Mutual Submission and Hierarchy

August 8, 2016

After my sermon last week about mutual submission as the ideal for marriage friendships, there was a question about whether I intentionally avoided Ephesians 5:23-24 because it seemed to contradict my anti-hierarchical view. Here is the passage:

23 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. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.

At face value, this passage suggests a hierarchical arrangement between husband and wives (and therefore between men and women).

Now, I was a bit miffed by the suggestion that I skipped these verses because I disagreed with them. Actually, I have an interpretation of this passage that confirms that Paul did not entirely endorse hierarchy between husbands and wives. Rather, even these verses confirm that Paul’s ideal is mutual submission. I’ll attempt to make the case in this blog.

But first, let me share an anecdote. One person who heard my sermon emailed me about her campus ministry was deeply wounded by those who insisted on a gender hierarchy. Apparently a woman was elected to be president of the campus fellowship. Those who opposed having a woman lead men left the fellowship in protest, taking half of the members with them. This is not news to me. I’ve seen so many instances of how gender hierarchists operate. This arrogant belief that the bible teaches gender hierarchy is doing more harm to the next generation of Christians (especially Asian Americans) than any other teaching in recent memory. Too many Asian American college students are drawn to campus ministries that produce irresponsible and semi-heretical biblical teachings. And the results are devastating. Asian American young adults cannot re-integrate with any church that does not reproduce their college fellowship echo-chamber. This is the closest thing to a cult that I have seen. Gender hierarchy is often a sign of authoritarian church leadership. Abusive practices are on the rise especially in churches that are authoritarian. As they say, “where there is smoke…”

That is why it is so urgent, in my mind, to have a more sound biblical approach to this issue. I cannot bear to see any of our daughters, sisters, indeed, anyone, bear the brunt of practices that stem from incorrect teachings.

In order to properly interpret wifely submission, we ought to start with the question “Does the bible teach that human relationships are hierarchical?” The answer to this question is “yes.” The bible does assume that human relationships are hierarchical.

But the better question is this: “According to Scripture, does God intend for humans to live in permanent hierarchies? Does God want caste systems?” The answer to that is clearly “no.” Please note, this does not mean that hierarchies should not exist. Clearly, there is a hierarchy between God, humans, and creation. For example, Psalm 8:4-6 (reflecting on Genesis 1:26-28) asserts:

what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them?
You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honor.
You made them rulers over the works of your hands;

Christians also submit to Jesus, our Lord and Savior (and Friend), because we believe that he is divine.

But permanent human hierarchy does not appear to be part of God’s design for humanity. The biblical authors assume that human hierarchy exist, but do not usually identify that with God’s will. Here are some examples:

1. The first time human hierarchy is introduced is AFTER THE FALL. In Genesis 3:16, God proclaims one of the consequence of human disobedience in the Garden of Eden:

16 To the woman he said,
“I will make your pains in childbearing very severe;
with painful labor you will give birth to children.
Your desire will be for your husband,
and he will rule over you.”

Prior to this, there is no indication that the woman was to be ruled by the man.

2. Slavery. In the ancient world of the bible, slavery and poverty were accepted as the cultural norm, but not considered God’s ideal design for humanity.

a. The Exodus event. God’s liberation of the Hebrew people from bondage is the clearest indication that God opposes oppressive enslavement. Recent biblical and archeological studies suggest that the Hebrew “conquest” of the Promised Land was more likely a “freedom” movement that attempted to overthrow the Canaanite deities that perpetuated slavery and other inhumane and idolatrous practices.

b. The Jubilee year (Leviticus 25). After settling into the Promised Land, the people of Israel were to consecrate every 50th year. During the Jubilee year, all property (including Israelite slaves) were to be released, returned, or redeemed (with the exception of slaves from the “nations around you” and “temporary residents”). The poor and the foreigner are to be treated fairly. The purpose of the Jubilee year was to prevent permanent economic and social inequality from hardening into a permanent caste system, as suggested in verse 23 when God says: “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you reside in my land as foreigners and strangers.”

c. Paul also acknowledged that slavery was a major part of the Greco-Roman economy. Even though he never sought to overturn the system over slavery, he did not like it. For example, in 1 Corinthians 7:21-23, Paul writes:

21 Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. 22 For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. 23 You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. 24 Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.

In other words, Christ has purchased us out of human slavery to become His people. Note in verse 22, that Paul uses a “mutuality logic” to say that disciples are both freed persons and slaves. It appears that the cultural norms of master/slave is being mixed up by Paul’s “logic of mutuality” (more on this point later).

Nevertheless, Paul encourages freedom from human slavery, as seen in his letter to Philemon. Philemon’s slave, Onesimus, had become a believer and supported Paul during his imprisonment. When Paul sent him back to Philemon, he said:

15 Perhaps the reason [Onesimus] was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— 16 no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.

But in the end, Paul encourages Christians to “remain in the situation they were in when God called them” as people who are “responsible” to God. Paul also applies this principle to both the circumcised and uncircumcised (17-20) and to Christians who are married to non-believers (8-16). But he doesn’t insist that singles remain unmarried (25-40).

In sum (at least at this point), first, it is important to bear in mind Paul’s “mutuality logic” (see also 1 Corinthians 7:1-7) which is rooted in the belief that Christ reconciles all people equally into his inheritance as seen in Galatians 3:26-29:

26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

This is the kingdom and gospel norm that is uncomfortable with the fallen world’s hierarchical norm. And if you need any more biblical evidence, look to Jesus himself

3. Jesus and hierarchy.

Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) praises God for introducing Jesus the Savior to Israel and the world. What exactly does Jesus’ arrival suggest about human hierarchies? Let’s look at verses 51-53:

51 He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
52 He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
53 He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.

Jesus’ coming seems to be about “flipping the script” of human hierarchies! And Jesus himself taught the same. Look at Matthew 20:25-28 (see also Mark 10:42-45 and Luke 22:24-27):

25 Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. 26 Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27 and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— 28 just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

and Matthew 5:5

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”

I don’t think I need to show more biblical evidence about how the Servant King and the early church envisioned a “flipped script” about human hierarchies. But the early church also did not envision a permanent role reversal where slaves would dominate masters. And even though the earliest Christians “were together and had everything in common,” “sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need,” and “No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had.” (Acts 2:44-45; 5:32), they did not insist on enforced equality. Elders and deacons were still appointed to serve as leaders with authority, thus, suggesting that hierarchy still existed.

It seems, therefore, that the two biggest differences between Christian hierarchies and the socio-cultural hierarchies of the time were that:
(a) church leaders were encouraged to follow Jesus’ example of servant leadership [see 1 Peter 5:1-6] and
(b) church hierarchies are mutual, not permanently fixed or unidirectional.

In sum, Jesus and his disciples bequeathed to us the priority of mutuality where we are to accept, love, serve, submit one another. This takes precedence over fixed, unidirectional human hierarchies. As a result of this vision about the New Creation of reconciliation and mutuality, many women became partners and leaders in ministry and mission.

So why did Paul and Peter say that wives should submit to their husbands and remain silent? Are they contradicting the Kingdom norms that Jesus, the early church, and even Paul himself tried to live out?

Mutuality logic, Household Codes, and bearing witness

Earlier, I argued that Paul and Jesus (and Peter) applied their vision of a “flipped hierarchy” by using the “logic of mutuality.” But Paul also wanted his followers to “remain” in their situation (1 Cor. 7:24). He seemed to be suggesting that since slavery and other earthly hierarchies would be done away with when Jesus returns shortly, it’s best to not to radically overturn the current norms. Instead, Paul wants his disciples to bear witness to Christ. Peter says it best:

Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. (1 Peter 2:12)

In this chapter, Peter also wants Christians to submit to every human authority and for slaves to submit to their masters. By doing so Christians would do what is good and emulate Jesus’ example of suffering. Paul, rather than upsetting people in the Greco-Roman world with “unpalatable” Kingdom norms such as the “flipped script of hierarchy” or “mutuality,” says “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings” (1 Cor. 9:22-23).

Therefore, Paul and Peter introduced the Greco-Roman household codes (Haustafeln) into their writings as a guideline for early Christian families to bear positive witness to their faith (Col. 3:18–4:1, but also Eph. 5:22–6: 9; 1 Tim. 2:9–15; Titus 2:2–10; 1 Pet. 2:13–3: 7). These household codes likely originated with Aristotle, but were widely adopted by Jewish and Roman families. In fact, having a male head of the family (pater familias) was legally prescribed during Paul’s time. Groups that did not follow this pattern were considered suspicious and possibly illegal. So in order to bear witness to the Greco-Roman world, Christians did not want to be viewed as destructive to the family values of that society.

But Paul (and Peter) did not simply conform to the cultural norms of their day. The Greco-Roman family codes stated that the husband has legal privilege over his wife, children, and slaves. Wives, children, and slaves were required to submit to the head of the family. The haustafein did not include a mutual command for the male. But when Paul and Peter added a code for the male head of the household, they introduce the logic of mutuality to the family.

Let’s examine Ephesians 5:21-28.

21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 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. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.
25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.

When viewed as a whole, the pattern of wifely submission is coupled with the pattern of husband love. The wife’s section is an importation of the Greco-Roman household code that is dressed up with an analogy to Jesus and the church. But when paired with the husband’s section on servant leadership, Paul addresses another aspect of our relationship to Christ – namely, that Christ loved and died for us so that we, the Church, may be made holy and blameless. Seen together, this appears to be a case for mutual submission that doesn’t directly challenge the Greco-Roman household code.

According to Rachel Held Evans,

“Such a relationship could only be characterized by humility and respect, with both partners imitating Christ, who time and again voluntarily placed himself in a position of submission.
“Women should not have to pry equality from the grip of Christian men. For those who follow Jesus, authority should be surrendered—and shared— willingly, with the humility and love of Jesus…or else we miss the once radical teaching that slaves and masters, parents and children, husbands and wives, rich and poor, healthy and sick, should “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/mutuality-household-codes

While not a radical change, Paul transformed a politically and economically based idea of family into one that is based on the love of Jesus Christ.

So what happens when Christians import our God, family, country hierarchies (our cultural norms) into the bible today? What happens when we take the household codes out of the larger biblical context and focus only on woman’s subordination? Simple: we create communities that looks more like the Roman Empire than Kingdom of God. Mutual submission and mutual love is the better way.


For Further Study

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