Mutual love and submission in marriage

I.H. Marshall’s article ‘Mutual love and submission in marriage: Colossians 3:18-19 and Ephesians 5:21-23’ appears in the excellent collection Discovering biblical equality : complementarity without hierarchy (Apollos: 2004). His article is a good argument for why these passages do not call for male headship today.

Col. 3:18-19: ‘Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them.’

Eph. 5:21-23: ‘Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.  Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 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.’

Marshall’s argument is that Paul speaks to a world where patriarchy is the norm and urges Christians to transform this by practicising a ‘love-patriarchy’. But this isn’t the final step of the way in the Christian trajectory. The story of new creation that the Bible tells us is moving toward Galatians 3:28 where there is ‘no longer male or female’. Paul was transforming the norms of his day. If he was speaking to us today, he would not be calling us backward from marriages of equality to love-patriarchy. Instead, he would be extending submission and sacrificial love to both partners.

Does Paul’s teaching not only require that people fulfill the requirements of the social structures they find themselves but also mandate the structures themselves? Or does Scripture itself lead us to adapt different structures from those prevalent in the first century – just as we have seen to be the case with children, slavery and government? (195)

Some of Marshall’s important arguments are:

  • It’s a mistake to think we can simply transfer any of the instructions to social groups from the Bible to our own day. In the same passage, children + parents and slaves + masters are addressed in ways that aren’t appropriate to today’s society. ‘Obey your masters’ is not an answer to today’s employment relationships. There was a significant shift in the status of workers not spelled out in the New Testament, as much as the seeds are in it by giving dignity to everyone in the body of Christ.
  • The average age gap between husband and wives would have been twelve to fifteen years, which changes the picture.
  • Marshall only mentions this in passing, but it is likely that a constant pastoral problem was women enjoying their new freedom and status in Christ by asserting themselves in a way offensive to outsiders. Paul’s instruction for them to submit is likely to be a pastoral strategy to prevent the gospel being brought into disrepute. If we make an analogy to today’s world, it brings the gospel into disrepute to call for women to submit and not men. Paul might use the same principle to give the opposite instruction.

4 thoughts on “Mutual love and submission in marriage

  1. Dear Nathan,

    I found your comments on your latest blog post fascinating, and so followed the link back to this post. FWIW, I thought I’d give the other side to the argument and say that I (for one) find Marshall’s arguments unconvincing, not just a little but very. Here’s a quick overview why.

    Firstly, all commands in scripture will basically have a cultural and non-cultural element. “Greet one another with a holy kiss”, is a case in point. The kiss is culturally bound, the warm greeting to express the union that believers have is not.

    The trick is to look at what’s cultural and what’s not in biblical commands. What makes Eph. 5:21-32 transcend the 1st century culture is that Paul sees the model for human marriage in the archetypal marriage of Christ and the Church. Each human marriage is to be a reflection of the relationship between Christ and the church. The later marriage rises above cultural specificity, and is integral to understanding the Christian life and hope. (This is not so, for example, with slavery). To put it another way, the reason why God wrote gender and marriage into creation was to teach us via visible example about the gospel (among other things).

    At this point, Gal. 3:28 has little to say about marriage. It can mean anything if lifted out of context. When placed in it’s context it’s about who can become a member of the new covenant. It certainly can’t mean there is no “slave or free, male or female” literally because Paul addresses slaves and masters, husband and wives in his letters. That is, the categories of male / female and slave / free still obtain for Christians in Paul’s mind.

    Secondly, if we need to appreciate cultural elements in Scripture, it’s also important for us to appreciate how we are marinated in our own specific culture giving us cultural blinkers. Our culture will have elements hostile to the gospel (which is what the Bible calls the “world”). Each letter in the NT deals with elements of the 1st century culture that militate against the gospel. Our culture’s understanding of freedom, equality, the individual, and tolerance have undergone seismic shifts in recent years to mean something they once didn’t, and much of which actually militate against NT norms. I think radical discipleship embraces the very counter-cultural view of marriage, precisely so that the gospel can be reflected visually to the world in human conjugal relationships. For this reason it’s not unimportant.

    Having said that, I’m not convinced weddings are the ideal place to preach on headship! Because it’s so counter-cultural one needs a lot of time to grasp it all, and tease out the implications for our culture.

    Just my 5c worth. Feel free to throw the money in the bin.

    Blessings bro,


  2. A late response, as I wanted to make a good one, but I’m sick, so I’m not going to have anything brilliant to say. 🙂

    I agree that Paul’s comparison of marriage to Christ and the church is the strongest biblical argument against ‘equal regard’ marriage. I need to think through that.

    Yet it has to be important that Paul (and Peter) were adapting secular household codes and transforming them ‘in the Lord’ in their instructions to wives to submit. (What was the gospel doing to families that wives even needed to be reminded to submit?) I am convinced by Yoder’s proposal of ‘revolutionary subordination’ in Politics of Jesus.

    I would see all of the Bible as culturally specific – but never allow that to mean that it is not authoritative or applicable, only that we need to do some hard work to first of all work out what it meant then, and then work out what that means for us. There’s not a clear line for me between timeless truth and culturally bound truth in the Bible. All of it is truth, but all of it also comes embedded in a cultural form.

    Thanks for your thoughtful and challenging response.

  3. Dear Nathan,

    I hope you’re well. I may as well give a reply now that I’ve a few spare moments.

    Yes, Paul (and Peter) are attempting to transform household codes of the 1st century. But, again, their model upon which human marriage is based, is Christ and the church–a trans cultural truth. This will have it’s own cultural applications, however, the fundamental truth remains that human marriage is to resemble the archetypal marriage between Christ and the Church. I just can’t see how we escape this.

    I personally struggle with Yoder’s proposal of “revolutionary subordination” largely because it is derived from his construal of the “principalities and powers”. The P & Ps is a difficult subject, but it seems to me there is clear evidence they are at least heavenly / spiritual powers:

    “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

    God bless,


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