Thursday, December 16, 2010

Peter Models Church-Wife Submission

Bible readers can so easily fall into the trap of inserting current realities into biblical texts. Ephesians 5:21-31 is one such text. The deeper meanings are totally missed by inserting current culture onto the biblical text. Verse 24, for example, is read as:
“Therefore, as the church, which has practiced husband authority & wife subservience for centuries is subject unto Christ, so the wives to their own husbands in everything—especially when the husband is commanding his wife to do something that she disagrees with because it pains, inconveniences, or dishonors her or her children, or appears wrong or of poor judgment to her.”
In spite of what we've read into the text, this is NOT what it is saying.

Since the wives of that day were already submitting to their husbands, Paul had no need to tell them to submit, except perhaps to keep them from getting the idea Paul was handing them authority over their husbands because of the heavy sacrificial servant demands he placed on husbands in verses 24-29. But Paul had another purpose. Because of the teaching of Jesus, he wanted to turn how marriage was practiced up-side-down.

In those days, wives were mere chattel to their husbands. Husbands enjoyed elevated status. Wives held a place similar to that of servants or cattle. They could be dismissed or misused, and were rarely loved by their husbands. They could be sexually desired until their husbands got tired of them, but that is not the same as genuine love. Their job was to serve their husbands and to bear them children, which then were owned by the husbands, but cared for by the wives.

Paul instructed the church to turn to culture on its head and practice the teaching of Jesus instead. He directed the high-status husbands—that is, ALL husbands—to love their wives even as they loved their own bodies. This love was to be so genuine and deep that the husbands were to sacrifice everything for their wives, even to laying down their lives for their wives. Where before the husbands demanded and expected service, they were to humble themselves and serve. Where previously the husbands had dismissed their wives as unimportant, they were now to honor them with high status.

The relationship of husbands and wives in that culture was similar to the relationship between Jesus and His disciples. Jesus, the teacher, the Son of God, had highest status. His followers expected to serve Him and to learn from Him. They saw themselves as beneath Him; He was high above them. If anyone would do the menial job of foot-washing, it would most certainly NOT be Jesus, the Master with high status. Likewise, in that culture, husbands wouldn't be caught dead doing something as demeaning as washing the feet of guests, or serving food. That was what women and servants were for.

But Jesus, the Master with high status, turned male & master privilege up-side-down and replaced them with male (ie husband) as loving servant. In John 13, Jesus, the high status Master, washed the feet of his disciples. This was so against all propriety that Peter protested. Jesus told Peter in v. 7
“What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.”
Jesus was instituting a change in practice: those of high status in the Kingdom of God are to humble themselves and serve those of lower status, choosing the most demeaning tasks for themselves and thus elevating those beneath them to an equal status. Indeed, He calls us His friends and joint heirs. Jesus has lifted us up to His level.

In the same way, Paul commands husbands to lift their wives up to the high status level that is equal to their own. Wives are no longer to be considered disposable servants, but instead they are to be honored even as a servant would honor his master.

Although husbands may have difficulty accepting this, Paul knew wives would also have difficulty with it. Therefore, Paul tells wives to submit to their husbands in everything—especially when the husbands humble themselves to serve. Peter had such difficulty with it, he at first said, “Thou shalt never wash my feet.” His language is so strong, we can see him shifting his feet to the side, tucking them out of sight under his robe. That is the same response Paul expected most wives to experience when they saw their high-status husbands lower themselves to serve.

Consider this: I own and operate a house cleaning business. Most of the people I work for are wealthy and enjoy status and privilege far above my own. Most of them are friendly and talk to me as if we are equals, but I am aware the division of status is still there. It is an invisible line I must not cross. I both expect and am expected to serve them. They do not expect to serve me, nor do I expect them to serve me. In fact, I would be horrified if they showed up at my house and offered to clean it. Even if I were disabled, they would be among the last people I would expect to stoop to clean my house.

In a similar way, Jesus was the last person anyone would expect to stoop to wash the guests' feet. Peter was horrified, just as I would be if my clients stooped to clean my house, take out my garbage, or wash my windows. I genuinely would want them off my property and out of my space—even if they were doing it for free. Or especially if they were doing it for free. Them serving me would be so inappropriate as to be gross. Their status says THEY are NOT to get their hands or knees dirty, that is MY job, my status. If they get on their hands and knees cleaning my house while I sit in a comfortable chair, (even if I'm writing a blog post or novel) I would feel so out of place. Their action would reverse our status. Not only would I be hard-pressed to accept it, I would also feel humiliated because their action would suggest I haven't done what is expected of me and now they, my superiors, must do it for me. This is also how a wife in Paul's day would feel if her husband lowered himself to do “women's work.”

This wifely rebellion against the humble sacrificial service of their husbands is what Paul was referring to when he told them to not refuse to submit to their husbands “in everything.” They were already submitting to all the other “everythings.” In the next verses he describes the “everything” the wives will be submitting to. Further, Paul says this is a great mystery, but that he is speaking of Christ and the church. That statement takes us back to the gospels where we see how Jesus interacted humbly with those first followers, raising them to his own high status as heirs of God.

Although a summary reading would lead us to conclude Paul wants wives to subject themselves to every self-serving, husband-knows-best edict of their husbands, a consideration of the context, which includes the gospels, leads us to see Paul would have to talk out of both sides of his mouth if he said on the one hand husbands are to love and sacrifice for their wives, and on the other he told wives to obey their authoritarian husbands—even if we claim it is loving for husbands to take authority over their wives. Even the complementarian teaching of “joyful submission,” shows they indeed are telling wives to be joyful in obeying that which reduces their status to servant or child—a person who has no decision-making power. (Although they would never admit they are anything but equal to their husbands.) Rather, Paul is not talking out of both sides of his mouth, but is reminding wives to NOT rebel against accepting sacrificial servitude from their high status husbands. Instead, they are to accept the service of their husbands whole-heartedly, as Peter did. V 9
“Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.”
Indeed, Jesus tells us that He is sending us—and this includes high-status people, particularly husbands—to follow His example.
John 13:12b-17 “Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord; and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.”
In today's culture, washing another's feet may be inappropriate and unnecessary, since we wear shoes instead of sandals. But when husbands honor their wives by elevating them to the status of decision-maker alongside themselves, the action is likely to urge husbands toward sacrificial service in ways they would not otherwise consider—service that is more in sync with the teaching of Jesus and of Paul.

Waneta Dawn is the author of "Behind the Hedge, A novel" See A Mennonite woman fights to save her family yet keep her faith.


  1. WOW, your visual puts it all together Waneta! That to me completely makes sense!


  2. This is so beautiful. Thank you for sharing your perspective on this.

  3. Great to see you on here, Becky!
    This piece was an eye-opener to me, too. I am so thankful God showed it to me. He just keeps showing me stuff--stuff that I missed before and that is enriching my life.

  4. I'm glad the post is meaningful to you Hannah! Don, I'm so glad a man gets it, too! Around here, very few men get it.