There are many things I want to teach, but I decided to start by addressing one of the thorniest parts about biblical marriage–submission.
22 Wives, submit to your own husbands as to the Lord…
A friend of mine leads a small group at his church of married couples. And just last week, he asked the ladies, is it natural to submit to your husbands? One wife shared, yes, it’s natural, but our husbands make it unnatural. I don’t know who this sister is, but she is very wise.
This idea of a woman submitting to a man is a landmine. Preachers don’t want to step on it and risk getting their legs blown off. They don’t want to touch this subject for fear of receiving a bunch of angry emails on Monday morning after preaching about women submitting. It is so politically un-correct in our modern climate to talk about submission in marriage, which is why many pastors totally avoid this topic. I think that’s why so few of us have heard a sermon about marriage despite attending church for many decades.
It is so taboo to teach about marriage because of this idea of submission. The mere mention of the word causes people to react violently. If you believe in this idea of submission, you will be labeled by some as a legalistic, narrow-minded, chauvinistic bigot. The very notion of submission to authority, any authority, is out of fashion today. It rubs against the grain of our culture. It is totally at odds with contemporary attitudes of permissiveness and freedom. We are a skeptical people when it comes to any form of authority. We want to flatten out all relationships. Ours is an age of liberation and anything sounding like oppression, in this case oppression of women, is deeply resented. Submission sounds like subjugation. Therefore, many want to strike it from our vocabulary when talking about marriage.
What are we to say to our critics who can be quite vocal when pastors like me want to talk about submission? In my humble opinion, first, we have to apologize. We have to agree that yes, it is sadly true that women in many cultures for centuries and even to this day have been exploited. They have been treated as lesser than men and as servants in their own home. Even 50 years ago, Christians in this country promoted the idea that Christian women needed to stay home and homeschool their kids and cook and clean and Christian husbands went to work and didn’t lift a finger at home and didn’t help with child rearing. Those are stereotypes because a good portion of Christian churches and Christian couples back then believed this is what it means to live out our duty to our family.
Christians need to acknowledge with shame that we often went along with these cultural currents. We kept silent. We maintained the status quo because we were too comfortable or too scared to speak out. Or we were simply ignorant about what the Bible said. In so doing, we have been complicit and perpetuated some forms of oppression toward women.
May I remind you that Jesus was the first person to give dignity to women. He treated women with courtesy and honor at a time when they were despised. It is Jesus who said, “Let the children come to me” in a period of history when unwanted babies were discarded like trash or abandoned for anyone to pick up so that they can be raised as slaves or prostitutes. And it is Jesus Christ who taught the dignity of manual labor by working as a carpenter, washing his disciples’ feet and saying, “I am among you as one who serves.”
Next, I think we want to discuss how this topic of marriage demonstrates how culture can sometimes undermine the authority of Scripture in our lives. Culture should always bow the knee to Scripture, not the other way around. Scripture says some unpopular things and we have to make adjustments in our lives before the Word of God. But often the case, if something becomes unpopular, we change Scripture or leave out portions of Scripture to justify our behavior.
To show you what I mean, let’s read a few passages. Please turn with me to 1 Cor 11:2-5. [READ]
Living in the 21st century, we read this and think, head covering? I don’t see any of the women here wearing a bonnet or a yamika or a head covering. So we conclude, I guess this passage doesn’t apply to us. Many jump to that conclusion based on the cultural practice. But, we need to learn how to read Scripture and distinguish culture practices, which can change, from universal principles that never change. Women wearing head coverings was a common cultural practice in the first century at the time when Paul was writing this letter to the Ephesians. That tradition is no longer practiced by women in the year 2013. However, it is interesting that in verse 4, men still practice what Paul talks about here. To this day, if a man is wearing a cap and it’s time to pray before dinner time, what do we do? We take off our cap out of respect to God.
In v10, Paul calls the head covering a SYMBOL of authority. In other words, the head covering is a symbol that the woman willingly is submitting herself under the authority of a man in a church setting, presumably a pastor, or elder, or bishop or overseer. Whether we wear head coverings or we don’t is NOT the main point because the head covering is just a symbol. How do most churches today symbolize women being under the authority of men? Our modern day equivalent is ordination. At this church, and most mainstream, conservative, evangelical churches, only men are ordained as pastors. And this is how women submit under the authority of the church.
You may say, wait a minute. Head covering is a cultural practice. The modern day equivalent of head coverings is the practice of ordaining men only. A few decades from now, what if the practice of ordaining women becomes more palatable by a larger segment of society? Because symbols change. Then, is it okay for a woman to be ordained as a pastor? What is the basis for women submitting when our cultural practices are always in flux? Right? That’s the key question.
1 Cor 14 talks about women being silent in churches, and at our church, we have women praying and sharing testimonies and leading bible studies on campus. This may be confusing. It seems really arbitrary and Christians seem to pick and choose what to follow.
This is a clear case when we need to be able to separate the cultural practice from the spiritual principle.
1 Cor 11
3 But I want you to know that Christ is the head of every man, and the man is the head of the woman, and God is the head of Christ.
What I just read is not a cultural practice. It is an unchanging spiritual principle. The head of every man is Christ and the man is the head of the woman. When we hear the word “submit,” we often think the one who submits is less valuable or lower than the one who has been given the authority. Notice that even Jesus submits. The head of Christ is God. Although Jesus is fully God, although he is perfectly equal with God the Father, yet he submits under the authority of God the Father, who is Christ’s head.
Why is man the head of woman? Turn with me to 1 Tim 2:11-14. [READ]
I put women being silent in the church in the same category as women wearing head coverings. These are cultural practices. Paul had reasons that prompted him to recommend this particular cultural practice at the church in Corinth. The cultural practice is not what is important, but it’s the principle that informs our practice. What’s the underlying principle? The principle is that there is an authority structure.
Why does Paul say that women should be silent? Being silent is a cultural practice that points to an authority structure. And the basis for this authority structure is a universal principle. Actually, two universal principles. One, Paul points to creation order. Adam was created first, then Eve. And two, Eve was deceived, not Adam. We get so hung up on the cultural practice–in this case, women being silent–that we don’t read the verses that follow about creation order and Eve being deceived. These are historical facts that never change.
I don’t think the first point requires much convincing. Adam was created before Eve. You can read it for yourself in Gen 2 so there is no debate. The second point about Eve being deceived may take a little bit of convincing. So please turn with me to Gen 3:1-7. [READ]
When you hear sermons about the Fall of Man when sin entered the world, we normally group Adam and Eve together. They fell into sin together at exactly the same moment in exactly the same way. But if you pay attention to the details, you see that they fell into sin differently and at different moments in time. Notice that Satan went to Eve and she was the one who was deceived first and then Eve led Adam into sin. Why didn’t Satan go to Adam? We don’t know, but we can speculate that Satan saw an opening in Eve that wasn’t as prominent in Adam.
Look at how Satan asks a question and then Eve mistakenly quotes the Word of God. She added the part about touching the fruit. If you eat the fruit, you will surely die, God said. But Eve remembered it as, You must not eat it OR touch it, or you will die. She is slightly distorting the Word of God. God never said that if they touch the fruit, they will die. Only if they ate the fruit. Eve got confused. At that point, Eve could have consulted Adam. It says in v6 that Adam was with her the whole time. Eve could have submitted herself and asked Adam to make sure that she was remembering the Word of God correctly. But she took the lead and she ended up being deceived.
What about Adam? God spoke directly to Adam. He knew the Word of God. He saw where this conversation between Satan and Eve was going. He was standing right beside Eve the entire time. He should have led and stopped Eve and said, what are you doing? That’s not what God said. Adam should have stepped in and laid down his life for Eve and protected her from being deceived. But he was passive. He was on the sidelines twiddling his thumbs. And he saw Eve take the fruit and without thinking, he took a bite himself.
To recap, what’s the biblical principle to defend male headship and female submission? Adam was created first and Eve was deceived first. Adam did not lead properly as he should have and Eve did not submit and that’s when all hell broke loose and sin entered the world. So, to break the cycle of sin, we need to recapture the correct authority structure.
If you agree that there is an authority structure along gender lines, then you are a complementarian. If you deny that there is a scriptural basis for male headship and female submission, then you are by definition an egalitarian. A complementarian believes that men and women are equal in value and dignity and worth, yet they differ in their roles and these different roles complement one another. Just like God the Father and God the Son and God the Spirit are absolute equals, yet they have distinct roles.
An egalitarian, on the other hand, treats men and women as interchangeable parts. Yes, men and women are equal in value and dignity and worth but also they are equal in their roles. There is no distinction in our roles. Because they believe, there are no roles. Men and women are like interchangeable parts.
I think you know where I stand. I used to be an egalitarian a few years ago without even knowing that I was, but through my own study from Scripture on marriage, I became a complementarian. I believe men and women are absolutely equal in value and dignity and worth. But, men and women have distinct roles determined by gender. And so, men and women in a Christian marriage need to complement and complete one another.
What is at stake here? It’s not just marriage. Here is what Mark Dever, pastor of Capital Hill Baptist, says —
“It is my best and most sober judgment that this position [egalitarianism] is effectively an undermining of–a breach in–the authority of Scripture. It seems to me and others that this issue of egalitarianism and complementarianism is increasingly acting as the watershed distinguishing those who will accommodate Scripture to culture, and those who will attempt to shape culture by Scripture. You may disagree, but this is our honest concern before God. It is no lack of charity, nor honesty. It is no desire for power or tradition for tradition’s sake. It is our sober conclusion from observing the last 50 years. Of course there are issues more central to the gospel than gender issues. However, there may be no way the authority of Scripture is being undermined more quickly or more thoroughly in our day than through the hermeneutics of egalitarian readings of the Bible. And when the authority of Scripture is undermined, the gospel will not long be acknowledged.”
If you are not sure where you stand on this issue of gender, that’s okay. But please do your homework. Open your Bible and ask God for conviction. Be warned that what is at stake is the authority of Scripture. Culture will always want to bend and distort the Word of God. We are people of the Word and the Word is our authority and the Word ought to mold us, not the culture.