Monday, July 17, 2017

What does the Bible say about Gender Roles?

This essay was developed from preparation for a four-week Bible study. The members of the original study group were unmarried men and women ages 18-29. Several group members requested the teaching notes, so I fleshed them out into this essay for clarity.

Understanding the Bible’s teachings on gender is foundational for understanding God’s plan for marriage and family, order and administration within the church, and a number of other aspects of our identity and relationships in the Lord. Given the propensity for this topic to produce controversy and misunderstandings, we’ll first review some basic assumptions about understanding the Bible, explore the fundamentals of what the Bible says about male and female gender, discuss biblical perspectives on sexuality, and then work out a scriptural understanding of gender roles in the family and church.

Background Assumptions
It is always good to ground any study of Scripture in sound hermeneutics, but this is especially true when seeking to understand teaching that is prone to misrepresentation in both church and society, and a teaching that underpins much of our identity in relation to God, the church, and one another. Several basic principles of sound biblical interpretation that I find helpful to keep in mind are:
     1.     Allow the Bible to interpret the Bible
     2.     Give primacy to directly stated commands and explanations and cling tightly to these truths (especially those repeated across Scripture)
     3.     Seek to understand the context of a teaching: how a verse fits into a passage, a passage within a book, a book within the rest of Scripture; how the teaching fits into the context of other teachings on the topic (see principle 1, above) and how it fits into its literary and historical context 
4.    Repeated themes, allusions, allegories, and the like can provide useful enrichment of our understanding of Scripture, but these muse be subordinate to clear and direct teaching (so hold loosely to these ideas, but do not neglect them)
     5.     Romans 1 teaches us that much can be known about God by observing His creation. But, again, these principles must be interpreted against clear teaching in Scripture, and should not be the basis for any significant theological conclusion.

If we fail at any of the above steps, we will quickly and certainly arrive at a “Christianish“ theology. It may sound good and correct, but it is ultimately at variance with Scripture. In Christianish theology, we approach Scripture with our worldview guiding our interpretation. This, in turn, often results in neglecting teachings that do not conform to our existing biases and focusing on teachings that do. Many of the great tragedies of Christendom were perpetrated under the justifications of Christianish theology. At a personal level, Christianish theology results in a person who claims citizenship in the kingdom of Christ, but whose way of thinking and living varies little from that of the world and culture around them. Ultimately we are all prone toward Christianish theology, because worldview is an incredibly powerful force.

The alternative is to approach Scripture in a manner that recognizes its authority for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training us in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16), and to allow it to transform us by renewing our minds (Romans 12:2). As we approach Scripture to understand a topic that comes with so much cultural baggage, it is imperative that we do so with a sense of humility and a willingness to allow Scripture to transform our way of thinking. (A good exercise that helps me be mindful of the God of Scripture is to read and reflect on Job 38. Job had been receiving a lot of advice that was “Christianish” in nature, and in chapter 38 God seeks to reboot Job’s theological perspective. You might pause here and read and reflect on it now before continuing.)

My goal here is to allow Scripture to speak for itself. As you proceed, I encourage you to read each verse or passage for yourself and reflect on it before reading my comments. Also, while I strive to be thorough, this is not meant to be an exhaustive treatment of the topic. Our focus is on reviewing a good cross-section of Scripture to lay a foundation for thinking about gender from God’s perspective.

Foundational Principles from First Woman and Man
In Genesis 1:26-28, we learn:
·       Male and female both created in God’s image
·       Male and female both ordered to be fruitful and multiply
·       Male and female both given dominion over created things

Read Genesis 2:7 & 21-23. Compare how God created the first male and how God created the first female. What was similar, what was different? Why were the methods different?
Here we learn:
·       Male was created from two components: dust of the earth and breath of God, giving us our temporal and our eternal natures
·       There was nothing wrong with Adam, but God declared it was “not good” for him to be alone (and the animals, plants, and everything else in creation did not satisfy that aloneness)
·       Note that this is the state of things BEFORE any sin, and this occurred in the absolutely perfect environment of the Garden of Eden; that is, our need for human companionship was built into us by the Creator
·       So God made a “helper” who was “like” Adam; that is, at the most fundamental level, male and female are alike

A few additional questions emerge. Why the different creative methods for the male and the female? Apart from the obvious, that God is sovereign and can make whom He wants how He wants, it seems reasonable to conclude that the first human was fundamentally complete, that the creative material (e.g., genetic material) needed to make an infinite number of humans was already in place. In short, He didn't need to create Eve from the dirt because He encoded Adam with material capable of generating the entire species.

Also, why God chose the rib is a mystery, but its symbolism suggests that, being drawn from the male's side, the female is equal (as head and feet are the body parts typically used in Scripture to represent leadership or submission).

In Genesis 2:24, the creative process described above is cited as the reason a husband and wife are considered “one flesh,” and also provides the biblical foundation for marriage as being between a man and a woman. In Genesis 2:25, we learn that both of them were naked, but felt no shame. There is much we could discuss about this, but it is beyond the scope of our current purpose. Suffice it to say that because sin had not yet been introduced into the world, shame also did not yet exist.

Read Genesis 3:1-7. Here we learn that Satan (via the serpent) tempted Eve. It’s not clear that he targeted her because she was a woman or was somehow inferior. Possible interpretation is that he did so because she may not have been created yet when God gave the actual command regarding the tree, which is supported by the serpent's initial appeal to doubt (“Did God really say...”).

It's also worth noting that the serpent's two tactics for tempting Eve are the ones that Satan still uses to great effect today, especially with regard to sexuality. On the one hand there is the “Did God really say that?” attack. We see the effectiveness in this strategy where things like divorce, out-of-wedlock sexual activity, lust, and same-sex sexual intimacy are ignored or even endorsed in Christian churches. “Did God really say that you can't have sex until you're married?” On the other hand is the exaggeration of the actual prohibition (God stated clearly that they could eat from every other tree, but the serpent twisted the prohibition to be against eating from trees in general). We can see the effectiveness of this tactic in teaching that implies that sex in general is a bad thing or that a person should endure any and all kinds of abuse rather than divorce.

A variation on this temptation is when the enemy prods us toward making a moral behavior a sort of idol. Like all temptation, the goal isn't necessarily to lead us into debauchery, but to cause to be out of step with God's purposes, the result of which is bearing witness to a gospel that is not Christ's Gospel. We see the effect of this temptation in practices that elevate sexual purity to its own end (as opposed to being a function of the Holy Spirit's transformative work in the life of a believer seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness) and programs that seek to replace same-sex attraction with heterosexual attraction.

Read Genesis 3:16-19. Here we learn that the female’s punishment is enhanced pain in childbirth (but note pain resolves after childbirth, John 16:21) and being subject to her husband. Note that it doesn’t say all women subject to all men. It's also worth noting that the Hebrew grammar here allows for a number of reasonable interpretations of the nature and direction of the woman's “desire” for her husband and the husband's contrasting “rule” over her. We won't try to unpackage all of that here. Suffice it to say that it would be unwise to build much in the way of dogma on Genesis 3:16. The male’s punishment is on the earth itself, a result of which is that work becomes a struggle in ways it wasn’t before; until this point, the earth was simply fruitful.

We can infer some principles from these punishments (though, because this isn’t the explicit teaching of the passage, we need to infer with caution). Because this sin was fundamental, it is reasonable to suggest that God’s punishments for each likely addresses each person’s fundamental source of worth. For Eve, the punishment suggests that the ability to produce other humans is foundational, so it was this ability that God allowed to become tainted with pains and other things to make childbirth lose some of its dignity. For Adam, the source of pride is the ability to be productive and to provide, and so obstacles are put in place to hinder that productivity. These verses have also been interpreted to suggest that the husband's fundamental role is to provide and the wife's is to bear children. While this interpretation is not unreasonable, it would be unwise to use these verses as a primary justification for hard and fast role assignments. Much more importantly, notice also that the serpent’s punishment is carried out by the “seed of the woman.” God put the woman, despite her sin, in a central role in His redemptive plan.

Additional Examples of Women in Scripture
Working our way through the Bible, we find some historical examples of roles that women have played. In Exodus, women were central to preserving Moses, and Moses’ sister became a key player in God’s delivering His people out of Egypt. Similarly, Rahab was key to preserving Israel during the conquest of Canaan (and she became a direct ancestor of Jesus); Deborah led Israel as a “prophetess and judge” (Judges 4); the books of Ruth and Esther are studies of women God used in special ways (and Ruth is also an ancestor of Jesus). Proverbs 31:10-31 describe the hallmarks of a good wife. Note that she doesn’t exactly stay at home barefoot and pregnant. Job gave his daughters an inheritance like sons (Job 42:15).

Though the 12 disciples were men, there were women in the larger group of disciples who “followed him and helped him” (Mark 15:40-41). Mary and Martha were Jesus’ close friends. Christ appeared first to women after his resurrection, and women factored heavily in the work and ministry of the early church in Acts (including being imprisoned for their faith).

These are just a few examples. I reference them to highlight the fact that the modern American view that biblical womanhood somehow equates to a 1950s housewife doesn’t bear up under scrutiny. However, this is not an essay about biblical womanhood. The key point is that any differences the Bible describes between the roles of men and women are not based on any sort of inequality of worth or ability. In fact, the only fundamental differences the Bible describes are biological distinctions which manifest in sexuality and procreation.

Gender Roles and Sexuality
Because the most foundational differences between men and women are biological differences related to sexuality and procreation, sexuality is always at least a subtext in any consideration of biblical views of gender. Similarly, the sexual relationship between men and women is a pervasive symbol throughout Scripture of the relationship between God and His people. This is why sexuality is emphasized so much in Scripture, why sexual sins are often singled out as more egregious than other sins, and why sexual sins are often described in such a way that suggests they are the clearest measuring stick for an individual’s and a people’s relationship with God.

For an extremely gritty example of sexuality as a symbol of a person or people’s relationship with God, I refer you to Ezekiel 23. I highly recommend reading it in the Holman Christian Standard Bible. This passage illustrates that sexual purity is a symbol of devotion to God (and God’s devotion to us) and sexual immorality is a symbol of idolatry. This concept is also mirrored in Romans 1:21-23 & 24-27.

In Romans 13:13-14, Paul contrasts between impurity (including sexual immorality) and being “clothed in Christ.” Though he doesn’t cite it directly, this presents an interesting cross-reference to the Genesis account of the man and woman being naked but unashamed, then after sin being ashamed of their nakedness, a condition that ultimately could only be resolved by the covering God Himself provided by way of a blood sacrifice. This is not only a beautiful picture of sanctification, but also highlights the way that our own sexual purity—to include modesty—bears witness to God’s plan for salvation.

The most explicit links between sexual purity and devotion to God in the New Testament can be found in 1 Corinthians 6:12-20. Here we find the famous overturning of the “food for the stomach and the stomach for food” argument, which can be thought of as the first century version of more modern sentiments like “if it feels good do it”, or more sophisticated appeals to natural science and biology to justify any sort of sexual desire. In contrast, Paul reminds the Corinthians that God will ultimately do away with both food and the body (and by extension, sex). Paul goes on to highlight that although the body was designed by God to be capable of sex, sex is not the purpose for which the body was created; rather, the body was created “for the Lord.” This passage also explicitly identifies sexual union of a husband and wife (in his citation of Genesis 2:24) as a symbol of the joining of a believer to the Lord. So, again we see that sexual purity matters because it is the purest form of devotion to God: deliberately constraining our sexual behavior to conform to God’s standards for sexual behavior is an act of worship to Him (see also Romans 12:1-2).

Elsewhere (Galatians 5:19-26), Paul contrasts the works of the flesh (including sexual immorality) with the fruits of the Spirit. In 1Thessalonians 4:3-8, Paul answers the oft-asked question of “what is God’s will” by stating that its cornerstone is abstaining from lustful desires and sexual immorality.

Therefore, sexual purity also matters because it is the most specific way God has given us to show faithful obedience and stewardship of what He’s given us (our bodies). I believe this symbolism is also related to why sex is designed to be so physically and emotionally pleasurable. Our sex differences exist for our sexuality, and our sexuality exists as the most physically and emotionally salient way that God has given us to represent the love and affection He wants us to feel in our relationship with Him. It’s the most salient way God has given us to “feel” His love and affection. (This is way beyond the explicit teaching of Scripture, but I personally believe that for the follower of Christ, heaven is going to feel like an eternal orgasm.)

Because sexuality is so important to God, we needed to understand our sexuality through His eyes before we can begin to reflect upon His teachings about the relationships between husband and wife in a marriage, which ultimately symbolize all other relationships within the family, within the church, between the believer and the Lord, and between the church and Christ. While there are a lot of ways to achieve sexual pleasure, the one that God has ordained is that between a husband and wife in a covenant marriage. When sex is used within the context of a biblical marriage, it often is practically more enjoyable, but more importantly, it carries spiritual significance in its capacity to symbolize substantial spiritual truths. When we deploy sex outside of a biblical marriage, we present an affront to the spiritual truths that God-ordained sex between a husband and wife are meant to reflect.

At this point, we’ve surveyed the Bible to get a sense for what kinds of differences exist between men and women. In general, males and females are equal in every fundamental and important way, and the differences that exist are primarily biological specialization related to sexuality and procreation. We also observed that sexual purity is one of the most fundamental ways we can worshipfully submit to God’s authority, by willfully constraining our sexual behavior to conform to God’s standards. Beyond the simple but important aspect of obedience, when our sexuality is constrained to a covenant marriage between a man and a woman, we also are able to bear witness to important spiritual truths.

It is important to have these factors in context before looking at the teachings we typically associate with gender roles. Without this context, it is easy to approach these passages from a thoroughly cultural perspective, which inevitably will distort our understanding. So, as we look at concepts such as submission, it is important to keep in mind the fundamental equality males and females possess as bearers of the image of God, and also to remember that sexuality that is subjected to God’s authority bears witness to important spiritual truths.

Submission in Relationships at Home
One of the classic passages on submission in the home is Colossians 3:18-24. However, before looking at these verses, it is helpful to look at the context in which they are offered. Specific commands for submission are preceded by a general overview of the life in the body of Christ. Before calling believers to specific standards of behavior in their homes, Paul first calls all believers to high standards of conduct within the church. Colossians 3:12-17 urge believers to treat one another with compassion, to pursue unity, and to teach and admonish one another in wisdom, doing all in the name of Jesus and while giving thanks. It is reasonable, based on the flow of the text, to regard verses 12-17 as a sort of preamble, with verses 18-24 providing some (but not comprehensive) examples of ways to live out the preceding principles within specific relationships.

Paul leads off in verse 18 by calling wives to submit to their husbands. First, and most importantly, note that he does not call women to submit to men. For a wife to submit to her husband is one of the ways she can live out the standards of Christian relationships Paul described in the preceding verses, and to do so is “fitting in the Lord.” This phrase, “as is fitting in the Lord” is open to a couple of viable readings. First, that for a wife to submit is fitting in the Lord. However, it also is reasonable to consider that wives are to submit to their husbands in ways that are fitting to the Lord; that is, Paul may be setting some parameters to the submission, more or less constraining it to submitting in things that are “fitting in the Lord.” This provides grounds for ensuring that Christian wives are not being asked to submit to abuse, for example, or to follow their husbands into crime or other sinful behavior. Another thing that is extremely important to note is that Paul is addressing wives. Obedience to this teaching is the responsibility of the Christian wife. Husbands are not directed to subjugate their wives. Just as it is fundamental to our understanding of atonement that Christ voluntarily submitted to the will of God the Father in laying down His life on our behalf, Christian marriage best images spiritual truths when submission in the marriage is voluntary, not coerced.

Paul goes on to charge husbands with loving their wives. I’ve often wondered whether the distinctive commands to husbands and wives are because these are the aspects of the relationship that often come least naturally to each party. In caricature, one might imagine the classic hen-pecking nag of a wife and the self-absorbed oaf of a husband, each needing to fundamentally change their view of their role in the relationship. In any event, husbands are to love their wives and not be bitter toward them. More on this love later.

Colossians 3 teaches children to obey and fathers not to exasperate and discourage their children. It then urges slaves to approach their work as for Christ, not for men. Slavery and worker attitudes are beyond scope here, but I think this verse is useful not only for slaves, but also for anyone in a modern employee role. Finally, Paul ties the passage together by reiterating in verse 23 an idea previewed in verse 17 about doing everything for the Lord. It is this structure that gives best support to interpreting verses 18-24 as specific applications of verses 12-17.

Peter also calls for wives to submit to their husbands, even when the husband is not a believer. In 1 Peter 3:1-2, he calls for submission of wives to their husbands in general, and suggests that if the husband is an unbeliever, his wife’s submission serves as a testimony to the Gospel which may win him over. (Note that this is not an endorsement of pursuing a relationship with an unbeliever; rather, this scenario is most likely a situation in which one party in an existing marriage becomes a follower of Christ.) In verse 7 of the same passage, husbands are directed to be tender and understanding toward their wives. This verse also contains the controversial “weaker vessel” phrase. Regarding this, we know that Peter is not endorsing some sort of fundamental inequality. First, that sort of reading runs counter to what we’ve already learned from our review of Scripture regarding fundamental inequality. But second, he straight up references equality when he calls husbands also to honor their wives as “coheirs of the grace of life.” Furthermore, the language here does not demand that the wife’s nature be understood as weaker. It may also be valid to read it as a simile, as in the NASB: “as with someone weaker.” If you need additional reassurance, I’d direct you back to Proverbs 31. The Bible’s most elaborate description of an ideal wife describes a woman who is anything but weak.

Another passage which adds some illumination to the nature of submission between a husband and a wife is 1 Corinthians 7:1-7. Note that both the husband and wife are each called to regard their own body as the property of their spouse (verse 4). Fundamental equality. Also, although it is beyond our scope here, verses 10-16 offer some thoughts from Paul about what a Christian spouse should do with regard to an unbelieving spouse. Finally, in verses 32-38, Paul reminds us that despite its value in imaging the relationship  between Christ and His Church, marriage ultimately is a significant distraction from living with a singular focus on serving the Lord.

Submission in the Church
As we move now to discuss submission and gender roles within the Church, a good place to start is Galatians 3:27-29. This passage reiterates that we are all fundamentally equal in Christ. If we lose sight of this truth, then we are going to be prone to misunderstanding teachings regarding specific roles.

Ultimately, the different roles assigned within church serve a purpose. Why does how we order things in the church matter? In Ephesians 3:8-10 we learn that God is using the church to reveal His wisdom to “rulers and authorities in the heavens.” This idea is not developed in much detail in scripture, but it is certainly worth reflecting on the fact that this is one of the ways in which the church bears witness and that there is substantial spiritual significance to the orderliness of Christian fellowship.

In 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 we find one of the most controversial New Testament passages relating to gender. The prescriptions and proscriptions contained here are often interpreted as being culturally bound to the time and place of Paul and his original audience, although Paul himself suggests in verse 16 it is universal. Because standards for dress and appearance are at once intensely personal and relentlessly cultural, passages such as this can be uncomfortable. In handling such teachings, I find it helpful to take a step back and ask a few questions.

First, when I feel uncomfortable upon reading a passage of scripture, I need to ask myself why I feel uncomfortable and try to discern what aspects of the teaching are invoking the discomfort. Next, I need to check my attitude: Am I approaching scripture to have my mind renewed and transformed (Romans 12:2)? Put more pointedly, am I seeking new ways to make my life a living sacrifice of obedience (Romans 12:1) or am I trying to figure out what I can get away with? When scripture provides a “do this” or “don’t do that” directive, I ought at least to consider adopting the assumption that the teaching applies to me unless it is clearly demonstrated otherwise.

Another mental model with which one may approach such teaching is to consider what is gained by adhering to the teaching and what is lost in disregarding it. If it is a teaching upon which salvation may be gained or lost I’m certainly going to seek to ensure not only I, but also others, are aware and are seeking to obey. If it is not salvation or some other eternal stake, I’d categorize it as an opportunity to “delight in [the Lord’s] commands” (Psalm 119:47) through personal obedience, but make relatively little of it in sharing the gospel and training new followers of Christ in discipleship.

Beyond this general approach, it is also helpful when interpreting any biblical teaching to seek to understand the function the teaching or command serves. Paul introduces the section as being about “traditions” he is passing on (verse 2). In verse 3 Paul points again to the relationship between husband and wife as symbolic of Christ’s relationship to believers and the church. From this introduction, I believe it is reasonable to interpret the following section as relating to traditions which are meant to testify to the relationship between Christ and the church. In obeying these, believers are helping to amplify important truths about Christ and His church in ways that words cannot. Conversely, though, there is nothing in the passage which suggests that salvation or other eternal matters hang in the balance. Additionally, it is worth noting in verses 11-12 that, once again, fundamental equality between women and men is emphasized; therefore, the different roles assigned to each gender here are about symbolically imaging spiritual truths, not about a hierarchy rooted in the relative value of each gender. Finally, I strongly believe that it is up to each man and each woman to apply and obey this passage in counsel with sound discipleship and fellowship. The symbolic nature of this fashion of ordering worship is tarnished when obedience is coerced rather than voluntary.

In sum, I’d encourage all believers to approach 1 Corinthians 11:1-16 as an opportunity to bear witness to spiritual truths about the relationship between Christ and the church.

Along similar lines, in 1 Timothy 2: 8-15, Paul again offers specific, gender-aligned exhortation regarding believers’ behavior in the church. The main guidance to men is to pray and to avoid letting anger and arguments disrupt fellowship in the body of Christ. But this passage is most famous for its commands to women regarding modest dress and a prohibition against teaching or exercising authority over a man in the church. Interestingly, Pauls supports these behavior guides with the order of creation (Adam created first, then Eve) and the order of the fall (Eve first, then Adam). There are those who interpret these prohibitions as being cultural and/or specific to the place and time of Paul’s original audience. Indeed, “I do not allow” in verse 12 lends some support to this interpretation. On the other hand, Paul repeats the command in 1 Corinthians 14:33-35, and this time explicitly makes it universal. There are other aspects of this passage that can be difficult to sort out, but I will not attempt to do so here. Instead, I point the reader to a couple of thoughts about how to interpret and apply the Bible. First, as with nearly all of scripture, it is not for one person to coerce or otherwise attempt to force another to obey; rather, we each need to humbly approach God’s Word with an eye toward obedience, trusting that obedience even—or perhaps especially—to difficult teachings produces fruit that can only be brought about by His Holy Spirit. Second, allow scripture to interpret scripture. Are the teachings here reflected elsewhere in scripture? If so, how do similar passages interact with this passage to enhance our understanding of God’s message to us on these matters? Finally, when a passage is very clear regarding what is expected but I find it difficult to accept and obey, how can I move toward agreeing with God on the matter? Can I start with a small change in one aspect of the teaching?

Paul offers additional guidance for ministry within the church along both gender and generational lines. In Titus 2:1-7, Paul delineates specific responsibilities for older men, older women, younger women, and younger men. There are specific aspects of behavior that are emphasized for each, but there is also a principle laid out in which older individuals mentor younger individuals of the same gender. In the typical American church, ministry tends to be divided by “age and stage” of life. While there are practical reasons for doing so, there is no clear biblical principle for doing so. Furthermore, this arrangement introduces artificial barriers to faithfully obeying this teaching from Titus. In light of this, believers ought to actively seek opportunities to be mentored by older believers of the same gender, and also to be a mentor to younger believers. Pastors and others in leadership roles in churches would be wise to create opportunities which encourage such mentoring relationships.

Perhaps the most comprehensive passage on submission is Ephesians 5:15-32, which describes both submission in the church and submission at home. Furthermore, this is the passage which most explicitly describes the ways in which submission in marriage bears witness to spiritual truths about the relationship Christ and the church. This passage builds on itself, and I think that is an important aspect in how one ought to interpret and seek to apply it. The passage opens with an exhortation to diligently attend to how we walk and behave, with an emphasis on behaving wisely. Two main reasons are given for behaving wisely: to make the most of the time that we have, and in recognition that we live in evil times. I believe these dual purposes are ultimately about kingdom building, bearing witness and making disciples. To protect our testimony we are urged not to get drunk (verse 18), but to allow the Holy Spirit to empower us to teach and encourage one another through “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs,” giving thanks, and submitting to one another “in the fear of Christ.” I won’t attempt to unpack what the “fear” of Christ may be, but as the first verses in chapter 5 seem to refer to future judgment, it is reasonable to think of it as referring to Christ’s eventual role as judge. So, our submission to one another is rooted, at least in part, in recognizing Christ not only as savior, but as judge.

Paul then refines the concept of submission within the body of Christ by delineating submission within the households that make up the church. He starts with wives, calling them to submit to their “own husbands.” That it is submission to one’s own husband is absolutely essential; as we discussed earlier, women are not called to generally submit to men. The rationale for this submission is the symbolic representation of the church’s submission to Christ. The church submits to Christ because he has saved the church. He restates the command and the rationale, then calls on husbands to “love” their wives. Seems easy enough, until you look at how he defines this love: “just as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her.” Furthermore, the focus of this self-sacrificial love is to “make her holy.” He further calls on husbands to love and care for their wives with the same care and love they show to their own bodies, again drawing the parallels between Christ’s love and care for His “body,” the church.

When reflecting on this passage, I find it helpful to also consider Philippians 2:5-11, which provides an even more detailed description of how Christ loved the church (and by extension how husbands are to love their wives). In this passage, we see Christ first and foremost submitting Himself fully—His will, His desires, His plans, His possessions—to God (even though He was fundamentally equal to God), and then willingly giving them up for the benefit of those whom He died to save. Of course, this passage is not written specifically to husbands, but to all believers. In this way, this passage goes even further to provide a rich context for how submission within the family and within the body of Christ work. When every believer makes their attitude like the attitude of Christ (verse 5), then we are all considering our equality (in our case not equality with God, but our equality with one another, which we’ve already established earlier in this essay) as something not to be used for our own advantage (verse 6), but as something we can voluntarily lay down, taking on the relative worth of a slave (verse 7) in complete obedience to God’s will. In so doing, we allow God to exalt not only us, but more importantly Himself. Using this passage to expand our frame of reference for “submission” also helps us see how Paul, back in Ephesians 5, found the relationship between Christ and the church such a “profound mystery” (verse 32).

Putting all this together, we see that we all are called to submit. All of us must submit to the authority of Christ and the authority of the church. Within our homes, wives are to submit to husbands, children to parents. Those submitted to are called to serve and sacrifice themselves for those in their charge. All are fundamentally equal in the eyes of the Lord, but we are asked to constrain our equality to create a prescribed order of things in the home and the church. Ultimately, the reason for this is that it bears witness to important truths about God.

At our most fundamental level, men and women are equals, and our differences are largely biological ones related to sexuality and procreation. Obeying God’s laws with regard to sexual purity is the most personal way we can practice the spiritual discipline of submitting our will and our behavior to God’s will and standards of behavior, which allows us access to His purposes and His pleasure we cannot attain any other way. When two parties in a relationship relinquish their efforts to pursue pleasure for themselves and focus instead on satisfying the desires of and bringing pleasure to the other party, each ends up receiving a degree of fulfillment and pleasure they could not have achieved by asserting their own rights. Sex is the rawest expression of that, but God gave it as a symbol of that principle of self-sacrificial love. This is why sexual purity is important, because of this spiritual symbolism. This is why submission and mutual self-sacrifice in the Christian marriage is so vital, because it images this spiritual principle to one another, the church, and the world. This is also why submission within the body of Christ is so important, because it images this principle within the church and to the world in ways that preaching and evangelism cannot. Our lives submitted to God’s laws for sexual purity, our marriages engaged in mutual self-sacrifice, and our churches ordered according to God’s principles creates a richly layered, fully animated scale model of God’s love.

What Do I Do If I Find Submission Hard?
Following Christ was never promised to be easy; Christ Himself described it as daily following Him to His execution (Matthew 16:24). Ultimately, our willingness—or unwillingness—to obey these teachings is ultimately a reflection on our willingness—or unwillingness—to make our lives a testimony for the Lord. In light of these factors, meditation on the following verses may be helpful in seeking to adopt the mind of Christ:

Colossians 3:5: “Put to death what belongs to your worldly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desire, and greed, which is idolatry.”

1 John 2:15-17: “Do not love the world or the things that belong to the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For everything that belongs to the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride in one’s lifestyle—is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world with its lust is passing away, but the one who does God’s will remains forever.”

Matthew 6:33: “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.”

Psalm 37:3-6: “Trust in the Lord and do what is good; dwell in the land and live securely. Take delight in the Lord, and He will give you your heart’s desires. Commit your way to the Lord; trust in Him, and He will act, making your righteousness shine like the dawn, your justice like the noonday.”

Afterword: Official Church Offices
This essay focused on biblical teachings related to gender, sexuality, and submission with a view toward personal obedience. The New Testament also addresses gender in descriptions of qualifications for officers of the church. Church polity is a large topic, and I won’t even pretend to give it a thorough overview. When I look at all that scripture says on the topic, though, it seems to me that it is left intentionally open. For the most part, the local church is given very broad lanes for organizing itself and conducting its business. While biblical cases can be made for various approaches, I think the clearest reading of scripture offers very little in the way of universals or absolutes. But, where it does offer absolutes, we ought to pay close attention.

The only passage that officially and explicitly names church offices is 1 Timothy 3:1-12. Verses 1-7 describe “elders” or “overseers” and verses 8-12 describe “deacons.” Note, first and foremost, that gender is not the central theme to the standards and requirements for these offices. To be truly obedient to these verses, we need to be absolutely certain we are demanding the characterological and behavioral standards be met. That said, and most germane to our purposes here, there are gender and sexuality aspects to these requirements. The clearest reading of the qualifications for the elder/overseer role is that it must be a man. The main reason for this is the requirement that they be “able to teach,” which as we saw earlier, is expressly prohibited elsewhere in Paul’s instructions to the church. As for deacons, the picture is a bit fuzzier. Many interpreters restrict the office of deacon to men. However, verse 11 can be honestly interpreted to be referring either to the wives of deacons or to female deacons (the Greek word here is “woman” and can be used—and is used throughout the New Testament—to refer either to women generally or to wives specifically, depending on context). For those who interpret it as the wives of deacons, the challenge is that it seems unlikely that there would be special requirements levied against the wives of deacons but not the wives of elders/overseers, especially in light of the fact that the requirements for the latter are generally more restrictive. Suffice it to say, there seems to be room here for churches to restrict the office of deacon to men only, or to open it to both men and women. Again, the focus should be on the other qualities first and foremost, and for the purpose of building up the church (1 Corinthians 14:26).