Is there a viable means of interpreting passages within the New Testament regarding wives "submitting" to their husbands without conceding complementarianism? We are not permitted to ignore verses in Scripture which state that all in Christ -- regardless of ethnicity, socio-economical status, or gender -- are equal (Gal. 3:28). There is to be no "lording" authority over believers by other believers (Matt. 20:25, 26). We are all to "submit" to one another (Eph. 5:21). This verse precedes the "submission of the wife" passage in that chapter -- submission to one another in Christ. This notion is carried out in the marriage: the body of the husband belongs to the wife and vice versa (1 Cor. 7:4). This is mutuality. When we submit ourselves to one another we are humbly "preferring one another and not demanding personal rights."11
St Paul instructs us to "give preference to one another in honor" (Rom. 12:10).
Grady further comments:
We also must note that the Greek word for submission, hupotasso, is written in the Greek middle voice, which means it is something that an individual imposes upon himself or herself. It means to choose to yield to another, rather than demanding one's own way. Submission remains the freewill right of the one choosing to yield. It cannot be demanded from another individual or imposed upon one person by another. When this occurs, it stops being hupotasso and becomes domination, which was an attitude Christ forbade His disciples to operate in with regard to one another (Matt. 23:10). Submission is not something that can be required or exacted from another person.12
Marriage, by virtue of nature and design, regards unity: a working together of two equal partners. The husband is not the boss of the wife and vice versa. This much should be obvious even in passages beloved by complementarians. Take, for instance, Ephesians 5:22: "Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord." But he continues: "Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her ... So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies." (Eph. 5:25, 28) The apostle often writes to the churches in order to correct problems and give instructions. If the Ephesian women are being contentious, and we know that, culturally, women in Ephesus at this time are attempting their own women's rights movement and are assuming authority over men, the apostle reminds these women of their humble and Christian duty to serve the Lord alongside their husbands. Understand that the apostle's instructions here are counter-cultural to a society that still views women as property.13
With regard to the context of Peter: the apostle calls for both men and women to "submit" themselves "for the Lord's sake to every human institution" and to "honor all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honor the king" (1 Pet. 2:13-17 NASB). He instructs all "house-servants" to be submissive to their masters -- yes, masters -- with "all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are unreasonable." (1 Pet. 2:18) These "house-servants" are called upon to endure the suffering of these masters and the apostle even calls on the example of Jesus suffering at the hands of wicked people by way of example (1 Pet. 2:19-25) -- a hard saying if ever one is found. He then writes: "In the same way," the previous context regarding suffering being inferred, "you wives, be submissive to your own husbands, so that even if any of them are disobedient to the word, they may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, as they observe your chaste and respectful behavior." (1 Pet. 3:1, 2) What, exactly, is he advocating?
The following is taken from Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers: "Whether this imposes for all time upon Christian wives as complete a submission towards their husbands as is here enjoined might perhaps be questioned, because the special reason for the command in this place was to allay suspicions engendered by the boldness with which Christianity proclaimed the freedom of the individual." (link) (emphasis added) I can in no sense detect within Peter an advocacy that a wife should endure the abuse of her husband in the hopes that the husband will be "won to the Lord" by her so-called obedience. The phrase "if any of them are disobedient to the word" most certainly refers to the man being a non-believer. So, the apostle states that what is best is for the wife to continue being a humble wife to her husband, and perhaps her love and Christian devotion will affect his spiritual condition. (Let us not forget St Paul's words at 1 Cor. 7:12, 13, 14, 15, 16.)
If, however, we are pressed on this issue, especially regarding 1 Peter 3:5-6, as well as 1 Peter 3:7, and we are supposed to cede a complementarian interpretation, we might just as easily remind the complementarian the following: "St. Peter has just been giving injunctions for absolute submission, even to injustice, on the part of slaves; and the progress of Christianity has abolished slavery altogether. The measure of the Christian wife's submission may safely be left to her own enlightened conscience, guided by other passages of the New Testament not written, like this, for a special emergency." (link) (emphasis added) In other words, the argument is twofold, in that: 1) since slavery was abolished then so, too, may patriarchy and complementarianism be abolished; and 2) the apostle could have written this injunction for a special purpose -- not that this should be the norm for all time -- not that a first-century cultural motif should be the "biblical" standard for the fourth century or the twelfth century or the sixteenth or the twenty-first century.
From the perspective of a biblical egalitarian, we might as well return to the practice of slavery if we are to maintain a strict patriarchal complementarianism, for the one appears as "biblical" as the next. But we need to assume a very serious tone when addressing this issue: that women are being abused because men are adopting a superiority complex by a doctrinal system that many are insisting is "biblical" is irresponsible, unacceptable, and intolerable. Not only does complementarianism distort the equality of Spirit-gifted women for New Testament ministry (cf. 1 Cor. 12:13; Gal. 3:28; Eph. 2:11-18; 4:4, 5, 6, 7); but the interpretative fallacies underlying this doctrine also destroys the unity of the family and marriage itself as originally designed by God in Genesis. Complementarianism, then, is an assault on women, an assault on the Holy Spirit who gifts women for ministry, and an assault on the holy institution of marriage itself.
1 J. Lee Grady, 10 Lies the Church Tells Women: How the Bible Has Been Misused to Keep Women in Spiritual Bondage (Lake Mary: Charisma House, 2006), 182. I am mostly engaging the work of Grady throughout this post against complementarianism and for egalitarianism.
4 Ibid., 182-83. I fully realize that there are complementarian scholars and lay persons who denounce the abuse of women by carnal men. What we will wait in vain for, however, is a confession by these complementarians that their interpretative method is the fuel that produces the energy contributing toward abuse of women. Stated another way: no man, within the context of egalitarianism, would, by the implications of this biblical motif, be led to abuse a woman.
5 Ibid., 180.
6 Ibid., 182.
7 Ibid., 181.
10 Ibid., 184.
11 Ibid., 187.
13 Ibid., 188. Dr. Craig Keener writes: "The gains of women in ancient society had introduced new tensions into Greco-Roman life in general and probably into some marriages as well, due to the greater flexibility of possible role expectations now available. This meant that religions that were thought to ignore traditional roles for women would be viewed as threatening by the conservative male establishment."
Consider, as well, that the apostle often assumes the cultural form of household codes; yet, "by grounding the wife's submission in general Christian submission," as he does at Ephesians 5, "he qualifies the meaning of those codes. Yes, the wife should submit to her husband; but the husband, following Christ's example of self-sacrificial service for his wife, also must submit himself to his wife. This is even more explicit than that the wife should love her husband even as he loves her (cf. Eph. 5:2, 25)." See Craig S. Keener, Paul, Women, and Wives: Marriage and Women's Ministry in the Letters of Paul (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 143, 158.
This post was written by William Birch. You can find his original post here: http://www.williambirch.net/2016/04/submit-woman-assault-of-complementarianism.html