Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy. A Book Discussion. (Index here)
Part II: Looking to Scripture (The Biblical Texts)
Chapter 11 – Mutual Love and Submission in Marriage: Colossians 3:18-19 and Ephesians 5:21-33. By I. Howard Marshall.
Dr. Marshall begins this essay by pointing out the commonality between Colossians 3:18-19 and Ephesians 5:21-33. They are patterned on the “household tables” (or household codes) common in Greco-Roman society. This is one place where I wish Marshall would have given a little more background.
Reader’s today could easily be forgiven for thinking that both of these passages are talking about three separate sets of relationships: Husbands and wives, fathers and children, and masters and slaves. They aren’t. They are about the relationship of one person, the paterfamilias (householder), to his wife, children, and slaves. In other words, the husband, father and master are all the same person.
Greek philosophers typically wrote some version the household tables as instructions to the householder on how to maintain an orderly society. (The household tables had in mind the household of a large Roman villa.) Social order began in the household with the householder keeping order among those under his charge. Paul is modeling these passages on the household tables but he does two very unique things.
First, as Marshall notes in footnote 1, “The secular forms do not include direct addresses to the ‘inferior’ parties.” (186, fn 1) The householder ruled the other members of the household, virtually having the power of life and death over them. There was no need to instruct the household members because the householder had absolute power. The fact that Paul instructs all the members of the household suggests that all are participants in the functioning of the household.
Second, the instruction always given by Greek philosophers to the householder was to “rule” over the household. No where in these passages is the householder told to rule anyone. Marshall offers some on this second point as we will see shortly. These two factor’s are startling contrasts to the typical household tables.
Marshall notes that:
There is a concealed hermeneutical trap for readers of this instruction [Household tables]. Since much of it can be seen as still appropriate in the modern world, it is tempting to assume that whatever Paul says here should be applied without significant modification to our situation. In fact, adjustment to changed circumstances is required, as can be seen by the consideration of the material about children and slaves. (187)
Children were under the authority of their father until the father died. Only then were they truly independent. We expect that when children reach maturity somewhere around the age of twenty they will leave home and establish independence. Are we violating scriptural instruction here? No. The context has changed.
Today Christian theologians recognize that slavery is not an acceptable form of relationship; it is rejected on the basis of larger biblical considerations having to do with the facts that all human beings are created in the image of God and that all human beings are potentially objects of redemption since Christ died for all. (189)
We can’t obey the commands concerning slaves today because we don’t even have the institution. Are we violating scriptural instruction here? No. On the contrary. We are living at standards that exceed those of scripture in this regard. The context has changed.
Marshall adds one further example concerning subjects and ruler. He observes that the New Testament merely assumes an imposed monarchical or aristocratic system of some kind. The teaching of the New Testament offers instruction in light of these assumptions. Many of us today live in representative democracies. The instructions don’t directly translate. The context has changed. Whether parenting, slavery or government, we have to understand the teaching in light of its context. The same is true for the marriage relationship.
With this in mind, Marshall gives a quick analysis of the Colossians 3 passage. He observes that Paul has taught elsewhere that there is neither “male or female” in Christ (Gal 3:28) and this thinking may have spilled over into marriage relationships. It may have evidenced itself in ways that would be scandalous to non-believers. Husbands in particular may have found the social implications so radical that it would cause them not to consider the gospel. Consequently, Paul instructs them to live by the social norms even though they are one in Christ. There is patriarchalism but it has become “love-patriarchalism” and therefore “…the road is open to mutual love between brothers and sisters in Christ.” (194) Marshall concludes this section noting that:
The concept of marriage between equal partners is just beginning to be perceived in the New Testament, and Paul should not be expected to step outside his time and see the consequences of his teaching any more than he is to be faulted for not commanding the abolition of slavery or the development of universal suffrage. (195)
Marshall turns his attention to the Ephesians passage which gives more complete instruction on the topic of husbands and wives. He points out the passage begins in verse 21 where Paul calls upon everyone to submit to one another. Marshall writes:
What Paul is doing, then, is to teach the need for a concern for one another’s interest and for a mutual submission in the church which provides a new context for the one-sided submission that was expected within certain relationships at the time. He is doing something new, even startling, with the language here. (197)
Following this exhortation comes the instruction of wives to submit to husbands and for husbands to love their wives, just as in Colossians. However, in this passage Paul introduces the metaphor of the husband as “head” of the wife. There has been considerable confusion over what this passage means because the metaphor of “head” has a different connotation in Greek than it does in English (or in Hebrew or Latin for that matter.) Concerning “head,” Marshall makes these observations.
The instruction is backed up with the statement that the husband is the “head” of the wife (cf. 1 Cor 11:3), and an analogy is drawn with Jesus as “head” of the church. Attempts to weaken the sense of head to mean nothing more than “source” are not persuasive, although notions of the head as “prominent, outstanding or determinative” and thus possessing “preeminence” or functioning as “ground of being” are well founded. But attempts to show that the term must virtually always carry up front the nuance of “authority” also need careful scrutiny. (198)
I admit that I find this paragraph unclear. His statement “attempts to weaken the sense of head…” is unclear. If he means lessening its connotation of “authority,” then it must first be established that “head” carries that connotation in Greek before we can speak of weakening it from that meaning. (Marshall apparently believes that it does carry this connotation in some circumstances.) Webster’s Dictionary lists 85 different definitions for “head” in English. There clearly was more than one connation for the “head” as metaphor in Greek as well. To limit “head” to “source” alone may be imprecise or incomplete (and it clearly is) but it is not a weakening. So I am unclear why Marshall has worded things in this way.
All this said, Marshall goes on to conclude that:
The statement that Christ is the Savior of the body favors such an understanding of the husband as essentially the provider, the one who cares for his wife. There is nothing more to the analogy than that. The wife is not her husband’s body (as Eph 5:28 makes clear), and the Christ-church relationship is an analogy or pattern, not a ground for the wife’s submission. …The injunction to husbands is not that they exercise their proper authority; rather it has a quite extraordinary emphasis on the total love and devotion that the husband must show to the wife. … Not only is the instruction to love their wives unusual and unconventional in the world of the New Testament, but the sheer intensity of the love demanded is extraordinary. (198-199)
Finally, Marshall makes some helpful observations about Evangelical Hermeneutics. He identifies three principles.
Deriving “timeless” Principles
The typical conservative evangelical method of dealing with Scripture, particularly its ethical injunctions, is to derive from any specific passage the underlying, “timeless” principles or injuctions that are expressed in the cultural, specific setting of the time, and then to ask how these are to be reexpressed in a manner appropriate to a modern setting. Despite criticisms that have been offered of it, this approach must remain an essential part of our hermeneutics. The problems lie in determining what is culturally or situtationally bound and what is of universal relevance. (200)
On this view the fundamental thing in Scripture is the interpretation of history and existence in terms of the (true and valid) story of God as Creator and Redeemer who acts in history to save people, with consequences for how they are to behave. On this view the Bible does not so much give detailed instructions for conduct as set the patterns that should mold our behavior.
If this approach is taken on its own, its weaknesses are obvious. But if we combine with the first approach, its strength is to emphasize the instructions for conduct must be seen and understood in light of the overarching story; Scripture must be interpreted by Scripture. All statements in Scripture are to be interpreted in light of the total context provided in the scriptural story. (201)
A further principle recognizes that growth and development are possible both in doctrine and in ethical requirements beyond the explicit letter of the scriptural revelation. The recognition that slavery is incompatible with Christian faith goes beyond the explicit teaching of Scripture while being fully scriptural: we now recognize (as the biblical writers were not able to do) that slavery is inconsistent with biblical understanding of humanity in creation and redemption. (201)
Finally, I really appreciated Marshall’s final two paragraphs on applying this to present realities:
The positive elements in Ephesians are to be characteristic of both partners: a mood of subordination in which each partner subordinates their own interests to their spouse’s, the motivation of sacrificial love in which each partner strives to help their spouse’s, the motivation of sacrifical love in which each partner strives to help the other achieve the sanctification that is God’s will for them, and the consciousness that this loving relationship is the nearest thing on earth to the relationship between Christ and the church.
These elements are possible within an egalitarian relationship. Indeed, they are more attainable within such a relationship, since the roles of both husband and wife are more fully spelled our than in the patriarchal setting. For what is being done is not to deny that wives should submit to their husbands as to the Lord but to add that husbands also must submit to their wives as to the Lord. And whereas Paul tells only husbands to show love and only wives to show respect, now both realize that they are called to love each other with the kind of love Christ has shown to the church. Within this context of total submission flowing out of love on both sides, there can develop a freedom for each to be what Christ wants them to be in their high calling as his people. (204)
(Sorry about the length of this post. Too much good stuff!)
Howard Marshall received his B.A. from Cambridge, Ph.D from Aberdeen and D.D. from Asbury. He is Honorary Research Professor of New Testament at the University of Aberdeen, where he has taught since 1964. His many publications include commentaries on the Gospel of Luke (NIGTC, Act (TNTC), 1 and 2 Thessalonians (NBC), the Pastoral Epistles (ICC), and the Johannine Epistles (NICNT). Howard and his late wife Joyce have four married children and seven grandchildren.
Before commenting please read Prefatory Comments.