Who Comes First?

— Henry Neufeld

Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, and Christ also is the head of the assembly, being himself the savior of the body. But as the assembly is subject to Christ, so let the wives also be to their own husbands in everything.        Ephesians 5:22-24 (WEB)

Jody asked me to respond to this text, by discussing the role of wives as she discussed the role of husbands yesterday, and I’m very happy to do so. You see, I think it is a text that 21st century American Christians are almost certain to misunderstand in some way. There are two reasons for this. The first is that we misunderstand the world in which Paul lived, and the second is that we misunderstand God’s view of leadership, often called “headship.” I may annoy some people by saying so, but I have come to dislike the word “headship” intensely, because I believe it has been used to cover up a multitude of sins.

First, my fellow men, in a nutshell, no text in the Bible tells us that we get to rule the world. And ladies, it doesn’t mean that you’re door mats, or that your gifts matter less than those of the men.

How can I say this when I’m commenting on a text that quite clearly tells wives to be subject to their husbands? Surely this puts us in a privileged position! And indeed in the world in which Paul lived, the men had the power in their households and the women had very little. Even those men who believe they have a mandate from God to be the absolute rulers of their own households have little power compared to what a man had in the Roman world.

Now I could challenge our understanding of this text by asking you to read some other texts, such as Galatians 3:28 or even the texts that lead up to this one in Ephesians 5:15-21. No, I’m not going to discuss them. Get out your Bibles and read them. In fact, try reading the whole book of Ephesians. It’s very few pages and it will do you great good!

But I think there’s enough right in the text I quoted to answer most of our questions if we’ll listen to it carefully. You see, we think so much in terms of hierarchy, of who is more and less important, of who is more and less powerful, that I think we have great difficulty actually reading this passage. What we want to do is hear something specifically about who is in charge, about who gets to give the orders.

If we follow the chain through this supposed hierarchy, we come to Jesus, who is the head of the church. And what did Jesus do? He gave himself absolutely and completely for us. He died for us. He didn’t lord it over people in a human way. He lorded it over people through service, love, and sacrifice.

What I believe Paul was trying to do in this passage was to bring the institutions of his day—and indeed of every day following—into subjection to Jesus Christ. And because that was a hierarchy, he speaks of putting Jesus at the head of the hierarchy.

But that’s where there is a tremendous irony. In Matthew 23:11 Jesus says that the one who wants to be greatest must be a servant. When you climb to the top of the authority pyramid as Jesus constructs it, you discover that you’re at the bottom.

But Jody asked me to talk about the role of wives, and I’m going to do so. I believe that role is very clear in our text and many others—it is the role of a servant, just like that of the men. It’s the “upside-down kingdom” where getting to the top doesn’t make you lord over anyone.

Here’s some quick points:

  • A wife is to exercise her gifts as called by God. Husbands, if you are getting in the way of this, you’re headed the wrong direction.

  • A woman who is looking for a husband should look for a husband who will put her second—second to Jesus.

  • Ladies, your husband is not your spiritual protector. Jesus is. Your husband may help protect you from the enemy, and you may help him. Jody and I have found many times that we could have avoided errors if one of us had spoken up at the appropriate moment and the other had listened. Note that this is not just me, as the husband, providing wisdom to my wife. It is my wife sharing her wisdom with me.

  • A single woman is not somehow more subject to the attacks of the enemy than a married woman. God’s power is not limited by our marital state. If God has called you to be single, either for a season or for your lifetime, he is also there to protect you spiritually.

God not only brings our earthly hierarchies into subjection to him, he destroys them. He turns the power pyramid upside down. Carry that to its logical conclusion.

Have you ever seen a pyramid successfully standing on its point? When you try to make yourself an authority that is not in sync with God’s system of servant leadership, you’ll look just as silly.

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