Marriage at work (1) Introduction

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I. 1. Why This Question?

This dissertation arises from personal circumstances.  Sarah and I both grew up in what might be termed traditional households; dad worked while mum looked after the children and the home.  Our own circumstances when we got married were different to what we had experienced growing up; whilst I studied Theology, Sarah went out to work as the primary earner. 

How were we to reconcile our situation with what we had grown to understand as men and women’s natural roles? In conversation, I found other Christians seeking answers to this very question because of their own circumstances.  What happens when my wife is more intellectually capable, spiritually mature or biblically literate?  Is she still expected to “submit” to her husband in line with Ephesians 5:22?

So I decided to take a closer look at Ephesians 5 in order to be able to answer the question about what it teaches, both for myself and other Christians seeking to grow as godly husbands and wives.

I.2. The Contemporary Debate

During my investigation, I discovered a significant disagreement within Evangelicalism about how to approach Ephesians 5 and other Biblical texts on marriage and the role of men and women.[1]  Broadly speaking, we may identify two camps.

I.2.1. Complementarianism

This approach argues that men and women are equal in nature but different in role. There is a hierarchy in which men have authority over women, particularly in the home and at church.[2]

This is because in Genesis 1-2, we find a creation order: man was made first and woman for man.[3] In Genesis 3, woman usurped her position and man relinquished his.[4]  Therefore, in his verdict on her, God insists that man will rule over her.[5]      

In the New Testament, men are instructed to provide loving leadership for their families. Wives are to submit and to be busy at home.[6]  So in practice, this might look like John Piper’s approving description of his own upbringing.

When my father came home he was clearly the head of the house.  He led prayer at the table.  He called the family together for devotions.  He got us to Sunday School and worship.  He drove the car.  He guided the family to where we would sit. He made the decision to go to Howard Johnson’s for lunch.  He led us to the table.  He called the waitress.  He paid the check.[7]

The Complementarian approach shows a genuine concern to treat Scripture seriously. Indeed, there is an admirable desire to set our marriage advice within the context of God’s character, particularly the intra-Trinitarian relationship and his action within history (Creation and Redemption).

My own background is within this tradition.  However, as I approached this study, I found myself slightly unsatisfied with some of the implications arising from it.  In particular, I noted that even in so far as proponents allowed for the possibility of women in the workplace, it seemed a grudging acceptance.  For example, Jay Adams states that:

The idea that women should not hold jobs is false…The key to whether a job is fitting or not lies solely in whether the job helps or hinders her family.[8]

However, in “Christian Living in the Home,” he primarily sees the wife’s role in terms of childcare, cooking and cleaning etc.[9]  Now, it could be that their instincts are correct and that my discomfort arises out of conformity to the present culture, but I could not help thinking that perhaps this approach reflected one particular cultural context unrepresentative of wider history.[10]

I.2.2. Egalitarianism

Egalitarians argue that men and women must be equal both in nature and role.[11]  As Groothius comments:

Due to both cultural and biological factors, there are some generalizable differences in behavior between women and men…  However, these differences do not warrant the traditional notion that women are deficient in rationality and so are suited to be subordinate to men.[12]

In their narrative, there was equality before The Fall.[13]  So Genesis 3:17 describes the conflict between men and women caused by sin.  This is meant to be descriptive rather than prescriptive.[14]  Therefore, the new creation in Christ Jesus begins to undo the effects of The Fall[15] so that there is “neither male nor female” (Galatians 3:28).[16]

The New Testament shows a community in transition.  The effects of salvation are beginning to work out socially but the early church is constrained by its social context.[17]  This means that whilst Paul requests wives and slaves to submit, he also introduces “seed-thoughts” which will gradually subvert and undue the cultural constraints.[18]  This was realised for slaves in the great abolition movement of 200 years ago and is now being applied to women.[19]

Egalitarians are just as determined to take Scripture seriously as Complementarians.  The approach should not be written off as surrender to a culture driven by secular feminism.[20]  Rather, there is a genuine desire to wrestle with the difficult issues arising within our cultural context. Such a desire is commendable; right application of Scripture does require cultural sensitivity.  For example, most commentators would treat Paul’s instructions concerning hair, head coverings and holy kisses as advice for a given cultural context.[21] 

However, if our default approach is to treat passages which make us uncomfortable as cultural, then are we in danger of limiting God’s ability to speak to us? If Scripture is to do its job, then it must be allowed to disagree with us and our culture from time to time

I. 3. My Thesis

In this study, I will argue that Ephesians 5:21-32 does speaks to us and challenge us, both Complementarians and Egalitarians.  This is so because:

  1. We must understand the passage within its immediate context and the context of Ephesians as a book.  Its context is God’s eschatological plan to bring all things together in Christ.  This plan includes spiritual warfare so that our witness is both to human authorities and spiritual authorities.  This requires us to treat the passage as, to some extent, transcultural.
  2. This continuing transcultural expectation includes the requirement for wives to submit.
  3. Headship does mean leadership or authority.
  4. Although order and authority are present in the passage, they are the means to an end, not the end in itself.  The primary concern of the passage is unity (‘one flesh’) not authority.

I.4. Method

I have divided this dissertation into two parts.  In the first part, we will focus on interpreting the passage and deal with some of the key hermeneutical and exegetical issues involved.

My intention is to be practical, whilst recognising that it would be impractical to attempt to prescribe for every marriage situation.  Therefore, in part 2, we will explore three particular practical issues that arise from our exposition of the passage.  They are:

  1. Is it possible for the wife to be the primary earner in the household?
  2. How should decision-making work in a Christian home?
  3. Do headship and submission lead to abuse?

Space prevents us from exploring every practical scenario, but it is my hope that the reader will be able to develop their own application to specific scenarios by way of analogy.


[1] Our focus here is narrow on the relationship of those roles in marriage.  We note the wider debate on the role of men and women in church and the workplace and the general uncertainty in society about men’s and women’s roles and natures (think about magazines, such as ‘FHM’, ‘Loaded’, ‘Cosmopolitan’ or TV shows such as ‘Coleen’s Real Women’, ‘Trinny and Susannah’, ‘Wife Swap’ etc).  These conversation areas are distinct but not unrelated.

[2] Raymond C Ortlund, “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship: Genesis 1-3,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood.  A Response to Evangelical Feminism  (Ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem.  Wheaton, Il.: Crossway, 1991) 101-102.  On equality of nature see Ortlund, “Male-Female Eq uality and Male Headship,” 97.

[3] Ortlund, “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship,” 101-102.

[4] Ortlund, “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship,” 107.

[5] Ortlund treats Gen 3:16 by noting the parallels with Gen 4:7.   There sin’s desire is to master Cain but he must master it.  Thus, he is inclined to treat the woman’s desire here as negative and the man’s rule as positive.  Ortlund, “Male-Female Equality and Male Headship,” 109.

[6] Cf. Eph 5:22; Col 3:18; Titus 2:5.  See e.g. Douglas Wilson, Reforming Marriage (Moscow, Id..: Canon Press, 2005), 31.  See also Dorothy Patterson, “The High Calling of Wife and Mother in Biblical Perspective,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood.  A Response to Evangelical Feminism (Ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem.  Wheaton, Il.: Crossway, 1991), 365.

[7] John Piper, “A Vision of Biblical Complementarity: Manhood and Womanhood Defined According to the Bible,” in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood.  A Response to Evangelical Feminism  (Ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem.  Wheaton, Il.: Crossway, 1991), 31-32.

[8] Jay E. Adams, Christian Living in the Home (Phillipsburg, NJ.: Presbyterian & Reformed , 1972), 82.

[9] For example, at one point he asks, “Why is it that many women don’t enjoy being a housewife?…Because they have never learned to enjoy doing their daily chores.” Adams, Christian Living in the Home, 78.  He then answers as follows: “Don’t you know that your husband has his chores too…A man’s life isn’t easier than yours. What really counts is whether or not you can learn to delight in your work, whatever your task is.  The same is true for your husband… If I had to face cooking day after day the way that you do, with only recipes at my finger tips.  I might not sing so loudly either.  If I had to cook for the rest of my life in that way I might find it hard to do so in delight.  I think that I would try to learn at least something about the chemistry of cooking…Then cooking might begin to get exciting.  You could begin to experiment a little bit.  You would be able to go beyond the recipe books without fear of poisoning the family. ” Adams, Christian Living in the Home, 78-79.

[10] In addition to Adams and the example of Piper’s father cited above where the preference appears to be in favour of male leadership including particular traditional responsibilities such as being the chief bread earner, we note that other Complementarians express a preference for men to take on the role of bread-earner and women that of home-maker including: Dorothy Patterson (see Patterson, “The High Calling of Wife and Mother in Biblical Perspective.” 375), Douglas Wilson (Wilson, Reforming Marriage, 31) and George Knight, [George W Knight III, “The Family and the Church: How should Biblical Manhood and Womanhood work Out in Practice?” in Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood.  A Response to Evangelical Feminism  (Ed. John Piper and Wayne Grudem.  Wheaton, Il.: Crossway, 1991), 350].

[11] Rebecca Merrill Groothuis, “‘Equal in Being, Unequal in Role’: Exploring the Logic of Woman’s Subordination,”  in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy. (Ed. Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis and Gordan D. Fee. Leicester: Apollos), 2004), 306.

[12] Groothuis, “Equal in Being, Unequal in Role,” 307.

[13] George Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles: What the Bible Says about a Woman’s Place In Church and Family  (2d Ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1985), 24-25.

[14] Richard S Hess, “Equality With and Without Innocence,” in Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity without Hierarchy (Ed. Ronald W. Pierce, Rebecca Merrill Groothuis and Gordan D. Fee. Leicester: Apollos, 2004), 92.

[15] Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles, 79.

[16] Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles, 126.

[17] Longenecker refers to this as the “Development Approach.” Longenecker, “Authority, Hierarchy & Leadership Patterns in the Bible,” in Woman, Authority and the Bible (Ed. Alvera Mickelsen, Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 80-8. See also, Johnston, “Biblical Authority And Interpretation,” in Woman, Authority and the Bible (Ed. Alvera Mickelsen, Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 36.

[18] William J Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 2001), 83.

[19] Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, 35.  Webb argues for what he calls a “Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic.”  This hermeneutical approach assumes that there is a movement within Scripture which is redemptive.  In other words, because of the Gospel, increasingly within Scripture we see an emphasis on liberation from slavery to self and to unjust structures within society.  Webb argues that this creates a trajectory towards liberty and equality which moves beyond Scripture.  Whilst it was not possible to undo all the societal affects of The Fall at the time that the New Testament was written, we can identify clues within Scripture which show where the trajectory lies, enabling us to continue the reform that the early church started.  Webb, Slaves, Women and Homosexuals, 35-38.

[20] Cf. Carolyn Mahaney & Nicole Mahaney Whitacre, Girl Talk: Mother-Daughter Conversations on Biblical Womanhood  (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2005), 144.

[21] Cf. 1 Cor 11:4-7.