Confronting Paul’s View on Women

Desiring to justify God’s commands, Christians sometimes try to ground a picture of marriage in gendered psychology.

Some suggest that women are natural followers, while men are natural leaders. But the primary command to men is to love, not to lead, and I have never heard anyone argue that men are naturally better at loving. Some claim that men need respect while women need love, or that we are given commands corresponding to natural deficiencies: women are better at love; men are better at respect.

But to look at human history and say that men naturally respect women is to stick your head in the sand with a blindfold on!

At best, these claims about male and female psychology are generalizations. At worst, they cause needless offense and give way to exceptions: if these commands are given because wives are naturally more submissive, and I find that I am a more natural leader than my husband, does that mean we can switch roles?

Ephesians 5 grounds our roles in marriage not on gendered psychology but on Christ-centered theology.

AN EPHESIANS-5 VIEW OF MARRIAGE

Ephesians 5 sticks like a burr in our twenty-first-century ears because centuries of “traditional” gender roles have often meant wives contorting around the needs of their husbands, while husbands assert their dominance. We think of the stereotypes gently mocked by the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins.

But Paul does not say that the husband’s needs come first, or that women are less gifted in leadership than men, or that women should not work outside the home. At least one of Paul’s key ministry partners was a woman who did just that, as did the idealized wife described in the Old Testament book of Proverbs.

Paul does not specify that wives should earn less than their husbands, or that families should privilege the husband’s career over the wife’s. A man may work for a nonprofit, pastor a church, or study for a PhD and earn a fraction of his wife’s corporate salary.

Paul is clear elsewhere that men cannot abdicate their responsibility to ensure that their families are provided for. But this does not mean the husband must be the primary breadwinner. In biblical terms, the value of work is measured not in dollars but in service. Indeed, Jesus himself, the archetypal leader, did not earn money, and he was financially dependent on some of his female followers (Luke 8:2–3).

Viewed closely, Ephesians 5 is a withering critique of common conceptions of ‘traditional’ gender roles.

Viewed closely, Ephesians 5 is a withering critique of common conceptions of “traditional” gender roles that have often amounted to privileging men and patronizing women. In the drama of marriage, the wife’s needs come first, and the husband’s drive to prioritize himself is cut down with the brutal axe of the gospel.

This is a call to pay attention to the character of Christ. If we hear the call to husbands as a mandate to oppress and dominate, we are forgetting that Jesus came not to be served but to serve, not to lead an army but to give his life as a ransom. When husbands are called to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” the word translated “gave up” is the same one the Gospels use where Jesus is handed over to be crucified.

THE ULTIMATE MAN

We will never understand the Bible’s call on men and women unless we see Jesus as the ultimate man. He had strength to command storms, summon angel armies, and defeat death. But his arms held little children, his words elevated women, and his hands reached out to heal the sick. Jesus drove traders out of the temple with a whip. But he tenderly welcomed the outcast and weak.

After he had been mocked, beaten, and abused by his guards, Jesus was displayed to the crowds wearing a crown of thorns and a purple robe to ridicule his kingly claim. The Roman governor Pilate announced, “Behold the man!” (John 19:5). These words drip with irony. Jesus, beaten and humiliated out of love for his people, was and is the perfect man. No one who uses the Bible’s teaching on marriage to justify chauvinism, abuse, or denigration of women has looked at Jesus.

We will never understand the Bible’s call on men and women unless we see Jesus as the ultimate man.

The marriage metaphor finds its fulfillment in the Bible’s final book. The apostle John hears what seems like the voice of a great multitude crying out,

The marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready. (Rev. 19:7)

Here, two massive metaphors collide. Jesus as husband is the sacrificial Lamb, reinforcing the link between husbanding and loving sacrifice. An angel declares, “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:9).

Later in Revelation, Jerusalem is pictured as Christ’s bride: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth,” writes John, “for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21:1–2; see also 21:9–10). After long ages of failure and unfaithfulness, God’s people are finally married to Jesus, their sacrificing Husband-King.

The marriage metaphor finds its last outlet in the final chapter of the Bible, bonded with another visceral metaphor: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Rev. 22:17).

A FAITH THAT ELEVATES WOMEN

Jesus offered living water first to a woman: a woman who, because of her race, religion, sex, and sexual history, would have been beneath the contempt of a respectable rabbi. He asked her for a drink. Then he claimed that whoever drank the water he could give would never be thirsty again, but that that water would become in them a spring of water, welling up to eternal life (John 4:13–14).

Springing from this well, this strange new first-century faith flowing out of Judaism proved highly attractive to women. Sociologist Rodney Stark has shown from a wide array of textual and archaeological sources that the early church was majority female. This is particularly striking, given that the Greco-Roman world in the first and second centuries was disproportionately male, due to selective infanticide of baby girls and the high proportion of maternal deaths in child birth. Indeed, early Christianity was mocked by outsiders for its appeal to women.

The status of women was raised in the church. Paul’s inclusion of nine women among the ministry partners he lists at the end of his letter to the Romans is one evidence among many that women played a major role in the first-century spread of the Christian message. Roman families often gave their prepubescent daughters away in marriage, but Christian women could marry later. They also “benefited from Christian condemnation of traditional male prerogatives in regard to divorce, incest, infidelity, polygamy, and female infanticide.”

If Paul’s instructions on marriage are shocking to our modern ears, they would have shocked his first hearers for precisely opposite reasons: their radical elevation of women.


Content taken from Confronting Christianity by Rebecca McLaughlin, ©2019. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.

Rebecca McLaughlin holds a PhD in renaissance literature from Cambridge University and a theology degree from Oak Hill College in London. She is cofounder of Vocable Communications and former vice president of content at the Veritas Forum, where she spent almost a decade working with Christian academics at leading secular universities.