Some topics are sure to spark interest. Some flame up into heated donnybrooks. Others flash into full conflagration, burning all who participate.
The topic that causes such strong responses varies from church to church. In some congregations the hottest topic is the eschaton. How and when will Christ return? For others rock music and Calvinism are sure to set off theological alarms. Most such topics, however, excite impassioned exchanges among limited groups, folks that are interested in the subject. Others look on with disinterest waiting for the conversation to cool and turn to matters relevant to their needs or interests.
The issue of gender roles is one such issue. Everyone has an opinion. Everyone has a vested interest as everyone is either a male or a female. I once had an eight-year-old girl ask me about the biblical teaching concerning gender roles and the ministry. It's a topic that touches everyone's life.
The question of gender roles within the institution of marriage is also sure to pique interest. Strong feelings exist one way or the other concerning the husband/wife relationship within the home. You're sure to get someone's undivided attention just by stating your position. When you do, you better be ready.
The Apostle Paul understood the sensitivity of the subject. Before he revealed God's will concerning gender roles in marriage, he prepared his readers in Ephesus for the debate that was sure to come. Christians are to imitate God, to be godly, and to walk in love, living their lives as an ongoing act of sacrificial worship, he told them (Ephesians 5:1-2). Having said that, Paul proceeded to warn his audience to "be careful how you walk," to be wise and not foolish concerning the will of God (Eph 5:15-17). Paul knew that he was about to create a controversy and he was ready.
The controversy that Paul knew was coming? The nature of the relationship between wife and husband within the confines of their marriage. What was true 2000 years ago is no less true today. Paul's teaching on this matter is controversial. It is also biblical. Therefore, Christians must wade in carefully with the intention of discerning and obeying God's will.
Wives, said Paul, are to submit to their husbands (Eph 5:25). Immediately bells and whistles sound throughout the church. Does he mean that the wife is to act as a well-trained lap dog? Does her opinion matter? Is she a slave or his lover? Remember, Paul warned us.
Paul argued that the Christian marriage should not reflect a culture where husbands can be abusive and wives may long to rule. Instead, he says, they are to reflect God's intent in the Garden of Eden where Adam was created first and Eve was created to be his "suitable helper." Lest the female reader balk, Paul reminds us that his is a matter of spiritual importance and reflects our relationship with Christ as Christ Himself submitted to the Father willingly (Eph 5:23-24).
In light of so many flawed relationships it is understandable that such teaching seems radical to the modern mind. Too many women have been treated as doormats. Too many wives have been abused in the name of marriage. Some have used this text as a defense for such behavior. To do so, however, ignores the flow of Paul's argument. The concern in this text is not merely sexual but spiritual.
Turning from wives, Paul turned his attention to the role of the husband in a Christian marriage. His role is of one of great consequence and challenge, his responsibility great. The biblical husband loves his wife. He dedicates himself to her spiritual gain. He is to love her sacrificially. He is to love her selfishly, acting as if her life is his and that his is hers. He is to love her selflessly, dying on her behalf, if need be (Eph 5:25-29).
The basis of Paul's argument? Again, we are taken back to the model in Genesis 2. The two, husband and wife, are to be one (Eph 5:31). When they are, says Paul, the wife can safely and lovingly submit to her husband's leadership because his desires are hers. Her goals are his. They can and will be going in the same direction because they are one.
In my own marriage of twenty-five years, I see these principles at work regularly. My wife and I are both believers. We are both seeking God's glory. We desire to see our children come to saving faith in Christ. Over the years, we have grown up together as adults. We have grown closer as mates. We are growing old together as friends.
In the context of this union, I am the leader. My wife trusts my lead. She follows my lead. She does so not just because she has to but because she wants to. She trusts me implicitly. Because of our common bond, as I lead, she does not merely follow. She walks alongside because we share one God and one life.
Does this biblical paradigm always work out perfectly in our world? Of course not. Even Christians struggle with sin. Our selfishness all too often outweighs our selflessness. However, the present reality of sin does not negate or undermine the biblical injunctions concerning gender roles in the home. Instead, we are to submit joyfully to God's will, pursue God's ideal, and obey God's commands. The issue is spiritual not just practical. Husbands are to lead lovingly. Wives are to submit respectfully (Eph 5:33). Because Christians are to obey willingly (John 14:1
December 8, 2009
Peter Beck serves as assistant professor of religion at Charleston Southern University where he teaches church history and theology. While serving as senior pastor in Louisville, Ky., he completed his PhD in historic theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. His dissertation, The Voice of Faith: Jonathan Edwards's Theology of Prayer, is soon to be published. He, his wife Melanie, and their two kids, Alex (12) and Karis (7), live near Charleston, SC. Peter's goal for his teaching and writing ministries is "love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith" (1 Tim 1:5).