Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body. Therefore, just as the church is subject to Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in everything.
- Eph. 5:22-24
But I want you to know that the head of every man is Christ, the head of woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.
- 1 Cor. 11:3
Man is the head of woman … what does that mean? I don’t mean, “What does the Bible mean by submission?” which is a fairly rich topic in itself and one that perhaps does deserve a blog post at some later time. But that topic has gotten a fair amount of play already in various sources. What I’d like to discuss today is a topic that I feel has gotten significantly less play: when is man the head of woman? Or, more specifically, when should a woman submit to a man?
Hitherto I have generally held a vague and uncritical belief that because a wife should submit to a husband in all things (and, therefore, because a husband should lead a wife in all things), it follows that a boyfriend should lead a girlfriend somewhat less, and that any given adult male should lead any given adult female in lesser degrees according to their specific relational context; I would bear a greater leadership responsibility with respect to Blue Rose than I would with respect to a female attorney at work, to whom I would bear a greater leadership responsibility than I would with respect to a woman I met on the street. There is something kind of pleasingly intuitive to this kind of move, which tends to see male-female relationships on a more or less unbroken continuum of intimacy with “strangers” at one end and “married” at the other.
However, it is a move, an exegetical maneuver. Nowhere does Scripture inform me in so many words that I must lead my girlfriend somewhat less than I must lead my wife, and that I must lead my girl friends somewhat less than that. And while the move is somewhat pleasingly intuitive, it becomes less so if one considers certain scenarios. Rose is dating a man now, for instance – does the Bible envision her submitting somewhat more to him than she does to me, but submitting nonetheless to both of us? What about my own mother? One might suppose she falls closer on the intimacy scale than any of my female friends, but it is not at all intuitive to me that my mother should submit to me more than they should. The move from “wives should submit to their husbands” to “women should submit to men” has a fairly good pedigree, but it’s not the only position out there with a good pedigree, and I’d like to discuss whether that’s what Scripture actually teaches.
To begin with, then, it’s worth pointing out that Koine Greek has no distinct word for husband or wife. Once upon a time Greek did have such words, but by the first century those words had long fallen out of general use and surfaced only occasionally as archaisms in poetry. Koine expresses the concept of husband by using the word man in a way that makes the distinction clear from context, and similarly for the concept of wife being expressed by the word woman.
If you think about it, this is not especially strange unless you live in a culture with an appreciable number of single adults. Unfortunately, since we do live in such a culture, it presents certain interpretive difficulties for us. The key texts to consider, I think, are 1 Cor. 11:3 and Eph. 5:23. If you take a look at the Ephesians verse in context, I think you will agree with me that we are justified in translating the words man and woman in that passage as husband and wife. Without spinning a philological argument here, notice that Paul speaks of a man loving his own woman and a woman loving her own man in verses 22 and 28. He clearly meant husband and wife in those verses, and since he had to rely on context to make the distinction clear in the first place, it seems unlikely that Paul would suddenly switch back to meaning man and woman in verse 23. For the same reason, it seems rather unjustified to translate 1 Cor. 11:3 as meaning husband and wife. If you look at the rest of the passage, Paul doesn’t seem to give any linguistic clues that he means a specific man (i.e., a husband) or a specific woman (i.e., a wife). And the point he’s making is about propriety in worship, which certainly doesn’t seem like the sort of topic that’s unique to the husband-wife relationship.
And there, I think, is the rub: it is in 1 Corinthians that Paul says man, generally, is the head of woman. But he does not go on to elaborate what he means by that, except that it has some sort of implications for modesty. It is in Ephesians where he talks about submission, and he never says that women should submit to men. He only says that women should submit to their own men - and this despite apparently believing that man, generally, is the head of woman, generally. Whatever that means.
I admit the case is not airtight, but I see no explicit Scriptural warrant for the proposition that girlfriends should submit to boyfriends, and so on down the continuum of intimacy. I don’t see any explicit Scriptural rejection of that proposition either, but as Archimedes said, you’ll have to walk me through the argument. So far I can’t think of an argument that is more convincing than the plain reading that the only man a woman must submit to is her own. And since the idea that men should lead woman is implicit in the concept of submission in Ephesians, it follows then that the only woman a man must lead is his own.
This is not, of course, to say that these are the only men and women a man or woman can lead. Principles of leadership and submission are, I think, absolutely inescapable in social groupings. A supervising female attorney does bear a responsibility to lead me, and I do bear a responsibility to submit to her. But I submit that that responsibility is contractual, as it were, and not an ineluctable fact about the universe. If I want that responsibility to terminate, all I have to do is not be under her supervision. Nothing will terminate my responsibility to lead my wife. And when it comes to boyfriends and girlfriends, this isn’t to say that it’s not a good idea for a girlfriend to submit to her boyfriend in some limited capacity, and for a boyfriend to lead his girlfriend in some limited capacity. The entire boyfriend-girlfriend relationship is socially invented, after all, and if we’re going to defend it I think it has to be on the basis of preparing the dating couple for marriage. If that’s our justification, then it certainly makes sense for the two to start practicing leadership and submission to one another while it’s still voluntary. But that’s just good sense. Nor am I proposing that it is bad for people to relate that way if they are inclined to do so and they can do so without causing anybody else to stumble.
Why, then, is this relevant at all? I think it’s a question of expectations and demands. If it’s true that women generally are to submit in all things to men generally, then there’s something wrong when that doesn’t happen. Every woman I know ought to demand that I lead in our relationship; egalitarianism is not an option. And of course since every woman I know ought to demand that every man they know lead in their relationship, we will in all likelihood have to develop an elaborate and extra-Biblical system to govern who submits to whom in what circumstances. Now of course you can do that, and to a certain extent I think people already have. But if women are to submit to men generally, then it’s wrong if we haven’t. I mean, is that really what we’re called to? I’m inclined to think not.
Having left out the discussion of what it means to submit to a husband in all things, I think I have skipped over some of the nuances here – obviously there is a sense in which women are supposed to submit to men, inasmuch as we are called to submit to each other. But I think you get what I mean, and I’m curious as to what you think about the matter. I can’t promise to respond to everything (I’m not necessarily looking to get into a debate here), but I would like your opinions. And more importantly your Scriptural interpretations.