There’s a joke I’ve heard and read several times over the past few years, you may have heard it too. It goes something like this:

There was a Christian conference in South Africa, where, in accordance with the cultural norm the women are usually the bosses. At this conference the husbands were invited to come forward for counselling, and were all asked to divide into one of two groups -those who felt dominated by their wives, and those who didn’t. Virtually every man went off to join the group for men who felt dominated by their wives. When the counsellor went to the group of those who didn’t, he found only one man. “Are you the only man here who isn’t dominated by his wife?” “I don’t know really.” He replied. “In fact I don’t know what this group is. I’m here because this is where my wife told me to go.”

On the other hand, the opposite is exemplified in this observation made by a Baptist friend of mine after a lecture tour he made to the USA. He went to a campus in S. Alabama just after visiting a campus in Chicago and was amazed by the young women of this southern university, who always appeared beautifully groomed, polite, and obedient. From Chicago in the North down to Beeson in the South is a world away, in both campuses the students have American politeness and friendliness in the north the girl students are assertive, and dress in practical jeans, in the south they are demure, dress immaculately and agree with you, the young men call you Sir, just like when they are talking to their dads. The contrast could not have been starker.

I know these are characterizations based on external observations and need to be qualified in the individual particulars, but on first impressions these most obvious differences raises the question, which of these two societies is more Christian? South Africa or the Southern States of America? In both, there is a very high proportion of church-going and a high proportion of those in church are ‘genuine’ believers but the women dominate in one and are submissive in the other, though it should be pointed out that the churches of South Africa teach that women should submit to their husbands, and most are happy with this, they are happy because this just helps to re-adjust the balance. I guess you might say it depends a lot on the culture that dominates, its influences and what you are used to. It may even change from marriage to marriage within a society and from person to person depending on the tradition of their family of origin or personal belief system. The only problem with this is that the Bible appears to be very proscriptive Ephesians is not the only place where women are told to ‘submit’ you find the same thing in Col.3, 1Pet.2-3; 1Tim.2, 6. They all teach the same three-fold submission to the man of the house, the wife, the children and the servants should all submit to him (though 1 Pet. and 1 Tim omits the children).

Mind you, this same three-fold submission is also taught elsewhere, you find it in Jewish writings of the time, you also find it in Greek and Roman moral writings of the time too, even the Egyptian Isis religion claimed to follow this, when in Rome because they followed a pattern for a perfect family laid down by Aristotle. Lauded as perhaps the greatest of Greek philosophers, he was elevated to godlike status among his contemporaries and was for the Christians of later times considered on a par with Moses and even Jesus himself. Aristotle taught on a great many subjects, including household management. His skill lay in grouping similar things together into categories, so when he looked at households, he looked for a single relationship, he found that submission could describe all relationships in a household. He wrote: “household management falls into departments corresponding to the parts of which the household ... is composed... the primary and the smallest parts of the household are the master and slave, husband and wife, father and children.” (Politics 1.3.1) So everyone in the Graeco-Roman world of a couple of millennia ago agreed with this observation of the demigod Aristotle on household management. In this structure the household, which by the way is very different to ours today, had a three-fold structure based on submission to its head, the wife to her husband, children to their father and slaves to their master and this was the basis of family morality. The head of the household was also held responsible for the behaviour of all in the household, children, even grown up children and their spouses, women and slaves had no standing at all before the law Greek or Roman. When politicians today talk about ‘family values’ what do they mean? If I were a cynic I might say it usually means ‘caring for each other’ to save on expense for Social Services. The politicians and moralists of the NT times also liked ‘family values’ but they meant ‘submission to the head of the house’. This helped prevent social unrest, the slaves wouldn’t revolt, the youngsters wouldn’t carouse too much and the wives would stay at home and have children instead of corrupting them. It seems these were all big problems in NT times, especially female immorality (often of necessity) and Aristotle’s teaching on submission to the head of the house, the householder, the oldest living male relative, who alone had political power and standing before the law was seen as a cure-all. Though in practical terms it’s hard and uncompromising nature created many problems, particularly in our context for converts to Christianity, in the first couple of centuries of this common era.

So did the NT especially in some of the epistles simply parrot the essential teaching or doctrines of the Greaco-Roman society in which they were living? On the face of it, ‘submission’ of this sort in the context of the times, is a strange teaching for Christians in light of our Lord’s words in the gospels. Jesus appears to teach the opposite, for instance, The first shall be last and the last first, he told his disciples to stop trying to be the boss, but be a servant. He himself took on the role of a servant, at the Last Supper he said: Let no-one call themselves Master, Lord, Father, Rabbi Matt.23: 8-12 “But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi’, for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father’, for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher’, for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. In fact it seems that the Roman authorities considered these teachings, strange though it may be to us, as subversive of public morality.

The OT is hardly full of submissive women though we tend to ignore most of the strong, assertive women whose stories are recorded there. For instance do you remember the story of Othniel and Achsah? A very short, puzzling, badly edited/translated story perhaps, but as it is told twice, in Joshua 15 and Judges 1 and reading somewhat between the lines perhaps it is more significant than we realize at first. On one level it can certainly give us an all too brief window on the love relationship of these 2 young people and how they both related to their father/uncle. They appear not unlike and ourselves in some ways. Achsah’s relationship with her father is certainly not one of submission “And Caleb said, He that smiteth Kirjathsepher, and taketh it, to him will I give Achsah my daughter to wife. And Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb’s younger brother, took it: and he gave him Achsah his daughter to wife. And it came to pass, when she came to him, that she moved him to ask of her father a field: and she lighted from off her ass; and Caleb said unto her, What wilt thou? And she said unto him, Give me a blessing: for thou hast given me a southland; give me also springs of water. And Caleb gave her the upper springs and the nether springs.”
Achsah’s father, Caleb, it seems was a very formidable and difficult man. He, together with Joshua were the only men to survive the 40 years in the wilderness and to go into the land. He, helping clear the promised land of its former inhabitants, led the assault of Judah against the idol worshipping Canaanites. On the verge of one particular attack he said, probably for the benefit of Othniel, as we have just read: to marry my daughter, you have to attack and defeat the town of Debir.

Othniel, son of his youngest brother was no coward, except perhaps when it came to facing his prospective father-in-law, immediately took up the challenge. He led the attack and defeated the town of Kiriathsepher. But even then, it seems, Caleb only gave a small piece of dry desert as their dowry. Achsah said to Othniel: Go and demand a bigger dowry from my father. Othniel refused all of Achsah’s urging. I guess he was scared of offending or in some way upsetting Caleb. Eventually Achsah it seems stormed off on her own donkey and went to her father herself. She was not afraid of him and though it is written in deferential language, as custom demanded she insisted it seems that he gave them some land with springs on it.

I brought up this story because there is an interesting thing about its translation into the Greek. When it was translated about 200BC, women were supposed to be submissive and the translators felt strongly enough about this to even change this somewhat obscure story. So instead of Achsah telling Othniel to ask for springs, he tells her to ask. The church used the Greek translation until the time of Jerome but now that we use the Hebrew OT, we just ignore the story instead, reading over it.

In making a list of significant faithful women in the OT we easily remember Deborah, Rahab, Tamar, Esther, etc but what about the other Tamar (the one in Genesis) or Jehosheba? Her story is also told twice in the Bible but I’ve never heard it mentioned either. Are these strong women an anomaly we’d rather not talk about? Are we somewhat embarrassed by their assertiveness? Their stories certainly are challenging to any preconceived notions we may have of the submissive role of women in the church or ecclesia.

2 Kings 11: 2 and 2 Chron. 22: 11 are the parallel references for Jehosheba. “And when Athaliah the mother of Ahaziah saw that her son was dead, she arose and destroyed all the seed royal. But Jehosheba, the daughter of king Joram, sister of Ahaziah, took Joash the son of Ahaziah, and stole him from among the king’s sons which were slain; and they hid him, even him and his nurse, in the bedchamber from Athaliah, so that he was not slain. And he was with her hid in the house of the LORD six years. And Athaliah did reign over the land. We could even suggest Athaliah or Jezebel were examples though negative, of non-submissive women who would not have even rated a mention had they along with all women not had some status in Israel. Under the law as we read it in the Torah women’s rights were protected but by NT times the rabbis and others had argued away all these on the basis of the Gen. story of Eve being beguiled by the serpent, so by then women in Israel were second class citizens and on a par with their gentile counterparts.

But before we get back there lets take a quick look at Sarah. We are used to hearing that Sarah called her husband ‘Lord’ as quoted by Paul, but in those days that was the normal word for ‘husband’. But it was she who took charge when her husband Abraham was of two minds in the issue of his progeny. Lets quickly look at what happened with Hagar, her servant/slave? Abraham doubting that God would give them a son as promised was discussing his dilemma with Sarah. She suggested, as per the custom of the time that he have a child by Hagar her body slave instead, to which Abraham readily agreed, so Ishmael who was born in Abraham’s house and part of his household became his heir. As a consequence Hagar taunted Sarah. Over time the taunting turned to hatred and they were often bickering. Eventually Sarah said in effect: I can’t stand this any more. DO something. Abraham replies: She’s your servant. Do whatever you like. So Sarah threw Hagar her adversary out into the desert, with her son. The angel who came to her rescue told Hagar to return, but to stop taunting Sarah denigrating her and lording it over her. Things were better for a few years till after Isaac was born then Ishmael who had picked up on the less than friendly relationship between Sarah and Hagar was discovered taunting, bullying and abusing his younger half brother. Again Sarah was the one who decided something had to be done so she went to Abraham saying: Your son is being bullied get rid of Hagar and her son, for the sake of your son Isaac. But Abraham didn’t want to, because he loved his son Ishmael so he asked God. His answer is often glossed over in exhorts or Bible studies or explained away somehow. God told Abraham to do what his wife told him: Sarah said to Abraham in Gen.21: 10-13, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son, for that slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with my son Isaac.” The matter distressed Abraham greatly because he had great affection for his son. But God said to him, “Do not be so distressed about the boy and your maidservant. Listen to whatever Sarah tells you, because it is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned. I will make the son of the maidservant into a nation also, because he is your offspring.”

But the NT world was different, things had changed over the years, the rule of the day as we have seen was submission to the householder, who may not have been the husband but his father, uncle or whoever was the oldest male. So is Paul simply bending Scripture to agree with then present-day morality? Well, of course not because he gives a Christian perspective on that morality. Firstly he quotes the present-day morality and then says: BUT... “Women submit BUT men should show servant love. The word is agapao which means to entertain (think of nicely), to be fond of, to love dearly. Of things it is to be well pleased, to be contented, like Jesus who loved unconditionally
5.25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her
He says, “Children submit BUT fathers should not exasperate them.
6.4 Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. He says: Slaves submit BUT masters should treat them as equals “And masters, treat your slaves like God does. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favouritism with him”. In other words Paul says: Yes, wives, children and slaves should submit BUT, husbands, fathers, masters should also act submissively. Husbands should love like Jesus did, who gave himself up like a servant for the ultimate benefit of His household. Fathers should gently instruct their children, a role normally left to slaves and they shouldn’t exasperate their children with needless rules and masters should treat their slaves who were not either greek or roman citizens like equals, in other words, the head of the household also needs to also submit like God does. So Paul summarises all this in the opening of v.21: Submit to each other 5.21 “Submit to one another out of reverence for (the) Christ”. He doesn’t mean: Some of you submit to the others of you he means: all of you submit to each of you. We should all like Paul follow the example of Jesus, who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant/slave, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross”. He was a servant of all and yet in no way subservient to other men.

On these grounds we should all be willing to submit to each other and never demand that someone else submits to us because of some position of authority we may hold. Jesus says clearly that we should not lord it over other people and Paul’s teaching consistent with that of Jesus does not suggest otherwise, he is only trying to address the balance in a highly competitive society; there are no alpha males in this ‘tribe’.

He is in effect saying don’t follow the norm of Graeco-Roman society in so far as it clashes with the rule of Love, to do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and submit i.e. the women, children and slaves should submit to the man of the house BUT he also says the man of the house is to submit to them all. In sacrificial love to his wife, sacrificing his freedom as a teaching slave to his children, and sacrificing his reputation, as a fellow servant to his servants. It is not mutual submission as some have represented it but mutual respect, and love, which is non-conditional. Life is not a competition to be won at any cost. Subject or submit means “a voluntary attitude of giving in, cooperating, assuming responsibility, and carrying a burden". Agapao means to welcome, to entertain, to be fond of, to love dearly, of things it is to be well pleased, to be contented. This was not the social norm in Graeco-Roman society that was codified in the law. The concept of marriage had nothing to do with love but everything to do with social, political and economic alliances in a highly competitive and materialistic society. Under this social arrangement, and it varies from Caesar to Caesar, a woman it could be said, never really left her father’s house, nor a man his, there was too much materialistically at stake, she didn’t have to take on the responsibility of forming a new partnership nor cooperate with this man who was her so called ‘husband’. Having thus said we see that these teachings are in complete agreement with the biblical metanarrative, we love Him because He first loved us. As we have it, it is a story not of the assertion of autonomy in domination, but of grace and free response from the heart. In this story all including freedom is given by God.

The world, our being in it, and redemption from the mess we make of it - all are God's gift, which always precedes God's reasonable requirements of us, for love is the natural in-between. This is part of the significance of the fact that law and commands in the Bible are contextualized within its narrative. Authority belongs in the first place to the story of God's gracious self-giving to us, not because He occupies a place at the top of some kind of supposed hierarchic structure, like some kind of Greek god dispensing justice and mercy at a whim. In this context the authority of his will for us, expressed in commands, is the authority of his grace, for He first loved us. Our response to grace is not the constrained submission of the slave, but the free obedience of love. The word obedience or obedient when used of Jesus in Phil means literally, to hear under. Its paradigm is: 'I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart' (Ps 40:8). This is neither the autonomy that is contradicted by any authority nor the heteronomy that experiences authority as alien subjection to the will of another. It is the obedience to God of those who already glimpse the eschatological identity of their best desires with God's, who recognize God's will as the desire of their own hearts, whose experience of God's love makes love the freely chosen goal of their lives. Freedom is here not the rejection of all limits, but the free acceptance of those self imposed limits of the self, which enable loving relationships.

Obedience is demanding, but it is no more heteronymous than the athlete's acceptance of the demanding regime that she knows to be the way to the goals she has set herself. But as is often the case with the athlete the goal diminishes in importance when it is realized that it is the learning experience of life that is more important. (The postmodernist critique at this point consists in the appeal to diversity: there are an indefinite variety of life-goals one may choose, and to pronounce one better than others is impose one's own choice on others. But this, it might seem is the philosophy of consumerism, which exalts choice as the supreme freedom in itself, irrespective of the content of choice or the means whereby it is achieved.) Because obedience to God, whose rules of living is the true law of my own being, is different in kind from obedience to human authorities, we struggle to understand it as the biblical writers struggle with analogies for it. The analogy of ‘servants’ or ‘slaves’ obedience to their master or ‘subjects’ obedience to their king is frequent, but transmuted by paradox: “As slaves of God, live as free people’ (1 Pet 2:16), ‘the perfect law, the law of liberty’ (Jas 1:25). In John 15:14-15 Jesus says: ‘You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.’ It is not here the language of command and obedience that is dropped, but the requirement of blind obedience to the arbitrary rules of men, which make slaves of human beings. Like Jesus himself in obedience to his Father, his friends know what is the aim which his commandments, his rules of living, have in view, and they accept that aim. But within the relationship of grace, which enables this kind of enlightened obedience to God's will, there remain, while we still live by faith, occasions for obedience in sheer faith without understanding.

Jesus, who obeyed his Father's will in perfect understanding of it (so that the paradigm of Ps 40:8 applies pre-eminently to him), is the limit-case on the one side. Abraham, the friend of God (Isa 40:8) to whom God made known his purposes (Gen 18:17-19), but who had to obey the command to sacrifice Isaac in completely uncomprehending trust (Gen 22:1-14), is the limit-case on the other side. But, despite the offence the command to sacrifice of Isaac unavoidably causes to modernist and postmodernist outlooks alike, even it is not the subjection to heteronomy it would be if it stood alone, outside the context of the wider story of Abraham and the wider story of the Bible. In context it is obedience to the God who, the story of his grace shows, can be trusted in spite of appearances, for all things work together for ‘good’ in the law of love, the perfect law of liberty which casts out fear. Abraham's obedience is the measure of the extent to which he has made this gracious God's will the desire of his own heart, in the trust that is born of love the natural in-between implicit in the heart of a child. These are stories from the heart, stories that will last another thousand years.


© John Stibbs, January 2005