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.