Image for On Gender and the Bible: What about Husbands and Wives? (Part 6)

On Gender and the Bible: What about Husbands and Wives? (Part 6)

Photo of Renée SprolesRenée Sproles | Bio

Renée Sproles

Renée Webb Sproles is from Murfreesboro, TN, where she directed The School of Christian Thought for five years at North Boulevard Church. She is a 15-year homeschool veteran. She is also a founder and co-director of the Discipleship Tutorial in Murfreesboro, where she has taught government, economics, personal finance, health, study skills, English grammar, and writing. She is the mother of two grown children, Houston and Emma, who is married to Thomas Goodwyn. With her husband, David, Renée has co-taught parenting classes for 20 years and currently teaches a marriage and family class of 100 students each week. Renée is the author of On Gender: What the Bible Says about Men and Women (Renew, 2019).
Photo of Rick OsterRick Oster | Bio

Rick Oster

A highly respected teacher at Harding School of Theology for over 40 years, Dr. Richard Oster helps prepare students for work in Christian ministry (and a smaller number for doctoral studies elsewhere) by teaching courses in New Testament Greek and courses in the content of the New Testament. These courses include Acts of Apostles, Pauline letters, book of Revelation, NewTestament Theology, and historical and cultural backgrounds of the NewTestament. He is also an expert on ancient Ephesus. 

This is the sixth in a series of articles dealing with gender and the church. Previously, we engaged with John Mark Hicks’s book, Women Serving God, and Scot McKnight’s, Blue Parakeet. (See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.) This article focuses specifically on gender and marriage. While Paul honors and elevates the role of singleness, noting that the unmarried disciple of Jesus has a uniquely undivided focus on the things of the Lord (1 Cor 7:32-35), a discussion of gender within the context of marriage is important because this institution is not merely a social construct as many today believe. It is part of the creation order involving the two-part sexuality of humankind (Gen 1:27; 2:18), and Jesus affirmed this foundational truth (Matt 19:4-5).

We are grateful again to talk with Dr. Richard Oster, a professor at Harding School of Theology for over 40 years and an expert on ancient Ephesus, as we work through these key passages on gender and marriage:

  • Ephesians 5:22-33
  • Colossians 3:18-21
  • 1 Peter 3:1-7

Sproles: Before we begin, I’d like to lay some groundwork for the discussion. In an effort to push against egalitarian interpretations of Scripture, many complementarians go too far and conflate gender roles as revealed in Scripture with the gender stereotypes of masculinity and femininity. Claire Smith notes:

There is diversity in the biblical portrayal of the sexes. There are women who are cooks and seamstresses, help rebuild cities, judge Israel, deal in real estate, run businesses, even kill God’s enemies, and men who are shepherds, farmers, metal-workers, musicians, cooks, warriors and fighters, gentle and sensitive men, men who weep and embrace. This diversity does not nullify or contradict the different roles and responsibilities of women and men in marriage and ministry in the NT, but it does warn against rigid gender stereotypes.[1]

Let’s look at that last line again. Keeping in mind the multifaceted biblical portrayal of the sexes will keep us from confusing gender stereotypes with gender roles. Scripture does not portray a 20th century Western notion of femininity and masculinity, but it does hold up roles for the sexes in marriage and ministry. Whatever we find regarding gender roles in marriage can be read in cooperation with all the uniqueness of human personalities and spiritual gifting for women and men.

Q: What did ancient cultures think about marriage, family, and household management?

Oster: Historical context is important. The household imperatives in Ephesians 5:22-33 look far more like the way Greeks and Hellenistic Jews talked about household codes than the way the Old Testament talks about it. This shouldn’t surprise us because Paul isn’t writing to anybody who lives in the time of Moses and the prophets. Paul is writing to people who live in Greek and Roman cities in Western Asia Minor, and he’s writing in ways that are familiar to them.

For centuries before the advent of Christianity, the Greek and Roman civilizations had a very good grasp on the significance of the home and family. They valued organization and rule in the home, because they understood that without properly functioning homes and marriages, civilization would not continue. There would be chaos.

Sproles: That’s really helpful to know, because I think many of us tend to think of ancient cultures as primitive and less-advanced than we are. Consciously or unconsciously, we have what C.S. Lewis called a “chronological snobbery.” Uncritically accepting “the intellectual climate of our own age” as superior, we have trouble seeing our own blind spots and assumptions. Instead, we should allow the “breezes of the centuries” to blow through our minds by exposing ourselves to ideas from the past. In this way, we gain a helpful vantage point from which to see our present-day views more clearly.[2]

In truth, all cultures assign meaning to things, and because sinful humanity is stamped with the image of God, each civilization will get some things right and some things wrong. How beautiful and encouraging that God’s eternal Word is able to affirm and correct all cultures throughout history (2 Tim 3:16). It sounds like the Greeks and Romans rightly valued order in the home.

Oster: I do think that the Greeks and Romans were perhaps more advanced than we are in terms of understanding the importance of marriage and families. Certainly, they demonstrated that they were able to continue for many, many centuries as a civilization. We haven’t demonstrated that yet. We’ll just have to wait and see if American civilization can continue amidst the collapse of families.

So, when these pagan cultures talked about the home, they recognized the three relationships that Paul mentions: husbands and wives, parents and children, masters and slaves. Even so, we must also remember that before there were Hebrews, before there were Greeks and Romans, before there were Christians, marriage was arranged by God as demonstrated in the opening chapters of Genesis. God is concerned about the stability of homes and marriages of everybody on the planet.

Although Paul doesn’t write letters to non-Christians, he does have congregants, in 1 Corinthians 7 for example, who are married to non-Christians, and he is very concerned that these are happy marriages. He wants them to have harmonious, productive, meaningful marriages. It would be an error for modern Christians to think that God is only concerned with Christian marriages or to think Scripture has something to say only to people who follow Christ.

Q: So, the Ephesians would have had high regard for order in marriage, family, and households. But surely their marriages were very different from ours in modern culture?

Oster: In any society, there is great diversity in marriage. If you looked at a large congregation today and could see into the hearts of people, you would find some marriages that are robust and healthy and some that descend into dysfunction, even violence. There would be catastrophes and train wrecks as well as loving, strong partnerships.

There is a scholar named Plutarch who gives us an interesting window into marriage in the ancient world. He was a younger contemporary of Paul’s protégé Timothy and was a priest, philosopher, and voluminous author. In one of his essays, he gave advice to a young bride and groom. Scholars note that Plutarch’s categorization of marriages helps us understand what at least some pagans thought about marriage:

  • There are people who marry for economic advantage. That is, they want to get ahead in life and choose a spouse who they think will help them attain the good life they desire in terms of wealth, status, and children. They’re like an army with different soldiers working together in a unit.
  • There are people who really just live together, but there’s no intimate relationship. They share a bed; they cohabit.
  • Then, there is an ultimate kind of marriage. Like a mixing of two liquids, some marriages are an intimate union where all things are shared; all things are in common.

And we see all three types of these relationships in the modern world.

We also find sepulcher monuments, tombstones, and things pertaining to ancient burials where some beautiful sentiments are expressed by the living spouse about the deceased. Now, some modern scholars are very cynical about them and don’t really believe it. I choose to believe that these men and women wouldn’t have wasted their money, putting all that in stone, if they didn’t at least believe some of it. Perhaps some of it was perfunctory, but I don’t think all of it was self-serving or artificial. In fact, one of the longest personal inscriptions (as opposed to a government inscription) that we have is from a man on behalf of his dead wife in the first century BC. They were both pagan and married 40-plus years. It’s line after line of his admiration and love for her:

Uncommon are marriages which last so long, brought to an end by death, not broken apart by divorce; for it was our happy lot that it should be prolonged to the 41st year without estrangement. Would that our venerable association had been dissolved by something happening to me rather than to you, by which it would have been fairer that I as the older surrendered to fate!

As for your domestic virtues, loyalty (to our marriage), obedience, courteousness, easy good-nature, your assiduous wool-working, reverence (for the gods) without superstition, attire not designed for attracting attention, modest refinement—what need have I to make mention of these? Why should I speak of your love for your own, your devotion to your family, since you have treated with equal honor my mother and your own parents, and provided for her the same peace (in retirement) as for your own family; and other virtues too many to count you possess in common with all other married women who cherish a good name.

Distinctive of you are these features which I am declaring, and very few women have met with similar circumstances so that they should suffer such experiences and manifest such achievements, matters which the Fortune of women has taken care to ensure are seldom their lot.[3]

Sproles: That’s beautiful, and the idea of an intimate marriage being like the mixing of two liquids is poetic in its imagery. So, what you’re telling me is that, in some ways, ancient marriages were varied in their quality, just as they are now. There were beautiful, intimate marriages; there were partnerships; there were platonic relationships with no passion or intimacy; and, of course, there were really bad marriages.

So, what Paul is teaching in Ephesians 5 about wives and husbands would address each of these situations. Again, chronological snobbery leads us to believe that these instructions for marriages, families, and households are outmoded or patriarchal. We live in a modern, Western culture where sex is considered everything on the one hand (you can’t live a full life without it) and nothing on the other (it’s just an appetite to be sated, like hunger). Equality for men and women has come to mean sameness, marriage has become disposable, and divorce ravages families. In this culture, it is tempting to assume Paul was wrong about women. Living in the midst of decadent America, we should not be surprised that the Bible’s teaching on sex, marriage, and gender seems odd, outdated, irrelevant, or worse. Self-absorbed sexuality and do-it-yourself forms of family are some of our culture’s idols, and Scripture contradicts the teaching we receive through TV, movies, magazines, and social media.

Q: Is there a format to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that would help us understand how the instructions for husbands and wives fit into the letter?

Oster: Yes. Ephesians is laid out in an interesting fashion. It has 41 imperatives and 40 of those are in chapters 4, 5, and 6. So, the first three chapters are where the indicative material lies. That is, chapters 1, 2, and 3 are where we find the statements about what God has done and is doing for Christians. This lays a theological foundation for what’s to come in the second half of the letter.

In chapters 4, 5, and 6, Paul spells out the life to which God has called us, and that always requires imperatives. It’s never self-evident to God’s people what they should do. That’s why, once God created a people in the Exodus, it was necessary to have the 10 Commandments. It’s delusional to imagine the people of God are going to somehow know what to do simply based on an experience of redemption. So, Paul writes these three chapters with a series of imperatives for the Ephesian churches.

The imperative I want us to talk about is in Ephesians 5:18, which says to “be filled with the Spirit.” So I’d like to start with verse 18 for this discussion.

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart, giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands.

Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body.

“Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband (Eph 5:18-33).

There are four participles that follow the command to “be filled with the spirit,” four simple clauses that elaborate on what Paul means. These imperatives don’t exhaust this topic, to be sure, but in the context of this epistle, this is what Paul has in mind:

  • Speaking to one another in psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.
  • Praising God in our hearts.
  • Giving thanks always to God.
  • Mutually submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.

It’s that fourth one, mutual submission, where there is so much conversation and disagreement. That is found in verse 21. In Greek, verse 22 literally says, “Wives to their own husbands as to the Lord.” So, to get the word submit, we must go back to verse 21. When scholars put verse 21 with verses 18-20 and create a big break with verse 22, they create confusion. Verse 21 is a connecting verse. It’s sort of a hinge connecting the two sections. This is the fourth area where being Spirit-led is demonstrated, and Paul gives three examples from the household:

  • Husbands and wives
  • Parents and children
  • Masters and slaves
Q: In complementarian circles, the common shorthand for the dynamic in Ephesians 5 between husbands and wives can often be reduced to “wives submit; husbands lead.” Is this the best summary of the male-female relationship?

Sproles: For me, this is a cringe-worthy and overly simplistic description that takes the beautiful colors of marriage and fades them to shades of grey. It’s also an inaccurate summary of what we find in Ephesians 5. Besides calling for mutual submission in the marriage relationship in verse 21, particular commands are laid out. “Wives submit and husbands love” is a more accurate shorthand; we see that in Colossians 3 as well. Author and Gospel Coalition contributor, Rebecca McLaughlin, notes:

Ephesians 5 sticks like a burr in our 21st-century, Western ears. But we must not misread it as justifying “traditional” gender roles. The text doesn’t say the husband is the one whose needs come first and whose comfort is paramount.

In fact, Ephesians 5 is a withering critique of traditional gender roles, in its original context and today. In the drama of marriage, the wife’s needs come first, and the husband’s drive to prioritize himself is cut down with the axe of the gospel. . . .

And it’s a daily challenge to remember what I’m called to in this gospel drama, and to notice opportunities to submit to my husband as to the Lord—not because I’m naturally more or less submissive, or because he is naturally more or less loving, but because Jesus submitted to the cross for me.

My marriage isn’t ultimately about me and my husband, any more than Romeo and Juliet is about the actors playing the title roles. My marriage is about reflecting Jesus and his church.[4]

Q: So, how should we understand submission in these verses?

Oster: “Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ” is to be understood in all three relationships. Some scholars say Paul’s initial plan to show mutuality just sort of unravels after the first demonstration between husbands and wives, that Paul just couldn’t carry forth what he said he was going to do. These scholars are smart enough to know that, in the first century context, no one in their right mind would have a mutuality understanding of children and parents or slaves and masters—where, for example, the masters are going to become the servant for the day. So, these scholars think that mutuality works on the first instance and not on the second and third.

However, I am going to tell you my understanding of how this consistently works. With these three pairs of relationships, we can make a chart:

Husbands

Wives

Parents

Children

Masters

Slaves

The people in the left-hand column are the ones in Paul’s day who own all of the authority and power. They have all the prerogatives. They owe nothing to the people on the right. They are not beholden to them at all. So, Paul is saying that, in all three pairs of relationships, each party now has duties and responsibilities to the other. That was not the case in society: all of the power and responsibility flowed in one direction, from the left to the right.

As we saw from Plutarch and the sepulcher inscription earlier, not every marriage operated this way. All Christians would not need to be reminded of all 41 imperatives in Ephesians at all times. However, Paul knew that there were households who needed these instructions. Some people would be more up-to-speed than others, but, regardless, the paradigm for cultural understandings of authority and submission is challenged.

To be clear, Paul is saying that the people with the power—husbands, parents, and masters—have duties and responsibilities to the people without power: wives, children, and slaves. This is a paradigm shift for ancient thinking. We may assume it now, but it was not always self-evident then. Living in 2020 in the United States, we may say this teaching is obvious, but part of the reason we say that is that we are the children of civilization that was based on Judeo-Christian teaching instead of a society based upon communism, Hinduism, or Islam. People nurtured in these cultures wouldn’t find Paul’s teaching self-evident.

I read an article recently that said in rural India many Hindu people get offended by women using their own name instead of their husband’s name. Some women have been beaten because they used their own name to fill a prescription. It comes as no surprise that the early 19th century Christian missionary to India William Carey contributed his influence to help stop the Hindu practice of Sati. This was a long established practice where Hindu widows were burned alive, sometimes forcibly and sometimes not, on their dead husbands funeral pyre.

So, there are many cultures to whom Paul’s writing would be a new way of thinking. Understanding mutual submission out of reverence for Christ means seeing these paired relationships as having duties and responsibilities to the other. For the husband-wife relationship, this means the wife submits to her husband and respects him, while the husband loves his wife, giving himself up for her like Christ does for the church.

Sproles: Remembering that marriage is a model of Christ and the church gives it such dignity and confers such responsibility to both wives and husbands. John Piper rightly noted that meditating on this truth “lifts marriage out of the sitcom sewer and elevates it into the bright, clear sky of God’s glory where it was meant to be. And secondly, saying that marriage is a model of Christ and the church places it firmly on the basis of grace, because that is the way Christ took the church to be his bride, by grace alone…[so then we should see] that very grace bent out horizontally from husband to wife and wife to husband.”[5]

Q: We see the same teaching on household codes in Colossians. Is there anything we should particularly notice here?

Sproles: Dr. Oster pointed out that Ephesians 4:1 is like a hinge verse for the letter: it’s where the instructions for holy living begin after the theological foundation was laid. Paul says, “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” So chapters 1-3 are the calling to which we’ve been called and chapters 4-6 are the worthy walk (i.e., “in a manner worthy”).

John Piper notes a similar technique in Colossians. He says, “When Paul gets to Colossians 3:12, he has laid a massive foundation in the person and work of Christ on the cross. . . . He exhorts us with words that are explosive with emotion-awakening reality built on Christ and his saving work.”[6]

It’s on the basis of a God-centered identity, on the work of Christ that brings a “new self” for each of us, that Paul can once again tell us how to behave in the church and in our homes.

“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complain against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col 3:12-13).

Piper pairs these instructions, describing them as inner conditions that lead to outward demeanors:

  • Compassionate hearts and kindness (literally “bowels of mercy and kindness”)
  • Humility and meekness
  • Patience to forbearance and forgiveness

Christ followers should have the inner demeanor of compassion, humility, and longsuffering, which leads to the outward demeanor of kindness, meekness, enduring, and forgiving each other. These are crucial for life in the church and in marriage. We all love to receive these things, but giving them is much more difficult, isn’t it? Well, it’s in this context that Paul continues with household instructions:

“Wives, submit to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them. Children, obey your parents in everything, for this pleases the Lord. Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged” (Col 3:18-21).

Submission and love, blanketed with gentleness, are the standard for marriage and the home.

Oster: Again we see that there’s an order to relationships, a structure. The husband is not given carte blanche to be whatever kind of husband and father he wants to be, and the woman is not required to be a doormat. Again and again, we see that both husbands and wives have duties and responsibilities to the other. And our society right now is not one that promotes duties and responsibilities to others. Self-control and self-sacrifice are spiritual perspectives that we bring to these concepts of submission and love.

Q: Now we’ll turn our attention to 1 Peter. After reading the passage, let’s again see what is happening in the context of the letter.

Likewise, wives, be subject to your own husbands, so that even if some do not obey the word, they may be won without a word by the conduct of their wives, when they see your respectful and pure conduct. Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening. Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way, showing honor to the woman as the weaker vessel, since they are heirs with you of the grace of life, so that your prayers may not be hindered (1 Peter 3:1-7).

Sproles: Dr. Oster helped me with this passage when I was writing On Gender. He pointed out that the word likewise occurs three times in 1 Peter (1 Pet 3:1, 7; 5:5), and this word connects what Peter means about “be subject.” Peter is telling wives and husbands to imitate Christ, just as Paul has in other passages. How? They must be holy, speak the truth, not repay evil for evil, and not retaliate or even make threats when mistreated. Instead, they should be “respectful and pure” (v. 2 for wives and v. 7 for husbands) in their behavior.

  • Wives likewise submit to your husbands (1 Pet 3:1).
  • Husbands likewise treat your wives right (1 Pet 3:7).
  • Young men likewise submit to your elders (1 Pet 5:5).

Peter’s commands for women come right in the middle of a section on living godly lives in a pagan world. He is helping them deal with their husbands’ sins the way Christ dealt with their sin. Peter isn’t excusing their behavior. He doesn’t deny that these guys are unbelieving brutes (1 Pet 3:1, 6). However, he gives an unexpected course of action: to act so much like Christ that the wives don’t even need to use words or beauty to win over their unbelieving husbands.

Words and beauty are powerful tools for women. Peter points out that the most winsome thing about women should be their gentle and quiet spirits and then explains what he means by mentioning Sarah, the wife of Abraham. Like Jesus, she didn’t let fear dictate her behavior but entrusted herself to “God who judges justly” (1 Pet 2:23).

It’s easy to think, If only Peter didn’t use those pesky words obey and master. The word Peter uses for obey means “acting under the authority of the one speaking” and “really listening to the one giving the charge.” It suggests attentive listening and responsiveness.

  • It’s what the wind and sea did when Jesus spoke (Matt 8:27).
  • It’s what many people did when they became obedience to the faith (Acts 6:7).
  • It’s what Rhoda did when she answered a knock at the door (Acts 12:3).
  • It’s what children do for parents (Eph 6:1).
  • It’s what we do with Paul’s instructions (2 Thess 3:14).

Oster: Master, the Greek word kurios, is a term of respect. There are other examples of this in the Gospels where it means something akin to “Sir,” but not in a fawning sense. (See Matt 21:30; Luke 13:8; John 4:11, 15, 19; 5:7; 12:21.) This term kurios can be used to refer to a deity (1 Cor. 8:5-6); clearly in 1 Peter 3, the term is meant as a term of honor and respect.

Sproles: When I looked for this term in Scripture, I found that it was used hundreds of times interchangeably between the Lord and human masters. I think this is a clue that points us again to the order of headship. Paul has already noted that Christ is the head of man, man is the head of woman (1 Cor 11:3), and woman is the master of the home (1 Tim 5:14). So wives acknowledge husbands as head in their actions and in their speech. We speak to them and about them with respect. We don’t get a pass on obedience to Christ if our husbands act cowardly like Abraham (Gen 12:11-13), make bad parenting choices like Isaac, Jacob, or King David (Gen 25:28, 37:3; 2 Sam 14:1-23), or are unbelieving, selfish boors like Nabal (1 Sam 25:10-11). We don’t ignore them (violating obedience) or write them off as idiots (violating respect). Trusting God, we live in purity and reverence.

Wives, this requires us to change the way we think, taking every thought captive in obedience to Christ (Rom 12:1-2; 2 Cor 10:3-5). We must turn off the running commentary in our heads that says to ignore our husbands when they are acting foolish. This is just what Sarah did with Abraham.

What kind of submitting did Sarah do? She respected Abraham in her actions (obeying him) and her speech (calling him “lord”). This principle is repeated throughout Scripture: We are forbidden to say one thing and do another (i.e., hypocrisy).

Think about Sarah. We know she respected Abraham in her speech, but what about her obedience? Besides going with her husband in faith to a land God would show them, one big example comes to mind. Fearing for his life, Abraham selfishly puts Sarah in jeopardy to protect himself. He basically says, “You’re so beautiful that the Egyptians will kill me and take you for themselves, so say you are my sister” (a half-truth: she’s his half-sister). Sarah goes along, and sure enough, things get worse before they get better. She gets whisked away to Pharaoh’s palace as one of his wives. I’m pretty sure that this is the point where I’d give way to fear, but this is not the end of the story. Since Abraham isn’t acting like a proper head, God judges justly, sending plagues on Pharaoh’s household, ensuring Sarah’s safe return home (Gen 12:10-20).

What does Peter want us to learn from Sarah? I think one thing is this: Sarah treats Abraham as her head, even when he doesn’t deserve it, and she trusts God to judge justly, refusing to “fear anything that is frightening.” Sarah trusted God, even when her husband didn’t.

If you’re a woman reading this and find it an impossibly high standard, don’t despair. Peter gives husbands some difficult and lofty commands, too. And if they don’t obey, the warning is clear: their prayers will be hindered.

Oster: We should also remember that submission is voluntary. This is not grabbing somebody by the neck and forcing them to the ground. This is done in the way that Christ submitted to the will of God. We’re not robots being held against our wills by God. It’s a voluntary submission motivated by respect, out of “reverence for Christ,” as Paul puts it. As we ponder all the marvelous, sacrificial things that God’s grace and mercy has done for us, we have a commensurate response.

Q: What about the instructions for husbands?

Sproles: Husbands, too, must answer to God for their conduct within marriage. In particular, the words understanding and honor as well as the phrase “as the weaker vessel” will help us understand the requirements for men in marriage.

Understanding is a word that simply means “to know.” Peter is telling husbands to know their wives. There are different ways to know something, and in Scripture we see two types of understanding again and again: information and experience.

  • Paul wants the Ephesians to understand how wide, long, high, and deep Christ’s love is, a love that surpasses knowledge (Eph 3:19).
  • Knowledge of God’s truth leads to godliness and hope of eternal life (Titus 1:1-2).
  • We should make every effort to add understanding to our faith, goodness, self-control, perseverance, godliness, mutual affection, and love (2 Pet 1:5-7).

Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House series, wrote a regular column for a Missouri Farm paper under the byline of her husband’s name. Her description of how they tended their apple orchard, using information that blossomed with experience, really captures the richness of Peter’s use of understanding.

I cleared enough land that winter on which to set out the trees from the nursery, broke it the next spring, and put in the trees after I had worked it as smooth as I could. . . . I dug the holes for the trees large and deep, making the dirt fine in the bottom and mixing some wood ashes with it.

I handled the trees very carefully so as not to injure the roots and spread the roots out as nearly as possible in a natural manner when setting the trees. Fine dirt was put over the roots at first and pressed down firmly, then the dirt was shoveled in to fill the hole. Some more wood ashes were mixed with the dirt when it was being shoveled in . . . all trash was raked away, leaving it clean and smooth. . . .

I think that one thing that has made my orchard a success is that I took individual care of each tree. What that particular tree needed it got. Wife and I were so well acquainted with the trees that if I wished to mention one to her, I would say “that tree with the large branch to the south,” or “the tree that leans to the north,” etc. The tree that leaned was gently taught to stand straight so that the sun would not burn the bark.[7]

Wilder admits that, while she and her husband knew how to farm, there were many things they learned only with practice. They personally tended every individual tree in the orchard, bringing a new depth and breadth to their farming knowledge.

Likewise, Christian husbands”know” how to live with their wives when they read Scripture. They know that the gospel has the power to transform all of their relationships. They know God’s order for creation: Christ as the head of man, man as the head of woman, and woman as his strong help. They know they should love their wives and lay down their lives for them. They know they should be gentle with their children.

But, like the Wilders and their orchard, husbands gain so much when they put these instructions into practice. Obedience brings a new level of understanding, helping them know their particular wives, so they can love them well. Knowing her personality, her strengths and weaknesses, her spiritual gifts, even her favorite foods and hobbies, are all ways for a husband to live with his wife “in an understanding way” and love her well. When information intersects with practice, a new kind of knowing emerges—just like reading a book about farming and actually farming are two kinds of knowing. There’s knowing and then there’s knowing. Husbands, says Peter, know your wives.

Q: What does it mean to show honor to your wife?

Sproles: When husbands live with their wives in an understanding way, Peter explains that at least part of that will entail honoring wives as co-heirs of Christ. The word honor here means a value, or money paid, and by analogy, esteem of the highest degree.

In the church, those who seem weaker are actually “indispensable” and those we think are less honorable, we treat with “special honor” (1 Corinthians 12:22-24). As in the church, so it is in marriage: husbands are to treat their wives with honor. Even if they think she doesn’t deserve it. Even if they don’t feel affection toward her. Husbands must honor their wives and treat them with gentleness and care. Check your tone of voice, husbands. Use self-control with your physical presence. Be patient and careful as you would when you handle the crystal. If you have an inner monologue of scorn toward your wife, take those thoughts captive in obedience to Christ (Rom 12:1-2; 2 Cor 10:3-5). If you don’t do these things, God says your prayers will be hindered (1 Peter 3:7). If this doesn’t give you a shiver down your spine, men, then perhaps you should consider how often and about what you are praying.

Q: This “showing honor as with a weaker vessel” sounds demeaning to our 21st century ears. What does Peter mean?

Sproles: The text is literally, “Husbands likewise dwelling with [them] according to knowledge as with a weaker vessel with the female rendering honor as also joint heirs.” Peter is using a simile to help explain what he means. There are lots of similes in Scripture. Jesus used them when he said that he was sending the disciples out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matt 10:16), when he explained that the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field and a merchant looking for fine pearls (Matt 13:44-46), and when he noted that Pharisees and scribes were like whitewashed tombs (Matt 23:27). This simile, like all good literary devices, highlights the differences between men and women.

The feminist response is to downplay the vulnerability of women. Be strong. Be powerful. Don’t let men define your identity. The problem is that women’s statistically smaller size than men and their bearing of children inherently put them in a vulnerable position. Short of all women taking steroids worldwide, we are not likely to average out to the size and strength of the average male. Ever. And the human race will die out if women don’t allow themselves into the vulnerable position of childbirth and rearing. The Bible recognizes this vulnerability, and Peter specifically addresses it and the inherent role of husbands in this vulnerability in 1 Peter 3.[8]

The way you would handle a crystal vase is different than the way you would handle a wooden bowl; you know what they’re made of and what it takes to damage each of them. If I carry both of those things in my car, I’ll wrap the crystal vase in bubble wrap and gently place it on the seat. If I carry the wooden bowl, I’ll toss it in the backseat with no harm done.

Wives who submit and respect their husbands are voluntarily placing themselves in a position of vulnerability. Husbands must reciprocate with mutual submission, love and honor, living with them in an understanding way.

Q: Western culture has a hard time understanding these passages in part because we live in the aftermath of the sexual revolution of the 60’s and 70’s. Did the Roman Empire experience its own kind of sexual revolution? If so, did it contribute to the downfall of their society?

Oster: When you talk about Rome, there is the Roman Republic followed by the Roman Empire, and the republic did unravel. There are authors who wrote during the end of the Roman Republic who talk about a decline in sexual morality. And they ended up having a Roman civil war in the first century B.C. It was a horrific time in those decades, where the fabric of society was coming apart: a crumbling of what had been a centuries-long experience of the Roman Republic.

Around 30 B.C. Augustus becomes the first emperor of the Roman Empire. He immediately begins to institute conservative reforms, morally and religiously. He puts up all kinds of temples and institutes all kinds of religious festivals, and Augustus enjoys a long reign.

Q: When taken seriously, these passages on marriage sound like a utopia, and yet we live in a world where we fail each other in marriage and families everyday, sometimes horribly. What would you say to someone who is struggling to practice what we’ve found here?

Oster: We can feel like this is an impossible standard since marriages consist of men and women who are fallen. We can get jaded and think, well my wife is obviously not doing her end of the deal, so why should I? Or vice versa.

Sproles: There is a biblical pattern of order between a husband and wife, standards of forbearance and forgiveness, of submission and love, and they aren’t contingent on the other person’s performance. But certainly there are sins that spouses commit against each other which push these virtues across a line where they might move into the realm of helping the other sin. Things like child abuse, sexual infidelity or abuse, drunkenness, and rage should be taken seriously and navigated with the help of reliable, Spirit-filled, church leadership.

Oster: Would you expect your child to honor and obey you even if you aren’t being a particularly good parent on a given day? Of course you would. These instructions aren’t worded as being contingent on another’s behavior. Perhaps that notion comes from our democratic culture, where government is answerable to the people. It is possible to expect too much from a spouse.

We should also remember that Scripture is addressing what should be normative for marriage. The exceptions actually prove the rule.

Sproles: So we should use wisdom when we apply these instructions, but we are not going to write them off as cultural or unattainable just because they may be hard.

Oster: This is an area where spending time in intercessory prayer would be critical. Before Paul tells them anything to do in Ephesians 4-6, he spends three chapters going over what God has done for them. Our tendency in America, even in our preaching and counseling, is to go pretty quickly to how we must change our behavior. We need to ask God to illuminate the eyes of our hearts. “Awake o sleeper and rise from the dead and Christ will shine light on you” (Eph. 5:14).

This imperative in Eph. 5:14 was addressed to believers to stand apart “from the dead ones” who occupy the moral and spiritual cemeteries that surround all of us. Paul finds some of these Ephesian believers once again living in graves, in need of a resurrection like they experienced when they first came to faith (Eph. 2:5). Without it, none of the challenges to the Christian walk, including a dissatisfying and dysfunctional life with a companion, will be feasibly conquered.

Paul’s strategy in Ephesians suggests that we must meditate on what God has done for us and then try to love one another well.

In the next article, we will take the complementarian teaching we find in Scripture and discuss practical ways to implement this in churches today, fully embracing the freedom we find in Scripture for men and women while upholding particular roles for men.

[1] Claire Smith, Humanity as Male and Female. The Gospel Coalition. January 14, 2020. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/humanity-male-female/

[2] Art Lindsey, Ph.D., C.S. Lewis on Chronological Snobbery. C.S. Lewis Institute. Spring 2003. https://www.cslewisinstitute.org/webfm_send/47

[3] English translation from Greg H.R. Horsley, “A More than Perfect Wife,” no. 8 in New Documents Illustrating Early Christianity, Vol. 3 1983, p. 34.

[4] Rebecca McLaughlin, Confessions of a Reluctant Complementarian. The Gospel Coalition. September 13, 2018. https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/confessions-reluctant-complementarian/

[5] John Piper, Marriage: Forgiving and Forbearing. Desiring God. February 18, 2007. https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/marriage-forgiving-and-forbearing

[6] John Piper, Marriage: Forgiving and Forbearing. Desiring God. February 18, 2007. https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/marriage-forgiving-and-forbearing

[7] Stephen W. Hines, ed. Laura Ingalls Wilder Farm Journalist: Writings from the Ozarks (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007). 20-21.

[8] Wendy Alsup. Hard Words for Women from 1 Peter. Practical Theology for Women. January 25, 2010. https://theologyforwomen.org/2010/01/hard-words-to-women-from-i-peter.html