Complementarianism and the Gospel

An unpopular subject these days is the role of the two genders, not only in society at large but especially within the confines of marriage. It gets especially difficult because you often have two extremes in the discussion: those of an egalitarian, feminist stream, and those of the “gimme a beer” woman stream. Some in the latter camp have even go so far as to say a husband should be allowed to physically discipline their wife, as they would one of their own children. A lot of egalitarians or semi-complementarians (ie., those who might want to be complementarians but are nervous about the doctrine) may use that one extreme to mock the entire concept, or present it as the reason why the entire concept should be dismissed.

The thought occurred, in recent musings on the subject, that one problem with the presentation of complementarianism is that, insofar as marriage is concerned, it is presented in a simple dogmatic fashion rather than what it’s supposed to be: a home presentation of the Gospel. This comes across most clearly in one of the Bible’s most clearest passages teaching on the subject, which we will present, and analyze, in full below:

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. [Ephesians 5:22-33]

Coming from a section on submission, the apostle Paul turns to the application of this at home. He tells wives to submit to their husbands, “as to the Lord.” This does not mean the husband is God, but rather this is directly related to the understanding of Christ and the church: Paul explains that “the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior.”

Some might point out here that the word “submit” is not in the original Greek for verse 22; indeed, Paul’s original wording is “wives, to your own husbands, as to the Lord.” The word “submit” is added by most translations for two reasons:

  1. Paul is continuing his train of thought from verse 21: “be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.” (We will touch on this verse later on in this post.)
  2. Translators are attempting to tie this verse with the parallel passage in Colossians 3:18-19.

The original Greek word for “submit” in Colossians 3:18 is ὑποτάσσω. As many translation commentaries have noted (eg., AT Robertson’s own wonderful work on the New Testament Greek), this word carries a very military feel to it; just as a private submits to his sergeant, so too does a wife submit to the husband. Other moments in scripture where the same word is used include:

  • Christ is told that demons are in subjection to the disciples in his name (Luke 10:17).
  • Christians are told to be in subjection to the governing authorities (Romans 13:1).
  • God is said to have placed everything in subjection to Christ (1 Corinthians 15:27-28).
  • The church is said to be in subjection to Christ (Ephesians 5:24 – this very passage).
  • Believers are told to be in subjection to God (James 4:7).

We must also note here that, right at the beginning, Paul draws a connection between husband and wife, and Christ and the church. Those who want to do away with the idea that the roles of husband and wife in a marriage are somehow different, or (to be more fair) wish to do away with the idea that the wife submits to the husband, must therefore undo Paul’s analogy. If wife does not submit to husband “in everything,” then the church does not submit to Christ “in everything”; if the husband does not have a position of authority over the wife, then Christ has no position over the church. Indeed, in my discussions on this passage with egalitarians and feminists, a common tactic has been to commit a red herring and jump to an entirely different passage altogether, hence inadvertently pitting scripture against scripture. The reason they would do so is obvious: because you cannot defend an egalitarian or feminist view of marriage with this passage.

Yet immediately we must stop here and ask: what is the nature of the husband’s authority over the wife? It won’t be denied that many have abused this passage, even going so far as to cite passages elsewhere in scripture where God commands complete obedience, and hence interpret it as husbands having absolute authority like God Himself. While we shouldn’t, like the feminist heretics, forsake the metaphor, we shouldn’t likewise forget how Paul himself defines the metaphor. We see that Paul, after telling wives to submit to husbands as the church to Christ, now turns to husbands and explains what their role entails.

The apostle says that the husband’s role centers around one single fact: love. From this love stems a great self-sacrifice on the part of the man, and for one single purpose: the sanctification and nurturing of the wife. Husbands are to love their wives “as Christ also loved the church and gave himself up for her, so that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might preset to himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless” (vv. 25-27).

Paul adds to this that “husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself” (v. 28). Likewise, “no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of his body” (vv. 29-30). Returning to the metaphor of Christ and the church, the apostle makes the connection that, just as the church is Christ’s body, so too is the wife to be seen as the husband’s own flesh – and rightfully so, given that, upon marriage, man and woman become one flesh (vv. 31-32). Yet even in this case, there is still some hierarchy, for the woman is said to be like the man’s body, and the man is to love and nourish the woman as he would his own body. Nobody is controlled by their body, merely influenced by its condition. It is our duty to nourish and care for our body – hence the husband is commanded by Paul to love and cherish his wife as if she were his own body, because, within his Christ-Church metaphor, she is. Therefore, any man who abuses his wife for her sin is akin to the flagellants of the Middle Ages, who whipped their bodies because of their sin. This is especially plain in the parallel verse in Colossians 3:19, where the apostle Paul commands husbands to “not be embittered against” their wives.

It should be noted here that, while there is a call for wife’s submission, it is not to be blind or sinful submission. When Paul told believers to be in submission to their governments in Romans 13:1, he obviously did not mean to be in submission to the point that the government commands you to sin (otherwise, there were thousands of Christian martyrs in the Roman Empire that misunderstood that verse). With marriage, this is especially clear in the parallel verse in Colossians 3:18, where wives are told to be in subjection to their husbands “as is fitting in the Lord.” If a husband is in sin, or is wanting the wife to sin, then that is where she draws the line in submission.

All the same, the roles in marriage are quite clear: wives are to submit to their husbands, and husbands are to care and love their wives. Paul says as much in the concluding verse of this passage, stating “each individual among you also is to love his own wife even as himself, and the wife must see to it that she respects her husband” (v. 33). The word here in the NASB for “respects” is phobetai in the Greek, from which we get the word phobia. As might be discerned, the word means “fear” – but it is not meant here as a kind of horrifying fear. Paul is not saying a wife should be literally afraid of her husband! Rather, it means a kind of great respect, similar to when we speak of the “fear of the Lord.” A woman who disrespects her husband, in any way, is just as bad as a husband who does not give proper love to his wife. It has been said by many that, in a relationship, a man expects respect, while a woman expects love; from here, we can see that this isn’t just good marriage counseling, it’s actually as God designed it.

When you recognize the proper roles within a marriage, you suddenly realize a spiritual truth: marriage is in and of itself a daily model for the Gospel. The husband sacrifices himself for the wife, as Christ for the church. The wife submits to the husband, as the church to Christ. The wife is sanctified and spiritually led, as Christ does the church. In cases of sin, the wife can come to the husband, who must love and nourish her, as Christ loves and nourishes those who repent before him. The husband likewise looks within himself, and, knowing he can never truly be “like Christ,” turns to God for repentance. The husband reviews his spiritual leadership, and, if finding himself lacking anywhere, seeks to rectify the situation, again turning to God for repentance and guidance.

Marriage, it can be said, is always seen under the shadow of the cross.

It probably should not surprise us, then, that in many circles where traditional marriage roles are undone, there is likewise an undoing of the Gospel and Christ’s relationship with man. The substitutionary atonement may be removed, and man may be seen as a “partner” with Christ, co-joined in an earthly work. There is no hierarchy on earth, and hence the idea of a hierarchy with God above all is seen as shallow and superficial at best. I’m not saying that one necessarily leads to the other – sometimes these happen at once, or reversed. My point is that we shouldn’t be surprised that in circles where complementarianism is undone, other orthodox doctrines are likewise undone.

Some egalitarians attempt to refute the idea that wives are to submit to their husbands by honing in on the words of Paul from the same chapter: “and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ” (Eph 5:21). Since we are to be subject to one another, they argue, it is nonsensical to say wives should submit to their husbands – in fact, husbands should submit to their wives in the exact same manner. In doing so, they make two mistakes:

  • They argue scripture against scripture. They do not deal with what Paul says in Ephesians 5:22-24, instead grabbing a verse, isolating it, and pretending that no other verses exist. They are like the child who covers his eyes and thinks that, because he can’t see something, no one else can, forgetting that rational people with eyes to see will indeed see that they are being dishonest with the text.
  • Related to the previous problem, they forget that, after writing those words, Paul then clarifies what that subjection looks like. He explains what the subjection entails specifically: wife to husband (Eph 5:22-24), children to fathers (Eph 6:1-3), and slave to master (Eph 6:5-8). If an egalitarian wishes to argue there is no distinction between husband and wive because of verse 21, then they must likewise argue, to maintain Paul’s consistency throughout his train of thought, that there is no distinction between children and parents, and slaves and masters.
Another tactic by some is to hone in on Paul’s words “we are members of His body” (Eph 5:30). Some will use this and say that, since we are all members of Christ’s body, no one is above another. Others will use this to take the idea of a husband being “the head” to say that the head is still part of the party. Both these arguments run into issues.

  • In the former case, it’s forgetting the connection Paul is making in his analogy: just as Christ is the head, and the Church the body, and hence has authority over it, so too is the husband the head of the wife, and hence has authority over her. For this argument to maintain some level of consistency, one would have to say that Christ has no authority over the Church.
  • In the latter case, this is just completely missing the point of the argument. Paul is saying that the head has control over the body – the head is seen as the “center” of the body, in some way. Similarly, Christ is “head” over the Church, and the husband is “head” over the wife. Likewise, similar to the previous argument, one would have to logically deduce, in order to remain consistent with Paul’s argument, that Christ has zero authority over the Church.

Still other egalitarians will jump from Ephesians entirely, running to Paul’s words in Galatians: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). If we are all one in Christ, they argue, then you cannot say that men and women have special roles, or that one rules over the other. The problem with this is two-fold:

  • As before, they are arguing scripture against scripture. Those who follow the Feminist Christian heresy are unable to properly deal with passages in their proper context; they must always jump to some other verse and deal with that instead, revealing the incoherent nature of their thinking. Instead of dealing with verses giving the clearest teaching on a doctrine (the sedes doctrinae verses, as Lutherans say), they will jump to verses with a much more vague connection, and attempt to teach clarity from there. Similar tactics are employed by Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, and others who follow a false teaching.
  • To appeal to this verse is appealing apples to oranges. In this section of Galatians, Paul is elucidating on the nature of the promise of the Gospel, and the unity of believers under that promise – not just the Jewish descendants of Abraham. Believers, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or social status, are “all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:26). Unlike certain Gnostic heresies, being a man does not make one saved alone, and belonging to a specific ethnic lineage does not make you saved. Hence, Paul is speaking of a salvific unity, not a kind of SJW-brand of egalitarianism. If he were, not only would he be contradicting himself in Ephesians 5, where he speaks of wives being in subjection to their husbands and slaves to their masters, but likewise in another epistle, where he speaks of sending a runaway slave back to his master (Phil 1:10-16).
The fact remains, there is a scriptural call for roles within marriage, within the relation of husband and wife. This hierarchy is tied with the hierarchy of Christ and the Church, in relation to the Church’s loyalty and service to Christ, and Christ’s love and care for the Church. For one to deny the one hierarchy is to deny the other. The shame is that, in denying this relationship and its respective roles, we in essence deny what is a wonderful, experiential representation of the Gospel and that relationship between Christ and believer.

Wives, are you in submission to your husbands? Does it reflect the submission that the church should have towards God? Husbands, do you love, sanctify, and nourish your wives? Does it reflect the kind of love and joy that Christ gives to the church? Are you the guardian of the spiritual well-being of your household? You two are one flesh, and if either fail in their role, then the entire body will be sick, and the marriage shall suffer. Take the commands of submission and love as a chance to work the Gospel into your marriage, and to continually give yourself and your spouse the Gospel every day.

As I said before, place your marriage under the shadow of the cross.

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