A New Dynamic in Marriage: The Path to Flourishing

Context, context, context…

A few years ago, when working with a ministry in the U.K. called Christians in Sport, I had the privilege of doing annual trips to Egypt to train church and sports ministry leaders. On one trip, I was with a colleague who had an upset stomach when we were taken to Starbucks on the way to the airport. He didn’t want anything to drink, least of all a coffee which would make his stomach feel worse, but at Starbucks, our host bought him a venti coffee. My colleague was so keen not to offend our gracious host that he drank it - all of it. Unfortunately, he did not realise that in Egypt, finishing a plate, or cup, is a sign that you are dissatisfied and want more. So our host bought him another! My colleague, desperate to create a good impression, drank about half of that too and spent the flight home doubled up with stomach cramps and in the restroom.

It was an understandable cultural mistake. He had not realised how words and actions in a different culture can mean something very different. The resulting experience for him was uncomfortable, to say the least.

Similarly, we have a cultural challenge when we approach verses like Colossians 3:18, "Wives, submit yourselves to your husbands, as is fitting in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them."

But what if much of our discomfort in digesting the ideas in this verse owes as much to cultural misunderstanding as they do to the proper gospel challenge of following Christ?

Today, the word ‘submit’ conjures up images of a wrestling match, with the dominant party wrestling someone to the ground. This seems like a worrying pretext for overbearing behaviour, possibly leading to marital abuse. Or, even if we think that submission means something more moderate, a kind of deference to authority, doesn’t this sound very Victorian, wives demurely obeying the authority of the men in their lives?

A significant part of our challenge is our failure to understand this verse, first (as we will see) in its cultural context and second to understand the loaded meaning of words like submission (and headship) in our context. This double cultural misunderstanding, with something so emotionally charged as how men and women should relate, requires some disentangling.

Subverting the ‘Household Codes’

When Paul wrote Colossians 3:18-4:1 (and its corresponding, and fuller, passage in Ephesians 5:21-6:9), he was deliberately echoing a common pattern of teaching in the culture at the time, the ‘household codes’. Aristotle wrote about these in his Politics, as did Philo, Josephus, and many others. They were common, commonly understood, and with a well-known structure and convention. However, as often happens in the New Testament, Paul subverts them, shows the reordering of relationships in Christ and teaches highly countercultural equality that challenged the status quo.

Therefore, when Paul writes Colossians 3:18 and the following verses, and Ephesians 5:21 and its following verses, those reading at the time would immediately spot significant and highly surprising differences in these new Christian household codes.

  1. Women were directly addressed and addressed first

Aristotle, Philo, and Josephus did not address women directly in their writings, rather they assumed that only men would be reading them. This reflects first-century Greco-Roman culture, where women were deemed inferior, denied anything more than a very basic education, were not equal to men before the law, and were not allowed to be participants in public worship.1 Aristotle reflects the Greco-Roman cultural view when he writes, ‘For the first principle of the movement…whereby that which comes into being is male, is better and more divine than the material whereby it is female.’ 2

But Paul not only addresses women directly in his letters, he also addresses them before the men. For a culture replete with convention around who would speak first and sit in what order at the table, this was a way of valuing women and elevating wives as equally in the image of God with their husbands and equally redeemed by Christ. As he writes in Galatians 3:26, ‘In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith’.

It is an ironic misreading of context for some people to label Paul a misogynist when, in the culture at the time, he was undermining patriarchy and displaying a radical equality of women and men.

  1. Husbands were not said to have authority over their wives, and wives are not commanded to obey

Aristotle comments in his Politics, ‘A husband and father rules over wife and children… The freeman rules over the slave after another manner from that in which the male rules over the female’. Philo calls on women to be in ‘servitude’ to their husbands. Josephus says that women are inferior to men, and ‘the authority has been given by God to the man’. We can clearly see that the cultural expectation was husbands are in authority and superior, and wives must be subservient and obey.

But Paul never uses these words of authority, obedience, and subservience (or their synonyms) to describe the relationship between husbands and wives. If he had wanted to teach the authority of husbands over wives, then he could have. Indeed, given the culture at the time, people were expecting him to. So, by not using such words, he is making a point. Again, this would have been a shock and challenged the cultural norms.3

What about submission?

Since Paul does not describe the relationship of husbands to wives in terms of authority, we must be careful not to do so when we define submission. Part of the problem lies in the limitations of the English language. Our word ‘submission’ has a wide range of meanings. The corresponding Greek word upertasso comprises two parts, uper meaning under, and tasso meaning to arrange or place. Understandably, many have argued this means ‘to put oneself under the authority of (the husband).’ However, please note that this inserts the idea of authority into the meaning. I am suggesting this is the very misconception that Paul has been at pains to subvert. What if there is another way to understand ‘arranging/putting oneself under’ that is not about putting oneself under authority?

First, we should note that in Ephesians 5:21, Paul uses submission as a general call on all Christians, ‘Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ’. Submission would not be possible, one-to-another, if it was to put oneself under another’s authority since a hierarchy is, by its very definition, non-reciprocal. Someone can’t be under my authority if I am under their authority.

I have been greatly helped by parts of John Stott’s work on Ephesians 5:21 ff. in his Bible Speaks Today commentary. He argues that submission is another way of articulating the general Christian principle outlined in the rest of the New Testament commanded for all believers:

  • Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others (Phil 2:3-4)
  • You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave (Matthew 20:25-26)
  • Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth (Matthew 5:5)

In all of these exhortations, there is a call on Christians to ‘put themselves under’ others, or as we reflexively use the phrase in English, ‘put others above ourselves’. Please notice that we are called to do this not because others are in authority but because the gospel changes our perspective so that, just as Christ put our good above his own, so we put the good of others above our own. On this understanding, submission involves a free choice not predicated on authority and hierarchy but on love.

Therefore, I am suggesting that wives are being called to a specific application of what all Christians are called to do in general; to look to the interests of others and to put others first. Please note, this is not a mandate for self-neglect and certainly not a mandate for marital abuse because, as we have already seen, this is predicated on recognising the equality of husbands and wives in marriage. Submission involves free choice, dignity, and a willing act of love, not a coerced act of subservience.

The greater call of ‘submission’ commanded of the husbands

If this understanding of submission is correct, I want you to see how the call on husbands to ‘love’ is, in an important sense, a greater call of submission. That sounds controversial to some who think the husband is in authority over the wife. That, I think, is Paul’s point.

If you imagine a scale of putting someone above yourself with the level of sacrifice and vulnerability on one axis, then I think ‘love’ especially as defined in Ephesians 5:25-28, is a call to push husbands further along the scale to greater self-sacrifice, "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her… In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies."

If Christ paid the ultimate sacrifice in dying on the cross for his people, the church, because he put our interests that far above his own, then is not the call on husbands to love as Christ loved the church a call to go even further in putting their wives interests above their own? That is why I am arguing husbands are held to a greater call of putting their wives first.

How submission and love lead to flourishing in marriage

In Andy Crouch’s excellent book Strong And Weak, he draws on the dichotomy between what he calls authority and vulnerability.4 By authority, he does not mean hierarchical power (which is how we have been using it so far in this piece) but ‘the capacity for meaningful action’. Because we have been talking about ‘authority’ in a different way, to avoid confusion, let’s call it ‘capacity’. He then defines vulnerability as ‘to be exposed to the possibility of loss’, not so much in the emotional sense (though probably at least that) but in the sense of a loss or risk to self.

In this sense, it seems that submission and love in Colossians 3 and Ephesians 5 call the wife and the husband to varying degrees of risk exposure. Whenever you put someone else’s interests above your own, there is risk and loss involved. When the husband is called to do this ‘as Christ loved the church,’ there is even greater risk and loss. How does this lead to flourishing?

Crouch’s point is that capacity without vulnerability leads to exploiting, but capacity with vulnerability leads to flourishing (see fig 1.)5

Think of the fall in Genesis 3. After Adam and Eve’s blame game on who was at fault in eating the forbidden fruit, God pronounces his judgement that Eve’s ‘desire will be for your husband and he will rule over you’ (Genesis 3:16). This is an ugly picture of the opposite of flourishing; men and women using their capacity to exploit one another with the painful reality that the husband will ‘rule over’ the wife (carrying a strong connotation of domineering and harshness). This poignant verse outlines the battle of the sexes ingrained in thousands of years of human history. Each party misuses their capacity as God’s image bearers to exploit the other for their own gain. In the final analysis, and in general, the husband prevails because he has a greater physical and cultural capacity (in the sense of greater physical and cultural strength), which results in patriarchy, discrimination, and exploitation.6

However, the call of the gospel of Jesus Christ is to a life of mutual flourishing, not selfish exploitation. This is achieved by each party in marriage combining vulnerability with capacity by putting the other’s interests first. This mutual other-person-centred orientation is exactly the opposite of sin’s drive to exploitation. It is the very grace that we see in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. He who, as the Son of God, had the greatest capacity, and hence the greatest potential to exploit, does not come to ‘be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.’ (Mark 10:45) In love, Jesus sacrifices the most, becomes the most vulnerable through his death on the cross, and therefore causes the greatest flourishing.

This is the pattern for marriage, which is why Paul reminds us of Jesus’ sacrifice in Ephesians 5 when teaching about marriage. Husbands and wives are called to ally capacity with vulnerability to see flourishing. The greater the capacity, the greater the call to be vulnerable and sacrifice. For the husband, and any ways in which he has a greater capacity (whether physically or by cultural norms), he is to be even more vulnerable, hence the call to sacrificially love his wife as Christ loved the church.

As I close, please note how this allows for equality and differentiation between husbands and wives. It recognises there is a differentiation of capacity. Men and women are different in many ways. As husbands and wives in their particular relationships note their different capacities, each is called to give up what they have for the sake of the other and to resist the sinful tendency of every human heart to leverage our gifts to get our own way. I have argued that differentiation between husbands and wives is not grounded in a power dynamic with the husband being in authority over the wife. Given the cultural belief at the time that this was the case and how Paul carefully avoids mentioning such authority in marriage, we must do likewise! Instead, we need to ground marriage relationships not in power but in love. As each party seeks to embrace vulnerability for the sake of the other, only then will see counter-cultural, gospel-shaped flourishing in marriage.


[1] Celsus a scathing critic of early Christianity, wrote that women’s involvement in public worship was a reason to reject Christianity, “[Christians] show they want and are able to convince only the foolish, dishonourable, and stupid, only slaves, women, and little children” (Origen, Against Celsus Book III. ch.44). Note how Paul addresses all of these people directly to honour them.

[2] Aristotle, On the Generation of Animals. Book II.

[3] Some argue that the use of ‘head’ (e.g. Ephesians 5:23) is a synonym for authority. This requires more fulsome treatment than we can here. However, whilst head carries an authority meaning in some context in English, that was not the case of kephale in Greek. When we compare the word for head in the Hebrew Bible with the word for head in the Greek Septuagint. When the word head in Hebrew meant literal head kephale was used. When leader was implied, they used archon. Out of 180 instances where the Hebrew carried the meaning of leader only 8 were translated kephale. Furthermore, extensive word studies of extra-biblical sources show that head was not used in this way in the wider culture, and it is never used in a male and female relationship context. Paul was using it as a metaphor, head to body, implying differentiation but interdependence. He unpacks this in Ephesians 4:15-16 (ESV) saying that Christ, as the head, is the one ‘from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love’.

[4] Thanks to one of the elders at Redeemer Downtown, Jon Endean, for directing me to this book in the context of this discussion.

[5] Figure 1 is from Andy Crouch’s Weak and Strong but with ‘authority’ adapted to ‘capacity’

[6] This is not saying that women do not have significant physical capacity and in some areas, even greater physical capacity than men (e.g., my wife is considerably more dexterous than me physically). However, in a general sense when we put all physical attributes together men have greater physical ‘capacity’ than women. Should this sound controversial in today’s culture, we should reflect on why we have differentiated sports competitions. Is this not indicative of the general greater physical capacity? Also, we should note that the problem underlying our cultural nervousness about such previously uncontroversial pronouncements (despite the huge banks of empirical evidence to back up such claims) is that perhaps we have confused equality of value with equality of capacity. Scripture emphasises our equality of value and the differentiation of the sexes, not as mutually contradictory, but as two essential points to hold together to see human flourishing.