Does submission mean that the husband gets his way?

Q.  I’m about to be married and I want to follow the Bible’s instructions for wives, including submitting to my husband.  I’ve heard this means that if we can’t agree, I need to let him have his way.  Is that right?

Actually, as I understand the implications of the Bible’s full counsel to husbands and wives, the concept of submission does not apply primarily to decision-making, and it does not mean that the wife must always defer to the husband.

Here’s why I say that.  In the Genesis creation account, God makes one thing after another and declares each one “good.”  At the end, God declares the whole creation “very good.”  But then God finds something that is “not good”:  the man is alone, without the kind of “helper” he needs.  The Hebrew word often translated as “helper” in English Bibles actually refers to a strong ally who comes to someone’s side in times of crisis or need.  It most often refers to God, as in the psalm that begins, “I lift up my eyes to the mountains–where does my help come from?  My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”

So if it had really been all right for a man to do whatever he wanted, no matter what his wife thought, there would have been no reason for God to create woman in the first place.  But it is “not good” for a man to be “alone” in this sense.

Other Scriptures support this understanding.  For example, when Paul wanted Philemon to make the important decision about whether to grant freedom to his runaway slave Onesimus, Paul wrote not just to Philemon, but also to his wife Apphia.  Paul wanted Apphia to help influence Philemon to do the right thing, as a full participant in the decision.

What, then, does submission mean?  Here’s how I explain it in my study guide to Paul’s Prison Letters, as I’m discussing Paul’s counsel to husbands and wives in Colossians:

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Both here in Colossians and in his very similar teaching in Ephesians, Paul stresses that the new life will be lived out essentially in basic human relationships: between wives and husbands, children and parents, and slaves and masters.

These relationships, he explains, have become radically transformed because they’ve been carried into a new realm. People who, from an earthly perspective, are slaves and masters must recognize that together they have become fellow servants of a “Master in heaven.” Husbands and wives have become brothers and sisters in the faith who “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ,” as Paul writes in Ephesians, just before discussing the husband-wife relationship. Children are to obey their parents because this “pleases the Lord,” as Paul writes here in Colossians, and their parents are to “bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord,” as he says in Ephesians. In other words, both children and parents are now accountable to God for how they relate to one another. So the character of these relationships has changed: no longer does one person attempt to dominate the other; rather, the participants show each other respect and consideration before God.

However, the nature of these relationships remains essentially the same. One person in the relationship is still entrusted with leadership responsibility, while the other person respects that leadership and cooperates with it. The coming age has not yet fully arrived, and so these ongoing responsibilities must be honored. A situation described in 1 Timothy illustrates this principle well. Some slaves in first-century Asia Minor who were followers of Jesus thought that the arrival of the coming age meant that they no longer needed to respect their masters. But Paul explains that these slaves should actually “serve them even better,” since they are now “dear to them as fellow believers” and devoted to their welfare.

In other words, relationships of the present age are transformed by the approach of the coming age not by a change in the responsibilities that people have towards one another, but by a change in the spirit in which these responsibilities are carried out. And so Paul tells husbands not to “be harsh” with their wives, he tells parents not to “embitter” their children, and he tells masters to provide their slaves with what is “right and fair.” For their part, he tells children and slaves to “obey” their parents and masters, and he tells wives to “submit” to their husbands.

What Paul says here about obedience and submission is often misunderstood. These concepts don’t describe the process by which it’s decided what the people in a relationship will do. Specifically, they don’t imply that husbands, parents, and employers make decisions all by themselves and that wives, (growing) children, and employees have to follow them without asking any questions or providing any input. As Paul describes these relationships, it’s clear that no one has this kind of arbitrary power. Rather, obedience and submission describe a trusting, respectful attitude that leads to a response of support and cooperation.

Paul uses two different terms here, obedience and submission, and the distinction between them points to an important difference between the husband-wife relationship and the other two relationships he describes. Obedience, which Paul asks of children and slaves, implies a recognized duty to support and cooperate with another person’s leadership, while submission, which Paul asks of wives, suggests a voluntary decision to honor and respect a leader who has been given responsibility for one’s welfare and who is devoted to that task.

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I hope these reflections are helpful to you, and I wish you every happiness in your marriage!

Are we not supposed to even talk about immoral things?

Q.  Paul says in Ephesians, “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. But everything exposed by the light becomes visible—and everything that is illuminated becomes a light.” I’m confused. Does this mean we’re to mention/expose bad things, or not? Or is he saying both? Like, gossip is bad but whistle-blowing is sometimes necessary?

In this section of Ephesians, Paul is offering practical teaching about what it means to “put off the old self” and “put on the new self” as a follower of Jesus.

The specific part of this teaching that you’re asking about takes up the topic of how believers talk among themselves and what kinds of actions this talk inevitably leads to.  Paul says that “sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving” (ESV).

One thing we see here is that “the ‘putting off’ of a destructive behavior is actually accomplished through the ‘putting on’ of a life-giving one that displaces it,” as I note in my study guide to Paul’s Prison Letters.  “Filthiness” and “foolish talk” and “crude joking” are replaced by thanksgiving, “a positive appreciation for what is excellent and praiseworthy in any situation.”

But another thing we see is that immorality and impurity have two ways of getting a hold over us.  This can happen if we glamorize them as the subjects of supposedly entertaining jokes or stories.  But it can also happen if we give them an alluring cachet as secretive and exclusive practices that only the initiated are in on.  In other words, we can give these things unwarranted power in our lives if we talk about them too much or in the wrong ways, or if we don’t talk about them enough, in a cautionary way.

Paul is saying, in other words, that in our conversations as followers of Jesus, we need to walk a fine line.  We need to acknowledge and expose the “works of darkness” so that they cannot continue under the cloak of secrecy and draw in unsuspecting people by the allure of their supposed exclusivity.  But we need to do this in a way that doesn’t sensationalize or glamorize these activities, or that will end up promoting them.  Whistleblowing without gossiping, to use your terms.

This is why there seems to be a tension in Paul’s words here between speaking and not speaking about these “works of darkness.”

(Incidentally, I would translate the end of the statement you quoted in your question this way:  “Everything exposed by the light becomes visible, because everything that is visible stands in the light.”  The Greek says literally that it “is light,” but the meaning is that it “is lighted.”)

“I do not permit a woman to give a man a white feather”


One concern may remain from my argument (developed starting with this post) that Paul’s apparently broadly restrictive comments in 1 Timothy actually have a narrower, local focus—that women representing a false teaching are not to argue with or authoritatively “correct” someone who is presenting the true teaching.  While this may be the original context, Paul still says that women, as women, aren’t to relate to men, as men, in a particular way.  So aren’t his restrictive comments universally applicable?  If he had really only wanted to stop the spread of a false teaching, wouldn’t he just have said that no one (meaning either man or woman) was to advocate this specific false teaching?

An analogy from history may be helpful here.  During the First World War, the “Order of the White Feather” was founded with the aim of shaming men into enlisting for military service by getting women to present them with a white feather, symbolic of cowardice, if they were not wearing a uniform.  While the concern was local (context-specific in time and place), this was still an exercise in encouraging women, as women, to relate to men, as men, in a particular way.  The women considered themselves to be acting on behalf of their sex in appealing to the bravery and chivalry of men to protect them and their country.

The “Order of the White Feather” soon became controversial and unpopular.  Government officials who were actively promoting the war effort, civilians in military employ, and even soldiers who were out of uniform because they were home on leave were publicly accused of cowardice by being handed white feathers.  Men who were not suited for military service may well have been shamed into enlisting and ultimately killed in situations where others might have survived.  Vital industries were deprived of needed workers.

So we can easily imagine a factory owner, for example, issuing an order applicable on the factory premises such as, “I do not permit a woman to give a man a white feather.”  Even though a local situation is in view, the order needs to be stated in such general terms because it concerns something that women are doing, as women, in relation to men, as men.

I believe the same thing was going on in first-century Ephesus.  If the belief was that women were the physical origin and source of spiritual enlightenment for men, it makes sense that they were being encouraged, as women, to re-enact the role of Zoe/Eve in bringing spiritual enlightenment to men, as men, by correcting their supposedly mistaken view of the creation order.  This explains why Paul would speak to a local situation in such general terms.  And it shows that his statement does have a limited local focus, even though it is worded this way.

My conclusion, once again, is that the Bible does not say women can’t be in church-wide positions of teaching and authority.

Does the Bible say that women can’t teach or have authority over men? (Part 3)

In my last post I suggested that we can best understand what Paul says he doesn’t want women to do, when writing in 1 Timothy about teaching and authority, if we appreciate as clearly as possible what he does want them to do.  For that, we need to look at the words he uses.

Paul uses two forms of the same Greek root.  When he says that women should “learn in quietness,” he’s using the noun form, hēsuchia.  When he says that women should “be quiet,” he uses the verb form, hēsuchazō.

When we look at all the ways that hēsuchia and hēsuchazō (as well as the adjective from the same root, hēsuchios) are used in the New Testament, we discover something interesting.  (You can follow the whole word study in several posts starting here.)  While the root sometimes describes complete silence, the absence of speech or sound, it more often describes a person refraining from saying something they otherwise might.  In other words, it signifies that a person doesn’t object, or stops arguing.

One typical example is in the book of Acts.  After the apostles in Jerusalem heard Peter’s explanation of why he preached the good news to Gentiles, “they fell silent, and they glorified God, saying, ‘Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life'” (ESV).  Clearly this is not silence in the sense of no speech, because the apostles continue speaking.  Rather, it means “they had no further objections,” as the NIV translates the phrase.

We know from Paul’s other letters that he does not want women literally to say nothing in gatherings of Jesus’ followers.  He tells the Corinthians, for example, that each person in their community, without qualification, should have something to share in worship, and he specifically describes women praying and prophesying.  So we need to recognize that in the passage we’re considering in 1 Timothy, and in the similar one in 1 Corinthians about women being “silent” (where Paul uses the synonym sigaō in place of hesuchazō), what Paul is actually saying is that women shouldn’t argue or object.

But what would women in particular have wanted to argue about or object to in this setting?  I believe that Richard and Catherine Kroeger, in their book I Suffer Not a Woman, have correctly identified the point of dispute.  It was the myth, prevalent in the Mediterranean world of Paul’s day, that the woman (Zoe or life in Greek, identified with Eve by syncretistic teachers) was created first and brought spiritual life to the man by showing him that the creator of the world was not the true, supreme God.

Paul’s comments here would be a correction of that myth.  In other words, by saying “Adam was formed first,” Paul is actually countering the content of this false teaching. He’s not citing primogeniture as a reason why men should be in charge of women.

So what Paul does want women to do is “be quiet” or “not argue,” that is, not dispute this point, particularly in gatherings of the community.  What he doesn’t want women to do is publicly and authoritatively “correct” a speaker, which they may have felt was a duty to their own gender.  (I’ll talk about this more in my next post.)

In my view, Paul’s use here of the infinitives didaskein (“teach”) and authentein (“be in authority” [?]) together is well suited to convey the idea of public correction.  The verb authentein appears only here in the New Testament, so we have no parallel uses that can confirm this is what the verb itself means.  However, this kind of correction is described in Galatians, where Paul says that he “opposed Peter to his face . . . in front of them all.”  The same kind of thing happens more privately when, as described in Acts, Priscilla and Aquila invite Apollos to their home and “explain the way of God to him more adequately.”

If this is really what Paul’s comments in 1 Timothy mean, then they have a specific, local focus: women representing this false teaching about the respective origins of men and women are not to argue with or authoritatively “correct” someone who is presenting the true teaching. (The example of Priscilla shows that Paul’s comments don’t even apply to women “correcting” men generally, but are limited to this specific issue.)

While many applications can be drawn for the present day from the way Paul addresses this situation in 1 Timothy, one application is not that no woman should be in a church-wide position of teaching or authority.  When we understand the historical and literary context of Paul’s words, we realize that the Bible does not teach this.

Does the Bible say that women can’t teach or have authority over men? (Part 2)

In my last post I argued that we need to understand Paul’s statement in 1 Timothy, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man,” as something more than an isolated proposition.  When we do pay attention to its literary and historical context, one of the first things we notice is that Paul immediately gives a reason for saying this:  “For Adam was formed first, then Eve.”

So what?  Why does it matter that Adam was formed first?  Some have argued that Paul is invoking a principle of primogeniture, that is, the senior status and authority of the firstborn.  Thomas Schreiner, for example, notes that Paul is alluding here to a passage in Genesis, which he says it’s one that “the Hebrew reader would be disposed to read . . . in terms of primogeniture,” implying a principle of male authority.  Others have made similar arguments.

Now it is true that God establishes primogeniture as an important principle within Israelite society, which was supposed to be a model for the surrounding nations.  Nevertheless, in his own inbreaking work of redemption, God repeatedly disregards this principle.  For example, he chooses Isaac over Ishmael, Jacob over Esau, Joseph over his ten older brothers, Manasseh over Ephraim, Gideon over his older brothers,  David over his seven older brothers, and so forth.  So why would God uphold primogeniture as a governing principle in the community of Jesus’ followers, which is the very embodiment of his inbreaking work of redemption in our world today? (Indeed, the book of Hebrews describes this community as the “church of the firstborn,” suggesting that all members share this status corporately.)

Since this initial consideration of the context doesn’t really account for Paul’s statement, I propose taking a different approach. Let’s read the entire sentence in which it appears.  Our English translations don’t always bring this out, but this famous statement is not an entire sentence in itself, but part of a larger one. It’s actually a dependent clause within that sentence, not even its main point.  (So it shouldn’t ever be used as an independent proposition.)

Paul says (in the NIV translation, but following the punctuation of major critical editions of the New Testament), “A woman should learn in quietness in full submission; I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet.”  In other words, Paul is primarily asking women to do something (“learn in quietness,” “be quiet”), and he only describes what he doesn’t want them to do secondarily, to help explain what he does want them to do.

It seems to me, therefore, that we can best understand what Paul doesn’t want women to do by appreciating as clearly as possible what he does want them to do.  I’ll take this up in my next post.

Does the Bible say that women can’t teach or have authority over men? (Part 1)

The prophetess Huldah answers the high priest Hilkiah’s questions about the Scriptures.  Was she allowed to do this?

It’s not difficult to read between the lines of my study guides (to Paul’s Journey Letters or to Paul’s Prison Letters, for example) and recognize that I believe there should be no restrictions on what women can do in communities of Jesus’ followers.  In the guides I acknowledge this as a question on which believers can legitimately differ, and I make every effort to explain both points of view so groups can discuss the issue amicably.  But I think my personal sympathies are probably pretty clear.

I’d like to make them even clearer here.  When a friend of mine saw this post in which Steve Holmes said that for him to defend the ministry of a woman like Phoebe Palmer “would be as ridiculous as a worm trying to defend a lion,” my friend commented how valuable it was for her to hear male biblical scholars affirming the ministry of women.  And so, particularly to encourage women who feel called to ministry, I want to add my own (male) voice in support of their calling.

In recent months, at the request of some friends, I’ve been blogging privately on this topic so we could discuss it together confidentially.  We’ve reached a point of resolution in our conversations, and so with their agreement, I’d now like to share my reflections publicly here.  The material from this formerly private blog is too long (17 posts, nearly 10,000 words) to appear in its entirely in this venue, so I’ll summarize it instead.  But I’ll provide links along the way to those fuller discussions, for those who are interested in pursuing specific points in more detail.  If you’d like to see it all (except for the original participants’ comments, which have been removed), it starts with this post.

Those discussion are more wide-ranging, but in these posts I’d like to focus more narrowly on the biblical statement that is most often taken to support restrictions on what women can do.  Paul writes in 1 Timothy, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man.”  Doesn’t that settle the question?

Actually, whether it does depends on what the Bible is and what we’re supposed to do with it.  If the Bible is essentially a collection of propositions, and if we’re supposed to isolate and collect these propositions in order to answer questions that we pose to the text ourselves about belief and practice, then this statement speaks pretty clearly and decisively to the question, “Should there be any restrictions on what women can do in communities of Jesus’ followers?”

Some further statements that apparently take the same position, although less explicitly, can be brought in for support (for example, “The head of every woman is man”).  Other biblical statements that seem inconsistent with this working conclusion can be accounted for somehow (“Deborah . . . was leading Israel at that time . . . and the Israelites went up to her to have their disputes decided”).  But other passages aside, if we take this approach to the Bible, the statement in 1 Timothy is the definitive one that seems to settle the matter.

The problem is, the Bible is not a collection of propositions that we are supposed to isolate and collect in order to answer questions that we pose ourselves.  The Bible is instead a library of complete works, of greatly varying kinds, that as a whole tell the grand story of God’s initiatives over the course of human history to redeem fallen humanity, culminating in the person and work of Jesus Christ.  (Seen in this way, the Bible has many more questions for us than we have for it, starting with, “What are you doing to join in this grand story?”)

Because this is the true character of the Bible, no biblical statement is true or valid in isolation.  Each one appears in the historical and literary context of an entire work of literature, itself placed within a grand overarching story, and so no biblical statement makes sense in isolation.  If we really want to understand what Paul meant by his statement in the first letter to Timothy and what its implications are for us today, we need to situate it in its historical and literary context.  That is what I will seek to do starting in my next post.