that insist so much on “wifely submission” rarely if ever preach about a husband’s sacrificial love. The last time I summoned courage to ask about this, I was dismissed with a wave of hand and a “let’s concentrate on the women for now”.
    The guilt trip this message generates makes me so sick.
    That attitude is what made me realize the truth that teachings like these seek to achieve–control.

    • Tim says:

      They do seem to focus almost exclusively on women obeying men and not men dying for women. Of course, I think both focuses are wrong, since those are not what the passage is about anyway.

      • Ben says:

        Who are ‘They’?

        My Church experience is exactly the opposite. At my church we men are rightly bashed with this hard and right Biblical challenge regularly.

        Just because some churches/men have abused and only half taught this passage doesn’t mean all complimentarian churches do. I feel rightly understood this passage is much stronger in it’s challenge to the men. And rightly so.

        • Terri says:

          Ben, it’s because no matter how hard a man may work at being a good husband, it is literally impossible for him to be Christ. Men aren’t Christ. The kind of submission they demand from their wives–the kind that should only rightly be given to Christ–they demand, but in return they are unable to be Christ and thus fulfill the other side of the equation.

          This is Tim’s point. Men are requiring women to fulfill their half of a bargain that husbands can *never* fulfill their half of, and in doing so, they are committing sacrilege against the only One who is holy enough to command that kind of submission from human beings.

        • Tim says:

          Thank you, Terri, that is precisely my point.

    • Ben says:

      My chirch expewience is exactly the opposite. At my cgurch we men are rightly bashed with this hard and right Biblical challenge regularly.

      Just because some churches/men have abused and only half taught this passage doesnt mean all complimentarian churches do. I feel rightly understood this passage is much stronger in iys challenge to the men. And rightly so.

      • Marg says:

        Husbands are “bashed with this hard and right biblical challenge”? People are “bashed” into loving?!

        I don’t hear any bashing here; I hear love: “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children; and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma” (Eph. 5:1-2).

        And here: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34).

        And surely wives as well as husbands are supposed to love their spouse. Love is not tied to gender. The instructions given to husbands in Ephesians 5 are prefaced with a call to all, both men and women, to love sacrificially as Christ loves, and prefaced with a call for all, both men and women, to be submissive.

        Love comes from knowing God and following Jesus (John 4:19). That’s the love I want.

        • Tim says:

          But Marg, it’s God’s bashing that leads to repentance, right? Isn’t that what Paul told the church in Rome?

          But seriously, if any Bible teacher told me they had a word from the Lord to bash me with I’d tell them that in Christian there is no bashing. He calls us friends, not punching bags.

      • Christian-in-rehab says:

        As Tim rightly said, both approaches miss the point of the text. I am wont to agree with him on this.

  2. Christian-in-rehab says:

    Reblogged this on CHRISTIAN IN REHAB.

  3. Angie says:

    It sounds as if the commenter is trotting typical complementarian teaching: the husband sanctifies the wife, presents her to Jesus, is in effect a functional savior for his wife. Of course, some talk about being willing to die, you know, in a fictional anecdotal way–getting robbed on a walk home or the knock on the door in the middle of the night which is the husband’s duty, but good catch on the lack of emphasis of dying in a brutal, humiliating Christ-like way.

    • Tim says:

      If they ever actually teach such husbandly sacrifice it would have to be for the purpose of sanctifying their wives in order to track with their logic, and that’s blasphemy.

    • Lea says:

      “Of course, some talk about being willing to die, you know, in a fictional anecdotal way”

      It does seem awfully *easy* to offhandedly throw out that a man will die for his wife, and yet they don’t seem to think maybe not treating her like a servant would be a more practical application. Plus all the passages about loving her, and what love means, and not being harsh, etc…Focus on that stuff would help a lot.

  4. Laura Droege says:

    I don’t have anything substantial to say in this comment, but I did go back and browse the comments section from that old post. Have to say, some people must have lots of time on their hands to write such looooong comments! My eyes glazed over after a certain point.

    • Tim says:

      I’m not sure how that commenter came to that older post just last week, but his points fall short of getting at the meaning of the passage.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

      Also noticed the guy pulled “I HAVE A VERSE! I HAVE A VERSE! SCRIPTURE! SCRIPTURE! SCRIPTURE!” with near every paragraph of those marathon comments.

      What does that tell you?

      • Lea says:

        IDK, but anyone hyper focused on how people should ‘obey’ him (and I saw your response to the latest Tim, thanks) is a person that can not be trusted with such a thing in a million years. Or at least, that’s my opinion. Not that I have any attention of obeying anyone but a crossing guard.

  5. Donna says:

    What I notice in complementarian teaching regarding Eph. 5:22-24 is the contiued emphasis of the husband to be some sort of “holy-spirit jr.,” in the lives of their wives and family. Not only are men to be lords but now as a well known comp pastor said; “a god over their family”. Have these complementarian men forgotten the role of the true Holy Spirit that He is quite able to work in women sanctification and holiness without any husband’s help? I have met and spoken to several complementarian men before and all emphatically believe they are qualified to lead their wives to holiness as Christ does the church. I heard a pastor at a complementarian church I addended one summer go so far to say to the men in the congegation they will have to stand before Jesus and give an account how well they brought their wife under submission, training them in holiness because it’s the husband’s responsibility to present their wives as blamless without spot or wrinkle to God as Christ does the Church. What that pastor said was so wrong as no human being can do what only the Holy Spirit is capable of doing in a person’s life. I thank God I left that church!

    • Tim says:

      The way you heard it makes it sound like the Holy Spirit somehow deputizes husbands for the sanctification of wives. Where does that leave unmarried women – unsanctified? Sheesh, their logic on Scripture has holes large enough to drive a truck through.

      • Donna says:

        I completely agree! Frightening isn’t it? I have know idea where that leaves the unmarried woman. I’m so glad you have a webpage that address this, as people need to know what is going on in some churches.

  6. Loved this line, Tim: that the correct reading of these verses sees it “as a passage using marriage to illustrate something greater rather it being a passage using the church and Christ as an illustration to govern something lesser.” That makes so much sense: the analogy causes us to look upward, not downward. Really helpful.

  7. Terri says:

    Arguing the theology typically isn’t helpful (I do it for the silent readers) because it’s not about the theology. It’s about power, at bottom. The theology seems to develop to sustain the desire for power, not the other way around.

    • Tim says:

      I’ve thought the same, Terri. It’s easier to read this passage superficially and either grab power or cede power. The real work is in doing what it says about mutually submitting in all relationships.

      • Elizabeth says:

        Tim…. if the intent of the whole passage is to encourage us to mutual submission, why did Paul feel he needed emphasize the “wives submit” idea? As much as I believe that we are to submit to one another as it says earlier in the passage…. I can’t seem to grasp why Paul felt he needed to hone in on the wife submit idea, except that that is exactly what he meant… I’m having such a hard time grasping this.

        My old-school, man-is-boss husband and I are in counseling, and I believe we have a complementarian pastor working with us, and somehow, I always feel like something is missing. Progress is very slow. It’s been a year. It’s all so so hard to understand.

        • Tim says:

          He didn’t emphasize with the words “wives submit”. The word submit isn’t found in Paul’s writing of verse 22, only in the mutual submission of very 21. Read the passages I linked in the post got handy guides on how the passage would have looked to the original readers in Ephesus. Teg would not have seen any submission emphasis got wives because Paul never wrote any. Not at all.

        • Terri says:

          Elizabeth, I hope it’s OK if I jump in here too. Here’s a funny thing that happens when you study the Bible on marriage: You notice that the Bible contains a number of passages addressed specifically to husbands, and a number of passages addressed to wives.

          And you begin to wake up because you notice that somehow, power-hungry human beings have created an entire theology out of something that–get this–never appears in the Bible. You can look up and read every single passage in the Bible that is addressed to husbands, and you’ll never once see a command (or even an allowing) to husbands to direct, lead, boss, head up, make decision for, or otherwise run their wives’ lives.

          You won’t see it because it’s not there.

          Men who are more interested in power than in following the humble Jesus have taken two verses mentioning wifely submission and have come up with this theology out of them, based on NO SUCH THING ever said to husbands in the Bible.

          If male headship over wives is such a biblical theology, why does it never appear as any part of God’s commands to husbands? God tells husbands to do things like nourish, cherish, respect, love, sacrifice for, care for, and be faithful to their wives. THAT’S how the Bible says husbands are supposed to treat wives.

          Now these submission verses: Tim has provided plenty of food for thought at the links he provided, so I won’t rehash everything.

          I’ll leave you with this thought: A man who is focused on his “husbandly authority” is already unfit to exercise such by his very focus on it. A man who is trying to be a righteous and godly husband is not focused on how best to have and maintain power over his wife. He’s focused on being unselfish, humble, sacrificial, cherishing, and kind as a husband. Now that’s the biblical husbandly role.

        • Terri says:

          One other thing (I hope these comments appear in order)–Paul was incredibly focused on the husband’s role, not the wife’s, because all he had to say to wives of that time was “Keep on doing what all your laws and social customs obligate you to do anyway.”

          But to husbands he gave longer advice, and far more revolutionary for the time: That they also submit themselves to their wives, love them, and be humble toward them. This was countercultural, to say the least. Far from emphasizing wifely submission, Paul placed far more emphasis on husbands changing their “boss” husband role to one of love and sacrifice.

          As Tim has noted before, Ephesians 5:21 (“Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”) isn’t a popular verse with some people because it requires mutual submission–and believers cannot avoid the fact that this applies to marriage, because Paul immediately spells out more about how mutually submissive marriages are to work in his very hierarchical society.

          The word “submit,” as Tim notes, doesn’t even appear in Ephesians 5:22 as it was originally written–because the verses on marriage that followed v. 21 were simply fuller descriptions of how mutual submission between believers was to work in marriage. Paul’s descriptions ask wives of that time only to do what they’re already doing–but Paul asks husbands to radically change their authority model of marriage to one of love and sacrifice. That’s where most of Paul’s emphasis is, not on wifely submission.

    • Elizabeth says:

      Terri, I appreciated your input a lot…. how can we connect for a tad more discussion off post, please?

      • Terri says:

        Good idea. Hey Tim, can you hook us up via our emails? It’s such an interesting subject and one worthy of continued study and discussion.

  8. yael58 says:

    If that blogger or any husband is unwilling to sacrifice his ego (and he appears to have an enormous amount of ego), there’s no reason to believe he’d sacrifice his life on his wife’s behalf.

    • Tim says:

      What I wonder is whether he eould if he knew ahead of time that she would be ungrateful, always be ungrateful, and would eternally refuse to accept his sacrifice for her.

  9. esbee says:

    I have found some well-meaning blogs written by christian men and women that tell us what it says in the bible that is the unchanging, unquestionable will of God for women and cannot be deviated from—(woe upon them in the form of plagues, etc) and that we as Christian women are to submit so that our Christian husbands will become the men they are supposed to be: that a strong, decisive leader only results if and when the wifes takes a back seat, holds her tongue, asks for permission, is a tidy, neat homemaker, is quiet and willing at all times and of course, submissive in all ways and that this can take years and years as long as the wife patiently follows those guidelines.
    This leads me to these questions—
    1. Are Christian men so weak and feeble minded that any hint of a strong-willed, independent thinking wife (translated as bitchy, overbearing and unsubmissive) prevents them from reaching their full potential as a Christian leader?
    2. How come the military can take a lazy, irresponsible, incompetent slob of a man— put him in boot camp where a loud, abusive sergeant rides his butt 24-7, ready to punish at a whim with loads of physically punishing training that makes them into responsible strong hard working men in only 8 weeks (and can do laundry, make the bed and showers every day) ???????????????

  10. Ben says:

    Yes and Yes. As a husband I AM called to sacrifice myself for my wife in everything. The husband as head means he will sacrifice hinself to build up and beautify his wife in her faith. Biblical Lordship is always about being the servant.

    Men should read it all the way and apply it equally. This passage is hard for modern women yes. But it also blows modern men out of the water too!

    • Tim says:

      I can say that my wife’s leadership has also beautified me probably more than mine has hers, and all really because it’s the Holy Spirit doing all the work in and through God’s women and men.

  11. Pingback: Men are Not Lords over Women – Tim Fall’s blog – GBFSV SPIRITUAL ABUSE VICTIMS' RECOVERY

  12. Marg says:

    Thanks for the links, Tim.
    And thanks for coining “the savior complex”. It’s apt and I’m adding the term to my vocab.

  13. hatrack4 says:

    Congratulations! Your blog is awesome and I have nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award. Follow this link to learn more: https://hatrackley.com/2017/09/12/versatile-blogger-award/

  14. Laura Droege says:

    Here’s yet another random thought I had: what would you consider to be the strongest argument in FAVOR of complementarian theology? I’ve been reading a little about logic, arguing, etc., and came across the idea that we should know our opponent’s argument and be able to defend our side against ALL their arguments, both strong ones and weak ones. It’s easy to pick apart weak arguments! So I wondered what you or others thought might be a strong argument for complementarian theology.

    (I plan to ask some of the leaders at my church, too, as they’re mostly comp folks. Not patriarchal, BTW. These are men who simply can’t read Scripture from the egal point of view, even though they’d prefer to do so! I’m going to ask, first, what they consider to be their strongest argument, and then ask what they think the egalitarian’s side’s strongest argument is.)

    • Tim says:

      I’ve read their arguments for years but the more I scrutinize them the less I can say they are strong.

      • Laura Droege says:

        I haven’t found any great arguments for that side, either, but like I told Terri, it’s been impossible for me to separate the arguments from the people. As I grew up in comp. churches and in the south, where this far outweighs egalitarian theology, I have a history with some unpleasant people on that side and I didn’t know if that had blinded me to any strong points in its favor. I simply didn’t know if others, especially those who lived elsewhere, had different perspectives.

    • Terri says:

      Those of us who grew up in patriarchal/complementarian environments know all the arguments inside out. There’s good (scriptural) reason why we no longer hold those beliefs. They have arguments, but the strength of those arguments is in the strength of people’s determination to have power/maintain a system, not in the arguments themselves. (Couldn’t leave it without saying that! Sorry to butt in.)

      • esbee says:

        and there is very good evidence why patriarchy does not work–a string of mentally battered women (and children) worn out with continous child bearing, homeschooling, home making, severe punishments for both wife and children for any failures, perceived or real, making do on meager funds because only the man works and then when they wake up from the bondage they are in, they are further brow beaten by the congregation for disobedience to god, husband and the whole universe. they often become atheist just to give their minds and hearts a rest from all the legalist burden they were never meant to carry. their stories can be read on patheos, recovering grace and other similar blogs.

      • Laura Droege says:

        For me, trying to analyze their arguments has been difficult because it’s almost impossible to separate the argument from the person. And if I dislike the person, perhaps because they argue with a hostile tone or don’t care about the effect of their words on others, then my personal dislike/revulsion overwhelms anything about the argument. That goes for things outside of the comp/egal discussions, including more neutral things (like trying to read a novel by an author I don’t like!)

        • Terri says:

          I admire your pushing yourself. That takes determination, to know one’s own biases and pursue what might or might not agree with them. It’s valuable and rare. Three cheers.

        • Laura Droege says:

          Thanks, Terri. I know that people who have been terribly hurt by certain rhetorics (such as patriarchy) can’t necessarily do this. I certainly wouldn’t expect everyone to push themselves this way. But I have the luxury of trying to analyze offensive things. I really want to understand other people’s points of view. It helps me to grow as a novelist, too. Never know when I might need to have a patriarchal villain. 🙂

        • Terri says:

          (replying to Laura here in this subthread) You’re right about that. I wasn’t thinking. It is a luxury to be able to do it. I grew up in that system, but I have also had the luxury of counseling and a couple of supportive ears over the years. Not everyone has the resources (inner or outer!) to interrogate themselves in this way after having basically been interrogated on their lesser existence their whole lives.

          Thanks for saying that.

        • Laura Droege says:

          I’m thankful that you’ve gotten the counseling and support that you needed. I know I’ve needed help in certain areas (not this one) and having fellow Christians listen, support, and comfort me is always a terrific thing. Points others to Jesus. 🙂 Blessings.

    • Lea says:

      Some of this depends on whether you are talking views of marriage, women and men in general or the church.

      I think the best AND worst argument is that ‘if men are doing everything correctly this can work’.

      Best, because correctly involves husbands loving their wives to the point of sacrifice, respecting, treating them with kindness, not being self seeking and respect and all of that good stuff. Then they never do things like telling their wives what to do, abusing them, treating them like children, etc.

      Worst, because what about literally every other marriage? I think the weakest part of their argument is that they have NO answer when things go wrong. Except pray. Talk to elders. Be more submissive even though it isn’t working.

      I don’t like Comp theology, but I think if husbands are truly loving and treat their wives well it can work sort of ok. But it’s not best and this tends to look a lot more like an egalitarian marriage I think.

      • Laura Droege says:

        I’ve heard that argument, too, and have noticed that it looks more egalitarian than true complementarian. Ironic. BTW, most of the complementarian leaders that I personally know are aghast at how the theology can be twisted: e.g., telling abused wives they must stay with their abusers, etc. And they are open in saying so and back up their words with actions. Sometimes I look at them and think, you’re closer to being egalitarian than you realize!

      • Terri says:

        Good points here. I know a couple of really strong complementarian marriages, but realized that the reason they’re so strong is because they’re egalitarian in practice (while still talking the complementarian talk, they’re walking the egalitarian walk).

        When I hear people say, “Well, if the husband does his job right, complementarianism is wonderful,” then Lea’s observation is spot on: If the husband actually does what the Bible tells him to do (cherish, sacrifice, love, treat as himself, honor, etc.), then there aren’t any power issues in the marriage anyway. They’re egalitarian by definition. A husband following the biblical instructions would never assert power over his wife by fiat over her disagreement.

        Even in our relationship with God, human beings have free will and can’t be coerced–God doesn’t coerce. Husbands who treat their wives differently aren’t being “biblical,” they’re acting as if they have more right to power over another human being than even God takes. And if a husband always approaches his wife with love and humility and kindness, then all of these human systems and terms are irrelevant–they are one flesh. Now *that’s* biblical.

        • Laura Droege says:

          Great point, Terri. That’s one thing I hadn’t thought about: God doesn’t “force” us to act a certain way. Humans who try to control other humans are being unChristlike and wrong. We should always treat others with love, humility, and kindness, not attempt to gain power by manipulation or brute force in order to promote ourselves as “god” over the true God.

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