LOVING MUTUALITY AS GOD’S PLAN FOR CHRISTIAN MARRIAGE
LOVING MUTUALITY AS GOD’S PLAN FOR CHRISTIAN MARRIAGE
The Study Commission on Doctrine Free Methodist Church-USA 2021
Free Methodists celebrate God’s original creation of humans in the divine image. Bearing the Divine Image, among the many particulars we might note, characterizes humanity as male and female, and does so especially when together they fulfill their vocation as co-stewards and governors of the creation (see Gen. 1: 26-31, and the note that “it is not good for the human to be alone,” in 2:18). Both accounts of Creation stress the mutual, collaborative nature of the original human vocation.
Subsequently, the humans disobey the Lord and bring upon themselves and their world multiple forms of disorder and distortion (Gen. 3). Rather than blessing, the world experiences curse; and instead of ruling together over the world, the man and woman suffer brokenness in their relationship. Now, she will desire the man, but the man will rule over her (Gen. 3:16). This hierarchical pattern characterizes human history from that point on and manifests the consequences of human sin. The impact of this altered or broken relationship for women has been bleak. Men take multiple wives. Women are objectified and valued for their ability to produce children and to provide sexual pleasure. As objects, girls are less desirable than boys, except as dowry for the household. As objects, girls are promised and given in marriage to expand the family’s social capital. And, as objects, girls and women are raped as a means of humiliating the enemy and taken as part of the spoils claimed by victors.
Both the disordering of humanity into such hierarchies and its brutal consequences reflect the more general distortion and brokenness of the human beings God intended from the beginning. And both are remedied in the salvation God provides through Jesus. In Christ, men and women participate together in the new creation that his death and resurrection have begun (2 Cor. 5:17). When they are married in Christ, the man and the woman are one and are to live as co- heirs of the grace of life (Gal. 3:28; 1 Pet. 3:7).
While most Christians agree that men and women participate in the new creation, and are made one in the Body of Christ, many still note that Paul seems to teach a form of hierarchy in Ephesians and Colossians. In those passages, for example, he calls husbands “the head” (Eph. 5:23) and commands wives to “submit” (Eph. 5:22; Col. 3:18). Which, they maintain, reflects a model of marriage that functions in hierarchical ways. Thus, some conclude that although women and men are equal in value and standing before God, they have specific and subordinate roles in their function within the home and church.
We disagree with this view on the following bases:
- The clear intentions of God in creation for mutual and shared responsibility for humans, for both male and female;
- The surprising and notable appearance and roles played by women throughout the Old Testament story;
- The full salvation Jesus has provided for the world and all people in it;
- The value and prominence of women in the ministry of Jesus, including the counter-cultural place he gave them alongside his male disciples, culminating in women first proclaiming the reality of the resurrection;
- The roles women played in the life of the early church, which mirror those of men; and
- The way the gospel brought change to the first century world, which is through the subversion of those practices and assumptions that contradicted the reorientation required by the Kingdom of God.
When Paul instructs on Christian marriage this latter point—that of subversion—is front and center. He assumes the model used throughout the ancient world for organizing social groups—the home, society more generally, and political structures. We want to summarize that model and how the NT writers (Paul and Peter) use it, and then note specifically what Paul says about the husband’s responsibility as “head” in Ephesians, which reflects the same language and teaching found in Colossians and, more generally, in 1 Peter. All of this will demonstrate the loving mutuality God intends within marriage.
The Model Assumed
“Everything and everyone in the proper place.” That could serve as a motto for ancient societies as they outlined key social relationships. Scholars call these outlines “house-codes” because the ancient world viewed the home as the primary social institution. Basic household relationships became the pattern for society’s most important roles. Within that pattern households organized members into a hierarchy. The hierarchy consisted of superiors and subordinates, clarified the basic responsibilities of each, and functioned to support the order of the household (the religious cult, the political structures, and the society more generally). Superiors were husbands, parents (first fathers then mothers), and slave-owners or masters. Subordinates were wives, children, and slaves. The house-codes addressed primarily the subordinates, affirming their status and instructing them to submit to their superiors. At times superiors were also charged to treat subordinates well in order to avoid disorder in the household and dishonor in the community.
Undoubtedly, early Christians made use of these codes (see Eph. 5:21-6:9; Col. 3:18-4:1; 1 Pet. 2:13-3:7). Yet how and why remain matters of dispute. Some believe that church leaders adopted the codes to make or maintain peace with the prevailing social expectations of their day. This view is possible but does not tell the whole story.
The house-codes were the inevitable starting point, since it was the default for first century social, cultural and political organization. But as followers of Jesus brought their faith and mission into the structures of their day, they shaped them to serve the interests and mission of Jesus their Lord and King. Let us see how.
The House-code Among Followers of Christ
In pagan cultures, subordinates submitted to avoid the wrath of superiors and to enjoy the best life possible. Superiors insisted on submission to maintain their power, sustain the status quo, and to garner social respect. In the biblical use of the house-codes, however, there is scarcely a trace of such motivation.
In Ephesians, Paul commands submission or obedience of wives, children, and slaves to express Christian discipleship. Statements such as, “as to the Lord” (5:22), “in the Lord” (6:1), and “as to Christ” (6:5) make this clear. Not society or even the superior (husbands, fathers, masters), but the church and Christ are the primary focus. Likewise, in the Colossian letter, Paul says, “as is fitting in the Lord” (3:18), “for this pleases the Lord” (3:20), “fearing the Lord” (3:22), and “as serving the Lord” (3:23). 1 Peter motivates the house-code by citing God’s will (2:15), the servant-status of all Christians (2:16), and being aware of God or “conscience,” (2:19). Peter’s specific counsel to slaves leads them to imitate the conduct of Christ, which is the very conduct he later commends to all of God’s people (2:18-25; 3:8-22).
When Christian discipleship motivates submission, the house-codes are relativized. That is, the most important thing is not the social institution and its maintenance, but faithfulness to God within the varied relationships. That fact explains why the Christian use of these codes hardly mentions making superiors happy or preserving the peace of home and society. Instead, within Christian households the codes provide a context in which household relationships serve the mission of the church. Husbands and wives must so relate that they reflect the reality, unity, and presence of Christ and his church to an unbelieving world (Eph. 5:21-33). Spouses delight in and advance the witness of the gospel (1 Pet. 3:1,7).
The difference in motivation reveals the primary concern of the early church: to honor, serve, and please the Lord. So far as this could be done within the structures of the day, the codes are commended. Yet, they are not commended simply as they were, but with important modifications.
First, within the New Testament documents the codes appear in contexts that alter their application and meaning. For example, in Ephesians, the traditional code, with its focus on submission, concludes Paul’s discussion of the way of life appropriate for the Spirit-filled communities of God’s people (Eph. 4:17-6:9). Before he tells wives to submit, he tells all believers to submit to one another (Eph. 5:21), which expresses the mutuality at work within The Body of Christ where all are members of one another, under Christ as Head (Eph. 4:1-16). This setting has two important consequences for understanding the code. The submission of wives becomes a variation or expression of the submission characteristic of all believers. And, husbands, with all “superiors,” must adapt their behavior in the home to correspond with the mutual submission of all believers toward one another.
Second, New Testament writers have as much, if not more, to say to superiors. That fact distinguishes the New Testament use of the codes. At points the superiors have greater responsibility than their counterparts. For example, masters must deal with slaves, remembering that they also are slaves of the ultimate Master, the Lord Jesus (Col. 4:1). This reminder encourages masters to consider carefully what it means to be a servant of Christ and how that affects their treatment of household servants. Additionally, masters would likely recall the teachings of Jesus that the measure they deal to others will be dealt to them. Thus, by asserting the servanthood of masters, the New Testament profoundly alters their relationships with their servants.
Third, New Testament writers neutralize the power-agenda of the house-codes. The writers never focus on control issues. Instead, love, care, and self-giving command attention. Subordinates often receive extraordinary dignity. Always, the ultimate aim is to please the Lord, rather than the lord (the slave-master). In some passages, writers clearly diminish the power of the superiors. For example, in 1 Pet. 2:17, Peter commands them to honor all people but love the family of God, to fear God and honor the emperor. They owe fear to God as the supreme authority, but honor to the emperor, as they owe to all people. Thus, the most powerful man in the world at that time was downsized in the shadow of Almighty God.
Fourth, New Testament writers connect the codes to the person and work of Christ. Acceptable behavior must correspond to Christ’s character and accomplishments. That connection, however, suggests that human organizational models no longer determine behavior. Instead, Jesus Christ does. So far as relationships in Christ could correspond to the social patterns of the day, they would. Yet, ultimately, those patterns proved inadequate.
On the surface it may appear that Christians used the house-codes as others did. Underneath, however, Christian motivation and adjustments subverted the codes. Different motivation meant that anytime obedience to Christ conflicted with the code, Christians would not conform. Thus, in using the codes the early church often undermined the very order the secular codes sought to maintain. For example, Ephesians 5 is often cited to support a hierarchy within marriage. Ironically, this is exactly what the secular world of the first century did with the code. Yet, as husbands follow Paul’s instruction seriously, the marriage morphs in ways never envisioned or sanctioned by the code. Self-sacrificing love for the wellbeing of the wife, as we see such love in the life and ministry of Jesus, bears no resemblance to the vision found in the Graeco-Roman codes so popular in Paul’s context of a husband’s functional superiority.
Paul’s use of “headship” terminology in connection with Jesus also undermines and subverts the code as a guarantee of the hierarchical status quo. Faithful Christians had only to remember what it meant for Jesus to be “head.” The first is last, the Lord of all was/is servant of all, and the Master of the Household washes feet—all these suggest a husband’s “headship” must reflect that of Jesus, with no trace of self-serving power and privilege. In fact, “headship” itself is turned on its head so that “headship” looks like submission!
In their use of the house-codes, early Christians were only following the lead of their Lord. They affirmed the form of the code as the place to start. But the form became host to the new reality of a kingdom-life that, in the end, co-opted that form for kingdom purposes. Thus, they would agree with the ancient rationale, “everyone in the proper place,” but understood that God, as revealed in Christ, must be in the first place. Only when God is first will everyone find his or her proper place. In the final analysis, theologian Carl Braaten was right to observe, “the gospel is a stick of dynamite in the social structure.” (In The Future of God: The Revolutionary Dynamics of Hope, reprinted by Wipf and Stock, 2016, p. 143)
Therefore, when Paul says the husband is head of his wife, we must allow the rest of that passage to tells us how husbands are meant to function. Here is a summary.
A husband as “head” within the marriage relates to his wife as Jesus did toward the church as head and savior of the church (5:23). To note that Christ is savior already suggests that headship entails relating to his wife entirely for her benefit, not for his (Christ did not benefit by being our savior, we did!).
A husband as “head” will love his wife to the point of sacrificing his very life for her, as Christ sacrificed himself on the cross for us (5:25). That is, he loves his wife until it hurts and then beyond, perhaps to death.
A husband as “head” makes his primary goal the advancement, betterment, and fulfillment of his wife—as Christ died and rose again and continues to work for us to present us holy and glorious before the Father (5:26-27).
A husband as “head,” taking his cue from Christ, makes himself totally expendable for her sake—regardless of her worthiness, responsiveness, or constancy. The Head pours self out for her unconditionally, even if her response is not all he would like it to be.
A husband as “head” loves her as he loves his own body, meeting her needs as he automatically, reflexively, and consistently meets his own needs (5:28-29). He leverages his powers and opportunities to seek and bring about all that is good and pleasing to her.
A husband as “head” nourishes, enriches, comforts, strengthens, and encourages her, at his own expense (5:29).
A husband as “head” assumes responsibility to accept and maintain the creation- intent of God for the man and the woman, that the two would join together to become one flesh (5:31, compare Gen. 2:24). Notably, precisely as “head” the husband seeks to make the unity and mutuality of being “one-flesh” the model of his marriage.
A husband as “head” claims no “right” to have it his way, does not insist on having his needs met, and refuses to make demands, issue threats, or knowingly harm his wife in any way.
A husband as “head” has no authority other than the authority of love that bears its fruit within the home, family, church and world.
Headship, as envisioned by Paul in this passage, contrasts strikingly with the heads of state, the chiefs of the world, and the bosses and CEOs of worldly institutions. Paul uses the standard model according to social convention in his day—naming the husband as head—but then fills that term with meaning and responsibility that deconstructs the model and re-creates marriage as a union centered in the self-sacrificial love of Jesus. Since Jesus is our Master and Lord, he has the authority to show us how life should be organized, not least our marriages and homes. This is what he does in these passages, commending loving mutuality as God’s intention.
It is within and in response to her husband’s self-sacrificing love that the wife submits. In so doing she reflects the church as Bride joyfully submitting to her loving Bridegroom, the Lord Jesus. Thus, what on the surface appears to be an embrace of the culture’s hierarchical status quo by grace becomes a microcosm of the unity and mutuality God in Christ envisions for all.
It is sadly ironic that many followers of Jesus take the term—head—in this passage and understand it the way the world today understands it, contrary to the specific and clear ways Paul qualifies it, and against the clear example of Jesus whose headship Paul extols. In truth, Paul accepts the model along with its terminology and then instructs mostly husbands (with relatively brief attention to wives) on how to relate within their marriages. When he has finished, it is as though we humans, now participants in the new creation, find ourselves standing once again in a Garden where God’s own self-sacrificing love offers us an opportunity for two to become truly one-flesh.